NFL free agency is now 5½ weeks old, and pretty much closed for business for the next few weeks as most teams focus on the draft May 8-10.
Several significant players changed teams this offseason — Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware, DeSean Jackson, Eric Decker, Aqib Talib, Lamarr Houston, Julius Peppers, and Jared Allen among them — and teams filled most of their starting or rotational spots with veteran players.
However, a handful of glaring roster holes remain open, which should give a pretty good indication of that team’s top priority in the draft. Here is a ranking of the top 10 roster holes across the league:
1. Houston quarterback — The Texans’ depth chart dictates that they have to take a quarterback high in the draft. It now stands at Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, and T.J. Yates after the team traded Matt Schaub. Perhaps the Texans aren’t enamored with any of the top prospects at No. 1 and feel just as comfortable using the 33d pick on Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, or A.J. McCarron, but it’s hard to imagine Bill O’Brien beginning his coaching tenure by tabbing a second-round pick and the journeyman Fitzpatrick as his QB duo. The best way for the Texans to solve their quarterback problem is to roll the dice with the top pick. From our view, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles is the safest pick, with his big body, strong arm, and tutelage in a pro-style offense.
2. Atlanta tight end — These are the names on the Falcons’ roster to replace the 83 catches, 859 yards, and eight touchdowns compiled last year by now-retired Tony Gonzalez — Levine Toilolo, Mickey Shuler, and Andrew Szczerba. That’s last year’s fourth-round pick and two practice squad players, with 13 career catches combined. With the Falcons trying to rebuild an aging offense, here’s betting general manager Thomas Dimitroff would love to trade back a few spots from No. 6, collect extra picks, and snag North Carolina TE Eric Ebron at No. 10-12. Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro could also be a good fit in the late first/early second round.
3. Carolina wide receiver — Receiver isn’t exactly a premium position in the Panthers’ offense, which features a power running game, tight end Greg Olsen, and Cam Newton’s dual-threat ability. But after letting Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, and Ted Ginn leave via free agency, the Panthers still need to give Newton more weapons than just Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, signed as value free agents. The Panthers don’t pick until No. 28, but with this being one of the deepest and most talented wide receiver drafts ever, it’s a great time for them to load up on talented young receivers to grow with Newton.
4. Denver middle linebacker — The Broncos’ roster looks pretty darn impressive, with Peyton Manning still surrounded by Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas, and a defense now anchored by Ware, Talib, T.J. Ward, and Von Miller. But the Broncos have an obvious hole at middle linebacker. Veteran Wesley Woodyard was allowed to sign with Tennessee, and the only middle linebackers on the depth chart are Jamar Chaney and L.J. Fort, both out of football for a majority or all of last season. At 31 or 63 could be a great spot to draft a rangy, three-down linebacker.
5. Green Bay free safety — The Packers only have three safeties on the roster — strong safety Morgan Burnett, and a couple of backups to compete for the free safety job, Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson. The 21st pick might be too low for the Packers to land one of the two top safeties in the draft — Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — but they can always trade up for one of the two, or take a safety in the second round.
6. Kansas City wide receiver/tight end — If the Chiefs want to make more noise in the AFC, they have to give Alex Smith more targets in the passing game. They really don’t have much after Dwayne Bowe. Donnie Avery is a weak No. 2, A.J. Jenkins is close to being labeled a bust, Dexter McCluster left in free agency, and Anthony Fasano is a slow tight end. The Chiefs are another team that should use this draft to load up on offensive skill players.
7. Tampa Bay wide receiver — Hard to have a good grasp on the Buccaneers’ offense — is Josh McCown going to be the starting quarterback? Mike Glennon? A rookie? — but whomever is under center needs more weapons than what the Buccaneers currently offer. After trading the problematic Mike Williams to Buffalo, here is the depth chart at receiver behind Vincent Jackson: Chris Owusu, Skye Dawson, Eric Page, Lavelle Hawkins, and Louis Murphy. Sitting at No. 7, the Bucs are in great position to land one of the two elite receivers in this draft, Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans.
8. New Orleans center — The Saints need to find someone new to snap to Drew Brees after letting three-year starter Brian de la Puente leave for Chicago. The only center on the roster is Tim Lelito, an undrafted free agent from last year who played in 16 games with two starts at guard. The Saints are more likely to address a need at cornerback with their No. 27 pick but can still find a starting-caliber center in the second or third round.
9. Jacksonville wide receiver — The Jaguars have some promise at the position with Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders, but with Justin Blackmon gone indefinitely and Sanders more of a slot guy (5 feet 7 inches, 178 pounds), they really could use another big threat on the outside with one of their top picks, especially if they draft their next franchise quarterback at No. 3 overall.
10. New York Jets tight end — If the Jets have any interest in developing Geno Smith, they need to give him better weapons. Signing Eric Decker and Chris Johnson was a good start, but the Jets still could use help at tight end, where they have Jeff Cumberland and not much else — Konrad Reuland, Zach Sudfeld, Chris Pantale, and Colin Anderson. A good three-down tight end such as Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz would look great for the Jets in the second or third round.
Just missed the cut: Pittsburgh defensive end, Miami guard, Baltimore safety, Chicago safety, Cincinnati center, Detroit right tackle.
Patriots appear sold on left tackle
We wrote a few weeks ago that the Patriots haven’t decided on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on left tackle Nate Solder but there’s every reason to expect it will happen.
To recap: In the new collective bargaining agreement, all drafted players enter the league with four-year contracts, but first-round picks have an option fifth year that can be exercised at the team’s discretion. The 2011 draft class, of which Solder was the 17th overall pick, is the first class with this new contract structure, and the deadline to exercise the fifth-year option is May 3.
For players drafted in spots 1-10, their salaries for the option year is the average of the top 10 salaries at their positions. For players taken 11-32 (including Solder), their salaries are the average of salaries 3-25 at their positions. Two sources tell us Solder’s 2015 option-year salary would be right around $7.44 million (a number that reflects all offensive linemen, not just left tackles).
The option does award a nice one-year payout to the players, but is mostly favorable to the team. It keeps the player away from free agency at a reasonable rate, and the contract is guaranteed for injury only, meaning a club can still cut the player for performance reasons before or during 2015 training camp and not have it affect the salary cap. Basically, a player has to be a bust for the team not to exercise the option.
Already, J.J. Watt, Tyron Smith, Corey Liuget, Jimmy Smith, and Muhammad Wilkerson have had their options exercised, while the Panthers said they will do so with Cam Newton. There have been conflicting reports over whether the 49ers intend to exercise their option on pass rusher Aldon Smith.
The $7.44 million salary for Solder would be a significant pay raise from the $1.54 million he is due in 2014 — and almost equal to the $8.5 million he will make in his first four years combined — but it’s still potentially a lot less than Solder could command in free agency. Top-flight left tackles generally make at least $8 million per year and $17 million guaranteed on the open market.
Given Solder’s improved play in each of his first three seasons, the Patriots almost certainly will exercise the option in the days before the May 3 deadline.
Mistakes pointed out during film review
We actually enjoyed the new “Draft Day” movie more than we expected. The plot line and some of the details of the fictional Browns’ front office structure are a bit silly, but the movie held our interest for two hours, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
What’s funny, though, is that Browns GM Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) is hailed at the end of the movie as a draft wizard who pulled off the coup of the century. But in real life, the combination of Weaver’s moves probably would have gotten him fired before the second day of the draft. How badly did he bungle the draft? Let us count the ways:
■ On the morning of the draft, he traded three first-round picks — No. 7 this year, plus the next two years — for the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, without knowing whom he was going to pick. Nothing like mortgaging the future first, then figuring out the rest later.
■ Along the same lines: Until the morning of the draft, Weaver hadn’t done any scouting of quarterback Sean Callahan, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the consensus No. 1 pick. No wonder the Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002.
■ With the No. 1 pick, instead of taking Callahan, whom the owner demanded, Weaver took pass rusher Vontae Mack, whom we were told was in danger of dropping to the second round, let alone be a candidate for No. 1.
■ After pulling off a deft move to reacquire the No. 7 overall pick back from Seattle (plus the two future first-rounders), Weaver drafted a running back at No. 7. A running back! Even a reincarnation of Jim Brown or Barry Sanders wouldn’t go No. 7 in the draft in today’s NFL.
Order of the day
With less than three weeks to go until the draft, the most intriguing story line continues to revolve around the quarterbacks: Will the Texans take one at No. 1? How many will go in the top 10? In the first round? Here’s our stab at predicting the order in which the quarterbacks will go off the board: Blake Bortles (No. 1), Teddy Bridgewater (top five), Johnny Manziel (top 10), Derek Carr (late first), Jimmy Garoppolo (early second), Zach Mettenberger (early second), Tom Savage (late second), A.J. McCarron (third), Tajh Boyd (third), and Aaron Murray (fourth).
Jumping through hoops
Could the University of Miami basketball team be the next NFL pipeline? Jimmy Graham, a reserve on the Hurricanes’ basketball team who used his last year of eligibility to join the football team, has worked out pretty well for the Saints. Now get to know the name Erik Swoope, a four-year reserve who averaged 5 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 18.4 minutes this past season. Swoope (6 feet 5 inches, 220 pounds) didn’t play a down of football at Miami, and has never played competitive football at any level, but he has entered his name into the draft, and worked out at Miami’s Pro Day. Swoope won’t be a third-round pick like Graham was — Swoope is 3 inches shorter than Graham — but the NFL is always looking for athletes, and he could be an intriguing late-round prospect.
Speaking of Miami, Seantrel Henderson is rewriting the book on how to hurt your draft stock. Once considered the No. 1 five-star recruit coming out of high school, Henderson was suspended three times in his college career (he told the Sun-Sentinel it was for marijuana use), got his butt kicked by the competition at the Senior Bowl, then quit Miami’s Pro Day because of dehydration, his agent claimed. Henderson, perhaps once considered a second-round right tackle, now will likely drop to the third day of the draft.
In the end, Parcells fits the bill
Longtime cornerback Ty Law looks like the favorite to earn induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame (fans can vote at the team’s website through May 15), especially with Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown earning their spots the last two years. But the most fascinating of the three finalists is clearly Bill Parcells, whose candidacy can be debated for hours. Yes, his shenanigans around the 1997 Super Bowl — when he plotted his exit from the Patriots in the days leading up to the big game — should disqualify him from consideration, in theory. But there’s no doubting his monumental impact on the franchise. He’s the godfather of the modern-day dynasty, turning the team from a laughingstock to an annual contender and drafting the core of the team that won three Super Bowls. Without Parcells, there’s no Bill Belichick, no Gillette Stadium, and perhaps the team is in St. Louis or Hartford. Parcells likely won’t get in this year, but he eventually deserves a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Michael Vick and Chris Johnson may be past their primes, but credit Jets GM John Idzik for getting good value with the signings. In Vick he gets a great insurance policy for Geno Smith and it only cost him $4 million for one season. And he signed Johnson for a reasonable $8 million over two seasons. Johnson isn’t a 2,000-yard back anymore, but could be quite effective in a 1-2 punch with Bilal Powell . . . Montreal Alouettes GM Jim Popp insisted that the signing of receiver Chad Johnson last week wasn’t a publicity stunt. “I’m just doing my job. I’m trying to find the best fit for our locker room, guys that give us the best chance to win,” Popp said. Translation: “This is a publicity stunt.” Why else would you sign a 36-year-old receiver who hasn’t played a regular-season game since 2011? But hey, here we are talking about the Montreal Alouettes in mid-April, so it’s hard to blame Popp for the signing.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.