The NFL free-agency bonanza is set to kick off on March 14, and the league-wide spending spree that comes with it has the potential to reshape teams and throw divisional power structures out of whack. The Super Bowl champion Eagles — who signed future key contributors and playoff stars in quarterback Nick Foles, receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Patrick Robinson, pass rusher Chris Long, and running back LeGarrette Blount last year — are the perfect example.
But before teams can go out and spend big money to bring outside talent in, each front office must first look within, evaluate their own rosters, and prioritize which players to extend and which to let go. Just about every squad has a handful of big-impact starters or key role players set to hit free agency, but a few teams face more uncertainty than the rest. Here are the 10 NFL teams with the biggest question marks heading into free agency.
The Vikings’ quarterback predicament is one of the most important story lines of the entire offseason, and the team must decide whether to pursue one of the three starting-caliber free-agent quarterbacks that were on the roster in 2017 or go out to chase one of a slew of veterans about to hit the open market (or both). Case Keenum, Minnesota’s incumbent starter, is likely the front-runner for that role in 2018, but fresh off a breakout campaign in which he led Minnesota to the NFC championship game, the 29-year-old signal-caller should have plenty of outside suitors, as well. Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are both high-upside but risky (because of their previous injuries) fall-back options, and with nearly $50 million in cap space heading into next year, the Vikings could set their sights on Redskins signal-caller Kirk Cousins, former Jet Josh McCown, or former Bill Tyrod Taylor instead.
Minnesota’s cap space could shrink considerably as the team looks to re-up veterans like stalwart cornerback Terence Newman (who played 555 snaps in 2017), guard Joe Berger (1,114), defensive tackle Tom Johnson (673), and running back Jerick McKinnon (527), plus retain core special teamers in return specialist Marcus Sherels and kicker Kai Forbath.
The Cardinals head into free agency with zero quarterbacks under contract, an offensive line in flux, and a sizable contingent of defenders set to hit the open market. Neither Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert, nor Matt Barkley (all free agents) appears to be the long-term answer under center now that Carson Palmer is retired, and the Cardinals’ lack of depth in key spots on offense means attracting any of the top outside free-agent signal-callers could present a challenge. Guards Alex Boone (who started 13 games in 2017) and Earl Watford (nine starts) are both set to be free agents, as are pass catchers Jaron Brown (31 catches, 477 yards, four touchdowns last year) and John Brown (21 catches, 299 yards, one touchdown). Running back Kerwynn Williams, who took over for an injured Adrian Peterson late in the year and played well, and talented-but-oft-injured tight end Troy Niklas are both free agents, as well.
The team has plenty of question marks heading into next year on defense, too. Safety Tyvon Branch (579 snaps in 2017), linebackers Karlos Dansby (921) and Kareem Martin (457), defensive end Frostee Rucker (606), and corners Tramon Williams (668) and Justin Bethel (452) are all set to hit the open market. With new head coach Steve Wilks taking over for the now-retired Bruce Arians, we may see a lot of roster turnover in Arizona this offseason.
New England Patriots
For New England, free agency all starts up front, with dependable left tackle Nate Solder set to join fellow linemen Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle (the latter two combined to start 10 games and play over 700 snaps in 2017) on the open market. But that’s just the start: Dion Lewis, who emerged as the team’s foundational running back this year, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns on 180 totes, is about to be a free agent, too, and will be joined by the always-reliable playoff playmaker Danny Amendola, who caught 26 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s three postseason games.
Defensively, New England is clearly prepared to move on from free-agent corner Malcolm Butler and must decide whether to re-sign defensive end James Harrison, who played well for the team down the stretch but will turn 40 before next season begins. Add in special teams standouts Matthew Slater (a first-team All-Pro this past season) and Nate Ebner (a second-team All-Pro in 2016) and the Patriots have free-agency question marks in all three phases.
New York Jets
The biggest unknown for the Jets heading into free agency is obvious: What will the team do at the quarterback position? Incumbent signal-caller Josh McCown’s a free agent, and while the journeyman veteran has expressed interest in returning to New York in 2018, the team may utilize its $73 million and change in cap space to chase after Cousins or another one of the top free-agent passers. Past that, the Jets have decisions to make on center Wesley Johnson (15 starts in 2017), rotational guard Dakota Dozier (three starts), and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (50 catches, 357 yards, three touchdowns). They also must figure out whether to hang on to cornerback Morris Claiborne, who started 15 games, broke up eight passes, and grabbed one interception in 2017, and the Jets could face stiff competition for free-agent linebacker Demario Davis, who racked up 135 tackles and five sacks last year. Plus, kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who connected on 25 out of his 30 field goal attempts and didn’t miss an extra point, is sure to see some interest on the open market.
Los Angeles Rams
While the Rams are set to return most of the key pieces to an offense that led the league in points scored in 2017, they will have two major question marks on that side of the ball. The team must determine how much of its $41 million in cap space it can spare for 32-year-old center John Sullivan, and then decide whether or not to make a long-term offer to receiver Sammy Watkins, whom the team acquired last year (along with a sixth-round pick) in exchange for E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick. Of course, those decisions are complicated by the situation on defense: With cornerback Trumaine Johnson (who will likely be the top cornerback in free agency, league-wide), nickelback Nickell Robey-Coleman, and safety Lamarcus Joyner all set to hit the open market, the team may have to dole out big money in order to keep its talented, opportunistic secondary intact.
The Seahawks head into the offseason with a bevy of big-name free agents but currently wield just $14 million and change in workable cap space. That number could change if the team cuts any of its big-money vets, but in any case, there’s not much wiggle room to retain Jimmy Graham, who led all tight ends with 10 touchdown catches in 2017, and/or pass catcher Paul Richardson, who reeled in 44 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns last year. The team may also struggle to lock up defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a player they acquired from the Jets last year in exchange for Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick. Add in expiring contracts for safety Bradley McDougald (who stood out filling in for Kam Chancellor late in the year), plus cornerback Byron Maxwell, tight end Luke Willson, and guard Luke Joeckel, Seattle may have to be very creative — or more selective — in how it approaches free agency. Oh, and the Seahawks have to find a new kicker, too.
New York Giants
The Giants face major turnover along the offensive line, with tackles D.J. Fluker (446 snaps in 2017) and Justin Pugh (436), center Weston Richburg (241), and guard John Greco (105) all set to hit the open market. The team’s running-back spot has the potential to get shallow fast with Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa both hitting free agency, and New York’s linebacker corps could be in for a total makeover too, as Jonathan Casillas (456 snaps in 2017), Keenan Robinson (292), Kelvin Sheppard (386), and Devon Kennard (544) all have contracts set to expire. Versatile defensive back Ross Cockrell is about to head to free agency, as well. The Giants’ new brain trust under general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur has plenty of decisions to make over the next month, and we could see plenty of change on this New York roster this offseason.
The Bills saw plenty of turnover in 2017 under the leadership of GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, and when it comes to transforming the team’s roster, that duo may just be getting started. Defensively, Buffalo has several key contributors up for new deals this year, including linebackers Preston Brown (1,098 snaps in 2017) and Ramon Humber (569), cornerbacks E.J. Gaines (654), Shareece Wright (455), and Leonard Johnson (673), and defensive tackles Kyle Williams (756) and Cedric Thornton (387). Offensively, the team must decide whether or not to re-sign receiver Jordan Matthews, and if Buffalo does end up releasing starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, it’ll have to decide whether to roll with Nathan Peterman at that spot or look to free agency for help.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers took care of their most important free agent last week when they gave quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a new five-year, $137.5 million deal. But GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are far from done — and still have about $74 million in cap space to work with. Offensively, the team must protect their new $100 million man, and a pair of 16-game starters in center Daniel Kilgore and guard Brandon Fusco are both about to hit the open market in March. They’ll be joined there by team’s bell-cow back from last year, Carlos Hyde. Defensively, San Francisco’s back seven could look a whole lot different in 2018 with expiring contracts for safety Eric Reid, cornerbacks Dontae Johnson and Leon Hall, and linebacker Brock Coyle.
The good news for the Texans is that they should get Deshaun Watson back for the start of next year, but the bad news is that it’s unclear who exactly will protect their franchise quarterback from opposing pass rushers. With tackles Breno Giacomini and Chris Clark and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo all set to hit the open market, the team could be dangerously shallow along the offensive line. Houston’s running back rotation could take a hit with Alfred Blue and Andre Ellington both set to be free agents, and receiver Bruce Ellington, who provided a spark late in the year before a hamstring injury ended his season, is up for a new deal, too. Defensively, the team must decide whether to bring back reliable veteran corner Johnathan Joseph (16-game starter) and safety Marcus Gilchrist (13-game starter).
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers make this list because of one player, and one player only. Running back Le’Veon Bell racked up 1,946 yards from scrimmage last year — second only to the Rams’ Todd Gurley — scoring a combined 11 touchdowns on the ground and through the air, and is set to become a free agent when the league year opens in March. He’s one of the NFL’s most versatile players, a mismatch-creator that Pittsburgh deploys from just about every spot on the field. But after playing on the franchise tag in 2017, Bell’s already hinted at a holdout — or even retirement — if Pittsburgh tries to slap that tag on him for a second straight year. The Steelers have a big decision to make: Do they call his bluff, give him a new contract, or let him test free agency? Their decision could have far-reaching implications for not only them, but the league at large.