Ranking the NFL's 10 Most Improved Teams Before the Draft
Free agency is always one of the most exciting parts of the NFL offseason. Teams can be made or broken depending on the moves owners, general managers and coaches make. There is the old saying that you can't buy a championship, but that certainly doesn't stop teams from trying.
Each year we see teams vastly improve through free agency, whether it is from just one big move or from multiple savvy moves. This year looks to be no different as numerous teams made improvements one way or another.
Of course, not all improvements are made equal so let's break down who did the best job.
The criteria for breaking down and ranking this list is as follows:
1. This list does not include free agents who re-signed with their respective teams. Only new acquisitions were counted, seeing as how bringing the same players back is only breaking even, not improving.
2. These new acquisitions were also judged against any players lost in free agency. Essentially, did the team lose a player more valuable than who was brought in?
3. Each team was graded on its job of filling holes in the team, which is really what free agency is all about. If a team had a glaring hole in one aspect and ignored it, it will count against them.
So with this criteria in mind, lets delve into the start of this list.
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Steelers
Top Signings: LeGarrette Blount RB, Mike Mitchell FS, Darrius Heyward-Bey WR and Lance Moore WR.
Top Needs: Offensive Line, Secondary
The Pittsburgh Steelers are as stingy as they come in free agency. It seems like forever since the Steelers made a big move in the market, and this year wasn't any different despite finishing 8-8 for the second season in a row.
The big move for Pittsburgh came with the signing of former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell. The fifth-year safety was brought in to inject some much-needed youth to their secondary and be the successor to stalwart Ryan Clark, who would eventually wind up with Washington.
Mitchell had a break-out year in 2013 when he was finally able to become a full-time starter, racking up four interceptions, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. In Pittsburgh he will be expected to play the center field position, like Clark did, which will allow Troy Polamalu greater freedom to move around and press the line of scrimmage.
The other big move, literally, is the signing of former New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount played a huge role (I swear that's the last pun) for the Pats down the stretch last season. He steamrolled the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs on his way to 166 yards and four touchdowns.
Blount now comes to the Steel City, a town that has a rich tradition of powerful runners, and some see him as the next Jerome Bettis, at least in terms of running style. More realistically, he looks to provide the role Isaac Redman used to have as the short-yardage/goal-line specialist. As stated in the video, he is clearly going to be Le'Veon Bell's backup, but this backfield is going to put a hurt on opposing defenses.
The additions of the two wide receivers are merely depth-chart moves as of now. DHB and Moore replace Jericho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders. Both have starting experience in the league and could play a larger role if Markus Wheaton doesn't develop to the level the Steelers want him to.
The reason the Steelers failed to crack the top 10 of this list lies in the fact that they ignored the offensive line in free agency despite many quality starters being available for a relatively cheap price tag. They did not have a lot of cap space, due to numerous large contracts, which did hamper their ability to pursue players like Zane Beadles or Geoff Schwartz.
They were also hampered by some of the players lost in free agency, such as Ziggy Hood and LaMarr Woodley. Pittsburgh still has plenty of holes to fill come draft time.
Honorable Mention: Baltimore Ravens
Top Signings: Owen Daniels TE, Steve Smith WR and Justin Forsett RB
The Ravens spent most of their free-agent budget on re-signing their own guys, a lesson they learned after letting numerous starters from their Super Bowl winning team go. This didn't leave much room for general manager Ozzie Newsome and company to make big splashes in free agency.
The most noteworthy of Baltimore's signings was that of former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith. After a very public falling out between Smith and the Panthers, Newsome gave the 35-year-old receiver a questionable three-year, $10.5 million deal.
Smith looks to provide Joe Flacco with a reliable third-down option much like what he had with Anquan Boldin. He can still be a player you have to respect when he goes deep, but he hit a steep decline in production last year.
Fortunately, the Ravens represent the perfect situation for Smith to go to, as teams have to double-team Torrey Smith, which will open things up for Steve Smith, something he hadn't enjoyed in Carolina since the days of Muhsin Muhammad.
As was stated in the video, this is not a game-changing move for the Ravens. In fact, I don't really expect Smith to have much better numbers than he did last year. The major difference comes from the fact that he is a complement now instead of the main attraction, so having a sub-800-yard receiving season is, for a number two wideout, not bad. His veteran presence is the biggest key here and should help Flacco's development.
Signing both Owen Daniels and Justin Forsett provides depth, though they can provide some production when called upon. Daniels has the higher ceiling of the two, as he was Matt Schaub's second-favorite target in Houston. However, injuries have slowed his career.
Forsett, on the other hand, has bounced around the league after being ousted by Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. The once promising running back now has an opportunity to split carries if Ray Rice is unable to resolve his legal issues before the season starts.
The Ravens failed to crack the top 10 because, as mentioned, most of their moves were re-signings. The new signings they did make are a bit questionable. It's true the Ravens needed help at the receiver positions, but their big move was picking up a 35-year-old receiver past his prime, despite numerous other options that would have come cheaper. (Hakeem Nicks comes to mind.)
Honorable Mention: Cleveland Browns
Top Signings: Donte Whitner S, Ben Tate RB, Karlos Dansby LB, Nate Burelson WR, Andrew Hawkins WR
Top Needs: Quarterback, Running Back, Defense
The Browns took the award normally held by the Jets for most dysfunctional franchise in the league. They fired first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski, then following the debacle of trying to get his replacement, both CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi were fired.
This left Ray Farmer as the new GM, and he's faced with unenviable task of making the right personnel moves to get everyone to forget about Cleveland's early offseason woes.
The first significant moves Farmer made were to replace departed stars. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was cut prior to free agency, and safety T.J. Ward was a soon-to-be free agent. Both players were key parts to what has been a quietly good defense with a lot of young potential.
Replacing both of them was key. To replace Ward, hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner was brought over from the 49ers on a four-year, $28 million deal. Jackson's replacement also came from the NFC West by way of Arizona. Former Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby, who experienced a career-revitalizing year after returning Arizona, was brought in by Cleveland on a four-year, $24 million deal to man the middle of its defense.
The flashiest move on offense came with the signing of the best free-agent running back in Ben Tate. Tate, who spent his entire career sharing carries with Arian Foster in Houston, has shown the ability to be an every-down back, which is exactly what Matt Miller says they need in the above video.
Tate does come in with some questions, however. On one hand, due to splitting carries, his legs are fresher than a normal running back his age. On the other hand, he has dealt with his fair share of injuries thus far in his career. Still, he looks to provide an upgrade over what Cleveland had after dealing former first-round pick Trent Richardson to the Colts last season.
Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron both took the Browns and the league by storm in 2013. Gordon led the league in receiving yards and Cameron managed a trip to the Pro Bowl. However, they can't do it alone so both Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins were brought in as reinforcements.
Burleson had a successful stretch opposite Calvin Johnson in Detroit. He looks to provide a veteran presence to help mentor the young players as well as provide a solid third-down option. Hawkins was signed away from rival Cincinnati after the Bengals refused to match the Browns offer. He is a bit of an enigma but showed enough promise in his second year for the Browns to take a shot on him.
The main reason the Browns failed to crack the top 10 is because the players they brought in to replace the stars they already had don't quite match up.
Dansby and Whitner are both good players, but not only are they both older than their predecessors, they were both overpaid, receiving larger contracts than either Jackson and Ward got. Overpaying for older players is not the best way to rebuild a franchise and help it move on from its dysfunction.
10. Chicago Bears
Top Signings: Jared Allen DE, Lamarr Houston DE, Brian De La Puente C
Top Needs: Defensive Line, Running back, Safety
In an interesting role reversal from how the Bears were in the 2000s, last season's Bears excelled on offense but struggled heavily on defense. They fielded one of the worst units in the league so it was no surprise to see them hit the defense hard in free agency.
The Bears fielded the worst pass rush in the league last year, compiling only 31 sacks. Julius Peppers, who was cut and now resides in Green Bay, led the team with seven sacks. Given the fact their next highest pass-rusher had four sacks, finding an upgrade was the biggest priority.
The first move they made was grabbing former Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston. Houston, who was signed to a five-year, $35 million deal, led the Raiders last year with six sacks. He brings versatility to the Bears, having played defensive tackle in college.
The highest profile move the Bears made was signing veteran defensive end Jared Allen. Allen, who spent the past six years with the rival Vikings, has notched double-digit sacks in each of the past seven seasons. The Bears hope he can continue this production and team with Houston to provide them with a revamped pass rush.
The Bears didn't stop there with the defensive line. They also brought in former Lions end Willie Young and brought back Israel Idonije, who also spent last year with Detroit. Young played well last season, despite what his stats say. He graded out as the 16th-best defensive end with a plus-7.0 grade per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Idonije looks to be just a depth player and not cut out for a major role anymore.
The decision to pick up Brian De La Puente shows the Bears continued commitment to give Jay Cutler better protection, something they failed to do early on in his tenure with Chicago. De La Puente will team with last year's first-round pick Kyle Long to give them a strong presence on the inside.
The Bears failed to place higher because, even though they did address most of their needs, most of their high profile moves came at just one position. Even then, Allen had more sacks last year than Houston, Young and Idonije combined.
They failed to address their need at corner as well, which Rick Strom mentioned in the video, is a big need since their top two corners are getting up there in age. All in all, it is a step in the right direction but more needs to be addressed in the draft.
9. Tennessee Titans
Top Signings: Dexter McCluster WR, Michael Oher RT, Shaun Phillips DE, Wesley Woodyard LB
Top Needs: Offensive Line, Defensive Line
Outside of the whole Chris Johnson drama, not a whole lot has been said about the Titans so far this offseason. However, they quietly have added some depth to their roster and been one of the more improved teams in their division.
The biggest offseason move made so far has been stealing head coach Ken Whisenhunt away from San Diego (and Detroit). His presence will certainly be a boon for embattled starting quarterback Jake Locker. Locker did show promise last season prior to going down with injury so he may just be on the brink of greatness.
One way the Titans decided to help him out even more is by signing explosive receiver Dexter McCluster from Kansas City. McCluster adds a dangerous element to the running, passing and return game. He will team up with Kendell Wright, who really came into his own last year. McCluster also seems to give the Titans another option at running back now that Johnson is gone.
Last offseason the Titans added Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack to man the middle of the offensive line. This year it is time to address the bookends as Michael Roose, quietly one of the better left tackles in the game, isn't getting any younger and right tackle David Stewart was a cap casualty.
Former Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal and looks to man the right side for the upcoming season. The hope may be to eventually be able to move him over the the left side, an area he struggled at in Baltimore. He will have the time to learn from one of the best so it may just pay off.
Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard quickly became after thoughts during Denver's big spending spree. Phillips, who played better than expected in Denver following a stellar career in San Diego, was brought in and looks to be a solid contributor to the Titans pass rush.
As mentioned in the video, the Titans will be using a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, and Phillips has shown he can play well in both. His presence will be a boost for Tennessee's leading sack artist from last season Jurrell Casey. Woodyard had trouble transitioning from the weak side to the middle linebacker spot. If he plays weak-side LB in Tennessee, he will be a solid upgrade for the Tennessee defense.
Even though these additions have certainly improved the team, the improvements are not big enough. All four players will make an impact for Tennessee but are not going to be a Reggie White-type force who is the missing piece for a championship run. They will be solid contributors but unlikely breakout stars.
8. Miami Dolphins
Top Signings: Branden Albert T, Louis Delmas S, Knowshon Moreno RB
Top Needs: Offensive Line, Linebacker, Secondary
If it wasn't for the late surge by the Browns, the Miami Dolphins would have taken the award for most dysfunctional franchise following last season's high-profile bullying scandal.
As expected, general manager Jeff Ireland did not survive the year but surprisingly head coach Joe Philbin did. Now he starts the task to make sure he stays, and free agency is where it begins.
The offensive line desperately needed to be addressed given the circumstances of the aforementioned bullying controversy. Guard Richie Incognito won't be back, John Jerry was signed by the Giants and Jonathan Martin was traded to San Francisco. This leaves the Dolphins with little depth, especially following the departure of tackle Jake Long last offseason.
The big move for Miami came with the signing of free agent Branden Albert, who they hope can be Ryan Tannehill's blindside protector for years to come. They awarded him with a five-year, $47 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. The move comes after Miami attempted to trade for Albert last year, but the price was just not right.
Albert isn't quite the tackle he once was, so it is a bit of a gamble giving him this much money. One thing Dolphin fans can feel relieved about acquiring Albert is the understanding that he can't possibly be worse than what the Dolphins fielded at left tackle last year.
Hit equally as hard by departures was the Dolphins secondary. They were able to re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes but lost safety Chris Clemons to Houston, as well as four other defensive backs. Former Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas was brought in as the big signing for the secondary on a one-year, $3.5 million contract. Delmas can be an impact starter for Miami if he is able to stay healthy.
They also brought in former St. Louis Rams corner Cortland Finnegan on a two-year deal. This move is a bit of a head-scratcher as Finnegan is not nearly the corner he was five years ago. At the very least he will bring a veteran presence to a young team. It is unlikely that one of the worst-rated corners (per Pro Football Focus) will be able to turn his career around like Grimes did.
One of the latest moves by the Dolphins was picking up former Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno. After years of being considered a bust, Moreno went off last season and had his best year yet. He rushed for over 1,000 yards and finished the season with 10 touchdowns, his best numbers since his rookie campaign.
Moreno will come in and compete with incumbent running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, but given how much the duo disappointed last season, the new Dolphin should be fast-tracked to the starting job. The one question remains whether or not his breakout year was a product of Peyton Manning or if he just took awhile to find his stride.
Overall, Miami did have a nice offseason improvement. The team failed to address their linebacker corps, which contains two free-agent busts from last year. The most significant improvement the Dolphins made was on the offensive line (Albert), but they are relying too much on question marks to rank higher on this list.
7. New England Patriots
Top Signings: Darrelle Revis CB, Brandon Browner CB, Brandon LaFell WR
Top Needs: Receiver, Cornerback, Offensive Line
The beginning of this decade has not been as kind to the Patriots as the beginning of the last decade was. The Patriots have had a great run of success the past number of years but so far have nothing to show for it. With the Tom Brady era in its twilight years, the Pats have entered the desperate "win now" mode.
The biggest problem they faced last season was the lack of weapons on offense. Once TE Aaron Hernandez was release due to legal problems and Rob Gronkowski went down with injury, Brady looked like a very average quarterback.
With this need for extra weapons in mind, the Pats signed former Carolina Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell to a very inexpensive three-year, $9 million deal. LaFell showed promise while playing second fiddle to Steve Smith in Carolina, topping 600 yards three consecutive years. Signing LaFell could be an iffy move for the Pats since, most likely, he will be competing for the number one receiver role, a responsibility he has not had to shoulder before.
The biggest upgrades the Pats made were at corner. They were able to reel in a pair of Pro Bowl CBs in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Revis was brought aboard on essentially a one-year, $12 million deal (further details here) after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Browner, who was released by the Seattle Seahawks following a PED-related suspension, was signed to a three-year, $16.8 million deal despite having to serve a four-game suspension at the beginning of the 2014 season.
On paper, this duo quickly becomes the best starting-corner tandem in the league. As mentioned in the video, the Pats have to take care to play to Browner's strengths, lest he wind up like Nnamdi Asomugha in Philly. If they manage to do this, it will make life a living hell for the rest of a division that sports three quarterbacks with fewer than three years experience. This move could be the final piece to bringing the Pats defense back to championship form.
Despite this, the Patriots still rank fairly low on this list, primarily because they failed to really address their major needs. LaFell does not provide a legitimate upgrade to the anemic group of receivers, so look for New England to address that deficiency in the draft. The offensive line still has its question marks, and the Pats failed to bolster the unit despite a number of high-level linemen available at the start of free agency.
6: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Top Signings: Michael Johnson DE, Alterraun Verner CB, Brandon Myers TE, Evan Dietrich-Smith C
Top Needs: Offensive Line, Defensive End, Cornerback
Tampa Bay has been one of the more active teams in free agency in recent years and this year was no different, as the Bucs took advantage of their ample cap space to go after some of this offseason's biggest names.
The first big move was signing former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson to a five-year, $43 million deal. The Bucs brought Johnson in to help provide a legitimate edge-rusher, something that has been missing from the Tampa defense for years. He will team up with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and fellow end Adrian Clayborn to form one of the fiercer defensive fronts in football.
The Bucs also wrapped up Alterraun Verner, rated as one of the top free-agent corners this year, with a four-year $26 million deal, $14 million of which is guaranteed. This move allowed them to jettison Darrelle Revis, last year's big trade acquisition. The move saved Tampa Bay $16 million in cap space and allowed the Bucs to move on from a blunder of the old regime.
Verner comes in to team with last year's top choice Johnthan Banks and the safety tandem of Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. As mentioned in the video, he is a good fit for Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme. His addition to this defense looks to give Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees some real headaches.
To finish off their top needs, Tampa went out and signed one of the top centers on the market, Evan Dietrich-Smith. They also went out and signed former Giants and Raiders tight end Brandon Myers. Myers was released from the Giants after a subpar season. He was a poor fit schematically in New York, but he looks to revive his career in Tampa.
The Bucs did do a good job of upgrading their major areas of concern. The one thing holding them back on this list is their two biggest signings come with some major concerns. Both players each had a career year that far exceeds their usual production.
In Johnson's case, he racked up 11.5 sacks in 2012 yet dropped to a paltry 3.5 last year. For Verner, his five interceptions and 22 passes defensed from last year nearly doubled his career numbers in each category (six interceptions and 28 passes defensed, respectively). Considering the vast difference between their best years and their normal production, it is hard to tell just how much Tampa Bay has improved.
5. New York Giants
Top Signings: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie CB, Geoff Schwartz G, Rashad Jennings RB
Top Needs: Offensive Line, Running Back, Defensive Line, Tight End
The normally reserved Giants went on a spending spree following their second consecutive season missing the playoffs.
General manager Jerry Reese went all out to make sure the Giants filled as many holes as possible prior to the draft. This resulted in an astonishing 14 new acquisitions for Big Blue as well as eight re-signings. As Bob Papa mentioned above, the biggest takeaway from these moves is they have a completely rebuilt secondary.
The biggest and one of the most recent signings the Giants made was locking up former Denver Broncos corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a five-year, $39 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. DRC comes in to be the lockdown corner this franchise has been missing for a number of years. He will team up with former first-round pick Prince Amukamara, Walter Thurmond, who also was signed this offseason and Trumaine McBride to form the best secondary in the NFC East.
The Giants also made strides on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the running game. The big signing was that of former Kansas City Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz. The Giants offensive line play was pretty terrible last year. It allowed a career-high 39 sacks of Eli Manning, which eventually resulted in a sprained ankle that will take six more weeks to fully heal. Schwartz rated out as the NFL's eighth-best guard, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), playing especially good in the run game.
Former Oakland Raiders running back Rashad Jennings was brought in as well to be the starting running back and eventually split carries with David Wilson, who is still making his way back from a neck injury. Jennings was signed to a four-year, $14 million deal, which was a bit surprising since the consensus best free-agent running back, Ben Tate, was signed by the Cleveland Browns to a cheaper deal. Jennings showed real promise in his first gig as a full-time starter, rushing for over 700 yards and six touchdowns.
Perhaps the biggest improvement the Giants made was on special teams. After years of kick and punt returning futility (save for Wilson's rookie year), Big Blue reeled in two of the best return men from last year, Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday.
Demps is certainly the more versatile signing as he can play defense. He played very well for the Chiefs last year, intercepting four passes and having nine passes defensed. He also managed to have the second-highest kick return average (30.1) for returners with over 30 attempts.
Holliday, on the other hand, has the highest ceiling of the two. Over the past two years as a kick and punt returner, Holliday recorded four touchdowns, including two 105-yard kickoff returns. The one knock on his play is his penchant for fumbling. He coughed up five punt returns last year and four the previous year.
Anyone, especially David Wilson, can tell you how much Tom Coughlin hates fumbling, so Holliday must clear this issue up if he wants to play a legitimate role.
Most of the rest of the moves were for depth. To flush out the offensive line, guard John Jerry, tackle Charles Brown and center J.D. Walton (Walton is expected to start) were brought in. The Giants continued their attempts at reviving the careers of former first-round picks by bringing in defensive end Robert Ayers. Former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain also joined the team to shore up a weak linebacker corps.
Given the sheer number of moves made, improvements were bound to happen. The reins were taken off Jerry Reese and he didn't disappoint. He made some much needed improvements by bringing in a combination of big-name stars and executing some savvy though less-publicized signings.
The biggest thing missing is a legitimate option at tight end. The Giants signed none in free agency, so this backs them into a bit of a corner come draft day. North Carolina's Eric Ebron in the first round or Jace Amaro of Texas Tech in the second makes sense.
Big Blue did crack the top five, but given the fact the Giants failed to resolve the tight end issue and did very little to shore up the defensive line, this is as high as they go.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Top Signings: Red Bryant DT, Chris Clemons DE, Zane Beadles G, Toby Gerhart RB
Top Needs: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line
It must have been an interesting feeling for former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to watch the defense he built take down one of the best offenses in history in this year's Super Bowl. Sure the current Jaguars head coach was proud of his former players for achieving the greatest team accomplishment in football, but at the same time, I'm sure he was thinking about how he can do the same thing in Jacksonville.
In Bradley's first year as head coach of the Jags, things went pretty much as expected. This team has one of the shallowest rosters in the NFL and it played like such. To his credit, he was able to snap his squad out of an 0-8 funk to finish with a 4-12 record.
The Seattle-fication in Jacksonville started this offseason with the acquisition of a pair of Seahawks defensive lineman. Both Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were brought in to help a unit that has perennially underachieved. Bryant was a cap casualty while Clemons was made obsolete with the re-signing of Michael Bennett. Both players will provide a young Jacksonville team with good veteran leadership.
The offensive line was in need of some help as well, especially after the mistake of trading Eugene Monroe away. The Jags have a solid starting piece in last year's first-round pick Luke Joekel but additions are needed elsewhere.
They signed Zane Beadles from Denver to shore up the guard position. Beadles, who was signed to a five-year, $30 million deal, was one of the top guards on the market. As stated in the video, this move really helps solidify the offensive line, especially on the left side. With Monroe gone, Joekel will be expected to switch to the left side.
Another free-agent acquisition who looks to benefit from a revamped offensive line is former Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart. Gerhart, signed to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, was brought in to replace free-agent running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He who spent his first four years as Adrian Peterson's backup, has done very well in limited action, sporting a career yards-per-carry average of 4.7.
As Mike Noto notes in his video, this kind of money looks like a good deal on paper but in reality, the market has diminished so much for running backs that the Jags are actually paying Gerhart starter money. The Jaguars have to feel confident that the small sample pool from his days in Minnesota is a sign of things to come; Gerhart did prove in college he can be an every-down back.
Given the general lack of talent on the roster, it is no wonder the Jags have seen, in theory, a significant improvement. They should boast a formidable defensive front and a much improved offense. The only thing that kept them out of the top three was the fact that their major defensive additions are merely stopgaps and not long-term solutions.
Bryant and Clemons are 29 and 32 years of age, respectively. Clemons especially will be a short-term solution as he is coming off an injury-lost season. They will be good additions for now, as they know Gus Bradley's system, but their impact might not be felt for a bit.
3. Washington Redskins
Top Signings: Ryan Clark S, Tracy Porter CB, DeSean Jackson WR, Jason Hatcher DT
Top Needs: Secondary, Receiver, Defensive Line
It wouldn't be free agency unless Washington made some waves and that's just what the Redskins did this year.
It wasn't bad enough that Washington finished 3-13 but to add insult to the injury, the team doesn't even get to take advantage of the high draft pick since it was sent to the St. Louis Rams in 2012 for Robert Griffin III. This puts even more pressure on owner Dan Snyder and company to make some good moves in free agency.
The biggest issue they had to resolve was fixing a defense that gave up nearly 30 points per game. They started by retooling their secondary, bringing in corner Tracy Porter and safety Ryan Clark. Porter, who has bounced around the league since his days with the Saints, looks to be in line for the second starting position across form DeAngelo Hall.
Porter will be a good mentor as well for last year's top pick (second round) David Amerson. Amerson struggled early on, as one would expect from a rookie, but showed considerable growth throughout the season. With Porter there to take some of the heat off him, Amerson should continue to grow in his second year.
Safety has been an issue for the Redskins for a number of seasons, and that is why they brought back Ryan Clark on a one-year deal. Clark played for the Redskins early on in his career but made a name for himself playing opposite Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh. He is a hard-hitting center fielder who instantly upgrades the 'Skins secondary.
The moves to upgrade the defense didn't stop there, as Washington also signed defensive tackle/end Jason Hatcher to a four-year, $27.5 million contract. Hatcher, who spent his entire eight-year career in Dallas, had a break-out campaign in 2013, leading the Cowboys with 11 sacks. Hatcher looks to solidify a unit that has some serious potential to get after the quarterback.
Hatcher does come with some question marks, though. As Jason Reid of The Washington Post talks about in the video accompanying this slide, Hatcher had his breakout year at 32 years of age. Generally players over 30 don't get better (obviously there are exceptions) so this is quite a gamble. One thing the Redskins have to be relying on is that Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will draw enough attention from opposing offenses to allow Hatcher to exploit one-on-one matchups.
The biggest move for the Redskins was the signing of receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson, who had a very public falling out with the Eagles over gang-related reports, was cut and instantly became the hottest commodity on the market. The Redskins were able to lure him away from the Raiders and sign him to a three-year, $24 million deal.
Jackson joining the Redskins turns one of their biggest weaknesses into a significant strength. The combination of Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts, who was also a new addition, makes their receiver corps one of the best in the division.
While the additions of Porter and Clark are definite upgrades, the main reason the 'Skins rank so high on this list is because of the Hatcher and Jackson signings. Not only did the Redskins improve their roster, but they did it by taking players away from division rivals.
They got stronger while their opponents got weaker. It doesn't get much better than that.
2. Denver Broncos
Top Signings: DeMarcus Ware DE, Aqib Talib CB, T.J. Ward S, Emmanuel Sanders WR
Top Needs: Defensive Line, Secondary, Running Back
Football is known as a game of inches but for the Broncos, they weren't even within a mile of their competition in the Super Bowl.
Much like the Patriots, the Broncos are in a severe "win now" mode as Peyton Manning has two years left at best. This prompted general manager John Elway to throw everything he could at the market in order to give Manning the supporting cast necessary to send him out in a manner that Elway himself enjoyed 15 years ago.
The Broncos offense played at an unbelievable level last season, setting numerous records by season's end. The receiver combination of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas played to near perfection with Manning running the show. The offense largely remains intact, with just Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno being the only key players leaving.
To replace Decker, the Broncos went and signed Emmanuel Sanders, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to a three-year, $15 million deal. Sanders has shown a lot of potential playing in the shadow of both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. He had a career-year last season hauling in 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns. He will have to battle incumbent Andre Caldwell for the second receiver slot, but it is a battle he should win.
As expected, the major moves in free agency came on defense. Their secondary especially got a major overhaul with the signings of corner Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Talib was brought in on a massive six-year, $57 million deal. This move more than covers the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who turned down an offer made by the Broncos before signing with the New York Giants.
Talib turned his career around in New England and became one of the league's best corners. His presence was especially felt by Denver in the AFC Championship Game last season. Talib effectively shut down Demaryius Thomas in the first half but was then injured and missed the rest of the game. Manning would go on to torch the New England secondary in his absence.
The addition of Ward makes this secondary that much better. The Broncos were famously eliminated from the playoffs two years ago due to inept safety play. This past season their pass defense was ranked near the bottom of the league. (Granted, most teams piled on yards because they were playing from behind.)
Ward was an outstanding safety for Cleveland, grading out at plus-14.5 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was good for third in the NFL. He was especially good against the run but was no slouch in coverage, pulling in two interceptions and breaking up five passes.
Another boon for their defense was the addition of All-Pro OLB/DE DeMarcus Ware. Ware was a bit of a surprise cap casualty in Dallas. He made the switch to 4-3 defensive end after playing his nine previous seasons at the outside linebacker spot.
Ware comes in to most likely to replace the departed Shaun Phillips, who was a surprise impact player for Denver last year. As Mike Noto talks about in the video, despite what the numbers says, Ware was extremely explosive off the line in his new position. The combination of Ware and Von Miller will keep opposing quarterbacks constantly on the move and force them to get rid of the ball early.
The Broncos rank second on this list because, for a team that made it to the Super Bowl, they improved significantly. They lost Phillips, Rodgers-Cromartie and Decker—all of whom were key contributors to their Super Bowl run—yet they upgraded across the board.
It doesn't seem possible but this team is even more dangerous this year.
1. Oakland Raiders
Top Signings: Justin Tuck DE, Lamarr Woodley OLB, Maurice Jones-Drew RB, James Jones WR, Donald Penn T, Matt Schaub QB (via trade)
Top Needs:...pretty much everything
The expectations weren't high for the Raiders going into the 2013 season. Their roster was considered one of the weakest in the NFL, and they were in a tough division that ended up featuring three playoff teams. After finishing with a 4-12 record, general manager Reggie McKenzie knew more changes had to be made.
The free-agent period started off rough for McKenzie as he allowed promising left tackle Jared Veldheer to walk and sign with the Cardinals. His backup plan was to sign St. Louis Rams guard/tackle Roger Saffold, but the deal fell through when Saffold failed his physical and subsequently re-signed with the Rams.
After this fiasco, McKenzie went out and essentially signed a 2011 all-star team. There were major upgrades made to both the offense and the defense, so let's start with the offense first.
To soften the blow of losing out on both Veldheer and Saffold, Oakland signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn to a two-year, $9.6 million deal.
Terrelle Pryor started the season as the starting quarterback, beating out Matt Flynn for the job. He struggled as a starter and eventually was benched in favor of undrafted rookie Matt McGloin. McGloin did a serviceable job, but neither QB hardly seems like the future of the franchise.
The Raiders orchestrated a trade for long-time Texans starter Matt Schaub, who had a down year and most likely would be replaced by a rookie had he remained in Houston. Schaub is not a guaranteed starter for Oakland, who still looks to be in play for a rookie quarterback, but he definitely gives them a good veteran backup or short-term answer while the rookie is brought up to speed. Despite the rough year in Houston, Schaub still remains a solid quarterback who can help the Raiders win games.
Last year in free agency, Oakland brought in former Jaguars running back Rashad Jennings to pair up with Darren McFadden. This year they lost Jennings to the New York Giants but replaced him with yet another Jaguars running back in Maurice Jones-Drew.
MJD had a very successful career in Jacksonville, but injuries slowed him towards the end and ultimately the team decided to move on. In Oakland, he will bring some much needed power to their run game. He will team up with McFadden to form a potentially dangerous tandem. If both players can avoid injury, the Raiders could be one of the best rushing offenses in the league.
The receiver corps also got a boost when the Raiders were able to sign former Green Bay Packers wideout James Jones to a three-year, $11.3 million deal. Despite what was talked about in the video, Jones is a great fit for Oakland. Yes McKenzie knows Jones' weaknesses, but he also knows his strengths and how to best use him.
The veteran wide receiver brings some much needed experience to a young group of receivers. He will slide into the number one spot across from Denarius Moore. Jones is a big improvement for receiver platoon that was pretty ineffective last season. To put it one way, Jones scored 14 touchdowns in 2012; the Raiders as a team scored 17 last season.
The defense incurred just as much of an overhaul as the offense did. To counter the loss of lineman Lamarr Houston, the Raiders signed Justin Tuck to a two-year, $11 million deal. Tuck started off last season slow but caught fire towards the end, registering 11.5 sacks. He was also one of the key reasons the Giants had such a good run defense.
The Raiders also signed former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lamarr Woodley to upgrade their defensive line. Oakland plans on converting Woodley back to his natural 4-3 defensive end position, which he played in college. This stems from the Raiders' belief that his injuries were due his smaller frame not being durable enough.
If both Woodley and Tuck are able to avoid the injuries that have bugged them in the past, they could give offensive lines plenty of fits.
The secondary was also beefed up with the additions of former San Francisco corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. Both figure to hit the starting line up as well as provide good mentors to last year's first-round pick D.J. Hayden. This revamped secondary will give Oakland a fighting chance in a division that features Peyton Manning, Alex Smith and Philip Rivers.
The Raiders finish atop this list mainly by virtue of how terrible their roster was last season. But not to be lost in this is just how good this team can be. Granted, barring some miracle, this team is still not ready to compete in the playoffs. However, one of the most important aspects of these moves is that most of these players come from winning teams. As such, these players will bring a winning attitude that this organization has lacked over the last 10 years.