When free agency kicks off on March 9, teams across the NFL will be operating with varying amounts of cap space, but with the right contract maneuvering, every franchise has enough to make at least one signing to bolster depth or add playmaking talent to its roster. So, before everything gets crazy, let’s play matchmaker and find one high-impact free agent (or soon-to-be free agent) for every team in the NFL.
Arizona Cardinals: DE Chris Baker
With stalwart defensive ends Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker hitting free agency — and Robert Nkemdiche coming off a poor rookie performance — the Cardinals need to bolster their defensive front. Baker plays the run well and provides push against the pass, with an average of 42.5 quarterback pressures a year over the past two seasons.
Atlanta Falcons: DL Calais Campbell
With defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and defensive end Dwight Freeney hitting free agency, Atlanta is also thin on its defensive front. Dan Quinn has a history of utilizing 3–4 defensive ends in his 4–3 scheme (see: Red Bryant and Tony McDaniel in Seattle) and loves to move his guys around on the line (see: Vic Beasley in Atlanta and Michael Bennett in Seattle), making the versatile 6-foot-8 300-pounder an intriguing fit. Campbell registered 56 quarterback pressures last season.
Baltimore Ravens: WR DeSean Jackson
Steve Smith is retired, Kamar Aiken is a free agent, and Breshad Perriman is still a work in progress, so receiver is a position of need for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. Jackson would give the big-armed QB another field-stretching threat opposite Mike Wallace, and he would be a great fit in a Marty Mornhinweg offense that wants to throw deep off play-action. Jackson tied for the NFL lead in yards per reception (17.9) in 2016 and netted 19 catches of more than 20 yards.
Buffalo Bills: WR Kenny Britt
Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter, and Brandon Tate are all free agents, and the health of Sammy Watkins’s foot remains a question mark, so Buffalo must address the lack of depth and talent at receiver. Britt somehow managed to look like a true no. 1 in the Rams’ awful passing attack led by Case Keenum and Jared Goff in 2016, hauling in 68 passes for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns. Whether it’s Tyrod Taylor or someone else throwing passes for Buffalo next year, the Bills signal-caller will need weapons to look for downfield, and at 28 years old, Britt appears to still be an ascending talent.
Carolina Panthers: OT Andrew Whitworth
With left tackle Michael Oher still in concussion protocol, the future of Cam Newton’s blindside protection remains in flux. He’s not a long-term solution, but the 35-year-old Whitworth would represent the anchor on Carolina’s line: He’s still an excellent pass protector, and is nasty enough in the ground game to be a great fit for the Panthers’ run-heavy approach.
Chicago Bears: CB A.J. Bouye
GM Ryan Pace has accumulated a lot of quality pieces for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s front seven, but the defensive secondary is still a work in progress. Tracy Porter was miscast as a no. 1 cornerback last year, rookie Cre’Von LeBlanc showed promise at times but isn’t ready to take over that role, and Kyle Fuller’s future with the team is in doubt. Chicago needs to make upgrades at corner, and an aggressive, physical cover cornerback like Bouye would be a great start.
Cincinnati Bengals: OG Ronald Leary
With starting right guard Kevin Zeitler expected to leave Cincinnati in free agency, the Bengals have a huge hole to fill in the interior. Enter the 27-year-old Leary, who came into last season with the Cowboys as La’el Collins’s backup, but played like a worthy starter when injuries forced him back into the lineup. Leary didn’t give up a sack all year, per Pro Football Focus, and helped blaze a path for NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott.
Cleveland Browns: C J.C. Tretter
There’s no end to the list of needs on the Browns roster, so why not just start right in the middle? Cameron Erving, a 2015 first-rounder, has been a disappointment, leaving a hole to fill at center. While Tretter is an injury concern (he’s missed time in two out of his three seasons in the league), he played well in seven starts for the Packers last season. He’s just 26 years old and offers positional versatility at both guard spots and even at tackle in a real pinch.
Dallas Cowboys: CB Logan Ryan
With Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne hitting free agency, cornerback is clearly the Cowboys’ top priority. Ryan offers positional versatility, as he’s able to line up on the outside or in the slot. Plus, the Patriots playmaker can cover and is an aggressive, physical tackler. He’s also got plenty of playoff experience even though he’s just 26 years old.
Denver Broncos: QB Tony Romo
Romo isn’t on the free-agent market just yet, but assuming he’s released (with a wink-nod agreement not to sign with a rival, as Pro Football Talk has speculated), the Broncos make a ton of sense as a landing spot. They had the top-ranked defense by Football Outsiders DVOA last year, boast two star receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to throw to, and play a wide-zone, play-action-heavy scheme that fits Romo’s skill set. The Broncos would have to convince the veteran QB that they’d be able to protect him (and his back) with a solid offensive line and a run game, but if Romo wants to win now, Denver probably gives him his best chance.
Detroit Lions: DE Jabaal Sheard
It might not be the big-splash signing the Lions need to solve all their pass-rushing woes — Detroit finished 2016 with just 26 sacks, tied for 30th in the league — but with a lack of options in free agency thanks to the franchise tag, Sheard would be Detroit’s best reasonably priced option to upgrade the team’s defensive line. He’s a rotational pass rusher (13 sacks in the past two years in New England), can set the edge against the run on the strong side, and would bolster a group that already includes the explosive Ziggy Ansah and 2016 breakout player Kerry Hyder.
Green Bay Packers: CB Stephon Gilmore
The Packers don’t typically venture out into big-money free agency under Ted Thompson, but they need cornerbacks more than any team needs anything. Gilmore’s inconsistency is a red flag, but he provides elite cornerback traits with his size, speed, and playmaking ability. The 6-foot 190-pounder had five picks for the Bills last year, and he’s only 26 years old.
Houston Texans: OG Kevin Zeitler
Houston may not have many options at its biggest position of need (quarterback) thanks to Brock Osweiler’s $19 million cap hit in 2017, but the team can at least try to protect whoever’s throwing passes. Guards Jeff Allen and Xavier Su’a-Filo were both disappointments for Houston last year, so adding Zeitler, who hasn’t missed a game in two years, would be a huge upgrade in both pass protection and in the ground game. As is becoming a trend in this list, he’s also 26 years old.
Indianapolis Colts: DE Nick Perry
With Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram, and Chandler Jones all receiving the franchise tag from their respective clubs, Perry is left as the top pass-rushing talent on the market. The Colts have Robert Mathis, Trent Cole, and Akeem Ayers all hitting free agency, so they need to add a pass rusher, and Perry, who’s coming off of an 11-sack season, would be a great fit. He’s a risk with just one top-tier season under his belt, but he looks like a player on the rise. And what do you know? He’s 26, too.
Jacksonville Jaguars: OT Russell Okung
The Kelvin Beachum experiment didn’t work out and Luke Joeckel is a free agent, so Jacksonville must address the left side of its offensive line this offseason. Okung is highly experienced, on the right side of 30, and proved he can stay healthy by playing in every game this past season. Despite his omnipresence, he struggled in 2016 with the Broncos, who declined to pick up his four-year option, but he’s still probably the best left tackle on the market. Jacksonville has the cap space to overpay for a problem it needs to fix.
Kansas City Chiefs: ILB Dont’a Hightower
The Chiefs run defense struggled last year after Derrick Johnson went out with an Achilles tendon tear in Week 14, and with his status for the beginning of next season in doubt — not to mention that he’s 34 years old — Kansas City could benefit from another playmaker in the middle. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton could deploy the former Patriot in a number of ways, as Hightower can play the run, cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield, and even rush the passer.
Los Angeles Chargers: OG Larry Warford
New head coach Anthony Lynn coordinated the NFL’s most effective and prolific run game in Buffalo last year, and he’ll be looking to bring aspects of a run game that mixes schemes (gap/zone) and styles (read-option, wildcat) to Los Angeles. A road-grader like Warford represents an upgrade over Orlando Franklin, whose play has dropped off the past two years, and D.J. Fluker, who has yet to live up to his first-round billing.
Los Angeles Rams: DB Tony Jefferson
With T.J. McDonald expected to sign elsewhere in free agency, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips shouldn’t look far to find a replacement. Jefferson had a career year in Arizona last season, racking up 92.0 tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Phillips will be hoping to add a physical tone-setter near the line of scrimmage — à la T.J. Ward in Denver — for his new squad, and Jefferson has developed into one of the best box safeties in the league. Oh, and he can cover, too.
Miami Dolphins: OG T.J. Lang
Branden Albert is gone in a trade with the Jags, Laremy Tunsil is slated to move to left tackle, and Jermon Bushrod is a free agent. That leaves Miami with two holes to fill at its guard spots, and the 29-year-old Lang is one of the best. The 2016 Pro Bowler has missed just five games in the past six seasons, and he’s proficient in pass protection and in the run game. Miami’s offense showed promise last year, but the Dolphins need to add talent on the interior of their line if they hope to protect Ryan Tannehill and clear the path for running back Jay Ajayi.
Minnesota Vikings: OG Chance Warmack
Warmack took a big step backward in 2016, but could represent a nice value pickup with upside for the Vikings. Bad seasons can be outliers, too. Signing Warmack would allow offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to move Joe Berger back to center and give them a little stability up the middle with a combination of Alex Boone, Berger, and Warmack on the interior. They still need to figure out the tackle spots, but this would be a start to rebuilding a broken offensive line.
New England Patriots: DE Julius Peppers
The Patriots don’t have many holes, but the pass rush is one area Bill Belichick and Co. will likely be looking to upgrade in 2017. With Chris Long and Sheard hitting the open market, New England may try to add in another veteran situational pass rusher, and Peppers would be a logical fit. Peppers wants to win a championship, so assuming he decides to play again in 2017, he’d give the Patriots a still-effective force on the edge in passing situations, as he had 7.5 sacks last year.
New Orleans Saints: NT Brandon Williams
The Saints need to take a long look at the cornerback market this offseason, but the defensive line needs attention, too. After watching the impact that Damon “Snacks” Harrison made on the Giants defense last year, elite run-defending defensive tackles will be in high demand this offseason, and Williams is near the top of that list. Pairing Williams with Sheldon Rankins would give defensive coordinator Dennis Allen one of the most talented interior duos in the league.
New York Giants: WR Pierre Garçon
New York would do well to make upgrades at both tackle positions, but in a weak free-agent class at that spot, finding another playmaking weapon for the offense might be the next-best thing. Garçon is as physical after the catch as any receiver in the league — and he also has some of the most reliable hands, with just one drop on 110 targets last year, per Pro Football Focus. The Redskin isn’t a big-ticket pickup, but he would be a dependable producer and third-down converter on underneath routes. With teams tilting coverage over to Odell Beckham Jr., Garçon could emerge as an end zone threat against primarily one-on-one coverage.
New York Jets: QB Brian Hoyer
The Jets need to do a lot of things this offseason, but with Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty, and someone named Jason Vander Laan the only quarterbacks on the roster, adding a competent-ish quarterback should be priority no. 1. Hoyer’s not a long-term solution, but he does offer New York a bridge option until the team is able to draft and develop its next starter. In his past 16 regular-season appearances, the 31-year-old has completed 64 percent of his passes with a 24–6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 95 passer rating.
Oakland Raiders: RB Eddie Lacy
In 2016, Latavius Murray forced 20 missed tackles on 195 carries in 14 games, per Pro Football Focus. Lacy forced 19 missed tackles on 71 totes … in five games.
Murray is big and fast and the Raiders could look to re-sign their incumbent high-floor starter, but Lacy offers a much higher ceiling on first and second down because of his bruising elusiveness. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard are great change-of-pace backs and more effective on third down and obvious passing situations, but when he’s healthy and trim, Lacy can be a top-tier sustainer in the run game.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Brandon Marshall
The Eagles need to give second-year starter Carson Wentz better options in the passing game, and Marshall remains one of the most dangerous red zone targets in the league. He’d improve an area of weakness for a team that accumulated just 16 passing touchdowns in 2016. At 32 years old, Marshall may not be the all-around, unstoppable threat that he once was, but he can still tilt coverage his way. Adding him would also allow the Eagles to keep Jordan Matthews in the slot, where he’s most effective.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB DeMarcus Ware
Jarvis Jones is a free agent, and Pittsburgh needs to find a pass-rushing outside linebacker to pair with Bud Dupree on passing downs. Ware is reportedly deciding whether or not to play in 2017 after having offseason surgery on a disk in his back, but the 34-year-old can still get after the quarterback, recording four sacks and 26 quarterback pressures on 213 pass-rush snaps last season.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Terrelle Pryor
Kyle Shanahan coordinated one of the most prolific offenses in league history last year in Atlanta, in part because of his ability to spread the ball around to so many playmakers. Adding talented pass catchers to his new team’s roster, then, should be a top priority. He’s off to a good start by handing an extension to shifty slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, but he’d make a big splash by adding Pryor on the outside. He caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in Cleveland’s dysfunctional offense last year, so his ceiling with anything resembling a competent quarterback is sky high. Adding Pryor would give the Niners a solid receiving trio along with Kerley and Torrey Smith — and the playmaking potential that could provide a softer landing spot for whichever quarterback Shanahan decides to go with this season.
Seattle Seahawks: OT Ricky Wagner
Seattle did little in free agency last year to address its offensive line, and the one seemingly good move it made — signing guard Jahri Evans — was quickly negated when the team cut him in final roster trim-downs. Seattle’s lack of investment at the position (among all teams, the Seahawks dedicated by far the least money to that group) was a major miscue, and the offense paid the price. The normally dominant run game (third in DVOA in 2015) took a huge step back (23rd in 2016) and Russell Wilson suffered multiple injuries as he was battered by opposing defenses. This year, Seattle’s not likely to be so cheap at that position. Wagner’s been inconsistent over the past three seasons (he was a disaster in 2015 and solid in 2014 and 2016), but he’s probably the top right tackle on the market. He’s clearly better than either of Seattle’s current tackles, George Fant and Garry Gilliam.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S Duron Harmon
With Chris Conte and Brad McDougald out of contract, both of Tampa Bay’s starting safety spots are up for grabs. Harmon was a part-time player for the Patriots in 2016, but he’s a versatile playmaker who can patrol the deep middle and come up into the box against the run. Finding a reliable coverage safety is no easy task, and if he produces at the same level despite increased playing time, Harmon could represent a big upgrade at the position for the Bucs.
Tennessee Titans: TE Martellus Bennett
Mike Mularkey, who played the position in the NFL, loves to utilize tight ends in his offense in Tennessee. With aging veteran Anthony Fasano hitting free agency, the Titans need a replacement. Bennett’s ability to block in the run game makes him a natural fit for a team that wants to pound the football for four quarters with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and his route-running and catching prowess would give quarterback Marcus Mariota plenty of opportunities to target Bennett downfield on play-action.
Washington Redskins: WR Alshon Jeffery
Washington’s going to pay Kirk Cousins $24 million to play quarterback in 2017, so the team better give him some playmaking talent to throw to. Cousins has had a lot of success throwing to his big-bodied tight end Jordan Reed, and Jeffery presents the same type of mismatch advantage against smaller corners and safeties. With Jackson and Garçon likely leaving in free agency, Jeffery would be a good consolation prize.