The NFL's Most Significant Upgrades in Free Agency

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IMarch 21, 2018

The NFL's Most Significant Upgrades in Free Agency

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    NFL teams that were flush with cap space had an arms race to load up with quality players for the 2018 season. While attaining as much talent as possible is a goal, it's also important for squads to shore up the weakest parts of their rosters. 

    Replacing a below-average player with an above-average one for at least a single position can be defined as a significant upgrade—not to mention some teams jumped from a subpar talent to an elite one.

    It remains to be seen whether the prices paid were justified, but there should be no question the replacements will make bigger impacts than their predecessors.

    Free agency has its benefits, as teams can fill roster needs and create flexibility for the upcoming draft. It becomes dangerous when they ignore schemes and player tendencies for raw talent or big names. These 10 clear upgrades from the early free-agency period appear to be well-fitting improvements, though.

New York Jets: Darryl Roberts to Trumaine Johnson

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    The New York Jets sat in a critical spot with their secondary entering the offseason. Incumbent starting cornerback Morris Claiborne played well in the team's press-heavy alignments, but the rest of the corners were overextended in their roles.

    The Jets often asked Buster Skrine to rotate as an outside corner instead of his preferred slot position, and the combination of Darryl Roberts and Juston Burris proved to be inconsistent depth. The addition of Trumaine Johnson on a five-year, $72.5 million deal was vital.

    Johnson, like Claiborne, is a top-notch press-man corner, boasting the length, play strength and reaction times to consistently disrupt an offense's timing. His acquisition also relegates everyone else to his more natural usage.

    Neither Johnson nor Claiborne is likely to shadow receivers, but Skrine will now be exclusively in the slot. Roberts and Burris may have to battle with a draft pick or a later signing to be a rotational corner. Few teams will have a better group of defensive backs than the Jets in 2018.

New Orleans Saints: Manti Te'o to Demario Davis

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    The New Orleans Saints had a terrific free-agency period. They re-signed quarterback Drew Brees, and they upgraded both their middle linebacker and slot cornerback positions. 

    The addition of linebacker Demario Davis from the Jets was a key move, as he's a three-down player, an upgrade from incumbent Manti Te'o. He agreed to a three-year, $24 million deal.

    Davis is coming off his most successful statistical year after returning to the Jets on a one-year deal last offseason. He's never been an impact player with forcing turnovers, and his coverage skills are limited to zone drops. But he's a terrific tackler and is much more functional in nickel and dime alignments than Te'o.

    According to B/R NFL1000 linebacker scout Jerod Brown, Davis was the 25th-best interior linebacker last year, while Te'o finished 50th, with notably lower run-defense and tackling grades.

    Davis will also help as a defensive captain-type presence and bring durability. The 29-year-old has missed just one start since 2012, a critical factor for a unit that’s been banged up throughout that span.

    Davis has routinely been in a leadership role in both New York and Cleveland and will help a Saints defense that is ascending.   

Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer to Tyrod Taylor

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    Of the many flaws of the Cleveland Browns in 2017, their reliance on an underdeveloped rookie quarterback in an offense that lacked reliable playmakers or a progressive scheme was most baffling.

    If the team was intent on starting a rookie, then DeShone Kizer was the worst to select of the top four quarterbacks in the draft. He had more fundamental flaws than his counterparts, which is why he fell to the second round.

    Those issues showed throughout 2017 as he played in an offense featuring isolation routes without receivers who could consistently create separation or catch the ball (sans Josh Gordon's five-game return).

    The Browns traded Kizer to the Green Bay Packers in the deal that brought over safety Damarious Randall and acquired Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills for a 2018 third-round pick. Taylor is different than Kizer and much better at this time. Unlike the Notre Dame product, Taylor is risk-averse, almost to a fault. But he takes care of the ball well, with only 18 career interceptions in 58 games.

    The Browns have upgraded their receiving corps this offseason—notably acquiring Jarvis Landry from the Miami Dolphins—and hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley. That should give Taylor plenty of support to field a decent unit.   

    Although the 28-year-old has limitations as a passer, he's not going to ruin red-zone possessions like Kizer did as he was adjusting to the NFL. That may be enough to get the Browns near a .500 record in 2018.

Miami Dolphins: Ted Larsen to Josh Sitton

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    The Miami Dolphins undoubtedly upgraded their left guard position. After trying to survive with veteran Ted Larsen as a cost-saving decision, the Dolphins realized that was a disastrous plan. The team quickly acted to sign four-time Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton from the Chicago Bears.

    At 31 years old, Sitton is a short-term fix, as his two-year contract suggests. But he was elite in 2017, ranked sixth among O-guards by Ethan Young and Doug Farrar on B/R's NFL1000, while Larsen was 48th.

    Farrar noted that he's "one of the best in the business" and "an outstanding technician" who wins with leverage. Considering that even an average guard would be a notable upgrade for the Dolphins, landing an elite talent is a massive gain.  

    The Dolphins were a logical landing spot. According to the Associated Press (h/t FoxSports.com), Sitton was drawn to new assistant coaches Jeremiah Washburn and Dowell Loggains. He'll also be an asset by helping third-year left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who transitioned to tackle in 2017 after spending 2016 at left guard.

    Sitton mentioned his willingness to help mentor Tunsil in his press conference earlier this month, per Antwan Staley of Dolphins Wire. Expect his off-field guidance to be as beneficial as his play.

Baltimore Ravens: Jeremy Maclin to Michael Crabtree

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    Timing can be everything when it comes to an acquisition looking brilliant or terrible. The Baltimore Ravens were one of the most fortunate teams this free agency.

    They were set to sign former Washington Redskins receiver Ryan Grant to an absurd $29 million contract before he failed his physical, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Around that same time, the Oakland Raiders released star receiver Michael Crabtree.

    The Ravens quickly swooped in, signing Crabtree to a three-year deal. He is a major upgrade from Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore's veteran receiver signing late last offseason. Maclin proved to be a shell of himself physically, catching just 40 passes for a career-low 11 yards per reception, 440 yards and three touchdowns.

    Although Crabtree is more of a possession threat than Maclin, he excels as a route-runner and by using his big, physical body (6'1", 215 lbs). In what was a down season for the Raiders offense, Crabtree had eight touchdowns and was the most consistent wide receiver on a unit that featured Amari Cooper. 

    The 30-year-old is still a solid playmaker and will be the best receiver quarterback Joe Flacco has had since Derrick Mason in 2009.

Chicago Bears: Markus Wheaton to Allen Robinson

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    Part 1 of the Chicago Bears' offseason plan centered around finding a quarterback-centric head coach (former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy), and Part 2 was surrounding second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with quality NFL receivers.

    After swinging and missing on 2017 signings Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, the Bears look like big winners by upgrading to Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel.

    The upgrade from Wheaton to Robinson is especially notable, as Wheaton was so ineffective that the team misspelled his name in the tweet announcing his release.

    Robinson's skill set will be unique for Nagy. He's already worked with a similar player to Gabriel in speedster Tyreek Hill, but Robinson is both a downfield presence and a playmaker as a ball-carrier.

    If his knee is back to 100 percent after the torn ACL he suffered last year, he's one of the more dominant players at the position. Expectations are high for this unit.

    Trubisky's role will expand massively from what former head coach John Fox asked him to do. Nagy will surely work on improving Trubisky's 59.4 percent completion rate with an aggressive scheme that will create easier completions. The additions of these two receivers and tight end Trey Burton have many thinking Chicago could replicate the Los Angeles Rams' improvement in 2017.

    That may not be out of the question if Robinson proves to be the 2015 version of himself.

Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Ogbuehi to Cordy Glenn

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    Sometimes the perfect opportunity presents itself for both teams in a trade. That was the case for the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo.

    The teams swapped 2018 first-round draft picks, as well as late-round picks, and the Bills sent left tackle Cordy Glenn to the Bengals. The solid starter will immediately boost one of the weakest offensive lines in the NFL as he supplants Cedric Ogbuehi.

    The Bengals reached for Ogbuehi in the 2015 draft at No. 21 overall because of his blend of size (6'5", 310 lbs) and athleticism. But he hasn't translated his skill set to the field, as his lack of polish and his functional strength when engaged have limited him. He had the tape of a developmental prospect, and that hasn't changed against bigger, more accomplished defensive ends.

    Glenn, on the other hand, is a possible terrific buy-low player for the Bengals because the team gave up zero extra assets. According to B/R NFL1000, Glenn was the 17th-best left tackle last season despite being banged up. His upside is huge if he can stay healthy, as Glenn finished as the 13th-best overall player in 2016 in B/R NFL1000's rankings that season.

    There's no question Cincinnati's offensive line will get better as long as Glenn can stay on the field.

New York Giants: Ereck Flowers to Nate Solder

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    Not only did the New York Giants spend to replace incumbent left tackle Ereck Flowers, but they also paid former New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder $2.25 million more per year than any other tackle in the NFL.

    Considering how poorly Flowers has played despite being a 2015 first-round pick and how reliable Solder has been for an elite passing offense, the move was justifiable.

    B/R's NFL1000 noted that Flowers again had issues with technique, fundamentals and effort in 2017 as he ended up the 33rd-best left tackle, which isn't even good enough to be a starter. Solder, on the other hand, earned solid marks across the board and finished 10 spots higher.

    While Solder won't be necessarily perform as well as his contract may indicate, the Giants couldn't enter the 2018 season with Flowers blocking quarterback Eli Manning's blind side.

    The 6'8", 325-pound Solder resembles a mountain as one of the biggest tackles in the league. His length and size are much more often assets than not, and they will help him as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker.

    The Giants still need to continue rebuilding the line, but landing Solder was crucial.

Los Angeles Rams: Kayvon Webster to Marcus Peters

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    A blockbuster was one of the first moves announced prior to the start of free agency March 14, as the Los Angeles Rams acquired All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters for a 2019 second-round pick and 2018 fourth-round pick.

    The Chiefs didn't consider Peters worth the occasional headache even though he was on a Hall of Fame pace with his interception rate. Through 45 games, Peters has already racked up 19 interceptions and 55 passes defensed.

    The trade was a coup for the Rams, who will rely on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to mentor the fourth-year cornerback. Peters will need to prove he can keep his mind focused on the game when the stakes are at their highest, but the gamble is a relatively small one for the potential payoff.

    Peters will step into Kayvon Webster's off-alignment role, with Aqib Talib taking Trumaine Johnson's press-heavy role.

    Webster filled in as well as anyone could've expected considering he played sparingly on defense under Phillips in Denver. He'll be back in the mix to earn a roster spot after suffering a torn Achilles last season, but he doesn't have the rare playmaking talent of Peters.

    Along with Talib and Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot, the Rams have an elite cornerback trio few teams can compare to.  

Tennessee Titans: LeShaun Sims to Malcolm Butler

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    Every team has a weakness or two on its roster as salary-cap constraints force difficult resource-allocation decisions. The Tennessee Titans regularly played one or two well below-average cornerbacks in 2017, as LeShaun Sims and Brice McCain played a combined 844 snaps, according to FootballGuys.com.

    Sims was a consistent target for opposing offenses as the Titans shifted Logan Ryan into the slot and Sims assumed the right cornerback position.

    The team landed Ryan from New England last offseason, and they signed another former Patriot, Malcolm Butler, to a five-year, $61.3 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. The contract is massive, ranking fourth in total guaranteed money among corners and 10th in average per year.

    While the value is questionable considering Butler struggled in 2017 and is a better zone fit than a man corner (like the rest of the Titans at the position), there's little doubt he is a huge upgrade on Sims.

    Butler is physical and a capable press-corner, but he does struggle to turn and run upfield with speedier receivers. He's more comfortable with a safety over the top, which will work well with Kevin Byard roaming to protect him.

    Butler fits best as a No. 2 corner across from Adoree' Jackson, and his presence allows Ryan to be a full-time slot. The Titans secondary will be a more complete unit with a more reliable, playmaking corner than Sims.