Heat Indexes: Ranking the Riskiest NFL Offseasons
"Free Agency Winners and Losers" articles may not be for losers, or for winners, but they are definitely not for you and me. We can agree to disagree or argue until the cows come home, but we all know one thing is certain: Free agency isn't even over yet, and you don't assign Winners and Losers late in the third quarter.
Instead of handing out trophies, it may be more useful to take temperatures. How can you assess how well a team did if you cannot even quantify how much each team did? If one team adds two players, another adds four but loses six, and another loses one superstar but gains nine scrubs, how do you assign Winners and Losers? Everyone is playing a different game, especially when you start comparing rebuilding teams to contenders.
The "Heat Index" measures just how much a team has changed through free agency, trades and retirements in the last three weeks or so. Think of "heat" as risk, transition, discontinuity, aggressiveness—or simply gross change. Change for its own sake might be a good thing for a 3-13 team. It's probably terrible for a Super Bowl contender. Either way, the first step toward determining whether a team has gotten better or worse is figuring out just how different they really are.
The Heat Index was calculated by ranking each player released, signed, traded or otherwise transacted into four tiers. A Tier 1 player was one of the Top 20 players in the NFL.com free-agency rankings—or (if the player was not a free agent) a Pro Bowl participant. Tier 2 consisted of players ranked 21st-50th or regular starters exchanged in trades or retired. You get the idea. Transactions were then weighted. Re-signings and franchise taggings were also weighted and added to the mix, though they were worth far less "heat" than comings and goings. The decision to retain several veterans can be as bold as a free-agent spending frenzy.
While calculating the Heat Index, I also quantified each team's Net Change, a cocktail-napkin calculation of how much teams improved or declined based on the tier system. Is it perfect? Hardly. Could it be used to assign Winners and Losers? Probably, if you are into that sort of thing. Does it conveniently combine dozens of bulk deals into a ballpark number that may be more useful than shouting on Twitter, "OMG WE SIGNED VINCE WILFORK WE ARE NOW UNSTOPPABLE"? Absolutely. Net Change is not a final score, but it gives you a good idea of who is leading and trailing as the minutes wind down.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers
Heat Index: 5
Net Change: Negative-2 (24th)
The Ben Roethlisberger extension was the big story of a typically sleepy Steelers signing period. Extending a franchise quarterback's contract is the opposite of "heat"; it pushes franchise stability beyond the NFL analysis horizon (which, contrary to popular opinion, is not next Tuesday). By Steelers standards, signing DeAngelo Williams for two years is an Ndamukong Suh-level splurge, but it's the kind of move Chip Kelly made while brushing his teeth this month.
The usual assortment of Steelers veterans is leaving town; many of them (Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor) are too old to attract much attention elsewhere. Jason Worilds' retirement was a surprise (Keisel's wasn't; Taylor is going to wait until bicycles blow past him on the freeway to call it quits), but linebackers of Worilds' caliber have been leaving Pittsburgh since the days of Jason Gildon. Most just choose to take the money train out of town, not the retirement shuttle.
The biggest unexpected loss for the Steelers was Brice McCain, a quality second or third cornerback now with the Dolphins. Troy Polamalu's retirement rumbles could further tax the depth of the Steelers secondary. Ike Taylor will be waiting by the phone. His rotary, landline phone.
31. Cincinnati Bengals
Heat Index: 6.75
Net Change: 3.25 (12th)
Michael Johnson's return is the big news here, which is saying something. Johnson is a heck of a defensive end, and his return from Buccaneers exile will upgrade a Bengals pass rush that fell on hard times last year. But unless you are a Bengals or Buccaneers fan, you may not have noticed that Johnson ever left.
A.J. Hawk has a bigger name but a smaller game at this point in his career. The same can be said of Jermaine Gresham (not expected to return), best known last year as Andy Dalton's receiver of choice when things got really desperate and the three-interception games were in bloom. Hawk will help a little, Gresham will be missed a little, but neither transaction gets the blood pumping or makes the Bengals much different.
The re-signings of guard Clint Boling and veteran backup tackle Eric Winston ensure stability on the offensive line. With Johnson back, stability is the name of the game for the Bengals. They should be able to make the playoffs again but have only done a little to gain ground on the AFC powerhouses. Just what every Bengals fan is dying to hear.
30. Green Bay Packers
Heat Index: 7.5
Net Change: Negative-2.25 (26th)
There is nothing sexy about a Ted Thompson offseason. The Packers concentrated on keeping their core intact during free agency, and they were the only team in the league to re-sign two "Tier 1" free agents in Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga. On the flip side, the losses of Tramon Williams (Browns) and Davon House (Jaguars) leave the Packers without their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks. At least Thompson knows which position to focus on when he loads up the draft scouting tape.
John Kuhn and Matt Flynn remain on the market. They'll come back. They always come back. Scott Tolzien's new contract suggests that Flynn may be expendable, but someone will nudge Thompson, remind him what happened in 2013 and convince him to carry more than two quarterbacks.
The Packers weren't broken until the final minutes of the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game, so why fix them? Retention of young core players such as Bulaga and Cobb is the key to staying in contention. That said, the Seahawks wandered into the Saints police auction and walked off with Jimmy Graham. Take Graham off the Seahawks and put him on the Packers, and you get a new NFC Super Bowl favorite. You don't have to refinance the mortgage or drink Chip Kelly Gonzo TraderAde to make the kind of outside-the-box move that keeps a team in Super Bowl contention. The Packers could have used just a little more heat in the early offseason, but it's just not their way.
29. Carolina Panthers
Heat Index: 8.5
Net Change: Negative-0.5 (20th)
The Panthers are still climbing out of a salary-cap tar pit, so no one expected an offseason of bustle. DeAngelo Williams was an early cap casualty, though he took a lot of cap casualties down with him over the years. Michael Oher arrived in Carolina to remind everyone that he used to be on the end-caps, back when there were bookstores.
Speedy returner and bomb threat Ted Ginn Jr. returns after a year with the Cardinals; the Panthers could have really used him last year. Safety Kurt Coleman is a favorite of defensive coordinator of Sean McDermott. Veterans Dwan Edwards and Ed Dickson were useful retentions. If you fall asleep reading about the Panthers transactions, make sure your head flops on the "Next" button, because I need the page views.
Greg Hardy’s official departure added a little heat to the Panthers offseason on Wednesday, but that was just accounting: No one expected Hardy to return, and he is much more of a sociopolitical story than a Panthers story. The Panthers are taking the last of their cap medicine this season. Their hope for improvement lies in a 2014 draft class that looked exponentially better in December than it looked in September.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Heat Index: 11
Net Change: 2.5 (15th)
Marcus Mariota visited the Bucs this week, which means yaaawwwwwwnnnnn. We are in a two-month Jameis Winston holding pattern, and after everyone in the Buccaneers regime ran around and looked busy this time last season, Jason Licht and Lovie Smith are now just clearing out the nursery and covering all the wall sockets in anticipation of the new arrival.
Henry Melton will look pretty good beside Gerald McCoy in the middle of the defensive line, while the departures of Michael Johnson (Bengals) and Adrian Clayborn (Falcons) erase two very different mistakes from two very different eras at defensive end. Bruce Carter, coming off an injury, is a solid coverage linebacker who fits the Lovie-2 scheme. The names are just big enough to generate a little heat, but with nearly all of the shuffling on the front seven, the Buccaneers have not changed much.
Assuming Lovie saw his shadow during his weekend retreat with the probative favorite to be selected first in the draft, we have six more weeks of waiting for Jameis. Enjoy the quiet on Florida’s Gold Coast while it lasts.
27. New York Giants
Heat Index: 11.25
Net Change: 2.25 (16th, tie)
The Giants signed Shane Vereen! This is a big deal by the standards of Giants offseason news. Vereen, like Rashad Jennings before him, is a moderately priced multi-dimensional running back who should play a valuable role in Ben McAdoo's offense. Until he gets hurt, that is. Giants running backs are like Spinal Tap drummers. Jennings died in a bizarre gardening accident last year.
After signing Vereen, Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese needed to lie down on couches and fan themselves until they recuperated. While they caught their breath, Antrel Rolle (Bears) and Walter Thurmond (Eagles) slipped out of town. Neither is a huge loss. Thurmond was injured most of last season (Giants cornerbacks have only slightly better luck than Giants running backs) and Rolle's highlight-to-quote ratio was getting pretty low.
The franchise tag counts as a "re-signing" in our system (with a weighting penalty), and the Giants' net-change optimism comes from retaining Jason Pierre-Paul and several of the veteran bench players who Coughlin and Reese value so highly: Henry Hynoski, Mark Herzlich and others. The slow-and-steady approach led the Giants to two surprise Super Bowls in the last decade, so Reese and Coughlin still have some benefit of doubt in their account, although they spend a little more of it every year.
26. Minnesota Vikings
Heat Index: 11.5
Net Change 1.75 (18th)
The Vikings have been quiet in free agency but used trades to tidy up their skill position depth charts. Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson have the potential to be the most disappointingly talented receiver tandem in the NFL. If Norv Turner can whisper receiver wisdom in their ears, watch out! If not…watch out for Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright! Wallace replaces Greg Jennings, who was disappointing because of age, not choice.
Swapping Matt Cassel (traded to Bills) for Shaun Hill makes the Vikings a little less rickety behind Teddy Bridgewater. Most of the free-agent "action" on the Vikings front involves minor re-signings. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson is probably the most important of the retentions. He's a fine rotation run stuffer for a defensive line that is emerging from the shadow of the old Williams Wall.
Adrian Peterson is not counted among the transactions. His likely departure will change the complexion of the Vikings offseason somewhat, but: A) He is more of an NFL story than a Vikings story at this point, late-night Scouting Combine hissy fits aside; and B) The real "heat" in Minnesota comes from the development of Bridgewater and other potential stars on the roster, not a great player from what is rapidly starting to feel like the Vikings' past.
25. San Diego Chargers
Heat Index: 13.25
Net Change: 1.75 (13th)
There is a substantial gap between the last team on the Heat Index (the Vikings) and the next group of teams. We have now left the "Sleepy Early Offseasons" and entered the "Busy Early Offseasons." After that, it's off to the "Hectic Early Offseasons," the "Crazy Early Offseasons" and "Someone please shoot Chip Kelly with a tranquilizer dart."
Speaking of Kelly, Ryan Mathews signed a contract with the Eagles between organizational mood swings. The Chargers offset that loss with some useful gains. Orlando Franklin strengthens the interior line and provides a contingency plan at tackle. Steve Johnson and Jacoby Jones give Mike McCoy two big-play options off the bench; Jones represents a significant upgrade in the return game.
Retaining Brandon Flowers may have been the Chargers' best offseason move. He and Jason Verrett (with an assist from Eric Weddle, of course) turned the Chargers secondary around last year. Most of the players the Chargers lost (Eddie Royal, Shareece Wright) were players they could afford to lose.
The Chargers offseason has not exactly sizzled, but they were a 9-7 team last year, so there was no reason for major upheaval. The Chargers look a little different and a little better after the bulk of free agency. They are not an organization known for radical changes, anyway.
24. Tennessee Titans
Heat Index: 13.75
Net Change: 11.25 (2nd)
The Titans really helped themselves in the early offseason. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which they actually hurt themselves. It would probably involve Jurrell Casey piloting a vintage biplane into a blizzard with Kendall Wright and Jason McCourty strapped to the wings. But that did not happen.
Instead, Brian Orakpo arrived to join re-signed Derrick Morgan to give the Titans a formidable pass rush if everyone stays healthy. Karl Klug also re-signed to keep Casey company up front. Perrish Cox and Da'Norris Searcy add some big-play capability to the secondary. If the Titans draft for defense, they join a host of AFC teams (Jets, Texans, Browns, Bills) trying out the fashionable "all defense, no quarterback" approach to competing in 2015.
It's hard to get too worked up about an injury-prone pass rusher and some up-and-comers in the secondary joining a 2-14 team whose offensive superstar last season was Delanie Walker. But the Orakpo-Searcy-Cox combination represents forward progress for what was probably the league's most talent-poor roster in 2014, and the departures of Jake Locker (retirement) and Michael Oher (Panthers) are more like page-turning than actual losses. This has not been a steamy month of March for the Titans, but it was about as hot as the franchise could handle at this point.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars
Heat Index: 14.5
Net Change: 9 (3rd)
The Jaguars are one of only three teams with two Tier 1 acquisitions, according to the Heat Index system. Julius Thomas made the headlines, but the Jaguars quietly gobbled up Jared Odrick while the Dolphins started making space on their defensive line (and under their salary cap) for Ndamukong Suh.
After those two splashes, the Jaguars have been busy without being frenetic. Cecil Shorts is now in Houston. The Jaguars have lots of young receiving talent, and Shorts never quite fit as the Lone Jaguars Player in Your Fantasy League, but the team will still miss his big-play capability. Tackle Jermey Parnell and linebacker Dan Skuta are fine acquisitions, but they do not change the complexion of the Jaguars all that much.
The departures of Will Blackmon (Seahawks) and Red Bryant (released) represent the right kind of change on the Jaguars roster. This franchise is trying to outgrow a reputation as the Seahawks AAA affiliate. Two major acquisitions feels like just the right number for the Jaguars. They needed a talent infusion to gain some rebuilding traction, but if they are ever going to crawl out of the basement, they will do it through the draft, not spending sprees.
22. Chicago Bears
Heat Index: 15.75
Net Change: 2.5 (14th)
Our Heat Index system loves the Pernell McPhee and Antrel Rolle signings. I personally think the Bears picked up a situational pass rusher and an aging loudmouth, but the free-agent ranking sources I used disagree, and who am I to thumb the scales?
The Brandon Marshall trade—which feels like it was six months ago—represents a big chunk of "heat" for the Bears, who will definitely look different without their top wide receiver. Most of the Bears' other moves, beside McPhee and Rolle, were relatively minor. Stephen Paea (Redskins) was a substantial loss on the defensive line. Chris Conte (Buccaneers) has injury issues and cannot tackle, but Lovie Smith is searching for safeties who know that "Cover 2" does not mean "Stand still and allow 12-yard passes by the dozen."
If Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman retire, they will crank the heat up a little while lowering the Bears' net change ranking a bit. For a team undergoing a full-scale regime change, the Bears are moving rather slowly. Credit new general manager Ryan Pace for being cautious—the Bears are not burning bridges with their old guard, but they are not signing Briggs and Peanut to five-year extensions, either—but there is a 54-ton boulder standing between the Bears and real change. Marshall trades and McPhee additions aside, everything in Chicago is simmering until Jay Cutler gets rolled out of the way.
20 (tie). Detroit Lions
Heat Index: 16.5
Net Change: Negative-5 (29th)
The primary purpose of the Heat Index is to push past the major headlines and really examine how much roster turnover we have seen in the past month. Sometimes, one or two big transactions can make an offseason look busier than it really was. We worry about how the Lions will survive without Ndamukong Suh, for example, while some other team lost players on five different units and was not able to trade for a high-profile replacement.
The Lions lost Suh (Dolphins) and Nick Fairley (Rams). They gained Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker. Two defensive tackles left; two cheaper alternative defensive tackles arrived. The Lions got weaker on the D-line, but not overwhelmingly, and almost nothing else has changed on their roster.
Yes, Reggie Bush left, but if you are still tracking Bush and waiting for him to have that season you dreamed of in the early-2000s, it’s really time to move on.
The 2015 Lions won’t look much different than last year’s model. For an 11-5 team with cap constraints, that’s a pretty good thing.
20 (tie). Atlanta Falcons
Heat Index: 16.5
Net Change: 6 (6th)
Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett reportedly wants a trade to the Falcons to rejoin former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and dip his beak in those sweet, sweet Arthur Blank bucks. The report was semi-convincingly squashed on Tuesday, and even if Bennett wanted such a deal, he faced the inner conflict of the 2015 Falcons. Do they go the Jaguars route and become weak-tea Seahawks under Quinn's guidance? Or do Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff go the more traditional Junior Varsity Patriots route?
So far, the Falcons have resisted both urges, busying themselves instead with lots of little moves. Unlike the Lions (with whom the Falcons are tied), the Falcons made no splashy gain or loss. The Falcons' offseason has been all about little things: adding linebacker Brooks Reed and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and O'Brien Schofield (OK, one token Seahawks defender) while losing Sean Weatherspoon (Cardinals), Corey Peters (Cardinals) and Harry Douglas (Titans), veterans of Mike Smith's rise and fall with varying degrees of remaining usefulness.
The Falcons are young on defense but mature at most of the skill positions; theoretically, they were prime candidates for a quick rebuilding project focused on surgical free-agent strikes. Those of us expecting Julius Thomas and Brian Orakpo were as disappointed as Bennett will allegedly be when no trade materializes. It's the moves the Falcons haven't made that speak volumes: Quinn must like what he sees from the young defenders. He is either a visionary or a saint. No wonder Bennett wants to play for him again.
19. Indianapolis Colts
Heat Index: 17
Net Change: 7.75 (5th)
An optimist sees the Colts' free-agent haul as chock-full of veterans to help them climb past the Patriots. A pessimist sees it as a crowded senior citizen shuttle. The NFL.com free-agent tracker wasn't designed to display that many double-digit numbers in a row: 10th season, 10th season, 10th season, 12th season, geezer season.
Whatever you think of Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole, Todd Herremans and Kendall Langford (the youngster of the free-agent class at 29), there is no denying that the Colts have been busily scooping up second- and third-tier acquisitions. They would have ranked in the top five in the Heat Index if this was 2011. But this is not 2011. As it stands, the system still thinks they made more positive net changes than any other playoff team.
Reggie Wayne (might retire) and Cory Redding (Cardinals) lead the Colts departures. Trent Richardson (Raiders) is gone, too. If there is a theme to the Colts' comings and goings, it's a high "name-recognition-to-impact" ratio. Johnson and Wayne are both veteran receivers at slightly different stages of the downside of their careers. Cole is transitioning from Pro Bowler to situational pass rusher. Richardson is more of an object lesson than an NFL running back at this point. Gore is older than igneous rock, and while it's a credit to his talent and dedication that he can coquettishly tease multiple suitors while younger running backs wait by the phone, he is only a major upgrade for the Colts because Richardson was such a downgrade.
The Colts appear to have helped themselves a lot for a team that was one game away from the Super Bowl. But that last step is a lulu, and the Colts have not done as much work under the chassis as their headline maneuvers might suggest.
18. Kansas City Chiefs
Heat Index: 17.5
Net Change: 1.25 (23rd)
Jeremy Maclin gives the Chiefs a great No. 2 receiver getting paid like a No. 1 receiver. That's an upgrade over Dwayne Bowe, who was a so-so No. 3 receiver getting paid like the president of Pixar. Maclin, guard Ben Grubbs and medical marvel Tyvon Branch headline the arrivals; Bowe and center Rodney Hudson the departures. On their own, they don't represent a lot of heat.
The bulk of the Chiefs action takes place on the re-signing front, where Justin Houston reacted to the franchise tag like it was made out of poison oak. Once Houston calms down, he and Tamba Hali will return as the power train to the Chiefs pass rush. Ron Parker also returns to stabilize the secondary, and Jason Avant will be Maclin's fishing buddy. Role players like Kurt Coleman (Panthers) and Vance Walker (Broncos) have skipped town, creating minor rumbles around the depth chart.
The Chiefs may not have had the most dynamic offseason when it comes to headlines, but Maclin and Grubbs are a mild upgrade over Bowe and Hudson, and keeping Houston and Hali together keeps Bob Sutton's defense dangerous despite losses in the secondary. The Chiefs have spent three offseasons trying to meet several goals: get better, solve a persistent cap problem and remake the roster in Andy Reid's image. They spent the last month taking small steps in all three directions.
17. Washington Redskins
Heat Index: 18
Net Change: 5.5 (7th)
This is not your typical Redskins offseason.
They have been busy, but all of their moves have been quiet, prudent and productive. It's like they mind-swapped with the Eagles, Freaky Friday-style.
Defensive linemen Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton headline the Redskins acquisitions. Both are useful players and great values at the modest prices the Redskins got them for. Cornerback Chris Culliver was more expensive, but young starting cornerbacks don't come cheap. Those are three Tier 2 acquisitions, and they offset the losses of Brian Orakpo (who was never healthy enough to be much help, anyway), Roy Helu Jr. (Raiders) and Leonard Hankerson (Falcons).
The Redskins have also shed some age and salary by cutting loose Brandon Meriweather and Barry Cofield; DeAngelo Hall's contract was re-worked to give the Redskins some flexibility if he cannot fully recover from an Achilles injury (he is currently on schedule to return).
Many of these moves look like decluttering, but no team accumulates as much clutter as the Redskins. New general manager Scot McCloughan has not run around signing his old finds from San Francisco or Seattle. Instead, he appears to be doing the things the 49ers and Seahawks did during his tenures: playing the free-agent market judiciously while prepping for the draft. The Redskins have heard that tune before, but so far McCloughan sounds like he knows how to play it.
16. Denver Broncos
Heat Index: 18.25
Net Change: Negative-7.25 (30th)
Manning's mini-Favrian flirtation with retirement did not count toward the Heat Index. The Demaryius franchising and Daniels signing warmed things up a little. But the real action came in the form of a talent drain: Julius Thomas (Jaguars), Pot Roast Knighton (Redskins), Orlando Franklin (Chargers) and Rahim Moore (Texans) were all ranked among the top 30 free agents, according to NFL.com. The Broncos brought in neat one-for-one replacements in Daniels, defensive tackle Vance Walker, guard Shelley Smith and safety Darian Stewart. Each of those acquisitions is a pretty clear downgrade.
Manning's $4 million pay cut was never going to put the Broncos in position to keep Julius Thomas; even with the relief, they remain up against the ceiling after some modest signings. The Broncos' depth chart has eroded substantially beneath the superstars, and though there are still lots of solid mid-tier contributors left (no, angry Broncos fan, I did not forget about Emmanuel Sanders), the Broncos look like they are receding when they should be making one final lunge.
15. Baltimore Ravens
Heat Index: 18.75
Net Change: Negative-10 (31st)
The Ravens were among the NFL's biggest losers when it came to top-tier talent. Haloti Ngata (trade to Lions), Pernell McPhee (Bears) and Torrey Smith (49ers) represent a massive talent drain; Ngata and Smith were cuts into the team's core, while McPhee was an important situational player.
Speaking of important situational players, Jacoby Jones (Chargers) was the top return man on a team that relied heavily on special teams, and Owen Daniels (Broncos) caught 48 passes in the regular season and eight more in the postseason in 2014. The only major acquisition is Kendrick Lewis, a strong safety who fills a need but doesn't offset the Ravens' defensive losses. Justin Forsett returns to keep the Ravens off the running-back market, but even the Ozzie Newsome internal re-signing front has been quiet.
The Ravens have endured offseasons like this before; 2013 was worse, though the team at least had Super Bowl rings to show for all of its retirements and cap cuts. The Ravens took a big step back in 2013 before regaining their footing last season. It's hard to imagine the team staying in contention when it keeps losing players of Ngata's caliber, plus valuable reserves and up-and-comers. Newsome is the Mozart of compensatory picks, but bargain hunting can only take you so far.
14. St. Louis Rams
Heat Index: 19.25
Net Change: 4.25 (10th)
It will be great watching the Rams unveil their new 5-2 base defense on unsuspecting opponents next season. It will be even better watching them punt on third down because it will be easier for them to score through safeties and fumble-return touchdowns than to mount drives.
OK, the Rams are not planning to run a 5-2 base defense, though it would probably kick butt. And maybe the Rams won't have to win by 4-0 final scores this year, even though Nick Fairley's arrival has turned their defensive line into Operation Overkill. Nick Foles may not be Tom Brady, but his ACLs are not rusty banjo strings, either. Foles can make the Rams better this season just by staying on the field. He at least makes them different. Fairley just makes them look even more like the Rams.
The Rams fall into the same general category as the Lions: teams that made two very noticeable moves but did not change all that much overall. After Fairley and Foles, the biggest change in St. Louis was the signing of linebacker Akeem Ayers, who adds a stout pass-rushing presence to the front seven. It's about time the Rams addressed their front seven and pass rush!
11 (tie). Dallas Cowboys
Heat Index: 19.5
Net Change: Negative-1.75 (24th)
Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys on Wednesday. The Adrian Peterson rumors still persist. The NFL is still investigating Hardy's domestic violence incident, and Peterson remains in contractual limbo. Setting aside the fact the Cowboys are starting to look like a high-profile halfway house (again), Jerry and Stephen Jones are clearly willing to absorb some risk in the name of acquiring low-cost talent.
Hardy can play at a high level if the NFL permits him, of course, and he upgrades a lackluster pass rush. DeMarco Murray was the big Cowboys departure, with Henry Melton, Bruce Carter and Jermey Parnell slipping away quietly. Darren McFadden was the biggest-name acquisition, but Jasper Brinkley, a big run thumper at middle linebacker, is probably the most significant new arrival. Dez Bryant's franchise tagging was an important move to keep the Cowboys core intact, while re-signing Doug Free ensures continuity on the league's best offensive line.
Hardy will make a difference if reinstated, McFadden won't and Murray's loss will have some impact even if Peterson arrives. Major moves aside, the Cowboys will still look like the Cowboys this year: Tony Romo, a great line and plenty of red meat for Cowboys Hater Nation.
11 (tie). Cleveland Browns
Heat Index: 19.5
Net Change: 1.25 (19th)
The Browns may not have gotten much better, but they haven't lost much ground, either. And they sure have kept busy.
Cornerback Tramon Williams is in at cornerback opposite Joe Haden; Buster Skrine is out. Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard is now in New England, but Randy Starks now bulwarks the interior defense. The Browns swapped out Brian Hoyer (Texans) for Josh McCown. Brian Hartline brings professionalism at wide receiver (everybody's gotta bring something), and Dwayne Bowe is joining the party.
What's that? You say this free-agent haul sounds like a one-way ticket on the Downwardly Mobile Express? It's true that the Browns have gotten older at several positions, which is never a good sign for a team trying to build something that will last. The loss of Jordan Cameron will also sting. The defense may have gotten a tiny bit better in the short term, but the offense has somehow gotten worse, and it is always significant when the Patriots come calling for your young pass rushers. They tend to swipe guys you would be better off keeping.
That's why this is the Heat Index, not a Winners and Losers column. The Browns have made significant changes, and the moves a franchise makes to keep from completely collapsing still count as moves. The Browns' early offseason could have been a whole lot worse. Now, there's a slogan to put on the cover of the media guide.
11 (tie). Arizona Cardinals
Heat Index: 19.5
Net Change: 5.25
The Cardinals have undergone one of the quieter overhauls of the offseason. Mike Iupati upgrades the offensive line, while Sean Weatherspoon adds competition and depth at outside linebacker, where the Cardinals always seem to be battling injuries. Cory Redding and LaMarr Woodley give Bruce Arians some familiar old defenders from previous coaching stops; Redding can still play at a high level. They will fill John Abraham and Darnell Dockett's roles as situational disruptors who get hurt a lot.
Antonio Cromartie's return to the Jets will hurt the Cardinals. The loss of Dan Williams (Raiders) may hurt more, though Corey Peters arrives as a low-cost alternative. The Cardinals were surprisingly quiet on the running back market; Arians is high on Andre Ellington, but lots of cheap insurance was available. There are plenty of Adrian Peterson-for-Larry Fitzgerald rumors making the rounds, but they sound more like leftover fantasy football trades from 2010 than something that will materialize anytime soon.
The Cardinals might not have seemed as busy as a team like the Colts, but their gains and losses came in the trenches instead of the glamour positions, and the Cardinals both gained (Iupati) and lost (Williams) linemen in their primes in addition to some better-known veterans. The Cardinals won't look very different when Carson Palmer is throwing to Fitzgerald or the Honey Badger is on seek-and-destroy missions, but there have been quite a few changes under the hood.
10. Houston Texans
Heat Index: 19.75
Net Change: 3.5 (11th)
The Texans will look different with Andre Johnson gone and Brian Hoyer replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick as the placeholder quarterback while Ryan Mallet (re-signed) gets healthy and undergoes the Magical Brady Transformation we are all waiting for. Maybe Hoyer and Mallet can morph together into something Brady-like, Power Rangers style. Or perhaps Matt Cassel possesses the third shard of the Bradykronn Crystal. Jokes aside, the Texans have a new starting quarterback of record and have lost an iconic player. Those are major changes.
The Texans also swapped out Kendrick Norris for Rahim Moore at safety and brought in Vince Wilfork to laugh at Romeo Crennel's old jokes. Cecil Shorts cannot really replace Andre Johnson, but he's a big-play threat when healthy. Cornerback Kareem Jackson's re-signing was a quiet-but-significant move.
Wilfork can still effectively create road blocks between offensive linemen and J.J. Watt, and Moore represents a modest upgrade to what has become a fine secondary (it helps that no one has time to throw). The Texans are still a team in search of a quarterback. The Hoyer acquisition will ultimately be judged on whether or not Hoyer helps Bill O'Brien develop Ryan Mallet, itself a moot point if Mallett cannot stay healthy.
The Heat Index shows the Texans as a team that is still in transition, with O'Brien replacing the last regime's old players with his own old players. If a quarterback does not appear, the Texans and O'Brien will have to be more aggressive in their effort to build around the most important non-quarterback in the NFL.
9. Seattle Seahawks
Heat Index: 20.5
Net Change: -4.5 (28th)
A negative net change? But the Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham!
The system sees Graham coming but also sees Byron Maxwell, Max Unger, James Carpenter, Malcolm Smith and O'Brien Schofield going. And since contract extensions don't count, the Seahawks do not get credit for tuning into Marshawn Lynch's financial wavelength and bringing the Beast back into the fold.
No, I don't quite buy it either. The Seahawks stacked a handful of white chips and walked away with a blue chip, which is the kind of thing a perennial contender must be willing to do to stay on top. The ranking guides I used considered Maxwell a Tier 1 subtraction and Cary Williams a Tier 4 addition. If Williams played in the Seahawks secondary the last two years while Maxwell coped with the Eagles secondary, their ratings would not be quite so far apart.
Let's listen to what the Heat Index is trying to tell us. The Seahawks lost a linchpin center on an offensive line that was not very stable to begin with. Carpenter is another key player on that mix-and-match line. The losses of Maxwell, Smith, Schofield and Jeron Johnson sap further depth from a defense that the NFL loves to poach for talent.
Graham is a massive acquisition, but the Seahawks have work to do on their offensive line and elsewhere. They are not a bottomless talent pit, and all of those little (and not-so-little) subtractions can add up.
8. New York Jets
Heat Index: 21.75
Net Change: 7.75 (4th)
The more the Jets change, the more the Jets stay the same. Nothing signals the start of a new era like the return of a bunch of former players. The Jets didn't just bring back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but they also traded for Brandon Marshall to act as a surrogate Braylon Edwards. The 2009-10 Jets are back! All they need is LaDainian Tomlinson.
It is easy to chuckle at the Jets' expense and much harder to figure out how to pass against Revis, Cromartie and Buster Skrine. Marshall and Eric Decker are the best receivers the Jets have employed since Edwards and Santonio Holmes cared. The departures of Percy Harvin (Bills), Chris Johnson and (probably) Michael Vick signal an end to last year's fantasy league flailing on offense. The Jets want to beat you by a final score of 6-3, and they are comfortable with that.
Quarterbacks? The Jets don't need no stinking quarterbacks! Ryan Fitzpatrick will just hide in some shrubbery in the backfield and whisper instructions to Geno Smith.
The Jets may have gotten carried away in the secondary, but the logic behind their overhaul is easy to follow. They are built to be competitive with an ordinary quarterback. As soon as they find an ordinary cornerback, they will be dangerous.
7. Miami Dolphins
Heat Index: 23
Net Change: Negative-1.25 (22nd)
Two years ago, the Dolphins went bonkers in free agency, with former general manager Jeff Ireland signing Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler and other ordinary players at superstar prices. The result was two more years of expensive Dolphins wheel spinning.
Dennis Hickey, Mike Tannenbaum and the new Dolphins brain trust busily packaged Ellerbe and Wallace in trades and quietly released Wheeler in recent weeks so they could get something of value while clearing cap space for Ndamukong Suh. Unfortunately, our Heat Index method sees a bunch of starters leaving (including defensive linemen Randy Starks and Jared Odrick) and gets confused into thinking that the net sum of talent is leaving Miami. In reality, the Dolphins have had a very busy, very exciting offseason.
You know about Suh. Jordan Cameron's concussion history is a worry, but he has a major impact when healthy. Kenny Stills, acquired for cheap from the Saints consignment shop, joins Jarvis Landry to form a receiving tandem far superior to what the Dolphins had last year.
The Dolphins were the right kind of busy in the early offseason: erasing old mistakes, acquiring blue chips, getting value for what they discarded. It was a far cry from the wasted motion of 2013, and it may finally show in the standings.
6. New England Patriots
Heat Index: 23.75
Net Change: Negative-3.75 (27th)
We all know how the Patriots operate. They were only renting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. They have historically known when to slough off veterans like Vince Wilfork. They find replacements for running backs like Shane Vereen hanging around the mall. Meanwhile, they polish guys like Jabaal Sheard, Scott Chandler and Brandon Gibson into role-playing treasures. What look like significant losses on paper are really significant gains, because THE PATRIOTS WAY. FOUR RINGS. THE DOUBTERS SHALL BE PROVEN WRONG YET AGAIN WHEN MALCOLM BUTLER BECOMES TY LAW.
Fair enough. But Revis is no replaceable cog, and the others (including Akeem Ayers) were significant role players. Sheard is the kind of rotational edge player Belichick turns into a star, and Chandler is a snug fit as the non-Rob Gronkowski tight end who enjoys comic defensive mismatches. The Patriots have made substantial changes, and while some of them are improvements, the losses at cornerback and in the run defense will hurt.
That said, it's remarkable that the Patriots can be in the late stages of a 15-year success cycle and still have the cap breathing room to retain core veterans like Devin McCourty while at least entertaining the possibility of keeping someone like Revis. The Patriots are adjusting, not crumbling, because PATRIOTS WAY. TEAM OF CHAMPIONS IN THE CITY OF CHAMPIONS. BOW BEFORE THEIR TRANSCENDENT BRILLIANCE. Yes, Patriots faithful, we get it.
5. Buffalo Bills
Heat Index: 24
Net Change: 2.25 (16th)
Percy Harvin and LeSean McCoy turbo-charge the Bills offense, which won't matter much if Matt Cassel drives at 30 miles per hour with the right blinker on all season. Keep in mind that the Bills had little need for extra speed when C.J. Spiller (Saints) was in the backfield and Sammy Watkins and Marquise Goodwin were the receivers. But neither Spiller nor Goodwin could stay healthy. Then again, Harvin isn't exactly made of titanium.
The Bills are one of several teams that piled up a lot of trades and transactions but haven't moved that far from where they were in 2014. Da'Norris Searcy, Kiko Alonso and Scott Chandler lead the high-profile departures, and Cassel is probably a step down from Kyle Orton. Jerry Hughes' retention allows the Bills to do what they do best, and the McCoy-Harvin additions certainly make the Bills more dynamic, but with all of the McCoy and Charles Clay drama, the Bills are going from Point A to Point B the hard way.
Like the Jets', the Bills' offseason plan will snap into focus if they replace their old guy/young guy quarterback platoon with something more Mariota-like. But there is only one Mariota to go around, so get ready for lots of handoffs, screens and defense beneath the Patriots canopy in the AFC East.
4. Oakland Raiders
Heat Index: 24.5
Net Change: 12.75 (1st)
The Raiders helped themselves more than any other team in the early offseason, according to our humble methodology. Not bad for a team we were all making fun of for getting outbid at every turn 10 days ago. Not spectacular for a team with a Brinks truck of cap space that was so talent poor than it could improve itself by buying turf patches, but not bad.
The Raiders were the "good busy" in recent weeks, jettisoning last year's pricey spend-it-or-lose-it veterans (LaMarr Woodley, Matt Schaub, Maurice Jones-Drew), moving on from injury cases (Darren McFadden, Tyvon Branch) and stocking up on Tier 2-3 acquisitions: Rodney Hudson, Dan Williams, Roy Helu Jr., Curtis Lofton, Malcolm Smith and others.
The net gains won't vault the Raiders from 3-13 to the playoffs. They will create better competition across the depth chart. Even the Trent Richardson signing loses its punchline value when you look closely. With the versatile Helu on board and toolsy Latavius Murray expected to play a major role, Richardson won't have any carries handed to him.
Ndamukong Suh and Randall Cobb would have made better headlines, and the opening days of free agency did look a little desperate. But the Raiders became more competitive in the days since, and they did it without overspending.
3. New Orleans Saints
Heat Index: 27.75
Net Change: Negative-0.75 (21st)
The Saints were expected to spend free agency sulking in the corner and muting the phone when the salary-cap auditors called. Instead, they proactively held a salary-cap swap meet, trading away significant players but getting enough in return to turn a potential catastrophe into a mild bummer.
Jimmy Graham's departure obviously hurts the Saints, and Kenny Stills was the kind of developing young weapon no team likes to give up. But losses like Ben Grubbs (Chiefs) and Curtis Lofton (Raiders) were easier to absorb with Max Unger and Dannell Ellerbe arriving via trade (with Ellerbe taking a pay cut in the process). All of the shuck 'n' jive trading made the Saints solvent enough to acquire C.J. Spiller and Brandon Browner while retaining Mark Ingram.
The Saints are still in cap trouble, and they are eating enough dead money this year to make Jerry Jones gag ($21 million, according to Over the Cap). With Drew Brees' warranty about to expire and no money available to make a desperate, over-the-top, Darrelle Revis-style move, the Saints' only options were to burn out by making deep cuts, fade away with the aging vestiges of their Super Bowl core, or do whatever they could to change the complexion of their roster with limited resources. They chose Plan C. You cannot blame them for trying in a weak division, and despite the big-name losses, the results are not as bad as they could have been.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Heat Index: 29.5
Net Change: Negative-12.5 (32nd)
"There will be a giant sucking sound …" H. Ross Perot, 1992.
The early offseason has happened to the 49ers, the way a tornado happens to a trailer park. The unexpected retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland are just part of the talent drain. Mike Iupati (Cardinals), Chris Culliver (Redskins), Frank Gore (Colts), Perrish Cox (Titans) and Dan Skuta (Jaguars) are all gone. Michael Crabtree is unlikely to return. The defections will be felt on just about every corner of the roster. The 49ers lost six Tier 1 or Tier 2 players, according to the Heat Index method, the most defections in the league.
On the plus side, Torrey Smith reunites with Anquan Boldin at wide receiver, and Darnell Dockett replaces the veteran presence of Justin Smith, whose retirement was at least timely. Reggie Bush is in town. Blaine Gabbert also re-signed. Yep.
The best spin that can be put on all of the retirements and losses is that the 49ers have been forced into an accelerated rebuilding mode. Trent Baalke was bound to remake the roster in his image for new coach Jim Tomsula; players like Willis just made hard choices for him a little sooner than he might have expected. Next year, the 49ers can sweep Boldin and Vernon Davis off the books, and Colin Kaepernick will fetch trade offers if the 49ers are not completely satisfied with his services. The 49ers were Super Bowl contenders this time last year. They may be unrecognizable this time next year.
Yes, that's the "best spin." That's how bad this offseason has been.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Heat Index: 40.5
Net Change: 5.25 (8th)
The Eagles obviously brought more "heat" than any other NFL team in the last three weeks. What's surprising is just how radical their offseason has been. This is an objective system, built on the rankings of others. It is meant to deflate headlines and quantify changes without resorting to the kind of sensationalism that is bound to happen when a team makes so many moves that explaining them makes you sound like a fifth grader describing a cafeteria fight. And then Chip traded Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, and then Ryan Mathews showed up, but then DeMarco Murray showed up, and Chip signed one while the other was getting a physical and then signed the other before Tim Tebow showed up…
The gap between the Eagles and the second-place 49ers is wider than the gap between the 49ers and the 13th-place Rams. In terms of pure transaction friction, the Eagles are a statistical outlier. Chip Kelly didn't have a busy early offseason. He had an era.
As the Net Change total shows, the moves appear to have made the Eagles better. Much of the value flies beneath the headlines: Kiko Alonso as the forgotten man in the LeSean McCoy trade, Byron Maxwell as an upgrade over Cary Williams, Walter Thurmond as high-upside, low-risk secondary depth. There is also duplication in the data—it's not clear why the Eagles need a Tier 1 and a Tier 2 running back—but the Eagles are a little bit ahead now that the smoke has cleared.
But then, has the smoke really cleared? If Kelly trades Bradford, five draft picks and the Liberty Bell for the right to draft Marcus Mariota, we will remember this little lull as the Era of False Sense of Security.