Ranking the Biggest Draft Implications of 2018 NFL Free Agency

Alex KayContributor IMarch 22, 2018

Ranking the Biggest Draft Implications of 2018 NFL Free Agency

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    The 2018 NFL draft is still more than a month away, but the big board has been dramatically reshaped over the last few weeks. A bonanza of free-agent signing, surprise cuts and franchise-altering trades has taken place since the offseason began, changing the projected draft needs of nearly every team in the league. 

    There have been plenty of transactions that will have a tangible effect on how the draft shakes out in late April, but some will be far more impactful than others. 

    Here is a ranked look at the biggest draft implications of the 2018 NFL free-agency period based on a number of factors:

    • a free agent's effect on positional market value
    • the probability that certain players will be off the board because of changes in positional need
    • trades that resulted in teams moving up to target a franchise-altering player or stockpiling picks, influencing teams' draft strategies in the process
    • the potential long-term, league-wide ramifications of signings that could shift the balance of power in the NFL

10. Cardinals Sign Sam Bradford to 2-Year Deal; May Still Draft QB

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    Offseason Move

    The Arizona Cardinals signed QB Sam Bradford to a two-year deal worth a reported $20 million.

         

    Draft Implication

    The Cardinals were left without a quarterback on the roster after Carson Palmer announced he would retire in January. The oft-injured veteran left a gaping hole in the lineup that Arizona needed to fill with a proven talent to have a chance of competing in the NFC West this coming season. The organization elected to bring in another injury-prone signal-caller to fill Palmer's shoes, swapping one QB with bad knees for another. Bradford has shown the propensity to be an accurate thrower—he completed a then-NFL record 71.6 percent of his passes across 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings back in 2016—and solid game manager when healthy, but the 30-year-old hasn't shown any consistency in his ability to stay on the field.

    The Cardinals hold the No. 15 pick in the 2018 NFL draft and have needs across the board, but none is more important to the long-term success of the organization than acquiring a young, promising quarterback who can serve as a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come. Bradford is a temporary stopgap and serviceable option while the prospect whom the club ends up drafting takes time to learn the system that new head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy put in place. Arizona may not get a crack at one of the consensus top options at the position if it doesn't go all-in to trade up, but there should be a number of second-tier types available when it is on the board in the middle of the first round. Don't be surprised if someone like Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph winds up in the desert on Day 1.

9. Buccaneers Ignore the RB Position, Now Need to Get a Back in Late April

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    Offseason Move

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released RB Doug Martin.

         

    Draft Implication

    The Bucs cut two-time Pro Bowler Doug Martin after six years with the organization, a tenure that resulted in a couple of great campaigns and more than a couple of bad ones. Aside from his 1,454-yard rookie campaign and 1,402-yard 2015 outing—in which he earned First-Team All-Pro honors—the Muscle Hamster didn't live up to expectations as a first-round pick in Tampa. The Boise State product caught on with the Oakland Raiders, who now have an abundance of veteran and young talent alike in their backfield, last week while his former team has yet to make a move to replace his services.

    Tampa Bay holds the seventh selection in the upcoming draft and desperately needs to improve a defense that hasn't been getting pressure off the edge and a secondary that could use a new corner and safety, but general manager Jason Licht may be tempted to move up a few spots to secure a generational talent in Saquon Barkley. If not, the Bucs are a great candidate to make an early Day 2 play on the best rusher available, which could be one of Georgia's elite rushing tandem—Nick Chubb and Sony Michel—or San Diego State's Rashaad Penny if he's still on the board.

8. Colts Move Down to No. 6; Will They Take the Best Player Available?

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    Offseason Move

    The Indianapolis Colts traded the No. 3 pick in 2018 to the New York Jets for the Nos. 6, 37 and 49 picks in 2018, plus the Jets' second-round selection in 2019.

         

    Draft Implication

    The New York Jets went all-in on acquiring one of the three crown jewels of the 2018 NFL draft class, setting the draft-capital market for what quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen are worth by giving up a trio of second-round selections to move up three spots this year. The Colts, who are obviously crossing their fingers that Andrew Luck—their own superstar quarterback—can get back to full health this summer and contribute for the first time since the 2016 campaign, returned quite a ransom in this trade and now have the pieces in place to restock the cupboard in April.

    Indianapolis has a new coach this year in Frank Reich, and his tenure will mark the end of the team's 3-4 base defense that has been in place since 2012. Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus will be installing a faster 4-3 defensive scheme that they are hoping will excel on the turf in Lucas Oil Stadium. According to Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, no franchise that plays its home games in a dome or retractable-roof stadium has won a championship—or even reached the Super Bowl—utilizing a base 3-4 defense. This shift will require the right personnel to execute properly, so nabbing an edge-rusher early on would be immensely useful to the Colts. While there is a glaring need for a pass-rusher who fits this switch in defensive philosophy, general manager Chris Ballard also has other needs to fill on his roster at linebacker, offensive line and wide receiver. For that reason, it's most likely Indy simply nabs the best player available at No. 6 and then uses the war chest loaded with second-rounders to address individual needs on Day 2.

7. 49ers Still in Wide Receiver Market

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    Offseason Move

    The San Francisco 49ers have been among the most active teams prior to and during free agency. The club most notably extended QB Jimmy Garoppolo and signed CB Richard Sherman, RB Jerick McKinnon and OL Weston Richburg.

         

    Draft Implication

    General manager John Lynch has been busy since joining the San Francisco front office in 2017. The former Buccaneers and Broncos star safety has been wheeling and dealing, helping rebuild the Niners into a contender as quickly as possible and spending plenty of money to accomplish that goal. He made Garoppolo the highest-paid quarterback (on an annual basis) in the NFL until Kirk Cousins broke that record and now needs to surround the signal-caller with more weapons.

    San Francisco did agree on a three-year contract extension with wideout Marquise Goodwin after the five-year veteran set career highs in receptions and receiving yards while appearing in all 16 games. It's a good start, but the Niners absolutely need an injection of talent into their receiving corps via the draft this year. Garoppolo was fantastic across his six appearances at the end of a lost 2017 campaign, completing 67.4 percent of his passes and racking up 1,560 yards and seven touchdowns against five interceptions, winning all five contests he started. He did this despite having to regularly target George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk and Trent Taylor and Goodwin being the only wideout on the San Francisco roster that Pro Football Focus ranked as "above average" or better—besides Pierre Garcon, who was injured for all of Garoppolo's starts—in 2017.

    Lynch holds the No. 9 overall pick this year and would be wise to spend it on a player that his coaching staff can develop into a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. This team on the rise has a few other needs, but none remains more glaring than wideout after a frenzied free-agency period.

6. Giants Sign Nate Solder; Will They Trade out from No. 2 Overall?

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    Offseason Move

    The New York Giants signed OT Nate Solder to a reported four-year, $62 million deal.

         

    Draft Implication

    The G-Men made a statement signing when they inked the former New England Patriots left tackle to a big-money contract. They made the 29-year-old the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL, giving him $62 million ($35 million guaranteed) over the next four seasons. It's a bold move for a franchise many thought might opt to enter a full-blown rebuild following an abysmal 3-13 campaign after which they wound up with the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft. If Big Blue and new general manager Dave Gettleman feel they can compete in 2018, the best move may be trading back from No. 2 and picking up a king's ransom for the trouble.

    The Giants' stadium mates in the Meadowlands just proved how much teams are willing to pay to acquire one of the top quarterbacks in this year's class, as the Jets gave up what amounts to three second-round picks to move up just three spots in the draft order. It was a huge haul for the Colts, which means the G-Men should command even more draft capital in exchange for their selection should they make No. 2 available.

    Whatever the Giants elect to do, it will surely go down as a franchise-altering decision that changes the direction of the club for the foreseeable future. It's a choice that won't be easy for Gettleman, who has to weigh the benefits of going all-in with veteran quarterback Eli Manning, a hopefully healthy Odell Beckham Jr., Solder and the rest of the veterans in the Big Apple, plus a plethora of contributors acquired via trading out of the No. 2 spot. If it doesn't pan out and Manning's decline leads to hanging up his cleats sooner than later, New York fans will rue the decision to pass on Josh Allen, Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen for years to come. There's no right way or wrong way to handle it right now, but this will be a decision that shapes the franchise and the league landscape well beyond the 2018 season.

5. Dolphins Jettison Veterans as Rebuild Begins

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    Offseason Move

    The Miami Dolphins released and/or traded a number of key contributors and veteran players, including DL Ndamukong Suh, TE Julius Thomas, LB Lawrence Timmons, OL Mike Pouncey and WR Jarvis Landry.

         

    Draft Implication

    After a disappointing 6-10 campaign, the Dolphins decided to tear down the roster and start over. The club made a flurry of cuts and deals in free agency, leaving only a handful of players on the roster with five or more years experience with the organization. This small group includes QB Ryan Tannehill, DL Cameron Wake, S Reshad Jones and LS John Denney. Considering Miami has only made one playoff appearance in that span—a wild-card loss in 2016 to the Pittsburgh Steelers—it's not exactly shocking, but the roster now has a ton of needs and the Dolphins are running out of ways to fill them outside of the draft.

    Unfortunately for fans in South Beach, the Dolphins cobbled together a good enough season to fall outside the top 10 on draft day. The club's top pick comes at No. 11 overall, a spot where it will have a tough call to make. Everything from quarterback—Ryan Tannehill is going to be 30 years old this coming season and never panned out the way the organization hoped when it snagged him at No. 8 overall in 2012—to tight end to the defensive front needs to be addressed this offseason. Barring a miracle, general manager Chris Grier likely won't put anything resembling a playoff contender in the AFC East on the field this coming season, and we'll likely see the 'Phins near the top of the draft order this time next year.

4. Broncos Sign Case Keenum to Multiyear Deal; Is Denver out of the QB Race?

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    Offseason Move

    The Denver Broncos signed QB Case Keenum to a two-year contract worth a reported $36 million.

         

    Draft Implication

    It wasn't long ago that the Broncos were considered serious contenders to land one of the three star quarterbacks in the impending NFL draft, but things have shifted quite a bit since the offseason began. Denver didn't waste any time securing a signal-caller, quickly agreeing to terms with Keenum during the legal tampering period and making him the first of the free-agent quarterbacks to come off the market this year. Keenum earned a huge raise after getting a mere $2 million for one year from Minnesota last year, securing a contract that is double the length and nearly 13 times the amount in guaranteed money after improbably taking over under center and leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game.

    It might be worth it, as the last time the Broncos dipped into free agency to find a QB, they came away with Peyton Manning, who retired following a Super Bowl victory with Denver in 2015. There will be high hopes that Keenum can do his part to manage the game well enough to enable this defense-first squad to bring another championship to the Mile High City. The 30-year-old's presence shouldn't stop John Elway from going after a rookie QB on draft day, but there might not be one worth taking available at No. 5. Rather than go the same route as the Jets and hand over a multitude of valuable selections to a competitor like the Giants to move up three spots, the Broncos could instead opt to try their luck later in the draft with one of the less heralded prospects. 

3. Browns Sign Carlos Hyde; Will They Still Go After Saquon Barkley?

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    Offseason Move

    The Cleveland Browns signed RB Carlos Hyde to a reported three-year, $15 million-plus deal.

         

    Draft Implication

    The Browns have been among the most active teams during the 2018 NFL offseason, getting involved in signings and trades at a frenzied pace. The team brought in veterans to fill a number of holes on the roster, drastically reshaping the top of the upcoming draft. Cleveland, which holds the No. 1 overall pick this year after a historically ugly 0-16 campaign, could use help all over the field, but some of these signings lessen the club's dire need to use the first pick on a prospect at the same position.

    The team's agreement with Carlos Hyde in particular improved the backfield enough that using the top pick on a running back seems like a waste of a valuable resource. The 27-year-old spent the first four years of his NFL career performing admirably in San Francisco, racking up 2,729 yards and 21 touchdowns on 655 carries in that span. He's not the generational talent that Saquon Barkley—the only back worthy of real consideration in the first round, let alone the top of the draft—is, but the 2014 second-round pick out of Ohio State should be a difference-maker in Cleveland. The Browns also hold the No. 4 pick this year and may consider Barkley there, but they absolutely cannot risk missing out on one of the top three QBs in this draft, especially not after the Jets traded up to get in position to take one. There is a chance Barkley goes to the Giants at No. 2, but that is a risk the Browns must be willing to take to fill their biggest need, which is under center, through the draft.

2. Bills Trade Tyrod Taylor; Own Picks 12, 22 and Need a QB

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Offseason Move

    The Buffalo Bills traded QB Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns for the No. 65 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

         

    Draft Implication

    Taylor spent the last three years as the starter in Buffalo, helping guide the franchise to its first postseason appearance in 17 years during the 2017 campaign. The 28-year-old was rewarded for his efforts by being traded to the Browns, who offered their second-rounder for the Virginia Tech product. The Bills tried inserting Nathan Peterman, Taylor's backup, in at one point last season, but the rookie threw five interceptions in the first half of his first start and landed back on the bench. The fifth-round draft pick doesn't appear to be the long-term answer in Buffalo, meaning the Bills should be looking to secure a signal-caller in the upcoming draft.

    Despite owning the No. 12 and No. 22 selections in the first round, the franchise isn't too gung-ho on moving up to get one of the top prospects. General manager Brandon Beane spoke candidly about not having enough intimate knowledge of the top quarterbacks on the big board to feel comfortable swinging a trade to secure one, per The MMQB's Peter King:

    "The truth? Most of these quarterbacks I've only spent 15 minutes with. I haven't spent enough time to have an opinion about any of them yet, honestly. I actually sent a little note to our [scouts] yesterday. We got six weeks to get our board together. I am not there yet, knowing if we can or will move up again. I want Sean [McDermott, Buffalo's head coach] to get to know all of them. We're just keeping an open mind. Where we're at, we've got the picks, we've got the draft capital. I'm not ready to pull the trigger."

    It shouldn't take Beane long to figure out there likely isn't going to be a player available at No. 12 or No. 22 that could alter a franchise the way the signal-callers sitting at the very top may be able to. Buffalo inked AJ McCarron to a new contract, but the career backup should be nothing more than a bridge quarterback. The franchise could opt to patch up its offensive line and address the quarterback position next year, but it seems the best route this club could go is to package some valuable assets into a deal that lands Josh Allen, Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen in April. Barring that, it wouldn't hurt Buffalo to take a stab at a prospect like Baker Mayfield or Mason Rudolph in the middle of the first round.

1. Jets Trade Up to No. 3 Overall; Targeting a QB?

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Offseason Move

    The New York Jets traded the Nos. 6, 37 and 49 picks in 2018 and a second-round selection in 2019 to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 3 pick in 2018.

         

    Draft Implication

    No transaction has had as much of a projected impact on the 2018 NFL draft as Gang Green's trade with the Colts. This deal, which saw the Jets give up three second-rounders to slot up three spots on Day 1, put the rest of the league on notice, with New York announcing to the world it would be taking either Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen when its on the clock next month. It's a bold move but one that could forever change the fortunes of a slumping franchise.

    Some may criticize the Jets for giving up three picks that could pan out as serviceable talent in the league to move up just three spots, but ultimately it was a trade the organization had to make. The club lost out on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes after the Minnesota Vikings offered a historic three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract, leaving the New York brass little choice but to go all-in on the upcoming draft to get a franchise signal-caller. The Jets retained last year's starter, Josh McCown, and rolled the dice on former Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater in free agency, but neither of these players can be a franchise cornerstone. General manager Mike Maccagnan realized this and pounced on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to guarantee his club one of the unquestioned best quarterbacks in the draft.

    It's been a big offseason for Gang Green, and it will get an even bigger boost when they call the name of Darnold, Rosen or Allen on the evening of April 26. There is finally reason for hope surrounding this organization, and fans can rest easy knowing they'll have a top prospect to cheer for and build around for years to come.