5 biggest free agency winners after one week
Free agency is still bubbling away under the surface, but the biggest moves have all been made, and all that is left is for teams to pick up the occasional scrap of quality and help for 2017.
With a week having passed since the craziness began, it’s time to take a look at the teams that have come out of the period with the most help.
“Winning” free agency doesn’t always, or even usually, translate to on-field success the following season, so it remains to be seen how the following teams put their new acquisitions to good use. On paper, though, these are the teams that have added the most quality over the past week.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Significant moves: Signed DI Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye and S Barry Church; traded for T Branden Albert
The Jaguars have been active spenders in free agency for several years running now, and though it has yet to translate to on-field success, they are acquiring quality players along the way, and sooner or later that has to produce results. Calais Campbell is one of the league’s most formidable and disruptive interior defenders, coming off the best season of his career despite being north of 30 years old now. Campbell notched 54 total QB pressures in 2016 as well as 34 defensive stops. Only Malik Jackson posted more pressures among Jacksonville defensive linemen, and Campbell would have led the Jags with defensive stops. A.J. Bouye’s play at CB last season was excellent for Houston, earning him a huge contract, and he should pair well with second-year player Jalen Ramsey to form arguably the league’s best young tandem at CB. Barry Church was impressive in 2016 for Dallas, and even Branden Albert has proven to be a quality player in the past and battled through injury last year, so to snag him for barely any outlay is a solid move to see if he has anything left.
2. Detroit Lions
Significant moves: Signed T Ricky Wagner and G T.J. Lang
The college game—and the rise of spread offenses—doesn’t just create problems when scouting and evaluating quarterbacks and receivers, but it’s making identifying linemen a struggle, too. The Lions have decided they may be better to attack proven NFL commodities to fix their line instead, signing a pair of starting linemen in Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang, who should form a new right side and massively upgrade the unit. Last season, Lang allowed just 10 total pressures in 13 games, less than half the figure that Larry Warford did starting at RG for Detroit. Wagner bounced back from an ugly 2015 to perform well at RT for the Ravens. He surrendered 32 total pressures over the season, being flagged just three times all year. The Lions allowed the right side of their line to walk away in the same free-agency period, but they successfully upgraded at both spots on paper, and paid less to do it than their outgoing starters received on the open market from their new teams.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Significant moves: Signed DI Chris Baker and WR DeSean Jackson
The Bucs have added a pair of extremely nice pieces to their roster without breaking the bank to do it, and at spots that have been an issue for multiple seasons now. This team has been looking for a nose tackle to play next to DT Gerald McCoy since they drafted him, and Baker is an excellent fit to do that. He earned a top-20 overall grade (82.2) in his second straight season of excellent play, and that represents a significant upgrade over Akeem Spence’s 39.2 grade from 2016. When you consider that Baker notched 42 total QB pressures—just seven fewer than McCoy—to go with his stout run defense, this looks to be a fine signing, made into one of the best-value deals in the entire free agency period. DeSean Jackson still has speed to burn and led the entire league in yards gained on deep (20-plus air yards) receptions last season (579). With Mike Evans already in place and a few receivers who have shown ability in the slot and underneath, Jackson finishes that receiving corps with the skill-set that has been missing.
4. New England Patriots
Significant moves: Signed CB Stephon Gilmore, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Duron Harmon, DI Alan Branch and DI Lawrence Guy; traded for WR Brandin Cooks
The Patriots have been one of the most active teams in free agency, and much of their best work came in the form of re-signing their own players. Key members of the Super Bowl-winning defense from 2016 were brought back in the form of LB Dont’a Hightower, interior defender Alan Branch and FS Duron Harmon. All three are versatile within New England’s defensive unit and are big players to keep around. Stephon Gilmore was their big-money splash signing. He represents a player that has outstanding skills, but maybe never quite realized his potential in Buffalo. When targeted in 2016, Gilmore allowed a passer rating of just 70.6 thanks to picking off five passes over 68 targets. The former Bill could well improve in the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Like the Lions when it comes to offensive linemen, the Patriots are prioritizing proven NFL players when it comes to receivers, and sent a first-round pick to New Orleans to acquire Brandin Cooks, a player with 17 touchdowns and 2,311 receiving yards over the past two seasons. Cooks has the blazing deep speed missing from this New England receiving corps.
5. Cleveland Browns
Significant moves: Signed G Kevin Zeitler, C J.C. Tretter, and WR Kenny Britt; traded for a second-round pick (and Brock Osweiler)
The Browns, like the Lions, invested in proven NFL talent along the offensive line. They signed G Kevin Zeitler, one of the best free agents on the market, and re-upped their own player in Joel Bitonio to form one of the league’s best guard pairings. J.C. Tretter is a player that has been good when on the field, but has never been handed the opportunity to start long-term. Last season, he started seven games for Green Bay and surrendered just eight total QB pressures; Tretter represents a huge potential upgrade for the Browns’ offensive line on a modest contract. Kenny Britt secured Cleveland at least one proven NFL-level receiver, even as Terrelle Pryor walked out of the door, but the coup of this team’s free-agent period was pulling off what amounts to the purchase of a second-round pick in 2018 by trading for Texans QB Brock Osweiler. His failure in Houston was so complete, and his contract so bad, that the Texans effectively paid Cleveland a second-round pick next year just to take his contract off their books. Cleveland entered free agency with over $100 million in cap space, so they could afford to make the move and it have zero impact on their free-agent plans. If they successfully adjust his deal and flip Osweiler to another team for even more picks, this just looks even better.