The Prize Target for Every NFL Team in Free Agency
When the Super Bowl is over, many fans dive right into the NFL draft cycle. Before we can start pumping out daily mock drafts, though, we need the dust from free agency to settle. According to Spotrac, the average NFL team already has $36 million of open cap space going into the 2018 offseason, even before cap casualties are announced.
Only two teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers, are over the cap at the moment, while just two others, the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, have less than $10 million in cap room. Just about anyone can be in the market for at least one splash free agent in 2018. On March 14, teams will begin to sign those outside free agents and bring back their own.
As we try to make sense of what the free-agency market looks like as of today, we'll attempt to select one potential free agent for every single team. Current cap situations, positional need and fits all came into account when making this list.
For some teams, we gave them a major re-signing; for others, potential restricted free-agent candidates. With an at-bat for 32 free agents, the odds say we'll get at least one of these guesses correct. At this point in the process, here are the players who franchises should have at the top of their wish lists.
Arizona Cardinals: Tyrod Taylor, Quarterback
It’s no secret that the Buffalo Bills are not sold on Tyrod Taylor. Despite throwing for 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions over the last two years, the quarterback has been benched twice over the last two years, under two different coaching staffs and front offices.
According to Spotrac, releasing Taylor could save nearly $10 million in cap space in 2018 for the Bills, so it wouldn't be shocking if they just ripped the band-aid soon and gave Taylor an opportunity to test the market. Out of the teams who need even a baseline passer going into the 2018 season, the Arizona Cardinals, who went 8-8 last season, pick last in the draft with the 15th overall pick.
Taylor's ability to make plays in the air and on the ground bodes well for his fit with the Cardinals, who need help at both ends on offense. Their top returning rusher is Adrian Peterson (448 yards), who is likely to be waived according to Arizona Sports' Mike Jurecki.
After the 34-year-old Larry Fitzgerald, who is perpetually considering retirement at this point in his career, the team's top returning target is Jermaine Gresham, who hauled in 33 receptions for 322 yards in 2018.
No team needs a quarterback worse than Arizona, and Buffalo has one they are willing to give away. With Taylor's freelancing style of play, he could make much more of an impact in the desert than a Case Keenum or AJ McCarron could.
Atlanta Falcons: Jack Mewhort, Guard
On defense, the Atlanta Falcons are loaded with young talent. Defensive linemen Grady Jarrett, Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley are all on rookie contracts. Linebackers Duke Riley, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are all on rookie contracts. Defensive backs Robert Alford, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Desmond Trufant have all been drafted by the team since 2013.
To be frank, any defensive free agent the Falcons splurge on is a luxury. On offense, they have a crowded backfield between quarterback Matt Ryan and tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Julio Jones is still a top-10 receiver in the league by anyone's definition, and the combo of Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper behind him in the passing game would make some teams envious.
Really, the team's only major need at this point is guard. After starting 45 games on his rookie contract, former second-round pick Jack Mewhort landed on the Indianapolis Colts' injured reserve list for the second straight season in 2017. He's a bit of a high-upside, high-risk signing, but the 26-year-old former 59th overall pick is exactly the type of risk this Falcons team can now take.
Baltimore Ravens: Sammy Watkins, Receiver
These are the top-100 receivers who have been drafted by the Baltimore Ravens:
At some point, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome just needs to accept it's their weakness during draft evaluations. At some point, he is going to just need to pay a free-agent receiver. Hopefully, that point is the 2018 offseason.
Still only a 24-year-old, there's a good chance Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, is able to hit the free market.
After recording over 66 receiving yards per game and 17 touchdowns in his first three years with the Buffalo Bills, Watkins was traded to the Los Angeles Rams after the first week of the 2017 preseason. The cost? Cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick.
Learning the offense on the fly, Watkins was able to record 593 receiving yards and eight touchdowns for the high-flying Rams offense, but he is not one of the 10 Rams with a cap hit over $5 million in 2018. While Los Angeles is busy paying its linebacker corps, star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, twice-tagged cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Watkins are all looking for new deals.
Should Watkins get lost in the shuffle, he's a perfect fit for Baltimore, a team that could use a highly touted speed demon falling in their lap. Over the last two years, the only quarterback who has a worse yards per attempt number (with at least 500 passes) than the Ravens' Joe Flacco is Brock Osweiler. Opening up the downfield throw for Flacco is paramount.
Buffalo Bills: Matt Paradis, Center
If Alex Smith is worth a four-year, $94 million extension, a third-round pick and a top-end slot cornerback, no one knows what Kirk Cousins is worth on the open market.
Should Cousins sign with the Denver Broncos, it might just be smart to assume they will be out of the running to re-sign their top free agents.
One of those free agents is Matt Paradis, a center who has started all 16 games in each of the Broncos' last three seasons. As a restricted free agent, the Buffalo Bills would have to compensate Denver with a draft pick for signing the 28-year-old, but with nine draft picks—including two each in the first, second and fifth rounds—that should be no issue.
An offseason response of signing Paradis as a restricted free agent may be the only way to efficiently replace Eric Wood this offseason.
Wood, a 2009 first-round pick for the team, retired from football at 31 years old and after 120 starts for the Bills due to a career-ending neck injury.
Carolina Panthers: Tyrell Williams, Receiver
Tyrell Williams is another restricted free agent, but the Los Angeles Chargers may not have the fight in them to keep him. The team already has a star receiver in Keenan Allen, a second-year first-round pick in Mike Williams, and Travis Benjamin has a $7 million cap hit this season. There's only so much money and assets to go around at receiver.
Throw in a second-round tight end (Hunter Henry) and a first-round running back (Melvin Gordon), and it's hard to make the case that the Chargers aren't already doing their best to surround quarterback Philip Rivers with offensive skill players. This could lead to a discount on Williams in the restricted free-agency market.
Williams is a fast but inconsistent player, which I guess comes with the territory for a former undrafted player from Division II Western Oregon with an insane athletic profile.
In Carolina, the Panthers should be begging for a deep threat such as Williams. When Ted Ginn Jr. was paired up with quarterback Cam Newton, the team went to soaring heights with a "fast, inconsistent" receiver. If Williams can even be Ginn for the Panthers, one would assume Newton would be more than grateful.
With just over $14 million in cap space available, Carolina might not be able to ask for much more than that. Guard Andrew Norwell, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, defensive end Julius Peppers and even backup quarterback Derek Anderson could each re-sign on deals that would do some damage to that $14 million figure.
Chicago Bears: Jarvis Landry, Receiver
Kendall Wright: 614 yards
Josh Bellamy: 376 yards
Tarik Cohen (backup running back): 353 yards
Dontrelle Inman (midseason trade): 344 yards
Jarvis Landry and his 8.8 yards per reception in 2017 clearly weren't for everybody, but the best fit for him may be in Chicago.
New Bears head coach Matt Nagy is an innovative mind at 39 years old. His offensive coordinator, former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, is also a fan of run-pass options that essentially turn receivers into outlets that aren't much different from running backs in space.
With that in mind, let's look at the Bears' top receiving targets from last year:
While Landry is largely discussed as a No. 2 receiver who wants to get paid No. 1 receiver money, he could easily be the top pass-catching target in Chicago the moment he signs on the dotted line.
Between the style of play Nagy and Helfrich have installed in the past, and the fact the Bears threw the ball fewer in the last 12 games of the season (under rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky) than any other team in the league, Landry seems like a seamless fit in the Windy City.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cameron Fleming, Offensive Tackle
Cameron Fleming was a fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots four years ago, but he's mostly been a spot starter during his NFL career. He has been a solid one at that, but he's only started two to seven games per season.
A fringe starter, one who wouldn't break the bank to sign but could start at guard, would go a long ways for the Bengals at bookend. In 2015, Cincinnati drafted Cedric Ogbuehi (21st overall pick) and Jake Fisher (53rd overall pick) to be their offensive tackles of the future. After losing left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency to the Los Angeles Rams, the team had to start the pair of 2015 draft picks in 2017.
In the previous four years, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had only been sacked more than 29 times once. In 2017, he was sacked 39 times, leading to his highest interception percentage and worst passer rating in three years.
Something needs to change in Cincinnati, and adding some competition from Fleming is one of the best ways the team can stir the pot.
Cleveland Browns: AJ McCarron, Quarterback
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns had a deal which fell through at the trade deadline that would have sent AJ McCarron to Ohio. Since then, Sashi Brown has been fired and head coach Hue Jackson seems to be the lead man in Cleveland.
If Jackson was the one who wanted the quarterback, there's going to be little stopping him this offseason.
There's still an ongoing dispute over McCarron's contract situation, but that just leads us down the road of restricted or unrestricted free agency, for a quarterback to move between two teams who had an agreement to trade him at the trade deadline.
If McCarron does sign with Cleveland, he will likely be the team's most expensive signing. Last year, Mike Glennon, who hadn't started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for years, signed a $15 million per contract with the Chicago Bears to be their bridge quarterback. That figure led all free agents. Even fringe starting quarterbacks land average salaries equal to or higher than superstars at other positions.
With over $100 million in cap space, the Browns are in no way just in the quarterback market this offseason, but whoever they sign to be the veteran presence in their quarterback room will likely be their highest-paid free agent. The favorite, based on previous actions, has to be McCarron.
Dallas Cowboys: Alex Okafor, Defensive End
The Dallas Cowboys have needed pass-rushing help—basically since DeMarcus Ware and the team separated. This year, Demarcus Lawrence broke out with 14.5-sack season in a contract year. In the NFL, though, you need more than just one pass-rusher.
Taco Charlton was a first-round pick by the team, but we're seeing more teams (such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Seattle) treat that third pass-rusher like a true starter. Adding someone like Alex Okafor to the mix could do the Cowboys wonders in 2018.
Okafor wasn't more than an afterthought before the 2017 season, but he was one of the most random breakouts before he tore his Achilles.
Should Lawrence re-sign with the Cowboys, Okafor may be the most talented defensive end on the market in 2018.
Denver Broncos: Kirk Cousins, Quarterback
Kirk Cousins wants someone to commit to him being a franchise quarterback. Denver Broncos general manager John Elway bombed on draft Paxton Lynch in the 2016 first round after Peyton Manning retired. Denver pass-rusher Von Miller is openly calling for Cousins.
Let's just go ahead and put two and two together here: The Broncos have gone 14-18 since winning Super Bowl 50, mostly because their offense hasn't been up to the NFL standard. Getting someone like Cousins springs the team back into AFC West conversation.
Under 30 years old with a 93.7 career passer rating, including an 81:36 touchdown-interception ratio over the last three years, it's hard to think of a healthy quarterback with Cousins' resume to hit the open market in the last decade.
As long as a team like Cleveland doesn't give him the keys to the city, Denver is a soft landing spot for one of the league's most criticized stars.
Detroit Lions: Carlos Hyde, Running Back
Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn is from the Bill Belichick tree, and the Patriots don't usually pay running backs big money. With that being said, the Lions have a massive issue in the ground game. Their last back to rush for 100 yards in a game was Reggie Bush in 2013.
Just having a running back who can carry a load would be significant for Detroit at this point. Over the last two seasons, Carlos Hyde ranks 10th among NFL running backs in touches. The only backs on rookie deals who rank ahead of him are Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard.
Over that same time, Detroit finished last in the NFL with just 2,531 rushing yards. The difference between the Lions and 31st-ranked team (New York Giants, 2,961 yards) is larger than the difference between the 31st-ranked team and the 19th-ranked team (Denver Broncos, 3,336 yards).
The Lions have backs you would typically categorize as quality "change-of-pace backs," so the addition of a rock such as Hyde could go a long way for the unit.
Green Bay Packers: Justin Pugh, Offensive Lineman
The right side of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line is a bit of a question mark as it stands.
2017 free-agent guard signing Jahri Evans is a free agent who will be 35 before the regular season begins. The team's right tackle, Bryan Bulaga, has a history of injury issues and the team could save $13 million over the next two years if they let him go.
Justin Pugh, a former first-round tackle who turned into a 63-game starter for the New York Giants, could be the Packers' best fit in free agency while they try to figure out their exact plan of action on the right side of their line.
It's worth noting Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant under head coach Mike McCarthy, was in charge of the Giants offense over the last four seasons.
Houston Texans: Andrew Norwell, Guard
Let's take a look at the Houston Texans' 2017 offseason: They packaged assets to get out of the Brock Osweiler contract, only to not sign any major free agent, lose cornerback A.J. Bouye in free agency and fail to extend tackle Duane Brown, who held out and was eventually traded.
In the 2017 and 2018 draft classes combined, the team only has one pick in the first two rounds, which was spent on quarterback Deshaun Watson.
That's not great for a team coming off a 4-12 season. This team has holes, with one being the offensive line. A draft miss on Xavier Su'a-Filo, the 33rd overall pick in 2014, was one reason for that. Letting Brandon Brooks walk in free agency is another. With Su'a-Filo's contract finally coming to an end, it opens an opportunity for the Texans to make a slash at guard.
Andrew Norwell of the Carolina Panthers is about as good a guard talent that's going to hit the free-agent market.
The Texans spent the entire offseason essentially trading in Osweiler for Watson last year. With Watson coming off a season-ending knee injury, it would be smart for a new Houston front office to protect him with someone of the caliber of Norwell, a 2017 All-Pro.
Indianapolis Colts: Morgan Burnett, Safety
The Indianapolis Colts still need plenty of help on defense. Despite signing major defenders such as Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard and John Simon last offseason, along with spending all three of their top-100 picks on defenders, they had a bottom-five pass defense in 2017.
They're on the right track, but there is work to be done. One player who could help them is veteran safety Morgan Burnett, who at times played like a hybrid linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21st overall pick in 2014) and Josh Jones (61st overall pick in 2017) on rookie deals in Green Bay, it's not likely they would extend a veteran safety.
With 699 total tackles, 44 pass deflections and nine interceptions in his NFL career, Burnett could bring plenty of experience to a Colts' secondary that has been struggling for years.
Burnett's versatility, stretching from a high safety to an edge-blitzer, makes him a fit for basically every defense in the league.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Paul Richardson, Receiver
As we saw this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars didn't need to go to their passing game often to win. Their ground game with Leonard Fournette was enough to grind out wins opposite of the league's best defense. All the passing offense needs to do is keep defenses honest.
One of the best ways to keep bodies out of the box for Fournette would be to sign a speed receiver. Paul Richardson, a former second-round pick, fits that mold. After catching just 51 balls in his first four years in Seattle, he caught 44 for 703 yards and six touchdowns in 2017. For a 25-year-old who ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash coming out of Colorado, those are intriguing numbers.
The arrow is pointing up for the Jaguars and for Richardson. If they're really going to keep rolling with the Blake Bortles game-manager experiment, this may be their best option for success.
Kansas City Chiefs: Aqib Talib, Cornerback
After clearing up some cap space with the trade of former starting quarterback Alex Smith, the Kansas City Chiefs have some options. If they want to go further and drop some aging veterans, such as Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Darrelle Revis, they will have more than $22 million in cap space, according to Spotrac.
That type of freedom could lead to them going full 2016 New York Giants or 2014 Denver Broncos, when those teams invested highly in a third cornerback. With Marcus Peters and now Kendall Fuller (a slot cornerback acquired via the Smith trade) on the team, they would only need one more solid cornerback, likely an outside corner, to completely suffocate teams in the secondary.
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib has openly brought up the fact Denver could release him this offseason. His cap hit of $12 million, with just a dead cap figure of $1 million, makes that easy for the Broncos to do, if they want to. The question is, why would they want to throw away a cornerback who has made five straight Pro Bowls?
The answer almost certainly has to be Kirk Cousins, the quarterback whose sweepstakes we've been waiting on for nearly three full years at this point.
If Talib is "done wrong" by Denver for a quarterback, it would be interesting to see if the Chiefs, an AFC West rival, could land his services in what would quickly become one of the best cornerback rooms in the NFL.
Los Angeles Chargers: Anthony Hitchens, Linebacker
On offense, the Los Angeles Chargers had a top passing game, seem to be committed to Melvin Gordon in the backfield and spent last offseason rebuilding their offensive line with Russell Okung, Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. It would surprise most if they spent big on a free agent on that side of the ball in 2018.
On defense, they have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league and an underrated secondary nationally. Their big weakness, though, is being able to stop the run. In the grand scheme of things, that's something that can be corrected fairly quickly and cheaply.
One of the biggest linebacker names on the market is going to be Dallas' Anthony Hitchens, a former fourth-round pick with 304 tackles recorded on his rookie contract.
Hitchens, because of Sean Lee's injury history, has had to play multiple roles for the Cowboys, which bodes well for the Chargers, who could use help in multiple linebacker spots.
Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Colvin, Cornerback
In 2016, the Rams lost cornerback Janoris Jenkins to free agency. That same year, he made a Pro Bowl with the New York Giants. In 2017, the Rams traded away E.J. Gaines to the Buffalo Bills, and he proved to be a high end No. 2 cornerback for the Bills last year.
In 2018, Trumaine Johnson, a twice franchise-tagged corner, may leave Los Angeles. A team can only hemorrhage so much at one position before they take action. Aaron Colvin could be the cornerback defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is looking for.
The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly benefited from playing him next to Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye behind the most talented defensive line in the sport in 2017, but he had a career year. Pro Football Focus even noted his extremely low passer rating in the playoffs.
If Johnson does walk, and there aren't many players who have signed long-term contracts after having the franchise tag slapped on them twice in back-to-back seasons, Colvin may quickly become the Rams' No. 1 free-agency target as they try to rebuild their secondary.
Miami Dolphins: Jimmy Graham, Tight End
The Miami Dolphins are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have two first-round offensive tackles in Laremy Tunsil and Ja'Wuan James and a first-round center in Mike Pouncey, but they still have a struggling offensive line.
The team got a pass after Ryan Tannehill's preseason knee injury led to Jay Cutler coming out of retirement to start for the team, but they need to win in 2018 for head coach Adam Gase to keep his job.
It's hard to imagine the team invests even more in bookends, sinking even more investments into a struggling offensive line. Their best bet might just be to stick it out and hope their evaluations were correct in the first place. They can assist their tackles by giving them a decent tight end to work with.
While Jimmy Graham's blocking ability has never been his strength, having him help chip on defensive ends is better than isolating tackles in one-on-one situations, and you're less likely to blitz with a linebacker on Graham's side when you know the threat of him getting a free release as a pass-catcher.
Last season, Graham, who played college football and basketball at the University of Miami, recorded 522 receiving yards (good for 17th among NFL tight ends) and 10 receiving touchdowns (good for first among NFL tight ends).
Julius Thomas, Anthony Fasano and A.J. Derby, the Dolphins' top three tight ends, weren't even able to match those numbers combined. Graham could give them an element they have needed for years, a legitimate receiving threat at tight end, while also giving Miami some potential training wheels for their bookends it hopes will pan out.
Minnesota Vikings: Case Keenum, Quarterback
After the Minnesota Vikings spent first-round picks on both Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, a healthy Case Keenum managed to post 3,547 passing yards, 22 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 98.3 passer rating in 2017.
All three could be unrestricted free agents this offseason, depending on whether a Bridgewater season did or didn't toll.
Should Keenum re-sign, he will almost certainly be the biggest splash signing by the Vikings this offseason.
According to Spotrac, Minnesota has over $56 million in cap space this season, more than enough to sign a mid-level quarterback such as Keenum. The conversation likely starts around Mike Glennon's $15 million per year figure, but Alex Smith's new $23.5 million per year contract after his trade from Kansas City is likely in the mind of Keenum's agent.
In 2017, the highest-paid free agent in the sport (in terms of average salary) was Glennon; in 2016, it was Brock Osweiler. It's almost impossible for non-quarterbacks to make quarterback money in 2018, so it would be dishonest to claim Keenum isn't the biggest potential pivot point to Minnesota's offseason.
New England Patriots: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive Lineman
Losing the likes of Chandler Jones and Jaabal Sheard hurt the New England Patriots' pass rush, but it has been understated how little penetration they have gotten over the last two seasons. They're dead last in the league with 241 tackles at the line of scrimmage 2016-2017. That's a reflection of defensive line talent.
Last summer, the Seattle Seahawks traded a second-round pick and receiver Jermaine Kearse for Sheldon Richardson, a hybrid defender who previously played with the New York Jets. Richardson was a Pro Bowler as a rookie, but off-field issues and the Jets moving him from a defensive tackle role to an inside linebacker on a week-to-week basis led to his falling out in New York.
In 2016, the year before Seattle traded for him, Richardson recorded 26.5 tackles at the line, the fourth-best number in the league. On paper, he should have been a smash hit with the penetration-heavy Seahawks.
For whatever reason, he only had 7.5 tackles at the line with the team in his contract season. If Seattle would rather get a compensatory pick back for the second-rounder they spent on Richardson than attempt to double down on him, he's an interesting boom-bust free-agent prospect.
There's no doubt the Patriots know what Richardson is capable of, as the best years of his career were played with the in-division Jets. Their always-flexible defenses, along with the 27-year-old's position flexibility and penetration potential, mesh well.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, Quarterback
Drew Brees has 70,444 passing yards, good for third in NFL history. By midseason next year, he may have the all-time NFL record (Peyton Manning, 71,940 yards.) There's no way someone that accomplished is going to hit the open market. There is no Andrew Luck pushing Brees out the door to chase records elsewhere.
According to ESPN's Mike Triplett, a recent restructure of Brees' expiring contract will lead to $18 million in dead cap for the 2018 season. That means, in terms of cap manipulation, the Saints will have to tape off $18 million of their salary cap for Brees, even if he doesn't re-sign with the team. Extending him may actually drop that cap-hit number down in 2018, depending on the structure.
There's plenty of incentives for Brees and New Orleans to come together for a long-term agreement this offseason, with none more important than the fact the Saints' top backup quarterback right now is the 31-year-old Chase Daniel, who has thrown for just 480 yards in his career.
Their third-string quarterback, Taysom Hill, was an undrafted 27-year-old rookie in 2017 who has never thrown an NFL pass and played special teams for the team.
Odds are in favor for Brees to lock into another massive, long-term contract that essentially promises him he'll hang around New Orleans to own every modern passing record that exists.
New York Giants: Lamarcus Joyner, Safety
If your pass defense is an issue, you can either add more pass-rushing talent or more secondary talent. The Giants' starting defensive ends, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, will have combined cap hits of $24.5 million in 2018, individually making them two of the four highest-paid defensive ends in the sport.
That number could rise to two of the top three, too, with the expectation Muhammad Wilkerson will be a cap casualty by the New York Jets this offseason. There's no precedent if the Giants do decide to add another big name to their defensive end rotation.
That means the improvement defensively almost has to come in the secondary, where safety play hasn't been great. A cornerback spot may open up, too, as 2016 first-round pick Eli Apple finished the season suspended and may be released by the team.
The addition of a player such as Lamarcus Joyner, a safety who can play opposite of Landon Collins, could help the Giants rebuild in a post-Apple world. Joyner finished as the NFL's fifth-best safety in Bleacher Report's 2017 NFL1000 series.
New York Jets: Shaquil Barrett, Outside Linebacker
The Denver Broncos have been spoiled at outside linebacker for years. The pairing of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller was the staple of the defense during the Peyton Manning era, and Shane Ray was drafted in the first round as Ware's possible successor.
What the Broncos didn't know was Shaquil Barrett, an undersized pass-rusher from Colorado State, would go from undrafted free agent to a top-50 edge-defender.
In limited time, Barrett has recorded 11 sacks over the last three years. That number isn't as high as his talent, but again he was lost in the shuffle and has recorded only 15 starts in his career. He would be an easy plug-and-play candidate for a team in need of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The New York Jets certainly fit that mold. Ever since they missed on first-round pick Quinton Coples, the Jets haven't been able to scratch off "pass-rusher" from their offseason needs list.
The only edge-defender in the last decade to record double-digit sacks in a single season for the Jets was 2013 Calvin Pace. Barrett could become one of New York's most notable pass-rushers in recent memory.
Oakland Raiders: Le’Veon Bell, Running Back
This is the Le'Veon Bell issue for the Pittsburgh Steelers: He's great, but veteran running backs just aren't valuable anymore. The highest guarantees a veteran back has is Devonta Freeman, with $22 million. That ranks 114th among NFL players.
In terms of guarantees at signing, LeSean McCoy's $18.25 million is the top number for running backs. That ranks 109th among NFL players, behind Mike Glennon, a bridge quarterback who has started four games in the last three seasons.
If you're going to pay a running back like a top-100 player in the NFL, you're paying for his name and not his ability to win you football games. If there's any team that is looking to buy names right now, it's the Oakland Raiders.
Before moving to Las Vegas, the Raiders pulled Jon Gruden out of retirement on a $100 million coaching deal. When you're competing on The Strip, where alcohol is basically handed out for free while you're chasing money in a casino, you need an edge. Paying entirely too much money to bring in a coach that America knows from Monday Night Football may only make sense for them specifically.
In some ways, Bell could be the player version of Gruden. Everyone knows him and what he has accomplished in the past. He's a big name who likely won't fall on his face, but he probably won't have a great return of investment from the traditional measurements.
Vegas is different, though. This is already becoming very clear.
Philadelphia Eagles: Phillip Gaines, Cornerback
The Philadelphia Eagles just won a Super Bowl, but their roster isn't flawless. They gave up 505 yards to Tom Brady in the game, which to some extent reflects their talent at cornerback. The honest conversation we need to be having with the Eagles, though, is how high they can really aim in free agency this year?
Even if the team can unload the contract of left tackle Jason Peters, defensive end Vinny Curry and quarterback Nick Foles, all top-10 contract in terms of cap hits for the 2018 roster, they'll only have $5.4 million to spend in 2018. That's including re-signings, extensions (with a major Brandon Graham deal looming) and rookies.
The Eagles are probably going to have to bargain-shop this offseason, unless they completely rebuild their team after the Super Bowl. One interesting name is Phillip Gaines, who almost certainly will hit the free-agent market after the Kansas City Chiefs traded for cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Gaines had 14 pass deflections and recorded 16 starts for the Chiefs during his rookie contract after coming out of Rice as a hyperproductive small-schooler with length.
Adding names to the cornerback competition is more of a tangible goal than finding a surefire starter for the price range the Eagles should be looking at.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Trey Burton, Tight End
Since Heath Miller's run in Pittsburgh ended, the Steelers have been looking for a significant tight end replacement. The signing of Ladarius Green, who failed his physical after signing a $20 million contract in 2016, didn't turnout as planned.
Jesse James, the team's top tight end in 2017, caught just one of the Steelers' 58 passes in the postseason. James also only recorded 372 yards in the regular season. There's plenty of room for an upgrade at tight end.
Trey Burton is one of the more underrated tight ends in the league, as he recorded 248 yards and five touchdown receptions behind Philadelphia Eagles starting tight end Zach Ertz.
Burton, a college quarterback, also threw a touchdown in Super Bowl 52. The athletic positional convert had a second-round tender placed on him by the Eagles when he was a restricted free agent last season, which tells you what they think of his future.
San Francisco 49ers: Allen Robinson, Receiver
We're one year into the new San Francisco 49ers regime and it's clear Kyle Shanahan is the right head coach for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. They're about as figured out as you can be coming off of a 6-10 season.
The goal now is to make their lives easier. In terms of receptions, the team's leader in 2017 was Carlos Hyde, who is now slated to be a free-agent running back. From a practical standpoint, they didn't have a go-to wide receiver.
The top receiver on the market is likely to be Allen Robinson, a former Jacksonville Jaguar. He recorded 2,848 receiving yards and 22 touchdown receptions for the Jaguars in his rookie deal. The former second-round pick only had 17 yards in 2017, though, as the 24-year-old tore his ACL in Week 1 of the season.
If Robinson can pass medical tests, it's hard to imagine Shanahan, who has made the most of receivers in all shapes and sizes, couldn't plug Robinson into his offensive system to give Garoppolo his new No. 1 receiver.
A Garoppolo-to-Robinson connection would be one of the best pairings 49ers fans have seen in a decade.
Seattle Seahawks: Ty Nsekhe, Offensive Lineman
Ty Nsekhe is one of the more interesting players in the NFL. The league, as a whole, is short on offensive linemen, especially offensive tackles. Washington has a great bookend pairing with left tackle Trent Williams (on a $68 million contract) and right tackle Morgan Moses (on a $38.5 million contract.)
Their third tackle is Nsekhe, who, until injury, was playing at a starting-level coming off the bench.
The 6'8" Nsekhe is going to be a restricted free agent at 32 years old, though, because he played with the Corpus Christi Sharks, Dallas Vigilantes, Philadelphia Soul, San Antonio Talons, Montreal Alouettes and Los Angeles Kiss before sticking in the NFL.
It's time for him to find somewhere where he can be a full-time starter, but a team will likely have to pay a draft pick to sign him.
The Seattle Seahawks, who fired long-time offensive line coach Tom Cable in January, might finally bite the bullet and go after a veteran bookend, who can also play guard.
The Seahawks have had no issues trading high picks for the likes of Percy Harvin, Jimmy Graham and Sheldon Richardson in the past.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ezekiel Ansah, Defensive End
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the 2017 season with just 22 sacks, the worst mark in the NFL. To put that into perspective, the Pittsburgh Steelers had 56 sacks, more than 2.5 times what the Buccaneers recorded.
The biggest problem? The Buccaneers are on the hook to pay defensive ends Robert Ayers and William Gholston $12.5 million next season, but Tampa Bay can get out of those contracts with no dead cap. They can get out of those bad contracts, if they find someone who can replace their starting roles.
That name might have to be Ezekiel Ansah, the fifth overall pick from 2013 who recorded 12 sacks in his Detroit Lions career. His talent has dropped off since his 14.5-sack 2015, mostly because of injuries, but he did end his 2017 season on a hot streak.
In the last six games of the season, Ansah had eight sacks, mostly because he ended the year with back-to-back three-sack games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers. Nine of his 12 sacks in 2017 came in three games against the New York Giants, Bengals and Packers.
He's a bit of a high-risk, high-reward signing at this point in his career, but that's better than the high-risk, low-reward style of defensive ends the Buccaneers have on the roster at the moment.
Tennessee Titans: Kyle Fuller, Cornerback
While Kendall Fuller was recently in the news for his trade to the Kansas City Chiefs, his brother may also be on the move this offseason.
Kyle Fuller, a 2014 first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, has completely recovered from the knee surgery that kept him off the field in 2016.
The Bears ended up on the wrong side of their bet with Fuller, as they elected to turn down his fifth-year option, making him a 2018 free agent. The six-foot corner was able to record two interceptions and 22 pass deflections in 2017 to go along with his six interceptions and 19 pass deflections in 2014 and 2015.
Outside of his missed 2016 season, Fuller has played in all 48 Bears games in 2014, 2015 and 2017, with 46 starts to his name. The only games he didn't start were in his rookie season. Outside of one injury season, he has shown durability, ball skills and starting ability at the NFL level. With a first-round background, he's not going to slide under the radar, either.
The addition of Adoree' Jackson was important for the Tennessee Titans last season. At times, he was their most explosive player on the field. With that being said, it’s a two- or three-cornerback league in 2018.
Washington Redskins: Taylor Gabriel, Receiver
New quarterback Alex Smith had Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, elite receivers, to throw to when in Kansas City.
Last offseason, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, two starting receivers, left Washington in free agency. They were supposed to be replaced by former first-round pick Josh Doctson and $8 million free-agent signing Terrelle Pryor.
Combined, Doctson and Pryor made up for 742 receiving yards in 2018. Pryor is also going to be a free agent this offseason. If Washington wants Smith to post the same numbers he had in Kansas City, they're going to need to find him some matchup advantages like he had in Kansas City.
A player who could fit that mold is Taylor Gabriel, who most recently was an Atlanta Falcon. He was a big piece of the Falcons offense that went all the way to the Super Bowl, when he recorded 16.5 yards per reception (579 yards, 35 receptions) and six touchdowns in 2016. As a rookie in 2014, he recorded 17.3 yards per reception (621 yards, 36 receptions) for the Browns.
Gabriel can be a big play receiver, but the 26-year-old has never been asked to be a full-time starter. He's started between two and four games a year since 2017.
With the future of Doctson up in the air and Pryor flaming out of Washington, Gabriel's best shot at 50-plus receptions a season might be with the Redskins.