2012 NFL Free Agents: One Loss That Would Most Hurt Each NFL Team
2012 NFL Free Agency is almost here, and each team is scrambling to decide which players to bring back and which ones they should let walk. It’s always a difficult process for a front office to weigh all the different variables that go into the decision, but there are always players that teams know they must absolutely bring back.
Whether the player is a grizzled veteran, a fan favorite or a nice piece to build around for the future, the no-brainer decisions are sometimes the hardest to figure out. Does a team bring back a hot-head because he produces on the field? Or do they let the player walk because they might be able to find a more suitable replacement?
One thing is for sure about free agency—teams are likely to lose a player to the open market, and they will regret it. This happens every year—a star player wants out for more money or other various reasons, and it sets back the original team for years.
Each team has one of these players hitting free agency. Here is one player from each team that will devastate their respective franchises if they leave via free agency this offseason:
Arizona Cardinals: Calais Campbell, Defensive End
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Calais Campbell emerged late last season as one of the major reasons the Cardinals’ defense looked so good. Campbell was a disruptive force from the defensive end position, consistently pressuring opposing quarterbacks into bad decisions.
Campbell recorded 72 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception in 2011. At 25 years old, the NFL is just beginning to see what Campbell is capable of. With Arizona continuing to add more talent around him, Campbell could be the best player at his position in a few years.
If the Cardinals want to remain competitive they must make strides in contract negotiations with Campbell, and fast. He has said he is open to the franchise tag, so Arizona better be prepared to use that, if push comes to shove.
Atlanta Falcons: Curtis Lofton, Linebacker
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Curtis Lofton is already one of the best at his position, and he is only 25 years old. An undisputed leader on the field, Lofton brings a ferocity and efficiency to the linebacker position that hasn’t been seen in some time.
Lofton had a great 2011 campaign, recording 147 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions. His versatility to be effective in all areas of defense is something that makes him so valuable. His leadership and knowledge of football help make those around him better.
While losing defensive end John Abraham to free agency would hurt Atlanta, losing Lofton would set them back years. Lofton is a rare breed, and one Atlanta better not let slip into the open market.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice, Running Back
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No surprise here, as Ray Rice is one of the elite talents in the NFL that can defeat opponents in a plethora of different ways. While he has been somewhat under-utilized by the Ravens, Rice has still emerged as one of—if not the best—running backs in all of football.
Rice had another jaw-dropping year in 2011, carrying the ball 291 times for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns. Add 76 catches 704 yards and three receiving touchdowns, and Rice was simply unstoppable.
Despite his size, Rice is worth every penny he may demand. While the Ravens need to bring back Ben Grubbs, he pales in comparison to what Rice contributes to the team. Without Rice, the Ravens offense is mediocre at best—not to mention signing Rice ensures that the Ravens never have to play against him in the future.
Buffalo Bills: Steve Johnson, Wide Receiver
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The Bills have a couple of players they need to prioritize this off season if they want to stay competitive. One is tackle Demetrius Bell, who is one of the better left tackles in the league. His injury issues make him replaceable—Steve Johnson, on the other hand, is not.
Johnson is a talent at the wide receiver position, and proved it in 2011 with 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the focal point of a rejuvenated offense and was a reliable target throughout much of the season.
Losing Johnson would hurt the Bills in a big way. Losing the main target in the passing game to free agency could potentially make the Bills one-dimensional. If Johnson hits the market other teams will surely out-bid the Bills.
Carolina Panthers: Dan Connor, Linebacker
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Dan Connor is a vastly underrated linebacker that stepped up in the absence of Jon Beason last season. Connor is very good in all areas of the game, but excels against the run game. He wants a shot at a starting position somewhere, but Carolina would be wise to attempt to lock him up anyway.
Connor had 75 tackles last season and didn’t garner much recognition for his play. His consistency and leadership after stepping in when called upon deserves more credit.
Connor will likely test the market, but it is important for the Panthers to try and bring him back. Connor is a starter on most teams, and the Panthers need him for depth purposes, on the chance another injury occurs to the players in front of him.
Chicago Bears: Matt Forte, Running Back
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Matt Forte is the heart and soul of the Chicago offense. His ability to beat teams in both the passing game and running game is a unique ability. Forte carries the load for a team that lacks a true passing game. Take away Forte, and the Bears have potentially one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
Forte hit 997 yards on a 4.9 average last season with three touchdowns. His numbers were down dramatically because of an injury he suffered. In 2012 he should be back at full strength, and back to his typical 1,000+ yards rushing and 500+ yards receiving that he makes look easy.
Forte is one of the best offensive weapons in the league. If the Bears front office is oblivious enough to allow Forte to hit the market, he will get a massive deal. The Bears need Forte in a bad way—if he leaves, the Bears are a bottom-feeder at best.
Cincinnati Bengals: Pat Sims, Defensive Tackle
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An NFL game is won and lost in the trenches, and after Pat Sims suffered a season-ending injury last year, the Bengals’ defense took a significant step in the wrong direction.
Sims’ stat lines won’t cause anyone to have a fit of shock—he does the dirty work not recorded in statistics. In 2011 he had 20 tackles and a sack. However, his presence against the run was huge, and allowed other around him to make plays.
Sims is an important part of what the Bengals do best—employing an insane amount of depth on the defensive line that stays fresh all game that provides an endless rotation to wear down an offense. Sims is a very underrated part of what Cincinnati does, and if the Bengals want to continue to have an elite defensive unit they need to make Sims a priority.
Cleveland Browns: D’Qwell Jackson, Linebacker
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D’Qwell Jackson has quietly been one of the better linebackers in the league for a while now. He will never get much publicity, but Cleveland coaches and fans know exactly how important Jackson is to the success of the Browns’ defense.
Jackson had a monster 2011 season, racking up 158 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Numbers like that should receive more recognition, but for whatever reason it didn’t receive the attention it should have.
Jackson is the most vital piece of an up-and-coming defense in Cleveland. The best part? Jackson has publicly said he wants to remain there, so the Browns should take advantage of this opportunity to build around one of the better players in the league.
Dallas Cowboys: Anthony Spencer, Linebacker
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The Cowboys have two players they must bring back. The first is receiver Laurent Robinson who had a breakout year with 11 touchdowns. The second and more important player is outside linebacker Anthony Spencer.
Spencer had another typical season last year, recording 66 tackles, six sacks and four forced fumbles. His numbers have always been this consistent, and that is hard to find in the NFL. He is a force at rushing the passer, but also plays the running game extremely well.
While Robinson’s production won’t be missed, much because of other offensive options, Spencer’s presence would be greatly missed. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs tools like Spencer to create one of the elite units in the league, and losing him would set the Cowboys back immensely.
Denver Broncos: Brodrick Bunkley, Defensive Tackle
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Brodrick Bunkley is quietly one of the better 4-3 defensive tackles in the league. The Broncos’ defense last season was a major part of the success they found, and to keep that unit intact would require Denver giving Bunkley what he wants.
Bunkley had a solid 2011 season, recording 43 tackles. Like most defensive tackles, his real value isn’t in the numbers he puts up, but what he does in the trenches. Bunkley is a force against the run, often plugging up running lanes and stopping a play before it even starts.
One of the most underrated defenses of 2011 must retain their anchor in the middle if they hope to be competitive next year. For the Broncos, this means realizing the true value of Bunkley—and rewarding him accordingly.
Detroit Lions: Cliff Avril, Defensive End
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The Lions are in trouble this off season—two of their best defensive players are free agents. Cliff Avril and Stephon Tulloch are both set to hit the open market. Tulloch is a fantastic middle linebacker and Avril is a versatile end. Avril has to be of higher value for the Lions at this point.
With 36 tackles, six forced fumbles, an interception and 11 sacks, Avril is emerging as one of the best at his position. He’s only 25 years old, and combined with the talent around him he helps to form one of the most feared defensive lines in the NFL.
The Lions have a few decisions to make this off season, but this should be easy. Bringing back Avril should be of the utmost importance to the franchise. Locking him down will allow the Lions to have one of the better pass-rushers in the NFL for years to come.
Green Bay Packers: Scott Wells, Center
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The Packers’ most highly-publicized free agent this offseason is tight end Jermichael Finely. However, Finley isn’t the most important—that goes to center Scott Wells.
Wells was a top five center last season, easily the most important position on the offensive line. Head Coach Mike McCarthy went as far as to say Wells was the best offensive lineman the Packers had, and Wells was ranked as the fourth best in the league by the ranking website Pro Football Focus.
In a passing league, protecting NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers is the most important thing for the Packers at this point. Rodgers makes everyone around him better, but only if he has time to do so. Wells is far and away the most important free agent piece for a team looking to make another Super Bowl run next season.
Houston Texans: Arian Foster, Running Back
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The Texans have a major problem this offseason—three of their most important players are eligible for free agency. That includes running back Arian Foster, elite center Chris Meyers and arguably the best pass-rusher in the NFL in Mario Williams.
The priority for Houston has to be Foster. Foster was arguably the best back in the league last year, with 278 carries for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns. Add in the fact that Foster rushed for 285 yards and three touchdowns during the Texans’ playoff run, and it is easy to see why the Texans can’t let go of him.
While the Texans have some tough decisions to make, this one should be clear. Williams won’t be a huge loss with how the defense played last season anyway. Myers is great, but replaceable. Foster isn’t replaceable—and there certainly isn’t anyone that can do what he does on every down.
Indianapolis Colts: Robert Mathis, Defensive End
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Robert Mathis has been a mainstay on the defensive line of the Colts for nine years now, and Colts fans better pray the streak continues.
Mathis is one of the most talented pass-rushers in the league, and he makes a defense look much better than it truly is because of his constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Mathis had another stellar season in 2011, with 43 tackles, three forced fumbles and 9.5 sacks. Mathis has made numbers like these look easy to obtain for almost a decade, and there is no reason to believe that production will just drop off anytime soon.
The Colts need Mathis as they begin a serious rebuilding process. He is an extremely talented player on a mostly talentless defense. In addition to his skills he brings a veteran presence and work ethic that he can pass on to younger players. The Colts can’t afford to lose Mathis this offseason.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jeremy Mincey, Defensive End
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The Jaguars had one of the better defenses in the NFL last season, and a huge part of that was due to the contributions of Jeremy Mincey. Mincey is a special player that has a great all-around game for his position.
In 2011 Mincey put together another nice season, with 57 tackles, four forced fumbles, an interception and eight sacks. This type of stat line is becoming a regular thing for Mincey, and he is slowly developing into a player that defenses can build an elite unit around.
The Jaguars have a few pieces they must bring back this off season, but Mincey is the most important by far. Mincey’s constant pressure on quarterbacks and impressive contributions in the running game have made him a priority for Jacksonville, and one they can’t let walk away if they want to continue to be on the upswing.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dwayne Bowe, Wide Receiver
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The Chiefs have two stars hitting free agency this offseason—cornerback Brandon Carr and receiver Dwayne Bowe. While Carr is one of the better corners in the league, the focus has to be on Bowe.
Bowe is an elite receiver that can make an average quarterback better, which is impotent for a team like Kansas City, with an unknown at quarterback.
The 2011 season saw Bowe light up statistically yet again, with 81 catches for 1,159 yards and five touchdowns. He was the focal point of the offense and still lit up opposing defenses.
If the Chiefs want to have a balanced, elite offense next season they need to bring back Bowe. Losing him would leave the offense with out a true threat in the passing game, causing the offense to become one-dimensional. Bowe is an important piece of what the Chiefs are trying to accomplish moving forward.
Miami Dolphins: Kendall Langford, Defensive End
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The Miami Dolphins had one of the better defenses in the league last year, and Kendall Langford was a large part of that. Langford was playing out the rest of his rookie contract, and now looks to earn more thanks to his impressive performance.
Langford didn’t put up amazing stats last season, with only 20 tackles, but his presence was known throughout the NFL. Langford was one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league last season, and 2012 sees the Dolphins changing to a 4-3.
With a new head coach and a defense in transition, the Dolphins must bring back Langford to help with the changes. He will allow the transition to go more smoothly while continuing to produce for one of the league’s underrated units.
Minnesota Vikings: Erin Henderson, Linebacker
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The Vikings have a pair of young linebackers about to hit the market in Erin and E.J. Henderson. Unfortunately for E.J., the younger of the two—Erin—is more important to the team at this point. E.J. is on the wrong side of thirty and has been a liability in the passing game.
Erin, on the other hand, is only 25 years old, and is emerging as one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL. Last season Erin recorded 70 tackles, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He will only continue to improve as more talent is added around him.
The Vikings are in rebuilding mode, and the best way to rebuild is to bring back young talent like Erin Henderson. Henderson can be a main cog in a recovering defensive unit for years to come if the Vikings are willing to pay him what he wants this offseason. If not, the Vikings will continue to dabble in mediocrity.
New England Patriots: Wes Welker, Wide Receiver
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In 2011 Welker caught a jaw-dropping 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite consistently being one of the smallest targets on the field, Welker has a knack for finding the holes in any defense so Brady can find him for big gains.
The Patriots will have an elite offense as long as Brady is around, but Welker is an important piece as well. Eliminating Welker from the equation would mean Brady’s favorite and most reliable target would be gone, allowing defenses to key on other pieces of the offense.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, Quarterback
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No surprise here. Drew Brees leaving his beloved Saints would kill New Orleans in every way imaginable. The Saints have a surplus of great players they must bring back this offseason, but Brees is the first priority. Without him the offense would be average at best, and the average defense would probably be the worst in the league.
Brees had a record-breaking 2011 campaign, throwing 46 touchdowns and 5,476 yards with an astounding 110.6 quarterback rating. Brees has only gotten better with age, and had a legit shot at the MVP Award.
There isn’t much more to say here. Brees will command a massive amount of money, and rightfully so. If the Saints want to remain relevant they must do whatever Brees wants in order to retain him. A split is unlikely, but if the Saints are stubborn enough they could commit the biggest blunder in free agency history.
New York Giants: Terrell Thomas, Cornerback
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The Giants don’t have much to worry about heading into free agency, but it would hurt to lose Terrell Thomas. Thomas didn’t play in 2011 due to injury, but that isn’t the issue. In 2010, Thomas was a great No. 2 corner, and easily one of the best corners in the league against the run.
Sure, the Giants reached the Super Bowl without Thomas, but it would have been a much easier ride with Thomas healthy. The secondary was the weak point of the Giants’ run, and bringing back Thomas makes the Giants that much better.
Thomas will likely come cheap as a one year prove-it deal, and the Giants would be smart to bring him back.
New York Jets: Sione Pouha, Defensive Tackle
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The Jets have an above average defense that could use some improvement. A key to improving is also having consistency, which is something bringing back Sione Pouha will provide. Pouha is a space-eating nose tackle that provides the Jets with a solid anchor to build around.
Pouha had 58 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in 2011. Like other defensive linemen on this list, Pouha’s value isn’t necessarily shown in stats. His massive presence in the run game is an issue for every offense he faces, and he takes up enough offensive linemen that his teammates can rush the passer with ease.
The Jets had a mediocre year last season, and improving on that means bringing back one of their best. Allowing Pouha to walk would leave a massive hole in the middle of an already ailing defense.
Oakland Raiders: Michael Bush, Running Back
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Yes, the Raiders have Darren McFadden, and yes, he is one of the best. But he also has trouble staying on the field, and Michael Bush is a great second option when given the chance. Bush will look for a starting role somewhere, but the Raiders would be smart to lock him up.
Bush rushed for 977 yards and seven touchdowns in spot-duty for the Raiders last season. He is probably the best second-string running back in the league. His combination of size and speed catches defenses off guard, allowing him to rip them for large gains.
The Raiders are slowly building a nice team, and a key to that is Bush. Not only is he an insurance policy, he is a legit offensive weapon at one of the more important positions. Bush’s return will help the Raiders immensely, and his departure would leave a massive void on the offense.
Philadelphia Eagles: DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver
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DeSean Jackson might not be worth the headache for most franchises, but he is for the Eagles. His public displays of immaturity have to be frustrating for the franchise, but his production isn’t. He had a down year last season, but that isn’t indicative of what Jackson is capable of doing.
Jackson caught 58 passes for 961 yards and four touchdowns last season, a fall-off from his past seasons. Jackson isn’t a multi-threat receiver—he beats teams with speed, and speed alone. He is also a huge threat in the kick return game.
Jackson might not be a huge priority for the Eagles this offseason, but he needs to be. If he leaves, the team has a serious lack of play-makers in the passing game besides running back LeSean McCoy. The Eagles need Jackson, as much as it might kill them to admit it.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
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Mike Wallace is probably the best up-and-coming receiver in the NFL outside of Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. His impact on every game is indisputable, and he gives the Steelers yet another great option in the passing game.
Wallace had a great season last year, catching 72 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. Wallace is the fastest receiver in the league, but doesn’t just beat defenses with straight line speed. He runs excellent routes and is a mismatch anywhere on the field.
It’s doubtful the Steelers will let Wallace leave, but if they somehow manage to mess it up he will burn them for years to come. It will also leave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger without a true No. 1 receiver. Pittsburgh doesn’t usually mess up situations like this, and they better not now.
San Diego Chargers: Vincent Jackson, Wide Receiver
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Vincent Jackson doesn’t receive enough credit as a game-changing receiver, but he is one of the best at what he does. He and quarterback Phillip Rivers have formed a formidable duo for the past few seasons, and the Chargers would be wise to extend that partnership.
Jackson caught 60 passes for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011. He was the one constant contributor the Chargers had on offense in what was yet another mediocre season in San Diego.
The Chargers are in a strange spot right now: they have a very talented roster, but can’t seem to make a push to the next level. One thing is for sure—not paying Jackson to stay around will not only take away Rivers’ favorite target, but cause the offense as a whole regress significantly.
San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith, Quarterback
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The 49ers made a surprise surge this year that fizzled out at the NFC Championship game. The ride was coordinated by a new head coach, but the engineer was quarterback Alex Smith. Smith has had a multitude of head coaches and offensive coordinators throughout his tumultuous career, but finally broke out this past season.
Smith didn’t shock with his stats, but more the way he handled each game while leading the 49ers. He had 17 touchdowns and 3,144 yards, but what was most impressive was the way he managed the games.
If the 49ers want to make it back to the NFC Championship game they need their new-found leader back. If Smith doesn’t return, that means the team has to start over at the most important position in football.
Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch, Running Back
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The Seahawks are a team on the rise, and a major reason for that is running back Marshawn Lynch. He put the team on his back for the majority of the season because of the absence of a legitimate quarterback.
Lynch opened eyes around the league for his Skittles obsession, along with his stats. He carried the ball 285 times for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns. His ability to shoulder the load for a season on his own is something that is dying around the league.
The Seahawks would be smart to bring Lynch back, no matter the cost. He is a rare type of player that has single-handedly energized a fan base, and more importantly, a franchise. He deserves to be rewarded, and if the ‘Hawks don’t bring him back, all forward momentum the franchise had will come to a screeching halt.
St. Louis Rams: Brandon Lloyd, Wide Receiver
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The Rams have serious needs all over the field, but a major one is giving quarterback Sam Bradford legit targets to throw to. Receiver Brandon Lloyd emerged as one last year, and needs to be next year for the Rams to continue rebuilding.
Lloyd caught 70 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns after joining the Rams. He is now 30 years old, but in the prime of his career. Lloyd is a crisp route runner and has reliable hands in most situations.
The Rams have to continue in the right direction, and a smart move would be bringing back Lloyd. He provides a veteran presence in the locker room and is a nice stopgap until the Rams can find legit offensive weapons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jeremy Zuttah, Offensive Guard
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The Buccaneers self-destructed last season in a big way. They were considered to be one of the younger, talented teams in the league, but the inexperience throughout the organization shined through when it counted most.
A lone bright spot on the team was guard Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah filled in nicely when other player were injured and eventually became an every down player. He is only 25 years old and has a real shot at a long career on an offensive line somewhere.
The Bucs are a team attempting to transition to a contender, and the best way to do that is to lock up young talent like Zuttah. If the team loses Zuttah they will see a major problem develop on the offensive line.
Tennessee Titans: Cortland Finnegan, Cornerback
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The Titans were an average team last season that ended up looking at the playoff picture from the outside instead of participating. They are in a strange state as a franchise right now, and need to do all they can to retain their talented players.
Which brings up cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan racked up 75 tackles, a sack and an interception in 2011. Finnegan is a great cover corner, and is one of the most aggressive in the league when defending the run.
A corner like Finnegan is hard to find, even if his play is considered “dirty.” Finnegan is a piece on a defensive unit that will provide stability while the front office beefs up the rest of the team around him. If Finnegan leaves, it will open up yet another hole on the Titans roster that will need immediate addressing.
Washington Redskins: Fred Davis, Tight End
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The Redskins have a lot of issues on both sides of the ball, but the most pressing needs appear to be on the offensive side. Tight end Fred Davis was a nice surprise last season, emerging as a major threat in the passing game.
Davis accumulated 796 yards on 59 receptions and scored three touchdowns. He is a massive target for whatever quarterback the Redskins’ front office decides to plug in next season. He has great hands and also acts as a great blocker in the running game.
Tight end is considered a major safety blanket for quarterbacks under pressure. With the Redskins possibly bringing in a rookie quarterback, they absolutely have to have Davis back. If Davis doesn’t return, it's just one less weapon for the offense to work with.