The free agency period is rapidly approaching, meaning teams will soon have a chance to infuse their rosters with potentially game-changing new talent. This time of the year matters to everyone, of course, but it's more important to some franchises than others: Think of the general manager trying to shake a losing streak or the team desperate to maximize the talent of a special quarterback. Below, I've ranked the seven teams with the most riding on free agency in 2018.
1) Chicago Bears
Ryan Pace's first three years as Bears general manager included more regrettable free-agent signings (Mike Glennon, Dion Sims, Antrel Rolle, Eddie Royal, Pernell McPhee) than good ones (Akiem Hicks). He'll have to balance that out with a great signing period this offseason if rookie head coach Matt Nagy and second-year QB Mitch Trubisky are to have any chance of success in 2018. That said, the roster has some nice pieces, including Tarik Cohen, Jordan Howard and Leonard Floyd. Chicago is also projected to have the cap space ($50.2 million, per Over the Cap) to make serious gains. The Bears just have to be careful not to overpay for unproductive talent. That might seem obvious, but it can be harder than it looks.
If I were the Bears, I'd target Allen Robinson. Yes, he lost almost all of the 2017 season to a torn ACL, but I'm still surprised the Jaguarsdidn't use the franchise tag to keep him around. And Chicago could really use him. Consider that Robinson put up more receiving yards in one season (1,400 in 2015) than any Bears player not named Alshon Jeffery in the last three seasons combined.
One more important priority for this team in free agency: hanging on to cornerback Kyle Fuller, whom the Bears hit with the transition tag, which allows them to match offers he receives from other teams. It's very hard to find players of Fuller's character and ability, and when you do, it's incumbent on you to keep them.
2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
GM Jason Licht and his staff are very good -- from what I know of them, they excel at evaluation. Still, the fact remains that Tampa has won just 22 games in the four seasons Licht has been on the job. Previous free-agent whiffs -- including Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner, Anthony Collins, Chris Baker and T.J. Ward -- have contributed to the ongoing woes of this team, which hasn't reached the playoffs since 2007. The pressure is on Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter to right the ship this year. Rather than trying to accumulate more veterans in the hopes that they'll play like they did in their prime, the Bucs should focus on trying to sign younger up-and-comers. Wresting cornerback Kyle Fuller away from the Bears or signing Bashaud Breeland might make sense.
3) Indianapolis Colts
When Chris Ballard took over as GM in 2017, the Colts had one of the worst rosters in the NFL in terms of overall talent, thanks to a series of unfortunate decisions made by the previous regime (like, say, giving up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, or drafting Phillip Dorsett). Ballard accomplished a lot last year in the free-agent market by making a raft of prudent signings, especially on defense. His next challenge: continuing to improve that side of the ball while also making strides on offense, specifically with regard to the line. Indianapolis must do a better job of protecting quarterback Andrew Luckwhen he returns to the field for the first time since 2016. Signing Andrew Norwell out of Carolina would go a long way toward solving that problem. Justin Pugh would also be worth a look, especially because he offers positional versatility, able to play right tackle, center and guard.
Ballard made the right moves last offseason, signing the right free agents and drafting the right prospects. He's a draft-first guy philosophically, but I think he'll keep that trend going in free agency this offseason.
4) San Francisco 49ers
Adding quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was a game-changing move for this previously downtrodden franchise. Now that expectations have been sufficiently raised by Garoppolo's five-game winning streak to close the 2017 season, San Francisco must capitalize on this moment and continue pushing the team in the right direction. Thankfully, with Garoppolo in the fold, the Niners can both avoid this offseason's QB sweepstakes and be a bit choosier in free agency. Rather than adding veterans en masse in the hopes of injecting the roster with a pulse, they can focus on impact players who can add some serious juice. In other words, they're not just filling holes -- they're trying to get major pieces.
The first place I'd start if I were San Francisco is the defense, specifically the secondary. Trumaine Johnson would be a good pickup, a California kid whom the team should know well from its twice-annual clashes with the Rams. Signing Johnson might require the use of significant resources, seeing as how he made a pretty penny as the Rams' franchise-tagged player over the last two seasons, but with $70 million in projected cap space, San Francisco can afford it. Some of that, of course, could be spent on depth at receiver, running back and linebacker (depending on what happens with Reuben Foster).
5) New York Jets
Quarterback is obviously a focus for the Jets, and I think they'll be hanging their hopes on landing Kirk Cousins. The team is projected to have tons of cap space ($89.9 million) with which to court him. And then there's the potentially enticing fact that QBs can run that city. But even if Cousins signs elsewhere (and I happen to think he will), New York can turn to a perfectly capable Case Keenum. Don't be dissuaded by his seemingly anomalous emergence in Minnesota -- yes, it was only one year, but in 2017, Keenum outpaced Cousins in completion percentage (67.6 to 64.3), interception percentage (1.5 to 2.4) and passer rating (98.3 to 93.9), and he won more games (11 to seven). I've always liked Keenum, and I don't think he'd be a bad option for the Jets.
The bottom line is, no matter who's slinging the pigskin for Gang Green, this team needs help across the board before it can be a viable playoff contender. Whether Cousins or Keenum is under center, someone will have to block for the quarterback (Norwell, Pugh or Nate Solder?), and someone will have to catch his passes (Robinson, Sammy Watkins or Jarvis Landry?).
T-6) Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is 34. If the Packers want to make the most of his remaining window, they need to give the quarterback as much help as they can this year (after, of course, locking him up with a new extension). New GM Brian Gutekunst is promising a more aggressive approach to free agency than the team has taken in the past, but Green Bay's cap situation (the team is projected to have $19.7 million in space) dictates that this aggressiveness be accompanied by accuracy. I would think the Packers would need to focus on the secondary and potentially bringing in someone to further shore up the running back position. Basically, though, they should target whomever can provide Rodgers with the biggest boost. This will be an interesting offseason for the Packers.
T-6) Cincinnati Bengals
Like the Packers, the Bengals are a traditionally conservative franchise that would benefit from being bolder than usual in free agency. Mike Brown wants to win, and Cincinnati has the cap space ($34.9 million) to make some major moves -- though it can be tough to attract talent to a smaller market like that. Keeping Marvin Lewis around as head coach was smart, in my opinion. The Bengals are not as bad as they seemed last season. A.J. Green is a superstar receiver. Joe Mixon might not have made a big impact as a rookie last year, but he remains a good football player with promise. The offensive line is not as poor as advertised. It might not be a bad idea for the Bengals to try to retain tight end Tyler Eifert -- if he's healthy, they could have a pretty good offensive attack in 2018.