Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMarch 10, 2016

Ranking the NFL's Best Early Free-Agency Moves

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Per usual, the first day of NFL free agency proved to be a busy one for all 32 clubs.

    But what were the top moves of the initial few hours of the process? They weren’t limited to teams that just acquired players.

    These rankings are based more on the quality of the player and the fit for the franchise. The money spent on these players is but a minor part of the analysis, but in a few instances, it was a deciding factor on whether an overly expensive move kept a team on the outside of this list.

15. Buffalo Bills: Re-Signed G Richie Incognito

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Three years, $15.75 million

    In the land of chicken wings, the bread and butter for the Buffalo Bills in 2015 was the league’s best ground attack.

    That was made possible thanks in part to the play of the well-schooled left side of the offensive line. The duo of tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito helped pave the way for running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams.

    The Bills basically made sure Glenn wasn’t going anywhere last week when they slapped the franchise tag on him. Now, the team has locked up Incognito for the next three years. He comes off a Pro Bowl campaign and was the second-best guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

    In what already has been an offseason of change on defense with the departures of defensive end Mario Williams, inside linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerback Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo will at least have continuity on the offensive front.

14. New Orleans Saints: Signed TE Coby Fleener

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    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Five years, $36 million

    Last offseason, the deal that sent three-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks came with a lot of discussion.

    The New Orleans Saints had to replace a performer who totaled 386 receptions and 51 touchdowns in a five-year span. In 2015, veteran Benjamin Watson came up big with 74 catches—six for scores. He’s now a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

    Enter four-year pro Coby Fleener, who in each of his last three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts totaled 50 or more catches. He’s more of the pass-catching type of tight end that quarterback Drew Brees was accustomed to with Graham and is not known for his blocking prowess.

    In Indianapolis, Fleener was paired with fellow tight end Dwayne Allen, who just re-signed with the team. With the Saints, the former Stanford product’s numbers will dwarf his previous production with the Colts.

13. Miami Dolphins: Signed DE Mario Williams

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Terms: Two years, $17 million

    Defensive end and sometimes outside linebacker Mario Williams has put up respectable numbers in 10 seasons with the Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills. A total of 96 career sacks can’t be easily dismissed.

    But all was not right with the four-time Pro Bowler in 2015. Then again, the Buffalo defense slipped significantly in head coach Rex Ryan’s first season in Orchard Park from the previous year.

    “We’ve got to be all in,” said Ryan to Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News and other reporters last month at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s kind of like being half-pregnant. Forget that. We’re all in. We’re fully pregnant now.”

    The end result was that the team cut Williams loose after he totaled just five sacks (easily his lowest total in four years in Buffalo) in 15 games. With perhaps a little revenge on his mind, he hopes to deliver for the division rival Miami Dolphins. With defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh manning the middle and Cameron Wake at the other end spot, expect a bounce-back showing for the first pick in the 2006 draft.

12. New York Jets: Signed RB Matt Forte

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Terms: 3 years, $12 million

    He was the most productive running back on the free-agent market. Now, Matt Forte rejoins former Chicago Bears teammate Brandon Marshall on a New York Jets offense that was much improved from the previous year.

    ESPN’s Ed Werder suggested that the eight-year pro came at a considerable discount compared to what the Jacksonville Jaguars paid for Chris Ivory (five years, $32 million, via Spotrac) and he was correct. The Jets added the two-time Pro Bowler for what amounts to $8 million in guaranteed money.

    Besides his skills as a runner, Forte gives offensive coordinator Chan Gailey another option in terms of the passing game. The Jets scored 33 times through the air this past season—29 of those touchdown receptions courtesy of the wide receivers.

    Regardless of who plays quarterback for Todd Bowles team this season, Forte brings some welcomed versatility to an emerging attack.

11. Houston Texans: Signed QB Brock Osweiler

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Terms: Four years, $72 million

    It came with a big bill, but the Houston Texans may have finally found a young quarterback they can count on for the foreseeable future.

    In his first two seasons as the team’s head coach, Bill O’Brien used six different starting quarterbacks, forged an 18-14 record and won a division title in 2015.

    The Texans did what they had to in order to get their man, and that meant outbidding the Broncos. According to Fox 31 in Denver, the defending Super Bowl champions made a very respectable offer, but it wasn’t more than Houston was willing to pay.

    Osweiler played in a combined 21 games in four seasons with the Broncos and in 2015 went 5-2 as a starter. His numbers will swell under the guidance of O’Brien, who has done yeoman’s work with his quarterbacks these last two years.

10. Atlanta Falcons: Signed C Alex Mack

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Terms: Five years, $45 million

    With the exception of the 2014 season when he went down after five games with a broken leg, Alex Mack started every contest in each of his other six years with the Cleveland Browns. He comes off a campaign in which he was named to his third Pro Bowl.

    Speaking of threes, that’s how many starting centers (Mike Person, James Stone and Gino Gradkowski) the Atlanta Falcons utilized in 2015. The reliable Mack will reverse that ugly trend immediately.

    It’s a bit of a reach in terms of a connection, but Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan served the same role with the Browns two years ago. That was the season when Mack missed the final 11 games.

    There’s no gamble here. Head coach Dan Quinn is getting a performer who will give the team its best play at the position since 13-year pro Todd McClure after the 2012 season.

9. Oakland Raiders: Signed DE/OLB Bruce Irvin

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Terms: Four years, $37 million

    The Oakland Raiders are still looking for their first winning season and playoff berth since 2003. But they're getting closer to that goal.

    While the Silver and Black made strides on offense in 2015, the defensive unit made its own kind of progress. A team that totaled a mere 22 sacks and only 14 takeaways the previous year racked up 38 sacks and forced 25 turnovers this past season.

    The beauty of the addition of Bruce Irvin is that the four-year defender will see a few familiar faces with his new club. Outside linebacker Malcolm Smith was his former teammate in Seattle, and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was a member of Pete Carroll’s staff with the Seahawks.

    The 2012 first-round draft choice has lined up at defensive end and outside linebacker during his brief career. Now, he’ll pair up with Pro Bowler Khalil Mack, who earned All-Pro honors at both positions this past year.

    An even bigger plus is that Irvin was rated the fifth-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league this past season when it came to stopping the run, per Pro Football Focus.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars: Signed RB Chris Ivory

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    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Five years, $32 million

    It may be hard to sell someone on the fact that a team that has lost 11 or more games for five straight years is headed in the right direction.

    But the Jacksonville Jaguars, thanks in part to the play of quarterback Blake Bortles and his emerging wide receiving corps, have begun to show some promise.

    Now the club, which totaled 127 more points this past season (376) than it did in 2014 (249), has to develop some balance, which in turn should help the league’s 24th-ranked defense.

    That's why the addition of pounding runner Chris Ivory, who comes off a career year with the New York Jets and led the AFC in rushing, was a great move. In 2015, only five teams in the NFL amassed fewer yards on the ground than the Jaguars.

    General manager Dave Caldwell has addressed the other side of the football by adding defensive end Malik Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson. The pairing of Ivory with T.J. Yeldon will prove to be even more important for Gus Bradley’s defense.

7. New York Giants: Signed CB Janoris Jenkins

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Five years, $62.5 million

    The New York Giants were big-time spenders during the first day of free agency. The additions of defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison were major additions for a team that allowed the most total yards in the league this past season.

    But the first pickup of the afternoon was at cornerback, as the Giants added playmaker Janoris Jenkins, who in four years with the Rams totaled 12 takeaways and returned six of those for touchdowns. Pro Football Focus ranked 218 players at Jenkins’ position, and the 2012 second-round pick from North Alabama came in at 24th.

    The Giants had the disappointing distinction of also giving up the most passing yards in the NFL in 2015. The team surrendered 31 scores through the air, with 12 in losses to the Saints and Drew Brees (seven) and the Panthers and Cam Newton (five).

    Paired with two-time Pro Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jenkins will have more opportunities to come up with the football. If Vernon and the pass rush come through, this defense will be dramatically improved.

6. Houston Texans: Signed RB Lamar Miller

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Terms: Four years, $26 million

    The Houston Texans were AFC South champions in 2015 despite the fact that four-time Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster missed most of the season.

    Now, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader is no longer with the organization. Enter Lamar Miller, who has been one of the most productive players at his position over the last two years.

    A fourth-round pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2012, the one-time Miami Hurricane has started all 32 games the past two seasons and rolled up 2,643 yards from scrimmage—to go along with 19 touchdowns.

    The Texans were busy on the first day of free agency with the additions of Miller and quarterback Brock Osweiler. They also offset the losses of center Ben Jones (Tennessee Titans) and guard Brandon Brooks (Philadelphia Eagles) by inking guard Jeff Allen (Kansas City Chiefs) and center Tony Bergstrom (Oakland Raiders). But it’s the signing of Miller that is the most vital for this club.

5. New York Giants: Signed DT Damon Harrison

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Terms: Five years, $46.25 million

    So, where’s Olivier Vernon?

    Yes, the New York Giants were in search of pass-rushing help and inked the former Miami Dolphins defensive end to a hefty five-year, $85 million contract. He’ll pair with Jason Pierre-Paul as the duo hopes to help the team improve on its paltry total of 23 sacks in 2015.

    But Steve Spagnuolo’s defense was also 24th in the NFL in rushing defense, up slightly from a dismal 30th the previous year. The addition of Damon Harrison goes a long way to rectifying that malady.

    Only All-Pro Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams performed better at his position than Harrison when it came to stopping the run. The former undrafted free agent started every game for the Jets the past three seasons, and his prowess up front will also make life much easier for both Vernon and Pierre-Paul.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Re-Signed RB Doug Martin

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    Chris Keane/Associated Press

    Terms: Five years, $35.75 million

    If you truly believe that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a one-man show on offense this past season, you weren’t paying attention. 

    The bottom line is that both running back Doug Martin and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston helped the team finish fifth in the league in total yards per game. That’s quite the jump for an attack that ranked 30th in the same category in 2014.

    Martin’s revival was arguably as surprising as Winston’s steady play. In his fourth season, the 2012 first-round pick finished second in the NFL with 1,402 rushing yards. Tampa’s ground game went from 29th to fifth in the league in just one season.

    The Bucs may be crossing their fingers when it comes to Martin, who rebounded in 2015 after back-to-back injury-shortened campaigns. But there’s no doubt it was a wise move for a team that has lacked offensive consistency in recent years.

3. Chicago Bears: Signed ILB Danny Trevathan

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Four years, $24.5 million

    Familiarity may breed contempt. But it’s awfully handy come free-agency time.

    This past season, the Chicago Bears were coached by John Fox. He was with the Denver Broncos when the team made Danny Trevathan a sixth-round draft choice in 2012. In his second season (first as a starter), he totaled 129 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks while knocking down 10 passes.

    In 2015, he was the second-leading tackler for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos on the team’s top-ranked defense. He was also the sixth-rated inside linebacker in the league in 2015, playing for a unit that ranked third versus the run.

    Fox and the Bears have added an ideal solution for a defensive unit that surrendered 120.9 yards per game on the ground.

2. Tennessee Titans: Obtained RB DeMarco Murray in Trade (Philadelphia Eagles)

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Terms: Titans receive Murray, swap fourth-round picks with Eagles

    It was a forgettable 2015 for running back DeMarco Murray in what proved to be his lone season with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The 2014 NFL rushing champion with the Dallas Cowboys now looks to recapture that form in what will be his third team in as many years.

    The Tennessee Titans were in dire need of his services. The club rushed for 1,447 and 1,485 yards, respectively, in the past two seasons. In 2014, Murray ran for 1,845 yards by his lonesome.

    “Whatever they ask me to do I am willing to do it, whether it is carrying the ball 20 times, 30 times, whatever,’’ said Murray to Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com. “I’m excited, and I am going to do my best to help this team out and do as much as I can.

    “It’s a great opportunity to come here, work hard, and make some things happen. I feel like this truly is a team on the upswing, and I know I can help this team out in a lot of different ways.”

    Murray is the perfect tonic for what has ailed this team recently. He will give young Marcus Mariota the kind of support any quarterback needs.

1. Kansas City Chiefs: Signed T Mitchell Schwartz

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Terms: Five years, $33 million

    This past year, the Kansas City Chiefs managed to rank sixth in the league in rushing despite losing running back Jamaal Charles during the season. Andy Reid’s offensive line had its issues, most notably at both tackle positions, as Pro Football Focus' numbers indicate.

    Now, the club adds one of the more unheralded players at his position. Mitchell Schwartz is a four-year pro who started 64 games at right tackle for the Cleveland Browns dating back to 2012. He’s been a consistent performer who this past season ranked as the league’s sixth-best tackle, four spots behind teammate Joe Thomas.

    What makes him the top selection on this list? The Chiefs solve a major problem area with a proven and reliable performer. Schwartz ranked fifth in pass protection from the tackle spot and will keep quarterback Alex Smith—who was sacked 45 times in 2015—out of harm’s way.

    It’s not flashy, but the addition of Schwartz is awfully smart and came at a reasonable price.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac.