Eight NFL teams that must ace free agency in 2017

It's time for the Packers to get Aaron Rodgers some help.
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Successful NFL teams use free agency as a supplement to building from within. The idea here is not to create an unsustainable philosophy that includes exhausting huge amounts of cash for veterans other teams are willing to let go.

Teams such as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have found a happy medium between the two. Though, the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins of the world have struggled. Relying too much on free agency to build their rosters.

As we head into free agency, there will be an urge for teams to overpay for veterans. On the other hand, some squads that have avoided free agency altogether need to find the happy medium we talked about above.

From the Green Bay Packers to the San Francisco 49ers — two squads on opposite ends of the totem pole — here’s a look at eight NFL teams that need to ace free agency in March.

Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers and Mike McCarthy need to ace free agency.

Under the direction of general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have remained extremely quiet in free agency. It’s a philosophy that has worked out well for the team in the past. Build through the draft and avoid cap-crushing free-agent contracts. It’s to the point that the team’s most-notable free agent additions over the past half decade are Julius Peppers and Jared Cook.

Unfortunately for Green Bay, it continues to fall behind the pack (pun intended) when it comes to other NFC contenders. That was evident this past season after the Packers were humiliated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

If it weren’t for a tremendous run from Aaron Rodgers in the second half of the season, this team would have missed out on the playoffs altogether. There’s simply too many holes to fill for the Packers to rely solely on the draft as a way to play catch-up in the NFC.

There have been recent reports that Thompson and Co. might be more active in free agency than in year’s past. But these are the same reports that have come up prior to free agency in each of the past five years. Ultimately, Green Bay has strayed away from adding top-end talent on the open market.

That must change in 2017. The Packers currently have $43.6 million to spend in free agency. They can also save $10-plus million against the cap by releasing Clay Matthews. Though, that in and of itself would be foolish.

This is where the central focus in Green Bay needs to be on improving its defense. Matthews has been playing out of position consistently over the past two seasons. That’s primarily due to the Packers’ struggles at middle linebacker. Maybe Green Bay could find a way to play Matthews at his more natural EDGE position by adding Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons to the mix.

Either way we spin it, the Packers simply can’t sit back and wait for the draft to improve their roster. They are no longer at the point where they have that capability. Whether it’s adding players to the defensive front seven or a legitimate starting running back, Green Bay must ace free agency. It has the cash. The market is there. It’s now all about going away from what’s increasingly become a dogmatic approach.

San Francisco 49ers

Now under the leadership of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco will likely head into free agency with north of $100 million to spend. Though, that will depend on what Colin Kaepernick decides to do. Heck, a lot of the 49ers’ off-season plans start and end at the quarterback position.

It was previously reportedly that Kaepernick is expected to opt out of his contract. These reports came before it was made clear that the 49ers’ new brass will meet with Kaepernick. It also came before Kaepernick himself reportedly indicated he’s open to returning.

And that’s the crux of the issue here. Shanahan’s offense is not one that can be successfully run by a rookie quarterback. Lynch himself has already noted this. If Kap does not return, common logic suggests that the 49ers will look for a veteran on the open market.Will the Washington Redskins bring Kirk Cousins back? Jordan Reed hopes so.

Based on Shanahan’s prior relationship with Kirk Cousins, that’s been bandied about as a possibility. Though, there’s very little reason to believe the Washington Redskins will let Cousins actually test the open market.

Outside of that, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Tyrod Taylor and Brian Hoyer seem to be the most-realistic options here.

As with Green Bay, the 49ers have not necessarily gone out and spent a ton of cash in free agency.

Unlike the Packers, they haven’t made up for it in the draft. While the hope is that this new front office will change that, free agency is going to be incredibly important in the process of turning around the fate of a two-win team.

It really isn’t solely the quarterback position we have to look at here. Outside of a couple decent tackles and a solid performance from Carlos Hyde, San Francisco’s offense lacks talent. In fact, it is right up there with the Cleveland Browns as the most talent-stricken unit in the NFL.

With likely $100 million to spend, San Francisco needs to target a top-end skill-position player in free agency. Whether that’s Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson remains to be seen. But adding a player of that ilk would go a long way in helping San Francisco improve in Shanahan’s first season as the team’s head coach.

Tennessee Titans

Demarco Mjurray takes on Chris Harris

Tennessee has done great finding the happy medium between free agency and the draft in recent years. This is one of the primary reasons the Titans are coming off a nine-win campaign just two years after posting a 2-14 record. It really has been a well-rounded rebuild.

From adding franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota to the mix in 2015 to bringing in former Heisman winner Derrick Henry last year, Tennessee has found elite-level talent in the draft. Add in the trade for DeMarco Murray and signing of Brian Orakpo on the veteran market over the past two years, and that’s been magnified even further.

Tennessee now heads into free agency with an expectation of contention. It simply isn’t going to sit back and allow a nine-win season to be the team’s absolute ceiling here. That’s where free agency and the projected $67.6 million the Titans will have come into play. Despite last season’s tremendously successful performance, Tennessee still doesn’t have a true No. 1 wide receiver to call its own. Rishard Matthews led the club in receiving yards last season with less than 1,000. After that, the Titans’ No. 2 receiver was tight end Delanie Walker.

In order to take that next step towards contention status, the Titans must find a true No. 1 pass catcher for Super Mario. It could come in the form of the aforementioned Alshon Jeffery. It could also come in the form of a veteran such a DeSean Jackson or Brandon Marshall. Either way, this needs to be a central focus in free agency.

Also important to note, Tennessee finished in the bottom three of the NFL against the pass this past regular season. Acquiring an upgrade over Brice McCain and Antwon Blake needs to be a primary goal for this squad. The good news is that there’s a ton of potentially viable cover guys on the market, including A.J. Bouye from the division-rival Houston Texans.

This is where the Titans’ focus needs to be when free agency comes calling in March. Perimeter players on both sides of the ball. That will go a long way in terms of the team progressing from last season’s surprising performance.

Indianapolis Colts

Colts QB Andrew Luck needs all the help he can get.

There’s a reason Indy finally bit the bullet and fired general manager Ryan Grigson. Simply put, this team’s front office has been absolutely disastrous when it comes to eyeing college talent. This ineptitude has failed franchise quarterback Andrew Luck and has the Colts now behind two teams on the AFC South’s pecking order.

Sure new general manager Chris Ballard will want to build through the draft, but he comes from a Chiefs organization that has not been afraid to go after free agents and outside players. The likes of Alex Smith, Jeremy Maclin and Mitchell Schwartz come to mind first here.

Ballard is smart enough to realize that all the Colts’ issues cannot be fixed in the draft. He must realize that for Indy to get back on top, it will have to hit the free-agent market. Simply put, there’s a major issue when it comes to talent on the Colts’ roster right now.

It starts on the offensive line and within the defensive front seven. Frank Gore might not be the long-term solution here, but he’s been nothing less than a solid running back in his two seasons with the Colts. Instead, the issue is in both pass protection and run blocking. That right here is where the Colts need to focus out of the gate. In reality, they can stand to acquire two top-end offensive linemen and still find it a need in the draft. We’re looking at left tackle and right guard as initial upgrades in free agency.

On the defensive side of the ball, Indianapolis lacks any type of a real pass rush. This past season saw the team rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL in sacks with no other player outside of Erik Walden recording more than five sacks. With Walden set to become a free agent and Robert Mathis calling it quits, this is a major area of need for the Colts.

We’re smart enough to know that Indy won’t be able to fix all of its issues in free agency. Attempting to do so would be foolish. This doesn’t mean the team can afford to avoid the market altogether.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jameis Winston hands off to Doug Martin

Much like Tennessee, the Buccaneers have improved a great deal recently. And just like the Titans, it has started at the quarterback position. Former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston was absolutely tremendous in 2016, throwing for nearly 4,100 yards with 29 total touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

Though, it was his performance after early struggles that has Tampa Bay thinking playoffs heading into 2017. It’s still not the most well-rounded unit in the NFL right now.

Doug Martin is likely gone after dealing with an injury-plagued 2016 campaign and finding himself suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Add in the likely departure of Vincent Jackson, and issues on the offensive side of the ball are real.

Does Tampa Bay view Charles Sims to be an every-down back? If not, will the team look to the free-agent market for a starter? Who will take the place as Tampa’s No. 2 receiver behind Mike Evans?

On the defensive sides of the ball, there has to be some real concern in the secondary. Tampa Bay finished the 2016 campaign having yielded the 10th-most passing yards in the NFL. It has issues at both cornerback and safety. These are also two positions that have proven difficult for rookies to step up and perform at a high level.

The good news here is that Tampa Bay currently has a projected $72.8 million to spend in free agency. If we add in the likely release of Martin, that number increases to over $78 million. There are options on the open market and Tampa Bay has the cash. Look for this team to be active.

Carolina Panthers

It's about time the Carolina Panthers get Cam Newton pass protection.

There’s a good mix of teams included in this list. Some are on the brink of championship contention. Others simply need to find talent wherever they can. The Panthers themselves are a mix of the two. One year removed from winning 15 games and earning the NFC title, Cam Newton and Co. put up an absolutely disastrous 2016 campaign.

Whether it was the defense struggling after Carolina let Josh Norman walk or issues protecting Newton on offense, everything that could possibly go wrong here went wrong.

As we mentioned in our review of the 2016 season, Carolina’s front office has refused to address the offensive line situation. Here’s a team that was forced to move Mike Remmers to left tackle with Michael Oher out due to a concussion. That led to major issues in pass protection, and ultimately, injuries to Newton himself.

This must be the first area Carolina addresses with the projected $50-plus million it will have in cap room. That could come in the form of Detroit Lions left tackle Riley Reiff. This would enable either Oher to move to right tackle should he return or Remmers to take back his original starting spot. Then again, adding two tackles in free agency is within the realm of possibility here.

For a team that was close to winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, there’s a lot of issues here. Will Jonathan Stewart be back in the mix? Even if he is, should Carolina rely on him as a starter? On the defensive side, one has to wonder if the Panthers’ young group of cover guys can take that next step after struggling with inconsistency. If not, does it really make much sense to add even more inexperienced players to this group? These are all questions the Panthers have to answer early in March when they look at the free-agent market.

Minnesota Vikings

Sam Bradford

It’s not a guarantee that Adrian Peterson will be in the mix next season. He’s set to count an absurd $18 million against the cap in 2017 — a number the Vikings surely won’t pay him. And while the team would like to work something out here, one has to wonder if it can rely on him to be the same AD we’ve become accustomed to.

Peterson played in just three games this past season after suffering a knee injury. Outside of that, Minnesota’s rushing attack finished dead last in the NFL.

With Sam Bradford looking like the starter next season, especially following recent news surrounding the injured Teddy Bridgewater, finding a running game needs to be a top priority. A close second here would be the offensive line. Minnesota just recently released two starters and will see Matt Kalil hit free agency in March. For his part, Kalil missed the entire 2016 season to injury.

You must see the over-riding theme here, right? Minnesota is coming off a disastrous end to a 2016 campaign that saw it win five consecutive to start the season. It has a whole heck of a lot of questions on offense heading into free agency.

There’s definitely some good news here. Minnesota will have $40-plus million to spend in free agency should it let Peterson walk. That could be good enough to add a veteran running back and an offensive tackle. Heck, the Vikings need to seriously consider looking for a true possession receiver after Laquon Treadwell failed miserably as a rookie. There’s a lot to do here, and free agency has to be part of the puzzle.

Miami Dolphins

Dolphins head coach Adam Gase did a tremendous job in his first season.

Coming off a 10-win season and their first playoff appearance since 2008, the Dolphins have to be feeling good about themselves. Adam Gase was extraordinary in bringing this whole thing together as a rookie head coach. Jay Ajayi performed extremely well in his first season as a starter. And yes, Ryan Tannehill became a viable starting quarterback in the NFL.

Add in the fact that Miami’s defense improved a great deal, and there’s legitimate opportunity for the Dolphins to somehow challenge New England in the AFC East in the not-so-distant future.

The problem here is two-fold. Miami’s previous front office was absolutely disastrous in free agency. We’re talking about an organization that threw cash the way of mediocre players like it was a game of Monopoly. While we view Miami as one of the teams that must ace free agency, it also has to be smart. That’s the first issue.

Secondly, Miami has to do some real deep digging when it comes to assessing team needs heading into free agency. Can former first-round pick DeVante Parker prove himself to be completely healthy? Will fellow receiver Kenny Stills price himself out of Miami’s market? If not, will the Dolphins actually pony up a lot of cash to a No. 3 receiver?

Outside of drafting better, New England’s domination in the AFC East has come by the way of being smart in free agency. Simply put, the Dolphins need to follow this model if they are to close the gap in a division that’s been dominated by the defending champs for nearly two decades.

All salary cap information provided by Spotrac.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi