The 2014 NFL free agency period is upon us, and things will get underway proper on Tuesday afternoon. The start of the new league year means teams can officially sign players to new contracts, though they have been able to talk and do preliminary negotiations since Saturday (and, let's be honest, many of them spoke before then).
The NFC West was one of the most exciting and competitive divisions in football last season. Three teams were in the playoff race right into the end, two of them made the NFC Championship and one of them won the Super Bowl. The teams mostly built themselves through the NFL Draft, but retaining their own free agents is a big part of keeping things going.
Below, we'll take a look at some key players each team will need to retain in order to be successful going forward.
The Seahawks have two huge players that will need extending at some point this offseason or during the regular season: cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. They're the two best players on the roster and they're both looking at expiring contracts in 2014, so a big part of ensuring the Seahawks can get that done will be making sure they don't do anything that will get in the way this free agency period. Seattle made its first big move of the offseason on Monday, agreeing to an extension with defensive end Michael Bennett before he could hit free agency.
Although he didn't put up huge overall numbers, Tate played a key role in Seattle's run-first offense. He finished the season with career-highs in catches with 64 and yards with 898. He was among the more efficient receivers in the league. Tate's production varied week-to-week, often depending on the gameplan, but he performed when Seattle needed him. Tate is a very solid No. 2 receiver and Seattle is reportedly interested in retaining him. At 25, Tate is only entering the prime of his career and could be a candidate for a breakout season if he lands in a more pass-happy offense.
Hauschka has been nothing but solid for the Seahawks. There are going to be some solid kickers on the market this offseason, but Hauschka has a long time left to play in the NFL and absolutely deserves a multi-year deal. He'll get something close to top-dollar for kickers.
Giacomini remains a very solid pickup for the Seahawks. They signed him off the Green Bay Packers practice squad and he's been the starter on the right side. He's a great run blocker, and the Seahawks likely want to sign him to a multi-year deal. He's ready to go, and there are many teams out there in need of a tackle, so Seattle could be in trouble if he hits the open market.
Team needs: OL, WR, DT, TE
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The 49ers are in a position where they're expecting some turnover in the secondary already. None of the cornerback positions are set for next season, though it's not entirely due to expiring contracts. Part of their focus this offseason will be bringing in some more corners, but there are other players of note the team needs to retain. It's also worth noting that the 49ers will likely be looking to get quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed to a new extension sooner rather than later.
Whitner has been fantastic for San Francisco. He's been a controversial figure due to his unnecessary roughness penalties, but he has yet to be fined for them. Whitner can be a liability in pass coverage from time to time, but he's consistently all over the field and is a strong veteran presence. San Francisco has no other option for the time being, and pairing a rookie with second-year free safety Eric Reid would not be a smart move. The 49ers will let the market dictate Whitner's value, however.
The 49ers may be afraid to extend Dawson after what happened with David Akers -- his best statistical performance ever followed by his worst -- but Dawson was solid this season. He converted 27 consecutive field goal attempts and made 39 of 43 attempts overall, including the playoffs. He's 39, but should get at least another year.
Team needs: CB, SS, WR, backup QB, OG, C
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Few expected the Cardinals to do what they did in 2013. While the beginning of the season was a bit slow, they sort of came out of nowhere after that suddenly threatened to make the playoffs over the 49ers. They didn't in the end, but were in it up until Week 17 and managed to record double-digit wins. Arizona is on the right track, and this offseason will be huge for its future.
Dansby is easily Arizona's top free agent priority. He signed a one-year deal this past offseason and had a career year. He was very solid in pass coverage (though he suffered from drops, and should have had multiple interceptions) and he was credited with a career-high 114 solo tackles this past season. It's easy to see why he should remain in Arizona on a multi-year deal.
There's just too much still up in the air regarding Bobby Massie at this point. The Cardinals came so far so fast this past season, and the worst thing they could do is take the offensive line for granted and regress to the league-worst level they were at in 2012. Winston was solid on the right side, especially down the stretch when Arizona was winning games, and should be in line for a one-year deal.
While Shaughnessy has struggled to find a place in the NFL over the past few years, he probably didn't imagine that place would be as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. But that's what he was with the Cardinals, and it worked. Shaughnessy wasn't the best pass rusher, but he was among the top defenders when it came to run defense and the team should definitely consider giving him an extension.
Team needs: OL, TE, S
Unlike the Cardinals, the Rams were expected to be much-improved in 2013. They were supposed to be the third team that made the NFC West even more competitive, but it didn't work out that way. St. Louis struggled, and now the Rams have some decisions to make. Fortunately, there aren't too many free agents on expiring contracts, especially ones who would command top dollar. The bigger decisions will come during the NFL Draft and when the Rams decide who they need to cut or restructure to get their cap situation under control.
Saffold is easily the top priority here. He's struggled at times at tackle, but is versatile and has been moved around a lot. The Rams used him at three different positions in 2013, and when he lined up at guard, he looked fantastic. There will be multiple teams hoping to bring Saffold in if he hits the open market, and the Rams will definitely have to pay him big money. Fortunately, he's their only player like that this year.
Dunbar had a fantastic 2012 season, but the Rams replaced him with Alec Ogletree. His stats dropped considerably this past year, but he remains a solid player who sees a lot of time on defense. He had a cap hit of just $650,000 last season, so he won't be expensive to re-sign.
The Rams don't have a great secondary. The safety position was among the weakest this past season, but letting it get any weaker isn't the solution. T.J. McDonald is one starter, and while the Rams will need to look for another, Stewart should be retained for depth at the very least.
Team needs: WR, OL, FS, CB, backup QB