Everybody wants to build through the draft, but how well you do at that dictates how much you need to dip into free agency to augment the roster. Adding talent is no bad thing no matter how it’s done, and losing talent can be crippling. So who are the winners and losers in free agency thus far?
I know they cut Darrelle Revis loose just a year after trading for him, but that doesn’t make the decision a wrong one. There’s a new regime in Tampa Bay and Revis just doesn’t fit the scheme of Lovie Smith. That’s not to say that he couldn’t do a good job within it, but rather that the difference between that job and the one Alterraun Verner can do isn’t worth $10 million a year, and that was the choice the team had. Verner is a perfect fit for their new defense and comes at less than half the price of Revis.
In addition to Verner the team added arguably the top defensive end on the market in Michael Johnson, and also made key moves on the offensive line. The team made a similar swap deal at left tackle – showing Donald Penn the door and signing Anthony Collins – added Evan Dietrich-Smith and Clinton McDonald in the trenches, and even bought themselves another option at quarterback in Josh McCown who Smith has already named the starter. The Bucs already had a lot of talent on the roster, but they have filled a lot of holes before the draft rolls around with some impressive moves.
The Browns came into free agency as something of a laughing stock. After coming from Pittsburgh where continuity is celebrated above all else, owner Jimmy Haslem canned his head coach, GM and CEO after just one season leaving the Browns rudderless staring down a crucial period. The new regime though has quietly made a series of fine moves in free agency. They upgraded at linebacker by allowing D’Qwell Jackson to walk and replacing him with Karlos Dansby. The loss of T.J. Ward was significant, but in today’s pass-happy league his run-stuffing capabilities aren’t as important to many teams as his coverage deficiencies will be. If the Browns get the same Donte Whitner from 2013 they have a notable upgrade in that area.
Lastly they made a run at restricted free agent wide receiver Andrew Hawkins from division rival Cincinnati. The Browns signed Hawkins to an offer sheet designed to hurt the Bengals if they matched or if they didn’t. When the team ultimately declined to match the Browns secured themselves the slot receiver they hoped they were getting when they signed Davone Bess. Hawkins is a quick, dangerous receiving weapon that can move the chains, and is a fine special teamer to boot.
No team can be more conscious of their closing window than the Denver Broncos. While many teams with quarterbacks north of 30 will be mindful that they don’t have an endless window, with Peyton Manning a few days short of his 38th birthday the Broncos know they can’t count on him forever. If this team wants a championship, they have to shoot what they have now.
No clearer message could have been sent than the one they trumpeted over the first couple of days of free agency, spending big and bringing in some marquee names. The team secured T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware before replacing the loss of Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders and bringing back Andre Caldwell. They did all this while still retaining something in the region of $7 million in cap space with the opportunity to create a bit more if necessary giving them options in the next few weeks. The Broncos were one perfect storm away from a ring last year, and they’re intent on not going away quietly.
The Panthers are suddenly faced with some major holes in need of filling and not a whole lot of opportunity remaining for them to do so. Steve Smith left town as did Ted Ginn leaving the remaining wide outs under contract with just 5 receptions in their NFL careers. That’s a problem. To make matters worse Jordan Gross called it a career and left them with a gaping hole on an offensive line already beginning to show cracks. Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner are both still currently free agents leaving the Panthers with at least three of five spots on the line in need of patching.
As if that wasn’t enough the team allowed Captain Munnerlyn to be signed away and have yet to bring Drayton Florence back, making their secondary look pretty threadbare as well. Oh, and while it’s not free agent related it happened at the same time, Cam Newton is to undergo surgery to repair an ankle injury suffered back in the playoffs, casting his preseason in doubt. Ouch.
Unlike the Panthers who are being paralyzed by the moves they aren’t making, the Titans have made signings, but they are being hampered by the players they are bringing in. Michael Oher may have been a Hollywood All-Pro, but as an NFL offensive tackle he has been poor for some time now. They will expect him to replace David Stewart on the right side but his grade there last year for Baltimore was -12.6 as he allowed eight sacks. Wesley Woodyard is a capable coverage linebacker but struggles against the run given his size, and Dexter McCluster though talented seems between NFL positions.
Adding Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback is a massive downgrade even from Ryan Fitzpatrick, which would be less of an issue if Jake Locker had ever stayed healthy for more than 11 games in his NFL career. The team has added some players on defense up front but it feels a lot like seeing what sticks and less about having any clear vision.
The Steelers used to be held up as a shining beacon of a well run franchise along with the New England Patriots. While the Patriots have had some struggles themselves, they haven’t allowed the talent on their roster to be eroded to the same degree the Steelers have in recent years. Building through the draft is only the right plan as long as you manage that process well and are willing to learn from mistakes. The Steelers have both missed on too many picks and been slow to admit their mistakes when they have done so. As a result they have consigned players like Cameron Heyward to the bench while Ziggy Hood toils away for yet another few hundred snaps of ugly play.
The team entered free agency tight against the salary cap so they were never going to be big players. Still, they desperately needed to be able to patch some of the holes on the roster. Instead, LaMarr Woodley, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Jonathan Dwyer, Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel have walked out the door, along with others. The team was forced to commit big money to Jason Worilds (who didn’t have two consecutive games graded in the green for 2013) to prevent him doing the same. After they gave a not insubstantial deal to Mike Mitchell to replace Clark they have been forced to pick and choose some second tier free agents and once more sit tight until the draft. The Steelers don’t want to have to be big players in free agency, but their draft failings in recent year’s means that they needed to be.
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