Every Non-Playoff Team's Biggest 2018 Free-Agent Target

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 19, 2017

Every Non-Playoff Team's Biggest 2018 Free-Agent Target

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    There are a lot of December traditions we keep alive each year, like watching Home Alone far too much, wearing ugly sweaters that a previous generation just called "sweaters" and living in the ubiquity of this song...for better or worse.

    There's another annual exercise around the NFL as a frosty winter begins. Amid the building playoff excitement, a cold reality descends for much of the league: 2017 is unofficially over.

    Oh sure, there are still a few games left. But for teams that have either been eliminated or face slim playoff chances, the time is now to begin looking ahead to 2018 and examining how repeating their misery can be avoided. The first step in that process is about three months away with the start of free agency.

    A lot will change during that time, as the 2018 free-agent class takes shape. Some of the top potentially available players now will either be re-signed by their current teams or slapped with the franchise tag. But that doesn't stop the preparing and jostling, just in case appealing talents like defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah hit the open market.

    All the non-playoff teams are already directing their focus toward the offseason, and laying a new foundation for 2018. So we will too, with this look at which free agents those teams should target.

Honorable Mentions

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    To begin, here's a quick look at the teams on the playoff bubble.

    Baltimore Ravens: Mike Wallace, 31, is a pending free agent and could also be set to lose a step. He leads the Ravens with 648 receiving yards, and filling that hole will be a priority if Wallace leaves. The Ravens' options might be limited, as they're projected to have only $12.4 million in cap space.

    Target: Marqise Lee

         

    Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers have allowed 128.3 rushing yards per game (30th) and could use some reinforcements at linebacker.

    Target: Zach Brown

         

    Oakland Raiders: The Raiders have generated only four interceptions. They're in need of a safety to solve that glaring problem and replace 34-year-old Reggie Nelson, who's set to become a free agent.

    Target: Kenny Vaccaro

          

    Miami Dolphins: Defensive end Cameron Wake needs one more sack over Miami's final two games in 2017 to record his fifth career double-digit sack season. He's not slowing down yet at the age of 35, but Wake needs some help, as the Dolphins rank 28th with 25 sacks. Hopefully that help will come from 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris soon enough. But Harris has recorded only one sack as a rookie, prompting the need for better veteran support as he develops.

    Target: Alex Okafor

         

    Detroit Lions: The Lions badly need to boost their running game. They're averaging only 77.4 yards on the ground per game and 3.4 yards per carry.

    Target: Carlos Hyde

         

    Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks' annual search for low-cost upgrades along the offensive line will kick into gear again. The cheaper options for a team with limited cap space to work with (an estimated $17.6 million, per Spotrac) can be found on the interior.

    Target: Alex Boone

          

    Dallas Cowboys: Jason Witten is a Cowboys legend and one of the best tight ends of his generation. He's also reaching the end of his age-35 season and on pace for his lowest receiving yards output since his rookie year way back in 2003. He's still under contract until 2021, but he needs some low-cost support. That can come in the form of Tyler Eifert, who has been effective in the past with 20 touchdowns over 39 career regular-season games, and his price tag will be low because of injury concerns.

    Target: Tyler Eifert

Denver Broncos: Kirk Cousins, Quarterback

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    It's exceedingly rare for a quarterback who could even be considered a starter to hit the open market. Usually, the best-case scenario for a QB-needy team is signing a veteran who may or may not have something left, and at worst he'll compete for a job while putting up a good fight during training camp.

    But 2018 will be different thanks to Kirk Cousins—and the Washington Redskins' mismanagement of his contract. The Redskins have already tagged him twice, and doing so a third time would give the 29-year-old a monstrous $34.5 million contract for one year.

    That's a hefty salary-cap anchor, and it would sink the Redskins in their efforts to retain any other important pending free agents or improve by pursuing those outside the organization. Which means Cousins is going to be a sort of free-agency unicorn as a Pro Bowl quarterback who's available, and the Denver Broncos should lunge at him.

    The Broncos have been sunk in 2017 by one of the league's worst quarterback depth charts. Paxton Lynch is a first-round bust who can't stay healthy, and Trevor Siemian has thrown 24 interceptions over just as many regular-season starts (26 games overall).

    What's especially frustrating is the Broncos still have the pieces for a solid defense. The unit has been exposed in 2017 by being on the field too much because of Denver's inept offense. But the Broncos have a quality cornerback tandem in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and a premier pass-rusher in outside linebacker Von Miller, who has now logged four straight seasons with double-digit sacks.

    They just need competence at quarterback. Cousins can provide much more than that with his 94.8 career passer rating and per-attempt average of 7.8 yards.

Indianapolis Colts: Ezekiel Ansah, Defensive End

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    And here we arrive again at one of our annual free-agency staples: Will the Indianapolis Colts get a quality pass-rusher?

    The tried to go the economical route in 2017 by signing outside linebackers John Simon and Jabaal Sheard. That was a justifiable experiment for a team that had made an expensive commitment to quarterback Andrew Luck. But the approach failed, as the Colts rank 30th with only 23 sacks.

    They need to help out a promising but still young secondary by getting pressure on the quarterback. And they can do that by signing Ezekiel Ansah, who may come at a discount.

    That bargain carries some risk with it, of course, because Ansah has had two straight sluggish seasons with the Detroit Lions. Limited by injuries, the defensive end has had only eight sacks since the beginning of 2016.

    But he's still young enough at 28 years old, and hae has proved to be a game-changing defender in the past with his 14.5 sacks in 2015. The Colts are expected to have $82.7 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, so they can afford to take a gamble.

Cleveland Browns: Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver

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    In 2017, the Cleveland Browns brought in a veteran free agent to inject some stability and experience into their wide receiver depth chart. Kenny Britt proved to be a waste of $17 million in guaranteed money.

    Britt did only slightly more than nothing over his nine games with the Browns prior to being released. He recorded only 18 receptions and 233 yards before the plug was pulled.

    So, once again, the Browns will enter an offseason with wide receiver as a top need, especially since Josh Gordon is scheduled to be a free agent, and although Corey Coleman has impressed with his athleticism, he's also missed 13 games over two seasons.

    The solution could be Mike Wallace, a veteran who's not fading nearly as fast as Britt.

    Wallace has struggled at times in 2017 for the Baltimore Ravens as the play of quarterback Joe Flacco has been inconsistent. But he's still been a deep threat with two 100-plus-yard games, and as a 31-year-old his price tag shouldn't climbed too high.

    Wallace is also only one year removed from his third career 1,000-plus-yard receiving season, and his next team will hope he has one more big year left in him. 

Green Bay Packers: Kenny Vaccaro, Safety

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    The Green Bay Packers have fought through a lot of problems in 2017. The most significant, of course, was megastar quarterback Aaron Rodgers being nothing more than a spectator for much of the season after suffering a broken collarbone in Week 6.

    But beyond limiting the offense, that also reminded us every week that Rodgers doesn't play defense.

    The Packers limped through the season defensively, especially on the back end. They were gashed far too often by deep passes, and allowed 7.8 yards per attempt (tied for 28th) along with a passer rating of 100.5 (30th). They needed a better ball-hawking presence in their secondary, and there's an option available in free agency to potentially fix that problem.

    Kenny Vaccaro is slated to become a free agent in 2018 after a resurgent season with three interceptions and seven passes defensed. Vaccaro has been inconsistent throughout his five-year career and was even benched at one point early in 2017. That should keep his cost relatively low for a Packers team that doesn't splurge often in free agency.

Houston Texans: Nate Solder, Left Tackle

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    If 2017 was the year of the devastating injury around the NFL, then the Houston Texans were ground zero.

    They lost outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and defensive end J.J. Watt to season-ending injuries, and those two combined for 38.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Houston also dealt with an even more significant gut punch when Deshaun Watson, the rookie quarterback who set a record with 19 touchdown passes over his first seven games, tore his ACL.

    So the Texans don't necessarily need to make a free-agency splash in 2018. Getting those three players healthy will in itself be a major boost to their chances of returning to the playoffs and contending for a division crown.

    Still, some reinforcements are needed, especially along the offensive line. Even when Watson was healthy, he had to constantly dodge and weave his way around pressure. He was sacked 19 times while starting just six games, and the Texans traded tackle Duane Brown after his holdout. 

    The Texans are projected to have $59.8 million in cap room, according to Spotrac, which means they can throw many, many briefcases filled with money at left tackle Nate Solder if he doesn't re-sign with the New England Patriots.

    The 29-year-old has been a steady pillar on the Patriots offensive line, playing at least 15 games in all but one of his six NFL seasons prior to 2017. In 2016, a season when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sacked just 15 times, Solder finished tied for 10th in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking rankings among tackles.

New York Jets: Case Keenum, Quarterback

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    The New York Jets have been surprisingly competitive in 2017. The fact they're even given themselves a chance to finish with a half-dozen wins still feels like a minor miracle.

    But they've reached their 5-9 record while pushed by the play of quarterback Josh McCown, who's now out for the season with a broken hand. McCown threw 18 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions over his 13 games in 2017, showing he still has plenty left.

    The problem, of course, is that McCown is a free agent, and even if the Jets do re-sign him to another short-term contract, he'll be 39 years old heading into the 2018 season. He's injury-prone and can't be relied on for a full season.

    There's not much to believe in beyond McCown on the Jets' quarterback depth chart. Christian Hackenberg is a draft bust who averaged only five yards per attempt throughout the 2017 preseason while throwing mostly against second- and third-team scrubs. And Bryce Petty has done little since being a fourth-round pick in 2015, completing just 53.0 percent of his passes over eight career games.

    Which is why the Jets will surely be bidding for Cousins and have plenty of financial muscle to work with because of their estimated $83.5 million in cap room.

    But that auction room will be crowded, and if Cousins goes elsewhere, then Case Keenum would be a nice consolation prize for a QB-desperate team.

    The Minnesota Vikings are in a difficult situation of their own at quarterback. They face a good problem, but still a problem. Both Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, their first-round pick in 2014 who recently returned from injury, are scheduled to become free agents.

    The Vikings may favor retaining the younger Bridgewater and trusting he can keep developing with the support of a strong defense and rushing offense. If that's the case, then Jets would likely go after Keenum, who has completed 67.9 percent of his throws with a passer rating of 98.9 this season. 

New York Giants: Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver

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    For reasons that remain unclear, the Los Angeles Rams don't seem to think giving Sammy Watkins a prominent role in their offense is important.

    He's on pace for just 72 targets, which would be a career low during any season when Watkins has played 13-plus games (his previous low of 96 targets in at least 13 games came in 2015). But that hasn't mattered, as the Rams are leading their division and in pursuit of a playoff bye even with Watkins' role minimized.

    So it seems unlikely they would pay the necessary hefty fee to keep Watkins when he becomes a free agent. Watkins will be expensive because he's shown his production potential in the past with 1,047 receiving yards in 2015. And at 24 years old, he's only now entering his prime.

    The New York Giants should be eager to pay his price.

    The Giants will get a major boost when Odell Beckham Jr. returns from injury in 2018. But there are questions surrounding the effectiveness of the receiver who will line up across from him.

    To begin 2017, that was veteran Brandon Marshall. His season ended early because of an ankle injury, but the 33-year-old didn't do much when healthy. Marshall created little separation while averaging only 8.6 yards per reception, and his slippery hands led to two drops over only five games. His catch rate was just 54.5 percent.

    Adding Watkins would be a steep upgrade over Marshall, and the Giants would have an intimidating youthful combination at wide receiver.

Cincinnati Bengals: Nate Solder, Left Tackle

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have an offensive line that's made life both unpleasant and painful for their quarterback.

    Andy Dalton is often the target for fretting over the future of the Bengals offense. That tends to happen when your per-game passing average has dropped by 50-plus yards since 2016. But it's unfair to point a finger at only him.

    The Bengals offense has consistently been derailed by poor offensive line play, often leaving Dalton with little time to do much of anything. That was true in 2016 even before tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler left as free agents. Dalton was sacked 41 times then, and now in 2017 he's taken 35 sacks over 14 games.

    Which is why Cincinnati needs to be in on the Solder sweepstakes too.

    Solder will be hotly pursued as the top name in another weak free-agency class along the offensive line. And the Bengals are arguably even more desperate than the Texans for a savior at left tackle given their swift offensive decline. They've completed only 30 passes for 20-plus yards in 2017, which ranks tied for 28th, per NFL.com, and shows how much downfield push is lacking from their passing attack.

    As a result, the Bengals are also averaging only 16.6 points per game (29th).

San Francisco 49ers: DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End

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    The San Francisco 49ers have installed some quality building blocks as a new regime keeps remaking the roster.

    That started during the 2017 draft with defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Reuben Foster. And it continued recently with the blockbuster trade to land quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who hopes to provide some stability at the most important position in football. Garoppolo is off to a fine start with the 49ers, throwing for 1,008 yards in his first three starts, all of which ended in wins.

    The next frontier in San Francisco's youth movement is finding a pass rush. The 49ers haven't generated much pressure in 2017 and are tied for 24th with only 26 sacks. Unloading a whole lot of money in front of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence would solve that problem in a hurry.

    Lawrence is set to enter free agency if the Cowboys let him walk. There's a chance that could happen too because Dallas is forever cash-strapped—it is projected to have only $25.8 million available in 2018, per Spotrac.

    The 49ers, meanwhile, have plenty of spending power with $117.9 million in cap space, which is the second-most in the league. Lawrence will likely be the most expensive defensive end because of both his effectiveness and age. He's recorded 13.5 sacks during his age-25 season and has done it while consistently living in the opposing backfield. In Week 14, for example, Lawrence finished with seven pressures on just 32 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Lawrence isn't just a one-year wonder either. He notched eight sacks during his second season in 2015. He can change the character of a defensive front and will be worth the heavy investment.

Chicago Bears: Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver

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    It's impossible to properly gauge the progress of Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky yet. He's only started 10 games. 

    Increasingly, it seems we have little patience with young players at a position that's challenging physically and daunting mentally. Trubisky has an even taller mountain to climb because of his overall inexperience after making only 13 starts in college, and because there's little support around him.

    With two games remaining in the season, the Bears have just one wide receiver who has recorded 40-plus catches (Kendall Wright, who leads the team with 43 receptions). There isn't much explosive ability on their wide receiver depth chart.

    Cameron Meredith can get downfield fast and win jump balls, and he has done both of those things in the recent past with his 888 yards on 66 catches in 2016. But even if we optimistically assume Meredith can return to form after an ACL tear, the Bears still need to surround their young quarterback with better targets, just like the Philadelphia Eagles did with Carson Wentz. There's a way to do that cheaply, too, while still bringing in a young receiver with high upside.

    Jordan Matthews struggled throughout the 2017 season, which will likely be his only year with the Buffalo Bills. He wasn't able to carve out a role of any significance in a new offense, and he caught only 25 passes.

    But Matthews was limited by a knee injury that eventually ended his season early after Week 13. Now Matthews will be entering the open market at 25 and with three straight 800-plus-yard seasons prior to 2017 on his career resume.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ezekiel Ansah, Defensive End

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a defensive front that's allergic to the mere thought of pressuring any quarterback.

    Too often the unit can't even muster the strength to be a minor nuisance. A late-season biceps injury to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will surely reduce his effectiveness, making the Buccaneers pass rush even worse.

    The Buccaneers had recorded just 17 sacks in 2017 going into Monday night, a league low. The time and luxurious pocket comfort given to opposing quarterbacks has left the Bucs secondary exposed, resulting in a pass defense that was giving up eight yards per attempt (30th) and 276.1 yards per game (32nd) going into Monday. 

    Improving that floundering defense starts up front, and with a projected $69.8 million available, the Buccaneers could outbid most potential suitors for the Lions' Ezekiel Ansah.

Washington Redskins: Carlos Hyde, Running Back

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    The focus of the Washington Redskins offseason will be finding a viable replacement at quarterback for Kirk Cousins with his departure beginning to feel inevitable.

    But it's unlikely that savior will be found on the free-agent market. If we assume the New Orleans Saints find a way to keep Drew Brees around if he's not ready to fade off into retirement yet, then the best remaining quarterbacks are Keenum and McCown, both of whom could also be re-signed by their current teams.

    So there's a lot of murkiness surrounding the Redskins' quarterback situation in 2018, which is why we'll steer clear of the madness for now and focus on another area of need: running back.

    Injuries to Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson were tough blows for the Redskins in 2017. However, Kelley was averaging just 3.1 yards per carry, and although Thompson had put together a great season with 804 yards from scrimmage over 10 games, he's primarily a passing-down back.

    The Redskins need a reliable early-down bruiser to boost their 26th-ranked rushing offense, and Carlos Hyde fits that description if the San Francisco 49ers allow him to hit the open market.

    Hyde runs like a runaway wheelbarrow chugging down a hill. At his best he's a violent runner who often pinballs off would-be tacklers to create yards after contact. Unfortunately, that style has resulted in frequent injuries, which prevented him from logging a full 16-game season in his first three years.

    But that streak could be broken in a few weeks. Hyde has remained in one piece while still making steady contributions for a 49ers team that's been trailing plenty, leading to only one game with 20-plus carries. He's on pace to fall just short of 1,000 rushing yards, and that will come after he posted 988 yards in 2016 over only 13 games.

Arizona Cardinals: Nate Solder, Left Tackle

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    Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks have been walking and breathing punching bags in 2017. The offensive line in front of them provides little resistance, which has been a recurring problem in the desert.

    In 2016, Carson Palmer was sacked 40 times, and he went down another 22 times over seven starts in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury. The Cardinals have given up 49 sacks in 2017, the league's second-highest total, and are one of six teams that have allowed 100-plus quarterback hits.

    Palmer may have played his last NFL snap if he can't return from a broken arm over the final weeks. That will make the Cardinals a QB-desperate team. But any quarterback they bring in will struggle behind their offensive line, which means improving there is the top priority.

    It also means the Cardinals will aggressively be part of the bidding war for tackle Nate Solder if he becomes available. His play fell off a bit to begin 2017, but the 29-year-old had multiple solid outings in the second half of the year with PFF grades in the mid-to-high 80s.

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