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Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

Richard JanvrinFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2017

Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Even after nearly a week of NFL free agency beginning, there are still plenty of scenarios that could play out and alter the 2017 season and beyond.

    For example, we still don't have any resolutions on players like quarterback Tony Romo, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

    Without those potential moves resolved, there has still been over 130 total signings this offseason and also plenty of contract restructures and trades that are worth mentioning.

    Among the myriad transactions, a top-10 list needed to be made, and it was no easy task as there were about 16 or 17 moves that could have quite easily made this top-10.

    Inside this top 10, you'll find mostly signings, but there's also a trade as well as a contract restructure along with a new deal.

    Ironically, the No. 10 spot was perhaps the most difficult to decide on, but it ended up resulting with one of the big guys up front, blocking in the trenches.

    Let's kick it off at No. 10: a signing done by the Cleveland Browns.

    Spoiler alert: New Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery did not make this list.

    Enjoy!

10: Browns Sign OG Kevin Zeitler

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Staying within his own division, former Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler jumped ship to the Cleveland Browns on a five-year, $60 million deal with more than half of that figure guaranteed.

    The Browns have been aggressive during this free-agency period as they are actually trying to upgrade their team. Along with Zeitler, the Browns also locked up fellow guard Joel Bitonio and signed former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman J.C. Tretter.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Zeitler was the No. 4 overall right guard in 2016 and excelled in both pass- and run-blocking.

    Although guards might be one of the easier positions to replace, it's not every day you get a guy of Zeitler's caliber—it helps to steal him from another team in your division, too.

    The Browns' new offensive line is shaping up to include Tretter, Bitonio, Zeitler and left tackle Joe Thomas, with right tackle duties most likely handled by Cameron Erving (we'll see if they bring back Austin Pasztor).

    Sure, the Browns offensive line may be improved, but they still need a quarterback. For any incoming quarterback, one of the major concerns—offensive line—should not be an issue, making Cleveland a somewhat more desirable place to go to.

9: Packers Sign TE Martellus Bennett

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The sheer fact that Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson actually signed an unrestricted free agent on the open market makes this all the more jaw-dropping.

    Looking at the Packers of 2016, you have a team that was carried almost 100 percent by quarterback Aaron Rodgers when you take into account a defense that couldn't stop a nosebleed and pass-catching weapons who struggled to create space—Bennett should change that.

    On an offense now alongside wide receivers Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and not to mention running back Ty Montgomery, Bennett finds himself with (in back-to-back years) arguably the best quarterback in the game today.

    Considering Bennett's 2016 campaign, the Packers got a fairly team-friendly contract—a three-year, $21 million deal with $7.2 million guaranteed.

    The Patriots have made their fair share of splashes this offseason, including acquiring wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints.

    This move, in a way, felt like a signing to keep pace with a potential Super Bowl 52 opponent.

    Bennett's presence on offense should make it easier for Rodgers, as it may also open up the field a bit more and allow Nelson and Cobb to do more damage.

    Great get by the Packers. 

8: Lions Bolster Offensive Line

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    There's nothing I enjoy seeing more during NFL free agency than a team that has a specific weakness on their roster, attack it and addresses it as soon as it is able to when the bidding starts.

    This applies to the Detroit Lions.

    With offensive tackle Riley Reiff and offensive guard Larry Warford leaving the team for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints, respectively, the Lions had to do something to address these holes.

    Well, they did.

    They signed both right tackle Ricky Wagner (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) and offensive guard T.J. Lang (formerly of the Green Bay Packers).

    For Wagner, the Lions inked him almost right as free agency began with a five-year, $47.5 million deal with $20.5 million in guarantees.

    Next up, Lang stays within his own division, signs with a rival of his former team and gets three years and $28.5 million with $19 million guaranteed.

    Nicely done, Detroit.

    Now, these aren't just two random guys to fill in some holes: Wagner ranked as PFF's No. 8 right tackle in 2016, and Lang ranked as PFF's No. 7 right guard.

    Any time you can get two players who are inside the top-eight at their own position, it makes for a successful free-agency period.

    Something tells me that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is happy about this move and hoping he is sacked less than his 2016 total of 37 times (tied for sixth in the league).

7: Buccaneers Sign DL Chris Baker

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    When you think about the free-agent class of 2017, the first names you'll think of are wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and probably cornerback Stephon Gilmore among others.

    But Chris Baker? Former defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins?

    Who?

    Exactly. Baker may not be a mainstream or household name widely known, but Baker was arguably the best defensive player the Redskins had in 2016, as he was rated as the sixth-best 3-4 defensive end by PFF, excelling more so against the run.

    The Buccaneers got an extremely team-friendly deal with Baker, who signed for three years and $15.75 million—$9 million of which guaranteed.

    Adding Baker to go with fellow defensive linemen William Gholston, Robert Ayers and Gerald McCoy sets them up for on heck of a unit up front on defense.

    Baker's run-stuffing prowess will come in handy in the NFC South, too, which is highlighted by New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

    If Baker is able to stop the run and repeat or even expand upon his six sacks from 2016, the Buccaneers got a steal in Baker.

6: Bills Sign DB Micah Hyde

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    A few years from now, we'll look back at this 2017 free-agent class and may associate the Buffalo Bills with losing cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots.

    However, we should remember this period for the Bills for their acquisition of former Green Bay Packers defensive back Micah Hyde.

    Yes, the Bills lost Gilmore. They also released safety Aaron Williams. At this point, this Bills secondary looked like it could be in trouble.

    But then the Bills signed one of the Packers captains to a five-year, $30.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed.

    Not only did Hyde have a heck of a divisional-round game against the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, but he also quite a nice season where he displayed that he can play essentially any position in the secondary.

    After losing Gilmore and releasing Williams, the versatility of Hyde is going to come in handy at some point during this contract, and it will make it all worth it to the Bills Mafia.

    Versatility, playmaker and durable are three words that sum up Hyde—these are all traits you want your players to have.

5: Buccaneers Sign WR DeSean Jackson

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Looking at the wide receiver market, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson is the guy I'd want when you factor in productivity, cost and impact.

    While new Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is looked at as the top receiver in this class, he was also more expensive, has quite the injury history and was suspended in 2016.

    Jackson, however, is still difficult to cover by defensive backs, even at 30 years old.

    With Vincent Jackson's contract expiring, the Buccaneers needed another wide receiver to line up opposite perennial All-Pro Mike Evans and, boy, did they deliver with Jackson.

    Signed to a three-year, $33.5 million deal, Jackson will be productive enough to pay for that contract, but this will also help Evans by allowing him to get more one-on-one matchups.

    With just Evans, tight end Cameron Brate and other wide receivers like Russell Shepard and Adam Humphries in 2016, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston ranked just outside the top 10 in attempts.

    The Buccaneers like to throw, and with the state of their running game in some disarray, they were likely set to throw more naturally.

    Adding Jackson will make these game plan changes easier.

    Expect Winston's poor showing on deep balls (20-plus yards) to improve from his 34.8 percent accuracy rate in 2016—Jackson can get open downfield almost unlike any other receiver in the game.

    News flash: The NFC South has only a couple of good cornerbacks, and they're both on the same team, the Atlanta Falcons, in Desmond Trufant and Jalen Collins.

    Jackson is going to maul the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.

4: Bills Keep QB Tyrod Taylor

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Leading up to free agency, it was totally mystifying how the Buffalo Bills could actually let quarterback Tyrod Taylor walk.

    What were they going to do at quarterback? There was no clear option.

    Well, they did it—they brought back Taylor on a restructured deal that is for two years, $30.5 million and has $15.5 million in guarantees.

    Give Bills general manager Doug Whaley credit here—he pulled off two stellar moves in free agency.

    Taylor is far from the perfect quarterback, but his running ability and low amount of turnovers make him a quarterback that you can win with. 

    Whaley isn't quite off the hook yet, though—the Bills lost wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods, which leaves them basically with no one after Sammy Watkins on the depth chart.

    Whether Taylor is the long-term answer in Buffalo remains to be seen, but he will definitely be with the team in 2017 and look to prove that he can be.

    The Bills got (kept) one of the best available quarterbacks on the market—that's a win in my book.

3: Jaguars Sign CB A.J. Bouye

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    After playing in under 25 percent of the Houston Texans' snaps in 2015, Bouye found himself starting for them in a contract season in 2016.

    How did that pan out? Well just ask his brand spankin' new five-year, $67.5 million deal with $26 million in guarantees from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    With the Texans in 2016, Bouye was a lockdown cornerback who allowed just two touchdowns and three interceptions, while being ranked as PFF's No. 7 cornerback (including the playoffs).

    Not to mention he allowed just 51.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed—a feat only three other cornerbacks (including playoffs) were able to reach (minimum 800 snaps).

    The Jaguars are far from strangers in free agency when it comes to signing top-tier guys, but pairing Bouye with the second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey gives the Jaguars a bona fide duo that is definitely the best in AFC South and one of the better tandems in all of the NFL.

    Not only is Bouye a great player for the Jaguars, but the deal was great on both parts. If Bouye doesn't live up to expectations and the team cuts bait, he's basically a $5.2 million-per-season player. But if he lives up to expectations after only doing it for one season, the Jaguars—a team that always has an insane amount of cap space—will not have any issue in paying Bouye.

    That's one aspect of Bouye that may make some people shy away—he's only done it for one season. Again, the Jaguars have a pretty team-friendly deal if things go awry, but it's hard to believe that Bouye is not able to maintain some level of upper-tier cornerback production.

    The Jaguars defense now has actual players at all 11 positions. Let's see how they all pan out in 2017.

2: The Brock Osweiler Trade

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    No, this is not a signing or a contract restructuring, but the trade between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans impacts free agency now and maybe for years to come.

    If you haven't heard, the Browns traded a fourth-round pick to the Texans for a second-round pick, a sixth-round pick and quarterback Brock Osweiler.

    With over $100 million in cap space at the time, the Browns pulled off perhaps the first-ever salary cap dump trade in exchange for a quality draft choice.

    Yes, the Texans gave up a second-round pick to get rid of Osweiler and his gigantic four-year atrocity of a contract that includes $37 million in guaranteed dollars.

    Moving forward, we could see more teams pull off deals like this if they have an insane amount of cap space and another team makes a terrible signing.

    Now, the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to stock up more draft picks.

    This trade was truly a move that helped both teams—the Texans shed Osweiler's impending $16 million cap hit in 2017, which allows them to have more resources to pursue someone like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo when he is (most likely) eventually released.

    For the Browns, they had the cap space and wanted more draft picks. If they're able to deal Osweiler away while still also eating most of his cap hit for 2017, the Browns will have basically paid money for more draft choices that they can parlay into a deal to acquire New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

    It's a win-win for both teams and a trade that could change the complexion of future offseasons to come.

1: Ravens Sign SS Tony Jefferson

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    As I sorted through the 136 signings that have happened in the NFL, one signing in particular stood out to me almost instantly and never left my mind—the Baltimore Ravens signing former Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson to a four year, $34 million deal with $19 million being guaranteed.

    This is the best signing of the offseason.

    Jefferson has it all—he's only 25-years-old, he is a physical, effective tackler, he can stop the run, he can contain plays from exploding and when asked to, can do his due diligence in rushing the passer.

    It also cannot go without saying that Jefferson was PFF's sixth best safety in 2016.

    If Jefferson needed anything to improve upon, it would probably be in the coverage department where he allowed 24 receptions on 44 targets his way, but he also ranked 39th in pass coverage snaps, so it's hard to say how that statistic would have ended up if he he played more in that department.

    With the Ravens, Jefferson might have more of an opportunity to play in coverage as he pairs up with fellow safety Eric Weddle—perhaps the best safety duo in the NFL.

    With Jefferson in coverage, this will allow Weddle to use his immeasurable football IQ, patrol the field and make plays—he doesn't appear to be slowing down.

    Jefferson's signing allows for so much more flexibility in defensive game planning for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

    The Ravens got an excellent deal with Jefferson, Jefferson finally got paid (and accepted less money) after starting his career as an undrafted free agent (he talks to Andy Benoit of MMQB about it here) and the move makes the Ravens secondary one of best in the business when you take Weddle, Jefferson and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young into account.

    And oh wait, the Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has said the team isn't done yet—maybe add cornerback Morris Claiborne?

     

    Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Cap and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

     

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