John Elway’s best moves as an executive have come in free agency. That’s where he rounded out his 2015 championship defense, and that’s where he can make amends after falling short of the playoffs.
The Broncos don’t accept mediocrity. They won at least 12 games with a playoff bye in four straight seasons before going 9-7 in 2016. Elway’s standards are so high that he fired coach John Fox after one of those 12-win years. This is not an organization designed for patience, making the next two weeks vital for the franchise.
Quarterback Tony Romo — presuming he is eventually released by the Cowboys — is the obvious big-name target, but the Broncos could be active in free agency at a number of positions. They have been mentioned as a suitor for defensive lineman Calais Campbell, the No. 2 overall free-agent-to-be on our Top 101 list. The offensive line is also a glaring weak spot.
“I feel more comfortable if we can take care of some needs in free agency,” Elway said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “I think that we can supplement some needs that we have through free agency because I don’t like going into the draft with big needs.”
Elway does not want to let the Broncos become just another franchise on his watch. That’s why they are among the teams with the most at stake in this free agency period. So, who else has a lot on the line this month?
Having a starting quarterback at the end of the line is the easiest way to make a season feel like now or never. The flirtation of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald with retirement this offseason puts an expiration date on this version of the Bruce Arians Cardinals.
Even general manager Steve Keim’s 4-year-old knows the team needs its next “quarterback of the future,” but Keim needs to balance that pressing concern with supplementing a talented defensive roster that could be decimated. Defensive end Calais Campbell, linebacker Kevin Minter and safety Tony Jefferson all could leave via free agency after productive seasons. Listening to Keim and Arians at the combine, it sounded like they knew this offseason was massive for them, and they weren’t going to stay quiet.
New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton will always be loved in New Orleans for bringing the city a Super Bowl championship, but he’s on the verge of not being liked very much as his Saints stewardship potentially winds down. Three straight 7-9 seasons and a systemic inability to fix the defense have wasted the underrated golden years of Drew Brees‘ career.
The anticipated trade of wide receiver Brandin Cooks and probable departure of disruptive defensive tackle Nick Fairley are only two changes that should hit this roster. With a fine skill-position group in place, expect the Saints to address their defense with the aggression of a staff that knows it’s running out of time. The team’s speed and talent on defense is lackluster at every level. One more losing season would test owner Tom Benson’s patience and likely end the most productive era in franchise history.
The starting quarterback was given the exclusive franchise tag because the team can’t settle on a long-term agreement with him. A trade of Kirk Cousins remains possible. The team’s two starting wide receivers are expected to leave. The general manager stayed home during the combine, with growing confusion about just who will be running the team during free agency. The Redskins had to settle on their new defensive coordinator after not attracting a big name to head a unit that was 25th in Football Outsiders’ year-end rankings. The team’s best defensive lineman by far, Chris Baker, is expected to leave town.
Jay Gruden received a contract extension over the weekend, but these are uncomfortable times to be the Redskins coach. This has the feel of a team with the potential to spiral, not one coming off the organization’s first back-to-back winning seasons since the glory days of Norv Turner and Gus Frerotte. The ‘Skins desperately need some good news.
New coach Doug Marrone did not begin his tenure in Jacksonville with the usual honeymoon period. That’s because he campaigned for the job by selling continuity vs. the usually popular “change” candidate. GM Dave Caldwell has built a roster that the organization swears is talented, yet hasn’t eclipsed five wins in a league engineered for parity. Marrone and Caldwell both believe in Blake Bortles and have one more chance to surround their quarterback with the right pieces to create a winner.
The Jaguars made my list of the teams most likely to spend big in free agency because they have the cap room and that’s just what they do every season. They should be active addressing the secondary and could be in the mix for No. 2 overall free agent Calais Campbell. The presence of new VP Tom Coughlin hovering over the entire operation places more pressure than usual on a new coach taking over a three-win team. Caldwell and Marrone need to impress Dad.
Los Angeles Chargers
GM Tom Telesco got a second chance at hiring a first-time head coach because the team’s roster looks so impressive on paper. Retaining outside linebacker Melvin Ingram on the franchise tag only solidified the notion this team is ready to make the playoffs now.
The Chargers make this list mostly because it’s such a unique season in the franchise’s history. The Rams have the greater history in Los Angeles, but the product on the field last season could not have been less Hollywood. Even in a best-case scenario, it’s hard to imagine Jared Goff leading the Rams to the playoffs in the coming season. Philip Rivers, Joey Bosa and Melvin Gordon make this Chargers team a much easier sell.
2017 is the Chargers‘ time to stake out a real fan base in Los Angeles for the next 20 years. That will require an overhaul of the team’s offensive line and safety positions. It won’t make big headlines in March, but it could pay dividends by landing some fans for life. Los Angeles loves a winner, and the Lakers just aren’t cutting it lately.
Green Bay Packers
Packers GM Ted Thompson approaches free agency with the wariness of the broken-hearted, yet some of his best connections were created in March. Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett, Julius Peppers and Jared Cook all made big contributions to playoff runs as free-agent signings in the Thompson era and should inspire him to embrace wheeling and dealing again. His team is going to need it.
With nine free agents in our Top 101 list, Thompson’s discipline will be tested. He needs to replace over 4,000 snaps, the majority of which were from some of the better players on Green Bay’s problematic defense. After six straight years of painful NFC playoff defeats, Thompson should be open to new approaches to finding postseason love.
The Cowboys must fight against self-satisfaction and complacency. The natural pull back to .500 is real, as are the roster problems Jerry Jones must address.
The Tony Romo situation risks being a distraction for a front office that should be looking to replace three starters in the secondary and possibly two starting offensive linemen. (At least right guard Ronald Leary‘s replacement, La’el Collins, is already on the roster.) The team also will be looking for pass-rush help on a defense that overachieved just by being average in 2016. The Cowboys are the rare team without much cap space this offseason, so Jones will need to concoct some of his voodoo economics just to create some cash.
2017 NFL Free Agency: Teams with the most at stake – NFL.com