By Steve Silverman
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“There’s only one way to build an NFL team, and that’s through the draft” is the way the saying goes.
Go ahead and use free agency to find a few bit parts here and there, but if any team is going to use that technique to make significant improvements, it is going to fail.
That’s the philosophy that most NFL teams have used for years, but that thought process was challenged quite a bit last year.
The New York Giants and Oakland Raiders made key free agent signings to help their overall talent and depth, and both teams improved quite a bit. The Giants returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and the Raiders were in command of the AFC for the majority of the season before taking a bit of a tumble after quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg.
The Raiders still made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and they should be on track to remain a solid contender in the AFC West.
The Giants signed defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins last year, and they went from having the worst defense in the league to having a very effective one. They also saw strong safety Landon Collins develop into one of the most effective defensive backs in the league.
The Raiders signed key free agents guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson, and those players helped key their rise on both sides of the ball.
Free agency can be a very effective tool for building a team, and smart clubs can use it as more than a Band-Aid approach to improvement.
This year, there are a number of teams that could be quite a bit more active in free agency than in years past. Here’s a look at five teams that figure to be aggressive when the free agent signing period begins Thursday.
This was the team that was expected to win the NFC West and possibly represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in 2016, but the Cardinals never found their rhythm after losing their opener to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
How the Cardinals stumbled to a 7-8-1 record and a failure to even make the playoffs is still difficult to understand. Head coach Bruce Arians is not going to sit idly by and accept the results. General manager Steve Keim knows that Carson Palmer, 37, and Larry Fitzgerald, 34, are older players, and the quarterback and wide receiver positions have to be addressed.
Look for the Cardinals to go after a tight end in addition to those two positions. Potential targets include wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (Bears), tight end Martellus Bennett (Patriots) and quarterback Mike Glennon (Tampa Bay).
While Glennon is way down the list of available free agents, he is first among quarterbacks, and Palmer can’t go on forever.
The 2016 season was a disaster for the Panthers and coach Ron Rivera, and nobody expected to see them tumble to a 6-10 season after earning a spot in Super Bowl 50 the year before.
How could a team with Cam Newton at quarterback and a brutal, hard-hitting defense take such a big step back? Rivera is still searching for all the answers, but one of them is clearly a lack of talent at the wide receiver position.
Jeffery is likely to be one of their targets, and so is Pierre Garcon (Washington), Terrelle Pryor (Cleveland) and Kenny Britt (Los Angeles Rams).
The Panthers were one of the top coverage teams in their Super Bowl year, but that was not the case after letting Josh Norman walk last year. Cornerback is a weakness, and that means A.J. Bouye (Houston) and Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo) are likely targets.
Chicago general manager Ryan Pace is facing quite a bit of heat to help the Bears show signs of respectability after a brutal 3-13 season in 2016.
Pace has said the team will be quite active in free agency, and after seeing the success the Giants had on defense last year, it seems likely he will be addressing that side of the ball. The Bears have more than $58 million in cap room available, so they should be able to follow through on that promise.
Gilmore should be one of the Bears’ targets, and so should defensive tackle Dontari Poe (Kansas City). Defensive end Calais Campbell (Arizona) will get strong consideration, and so will defensive tackle Bennie Logan (Philadelphia) and safety Barry Church (Dallas).
Additionally, the Bears are likely to bring in a quarterback, and they could give Glennon a long, hard look.
The Colts will provide quite a bit of competition for the Bears when it comes to adding defensive players. They have $60 million to spend, and after finishing 30th in yards allowed, this is an area they must address.
It would not be a shock to see the Colts make a run at linebacker Dont’a Hightower (New England) and defensive tackle Brandon Williams (Baltimore). Both are headline-type players who are arguably two of the most effective free agents on the board.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The Niners brought in John Lynch to take over at general manager and completely overhaul this team, and he should bring in a boatload of players to address major weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
San Francisco needs major help on both lines, and that means guard Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati) and T.J. Lang (Green Bay) could both be targets on the offensive side. The 49ers almost certainly will make a run at Poe because he is a potential difference maker on the defensive line.
San Francisco has more than $81 million in cap space, so there should be no excuses for not bringing in the big names.
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