The new NFL league year is not even a month old, but teams have been plenty busy with free agency ongoing while also getting ready for the draft in May. While hundreds of players are still on the market, plenty have already found their new homes.
A division title, conference championship or even Super Bowl ring won’t necessarily be won or lost based solely on what a team accomplishes in free agency, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some teams that clearly look like “winners” at this point either.
AFC contenders Denver and New England both addressed areas of weakness, while teams like Arizona, Chicago, Detroit and Miami targeted and signed players that were atop their wish list. Even lowly Jacksonville got into the act, as the Jaguars really beefed up their defense in hopes of turning things around.
However, no team was as aggressive and intentional in remaking their roster than Tampa Bay, something that has to bring a smile to new head coach Lovie Smith’s face.
2014 NFL Free Agency Winners (in alphabetical order)
The Cardinals have signed 13 free agents to this point, including seven of their own. Of the other six, two should have a significant impact this season. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, arguably Oakland’s best player, fills a significant need, as offensive line has been a major issue for Arizona the past few seasons. The Cardinals were just 23rd in rushing offense in 2013 and the line gave up 41 sacks.
With Veldheer and last year’s first-round pick guard Jonathan Cooper returning from injury, Arizona’s offensive line is in considerably better shape headed into training camp. Even better, the Cardinals got Veldheer for a reasonable price (five years, $35 million, $10.5 fully guaranteed), especially compared to the deals that peers Branden Albert (Miami) and Eugene Monroe (Baltimore) signed.
Arizona also caught a break when Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie got cut right before the start of free agency. Although clearly interested, and in the end the team got their man. Cromartie will pair with Patrick Peterson and it’s possible this duo could end up being the best cornerback tandem in the NFC West. This would be no small feat considering the division also houses the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
Although not as significant as the Veldheer and Cromartie signings, adding former Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer, Carolina wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn and veteran tight end John Carlson gives Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians even more pieces to work with on offense.
After giving up a franchise-record 478 points last season, Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman were intent on making over their defense. Besides bidding farewell to defensive end Julius Peppers, fellow defensive linemen Henry Melton and Corey Wootton also have departed, along with defensive backs Zack Bowman and Major Wright.
In their place, Chicago signed Oakland defensive end Lamarr Houston and two former Lions in Willie Young and Israel Idonije, who played for the Bears from 2004-12, to overhaul the line. The team also re-signed linebacker D.J. Williams and All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman along with safeties Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh) and M.D. Jennings (Green Bay).
Emery made a major push towards signing highly sought-after defensive ends Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson as soon as free agency began, but he was rebuffed on both fronts. However, the GM kept plugging away and he was rewarded when former Minnesota All-Pro Jared Allen declined a chance to join Seattle and signed a four-year deal with his former division rival instead. Two years younger and more productive (11.5 sacks in 2013) than Peppers (7.5 sacks), Allen should not only spark an unproductive Bears pass rush (30 sacks last season), but also serve as a vocal leader in the locker room. Whether or not these new faces produce better results on defense this season remains to be seen, but you certainly can’t say that Emery and Trestman didn’t try.
There’s little doubt that the 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII shellacking by Seattle still stings, which is why general manager John Elway did what he thought was necessary to keep the Broncos’ championship window open. While the team did watch wide receiver Eric Decker leave for the Big Apple and allowed leading rusher Knowshon Moreno sign with Miami among several other key departures, Elway also wasted neither time nor money in addressing his team’s biggest holes.
The first salvo fired by the defending AFC champs was signing Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib (top) away from the New England Patriots, just like Denver did last year with wide receiver Wes Welker. Even though Talib has a history for both injuries and his share of off-the-field issues, there’s no disputing his talent and ability to shut down a team’s best receiver. Talib won’t be the only new face in Denver’s secondary either, as he will team with former Cleveland safety T.J. Ward to try and replace the departed Dominque-Rodgers Cromartie (signed with the Giants) and Champ Bailey (still unsigned).
The loudest shot, however, came when Elway got DeMarcus Ware, after he was released by Dallas, to come to the Mile High City. Even though he’ll be 32 years old this season, Ware’s pass-rushing ability is something Denver desperately needs, especially with linebacker Von Miller coming back from a torn ACL. And while Elway certainly recognizes the need to improve the defense to take some of the pressure off of his MVP quarterback, he also made a shrewd move by signing former Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace Decker as one of Peyton Manning’s preferred targets. As bad as the Broncos looked in the Super Bowl, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLIX.
The Lions weren’t particularly active, but still made two important moves that could go a long ways towards determining how head coach Jim Caldwell’s first season in the Motor City goes. The biggest one was singing wide receiver Golden Tate away from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. The five-year, $31 million ($13.25 million guaranteed) deal gives All-Pro Calvin Johnson a legitimate sidekick for the first time, as Tate will replace the departed Nate Burleson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford also had to be happy when tight end Brandon Pettigrew re-signed with the Lions, as these two moves now means general manager Martin Mayhew can now focus his attention on beefing up the defense through the draft.
Can it be? The Jaguars are considered “winners” for a change? That’s what happens when owner Shad Khan opens up his checkbook, allowing general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley the opportunity to get aggressive in molding this roster. While cornerstone running back Maurice Jones-Drew is no longer a Jaguar, Bradley tapped his Seattle roots to beef up a defense that ranked near the bottom in every major category in 2013.
The Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-12, Bradley convinced defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to join him in Jacksonville. Those two along with former Pittsburgh end Ziggy Hood and the re-signed Jason Babin will allow Bradley the opportunity to constantly bring pressure by rotating fresh, able bodies in. Cornerback Will Blackmon also should step right in and be an immediate contributor in the secondary.
All the attention wasn’t paid to the defense, however, as former Denver guard Zane Beadles fills a major need and Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota, should get his chance to shoulder the backfield load for the Jaguars. Caldwell also was able to trade former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-rounder in the upcoming draft. The Jaguars still have a long ways to go as they work their way back to competing on a consistent basis, but this offseason was a positive step in that direction.
The Dolphins were one of the more aggressive teams in free agency last season, adding wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes, among others. The ‘Fins didn’t stay on the sidelines this time around either, as the biggest fish they reeled in was former Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert. The 6-5, 316-pound blocker didn’t come cheap (five years, $47 million, $20 million guaranteed), but he was considered by many the best tackle available and he’s clearly an upgrade over what the Dolphins had (and had to deal with) last season.
New general manager Dennis Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin also decided to address their struggling running game, which ranked 26th last season, by bringing in Knowshon Moreno. The oft-injured running back is coming off his best season, rushing for 1,038 yards and adding another 548 on 60 catches while scoring 13 total touchdowns for Denver. Signed for one year at just $3 million, Moreno will try and build on last season’s success, as he will compete with incumbents Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas for touches.
Miami took care of important business on defense by re-signing defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerback Brent Grimes, while also inking St. Louis Ram castoff Cortland Finnegan to further bolster its secondary. Most off all, the Dolphins are “winners” in that they made sure to rid themselves of offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, the two central figures in the bullying scandal that overshadowed and sullied their 2013 season.
New England Patriots
It was almost déjà vu for the Patriots in free agency. After watching wide receiver Wes Welker leave for Denver last season, it looked like the Broncos had stuck it to their rivals again when they signed cornerback Aqib Talib. This time, however, Bill Belichick and the front office did not just sit idly by, instead pouncing on All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis as soon as he was released by Tampa Bay. Unlike Talib’s lengthy, expensive contract (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed), Revis signed a one-year, $12 million pact with the Patriots that gives him a chance to prove to everyone (especially the New York Jets, his former employer and now division rival) that he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in 2012.
And the hooded one wasn’t done there either. The team added a second physical corner in Brandon Browner, despite the drug-related suspension that still looms over the former Seahawk. But perhaps most importantly, the Patriots also made sure that their current top wide receiver, Julian Edelman, didn’t leave the nest like Welker did last March. New England still has other holes and needs to address, but Belichick is doing all that he can in hopes of building a supporting cast that can hopefully get him and Tom Brady back to the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Talk about your housewarming gifts. All Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer and new general manager Jason Licht have done to welcome new head coach Lovie Smith is gift wrap one of the top defensive ends (Michael Johnson) and cornerbacks (Alterraun Verner) on the market. They along with tackle Clinton McDonald and corner Mike Jenkins should team with the pieces already in place (defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Lavonte David, safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson) to form one of the nastier defenses in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, new additions include center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers and quarterback Josh McCown, the former Bear who has familiarity with Smith and will challenge second-year pro Mike Glennon for the starting job. It’s early, but if Tampa Bay can maximize its draft picks, settle on a starting quarterback and make the transition to Smith’s preferred Tampa-2 defensive scheme, the Buccaneers could mimic what division rival Carolina did last season – go from worst to first in the NFC South.