By: Tony Meale
NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.
The Dolphins need a quarterback – what else is new? – and their first option should be Matt Flynn, who has shown great promise in limited action. Peyton Manning is obviously a more attractive target, but does anyone see Miami becoming a serious contender in the next two or three years? Flynn is a decade younger, more familiar with the West Coast offense and cheaper. He would provide much-needed stability at the position.
Regardless of who ends up under center, the Dolphins need to invest in their offensive line. Miami allowed 52 sacks last year – good for 30th in the league. If the Dolphins don’t trade up, offensive tackle Riley Reiff would be a sound pick at No. 8 overall.
New England Patriots (13-3)
Statistically, the Patriots were dreadful on defense last year, which was no secret. With all due respect to Julian Edelman, wide receivers typically don’t play cornerback for a reason, and New England, which finished 31st in the league in total defense – despite leading the AFC in takeaways – is desperate for an impact player at corner or safety. An elite pass-rusher off the edge or at linebacker would also do wonders for that unit, especially since Vince Wilfork remains one of the better run-stuffers in football.
If the Texans don’t use their franchise tag on Mario Williams – and they probably won’t – New England should make a serious play for him. He can play the 4-3 and the 3-4 and would be the disruptive force that defense desperately needs.
Offensively, the Pats have no glaring weaknesses. That said, imagine Tom Brady with a deep threat and a legit feature back. Bill Belichick has a thing about piecing together a running back by committee, which has proved effective – five Super Bowls in 11 seasons means you’re doing something right – but an uber-talented tailback would take this offense to the next level.
So would Mike Wallace. If Brady has the fastest or second fastest wideout in the game at his disposal, this offense becomes flat out unguardable.
New York Jets (8-8)
The Jets could do any number of things with their first-round pick and not be criticized.
Tailback is a major area of concern. Shonn Greene showed flashes this year, but his overall career has been mediocre at best, and he offers very little in the passing game. Trent Richardson, once considered a top-five pick, has seen his stock slip due to knee issues. If he’s around at No. 16, the Jets should take him.
Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, needs help at wideout – at least, that’s what the Jets are hoping is the problem. If New York goes wideout in the first round, Michael Floyd is a worthwhile option.
Defensively, New York needs a pass-rusher for two reasons: one, because every team needs a pass-rusher, and two, because then maybe Rex Ryan won’t have to call blitzes seemingly every play. Mario Williams, who averaged 10 sacks per year from 2007 to 2010, would garner considerable interest via free agency, while Courtney Upshaw, Whitney Mercilus and Nick Perry are the top options coming out of college.
Any of these moves, however, is worthless if the Jets can’t mature. To start the season 8-5 and miss the playoffs is inexcusable. A leadership seminar, a camping trip and a little kumbaya would do this team some good.
Re-signing Steve Johnson (five years, $36.25 million) was probably a wise choice. He’s by no means a game-breaking receiver, but he’s reliable (82 catches for 1,073 yards in 2010, 76 catches for 1,004 yards in 2011).
With their top wideout secured, the Bills must focus on other areas, particularly their 26th-ranked defense. Buffalo, which has the tenth pick in the draft, will likely select a defensive end. Alabama product Courtney Upshaw would be a quality pick, as would Whitney Mercilus.
More than anything, Buffalo needs toughness. After starting 5-2, the Bills lost seven straight and eight of nine to close the season; they allowed 30+ points in five of those nine games, all losses. They also went 1-7 on the road.
As much as the defense needs improvement, the offense sputtered in the second half of the season as well, scoring 11 points or fewer in four of its final nine games. Buffalo did its part in committing to Ryan Fitzpatrick; now Fitzpatrick needs to provide some return on the investment.
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.