Top 5 Winners During the First Wave of NFL Free Agency

Jeremy Dawson@JDawson_NFLContributor IIIApril 4, 2014

Top 5 Winners During the First Wave of NFL Free Agency

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    The NFL is one of the greatest sports in the world because a team can go from two wins to 11 wins in the matter of one season (yes, we are looking at you, Kansas City). So every fan base in the country has hopes when the next season pops up that they will be that team.

    It is not because every team is just as good as the others so teams win at random. It is because of the new game planning, playbooks and schemes. It is because of the new athletes that you bring onto your team. It is because of the new coaches, scouts and trainers. It is because of the offseason.

    The offseason is where teams can either watch their stars walk away, or bring new faces of the franchise in. This is when you see stars like Darrelle Revis, DeSean Jackson, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers find new homes. It is also a time when we beg to see our favorite franchises retain those players who we love. I mean honestly, what do they expect us to do with those jerseys now?

    Just looked at my @DeseanJackson10 jersey hanging on wall.... Muttered "so sad" and shook my head. Wife said she doesn't understand. 😒😠

    — Tommy G. (@PhillyOutLoud) April 5, 2014

    The new league year kicked off with free agency, and we are now well on our way to the next big phase, the NFL Draft. This year’s free agency period has been as wild as any in recent memory and the draft, starting May 8, is one of the deepest drafts in a long time. This means that teams will still be changing dramatically in the near future, despite the fact that some already have in the past few weeks.

    Before we get too ahead of ourselves now though, let us take a few moments to reflect on the first jump to the new season and see who has made the best changes to their roster, in preparation for next season, so far.

5. New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots had a nerve-wracking ride through the first part free agency. In the end, however, they came out a better team than they were going in.

    First, the Patriots parted ways with linebacker Brandon Spikes, which appeared to be an imminent move before the Patriots even closed out the 2013 season.

    Next up was the departure of the Patriots' top cornerback Aqib Talib. Now this one stung for Patriot fans. The team had hoped to retain Talib but instead he decided to join the Denver Broncos. The same Denver Broncos team that pulled Tom Brady’s top receiver, Wes Welker, away from him last offseason. The same Denver Broncos team that knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs.

    Now while all of this was happening, the Patriots' top receiver from last season, Julian Edelman, was also looking around at new teams. Things were not looking good for the Patriots early on and the team did not agree to terms with any players on the first day of free agency.

    The second day of free agency had come and New England was just as quiet as on day one. That is, until late that Wednesday, when the New England Patriots pulled in the biggest name of the 2014 free agency, newly released cornerback Darrelle Revis.

    CB Darrelle Revis and the New England Patriots have reached agreement on a one-year, $12 million deal, league sources told ESPN.

    — Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2014

    The tide began to turn in favor of the Patriots from this moment forward. The next move was to add another cornerback, this time in former Seattle Seahawk Brandon Browner. Browner agreed to a three-year $17 million contract.

    Another bump in the road came up when the Patriots' star defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork, who was coming off of a season ending Achilles injury, reportedly put in a request to be released from the team, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

    Luckily, a change of heart came over Wilfork two weeks later and the two sides agreed to terms on a new contract that would save the Patriots around $5 million in cap space, according to the Boston Globe.

    When the dust settled and Edelman was done testing the market, he decided to re-sign back with the Patriots on a four-year contract.

    The Patriots also added a new wide receiver, former Carolina Panther Brandon LaFell. LaFell was not one of the top wide receiver names in free agency but he is a very good pickup for the Patriots. New England lacked size at receiver and LaFell’s 6’2”, 210-pound frame should provide that new dimension to the passing game.

    A few other notable moves were the re-signing of tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and center Ryan Wendell. They also brought back veteran safety Patrick Chung.

4. New York Giants

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    Ron Antonelli/Getty Images

    The New York Giants had a very disappointing season last year. Only two seasons removed from their last Super Bowl victory, and the Giants finished with a 7-9 record.

    Luckily for the Giants, they are in a competitive division, packed with teams that have around an 8-8 record every season. So 7-9 is only two, maybe three wins away from the playoffs next year. They have made the offseason moves, so far, necessary to see to it that is exactly what happens.

    Eli Manning is the one returning Giant who must bring these pieces together and elevate his own game in order to make it all work. In 2013 Eli Manning suffered the worst season of his career and boy was it ugly. In 2013 he set a career low in touchdown passes with 18 and a career high in interceptions with 27.

    Dan Graziano of ESPN.com said it best:

    The Giants have signed 23 free agents since the new league year started March 11, but not a single one of them will have as much to say about the success or failure of next season's team as will quarterback Eli Manning. He remains the one aspect of their roster that they know, from experience, can elevate them from average to championship-caliber. If he recovers from his career-worst season the way he did in 2011, all of Jerry Reese's offseason moves have a chance to look brilliant. But if Manning has another bad year and continues his decline, those moves are going to look useless.

    The first matter of business to get in order was to protect Eli Manning. The team did that in a big way when they signed offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz to a four-year, $16.8 million contract. This showed everyone that the Giants meant business. The team also brought in center J.D. Walton.

    The next offensive aspect to be addressed were Eli Manning’s weapons. Receiver Hakeem Nicks needed a fresh start somewhere so he decided to join the Indianapolis Colts, but Victor Cruz is in it for the long haul and the Giants brought back receiver Mario Manningham on a one-year deal. The Giants were very unclear on where they stood with their running backs so they signed the breakout Raider from last season Rashad Jennings.

    The biggest signing the New York Giants made throughout free agency, however, was on the opposite side of the ball. The Giants signed Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a five-year, $35 million contract. The team also signed cornerback Walter Thurmond, making their secondary solidified.

    The Giants re-signed their top linebacker, Jon Beason, who was set to test the free-agent market to a three-year deal. The team also added former Baltimore Raven linebacker Jameel McClain.

    Defensive end Robert Ayers joined the team, hoping to fight for a starting spot. At the very least he will be a great option to have in the rotation.

    Two big special teams’ moves were made when the Giants signed both Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday, two of the fastest players in the NFL. There is a good chance that we see Demps in the defensive secondary rotation from time to time as well.

    A few other big moves the Giants made were signing offensive linemen John Jerry and Charles Brown. They also re-signed linebacker Mark Herzlich, running back Peyton Hillis and cornerback Trumaine McBride.

3. Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins had a great year in 2012 and it had appeared that their franchise was turning in a new direction thanks to their new leader, quarterback Robert Griffin III. Unfortunately that season ended with a complete tearing of his ACL and LCL.

    Redskins QB Robert Griffin III will undergo total reconstruction of knee for complete tear of ACL and LCL. Recovery projection: 6-8 mos.

    — Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) January 9, 2013

    Things went from bad to worse in Washington. After Adrian Peterson had an all-time great season coming off of knee surgery the season prior, the expectations across the league were that RGIII could come back just fine. Unfortunately the team finished the 2013 season with a miserable 3-13 record and much of it had to do with poor play from Griffin.

    Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan was fired soon after. A lot of positive change needs to come in 2014, and that change would have to start at the very top. The Redskins hired Jay Gruden, former offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, to be their new head coach.

    Now for the big news; shortly after reports came out of DeSean Jackson’s supposed “ties to gangs,” per NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks, the Philadelphia Eagles released their speedy, Pro Bowl wide receiver. And shortly after that, according to USA Today, the LAPD refuted reports that Jackson was ever linked to gang-related activity. The Washington Redskins instantly brought him in for a visit and would ultimately sign him before he was even able to visit another team.

    The team also re-signed veteran receiver Santana Moss and brought in newcomer Andre Roberts from Arizona.

    The Washington Redskins will be one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL this year. RGIII will be throwing the ball to a receiver corps that features Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Roberts, Moss and tight end Jordan Reed. If that is not enough, let us not forget about the 25-year-old star running back Alfred Morris, who already holds the Redskins record for the most rushing yards in a season.

    The defense still needs a few pieces but they did make a few good moves. First they retained linebacker Brian Orakpo with the franchise tag. They made three big defensive signings with defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, linebacker Akeem Jordan and safety Ryan Clark. Each of these players add a level of toughness and talent to each level of the defense that, so often, was not there a season ago.

    A few other significant signings included defensive back Tracy Porter, linebacker Darryl Sharpton and offensive guard Shawn Lauvao.

2. Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot

    The Oakland Raiders had the most interesting approach to the offseason. If this ranking were based off of signing big names then the Oakland Raiders would have ran away with the No. 1 spot. Unfortunately the majority of their signings are former NFL stars who have passed their prime. Ultimately, however, the moves they have made will prove worthwhile and the team will improve.

    The Raiders, like any team in the NFL, needed to make sure they knew who their quarterback was going to be this season. They quickly made that decision, for now, by trading away a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft for quarterback Matt Schaub. During his press conference upon arrival in Oakland, Schaub had the following to say,

    I’m very excited to get to work in such a manner that we can win a championship here in Oakland. I’m very excited to be a part of this team, a lot of veteran leaders and a lot of talent. The offseason so far has proven the will to win around here and the players that are being brought in. I’m very excited to be a part of this organization.

    To help their pass protection the Raiders brought in former Pro Bowl offensive tackle Donald Penn, as well as offensive lineman Austin Howard. Also Schaub will need a weapon to throw the ball to, so the Raiders went out and signed former Packers wide receiver James Jones.

    Oakland made a big re-signing with running back Darren McFadden and they also kept defensive back Charles Woodson. To pair with McFadden, the Raiders went out and signed veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Jones-Drew had a lackluster year with the Jaguars in 2013 and he hopes to turn that around.

    A lot of change was made on defense as well. Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith were both signed to bring pressure in the pass rush although Smith is expected to move inside. The team also signed LaMarr Woodley, who plans to play defensive end in Oakland opposite of Justin Tuck. Newly signed cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are expected to be Week 1 starters as well.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    How can a team lose a player of Darrelle Revis’ caliber in free agency and still have the best free agency out of every team in the NFL? With new uniforms of course. (Kidding) You replace him and upgrade in more important positions.

    The Buccaneers lost arguably the best cornerback in the NFL in Revis, but they did replace him with a younger, less expensive Pro Bowl cornerback in Alterraun Verner. Revis was on contract to make $16 million in 2014 if the Buccaneers had held onto him. The 25-year-old Verner signed his contract, which had a base salary of only $5 million this season.

    Next it was time to handle the whole “upgrade in more important positions” aspect. While rookie quarterback Mike Glennon was not terrible, he was not very good either, statistically or record wise. 

    Luckily for Glennon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to sign free-agent quarterback, Josh McCown, to take over the starting position. Glennon needs to learn behind a veteran. At age 34 and now playing for the fifth NFL franchise of his career, I think it is safe to declare McCown as a crafty veteran.

    McCown was presented with an opportunity last season when, Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler went down with an injury. McCown took full advantage of his starting chance racking up 13 passing touchdowns with only one interception and a season passer rating of 109.0

    Buccaneer Head Coach, Lovie Smith, has already gone out and declared McCown as his starting QB.

    The Buccaneers also beefed up their offensive line with Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and offensive tackle Anthony Collins.

    Tampa Bay pulled off one of the biggest defensive signings in free agency as well in former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.

    A few other notable signings include wide receiver Louis Murphy, safety Major Wright, cornerback Mike Jenkins, linebacker Dane Fletcher, tight end Brandon Myers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.