It began with a false start.
The new NFL year—and with it, free agency—was just 21 minutes away. Every fan and media member was jacked in to the NFL information matrix, ready for contracts to be signed, players to change uniforms and the NFL landscape to be dramatically changed.
Anticipation had escalated into a frenzy, with multiple TV channels, every sports channel and website, and just about what seemed like all of Twitter hungrily circling for the first sign of real news.
Kevin Jones, of WUSA-9 in Washington, D.C., threw the first meat to the wolves when he tweeted that cornerback DeAngelo Hall had signed with the Detroit Lions:
Breaking: DeAngelo Hall has signed with the Detroit Lions @wusa9— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) March 12, 2013
After 220 re-tweets and much shocked discussion that Hall would be the first player plucked from a bumper crop of free agent cornerbacks, Jones took his report back just six minutes before the signing period began.
As consternation circled around the fake report and rumors swirled that receiver Mike Wallace was not only leaning heavily towards signing with the Dolphins, but actually in Miami, the NFL world almost missed the first true signing—tight end Martellus Bennett joining the Chicago Bears with a four-year deal.
The Bears wasted no time signing their other top target, either.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod also agreed to terms with Chicago on the first day, addressing two of the most neglected positions under previous head coach Lovie Smith. The Bears would also land veteran linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson, replacing their losses there.
The Bears "won" Day One in the NFC North, and it wasn't close. The Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings didn't sign anyone on the first day despite the departures of right tackle Gosder Cherilus, linebacker Erik Walden and receiver Percy Harvin (via trade), respectively.
Wallace, as it turned out, was indeed in Miami, and the first monster-contract was signed with a five-year deal worth $60 million. Miami, however, wasn't done spending. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, long-tabbed for a return to the Baltimore Ravens, instead agreed to a five-year, $35 million deal with the Dolphins. The Dolphins also dumped an armored car on linebacker Philip Wheeler with $26 million over five years.
The Dolphins did have attrition on the first day though, losing tight end Anthony Fasano to the Kansas City Chiefs. They'd go on to let linebacker Kevin Burnett walk to the Raiders in an effective trade for Wheeler.
The Chiefs started a very busy free-agency period with a busy first day. They signed Fasano, talented young backup quarterback Chase Daniel, and defensive lineman Mike DeVito before most teams had made a single move. All of this for Kansas City after it had already acquired a new starting quarterback by shipping a second-round pick and a conditional mid-round pick to San Francisco for Alex Smith.
The Chiefs' AFC West rivals also saw a lot of players change hands. The San Diego Chargers added tight end John Phillips and swing offensive lineman King Dunlap, the latter of whom will help replace departed guard Louis Vasquez.
Vasquez stayed in the division by inking a four-year, $23.5 million deal with the Denver Broncos—one of the wiser first-day big-money signings. In one of the latest first-day deals, the Oakland Raiders lost breakout defensive tackle Desmond Bryant to the Cleveland Browns.
Earlier in the afternoon though, the Indianapolis Colts started making it rain. They added Cherilus, Walden, guard Donald Thomas and cornerback Greg Toler in quick succession, making their big first-day splash not with one one or two headliners, but a group of mid-tier free agents that will help round out the roster.
The Colts went on to add safety LaRon Landry, defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, putting pressure on the rest of the AFC South in the wake of their stunning 2-14 to 11-5 turnaround from a season ago.
The Tennessee Titans answered the bell, adding young standout guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker to help pave the way for star tailback Chris Johnson and new signee Shonn Greene.
Besides bolstering the run game, the Titans got younger at backup quarterback, letting Matt Hasselbeck go to Indianapolis in favor of former Buffalo Bills starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Together with Levitre and safety George Wilson, the Titans bagged three former Bills this offseason.
Other than the Houston Texans allowing tight end/halfback James Casey to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars had no impact on the first day of free agency—curious for a Super Bowl favorite which fell just short and another team starting a ground-up rebuilding process.
Casey, however, was part of an Eagles' free agency blitz.
On Day One, the Eagles signed cornerback Bradley Fletcher, defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, and safety Patrick Chung. They'd also add cornerback Cary Williams and safety Kenny Phillips—completing an entire starting secondary of free agents to entirely replace the "dream team" defensive backfield from two seasons ago.
The First Weekend
The Browns, who closed out the first day by signing Bryant, opened the second day with the addition of linebacker Quentin Groves and tight end Gary Barnidge. The Bills stopped the bleeding by making their first addition in linebacker Manny Lawson.
Then the Detroit Lions made their NFC North counterattack, adding tailback Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and inside/outside pass-rusher Jason Jones. They also re-signed cornerback Chris Houston, a feat they couldn't accomplish with defensive linemen Sammie Hill or Cliff Avril.
Avril was part of what's been a phenomenal early-offseason for the Seahawks. They signed Avril and inside/outside pass-rusher Michael Bennett, completing an impressive pass-rush unit that already features Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. They also traded for Harvin right before the signing period, making them fearsome rivals for the 49ers' division crown.
The 49ers, though, didn't stand pat. After losing Sopoaga and safety Dashon Goldson, they added defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and safety Craig Dahl.
Dorsey was the Chiefs' first significant loss, but it didn't slow them down. They signed wideout Donnie Avery, cornerback Sean Smith and guard Geoff Schwartz. Plugging all this talent into the system run by new head coach Andy Reid should make a massive difference for the Chiefs' offense.
The 49ers and Seahawks weren't the only NFC West teams to make moves. In the desert, the Arizona Cardinals hauled in running back Rashard Mendenhall, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Jasper Brinkley and cornerback Jerraud Powers.
The Cardinals were the subject of another false report. After word broke that returner Josh Cribbs had signed with Arizona, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport discovered that while Cribbs had chosen the Cardinals, no deal had been signed. Though both sides still have high interest, Cribbs has not yet passed a physical. Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that once Cribbs can pass a physical, he will sign.
The St. Louis Rams made no small effort in free agency, either. After picking up former Tennessee Titan tight end Jared Cook on the first day, they hosted Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long. The courtship (and physical visit) lasted several days, and for a while it looked like Long would return to Miami. Instead, he finally chose the Rams, solidifying a longtime trouble spot.
Back in the AFC West, the Broncos kept making smart additions. In what was perceived as a major coup, they signed receiver Wes Welker away from the New England Patriots. They also snagged cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive tackle Terrence Knighton and re-signed defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.
The Broncos failed to re-sign all of their defensive linemen, though. The Oakland Raiders plundered defensive end Jason Hunter from Denver, along with Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims, Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava and Cardinals linebacker Stewart Bradley.
The San Diego Chargers made a nice pickup in cornerback Derek Cox, plus a smart, small addition in running back Danny Woodhead from the Patriots.
The Patriots, meanwhile, signed former Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola to a deal much richer than the one Welker signed in Denver, raising eyebrows throughout the football world. The Patriots also add safety Adrian Wilson to replace the departed Chung.
The Dolphins replaced Fasano with New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller, part of a massive outflow of of veteran talent and experience in New York. The Jets did add running back Mike Goodson, though, and veteran Pittsburgh Steelers guard/tackle Willie Colon.
The Steelers, like the Ravens, were both cap-strapped and age-impaired. Past-their-prime veterans like linebacker James Harrison and nose tackle Casey Hampton were shown the door—but they also let critical players like cornerback Keenan Lewis walk. The Steelers' lone pickup in the early rush of free agency was backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
The Ravens did make a push to offset their losses with smart-budget additions like defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears along with safety Michael Huff. Their massive new contract for quarterback Joe Flacco, though, will keep their signings small and targeted for the next few seasons.
The New York Giants had already replaced Canty with released Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Cullen Jenkins on the eve of free agency; their pickup of tight end Brandon Myers was a crucial fix for letting Bennett walk. Star receiver Victor Cruz, however, remains unsigned.
The Minnesota Vikings might have made the best in-division heist. They plucked star wide receiver Jennings from the Packers. They also added competition for starting quarterback Christian Ponder with deposed Chiefs' starter Matt Cassell.
The Changed Landscape
Three seasons ago, the NFC West was—without question—the weakest division in football. Now, the 49ers and Seahawks are not only coming off deep playoff runs, the Seahawks are already significantly better, and the 49ers came out roughly even, but with the league's biggest haul of draft picks.
Add to that the benefit of continuity and quarterback protection in St. Louis as well as the breathtaking change in the coaching staff and roster of the Cardinals—including a late-breaking trade for Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer—and the NFC West is shaping up to be brutal in 2013.
The AFC West also had massive turnover, much of which will be for the better. The 13-3 Broncos should be at least as good, and the Chiefs should take a massive leap forward.
The AFC North might see a changing of the guard. The Browns had one of the league's most lightly regarded coaching staffs, and replaced them with two of the best-respected coordinators in the NFL. They also added a lot of talent. Meanwhile, the Ravens and Steelers are trying to pry open their closing windows to get back to the Super Bowl.
The NFC North was supposed to be a three-horse race between the Packers, Bears and Lions. Instead the Packers, Bears and Vikings duked it out. All four teams have seen significant losses, but only the Packers haven't also made significant additions. It could be a four-horse race in 2013.
Though the Dolphins spent money furiously, they're unlikely to make any headway against the steady Patriots in the AFC East. The Jets and Bills were both subpar teams in 2012 and endured heavy losses.
In the NFC East, the Eagles were expected to undergo a massive offensive transformation. Instead, it's the massively disappointing defense that got an extreme makeover. The Giants did well with what little cap room they had, and the Cowboys flailed against league-imposed cap penalties.
The Cowboys' biggest accomplishment was locking down quarterback Tony Romo to a massive six-year deal. The Redskins, however, suffering from the same penalties, did a beautiful job of keeping their roster together.
After all the dust settled, they even re-signed DeAngelo Hall.