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The free agency negotiating window opens at noon ET on Monday, March 14, with contract signings permitted when the new league year officially begins at 4 p.m. ET on the ensuing Wednesday, March 16.
So, what are each team’s biggest needs heading into the open market? Here’s a look at the NFC side of things.
NOTE: All cap figures pulled from Over The Cap at 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 9.
Once again, the Cardinals enter the offseason needing upgrades to a secondary that got so desperate it plucked Robert Alford — who hadn’t played a down since 2018 — off the street to start five games in 2021. Woof. Adding another outside corner to pair with Byron Murphy should be a priority. With Chandler Jones set for free agency, the Cards also have a need on the edge. Arizona’s top two running backs (James Conner, Chase Edmonds), top tight ends (Zach Ertz, Maxx Williams) and two of its top receivers (Christian Kirk, A.J. Green) are all in line to hit the open market. With minimal cap space available, it will take a creative approach from GM Steve Keim to improve the roster. Oh, and Kyler Murray also wants a new deal. It’s a big offseason in the desert, but unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of money to stretch.
UPDATE: The Cardinals are re-signing TE Zach Ertz to a three-year contract, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Sunday.
The same issues that have plagued the Falcons for years remain. Atlanta needs to finally hit on a couple of offensive linemen who can slow the rush around veteran Matt Ryan. The swings and misses of the past have left a blocking group that struggles in both the run and passing games. Sieves are less porous than the line in Atlanta. The Falcons also must upgrade edge rusher after ranking dead last in the NFL with 115 total QB pressures in 2021, per Next Gen Stats. With Calvin Ridley suspended for the 2022 season and Russell Gage a free agent, there are major question marks a receiver. As second-year GM Terry Fontenot continues to dig out of cap hell, how he addresses these issues will indicate whether the Falcons believe they can contend in a suddenly wide-open NFC South or are a year away from taking significant strides. One interesting byproduct of Ridley’s suspension: It cleared $11 million off the books for 2022, giving Atlanta a bit more room to play with this offseason.
In Year 3 of Matt Rhule’s tenure, the Panthers remain in limbo at the most crucial position in sports. Sam Darnold will cost $18.858 million guaranteed on the fifth-year option, despite showing little ability to be a consistent long-term answer. The big issue for Carolina: There is no obvious target to upgrade the position in 2022. Instead, the Panthers are likely to buffer the problematic passer as the search continues. Improving the O-line is a priority — and has been for a few years. With cap space to make a splash play, don’t be surprised if Carolina spends big on blockers — at both guard and tackle — in the coming weeks. Also, adding corners will be necessary if the team doesn’t retain Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore to accompany Jaycee Horn.
The Bears finally have a quarterback with the athletic profile to be a franchise signal-caller for years to come. Now they need to protect and buffer Justin Fields. Last offseason, the plan on the offensive line was half-baked from the start and never coalesced. Three of the five O-line positions remain up in the air today. With Allen Robinson appearing destined to leave in free agency, Chicago must add pass catchers to flank ascending talent Darnell Mooney. Last season, the wideout corps did little to assist the young quarterback, with dropped balls and poor routes. To help Fields take the next step, new GM Ryan Poles needs to find receivers who will make plays for the quarterback, particularly when things break down.
After filling the secondary with one-year options last offseason, the Cowboys continue to have holes at safety, with Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee headed for free agency. After struggles along the offensive line stymied the potency of Dallas’ attack, upgrades on the interior are warranted. But with lack of cap space, those could wait until the draft to be settled. The plan to part ways with $20 million receiver Amari Cooper only makes sense if the ‘Boys can keep Michael Gallup in Dallas to replace those targets (the club already re-signed WR Noah Brown). There is also an issue at tight end, where Blake Jarwin’s future is in question after a serious hip injury — hence using the franchise tag on Dalton Schultz. It’s not hyperbole to point out that the massive guarantees on Ezekiel Elliott‘s contract are having collateral effects on the moves the Cowboys can make this offseason.
Jared Goff remains the placeholder at quarterback. The Lions could look to the draft for a young franchise signal-caller or wait until 2023. Either way, they won’t be in the free-agent market for a QB. Detroit has needs throughout the roster, including the secondary. But the defensive issues are most pressing up front, where the line struggled to provide consistent pressure. The Lions must also upgrade the receiver room. Who are the playmakers beyond Amon-Ra St. Brown? Last year, GM Brad Holmes threw darts at the WR position to see what stuck. Not much did aside from St. Brown. Retaining flyer Josh Reynolds is a start and could indicate Holmes’ plan in 2022 to once again fill out the corps with cost-effective talent instead of making a splash.
We finally have our answer on the looming Aaron Rodgers question, with the Packers agreeing to shell out a ton of guaranteed money to keep the back-to-back MVP happy. Once Rodgers officially signs on the dotted line, Green Bay will get significant relief from that ghastly cap situation noted above. Franchise tagging Davante Adams was also the prudent play, with hopes of a long-term solution before the July deadline. Beyond Adams, there are questions with the rest of the Packers receiving corps. Allen Lazard is a restricted free agent. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is an unrestricted free agent. The O-line could use upgrades after attrition and injury have left the unit vulnerable. And the Packers could be players in the middle to lower market on edge rushers, particularly if they move on from either of the Smiths. Rodgers’ return means Green Bay remains in go-for-it mode. Now the Pack will work to find the money to make upgrades.
If Andrew Whitworth retires as expected, the left tackle spot becomes a glaring need, with fill-in Joe Noteboom an unrestricted free agent. The interior of the O-line also has big questions that need answers, as C Brian Allen and RG Austin Corbett are free agents. The Rams imported three big-name players in 2021 — OLB Von Miller, WR Odell Beckham Jr. and RB Sony Michel. All three could be gone after the title run, leaving holes at those spots. It won’t be a surprise if GM Les Snead, after balancing the budget, finds a way to make a splash signing at corner to pair with Jalen Ramsey.
The defense was the Achilles’ heel in 2021 and still has significant questions this offseason, with Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, Sheldon Richardson, Patrick Peterson and others slated to hit free agency. Adding a corner or two in free agency is a priority for the system of new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell (who comes from the Vic Fangio tree). However, with little cap space, the Vikings might have to chase veterans coming off down years with experience in the system (i.e., Kyle Fuller types) to fill the gaps. Kirk Cousins‘ situation looms over the entire offseason, and while I don’t see the Vikes moving on this offseason, the future of the QB job in Minnesota remains up in the air. Does the new staff see more in Kellen Mond than Mike Zimmer did?
Given that the Saints responded to Sean Payton walking away by essentially promoting everyone else, it would stand to reason that bringing back Jameis Winston or Teddy Bridgewater is atop the to-do list. Adding a veteran signal-caller is priority No. 1. No. 2 should be finding a young, moldable quarterback, likely in the draft. No. 3 should be upgrading the rest of the offense. The WR room needs help even if Michael Thomas returns fully healthy — GM Mickey Loomis admitted as much. New Orleans also has needs on the O-line, where LT Terron Armstead could quickly price himself out of a return and RG Cesar Ruiz has struggled mightily since being selected in the first round in 2020. The Saints could also see Marcus Williams plucked away by a free-agent offer they can’t match, which would create a massive hole at safety. Loomis has overcome the cap issues in the past, and 2022 must be no different if the Saints want to remain competitive.
Most teams with no cap space can boast that they at least competed in 2021. Not so for the four-win Giants, who have holes everywhere on the roster and no money to help fill them. Even if we take the new Big Blue brass at their word that they’ll ride with Daniel Jones in 2022, it’d be foolish to expect different results without massive upgrades around the QB. Dave Gettleman threw money and resources at the O-line, but most attempts blew up in his face. Will new GM Joe Schoen have a better eye for upgrading the blocking unit? With Wink Martindale taking over the defense, edge rusher and off-ball linebacker are areas of need.
How many years in a row have the Eagles entered the offseason with a need to upgrade the linebacking corps? It’s not a position that GM Howie Roseman values, but it’s been a glaring weakness for a while now. Adding depth in the secondary is a more likely route for the Eagles’ cap space, with a need for a third corner alongside Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox and a hole at safety. Given the plethora of quality safeties hitting the market, Philly could add a difference-maker on the back end. Roseman will also look to acquire another edge defender with Derek Barnett heading to free agency.
Eventually moving on from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will get the 49ers back in the black on the cap front. There aren’t a ton of holes on this playoff roster, but upgrading the secondary should be atop the to-do list after San Francisco essentially played roulette on the back end last season. Solidifying the defensive backfield and adding depth up front (where much of the reserve rotation is set to hit free agency) would make DeMeco Ryans’ unit dangerous in 2022. If the Niners can’t re-sign guard Laken Tomlinson, that would also leave a hole on the interior of the O-line.
Tuesday’s blockbuster trade of Russell Wilson completely changed the Seahawks’ offseason outlook. Now they have the assets to make big-time changes, but there is a glaring hole behind center. Will Pete Carroll and John Schneider flip those assets for a veteran signal-caller (e.g., Kirk Cousins or Deshaun Watson) or ride into the unknown with newly acquired Drew Lock and a rookie option? Seattle still has questions in the secondary, where bringing back hard-hitting safety Quandre Diggs is a priority. In addition, cornerbacks Sidney Jones and D.J. Reed are both free agents. Bringing back one or both would be a start, as Carroll once again tries to recreate the “Legion of Boom” days. The expected release of veteran stalwart Bobby Wagner also puts a hole in the middle of the Seahawks’ defense and creates a leadership void in Seattle.
Bruce Arians spent the NFL Scouting Combine essentially trying to convince the fan base that the Bucs would be fine with a combo of Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask at quarterback. The realization that there might not be a splash play available at the QB spot certainly puts a damper on the offseason in Tampa. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson coming off the market reiterated that sentiment. With guard Ali Marpet retiring and center Ryan Jensen and right guard Alex Cappa headed to free agency, the O-line might be an even bigger priority for the front office in free agency than the quarterback spot. Then there is the secondary, where two key members — Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead — are slated to hit free agency. After unprecedented continuity last season, there will be massive changes this offseason in Tampa.
UPDATE: Tom Brady announced on Sunday that he will return to the Bucs for the 2022 NFL season.
Wednesday’s trade for Carson Wentz addressed one big question in Washington. It isn’t the acquisition many Commanders fans likely hoped for, but Wentz can move the offense when protected well. With no guaranteed money beyond 2022, Washington has a year-by-year debit on the former No. 2 overall pick. I’m still leaving QB as a need for the Commanders because I’m not convinced this is the long-term answer under center; Wentz is simply the next-best option for a team that seemed desperate for anyone but Taylor Heinicke to start under center and saw no better options in free agency. Unfortunately for Wentz, Washington isn’t the cushiest landing spot to reignite his career. There are holes up and down the offensive line, with Brandon Scherff finally hitting free agency. Washington also desperately needs to get Terry McLaurin a running mate at wide receiver. McLaurin generated 1,053 yards in 2021. No other Washington WR reached the 400-yard mark.
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