by Aaron Schatz
New England Patriots
Biggest Hole: Edge Rusher
Many will laud last spring's Chandler Jones trade as the latest example of Bill Belichick's managerial acumen, cashing in an asset for long-term value while also winning in the short term. New England's season ultimately turned out just fine without Jones, but it would be wrong to claim that the Patriots didn't miss their best pass-rusher.
Pick your metric. New England piled up 49 sacks and finished second in adjusted sack rate in 2015, but had just 34 sacks and plummeted to 26th in ASR last year. And based on Sports Info Solutions' charting, the Patriots were just 25th in total pressure rate. Chris Long was the only New England defender to garner at least 20 pressures according to SIS, and he has already declared his intention to leave in free agency. Jabaal Sheard also seems likely to price himself out of Foxboro given that the franchise tag took
Belichick has recently favored players capable of rushing outside or inside on obvious passing downs, which minimizes the need for a traditional 3-technique defensive tackle. Trey Flowers showed some promise last year in this role, but he has barely played 500 career snaps and finished with the same number of pressures as All-KCW stalwart Mario Williams. Apart from Flowers, the Pats have 33-year-old Rob Ninkovich entering the final year of his deal (and perhaps career) in 2017, and not much else. Expect New England to throw a few darts at players who could fill Long's situational role in the draft and free agency.
With salary cap inflation lavishing teams with more money than they can spend, the Patriots will have some tough valuations to make. Dont'a Hightower is the one player on this list who seems like a clear cornerstone, but he's 0-for-5 in playing 16-game regular seasons and will almost certainly become the highest paid off-the-ball linebacker in the league. No matter what, you can bet the defense will look significantly different in 2017. Of the 11 players who played at least 500 defensive snaps in 2016 (postseason included), six of them are free agents (not including restricted free agent Malcolm Butler).
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
Despite inconsistency and injury, this unit managed to contain the best receiving options of opposing offenses in 2016. The Dolphins ranked fourth in defensive DVOA against both No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. However, they cancelled out much of that success by ranking 31st against all other wide receivers, with quarterbacks repeatedly picking on Miami's inexperienced depth.
Byron Maxwell quietly had a decent bounce-back season after his disastrous year in Philly, improving from 62nd to 14th in success rate, according to SIS charting. But the callow trio of Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, and Tony Lippett all struggled when called upon. When Maxwell went down in Week 15 with an ankle injury, the Dolphins were exposed. Miami allowed just four 100-yard receivers all year with Maxwell in the lineup, but the opposing No. 1 receivers in each of its last three games -- Sammy Watkins, Julian Edelman, and Antonio Brown -- all went over the century mark with no Maxwell.
The Dolphins have high expectations for the second-rounder Howard, who was a Week 1 rookie starter despite missing all of training camp with a knee injury. But McCain and Lippett were both developmental players who haven't shown much entering their third seasons. Even if Maxwell stays healthy and Howard takes a step forward, Miami needs to ensure that other teams' complementary options don't continue to toast them in 2017.
Kenny Stills was an important vertical threat in last season's offense who might garner far too expensive a contract on the open market. The reports of Stills getting $12 million per year might be hyperbole, but anything approaching eight figures would be almost untenable with an extension looming for Jarvis Landry. The Dolphins could use Andre Branch for edge-rushing depth, as he has finished with 15 and 15.5 pressures the past two seasons. Otherwise, Miami is in solid shape with more than $40 million in cap space to address its needs on defense and at guard.
Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver
Regardless of whether or not Buffalo hangs onto Tyrod Taylor, whoever their quarterback is in 2017 would surely appreciate someone to throw to. Sammy Watkins had only 28 receptions in a disappointing injury-plagued 2016, but that's still more than 17 -- the combined career total of all the other wide receivers currently under contract.
The Bills may consider re-signing Robert Woods, but they'll need help at the position regardless. Since trading up to take Watkins in 2014, Buffalo has stayed away from the position, spending two late-round picks and avoiding anything other than longshot Percy Harvin types in free agency. The ground-bound offense Buffalo has relied on seems shakier with new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's zone-blocking scheme, a drastic departure from the gap-based scheme that suited LeSean McCoy so well. This is especially true if the Bills split with Taylor.
Buffalo will therefore need more credibility from its passing options to offset its likely rushing regression. Even if Watkins stays healthy -- no lock with recurring foot issues forcing him to miss 11 games the last two seasons -- the Bills need multiple additions around him to help out whomever ends up under center.
The Bills top the league with 23 unrestricted free agents, including six who played at least 500 snaps last season. Stephon Gilmore will be the most expensive of the bunch, and we recently argued that Buffalo might be better off letting him walk. Equally confounding are the situations of linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown, both of whom broke out in 2016, but neither of whom has a clear role in Sean McDermott's new defensive scheme. Buffalo currently ranks 24th in cap space with $22.2 million, but could free up an addition $13 million by declining Taylor's option.
New York Jets
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
What do you get for the team that needs everything? Despite several less-than-illustrious years in the DVOA era, last year's Jets fielded the worst pass defense they have had dating back to 1988. Injuries coupled with Darrelle Revis' demise were at the heart of the 31st-ranked pass defense. Per Spotrac, New York fielded the league's second-most expensive secondary by cap hit last season, yet did not rank better than 16th against any type of receiver.
The Jets should be able to find reinforcements in a deep draft for defensive backs, important for a team that lacks young talent on the back end. Former first-rounder Calvin Pryor has stagnated and probably won't have his fifth-year option picked up, while mid-rounders Juston Burris and Dexter McDougle haven't proven anything at cornerback. The defense might benefit if it can find another perimeter corner to push Buster Skrine inside to his natural slot corner role, but this is a deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic type of arrangement.
Edge rusher, offensive line, wide receiver, and of course quarterback could all be reasonably compelling choices here as well. Mike Maccagnan doesn't sound inclined to draft a quarterback, so this looks like a situation where the Jets will try to construct a somewhat credible roster before tossing their next young savior to the wolves.
This list doesn't include Ryan Fitzpatrick, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Clady, Breno Giacomini, or Nick Folk, all of whom were released this offseason in roster bloodletting. Maccagnan really had no choice given that the Jets were actually over the cap to start the offseason, though the current roster is possibly the league's worst. Benjamin Ijalana is the one free agent who might be worth holding onto, as the 27-year-old held up reasonably well at right tackle in his first season as a starter.