Every NFL Team's Biggest Free-Agent Need in 2021 Offseason

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2021

Every NFL Team's Biggest Free-Agent Need in 2021 Offseason

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV. Now, we can all direct our attention to the offseason with an early look at free agency.

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, sources in the know think the salary cap will land between $180-181 million, which is a little more than the initial $175 million projection when the league and player's association factored in the potential financial losses due to COVID-19.

    While that number isn't set in stone, teams have to plan accordingly. Even at that amount, general managers with big contracts on the books will have to manipulate their cap situation and take a conservative approach during free agency. Clubs flushed with cash, though, can pursue top-tier free agents.

    A little more than a month in advance of the new league year on March 17, we'll take a look at each team's biggest free-agent need and possible targets. Remember, front-office executives with limited available cap space will address some of their most pressing roster issues during the draft, so clubs may look to fill the Nos. 2 or 3 positions on the priority list at a lesser cost.

Arizona Cardinals: Outside Cornerback

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    Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson
    Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick PetersonKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals only have one cornerback who's played significant defensive snaps with the team on the books for the 2021 season, and that's Byron Murphy Jr.

    Patrick Peterson will become a free agent. Robert Alford hasn't played for the Cardinals since he signed with the club. The 32-year-old missed the 2019 season with a fractured tibia and sat out through the 2020 term because of a torn pectoral.

    Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph shifted Murphy from the outside to the slot cornerback position. Assuming he continues to line up inside, Arizona must address the boundary of its secondary. 

    Arizona could re-sign Peterson, but head coach Kliff Kingsbury had a noncommittal response to a question about the three-time All-Pro's future with the team. 

    "I love Patrick Peterson," Kingsbury said. "He knows that. We'll see where that all goes." 

    The Cardinals will have a projected $13.5 million in cap space, so they can pursue solid mid-tier options such as Gareon Conley or Ronald Darby, who played through a full 16-game slate for the first time in his career last season.

Atlanta Falcons: Safety

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    Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal
    Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu NealJim Mone/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons have much bigger needs at running back and edge-rusher. However, they are currently $31.7 million over the base salary-cap threshold.

    General manager Terry Fontenot can find a lead back in the draft on a rookie deal. Mid-tier pass-rushers can cost about $10 million annually. The front office should also address that position in April, as well.

    Typically, safeties don't command big salaries on the open market. Atlanta will likely allow Keanu Neal to test free agency. Because of the Falcons' bloated salary cap, they may also cut Ricardo Allen and save $6.25 million, which would signal a complete reset at the safety position. 

    The Falcons selected safety Jaylinn Hawkins in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, but he only played 74 defensive snaps in his rookie term. Even if Allen stays, the secondary needs someone to pair with him—and perhaps a long-term starter.

    Atlanta isn't likely to go after top safeties such as Justin Simmons and Anthony Harris because of financial restrictions, but 2017 first-rounder Malik Hooker, who's coming off an injured-riddled campaign in which he played just two games, or Damarious Randall, who can play both safety spots, would make sense on a one-year deal.

Baltimore Ravens: Edge-Rusher

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    Baltimore Ravens edge-rusher Matt Judon
    Baltimore Ravens edge-rusher Matt JudonBryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens edge-rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue will become free agents. The former played through the 2020 term on the franchise tag, while the latter joined the team via trade in October.

    Judon and Ngakoue combined for just nine sacks this past season, and that might push the Ravens to explore other options. Jaylon Ferguson, a 2019 third-rounder, has recorded 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 28 contests. He hasn't done enough to solidify a starting role.

    The Ravens need pass-rushing help to complement Calais Campbell, who's going into his age-35 term. Perhaps the club can re-sign Ngakoue following a down year, though he's recorded 45.5 career sacks. That number may elevate his value on the open market if he chases a bigger contract elsewhere. 

    General manager Eric DeCosta should consider Ryan Kerrigan on a one-year deal and draft an edge-rusher to play behind him in 2021.

Buffalio Bills: Offensive Guard

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    Buffalo Bills offensive guard Jon Feliciano
    Buffalo Bills offensive guard Jon FelicianoStew Milne/Associated Press

    Even though the Buffalo Bills fielded the second-ranked scoring attack, they struggled to run the ball, ranking 20th in rushing yards.

    In the Bills' season-end press conference, head coach Sean McDermott emphasized the need for offensive balance.

    "I can tell you right now, we've got to run the football better," McDermott said.

    General manager Brandon Beane seemed to agree with McDermott, though he didn't directly blame his running backs for the team's issues on the ground. 

    "I just think as an offense, we never got in sync running, and I think there's blame all around," Beane said.

    With a focus on the rushing offense, the Bills may look to solidify their offensive line. This past season, Brian Winters and Jon Feliciano started nine games apiece at guard and center. Both will become free agents in the offseason. 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Buffalo could offer quarterback Josh Allen a "massive" new deal. That would limit the club's ability to spend money on a top free-agent guard. However, the Bills could re-sign Winters or Feliciano. As a bargain-bin option, D.J. Fluker would also fill the void. He's started 96 games in eight campaigns.

Carolina Panthers: OT Taylor Moton

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    Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Taylor Moton
    Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Taylor MotonRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers have four primary starting offensive linemen set to become free agents: Russell Okung, Chris Reed, John Miller and Taylor Moton. They'll have to revamp their five-man group this offseason.

    Okung will go into his age-33 term, and he's missed 19 games over the last two seasons. The Panthers can develop 2019 second-rounder Greg Little or draft a player to replace the oft-injured veteran at left tackle. Neither Reed nor Miller showed anything that solidified their spot at guard. The former has started just 23 contests through five campaigns.

    Moton has started every game since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. The Panthers may have to dig deep in their pockets to retain him, but the Western Michigan product is a worthy asset.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Moton committed just two penalties and allowed three sacks in 2020. He can also play at least three positions across the offensive line with starting pro-level experience on both sides of the perimeter and familiarity at right guard from his junior collegiate term.

Chicago Bears: Quarterback

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    Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky
    Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell TrubiskyPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy must solve the Chicago Bears' issue at quarterback. Team chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips opted to keep them at their respective positions, but both face heightened pressure going into the 2021 offseason.

    Pace has one year left on his deal, while Nagy remains under contract for another two terms. First and foremost, Chicago's win-loss record will factor into its decision to offer either or both an extension. Without a solid starting quarterback, the Bears would have a difficult pathway back to the playoffs. 

    If Chicago selects a quarterback in the draft, that player may need a season or two to develop, which is why Pace should pursue a veteran via trade or free agency. 

    In the event that the Bears don't land Carson Wentz, who could be on the move "in the coming days," per ESPN's Adam Schefter, the front office should consider experienced options such as Andy Dalton and Cam Newton

    According to Schefter, league executives believe Chicago may re-sign Mitchell Trubisky, who had a decent run through the second half of the 2020 campaign, throwing for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions in the last six regular-season contests. He also helped lead the Bears to a wild-card berth. 

    Pace and Nagy don't have time to develop a rookie project quarterback. They need someone ready to play right away. Nick Foles is under contract, but he had an underwhelming 2020 showing, throwing 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games.

Cincinnati Bengals: OG Joe Thuney

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    New England Patriots left guard Joe Thuney
    New England Patriots left guard Joe ThuneyReed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals desperately need an upgrade on the interior of their offensive line. Alex Redmond and Quinton Spain will become free agents. Billy Price, a 2018 first-rounder, hasn't played well at guard or center. Xavier Su'a-Filo and Michael Jordan haven't established themselves as long-term starters.

    Assuming running back Joe Mixon bounces back from an injury-riddled 2020 term, he can take some pressure off quarterback Joe Burrow, who's coming off a torn ACL. In order to do so, the four-year back needs a strong offensive line.

    The Bengals will have a projected $37.8 million in cap space. They can invest a significant amount of money in a top guard. Joe Thuney would immediately improve the offensive line. Plus, he's durable, suiting up for every game since the New England Patriots drafted him in 2016. 

    Last offseason, the Patriots franchise-tagged Thuney, and he provided solid run-blocking for their fourth-ranked rushing offense. Cincinnati should pursue him aggressively on the open market.

Cleveland Browns: Defensive End

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    Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon
    Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier VernonRon Schwane/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns have one of the league's top edge-rushers in Myles Garrett, but he won't have a reliable pass-rushing partner under contract for the 2021 campaign.

    In the Browns' 2020 season finale, Olivier Vernon tore his Achilles, and he'll become a free agent. The 30-year-old isn't an attractive open-market target coming off a significant injury. 

    Heading into his age-33 term, Adrian Clayborn would fill a rotational role. He logged 3.5 sacks while playing 36 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Joe Jackson and Curtis Weaver haven't flashed at the pro level. 

    The Browns should take a look at Everson Griffen, who's familiar with head coach Kevin Stefanski from their shared time with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2020, he recorded six sacks through 14 contests while playing for the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. 

    At a salary of around $10 million annually, Justin Houston would also serve as a decent short-term option opposite Garrett. He had eight sacks in 2020.

Dallas Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    When will the negotiation dance between quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys end?

    The two sides have engaged in on-and-off talks over the past couple of years, yet the 27-year-old signal-caller goes into the 2021 offseason as an unrestricted free agent.

    The Cowboys have quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci under contract for the 2021 term. Among the three, they've started two contests. Like Prescott, Andy Dalton will become a free agent.

    On 105.3 The Fan (h/t The Athletic's Jon Machota), Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team is "obviously very committed to getting Dak signed."

    According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the Cowboys will "make a push" to sign Prescott on a long-term deal or franchise-tag him for consecutive years.

    Either way, the Cowboys should invest in Prescott, who had a strong start to the 2020 campaign before going down with a dislocated ankle and a compound fracture. He threw for 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in five games.

Denver Broncos: S Justin Simmons

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    Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons
    Denver Broncos safety Justin SimmonsGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Before the Denver Broncos look at the free-agent market, they need to take care of their own. Justin Simmons should rank atop the team's list of priorities.

    Coming out of Boston College as a third-round pick in the 2016 draft, Simmons has developed into one of the best deep-cover safeties in the league. In center field, he reads the quarterback and consistently makes plays on the ball. The five-year veteran has 16 interceptions and 37 pass breakups.

    Denver needs a strong defensive unit to slow down two divisional rivals (the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders) that finished with top-10 scoring offenses in 2020. The Broncos ranked 25th in points allowed this past season.

    If Denver doesn't re-sign Simmons, that's another hole to fill for a bottom-tier unit.

    In an interview with CBS Denver's Michael Spencer, the ball-hawking safety said he received a call from new general manager George Paton, who didn't speak to him about a contract but opened the communication lines and discussed the team's future.

    Paton's effort to reach out seems like a good sign for Simmons' return. The Broncos have a projected $19.5 million in cap space, which gives them room to retain their best defensive back.

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay

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    Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay
    Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny GolladayPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions executed a blockbuster trade that sent quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff, a third-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder and a 2023 first-rounder. Now, they have to build around their new signal-caller.

    Goff needs some perimeter weapons. The Lions' top three wide receivers, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola, all have expiring contracts.

    Golladay has hauled in 183 passes for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging 16.8 yards per catch through four seasons. He had a Pro Bowl 2019 term in which he led the league in touchdown receptions (11). 

    Although Golladay would have to establish a rapport with a new teammate in Goff, he should remain the Lions' go-to receiver. The Northern Illinois product has the makeup of a perennial Pro Bowler because of his size (6'4", 214 lbs), past production and progress before hamstring and hip injuries cost him 11 games in 2020.

Green Bay Packers: Outside Cornerback

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    Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King
    Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin KingMorry Gash/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers will probably wave goodbye to cornerback Kevin King, and not just because of his poor play in the NFC Championship Game.

    King had a down 2020 season, logging just five pass breakups through 11 appearances. He's missed 23 career games because of injuries. 

    The Packers don't have a clear-cut in-house replacement for King. The front office selected Josh Jackson in the second round of the 2018 draft, but he hasn't done much since breaking up 10 passes during his rookie term. 

    At $28.2 million over the base salary-cap threshold, the Packers are strapped for cash.

    After some roster cuts, they should pursue a mid-tier free-agent cornerback such as Troy Hill, who had a solid 2020 campaign, logging 10 pass breakups, three interceptions and two pick-sixes for the Los Angeles Rams. He's also familiar with new Green Bay defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the former Rams assistant and linebackers coach.

    If the Packers can free up significant cap space, Levi Wallace could become an option. This offseason, he's a restricted free agent. If the Buffalo Bills sign quarterback Josh Allen to a lucrative extension, they may not have the financial flexibility to match any offer sheets for the cornerback.

Houston Texans: Interior Defensive Lineman

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    Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt
    Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. WattEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    In 2020, the Houston Texans gave up the most rushing yards. To add insult to their porous front, they could part ways with J.J. Watt for cap relief.

    Watt understands his future with the team has some uncertainty because of financial implications. He talked about his situation before the Texans' season finale.

    "There's a whole lot of unknowns, so we'll see what happens," he said. "I don't have any guarantees left in my contract, so something's gotta happen one way or another." 

    Houston can release Watt and save $17.5 million to erase a $13.4 million cap deficit. On the flip side, the 31-year-old is still the Texans' best defensive lineman. He logged 52 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, seven pass breakups, an interception and a touchdown this past season.

    The Texans don't have their first- or second-round picks in the upcoming draft because of a trade with the Miami Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. If they want to rebuild the roster with new head coach David Culley at the helm, the front office will need to recoup some money to dabble in free agency.

    Houston could release Watt and sign a cheaper player in his place.

    The coaching staff could attempt to reinvent Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2017 draft. Derek Wolfe is two years removed from a seven-sack season and played for Culley's former team, the Baltimore Ravens, in 2020. Coming off a 7.5-sack campaign, Denico Autry is also an intriguing option.

Indianapolis Colts: Quarterback

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    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett
    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby BrissettZach Bolinger/Associated Press

    The Indianapolis Colts don't have a proven starting quarterback under contract for the 2021 season. Philip Rivers retired, Andrew Luck isn't expected to come out of retirement, and Jacoby Brissett's deal will expire in the new league year.

    During the Colts' season-end press conference, general manager Chris Ballard kept the door open for Brissett's return.

    "I don't want to discount Jacoby," Ballard said. "We still like Jacoby Brissett and think he's a good player. Let's not take Jacoby out of the mix completely here."

    Brissett seems like the emergency option if the Colts cannot land a veteran quarterback such as Carson Wentz in a trade, and that makes sense. The 28-year-old signal-caller has made 30 starts for the club since the 2017 term.

    Although Brissett took a backseat to Rivers during the 2020 campaign, he's familiar with head coach Frank Reich's system and still has room to grow with limited playing experience.

    If Brissett signs elsewhere or the Colts go in a different direction, Andy Dalton could become an alternative target.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Left Tackle

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    Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Cam Robinson
    Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Cam RobinsonZach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Most assume the Jacksonville Jaguars will select quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick. Based on that belief, general manager Trent Baalke would have to protect his most-prized investment.

    Left tackle Cam Robinson will become a free agent. Unless the Jaguars re-sign him or use the franchise tag, they can pursue Trent Williams if the San Francisco 49ers allow him to hit the open market. 

    The Jaguars could also target Russell Okung or Alejandro Villanueva as a placeholder until the draft. They're both 32 years old and would likely sign one- or two-year deals. 

    Okung has missed 19 games over the last two seasons, but his starting experience would give an incoming rookie time to develop in a backup role. 

    The Jaguars may prefer Villanueva, who's a more reliable option. He has started every game for the Pittsburgh Steelers since the 2016 campaign.

Kansas City Chiefs: Interior Offensive Lineman

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    Kansas City Chiefs center Austin Reiter
    Kansas City Chiefs center Austin ReiterPerry Knotts/Associated Press

    Looking at the Kansas City Chiefs' re-signings from last year, via Spotrac, they did a good job retaining depth and an unheralded starter in cornerback Bashaud Breeland from their 2019 Super Bowl roster. The front office also hammered out a long-term deal for defensive tackle Chris Jones.

    This offseason, general manager Brett Veach will need to take a conservative approach in free agency with the team $17.9 million over the base salary-cap limit. However, he must add talent along the offensive line to ensure quarterback Patrick Mahomes has interior pass protection.

    Right guard Andrew Wylie will become a restricted free agent. Center Austin Reiter is set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. Both played the majority snaps at their respective positions this past season. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the 2020 term. He could reclaim his starting position at right guard.

    Still, Duvernay-Tardif has just one year left on his deal, and he may have to knock off serious rust after sitting out for an entire year.

    The Chiefs should target Ted Karras or Joe Looney. Both have experience at guard and center. Even though they've served as backups for most of their careers, the two versatile veterans have each started at least 36 games. One of the two offensive linemen could hold a first-string position until a rookie from the draft claims the job.

Las Vegas Raiders: Cover Safety

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    Las Vegas Raiders safety Erik Harris
    Las Vegas Raiders safety Erik HarrisIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders have two glaring needs at defensive tackle and safety, but they'll have more high-end free-agent options for the latter position.

    The Raiders need an interior pass-rusher, and Leonard Williams is a far better option than any other free agent for that particular role. He recorded 11.5 sacks for the New York Giants in 2020, although Big Blue will make a "strong effort" to retain him, per ESPN's Jeremy FowlerVegas could instead double down on prospects for its defensive front in the draft.

    With Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette and Johnathan Abram in the secondary, three projected starters selected in the last two drafts, the Raiders need a veteran presence on the back end to help strengthen their 26th-ranked pass defense. 

    Vegas can target multiple players who have the range to play single-high safety in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme and the sticky coverage to force turnovers. The defense doesn't have that player in Abram, a downhill thumper, or Erik Harris, who has an expiring contract. 

    If the Denver Broncos re-sign Justin Simmons, Marcus Maye, who logged 11 pass breakups and two interceptions for the New York Jets in 2020, should land on the Raiders' radar.

    Anthony Harris tied Tre'Davious White and Stephon Gilmore with a league-leading six interceptions in 2019. The 29-year-old could serve as a short-term starter while a rookie develops behind him.

    Marcus Williams has experienced his ups and downs in coverage with the New Orleans Saints, but he's recorded 13 interceptions and 30 pass breakups in four seasons.

Los Angeles Chargers: Interior Offensive Lineman

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    Los Angeles Chargers offensive lineman Dan Feeney
    Los Angeles Chargers offensive lineman Dan FeeneyJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers head into the 2021 offseason with a projected $24.2 million in salary-cap space, but they also have multiple pressing needs at tackle, on the interior of their offensive line and at edge-rusher.

    This year's draft features a high-end tackle group with some depth. With the 13th overall pick, general manager Tom Telesco can replace Sam Tevi, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. Northwestern's Rashawn Slater or Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw may be available.

    Uchenna Nwosu, a 2018 second-rounder, could have a shot to replace Melvin Ingram III on the edge.

    The Chargers will probably need to address the guard and center positions during free agency as Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, who manned those respective starting spots, hit the open market. Mike Pouncey missed the entire 2020 campaign because of a hip injury. His contract will expire, as well. Right guard Trai Turner has missed at least three contests every year since 2017.

    With a need for reliable starters on the interior of the offensive line, the Chargers should join the active market for top impending free-agent guards Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff or pursue center Corey Linsley, who's coming off his first All-Pro season.

Los Angeles Rams: Inside Linebacker

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    Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Micah Kiser
    Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Micah KiserJae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams don't have a bona fide starter at the heart of their defense. It seems as though the coaching staff had hoped Micah Kiser would develop into that player, but he missed seven games during the 2020 term because of groin and knee injuries.

    Kiser, Troy Reeder and Kenny Young will all head into the final year of their contracts. None of them have more than 15 career starts, so Los Angeles has to find at least one long-term starter at the position this offseason. 

    The Rams are currently $26.8 million over the base salary-cap threshold. Fortunately for them, they won't have to spend a lot of money on a veteran inside linebacker since one may sign a one-year deal in an attempt to parlay that into an extension. 

    Los Angeles should target Nicholas Morrow. He had a career year with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, logging 78 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, nine pass breakups and an interception through 14 games, which included 11 starts. 

    If the Silver and Black re-sign Morrow, Avery Williamson, who's going into his age-29 term, could also serve as a short-term option. He logged 111 tackles, three tackles for loss, three pass breakups and an interception while playing for the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

Miami Dolphins: RB Aaron Jones

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    Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones
    Green Bay Packers running back Aaron JonesJeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins should place a bullseye on Aaron Jones in free agency. He's a 26-year-old Pro Bowl running back who can lead a backfield and help out in the short passing game.

    Since 2019, Jones has rushed for 2,188 yards and 25 touchdowns. For his career, he's hauled in 131 passes for 1,057 yards and six scores. The dynamic back would provide a much-needed boost to an offense that doesn't have many high-end playmakers. No one on Miami's roster eclipsed 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2020.

    This past campaign, running back Myles Gaskin battled a sprained MCL and missed time on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He racked up 972 scrimmage yards through 10 contests. Salvon Ahmed had one standout outing, rushing for 122 yards and a touchdown against the New England Patriots in Week 15. 

    Neither Gaskin nor Ahmed has a resume comparable to Jones, though. They have just that one 100-yard rushing performance between them.

    Jones could lead the Dolphins backfield, handling about 20 touches per game. As a dual-threat playmaker, he could elevate their 15th-ranked scoring offense.

Minnesota Vikings: Safety

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    Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris
    Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony HarrisAl Goldis/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings are $7.6 million over the base salary-cap limit, so they'll have to spend wisely and address non-premium positions during free agency.

    After playing with the franchise tag through 2020, Anthony Harris will likely hit the open market. Fellow safety Harrison Smith has one year left on his deal going into his age-32 term.

    The Vikings need immediate help and a young option at safety. Keep in mind their cornerback group has youth in key spots with Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler coming off their rookie campaigns. The defensive backfield needs some experience from a player who's in his prime. 

    Karl Joseph or Keanu Neal could make a one-year pit stop in Minnesota for an impact season. They're the top two safeties from the 2016 draft class, selected at Nos. 14 and 17, respectively.

    Joseph had an average 2020 season for the Cleveland Browns, logging 67 tackles, two tackles for loss, four pass breakups and an interception in 14 contests, while Neal put together a decent year with 100 tackles, nine tackles for loss, a sack, two pass breakups and an interception with the Atlanta Falcons.

New England Patriots: No. 1 Wide Receiver

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    New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman
    New England Patriots wide receiver Julian EdelmanCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    With Cam Newton on an expiring contract, the New England Patriots should attempt to acquire a veteran quarterback via trade or move up to pick one early in the draft. Mitchell Trubisky and Andy Dalton aren't enticing free-agent options.

    Regardless of who starts under center, the offense needs more perimeter playmakers.

    In 2020, wideout Julian Edelman missed 10 games after he underwent knee surgery and turns 35 years old in May. Right now, N'Keal Harry seems like a first-round bust. The Arizona State product hasn't eclipsed 72 receiving yards in a single contest through 21 outings. 

    The Patriots can only hope Edelman plays through a full season in 2021, but they cannot wait on Harry to show signs of promise. The front office should pursue a ready-made star at the position. 

    This year's free-agent wide receiver class will feature multiple lead options in Allen Robinson II, Chris Godwin and Kenny Golladay if their respective teams don't use the franchise tag on them. New England can take its pick among that trio.

New Orleans Saints: QB Jameis Winston

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    New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston
    New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis WinstonGerry Broome/Associated Press

    All signs point to Drew Brees' imminent retirement announcement.

    In January, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said he had not talked to anyone with knowledge of Brees' situation who believes the 42-year-old will play in 2021. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports thinks the All-Pro quarterback will walk away from the game, as well.

    If Brees hangs up his cleats, the New Orleans Saints have to find his successor without spending much money. They're $74.6 million over the base salary-cap threshold.

    The Saints can look toward the draft, but barring a move up, they'd miss out on the top prospects with the 28th overall pick. Head coach Sean Payton told Kay Adams of Good Morning Football that the team would develop quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. 

    In 2020, Hill started four games while Brees sat out because of a punctured lung and multiple fractured ribs, though Payton talked about Winston's leadership qualities with Adams.

    Instead of gift-wrapping the starting spot for Hill, the Saints seem prepared for an open quarterback competition. New Orleans could probably re-sign Winston on a modest one-year contract. He only threw 11 passes this past term.

New York Giants: DL Leonard Williams

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    New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams
    New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard WilliamsSeth Wenig/Associated Press

    Although Leonard Williams could command north of $16 million annually on the open market, the New York Giants should make a concerted effort to keep him in the fold.

    The Giants don't have a reliable pass-rusher. In 2019, edge-rusher Markus Golden logged 10 sacks. Before the 2020 trade deadline, Big Blue sent him to the Arizona Cardinals for a sixth-round pick.

    This past season, Williams led the Giants in sacks with 11.5. He also made his presence felt against the run, logging a team-high 14 tackles for loss. He became a key component of New York's ninth-ranked scoring defense.

    The Giants could also lose defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency. The 6'3", 318-pound nose tackle played a huge role in the team's stout front, recording 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

    If general manager Dave Gettleman must choose between Williams and Tomlinson to maintain a strong defensive line, he should invest in the former because of his pass-rushing ability and the lack of other sources of pressure on the edge. 

    According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the Giants will make a "strong effort" to keep Williams.

    Perhaps Gettleman franchise-tags Williams and negotiates with him up until the July deadline.

New York Jets: Edge-Rusher

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    New York Jets edge-rusher Tarell Basham
    New York Jets edge-rusher Tarell BashamKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The New York Jets have several needs, though edge-rusher should top the priority list. On the interior of the defensive line, Quinnen Williams led the team in sacks (7.0) for the 2020 campaign. Tarell Basham ranked second with 3.5.

    Jets head coach Robert Saleh, who served as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator between the 2017 and 2020 terms, saw his top-10 unit propel the club to a Super Bowl appearance a year ago.

    The 49ers' 2019 Super Bowl team featured a defense that tied for fifth leaguewide in sacks (48) and ranked sixth in quarterback pressures (172). Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford combined for 33 sacks.

    With approximately $68 million in cap space, the Jets should pursue the top pass-rushers available on the open market such as Yannick Ngakoue, Trey Hendrickson, Romeo Okwara and Justin Houston. If Gang Green can apply consistent pressure up front, the secondary could benefit as quarterbacks have less time to dice up a young unit.

Philadelphia Eagles: Linebacker

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    Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton
    Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Alex SingletonRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles should have three positions circled for free agency: linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback. We'll focus on the second level of the defense for multiple reasons.

    For starters, the Eagles are currently $49 million over the base salary-cap threshold. Even if general manager Howie Roseman cuts a few players to recoup some money, he'll need to spend wisely with limited financial flexibility.

    If Philadelphia wants a lead wide receiver or a starting cornerback to line up opposite Darius Slay, the front office should address those needs in the draft and acquire cornerstone talents on cheap rookie deals.

    Generally, teams don't have to break the bank for a starting linebacker. Last offseason, the Las Vegas Raiders signed Nick Kwiatkoski to a three-year, $21 million deal. He started 12 contests in 2020. 

    Last season, linebacker Alex Singleton recorded a team-leading 120 tackles, which included five for loss, and two sacks along with an interception. He'll become an exclusive-rights free agent, which means Philadelphia can tender him on a minimum deal. That said, Singleton will turn 28 years old at the end of next season. 

    In 2020, T.J. Edwards recorded 70 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception, but he still needs development in a full-time starting role going into his third term. 

    The Eagles don't have an established veteran-savvy linebacker who can stay on the field for all three downs. Among the options on the market, De'Vondre Campbell can play inside and outside linebacker. As an experienced starter, Jarrad Davis could fill the club's void in the front seven, as well.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Offensive Tackle

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    Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva
    Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro VillanuevaDon Wright/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers need to go all-in with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he enters the final year of his contract. The 38-year-old signal-caller will need protection on his blind side.

    Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva's contract expires at the turn of the new league year. Perhaps the Steelers will re-sign the 32-year-old to a short-term contract, but that's not a given. He doesn't sustain blocks well on the edge. In 2020, Pittsburgh struggled to run the ball in every facet, finishing last in rushing yards.

    Approximately $30.6 million over the base salary-cap threshold, the Steelers cannot spend much in free agency even after they shed some salaries.

    However, they could sign David Sharpe as a bargain-bin option. He's a 2017 fourth-rounder who started his career with the then-Oakland Raiders and made two of his six career starts in Washington last season.

    As an alternative solution, the Steelers could re-sign Zach Banner, who made one start at right tackle this past term, and shift Chukwuma Okorafor to the left side, where he played at Western Michigan during his junior and senior terms.

San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback

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    San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman
    San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard ShermanMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have two cornerbacks on the books for the 2021 season, Tim Harris and Adonis Alexander. They've played 11 defensive snaps combined—all attributed to the latter.

    Among the most notable names at the position, Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett and K'Waun Williams will become unrestricted free agents. The 49ers can retain Emmanuel Moseley on a minimal tender since he's an exclusive-rights free agent this offseason.

    Nevertheless, the 49ers cannot rely solely on Moseley, who's a decent cornerback but not a proven top-notch playmaker. He has 17 pass breakups and a couple of interceptions over the last two seasons.

    San Francisco could re-sign Verrett, who recorded seven pass breakups and two interceptions last season, but his extensive injury history makes him a risky gamble every year.

    If Williams returns, he would handle slot cornerback duties. 

    After a talk with the team, Sherman has already come to terms with the reality that he's probably going to play elsewhere in 2021, per NBC Sports' Matt Maiocco

    "We've had brief conversations," Sherman said. "I think that there's obviously a want from both sides to come back and make this work. Unfortunately, I don't know that the circumstances will allow it." 

    Even if the 49ers re-sign Witherspoon, who's had an inconsistent four-year stretch with injury issues, missing 17 career games, they should use some of their $13.7 million in projected cap space to pursue a solid starting cornerback. 

    They could pair an experienced starter such as Bashaud Breeland or William Jackson III with a rookie in the draft to restock the position.

Seattle Seahawks: Interior Offensive Lineman

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    Seattle Seahawks center Ethan Pocic
    Seattle Seahawks center Ethan PocicRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    A couple of days after the Seattle Seahawks' wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Rams, head coach Pete Carroll emphasized the need to re-establish the ground attack in 2021 (h/t Joe Fann of NBC Sports).

    The Seahawks "let Russ cook" early in the 2020 season, but the offense went stale. On Brandon Marshall's I Am Athlete Podcast (h/t Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic), wideout DK Metcalf said that opponents "figured us out."

    Carroll's solution seems more conservative than creative. But if he plans to field a strong ground attack, the Seahawks must revamp the interior of their offensive line.

    Secondly, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, quarterback Russell Wilson's camp isn't satisfied with his pass protection. Seattle can strengthen its play in the A- and B-gaps at a low cost.

    As a rookie, Damien Lewis started all 16 games at right guard and center. He's a near-certain holdover, but Ethan Pocic and Mike Iupati will become free agents. The Seahawks can use a tender to keep Jordan Simmons, who's an exclusive-rights free agent this offseason. 

    Seattle may re-sign Pocic, who had a solid year, per Dugar.

    "There isn't an unrestricted free agent on this list who improved his stock more than Pocic, who was a seldom-used, often-injured backup his first three years in Seattle," Dugar wrote. "Then, all of a sudden, he beat out veteran B.J. Finney for the starting center gig and was fine for most of the year." 

    At guard, the Seahawks cannot trust Iupati, who's missed 12 outings since the 2018 term. He'll turn 34 years old in May. Seattle should target someone younger such as Brian Winters (29) or Jon Feliciano (29). General manager John Schneider needs a low-cost option with safety Jamal Adams likely to sign a lucrative extension in the near future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Edge-Rusher Shaquil Barrett

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil BarrettMatt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, and they can battle their way back to the title game with quarterback Tom Brady under contract for at least another year.

    The Buccaneers have tough decisions to make at wide receiver as Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown go into the offseason with expiring contracts. Nevertheless, general manager Jason Licht shouldn't have an issue re-signing one or the other. Tampa Bay has a projected $28.4 million in cap space. 

    On the other hand, the Buccaneers would need to pay a large sum to keep edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett, who's recorded 30 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks over the last two seasons. After playing through the 2020 campaign on the franchise tag, he'll command a salary that averages $18-$20 million per year. 

    Although Brady brings leadership and still looks surgical in the passing game, the Buccaneers had help from their eighth-ranked scoring defense in this year's run to the Super Bowl. Barrett had a three-sack performance in the NFC Championship Game. According to Pro Football Focus, he also logged the most quarterback pressures (11) in the Super Bowl matchup.

    Licht should keep Barrett, who's a top player at a premium defensive position, while going all-in for Brady's age-44 term.

Tennessee Titans: Edge-Rusher

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    Tennessee Titans edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney
    Tennessee Titans edge-rusher Jadeveon ClowneyWade Payne/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans can address their subpar pass rush, which generated just 19 sacks last season, and help a porous pass defense that gave up the second-most touchdowns (36) with a new addition on the edge.

    In 2020, Harold Landry III led the Titans in sacks with 5.5. He didn't have much help pursuing quarterbacks. After eight appearances, Jadeveon Clowney underwent season-ending knee surgery. He finished without a sack.

    According to Terry McCormick of TitanInsider, Clowney is open to re-signing with the Titans, but they'll need more help to address their deficient pocket pressure. The three-time Pro Bowler has missed 11 contests over the last two years, logging three sacks and 41 quarterback pressures in that time span. 

    Tennessee can cut cornerback Malcolm Butler and save $10.2 million to slip about $7.2 million under the base salary-cap limit. That would clear Kristian Fulton's pathway to a bigger role. 

    Tennessee doesn't have the cap space to go after Shaquil Barrett, who could command an annual salary in the $18-20 million range.

    However, Matt Judon is coming off an average year with six sacks. Bud Dupree tore his ACL in December and may have to settle for a one-year deal while recovering from a significant injury. Yet both possess some upside and would fill a huge void.

Washington Football Team: Quarterback

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    Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith
    Washington Football Team quarterback Alex SmithChris Szagola/Associated Press

    At the moment, the Washington Football Team doesn't have a committed quarterback for the 2021 season.

    Alex Smith has two years left on his deal, but he'll "take a few weeks" to think about his future with the team. 

    In 2020, Kyle Allen only started four games and went on injured reserve with a dislocated ankle. The third-year pro will become an exclusive-rights free agent, so the team can retain him on a minimum tender. Taylor Heinicke started the team's wild-card loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he'll hit the market as a restricted free agent.

    According to The MMQB's Albert Breer, Washington offered the 19th pick and a third-rounder to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford before the Los Angeles Rams acquired him in a blockbuster deal. That tells us the Football Team isn't settled at the position.

    Washington should sign a veteran such as Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor, Mitchell Trubisky, Allen or Heinicke in case it misses out on a preferred quarterback choice in the upcoming draft. 


    Team salary-cap projections courtesy of Over the Cap.


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