This is the time of year when NFL rosters are at their thinnest and every team has holes to fill, some more gaping than others. So where do they look for the replacements, a veteran but maybe pricey free agent or untested youth via the draft?
over the next few days we'll take you division by division through the rosters and which teams could make serious runs at those unattached players who are waiting in the wings to push also-rans into contenders.
We open up this series with the AFC East. The presence of the powerhouse New England Patriots has cast a long shadow over Buffalo, Miami and New York. But like all teams they have weaknesses, and if the others can fill the gaps better than New England they could well close the gap.
New England Patriots
Notable Free Agents: Sebastian Vollmer (RT), Wes Welker (WR), Aqib Talib (CB), Danny Woodhead (RB), Julian Edelman (WR/PR)
Holes: Deep threat WR, pass ush DE, corverage defensive backs
New England freed up cap space by handing Tom Brady an extension, but they haven't used it yet as they decided not to tag any of their big three free agents.
It always seems that no matter who the Patriots put around Brady and Belichick they're always there playing deep into January, but as we get closer and closer to the 10-year anniversary of their last Super Bowl success, and Tom Brady's age continues to creep up, the pressure is building to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Foxboro.
There's a strong chance that the Patriots re-sign at least 2 of Vollmer, Welker and Talib. Especially given the perception of Welker as a "system" player and Talib's off field issues. The same is true of Woodhead and Edelman, who seem unlikely to replicate their successes away from Foxboro. But even if they were to re-sign all of those they would have holes, which were there for all to see in their loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Once again New England struggled to stretch the field vertically, something they've been unable to do since the departure of Randy Moss. They also couldn't get to Joe Flacco or cover his receivers. Those issues have been the common thread through all their recent play-off losses. Teams have been able to collapse onto of them and disrupt the short routes on defense and then pass all over the Patriots on offense. Fixing that isn't easy, but there are plenty of available players who can help.
First and foremost is the deep threat. Mike Wallace is sitting on the free agent wire after a terrible 2012 season which blew up a lot of his negotiating power. But at 26 he's still got peak years in front of him and has a ton of speed. If the Patriots were to sign him it would suddenly open up the holes underneath again much like Moss did in 2007. The competition for pass rushers and cover players is fierce, but a perennial contender like New England will always be attractive to veteran players like John Abraham, who can still produce but are chasing rings rather than dollars.
Notable Free Agents: Andy Levitre (LG), Nick Barnett (LB), Kirk Morrison (LB), Bryan Scott (LB), Leodis McKelvin (CB/PR)
Franchise Tag: Jarius Byrd (S)
Holes: Wide Receiver, Linebacker, Quarterback
The 2012 draft class, which bought in Stephon Gilmore at corner and Cordy Glenn at left tackle, looks like it will provide quality players and crucial positions for a long time to come. But they had a serious lack of talent at the linebacker position, and that was before they cut Barnett and the others reached free agency. Unfortunately for Buffalo there doesn't look to be a great answer for them either on the free agent market or in the draft. There are veterans like Brian Urlacher, Bart Scott and James Farrior, but they're all limited in their coverage skills. There's the risk of trying to convert 3-4 'backers into 4-3 players, which could be done with players like Dannell Ellerbe. That's probably the way they'll go as there's no inside linebacker worth the 8th overall pick. There are players like Alec Ogletree, Arthur Brown and even Manti Te'o who could fall to them at the top of the 2nd round.
I'm not even sure if any of their needs are worth filling with their first rounder. You could maybe take Geno Smith and sit him for a while behind the costly Ryan Fitzpatrick, otherwise they might look at Chance Warmack to replace Andy Levitre.
As for wide receiver, the Bills just need talent at that position next to Stevie Johnson. Whether that's for the top end of this free agent class like Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace or someone like a Danny Amendola or Austin Collie. But they need more threats on the outside to draw attention away from the two-headed monster in the backfield.
Notable Free Agents: Jake Long (LT), Reggie Bush (RB), Brian Hartline (WR), Sean Smith (CB), Chris Clemons (S)
Franchise Tag: Randy Starks (DT)
Holes: Wide Receiver, Defensive End, Offensive Tackle
Miami's lack of receivers really held them back last year. Brian Hartline was their leading pass catcher last season and is close to finalizing a deal to return, but to compete with New England you need to be putting up points, which is why they are reportedly very interested in Greg Jennings. Even if they were to sign someone like Jennings I don't think that would stop them drafting Cordarrelle Patterson at 12th overall should he fall to them. As the only high-end receiver in this draft class there could he a lot of teams going after Patterson before Miami get on the clock, with both Buffalo and the Jets picking before them.
If they don't get Patterson then they shouldn't worry, Miami's needs fit perfectly with this draft class. They can sit and see if one of the top offensive tackles fall to them and have an open competition with Jonathan Martin for the left tackle spot, or take one of the many pass rushing prospects like a Bjoern Werner, Dion Jordan or Barkevious Mingo and pair them with Cameron Wake.
It looks unlikely that Sean Smith will be returning to Miami, so they will need to find a quality corner from somewhere. They do have 2 second rounders this season which could be used either to trade for someone, but they have a lot of cap space so don't be surprised if they make a run at someone like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
New York Jets
Notable Free Agents: Brandon Moore (RG), Shonn Greene (RB), Dustin Keller (TE), Bryan Thomas (LB), LaRon Landry (S), Eric Smith (S)
Holes: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Pass Rush, Linebacker, Safety
This Jets roster is a mess and there's a lot to be said for blowing it up by trading their stars (so, just Revis) and picking up as many draft picks as possible. The Jets have such a lack of weapons around Mark Sanchez that there's really no way he could do well, even if he was passably good. They absolutely have to re-sign Dustin Keller if they're to do anything on offense this year. He's their most reliable target and actually underrated as a quality player. They can wait on running back, there's always talent at that position late in the draft.
The problem is that the Jets have all these holes to fill and very little cap room to do it in. Cutting players like Bart Scott and Calvin Pace helps, but they need to find replacements for them from somewhere. They should be taking the best player available to them at 9th overall, which could well be the monstrous Chance Warmack. A left side of D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Warmack and Nick Mangold would be a force in the league and allow almost anyone to rack up the rushing yards. But the temptation of a versatile pass rusher could get Rex Ryan banging the table for any of the guys such as Jarvis Jones or Barkevious Mingo who should be available.
The Jets have proven to be cap wizards before, so don't be too surprised if they make a run at a pricey veteran, but personally I would try to go cheap and young this off-season with players like Brandon Gibson and Jermone Simpson at receiver and maybe entice a player like Jim Leonard back who's had success with Rex Ryan but flopped elsewhere. They have to realise that this is a re-building year and not take a swing for the fences with 1 big name free agent.
- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen