How Free Agency Has Affected Every Team's Draft Strategy
The NFL's free-agency period has an extraordinary impact on the way the draft ultimately plays out, as teams identify and address needs in March before filling other holes in April.
We have witnessed plenty of player movement since free agency began on March 12, so now is the appropriate time to a look at how all of the free-agency developments have affected every team's draft strategy.
The Buffalo Bills have been relatively quiet during the free-agent period, especially in regards to acquiring new talent. OLB Manny Lawson was added to Mike Pettine's hybrid defense, but GM Buddy Nix has made no other additions.
Meanwhile, G Andy Levitre was signed by the Tennessee Titans after the Bills decided to use the franchise tag on S Jairus Byrd.
A slew of veterans were released pre-free agency; DE Chris Kelsay, S George Wilson, OLB Nick Barnett, CB Terrence McGee, and most notably QB Ryan Fitzpatrick—the youth movement officially started under head coach Doug Marrone.
Also, WR Donald Jones was signed by the New England Patriots, and Buffalo decided to let WR David Nelson hit the open market.
If anything, the loss of Levitre adds another need to a roster with many holes.
The Miami Dolphins and GM Jeff Ireland are all-in.
They signed WR Mike Wallace, LB Philip Wheeler, LB Dannell Ellerbe, TE Dustin Keller and WR Brandon Gibson and retained S Chris Clemons.
Clearly, Miami wasn't fond of the WR class in this year's draft. The additions of Wheeler and Ellerbe essentially replaced released LB's Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.
However, they lost the Jake Long bidding war to the St. Louis Rams, so a major hole was created at the left tackle position.
Because they provided QB Ryan Tannehill more pass-catching options in free agency, the Dolphins now must turn to the draft to find their future franchise blindside protector.
They may need to trade up to grab Oklahoma's Lane Johnson unless they covet another left-tackle prospect not named Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher—they'll likely be gone by the No. 5 overall pick.
Also, with the loss of No. 1 cornerback Sean Smith, Miami must take a long look at defensive back in late April.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots' needs aren't as pressing as other teams, thanks in large part to Tom Brady, but their free-agency period has affected their draft strategy.
After losing WR Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos, WR Danny Amendola was signed as the most logical replacement on the market. CB's Kyle Arrington and Aqib Talib were re-upped, and S Adrian Wilson was brought in after being released by the Arizona Cardinals.
Because Amendola is an underneath-slot specialist, and due to the club's decision to cut WR Brandon Lloyd, New England should look for a wide receiver early in the draft, one who excels on the perimeter and poses a legitimate threat as a downfield speedster—it's unlikely free-agent signing WR Donald Jones is the answer.
Also, after failing to come to terms with pass-rushers John Abraham and Dwight Freeney, it's clear that the Patriots will look to bring in more edge-rushing talent.
New York Jets
New GM John Idzik didn't walk into the most comfortable job with the New York Jets, that's for sure.
Mike Tannenbaum essentially left the team in financial ruin.
Although the Jets added QB David Garrard, there's still a good chance they look to select their future franchise signal-caller early in the draft.
Also, with the departure of TE Dustin Keller, the team clearly has a dire pass-catching need, so tight end or wide receiver will likely be a top draft priority.
The Antwan Barnes signing was logical, as he should provide a nice boost to the pass rush, but another edge-rusher should be on New York's radar come late April.
The Baltimore Ravens have experienced the infamous championship purge this offseason.
After signing QB Joe Flacco to a monster deal, it began.
DE/OLB Paul Kruger was signed by the rival Cleveland Browns, Dannell Ellerbe was scooped up by the Miami Dolphins, WR Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, CB Cary Williams inked a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles and S Bernard Pollard was cut.
Oh, and LB Ray Lewis retired.
DL's Chris Canty and Marcus Spears were added to the defensive line, but the Ravens desperately need to rebuild their linebacker corps and could do so with their first-round pick.
Because they didn't address any newly formed holes in free agency with any legitimate starters (outside of Canty), Baltimore's 2013 draft is extremely vital.
The Cincinnati Bengals have laid low in free agency this year. They retained DE's Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers, as well as LB Rey Maualuga.
Frankly, the free-agent period hasn't influenced the Bengals very much.
They could use a LB to fill the hole left by the vacated Manny Lawson, but S and RB were positions in need of upgrades prior to free agency, and they still are today.
The addition of pass-rusher Paul Kruger takes some pressure off the new Cleveland Browns coaching regime to find a DE or OLB with the No. 6 overall pick.
DT Desmond Bryant is an underrated line-of-scrimmage disruptor, and LB Quentin Groves will help the linebacker contingent after Kaluka Maiava was signed by the Oakland Raiders.
Kruger's addition should have a huge impact: Now, the Browns can likely take the best-player-available approach when they go on the clock in Round 1. They may look to give Brandon Weeden more offensive weapons later in the draft.
The Pittsburgh Steelers salary cap situation didn't allow them to make many moves in free agency, but they did re-sign veteran LB Larry Foote and WR Plaxico Burress, and also reunited with CB William Gay.
Because key offensive weapons Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall bolted, Pittsburgh may look to give Ben Roethlisberger help by adding a skill-position player early in the draft.
Also, emerging CB Keenan Lewis was signed by the New Orleans Saints, so addressing the defensive backfield is now more pressing.
In all honesty, the Steelers are in a slight rebuilding stage and could go in many directions in the draft. Free agency just made the picture clearer for them.
The Houston Texans have not made one free-agent addition to their playoff-caliber team, but they lost a core of role players on the open market.
DE/OLB Connor Barwin and TE James Casey were signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and S Glover Quin is now a Detroit Lion.
We knew the Texans needed to get Matt Schaub more pass-catching options in the offseason, and because they didn't add any in free agency and lost Casey, their offensive draft strategy remains the same.
Ryan Grigson had plenty of money to spend in his first free-agency period as an NFL GM, and he certainly wasn't timid in doing so.
S LaRon Landry was signed, a player who will be a run-stuffing upgrade over Tom Zbikowski, CB Greg Toler was added to a secondary devoid of premier talent, and G Donald Thomas and OT Gosder Cherilus were added to an offensive line that struggled to keep Andrew Luck upright in 2012.
Because Luck's arm strength and accuracy bode well for the passing game, the Colts are still likely to add a top-tier wide receiver early in the draft.
Remember, though, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay teased his Twitter followers with this cryptic tweet:
We r still in fight for WR n others...we've landed everyone we've targeted...my gut feeling--- we're not through..it's hour to hour-EXCITING— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) March 17, 2013
Because the team went the free-agency route to address major needs, there's a distinct possibility the best-player-available strategy will be implemented.
The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't been dormant during free agency, but they haven't made any major splashes, either.
With the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, that's not necessarily surprising.
LB Geno Hayes, CB Alan Ball and RB Justin Forsett were among the free-agency acquisitions, but none of those players drastically influenced Jacksonville's draft strategy.
With new head coach Gus Bradley's defensive background, there's a strong likelihood that a preeminent defender is taken with the team's first pick, but a quarterback may be the selection if the new regime isn't completely sold on Blaine Gabbert.
The Tennessee Titans went shopping.
They addressed a dire need at guard by acquiring Andy Levitre from the Buffalo Bills and provided a versatile weapon for Jake Locker in TE Delanie Walker.
Many had penciled in the top guard prospect in the class, Chance Warmack, to the Titans in Round 1, but now that seems unlikely.
The team has an extremely young defense and many youthful offensive pieces as well.
After the spending spree in free-agency, Tennessee can divert its attention away from snagging a guard early, and could potentially go with the best-player-available strategy the first time it's on the clock.
With soon-to-be 37-year-old Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos are undeniably in win-now mode.
Their roster is solid from center to safety—this offseason's theme was to improve in any way possible.
WR Wes Welker was snagged from the New England Patriots, and G Louis Vasquez was signed away from the San Diego Chargers to a modest contract compared to Andy Levitre's deal.
To play the role the oft-injured Tracy Porter wasn't able to, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles, and DT Terrance Knighton was added to bring beef to the defensive line.
However, the ridiculous Elvis Dumervil snafu could possibly create a major pass-rushing need that would have to be addressed in the early stages of the draft.
Intelligently, LT Ryan Clady was made the team's franchise player, so adding an edge-protector isn't necessary in April.
Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey have been on a mission this offseason.
First, the team traded for Alex Smith.
Then, LT Branden Albert was hit with the franchise tag, and WR Dwayne Bowe was signed to a multi-year deal. Oddly enough, stud RT Eric Winston was subsequently released. During the three-day legal-tampering period, released CB Dunta Robinson was inked to a three-year contract.
After that, when the free-agent floodgates opened, the Kansas City Chiefs went nuts.
TE Anthony Fasano was brought in to help scoring in the red zone. WR Donnie Avery was acquired to fill the slot role created when WR Steve Breaston was cut, and CB Sean Smith projects to be a fine complement to CB Brandon Flowers in the secondary.
Can't forget DL Mike DeVito, either.
The Chiefs have the first pick and, due to the cut of Winston, look primed to take either OT Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher.
Following their active free-agency period, they certainly don't have as many need areas to address in the draft.
The Oakland Raiders didn't make headline-warranting free-agent moves, but there was plenty of roster-jostling.
Gone are 2012 contributors TE Brandon Myers, OLB Phillip Wheeler, DL Desmond Bryant, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, CB Shawntae Spencer and S Michael Huff, as well as DL's Matt Shaughnessy and Richard Seymour—in are NT Pat Sims, OLB Nick Roach, MLB Kaluka Maiava and WLB Kevin Burnett.
Dennis Allen's club has a plethora of holes, and with their net player losses this offseason, they have plenty of positions to upgrade in the draft—especially the WR and S spots.
San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers added some interesting pieces this offseason in RB Danny Woodhead and OL's Chad Rinehart and King Dunlap.
Due to the acquisition of Woodhead, it's unlikely that San Diego will look for a RB in the draft, but they could use more offensive-line depth, as Rinehart and Dunlap are far from franchise cornerstones—Philip Rivers needs better protection.
Because DL's Antonio Garay, Vaughn Martin, Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Phillips were either released or not retained in free agency, the fortification of the defensive front seven has become a major draft priority for San Diego.
LB Takeo Spikes and CB Antoine Cason must be replaced on defense, as well.
The Dallas Cowboys were cash-strapped going into free agency, so they weren't able to wheel and deal the Jerry Jones way.
LB Ernie Sims as signed to a one-year deal, but he definitely doesn't alter the team's draft strategy.
Designating Anthony Spencer as the team's franchise player for a second-straight year patches a potential pass-rushing need, but Tony Romo needs to be protected more soundly, and an impact S is needed in the back end of the secondary.
New York Giants
The New York Giants still own the rights to restricted free-agent WR Victor Cruz, which is the most critical development of the offseason for the G-Men.
DL Cullen Jenkins, formerly of the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles, was acquired, as was TE Brandon Myers, LB Dan Connor, S Ryan Mundy and WR Louis Murphy.
CB Aaron Ross is back, but he's a much less explosive player now than he was a few years ago.
RB Ahmad Bradshaw was released before the free-agent market opened, along with LB Michael Boley and DL Chris Canty. OL Kevin Boothe, TE Martellus Bennett and WR Ramses Barden were not re-signed.
However, the Giants needed offensive-line help and an upgrade to their linebacker corps before free agency, and they still do.
If DE Osi Umenyiora isn't re-signed, finding another pass-rusher becomes another draft need.
The analytical head coach Chip Kelly went on a cost-effective spending spree in free agency.
After the dismantling of the infamous 2011 Dream Team, TE James Casey, CB Cary Williams, CB Bradley Fletcher, DE/OLB Connor Barwin, S Patrick Chung, NT Isaac Sopoaga and S Kenny Phillips were inked to short-term deals with modest guaranteed dollars.
None of those players are franchise-caliber, but the Eagles did a terrific job to identify talent and acquire said talent without overpaying.
Their free-agent haul significantly impacts how they'll attack the draft.
Now, with depth-players filled in, they can draft the most intriguing prospect in Round 1 and add more role-playing pieces in the later rounds.
Thanks to cap penalties handed down by the league in 2012, the Washington Redskins and major spender Daniel Snyder weren't able to go shopping in free agency this year.
They re-signed a grouping of four players, none of whom were essential pieces to last year's playoff team.
OL Jeremy Trueblood was inked, and the veteran should bring some quality depth to the offensive line tasked to protect the transcendent Robert Griffin III.
Remember though, the Redskins sent quite the hefty draft-pick package to the St. Louis Rams last year to acquire RG3, so the draft won't be as useful of a team-building tool as usual.
DB's DeAngelo Hall and Cedric Griffin were cap casualties this offseason, so the secondary will likely be a major point of emphasis when Washington does go on the clock.
The Chicago Bears added LT Jermon Bushrod to hopefully lock down the pass-rushers who'll be attacking Jay Cutler's blindside in the future.
TE Martellus Bennett was added to give Cutler another weapon, and there's a chance his presence will keep the Bears away from targeting a top-flight TE early in the draft.
After DT Henry Melton was named the franchise player, DL Israel Idonije wasn't retained, and backup LB's Nick Roach and Geno Hayes are gone, meaning the linebacker spot should hold precedence in this year's draft for Chicago.
The addition of RB Reggie Bush is an intriguing one, as his pass-catching talents and burst in the open field make him an idealistic fit in Detroit's spread offense.
Though a more traditional RB may be targeted in the draft, Bush's presence alleviates a dire need for help out of the backfield.
Edge-rusher Cliff Avril was lost in free agency, as was Gosder Cherilus, but Detroit did retain S Louis Delmas after he tested the open market.
Because Avril wasn't re-signed along with the release of DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions know they must find a supremely gifted pass-rusher early and will likely continue to upgrade their secondary, despite the signing of S Glover Quin and retention of CB Chris Houston.
The void left by Cherilus' departure is the most important, however.
It will force the Lions to do some shuffling with their offensive line, and will likely lead to an offensive tackle being taken with the No. 5 overall selection.
Green Bay Packers
As usual, Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers stayed quiet in free agency.
They made a play to keep WR Greg Jennings, but he ultimately signed with the rival Minnesota Vikings.
Although the loss of Jennings isn't expected to cripple the Packers' offense or Aaron Rodgers' production, the need for another big-play WR is now more urgent.
The Minnesota Vikings have 11 picks in the 2013 draft, and they've had a rather fascinating offseason.
They moved WR Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks, which netted three draft picks, including Seattle's first-rounder in 2013.
Then, they aggressively pursued WR Greg Jennings and landed him.
RT Phil Loadholt was signed to a four-year deal, which likely made Adrian Peterson happy.
CB Antoine Winfield was surprisingly cut, and LB Jasper Brinkley was signed by the Arizona Cardinals.
If anything, the addition of Jennings took pressure off the Vikings' front office to find a legitimate weapon for Christian Ponder, and the Loadholt deal solidified the offensive line.
Now, they can take the best player available twice in Round 1.
What a luxury.
RB Steven Jackson will be toting the rock for the Atlanta Falcons next year.
His presence meshes perfectly with the torrid aerial pace of Matt Ryan's offense, and it's a significant boost from the plodding running style of RB Michael Turner.
Prior to free agency, S William Moore was re-upped—he and Thomas Decoud form one of the best yet underrated safety tandems in football.
Although he's dealt with injuries, OT Sam Baker signed a multi-year deal, and the legendary TE Tony Gonzalez decided to come back for one more year.
With Jackson, the team shouldn't feel forced into using a high pick on a running back, and Gonzalez's return likely rules out top tight end prospects like Tyler Eifert or Zach Ertz.
Actually, the losses of CB Dunta Robinson and DE John Abraham mean Atlanta may be going defense early in April.
The Carolina Panthers didn't have an abundance of cash to throw at free agents, so they were relatively inactive during the league's spending period.
CB Chris Gamble was a cap casualty and subsequently retired, and CB Captain Munnerlyn has yet to be re-signed.
For some patchwork in the secondary, veteran CB Drayton Florence was added.
Nothing done in free agency tweaked the Panthers' strategy heading into the draft.
They still need more offensive weapons for Cam Newton and must find more playmakers in the secondary and along the defensive line.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints didn't have the money to spend outrageously during free agency, but they were able to sign promising CB Keenan Lewis to a lucrative deal, and TE Benjamin Watson should create a nice one-two punch with stud Jimmy Graham down the seam.
However, losing LT Jermon Bushrod is concerning, especially with the type of offense Drew Brees runs.
His departure likely means New Orleans will have offensive tackle prospects at the top of its draft board.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
They didn't spend nearly as much money or spend it as swiftly as they did in 2012, but once again the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren't shy in free agency.
They inked S Dashon Goldson to a handsome five-year deal, and WR Kevin Ogletree was added along with LB Jonathan Casillas and TE Tom Crabtree.
DB Ronde Barber was released, and underrated DE Michael Bennett was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks.
With Goldson and 2012 rookie Mark Barron, the Buccaneers have their safety duo of the future, but they could use reinforcements on the defensive line and a lockdown cornerback.
With new head coach Bruce Arians, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to erase the last five years of dismal play and compete in the suddenly mighty NFC West.
The attempt at a fully-fledged culture change was apparent during the free-agency period.
The club signed, RB Rashard Mendenhall, LB Lorenzo Alexander, QB Drew Stanton, S Yeremiah Bell, LB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antoine Cason.
Depending on how Arians views Stanton as a signal-caller, the Cardinals could be looking for a franchise signal-caller at No. 7 overall, and certainly, a premier offensive lineman is a distinct possibility.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are in a position to become a legitimate NFL dynasty.
They were a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl in 2013, their franchise quarterback is in place, they have a spectacular defense and they own an abundance of selections in this year's draft.
WR Anquan Boldin was added in a trade prior to free agency, and his presence should help the 49ers become more balanced on offense.
DL Glenn Dorsey should add more athleticism to the defensive line.
TE Delanie Walker was signed by the Tennessee Titans, DT Isaac Sopoaga was acquired by the Philadelphia Eagles and S Dashon Goldson is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
Due to its losses, San Francisco could get creative early in the draft or potentially use its extra picks to trade up for the prospect it covets the most.
Drafting a starting safety will likely be one of the team's priorities.
The Seattle Seahawks have loaded up for a Super Bowl run this season.
A team with striking similarities to their NFC West rivals in San Francisco, John Schneider's club spent wisely in free agency.
They grabbed DE Cliff Avril at a great price, and DL Michael Bennett was added to an already dominating defense after DL Jason Jones was signed by the Detroit Lions.
Because the defensive front was addressed, and YAC specialist WR Percy Harvin was added, the Seahawks now have draft freedom.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams got their guy in LT Jake Long, but it wasn't easy.
Long was at the Rams' facility for days before signing his multi-year deal.
At the outset of free agency, athletic but underutilized TE Jared Cook was acquired by the Rams to aid Sam Bradford's development, and DE William Hayes was added, which provides St. Louis' fearsome defensive front with more talent.
With left tackle taken care of, the Rams can target offensive skill-position players early.