8 NFL Teams That Improved the Most in Free Agency
The start of the new league year early in March also marked the beginning of the free-agency periods. Teams with roster holes could begin filling them with veteran players of their choosing, granted the money was available to make them offers too good to refuse.
Some teams have not made many additions because of salary-cap issues or because it's simply not their style. Others have made signings that have been marginal at best.
But others have been able to spend, to sign and to do so smartly.
We'll not know how well any of these signings will pan out until the season is underway. However, we can look back on the free-agency moves already made and get an idea of which teams made upgrades with the veteran players added to their respective rosters.
Here are the eight teams who have spent their money the most wisely so far.
Key signings: CB Aqib Talib, S T.J. Ward, DE/OLB DeMarcus Ware, WR Emmanuel Sanders
The Denver Broncos learned an important lesson in their Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks—a historically productive offense can get you to the big game, but superior defense will win it. This prompted a defensive-heavy free-agency signing period for the Broncos this spring.
After releasing Champ Bailey, the Broncos replaced him with the younger and more productive Aqib Talib, formerly of the New England Patriots. They needed to find a solution at cornerback with Bailey spending most of 2013 injured. Talib had four interceptions and 14 passes defensed in 2013 while giving up just three touchdowns on 71 targets.
The addition of T.J. Ward brings nastiness to the Broncos secondary as well as ranginess. Ward was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) third-ranked safety for 2013 and is strong against the run and in coverage. He replaces Duke Ihenacho, who ranked 74th (out of 86) and allowed receptions on 63 percent of the passes thrown his direction.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is a plug-and-play replacement for the departed Eric Decker. Sanders had 67 catches on 112 targets for 740 yards and six touchdowns for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. With Peyton Manning throwing the football, Sanders can easily have above 1,000 receiving yards for the Broncos this year.
The transition from Decker to Sanders should be seamless for the Broncos and Manning.
Finally, the Broncos added pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos had a middle-of-the-road pass rush in 2013 and felt the loss of Elvis Dumervil in the process. Ware had six sacks in 2013 with the Dallas Cowboys and posted double-digit sack totals in all but two of his nine seasons with Dallas. Ware is a smart choice to upgrade the front seven—he's experienced and still productive.
The Broncos used their considerable cap space to add proven veterans to their defense while also finding the ideal replacement for Decker. They were both splashy and measured in their signings. Most importantly, all four of these players will be starters in 2014.
Key signings: TE Dennis Pitta, WR/KR Jacoby Jones, LB Daryl Smith, WR Steve Smith, LT Eugene Monroe, C Jeremy Zuttah (trade with Tampa Bay)
The Baltimore Ravens used the majority of their cap space locking down a quartet of their own free agents, and smartly so. The four re-signings—tight end Dennis Pitta, receiver and kick returner Jacoby Jones, left tackle Eugene Monroe and middle linebacker Daryl Smith—are some of the most important players on the roster, and even one of them leaving in free agency would have put the Ravens in a bind.
Tight end Dennis Pitta may have missed a significant amount of time in 2013 after suffering a preseason hip injury, but his absence disrupted Baltimore's offense to the point that there was no way it could afford to lose him in free agency. He's quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite and most reliable target, and on a team that lacks reliability on offense, it's clear why he's been re-signed.
The run game also suffered in 2013 due to a combination of factors that began with a struggling offensive line. The first step to turning this around is to retain left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was one of just two Ravens offensive linemen to play well in both the run and passing games in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
The next step was to find a way to upgrade at center, where second-year player Gino Gradkowski struggled in 2013. Though the Ravens didn't find their ideal veteran center in free agency, they successfully traded for one, snagging Jeremy Zuttah from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2015 fifth-round draft pick.
Baltimore's commitment to offensive improvement continued with the signing of veteran receiver Steve Smith, who, until now, had spent his entire career with the Carolina Panthers.
Though Smith will be 35 years old when the regular season begins, his experience is more than welcomed by a Ravens receiving corps that is quite young. Smith also clearly has a lot left in the tank, as evidenced by his renaissance in Carolina with quarterback Cam Newton. Smith had a total of 3,313 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns over the last three seasons.
The Ravens didn't focus on defense in free agency, but they did manage to keep middle linebacker Daryl Smith on the roster. Baltimore brought Smith on last year to replace the retired Ray Lewis, and he handled the job better than expected, especially in coverage, where the Ravens' linebackers had previously struggled.
Finally, both the offense and special teams avoided taking a hit, with the Ravens re-signing Jacoby Jones to a four-year deal. Jones may be a marginal receiver, but his familiarity with new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's system makes him an asset. On special teams, few returners rival Jones' production. Jones had a combined 1,129 yards in kick and punt return yardage in 2013, along with a touchdown.
The Ravens might have focused the majority of their spending on their own free agents, but not re-signing them could have crippled the team or significantly altered their draft plans. The Ravens could have had major roster holes at four starting positions, but they don't have as much to worry about now as they try to bounce back from an uncharacteristic 8-8 finish.
Key signings: QB Chad Henne, RB Toby Gerhart, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, G Zane Beadles
The Jacksonville Jaguars were aggressive in free agency, using their ample salary-cap space to make high-profile additions on both offense and defense.
On defense, the two biggest signings were a pair of former Seattle Seahawks defensive ends, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. It makes sense—the duo comes from the defending Super Bowl champions, a title won because of the strength of the team's defense, and both were coached by current Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley when he was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.
Bryant and Clemons combined for 54 tackles, six sacks and a forced fumble in 2013, while the Jaguars defense as a whole ranked last in the league in sacks at 31. The tandem should improve the Jaguars' pass rush as well as serve as the anchors of a defense they know all too well.
On offense, the Jaguars opted to move on from longtime running back Maurice Jones-Drew and sign Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson's former backup with the Minnesota Vikings.
This signing was all about potential—Gerhart didn't get many opportunities behind one of the league's best backs, while Jones-Drew was an aging, known quantity with injury risks. Swapping Gerhart for Jones-Drew simply makes sense.
Their other smart move on offense was the re-signing of quarterback Chad Henne, who will be their Week 1 starter regardless of whether they use the third overall draft pick on a quarterback. This was paired with the team trading Blaine Gabbert to the San Francisco 49ers, freeing itself of a major albatross that had been hanging around its neck for too long.
Additionally, the Jaguars upgraded the guard position by signing former Denver Bronco Zane Beadles. Yes, Beadles ranked just 50th out of 81 guards in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus, but he comes in to replace Will Rackley, who ranked 79th. Beadles gave up one sack last year, while Rackley gave up four.
The Jaguars used their salary-cap space to lock down foundation players at key utility positions like defensive end, guard and running back. They didn't overreact to the market, nor did they overspend. Instead, they calmly identified the roster holes best filled by veterans rather than rookies and made their moves. The roster is already in better shape than it was coming off 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key signings: DE Michael Johnson, QB Josh McCown, OT Anthony Collins, CB Alterraun Verner, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, TE Brandon Myers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the 2014 season with a new coaching staff, led by Lovie Smith. Coaching changes mean roster changes, and when that works in concert with a glut of salary-cap space, you can bet spending money is part of the offseason plan.
The Buccaneers were very active in free agency, bringing on ball-hawking cornerback Alterraun Verner to replace Darrelle Revis, who was a poor scheme fit in Smith's defense. Though Revis was Pro Football Focus' top-ranked cornerback last year, he allowed receptions on 54 percent of the passes thrown his way compared to 49.9 percent for Verner. Verner also had five interceptions to Revis' two.
The Bucs also addressed the pass rush in free agency, bringing aboard former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. Johnson had only 3.5 sacks in 2013, primarily because he spent most of the season taking on the double-teams usually reserved for teammate Geno Atkins, who suffered an ACL tear in Week 9.
However, alongside other solid pass-rushers—like Gerald McCoy, his new Tampa teammate—Johnson is highly productive. He could bounce back to a double-digit sack total this season.
On offense, the Buccaneers addressed a number of positions, including quarterback. Former Chicago Bears passer Josh McCown, who took over for an injured Jay Cutler in 2013 and threw 13 touchdowns to just one interception in the process, reunited with Smith and could very well be the team's starter this year.
They also brought on a new left tackle to protect their quarterback, former Bengal Anthony Collins. Collins gave up no sacks last year as part of the Bengals' strong pass-protecting line. He replaces Donald Penn, who gave up 12.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith (who replaces Jeremy Zuttah) and tight end Brandon Myers round out the Buccaneers' free-agent signings of note. Dietrich-Smith was a top-10 center with the Green Bay Packers last year and fills a need best met by a veteran rather than a rookie.
Myers is a solid blocking and receiving tight end who had 47 catches for 522 yards and four touchdowns last year for the New York Giants.
The Buccaneers used their cap space to acquire building blocks for their new offense and defense, focusing their attention on backbone positions like left tackle and pass-rushing defensive end. These positions are better filled by veterans than rookies; it wasn't just spending for spending's sake, which is what many cash-flush teams do when free agency commences.
Key signings: OLB/DE LaMarr Woodley, OLB/DE Justin Tuck, QB Matt Schaub (trade with Houston), WR James Jones, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, DE/LB Antonio Smith, CB Tarell Brown
With the most amount of salary-cap space heading into the start of the new league year and many roster holes thanks to having few draft picks and even less money to build the team in the seasons prior, it was expected the Oakland Raiders would be major players in free agency. So far they have been, and they've made a few key signings who should make a positive impact with their new team this year.
Defense was the major priority. They made three additions to their front seven, mainly with an eye toward improving a pass rush that produced only 38 sacks last year. They brought on former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley to play defensive end, along with former New York Giant Justin Tuck.
Woodley and Tuck are both risky signings for different reasons. For Woodley, it's his decreased production and 14 missed games over the last three seasons. For Tuck, who had 11 sacks and 63 combined tackles in 2013, it's age—he's 31 years old. But the two, paired together in a new location with expectations of leadership on their shoulders, could do great things for their careers and the Raiders.
The Raiders also landed former Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, who could serve as a situational pass-rusher. Cornerback Tarell Brown rounded out their defensive signings. Though Brown did not have an interception for the San Francisco 49ers last season, he played 952 snaps at both the left and right sides of the field and gave up only four touchdowns.
Oakland was just as aggressive on offense, trading for Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, whose payday will cement him as its starter for 2014.
The Raiders also added former Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones to provide both experience and reliable hands that they have been lacking at the position and brought aboard running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who they signed to a three-year deal Friday.
The Jones-Drew signing has the potential to be a poor decision, especially with the Raiders already giving another oft-injured running back, Darren McFadden, a one-year deal.
However, it's hard to deny that when Jones-Drew is both healthy and motivated, he is one of the most effective running backs in the league. As long as the Raiders have a Plan B in place, the run game shouldn't be an area of too much concern this year.
The Raiders had no choice but to spend a significant chunk of their cap space as part of a long-term plan to stop treading water. Just trading for Schaub is an instant upgrade for Oakland's offense, his woeful 2013 season aside. As long as these veterans can thrive in their new home, the Raiders appear to have made smart decisions with their cash this offseason.
The Philadelphia Eagles used most of their money to further realize the offensive vision of head coach Chip Kelly. Two of their signings were offensive free agents of their own, wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper.
Maclin looked poised to be a centerpiece of the Eagles' passing offense prior to the ACL tear he suffered in June of last year, while Cooper was one of its breakout stars. He caught 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.
Sproles is much like McCoy in that he's a threat as both a rusher and a receiver. He's also similarly fast and shifty. Sproles may have rushed only 53 times for 220 yards and two scores in 2013, but he caught 71 passes for 604 yards and two more touchdowns.
Pairing Sproles with McCoy on the field this year is a very Kelly thing to do and should serve to only further frustrate opposing defenses that are trying to stop the Eagles' speedy offensive attack.
The signings of Maclin, Cooper and Sproles now matter even more. The team announced it parted ways with receiver DeSean Jackson on Friday (h/t CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz). Without retaining Maclin and Cooper (or signing Sproles) this would have left a massive vacancy on offense. Now, the Eagles are in fine shape despite cutting their leading receiver from 2013.
The Eagles also decided quarterback Michael Vick no longer fit the team, letting him sign with the New York Jets. In response, the Jets released quarterback Mark Sanchez, whom the Eagles quickly picked up to add an experienced arm to their stable of young passers.
Sanchez won't be in competition with Nick Foles for the starting job, but he meets a need at an affordable price, which is all they really needed in their third-string (or maybe second-string) quarterback.
On defense, the Eagles' biggest signing has so far been former New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins is just a slight upgrade over Patrick Chung, whom he replaces, but it was still a savvy move.
Safety is a difficult position to master in the NFL—it requires the athleticism and intelligence to handle both run-stopping and coverage assignments. These can be developed in rookies, but that takes time; a veteran like Jenkins is at least accustomed to the speed of the game and has no learning curve in the way a rookie does.
The Eagles may have mostly stuck to re-signing their own key free agents this offseason, but the outside additions they made were not just smart—they were opportunistic and timed perfectly too.
Key signings: S Donte Whitner, LB Karlos Dansby, RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins
The Cleveland Browns' major free-agency signings may have been reactionary—that is, as a response to immediate needs and losses—but they were also pitch-perfect, reflecting the more aggressive attitude of new head coach Mike Pettine.
The Browns signed former San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner to replace T.J. Ward, now with the Denver Broncos. They added interior linebacker Karlos Dansby to take the place of D'Qwell Jackson, whom the team released. The Browns weren't going to rely on the draft to successfully provide these two key components of their defense.
On offense, the Browns signed former Houston Texans running back Ben Tate, who will be tasked with helping the team turn around a run game that ranked a dismal 27th in yards and dead last in touchdowns, with four, in 2013.
They also gave slot receiver Andrew Hawkins a contract the Cincinnati Bengals could not match, making him the team's new starter at the position after releasing the troubled Davone Bess.
Dansby was Pro Football Focus' fifth-ranked inside linebacker in 2013; Jackson was 42nd out of 55. Whitner was its sixth-ranked safety, while Ward was third. Though Hawkins missed part of 2013 with an ankle injury, his speed, reliability and lack of off-field issues make him a significant upgrade over Bess.
And even if Tate pans out to be "just" a running back, that's still more than the Browns were able to boast a season ago.
Most importantly, the Browns chose to spend during free agency, but they didn't do so indiscriminately. With the second-most cap space in the league and a new coaching and front office staff, the opportunity was there for the Browns to overspend and reach for players who provided name recognition and little else.
Instead, the Browns opted to only bring a select number of free agents onto the roster. They filled holes left by departing leaders with guys like Whitner and Dansby, who are able to fill those leadership voids. When a team with a lot of cap space opts for a measured, well-thought-out approach to free agency rather than views it as a chance to go on a spending spree, the odds it makes mistakes are minimized.
New England Patriots
Key signings: CB Darrelle Revis, WR Julian Edelman, WR Brandon LaFell, CB Brandon Browner
Even good teams can use free agency to get better. The New England Patriots, who were one win away from yet another Super Bowl appearance just a few months ago, were active in free agency, addressing two major areas that needed help—wide receiver and the secondary. The choices they made will serve them well as they look for another playoff appearance.
Receiver was easy, relatively speaking. The Patriots just let free-agent Julian Edelman test the open market, but he found it insufficient and returned to New England. Edelman was the team's leading receiver in 2013, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, and he could reprise that role this year.
They also added Brandon LaFell, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. LaFell is a utility receiver who has had over 600 receiving yards each season since teaming up with quarterback Cam Newton in 2011. He had 49 receptions on 88 targets in 2013 for 627 yards and five touchdowns. Tom Brady will be a quarterback upgrade for LaFell, which means he could easily be looking at a career season in 2014.
However, the real coup was at cornerback, specifically their signing of the league's best corner, Darrelle Revis, after his release by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Revis bounced back well from his 2012 ACL tear with 50 total tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions in 2013, despite working in Tampa's zone defense more often than the man coverage that is his specialty.
Revis be back on his island in New England. And he'll be joined on the field by fellow corner Brandon Browner after Browner serves a four-game suspension to start the season.
While Browner is somewhat of a risky signing—the NFL suspended him indefinitely for substance abuse reasons before reinstating him in early March—he has a tremendous amount of upside. He's a reclamation project in the Bill Belichick mold. If there's anywhere he can thrive, it's in the controlled Patriots environment.
Browner comes to New England from the Seattle Seahawks—land of the large, physical defensive backs. Him on the field with Revis, safety Devin McCourty and other members of the Patriots' rapidly improving secondary should scare every quarterback scheduled to play New England this year.
There is less uncertainty now in both the Patriots' passing game and their pass defense this year. It's almost unfair that a perennial Super Bowl contender like the Patriots could get that much better with four free-agent signings, but they did. Improvement isn't limited to the league's worst teams, after all.