NFL Free Agent Signings: Early Winners in 2013 Offseason

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIMarch 14, 2013

The Miami Dolphins swung a huge deal for Dannell Ellerbe, and lead the list of early winners in free agency.
The Miami Dolphins swung a huge deal for Dannell Ellerbe, and lead the list of early winners in free agency.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2013 NFL offseason is still relatively young, but the first day of free-agent signings by itself brought on plenty of action. Further developments are likely to occur over the coming days, but there are already a slew of teams that made significant roster upgrades that are worth praising.

A typically sound philosophy is building through the draft and growing talent in-house. However, these bold AFC upstarts are clearly aiming high in 2013 with their high levels of activity.

Here is a breakdown of the biggest winners early on in free agency.

Miami Dolphins

It was obvious that the Dolphins had a need at wide receiver even with the re-signing of Brian Hartline. That was more than adequately filled by former Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Mike Wallace (h/t ESPN).

Between that duo and Davone Bess, the Dolphins suddenly have a potent, revamped passing game as Ryan Tannehill enters his second full season as a starter. Tannehill has a huge arm, and will be able to stretch the field with Wallace in a way he hadn't been able to as a rookie.

That wasn't the big stroke of genius, though. GM Jeff Ireland pulled perhaps the ultimate coup—and at the very least, Day 1's biggest surprise—in acquiring former Baltimore Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe.

James Walker of ESPN points out that despite Ellerbe playing alongside superstars like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, many felt the 27-year-old was the Ravens' best defensive player in the second half of the 2012 season and throughout the playoffs.

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That report also indicates that Karlos Dansby has been released, which presumably means Ellerbe will take over the heart of the Miami defense.

Ellerbe can rush the passer, play the run and drop back very well in coverage. He should be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for his impending years with the Dolphins franchise.

Indianapolis Colts

For as much as QB Andrew Luck got hit last season, it's amazing he made it through all 16 regular-season games plus a playoff test against the eventual Super Bowl champions.

General manager Ryan Grigson didn't win NFL Executive of the Year for no reason, and undoubtedly saw the need to protect the 2012 No. 1 overall pick. Thus, former Detroit Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus inked a five-year, $34 million deal to protect Luck's blindside.

Ex-New England Patriots guard Donald Thomas was also signed to a four-year, $14 million contract to provide even more fortification.

That wasn't all, though. It's no secret that the Colts were incredibly thin at corner this past season, so they brought in Greg Toler from the Arizona Cardinals. He plays physical, press man coverage and should form a solid CB duo with Vontae Davis.

Erik Walden also brings the Colts a necessary pass-rushing threat off the edge as a 3-4 linebacker. He is extremely athletic, and shouldn't face much competition for significant playing time.

Grigson looks to be making all the right moves again. Considering this substantial improvement to the roster that just won 11 games, it will be interesting to see how far the Colts can ascend this coming year.

Cleveland Browns

The big focus for Cleveland has been offense, but the new ownership and front office regime decided to build a foundation on defense for new coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 hybrid front scheme.

Desmond Bryant is a massive addition in every sense of the word, but his signing really makes one wonder how he, Ahtyba Rubin and 2011 first-round pick Phil Taylor will all fit together.

As underrated and athletic as Rubin is, it's conceivable that he will line up as a 3-4 defensive end opposite Bryant, with Taylor playing nose tackle. That is the projected depth chart as it stands, according to

Bryant should be a force against the run, though, which is what the Browns struggled with mightily—mainly due to lack of depth and inexperience on the defensive line. So suddenly, Bryant makes a lot of sense.

Just before that, the Browns snatched pass-rushing dynamo Paul Kruger from the AFC North rival Ravens. Kruger was surrounded by studs in Baltimore, but such could be the case in Cleveland with such a potentially massive defensive front.

Another underrated signing was Quentin Groves, who played under Horton on the Arizona Cardinals for one year. Having that kind of knowledge is clutch for a player who figures to be used only sporadically.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports noted on Wednesday that the Browns may not be done, citing interest in Washington Redskins TE Fred Davis.

Although that didn't materialize, it is still indicative of larger, refreshing theme in Cleveland.

The Browns had a ton of cap room entering the offseason, and still have a good amount of flexibility. The front office finally pulled the trigger on some major moves. With the rest of the division somewhat down—particularly Baltimore—the AFC North could be a hotly contested battle between all four teams.

Tennessee Titans

It seemed like the Titans were a lot worse than 6-10 last season. A decimated offensive line and an injury to franchise QB Jake Locker threw things off early, and were partially to blame for electric running back Chris Johnson's slow start.

Defense was a big issue for Tennessee, but thankfully, this draft class is loaded with playmakers on that side of the ball. The real need was up front on offense, and the Titans addressed that in a big way by adding prized guard Andy Levitre.

The former Bill was regarded as the best pass-blocking guard in the NFL in 2012 by Pro Football Focus, and the ninth-rated guard overall (h/t CBS Sports).

That helps absorb the retirement of All-Pro Steve Hutchinson, and yet another underrated move was made in acquiring former San Francisco 49er Delanie Walker.

The tight end is more of a complete product than the explosive Jared Cook, who fled to St. Louis. Walker's hands continue to improve, and his blocking and assignment discipline have never been in question.

This tweet from that cites ESPN's Adam Schefter seems to imply that the Titans, like the Browns, aren't finished yet.

Adding Rams receiver Danny Amendola to the mix with Kenny Britt and last year's first-round selection Kendall Wright would give Locker a plethora of weapons at his disposal. This isn't a closed deal, obviously, but the Titans are unquestionably among the early winners in the free-agent market.


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