People think of free agency as a way NFL teams get better. Every year, pundits guesstimate cap space, veterans restructure their contracts and the media asks every free-agent-to-be if he'll give a "hometown discount." Fans and media earmark every dollar left under the cap as one to be spent plundering other teams' rosters for new talent.
Every new arrival, though, means a departure.
When a veteran player switches teams, he can leave a huge hole in his wake. Teams that haven't prepared for the departure could be left in the lurch. Teams that don't have the cap space or draft picks to replace the veteran could be left taking a big step down—or praying an unheralded player takes a big step up.
For each of the following players now counting his signing-bonus money in a new city, his old team will scramble to replace him—or suffer all season long instead.
Throughout the Ravens' run to the playoffs (and the resulting Super Bowl), we heard it from broadcasters, analysts and fans alike: Everything was going to be all right. Even with Ray Lewis retiring, fellow inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe had played very, very well.
As Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun explained, the Ravens knew they'd have to let some key veterans (i.e. Paul Kruger) walk, but Ellerbe was not one of them.
Despite making a big push to keep Ellerbe, the Ravens simply couldn't compete with the Miami Dolphins' rain-making.
Now, after focusing on the defensive line in free agency, the Ravens are popularly tipped to pick an inside linebacker with their first selection in the draft. They'll have to hope a rookie can replace both Lewis and Ellerbe.
In 2012, the Buffalo Bills running attack got a little of its old swagger back, with talented tailback C.J. Spiller finding room to run behind standout guard Andy Levitre.
Now, Levitre's gone to the Tennessee Titans, ready to open the same kind of holes for Chris Johnson.
The Bills won't be able to replace Levitre's production in free agency. And if they want to replace his production in the draft, they'll have to gun for one of the very top prospects.
Normally, the biggest free agents fly off the board first. Louis Vasquez wouldn't have been considered one of those names, but the Denver Broncos wasted no time snapping up the 6'5", 335-pound guard.
The Broncos did a great job of protecting elderly MVP-caliber quarterback Peyton Manning last season. The signing of Vasquez not only solidified that protection, it also deprived division rival San Diego of its best lineman.
The St. Louis Rams took a big step toward getting better protection for young quarterback Sam Bradford with the signing of left tackle Jake Long, but the loss of top target Danny Amendola feels like an even bigger step back.
Per Pro Football Focus, injuries held Amendola to just the third-most snaps taken of any Rams receiver in 2012. Yet Amendola was targeted far more often than any of his teammates. To compound the problem, the second-most targeted Rams receiver, Brandon Gibson, signed with Miami.
The Rams could arguably have used an upgrade at wideout before Amendola and Gibson left. Now they have a lavishly paid franchise quarterback entering his fourth year with only 2012 second-round pick Brian Quick as a potential go-to target.
Chicago Bears fans were not pleased when I graded the Bears' signing of former New Orleans Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod a "D."
While I stand by that assessment, the fact is that losing a multi-year starter at left tackle with no viable replacement is a big problem for Drew Brees and the Saints. Per Will Brinson of CBSSports.com, Saints head coach Sean Payton said the left tackle vacancy "keeps him up at night."
Though New York Giants safety Stevie Brown played very well in relief of an injured Kenny Phillips, Phillips still makes this list of dearly departed. Phillips played at a high level when healthy, and it's always scary to drop a proven performer for a possible one-year wonder.
Further, safety Antrel Rolle struggled in coverage next to Brown, meaning even if Brown is an All-Pro on the rise, the Giants should still look to add a safety in the wake of Phillips' departure.
Cary Williams is not on this list because he's a shutdown corner. He isn't.
But Williams is a talented young corner with size and potential, and the Baltimore Ravens defense has historically been much, much better when the secondary has played well.
Losing the only corner that started every game for them further destabilizes a defensive backfield that didn't play at anywhere near its usual level in the regular season.
The Chicago Bears face a 2013 with two of their three starting linebackers at such an advanced age that one might be starting his last season, and the other might have already played his last season. (Update: The Bears released Brian Urlacher on Wednesday.)
At least they have 27-year-old Nick Roach at the other spot...oh no, not anymore they don't. Roach will ply his trade in 2013 under the banner of the Oakland Raiders.
The Bears are left needing to find long-term replacements for all three linebacker positions over the next season or two.
When going through upheaval at the quarterback position, one of the best assets to have is an every-down tight end with good speed and a reliable pair of hands. Tight ends make great safety blankets for quarterbacks at every development level.
Too bad the Jets, burning through a host of not-good-enough options under center, just let one leave.
Worse yet, Dustin Keller left the Jets to join the division rival Miami Dolphins, who have put together a powerhouse crop of young free agents.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have built their defense around a great defensive line.
That's why it was so puzzling to see Pro Football Focus' seventh-ranked defensive end, Michael Bennett, leave for the Seattle Seahawks on a one-year "prove it" deal.
The Buccaneers do have talent on along the defensive front, but to let a young veteran with such size, speed, power and versatility leave so cheaply makes little sense. This is a decision the Buccaneers will likely regret.