With free agency beginning in three weeks, every franchise is looking at their free agents to see if they are worthy of a new contract. It’s a time where you’ll see teams take risks and overspending for free agents. That is only directed towards a few teams instead of every team depending on where they stand for expectations in 2013.
I’ll be looking at every team in the AFC about who should be their number one focus to re-sign. Some teams have three or four players that should be re-signed, while other teams may have just one player that needs to be re-signed.
Regardless, if the player is a star or a role player, I’ll choose one player from each team that needs to be re-signed. The free agent class for this year has plenty of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. There are many options in free agency, but some teams need to make sure their star players remain on their roster.
New England Patriots
Even though he is starting to decline a bit, Wes Welker is still a top wide receiver that commands attention from every defense. The numbers may not show his decline, but Welker tends to get phased out of games and he’s more of a product of the Patriots system.
He’s should be re-signed because of his chemistry with Tom Brady and still bails the Patriots out of third downs in tough situations. If Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy, there will be less pressure on him to carry the passing offense during long stretches of games. He’s not that player and shouldn’t be put in that situation.
Sebastian Vollmer was considered here, since he’s one of the best right tackles in the league. If he were a left tackle, I’d probably put him over Welker since left tackles are more important.
I’m sure he will be back next year, but right now Welker still has plenty left in the tank and is more valuable to the offense.
The Dolphins have some major decisions to make with some key players, but nothing should be more important than Jake Long. Even though his play has regressed over the past few years, you can’t find many better left tackles out there.
Everyone knows how essential the left tackle position is, and it’s rare to find someone that is elite at left tackle. A few injuries have affected his play, but he’s a workhorse that rarely misses games.
The tough decision with Long is that he wants $10 million a year, which is a hefty price. I’d pay Long because he’s proven for just about every year that he’s a top five left tackle. Miami is on the brink of the playoffs and have other positions to address.
Reggie Bush and Brian Hartline are replaceable players that can be found within a year, while a replacement for Long can take a few years.
This was one of the toughest decisions from the AFC, but Jairus Byrd is slightly more of a necessity to sign than Andy Levitre. Even though both players should be re-signed, Byrd is close to becoming an elite safety. On a defense that struggled for the majority of the season, they need to keep their top playmaker.
In the past four seasons, Byrd has had 18 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles. I’m not sure if there is any other safety in the league that was more productive. He doesn’t get beat coverage and is solid in run support. Many teams would be interested in Byrd, since there aren’t many good cover safeties left in the NFL.
Even if they could only put a franchise tag on him, they simple can’t let Byrd go because it would be another step backwards for a struggling franchise. Levitre is versatile and is one of the main factors in the success of the Bills' rushing attack.
Both guys are very valuable, but it comes down to the defense struggling more than the offensive line. That alone makes Byrd more valuable.
New York Jets
The Jets have some major decisions to make with some key offensive players, but LaRon Landry proved to be one of the most valuable players last year. After having injury problems in the past, he played all 16 games for the first time since 2008.
He gave the Jets defense an edge last year, when the team needed it after Darrelle Revis was out for the season. With the Jets having so many issues, Landry is an affordable player and that is a game changer for him. He struggles in coverage, but it’s hard to find any other safety that can tackle better than him.
Some may consider Dustin Keller to be the number one priority, but he’s expendable to me. He has poor hands, struggles at blocking, and isn’t worth a major contract. Since he’s coming off an injury-plagued season, he shouldn’t be too expensive. Other than Antonio Cromartie, there wasn’t a better player on the Jets last year than Landry.
Out of all the teams in the AFC, this is the easiest choice to make. It’s clear that Joe Flacco will be first on the Ravens agenda to be re-signed.
Even though he is still a borderline top ten quarterback at best, his playoff performance was more than enough to prove that he’s capable of being the franchise quarterback for the next five to seven years.
I’m not sure what the price will be, but you know how quarterbacks will always get more money than any other position. He earned it in the playoffs after a mediocre season. With key players likely leaving, it will be up to Flacco to take the next step and becoming a productive quarterback in a 16 game season.
Obviously, the Ravens have other needs to attend to. Out of all the players they should re-sign, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe should be other top priorities after Flacco. With Ray Lewis retiring and Terrell Suggs starting to get older, those two players will be built into being replacements to be impact players on a consistent basis.
One of the main reasons why the Bengals’ defense was one of the better defenses in the league was because of the pass rush. Geno Atkins is the best defensive tackle in the league, but Michael Johnson made a major contribution to the pass rush with 11.5 sacks.
The knock on Johnson was that he was lazy coming into the league and tends to take plays off. In his fourth season, he put it all together and became a force. His athleticism and size has drawn comparisons with Julius Peppers, which shows how much potential he has.
Johnson has to be re-signed because he is just starting to enter his prime at age 26. With Atkins and Johnson, the Bengals have the pieces to become an elite defense if they upgrade a few linebacker positions. The main priority is to keep Johnson whether it’s by franchising him or signing him to a long-term deal.
He may be overvalued as a number one receiver, but Mike Wallace is still too talented to let go. It may be a negotiation struggle for both sides to get a deal done, but Pittsburgh doesn’t have the running game to go back to being completely run first.
They still need to pass the ball more often, and Wallace is still a game changer. He may have poor hands and can get phased out of games, but explosive receivers like Wallace don’t grow on trees. He's not an ego-maniac and can still be very productive.
Keenan Lewis was considered to be a top priority, but I don’t think he’ll cost a lot to be a problem. Lewis has only been a starter for one year, so he won’t be able to command too much money.
Pittsburgh’s defense has always been among the best—it’s the offense that needs to improve, and allowing Wallace to leave would be a step in the wrong direction.
The Browns don’t have any major players that are leaving, but they do have a few key players. Kicker may not be a major position, but Phil Dawson has been the most consistent player out of all their free agents. Even at 38 years old, Dawson continues to be reliable and will be needed for a struggling offense next year.
I know that kickers can be found everywhere, but there isn’t anyone that can be considered as top priorities. Josh Cribbs is a talented player, but he’s 30 years old and has scored only one return touchdown in the past three years. I’m not sure if Cribbs can regain his elite status as a returner.
With all the needs in Cleveland, they need to re-sign someone that is always going to be reliable. It shouldn’t be hard to re-sign him either, so Cleveland could invest in trying to add a few high priced free agents. They have some good young players and could have a chance at the playoffs in a year or two
He had a better season in 2011 than 2012, but Glover Quin deserves a new contract. He’s become reliable as a safety from being a run stopper to a decent cover safety. Houston has a great duo with Quin and Danieal Manning that shouldn’t be all at fault for Houston’s pass defense.
They get a bad perception for allowing too many passing yards, but I fault more of the blame on the weak pass rush. J.J. Watt was phenomenal this season, but there weren’t any major contributions from anyone else.
After being productive in 2011, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed weren’t seen much this season hitting quarterbacks. The lack of pass rush when Watt was double teamed was limited and the secondary got torched by opposing passers.
Quin continues to improve and the lack of good safeties in free agency makes him a major priority. Also, Houston needs to draft or add another receiver, along with another pass rusher. Despite going 12-4, they have major things to address, and letting Quin go would be another need.
Similar to the Browns, they don’t have any major concerns of losing a star player. If Dwight Freeney was still on the team, I would have picked him. I’m surprised he was released that quickly, but the Colts are looking to continue to release the players from the “Peyton Manning era.”
If there were anyone that I would keep on the Colts, it would be Donnie Avery. He may not be a star receiver, but he is a solid target to throw to. The Colts could use another receiver for depth, but they have a nice core at receiver and should keep Avery.
He may not be in the must-keep category, but he has the most value out of the free agents in Indianapolis. After being a bust for most of the career, Avery stepped up this season and made key contributions for the Colts. They should re-sign him after his performance in 2012.
It has been a frustrating career for Jared Cook in Tennessee. He could use a change of scenery, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be re-signed. There aren’t many tight ends that are more athletic than Cook.
He has so much raw talent and can be a game changer, but it just hasn’t fully come together in Tennessee. The issues at quarterback and a poor relationship with his offensive coordinator made Cook into mostly a non-factor next season. Despite the poor numbers, the Titans still see value in him and want to franchise him.
Cook may hold out because of that, but Tennessee needs to do all they can to get him focused. They have talented players, like Cook and Kenny Britt, that can be Pro-Bowl caliber players if they get focused.
They don’t have many priorities for free agency, so they should put most of their attention in getting Cook back on good terms and signed for at least next year with the franchise tag.
This is another team that doesn’t have many free agents that are valuable, but they do have some key decisions. Derek Cox is a juggernaut, but I’d still make it a top priority to sign him. The lack of corner backs that will be available in free agency should make him a player that they must re-sign.
The issue with Cox is that he hasn’t played a full season since 2009 and has missed 14 games in the past two years. He’s been arguably their best cornerback over the past few years and has taken the role of covering the opposing team’s best wide receiver.
With the Jaguars having to address many positions this off-season, they should look to keep Cox. It has been frustrating for the coaches to deal with injuries and having to invest in extra depth at cornerback. It’s a risk to sign Cox, but he’s one of the few young players on the roster that is talented.
There aren’t many positions that are more valuable than left tackle. Similar to Jake Long and his situation with Miami, you can’t let your franchise left tackle go. Ryan Clady continues to prove why he’s one of the best left tackles in the league.
Clady allowed only one sack in 2012, which is remarkable for a left tackle. He’s a 3 time All-Pro for a reason and the Broncos would like to keep Peyton Manning clean after how well Manning played. They need to invest in any demands that Clady asks for, because he is too valuable to let go.
Denver is going to be one of the main contenders to win a Super Bowl next year and they’ll need the same pass blocking that they got from this season. The passing attack carried the Broncos offense to success and Clady blocking Manning’s blindside played a critical role to Manning’s success.
San Diego Chargers
For some reason, I could see San Diego fans arguing about who should be the main person to be re-signed. Shaun Phillips is one of the most underappreciated pass rushers in the league, but he’s going to be 32 years old going into next season. He should be re-signed, but he doesn’t deserve to be highly paid like Louis Vasquez.
Vasquez is entering his prime at 26 years old and he’s one of the main anchors for the Chargers offensive line. The Chargers allowed the fourth most sacks in the league last season and the offense, as a whole, suffered. The Chargers have enough problems on both sides of the ball to lose one of their few prized young stars.
Phillips is a talented pass rusher and I’m confident he will be back with San Diego, but Vasquez has to be the top priority. A good offensive line immediately upgrades your offense, regardless of the talent at the skill positions.
With Philip Rivers struggling over the past two years, a better offensive line could get him back to being more efficient.
The Raiders have mostly role players or declining players that are free agents. That should give them more than enough money to sign Brandon Myers. Myers was Carson Palmer’s main target last year and he became a dependable weapon for him.
The Raiders have lacked dependable receivers and tight ends over the years, which made Myers a huge fan favorite in Oakland. When you look at his statistics last year, it may be the quietest season ever for someone who caught 79 receptions. It’s tough to find production like that from tight ends, despite their being a decent amount of solid tight ends on the market.
Oakland is still trying to revamp their offensive line along with their defense. They need to continue to develop players like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore to go along with Myers. If they can keep Myers, it would give the receivers more opportunities to make plays in single coverage. Myers should be a top priority to re-sign if Oakland wants their offense to improve next season.
Kansas City Chiefs
This was the toughest choice to make and it was made based off the talent in the draft and free agency. Branden Albert is becoming one of the best left tackles in football, but the player that should be the main priority is Dwayne Bowe.
Bowe is one of the most overrated wide receivers in the league due to his lack of effort, poor hands, and his habit of giving up on routes. The reason why the Chiefs need to sign him is because neither free agency nor the draft offers much as a replacement for a number one wide receiver.
While in the draft, the Chiefs could choose left tackle Luke Joeckel with their number one pick, which is a high possibility. Albert is talented and doesn’t have a poor work ethic like Bowe, but he’s expendable if the Chiefs are looking to invest in upgrading other positions.
They can do that at left tackle, while at wide receiver they have to stick with what they got. It may not be pretty, and the Chiefs will need to add another wide receiver at some point in the offseason, but Bowe needs to be re-signed.
Not every player that was listed is a star, but it would be the right business moves. Some teams need to do it to make the Super Bowl push, while others would like to try to move out of the division cellar by making those moves.
If any of these teams let go the player I've mentioned, it could come back to haunt them except the Colts. I’m pretty sure they can survive the loss of Donnie Avery, it was just someone I noticed that was a key contributor for them that is now a free agent.
Other than that, every AFC team needs to re-sign the player I mentioned. Next week, I’ll be doing the NFC teams and what player should each team make it a top priority to re-sign.
Allen Strk is a columnist on Bleacher Report. You can read more of my work at TJRSports.com, where I cover the NFL, NBA and MMA. You can follow me at @Allen_Strk on Twitter or e-mail questions/comments at AStrk19@gmail.com.