Free Agency Likely Altering Draft Plans for a Couple of NFL Teams

Greg GabrielFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2014

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, right, shakes hands with Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith after their NFL football game in Chicago, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011. The Bears won 30-12. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The one thing I dislike about mock drafts is that until about a week before the draft, they have no meaning. There are so many factors that go into trying to figure out which players teams will take. That said, after the first few days of free agency, we can look at some clubs and say what we thought that they were going to do is now out of the question.

In the case of Chicago, Tampa Bay and Atlanta it is not because of who they lost, it is about who they signed. All three clubs addressed needs and now may take a different path in the draft than what was thought a week ago.


Chicago Bears 

In 2013, the play of the Bears' defense was atrocious, to say the least. What was one of the better overall defenses in the league in 2012 turned into one of the worst in 2013. Part of the problem was age, and the other part was simply poor play. Regardless of the reason, general manager Phil Emery decided to make changes, and those changes started Tuesday afternoon.

Gone is former All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers, and two talented defensive ends were brought in. Former Oakland Raider Lamarr Houston was the Bears' first big signing. At 26 years old, Houston's best years should be in front of him. In addition, former Detroit defensive end Willie Young was signed to take care of the outside positions.

The Bears re-signed two of their own free agents on the defensive line by bringing back defensive tackles Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff. These signings take care of the biggest need the Bears had. There is still a chance the Bears will bring back former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton. 

A week ago, taking care of the defensive line was the Bears' biggest need. Many mock drafts had the Bears selecting Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald with their first-round pick. Now with the defensive line taken care of, the biggest need becomes cornerback.

The only sure-fire starter the Bears have at the cornerback position is veteran Tim Jennings. Jennings was signed to a new contract a few weeks ago, but at 30, he isn't getting any younger. There is still a chance the Bears will bring back Charles Tillman, but at 33, he is not the answer.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

In the last few days we have seen what talented corners can get in the free-agent market. The best philosophy is to develop your own. For that reason, I feel that it is a strong bet that the Bears will go for a corner when it's their turn to pick No. 14 in the first round. At that spot, they should have a shot at one of the three top corners. Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State, Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State and Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech can all come in and start from day one. All would be a considerable upgrade  over what they have on their roster right now.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

When Lovie Smith took over as the Buccaneers coach, he took over a roster with needs everywhere. The defense had some talented players, but there weren't many who fit what Lovie likes to do on defense. He had a $16 million corner in Darrelle Revis, who refused to restructure his contract, and no one to rush the quarterback off the edge.

What Lovie decided to do was sign a corner who was more cap-friendly and then release Revis. Tuesday night the Bucs signed former Tennessee corner Alterraun Verner, who is a perfect fit for Lovie's scheme. Earlier on Tuesday he signed former Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, who can give him the edge-rusher he desired.

Though Mike Glennon played well as a rookie, both Lovie and his offensive coordinator clearly felt they needed a veteran presence at the quarterback position. On Wednesday the Buccaneers signed former Bear Josh McCown, who was the best free-agent quarterback available. What that signing does is give the Bucs a veteran to run the offense. He is a veteran who seldom makes mistakes and doesn't turn the ball over. It also gives Jeff Tedford time to develop Glennon for the future.

The last important need the Buccaneers had was at left tackle. Donald Penn was not the answer so the Bucs signed former Bengal Anthony Collins, who gives the Bucs a wide-bodied pass-blocker on the blind side. Collins is an excellent addition who will also help improve the run game.

Those signings took care of Tampa Bay's most important needs. Many had the Buccaneers taking a quarterback with their first pick (seventh in the first round). It has been my feeling that there isn't a quarterback in this draft worthy of a top-10 selection.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Tampa Bay now has the luxury of taking the proverbial "best available athlete." At the seventh slot, that could be one of the top wide receivers, such as Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans. It could also mean another offensive lineman or the top tight end in the draft, Eric Ebron from North Carolina. Tampa Bay now has a lot of flexibility.


Atlanta Falcons

Like Chicago, Atlanta had needs on the defensive line. The Falcons' offensive line play in 2013 also left something to be desired.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan likes to run a 3-4 base defense, and the signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai give Nolan that ability. These are two wide-bodied run-stuffers that are needed to make a 3-4 work.

October 14, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson (94) rushes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Ki
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To take care of the offensive line need, Atlanta signed former Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah. Asamoah gives Atlanta a strong inside player who will help both the run and pass game.

These signings give the Falcons added flexibility going into the draft. They have the sixth pick in the opening round, and while they still have a need on the offensive line, they can take a better player at another position. That player could be an edge pass-rusher like Khalil Mack from Buffalo or Anthony Barr from UCLA.

They could also choose to replace Tony Gonzalez with Eric Ebron. A third option they would have would be to take one of the top offensive linemen, which at the sixth spot would be either Taylor Lewan or Jake Matthews. With there being a lot of depth with the offensive line group in the draft, the Falcons can wait until the second round to fill that need.

It's always nice to have options and not be held hostage to a need.