2012 NFL Free Agency: 10 Teams in Desperate Need of Defensive Upgrades

Nick ButterworthContributor IMarch 13, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agency: 10 Teams in Desperate Need of Defensive Upgrades

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    NFL free agency is finally open for business, and with a number of teams well positioned under the 2012 salary capconfirmed at $120.6 million—we could be in line for one of the most active spending sprees in recent history.

    With so many column inches devoted to the movements of Peyton Manning and the abundance of available talent at wide receiver, it's time for a defensive perspective.

    Mario Williams is the unquestioned marquee name of free agency, but there are plenty more players worthy of the attention of defense-needy general managers.

    Leaving out franchises with a boatload of draft picks, or serious cap issues—which means St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers fans will have to look elsewhere for their free agency fix—let's take a look at the top candidates for a defensive facelift over the coming days.

     

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New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of April's draft, but their list of needs is so lengthy that a veteran acquisition or two in the coming days is inevitable.

    After conceding the second-most passing yards in NFL history in 2011, the spotlight shines brightest on the secondary this offseason. Role-players on special teams such as Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo should be kept away from the field unless in emergencies.

    At safety, the recently-released O.J. Atogwe and Melvin Bullitt are likely candidates, with the former's range and ball-hawking ability the more intriguing option of the two.

    Either veteran would come with injury red flags however, and a shorter, incentive-laden deal might be the best solution for both player and team.

    The need for a pass-rusher depends largely on which scheme head coach Bill Belichick intends to run next season. If hybrid three- and four-man fronts are still in fashion, then both Mark Anderson and Andre Carter could be in line for new contracts.

    If the team is looking for more traditional 3-4 outside linebackers however, the free agency cupboard is quite bare outside of Mario Williams.

    Are the Patriots in a strong position to make a run at Williams? Yes, but so are a handful of other teams, and the bidding war could spiral out of control.

    On the defensive line, Luis Castillo or Tennessee's Jason Jones would be a great fit in New England, plugging in alongside Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love in an impressive, versatile front.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Outside of Jared Allen, the Vikings defense needs help in every other position. An average of 28.1 points per game conceded in 2011 killed any chances of rookie quarterback Christian Ponder and running back Adrian Peterson winning games through offense.

    Starting with the secondary, the Vikings need a tone-setter at safety with enough range to upgrade a pass defense that conceded 34 touchdowns through the air last season. LaRon Landry is clearly an injury-risk, but the upside is worthy of at least a contract offer with playing-time incentives built in.

    Cornerback is a major problem area, and if the third pick of the draft is too much to give up for Morris Claiborne's services, then the Vikings could lead the charge for Brandon Carr—finances permitting.

    Cheaper alternatives include Terrell Thomas and Aaron Ross, the Giants tandem who will hit the open market given the cap situation in New York—Big Blue are currently $3.8 million over the magic number of $120.6 million.

    An upgrade over Allen's bookend rusher Brian Robison could come in the form of the Jaguars' Jeremy Mincey, who will be recruited heavily this week, but with 49 sacks in 2011 (tied for fifth in the NFL), the pass-rush is far from the root cause of the problems in Minnesota.

Indianapolis Colts

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    The Colts are about to undertake the biggest rebuilding project in a generation, leaving former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano with the unenviable task of both winning now, and building for the future.

    By starting over completely, cutting not just Peyton Manning, but Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Melvin Bullitt and Gary Brackett—while taking trade offers for Dwight Freeney—Pagano could use a familiar face or two as he steadies the ship.

    Right now however, the Colts are dealing with a salary cap crisis, with nearly $38 million in dead money from roster cuts this year. That's before Andrew Luck's rookie contract is added to the mix, so any upgrades prior to the draft will be modest.

    Veteran experience will be crucial in this transition phase, so current Ravens Chris Carr at cornerback, Tom Zbikowski at safety and Jarret Johnson at linebacker are all on the radar.

    Nose tackle Brandon McKinney could provide a cheap building block in the transition to a 3-4 base defense. Alternatively, Aubrayo Franklin—who was a bust in the 4-3 defensive tackle spot in New Orleans—comes with a strong pedigree from his time in San Francisco.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    With the worst run defense in the NFL last season, and over $40 million of cap space, the Buccaneers have a fantastic opportunity to make a lasting impact on their roster through free agency.

    Starting with linebackers, D'Qwell Jackson re-signed with the Cleveland Browns a fortnight ago, but there are a number of alternatives that general manager Mark Dominik should pursue.

    Curtis Lofton appears to be on his way out of Atlanta, and the free agent has the run-stuffing ability to set the tone for this young Bucs' defense.

    E.J. Henderson, Stephen Tulloch, James Farrior or Dan Connor could all offer a part to play in a rebuilding project for reasonable money too. Such is the abundance of veteran talent on offer at the position, the right player will be found for a bargain this week.

    At cornerback, Ronde Barber turns 37 next month, and Aqib Talib could go to jail at some point during the 2012 season.

    Brandon Carr heads the list of realistic options at the position, given that Baltimore's Lardarius Webb is a restricted free agent with a first-round tender, a price too rich for the fifth-overall pick.

    In the second tier of free agents, Terrell Thomas and Aaron Ross could be subject to offers that the New York Giants can't match, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bucs turn to them as an insurance option if Carr ends up elsewhere.

Cleveland Browns

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    If popular mock selection Trent Richardson (running back, Alabama) lands with the Browns in April's draft, general manager Tom Heckert should look to free agency to utilize some of the $17 million of cap space to beef up the front seven, which finished 30th in run defense last season.

    Assuming that Mario Williams is inundated with offers, a move by the Browns is unlikely to succeed unless the contract placed in front of him is astronomical.

    More realistic targets like Jeremy Mincey (Jaguars), John Abraham (Falcons) or Mark Anderson (Patriots) would all fit the bill opposite the impressive rookie Jabaal Sheard.

    At linebacker, E.J. Henderson, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Tulloch could all help the recently re-signed D'Qwell Jackson to unload the burden of being the team's top tackler.

    A cornerback opposite Joe Haden remains a need too, despite finishing second in passing yards allowed—a stat that was inflated because teams ran on the Browns with so much ease.

    Tracey Porter, William Gay, Cortland Finnegan or Aaron Ross would provide a boost, with a friendly price tag that allows the team to make their statement signing elsewhere.

    Some weapons for Colt McCoy would be a good start, but that discussion's for a whole other article.

Buffalo Bills

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    With an NFL-worst 23 sacks in 2011, the Bills desperately need to find playmakers along the front seven that can support the up-and-coming Marcell Dareus.

    This is one of the pass-rush-needy teams that I am confident won't be in the hunt for Mario Williams' signature. He is likely to command about $40 million in guaranteed money, a price which the Bills have never been willing to pay in free agency.

    Jeremy Mincey is a far more likely alternative to land in Buffalo, as is Jarret Johnson or Israel Idonije (Bears). All fit the profile of an underrated veteran talent, which in Bills-speak, means cheaper to tie up to a long-term deal.

    Cornerback is another area of concern on the roster, but such is the depth at the positions in the draft that I expect general manager Buddy Nix to wait until April before addressing the need.

    If they do make a move in free agency however, Terrell Thomas could be a bargain acquisition, whose torn ACL in 2011 gives teams leverage in offering a cap-friendly deal loaded with incentives.

Tennessee Titans

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    The Titans could be slow out of the blocks this week, as they wait patiently for their chance to recruit the biggest name in free agency history, in Peyton Manning.

    With $28 million of room under the cap, their activity will be largely determined by how much money they tie up at the quarterback position. Free agents Jason Jones and Cortland Finnegan could end up as casualties of any deal struck with Manning, and will look elsewhere for their payday.

    That doesn't mean that the Titans can't afford, or don't need help. With Michael Griffin locked up with the franchise tag, a partner-in-crime at safety such as O.J. Atogwe, LaRon Landry or Atari Bigby would fill one of the top defensive needs.

    Andre Carter, Jeremy Mincey or Israel Idonije would suit the Titans' four man front perfectly, with the ageless linebacker London Fletcher offering an upgrade over the departing Barrett Ruud.

    Now that the Redskins find themselves in salary-cap hell, Fletcher could be one of the top casualties, but if his age is a turn-off, then the Giants' Jonathan Goff could be a youthful alternative.

Atlanta Falcons

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    With one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL locked up for at least one more season in Brent Grimes, the Falcons can go after any available pass-rushing talent they want.

    John Abraham turns 34 in May, and although his play in 2011 was as solid as ever (9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles), his demand for at least $12 million per year might be too rich for general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

    If Abraham demands "top five" money, he might be disappointed. The top five sack leaders in 2011 were nearly twice as productive as the 12-year veteran, taking the quarterback down an average of 18 times.

    That said, losing him would create a massive void at defensive end. Ray Edwards has been a major disappointment since his move from Minnesota, and with just 26 team sacks last season, the Falcons need at least one impact signing in the front seven.

    With just over $20 million of cap space to play with, Mario Williams is a realistic target, and coupled with a cheaper veteran, such as New England's Andre Carter, the Falcons could re-tool their defensive front ahead of a deep playoff run next year.

Dallas Cowboys

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    In the wake of the news that the league will slash the Cowboys' cap space by $10 million—to be split how they like over 2012 and 2013—Jerry Jones will be spending the next week in the bargain basement of free agency.

    Brandon Carr is now officially off the menu. Cortland Finnegan remains a possibility, though Jones may have to restructure the contracts of some of the top earners on the roster to accommodate any new faces.

    Doug Free and Terence Newman both count $8 million towards the 2012 cap, with Orlando Scandrick close behind on $7.7 million. Any or all could be approached by the Cowboys as they look to add depth in the secondary.

    Cap-friendly acquisitions such as safety Brodney Pool, or cornerbacks William Gay or Jason Allen should be the focus for a team that finished 23rd in pass defense last season.

    Depth at inside linebacker to compliment the rising star Sean Lee could come in the form of the Vikings' E.J. Henderson, or the Titans' Barrett Ruud.

    Neither player would excite fans looking for a marquee name, but in paying the price for their moves during the uncapped 2010, expectations need to be tempered.

Denver Broncos

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    The Broncos' cap room for free agents not called Peyton Manning can be assumed to weigh in around the $30 million mark, if Mike Florio's latest figures are anything to go by.

    Depending on Manning's decision, the amount earmarked for defense by John Elway and general manager Brian Xanders will change accordingly.

    Blinded by the success of pass-rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, it is easy to assume that Denver's defense is one of its strengths. But when faced with elite quarterbacks last season, the Broncos crumbled, conceding 49 points to Aaron Rodgers, 45 to Matthew Stafford and 86 points over two games to Tom Brady.

    Secondary depth is a top priority this week. Melvin Bullitt, James Sanders, or Mike Adams at safety would all work themselves into a starting role on the current depth chart.

    At cornerback, Cortland Finnegan or the Texans' Jason Allen would add a physical presence to assist the inconsistent Andre' Goodman, with Tracy Porter a candidate for slot corner duty.

    The entire defensive unit would benefit from an injection of speed, and the Bengals' linebacker Manny Lawson has it in spades. Whether he can be tempted away from Cincinnati is another question altogether though.