When NFL free agency opened on March 12, football fans around the globe were anxiously awaiting to learn what teams the top-impact players were joining.
Fast-forward 18 days and roughly 225 free-agent deals later, the picture becomes clearer as to which teams have really improved themselves the most in free agency.
So, which team should be declared the winner of 2013 free agency so far? Can a team lose one of their best defensive players and still be considered the best NFL team in free agency? There can only be one winner, but we can and will acknowledge a handful of other teams that belong in the conversation.
Our more inquisitive readers will want to know how we are defining the concept of "Winning Free Agency", which is a valid topic worthy of discussion.
For the purposes of this presentation, the team ultimately selected as the winner of free agency will have to meet these four qualifications.
1) The team added more quality players to their roster than they lost during free agency.
As an example, the Cincinnati Bengals signed a number of their own free agents, but that doesn't change the level of talent from the 2012 team. The Bengals talent level basically stayed the same.
Even though they added some excellent players at reasonable prices, this condition eliminates the Baltimore Ravens, who lost as much talent in free agency as they gained. They also lost some key leadership skills when Ed Reed bolted to Houston.
The New York Giants added Josh Brown, Ryan Mundy, Dan Connor and Cullen Jenkins. They re-signed Will Beatty and Kevin Boothe. But they lost Martellus Bennett, Kenny Phillips, Chris Canty, Osi Umenyiora and will eventually lose Ahmad Bradshaw. The talent leaving is equal to or more than what they brought in.
Another team that was active in free agency, but lost as much talent as they acquired was the New England Patriots. Signed Danny Amendola and Donald Jones and brought back Sebastian Vollmer, Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington. But losing Wes Welker, Donald Thomas, Danny Woodhead and Patrick Chung negates the gains.
2) There has been an upgrade of talent via free agency (not by trades) in at least one core position for any NFL team; quarterback, wide receiver, tackle, pass rush or cornerback.
NFL teams use free agency to help address their core position needs, which discourages teams from reaching for a quarterback, cornerback, tackle or wide receiver in the draft.
Which team had the most salary-cap space and did the worst job in free agency?
The purpose of this article is to focus on free agency, so players acquired via trade won't be a factor. For our purposes here, that diminishes the impact of Alex Smith and Percy Harvin. If we wanted to include trades, the title of this article would have been "Which Team Won the 2013 Offseason?".
3) Display some degree of financial responsibility to your organization's future salary cap.
Backloading deals that help the 2013 season but will come back to haunt teams down the road is the reason that the Miami Dolphins won't be in the running for the best team in free agency. GM Jeff Ireland worked out deals that were salary-cap friendly for 2013, but will limit what the Dolphins can do in 2014 and beyond.
4) Not overpaying for mediocre talent.
According to this article by Walter Football.com, Tennessee and Kansas City can be dismissed from consideration due to overpaying for a number of free agents. Tennessee went overboard on Andy Levitre, Shonn Greene and Delanie Walker, while Kansas City overpaid for Dunta Robinson, Chase Daniel, Donnie Avery, Anthony Fasano and Sean Smith.
Now that we have identified our criteria, the teams that are in the running to be declared the winner of 2013 free agency are the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.
Let's explore the deals that each of these four teams have made in greater detail, to help determine our eventual winner.
Denver Broncos: Have added quality players in WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vasquez, DT Terrance Knighton and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Broncos improved on offense with the addition of All-Pro Welker (two-year deal for $12 million) and on the offensive line with Vasquez (four-year deal for $23.5 million). Welker is as reliable and productive as they come, and his addition will make Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker even better. Vasquez will be a welcome addition in pass-protection. These upgrades should make Peyton Manning very happy.
On defense, the Broncos secondary improved with the addition of Rodgers-Cromartie, (one-year deal for $5 million), who has an opportunity to rejuvenate his career with a contender. Denver needed to beef up the defensive line, and they checked off that box with the addition of Knighton (two-year deal for $4.5 million.
Denver demonstrated common sense when negotiating these deals and didn't go overboard financially on any of them. In addition, they weakened San Diego in their own division, by signing Vasquez away from the Chargers.
Yes, the Broncos lost an important contributor in Elvis Dumervil due to the fax-machine gaffe. The $5 million salary cap hit was something the team didn't plan on taking, but it goes to show you can't control everything. Denver still managed to improve their team on both sides of the ball and will be a serious contender in the AFC in 2013.
Seattle Seahawks: The biggest buzz was created over the trade for WR Percy Harvin, but the Seahawks are included here for what they did in free agency. Seattle signed DE Cliff Avril, arguably one of the top free agents available this year, and beefed up the defensive line with Michael Bennett and Tony McDaniel.
As good as Seattle's defense was in 2012, they were only ranked No. 18 in sacks, with just 36 on the year. Averaging slightly more than two sacks a game isn't going to strike fear in most quarterbacks. That is why landing Avril (two-year deal for $13 million) and Bennett (one-year deal for $4.8 million) were big deals for the Seahawks.
Not only will they help to greatly improve the pass rush, but they will also improve the secondary play, due to quarterbacks having less time to throw the ball.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have been as busy as the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Eagles were able to sign the majority of their free agents for salaries that were more reasonable.
Philadelphia landed P Donnie Jones, S Kenny Phillips, TE James Casey, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Patrick Chung and LB Jason Phillips. All of them received positive grades in 2012 by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That is an impressive haul.
Philadelphia also signed CB Cary Williams, DT Isaac Sopoaga and DE Connor Barwin. Those three players had negative grades according to Pro Football Focus.
The vast majority of the Eagles free agent deals were reasonable from a financial point of view. The exception was Barwin, who was signed for six years and $36 million, coming off of a down year in Houston.
The Eagles rebuilt and improved their secondary, and improved their pass rush. Philadelphia lost Cullen Jenkins, Darryl Tapp and King Dunlap in free agency, but what they brought in far outweighs what they lost.
Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta bolstered their chances to take the next step up by signing free-agent RB Stevan Jackson and DE Osi Umenyiora. It was a huge boost for Atlanta to see Tony Gonzalez decide to return, when it seemed so likely that he would retire.
In addition the Falcons kept William Moore and Sam Baker, two important players for the 2013 team. Atlanta did lose Vance Walker, Chris Owens, Dunta Robinson and Will Svitek, but who they signed outweighs what they lost.
Which NFL team did the best job so far in free agency?
Jackson was signed for a three-year deal for $12 million, while Umenyiora agreed to a two-year deal for $8.5 million. In regards to their returning free agents, Gonzalez signed a two-year deal for $14 million, Baker signed a six-year pact for $40.85 million and Moore signed on for five years at $28.25 million.
Umenyiora's legs are three years younger than John Abraham's, so he should be a force with the Falcons' pass rush. Adding a player that earned a Super Bowl ring is always a good thing for a team as close as Atlanta was to appearing in Super Bowl XLVII.
All four of our finalist teams are to be commended for what they have accomplished so far in free agency. They aren't necessarily done, either, but what they have already done so far sets them up to have a solid draft in 2013.
The team we selected as the winner of 2013 free agency so far is the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos made smart moves and landed talent that makes them better on both sides of the ball. Another important factor is that their moves weakened San Diego in the AFC West, and annual AFC playoff contender New England. That could wind up becoming a big factor in January.
Denver still has time to replace Dumervil, and for all of the pass rushers that remain unemployed. their price tag will have to start coming down with the draft less than one month away.
Speaking of the draft, there are still 26 days left until the NFL gathers in Radio City Music Hall, so there is still time for the remaining NFL teams to fill some of their holes in free agency.
The more holes that teams can fill now, the better off they will be at the draft. That allows teams to enjoy the luxury of drafting the best player available, as opposed to drafting for need. When you draft for need, that usually results in reaching for players, which is never a good thing.
Some teams will have to dip back into free agency after the draft when they realize that they still have holes that weren't properly addressed, or need to shore up their depth.
Free agents still on the street after the draft will have to be more than anxious about the prospects of being out of a job, so salary demands will come down and players will be less picky about where they sign.
Don't forget the ranks of the undrafted rookie free agents, who will be just as hungry and as inexpensive as it gets for teams that have already spent the majority of their 2013 salary-cap allotment.
If your team hasn't made enough positive moves yet this offseason, just remember that there is still five months left to complete team makeovers before the 2013 season begins.