There are only a handful of ways to improve the roster of an NFL team, and one of them will take center stage on March 13, when the free agency period begins. Before teams begin snapping up available players, let's take a look at the seven teams with the most at stake in free agency this offseason.
1) New York Jets
Projected cap space: $102.15 million (second-most in the NFL).
The Jets have a quarterback to build around and boatloads of cap space to work with. Of course, the clock is also ticking on quarterback Sam Darnold's affordable rookie contract -- and there are plenty of roster holes to fill, thanks largely to a disappointing draft record over the past four years. If the Adam Gase era is going to get off to a good start, spending correctly this offseason is key. Upgrades would help at basically every position other than at quarterback, safety (manned by Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye) and tight end (Chris Herndon). Le'Veon Bell is the kind of big-ticket player New York has targeted in the past, and the scrimmage-yards monster would bring some serious juice to this offense. But again, with plenty of their own heading for free agency, there is more than enough work to do, to both make this squad competitive in the AFC East and keep Darnold's development on track.
2) Buffalo Bills
Projected cap space: $79.99 million (third).
A roster purge left the Bills with more than $50 million in dead money last season, but now that's off the books and the team has plenty of space to work with again. Like the Jets, Buffalo is stuck in a division that has been dominated by the Patriots. Also like the Jets, the Bills are under pressure to make the most of the window provided by a young quarterback's manageable contract (Josh Allen). Buffalo is utterly devoid of reliable offensive weapons; consider that Allen himself ranked third on the team with 631 yards from scrimmage last season, with the players who ranked above him barely combining for more than 1,000 (LeSean McCoy had 752 and Zay Jones had 652). In Brandon Beane's second full offseason as GM (he was hired in May of 2017), the shopping list is long. A speedy veteran receiver, a tight end and probably some offensive linemen (with right guard John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills headed for free agency) would help. Oh, and so would building depth at all three levels of the defense.
3) Oakland Raiders
Projected cap space: $71.24 million (sixth).
Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest the Raiders won't be investing too much in free agency while they continue rebuilding under Jon Gruden and new GM Mike Mayock. But there are so many holes on this roster that the rebuilding project will take more than one offseason to complete. It's also hard to see a coach as competitive and veteran-friendly as Gruden sitting back with all that cap space available. In addition to (hopefully) landing three starting-caliber players with their three first-round draft picks (and maybe landing Antonio Brownvia trade?), I could see Gruden and Mayock adding depth across the roster with veteran contract offers. Edge rusher and receiver are obvious needs, with Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper having been traded away; in fact, among Oakland's returning defensive ends, only 2018 third-round pick Arden Key looks like a lock to make the roster. The Raiders should peruse the veteran free safety market and, potentially, available pass-catching tight ends, if Jared Cook doesn't re-sign. Whatever they end up doing at the quarterback position long-term, the additions the Raiders make this year could help set them up for the next couple of years and the eventual move to Las Vegas.
4) Houston Texans
Projected cap space: $74.02 million (fourth).
Forget about keeping up with Indianapolis in the AFC South -- the Texans need to catch up with the Colts, who, by the way, are in position to scoop up plenty of their own new talent as the owners of the most cap space in the league. Tagging Jadeveon Clowney was important, but adding offensive pop is a prerequisite to Houston making any kind of serious playoff run. Only receiver DeAndre Hopkins generated more than 1,000 yards of production last season, and in the Texans' wild-card loss to the Colts, only receiver Keke Coutee topped the 100-yard mark. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is under team control for just three more seasons (including a likely fifth-year option in 2021), and Andrew Luck's resurgent squad suddenly looms as a major potential spoiler to the first chapter of the Watson era. It would be smart to beef up an offensive line that allowed Watson to be sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018. Are the offensive tackles good enough to get the Texans where they need to be? The left guard spot, currently occupied by Senio Kelemete, could also use an upgrade. I was fortunate enough to have dinner recently with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and I got a pretty good feel for the team. Houston likes its defense, though the departure of Tyrann Mathieu figures to leave a hole at safety.
5) San Francisco 49ers
Projected cap space: $68.30 million (seventh).
Jimmy Garoppolo's torn ACL sent San Francisco sideways in 2018, but it didn't help that the Niners' secondary only managed to pick off two passes all year -- that's the lowest mark by any team in NFL history. San Francisco would do well to continue paying serious attention to the defense; the team is in prime position to select an elite edge rusher with the second overall pick, but it would be helpful to spend some capital in free agency on upgrading the secondary, perhaps by reuniting Richard Sherman with former Seahawks teammate Earl Thomas. Nickleback could also need help, with Jimmie Ward headed for the market, and linebacker could use a boost, while there's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster. At this time next year, coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch surely don't want to be preparing to use their fourth straight top-10 draft pick.
6) Detroit Lions
Projected cap space: $33.62 million (13th).
I wouldn't think GM Bob Quinn or coach Matt Patricia should be worrying about their jobs one year into their five-year contracts, but there are expectations that strides will be made following 2018's 6-10 mess. The emergence of Kerryon Johnsonfinally gave this team a good running back to pair with stud QB Matthew Stafford. If the Lions are to avoid falling to the back of the competitive NFC North pack again and wasting another year of Stafford's prime, they must make some key roster additions this offseason. Tight end is a priority after the Lions released former first-round pick Eric Ebron last March, only to watch Ebron put together the most productive year of his NFL career in Indianapolis. While Detroit will likely address its edge-rushing needs in the draft (they pick eighth overall), it could be interesting for the Lions to make a run at Patriots free agents like DE Trey Flowers and DT Malcom Brown, especially in light of Patricia's familiarity with those players as New England's former defensive coordinator.
7) New England Patriots
Projected cap space: $23.94 million (19th).
The defending champs don't usually go for big-ticket free agents, rather excelling at under-the-radar acquisitions. However, they're also likely to lose a number of pieces to the market this offseason, with Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, Trent Brown, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett and Stephen Gostkowski all set to potentially leave. While the Pats have a couple of extra draft choices, Tom Brady's age (41) could induce New England to search more intensely for veteran help. This team has also been known to take one-year fliers. Could we see someone like Ndamukong Suh or (if he's released by Dallas) Sean Lee signing on to try to make another run at a Super Bowl ring?