NFL general managers, coaches and players are giddily awaiting March 9 like kids waiting for Christmas.
That’s the day teams can start signing free agents. For players, it can be a life-changing payday. For GMs and coaches, it’s a chance to make their teams better.
These 10 teams are likely to be camping outside the store overnight waiting to bust through the doors when the free agent market opens at 4 p.m. on March 9.
(Spotrac was used for salary cap information.)
The Bears have been irrelevant for so long that it’s easy to overlook just how bad a year they had in 2016.
They went 3-13, just the second 13-loss season in the history of the franchise. The only other one was 1969. They had a nice draft last year. First-rounder Leonard Floyd had seven sacks in 12 games. Second-rounder Cody Whitehair started every game at center. Fifth-rounder Jordan Howard was second in the league with 1,313 rushing yards.
The Bears could use continued growth from those players coupled with a free-agency boost to reduce that ugly loss total. John Fox is 9-23 in his two seasons as head coach. His seat could get warm if he doesn’t turn things around quickly.
With $58.8 million in salary cap space, the Bears could open up the vault to keep Alshon Jeffery. This might not be the best draft for the Bears to improve their quarterback situation. If they move on from Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley likely would compete for the job. Perhaps the best they can do for now is improve the quarterback’s blind-side protection. They could dip into free agency for an upgrade over left tackle Charles Leno.
New Broncos head coach Vance Joseph has made it pretty clear that his team will be active in free agency.
“We have some needs here, I won’t share those with you. We’re going to conquer those needs in free agency,” Joseph said.
The Broncos have $33 million in salary cap space to do that.
The plan seems to be for new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to sort out the quarterback competition between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Neither quarterback will be the answer if the Broncos don’t improve an offensive line that allowed 40 sacks last season. Left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Donald Stephenson are likely on their way out.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is the top overall free agent according to Pro Football Focus’ 2016 rankings. But he’s 35 and there’s a good chance the Bengals re-sign him before he hits the open market. The Broncos might have better luck finding a right tackle. Riley Reiff and Ricky Wagner could be in their sights.
While the Broncos’ defense ranked fourth overall, it was vulnerable to the run and allowed 4.3 yards per carry. Denver might be a nice landing spot for Calais Campbell if the Cardinals let him get away. The Ravens’ Brandon Williams also could help firm up the run defense.
At least the Browns lead the NFL in one category. Their $108.8 million in salary cap space is more than any other team.
They have five of the first 65 picks in the draft, and that’s their primary source for rebuilding materials after a 1-15 season. But they’ll be able to afford a top-tier free agent or two.
Joe Haden’s days as a Brown could be coming to an end. After two straight Pro Bowl seasons, he’s missed 14 games over the past two seasons because of various injuries. Morris Claiborne, Logan Ryan and Trumaine Johnson are among the top cornerbacks who could be allowed to hit the open market.
Second-year center Cameron Erving was the weakest of the weak links of a offensive line that allowed a league-high 66 sacks. The Cardinals’ A.Q. Shipley, a journeyman who started 16 games in a season for the first time in his career at age 30, could be a nice under-the-radar signing.
After missing the playoffs at 10-6, losing a wild-card game and losing the NFC championship game in Bruce Arians’ first three seasons, the Super Bowl seemed to be the next logical step for the Cardinals in 2016.
Instead, they slipped to 7-8-1 and missed the playoffs.
General manager Steve Keim has said that the Cardinals will be aggressive in free agency. Carson Palmer is 37 and Larry Fitzgerald will be 34 next season. Time is running out for those two veterans, and more depth on their side of the ball could be what they need to get to the Super Bowl.
Fitzgerald led the league with 107 receptions and running back David Johnson added 80 catches, but no other receiver caught 40 passes. Johnson led the Cards with 1,239 rushing yards, and Kerwynn Williams was second with 157.
The Cardinals have $35.5 million in cap space, and there will be plenty of complementary running backs and wide receivers on the free agent market who they can sign without breaking the bank. It also might be time to introduce the concept of the tight end to Arizona. No Cardinals tight end has caught 50 passes in a season since Freddie Jones in 2003. Martellus Bennett would be a nice target for Palmer.
Chuck Pagano survived the ax this year when general manager Ryan Grigson was fired, but it’s plain to see that he’ll be the next to go if the Colts don’t at least end their two-year playoff absence.
The Colts finished 8-8 for the second straight year with a defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed per game and 31st in yards allowed per play. Pagano doesn’t have time for this defense to rebuild through the draft. With $60.9 million in cap space, the Colts could pursue one or more big names like Eric Berry, Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul.
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Luck has plenty of talented receivers to target, but the running back meetings are attended by 33-year-old Frank Gore and a lot of riff-raff. Players like Terrance West, Jacquizz Rodgers and Mike Gillislee could form a committee that improves the Colts’ 23rd-ranked rushing offense.
Carson Wentz was the NFL’s answer to Pokémon Go in 2016. He was all the rage for a couple of weeks and forgotten about as the year wore on.
Wentz led the Eagles to a 3-0 start and briefly set a rookie record by throwing his first 134 passes without an interception. Dak Prescott eventually broke that record and stole his rookie thunder.
The No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Wentz threw 11 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in the last 13 games and the Eagles sputtered to 7-9.
Wentz will have a hard time developing without some help at the skill positions. Running back Ryan Mathews is injury-prone and Darren Sproles, who will be 34 next season, isn’t exactly an every-down back.
Among the Eagles’ top four pass catchers in 2016, only one was a wide receiver. Zach Ertz led the team with 78 receptions and wide receiver Jordan Matthews was second with 73. No Eagle with double-digit receptions averaged more than 11.1 yards per catch.
With just $11.6 million in cap space, the fourth-lowest total in the league, the Eagles might not be able to get a big-ticket free agent like Alshon Jeffery. A DeSean Jackson reunion is a possibility. The Eagles also could lure Terrance Williams from Dallas and see how he does in an offense that isn’t running back-driven.
New 49ers general manager John Lynch is waist-deep in preparation for the NFL draft, according to NFL.com. Before new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan dives into draft stuff at the NFL Scouting Combine, he’s watching tape of the 49ers’ impending free agents as well as other free agents around the league.
There could be a 24-hour TV network dedicated to the material that Shanahan has to watch, because the 49ers need help in a lot of areas after a 2-14 season.
They could start in the trenches. The 49ers had the worst rushing defense in the NFL last season, and it wasn’t even close. They gave up 165.9 yards per game, and the Browns were next to last with 142.7 yards allowed per game. The 49ers can afford to go after Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe with their $81.9 million in cap space, which is second only to the Browns.
Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert were sacked a combined 47 times in 2016. Only two teams allowed more sacks. The 49ers probably don’t need a left tackle, although Joe Staley’s five-year Pro Bowl streak ended in 2016. They could tap into the guard depth of this year’s free agent class. If they don’t win the bidding war for Kevin Zeitler, Larry Warford, Ronald Leary and T.J. Lang would be candidates to come to San Francisco.
The Jaguars made a splash in free agency last year. Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara and Chris Ivory highlighted their 2016 additions, but Jacksonville slipped from 5-11 to 3-13.
So it’s back to the store this year. The Jaguars fired Gus Bradley and replaced him with Doug Marrone and made a bold move by hiring Tom Coughlin as vice president of football operations. Don’t be surprised if they go for the big names when it comes to free agency, as well.
The Jaguars could focus on their offensive line. Luke Joeckel, the second pick in the 2013 draft, hasn’t panned out. Kelvin Beachum was signed last year to replace Joeckel at left tackle while Joeckel moved to guard. Beachum also was a disappointment while Joeckel played in just four games because of a knee injury. Both are set to become free agents. The Jags have $69.7 million of cap room and could use that money to sign a guard like Kevin Zeitler or Ronald Leary. Andrew Whitworth also could come in to protect Blake Bortles’ blind side for the right price.
The Packers traditionally aren’t big players in free agency. They seem to make one impact free-agent signing every half-generation or so, from Reggie White to Charles Woodson to Julius Peppers.
If their franchise quarterback has any influence, the Packers will pound the pavement when the signing period begins this year.
“We just (have to) make sure we’re going all in every year to win,” Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers lost 44-21 at Atlanta in the NFC championship game.
As impressive as their eight-game winning streak was, the Packers need to improve their roster to prevent another four-game losing streak. One problem was their 30th-ranked pass defense. A.J. Bouye and Malcolm Butler are the top two cornerbacks on the open market, but it’s hard to imagine the Texans and Patriots letting them walk. That could leave the Packers, who are $43.6 million under the cap, with options such as Logan Ryan or injury-prone Morris Claiborne.
Running back is another area where the Packers can look. Ty Montgomery’s switch to the position has become permanent with Eddie Lacy’s weight fluctuating like the stock market, but the Packers need better complementary backs. Retreads like Christine Michael, Don Jackson and Knile Davis all carried the ball for the Packers at one time or another this season.
Jacquizz Rodgers, still only 27, ran for 560 yards for the Buccaneers last season and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Both were career highs. He could join Aaron and Richard to form a Rodgers trio in Green Bay.
The most obvious reason the Panthers tumbled from 15-1 and a Super Bowl berth in 2015 to 6-10 and last in the NFC South is Cam Newton’s clunker of a season.
He could use better targets. Kelvin Benjamin returned from a torn ACL to catch 63 passes for 941 yards and seven touchdowns. He couldn’t quite match his 73-1,008-9 line from his rookie season in 2014.
With the possible exception of Ted Ginn, Benjamin is surrounded by fringe roster players. He could get some help if the Panthers use some of their $50.5 million available under the cap on Alshon Jeffery. Taylor Gabriel is a restricted free agent who the Panthers would have a hard time luring from a division rival. Kenny Stills is an intriguing home run threat, and it would be interesting to see what Jeremy Kerley can do with a decent quarterback.
Another problem in Carolina was the Panthers’ 29th-ranked pass defense.
Perhaps this year, they’ll realize the value of a cornerback. Unless the Patriots let Malcolm Butler get away or the Texans let A.J. Bouye get away, the Panthers could be looking at Morris Claiborne, Logan Ryan, Trumaine Johnson and Prince Amukamara to replace Josh Norman’s presence. A reunion with Captain Munnerlyn also is possible.