NFL Free Agency 2017: Which Teams Have Improved the Most so Far?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 16, 2017

NFL Free Agency 2017: Which Teams Have Improved the Most so Far?

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    It's not possible to win NFL free agency. That's because there are no snaps taken, no points scored and no games played. There's no championship trophy either. It's March, after all, and the only trophy that matters was handed out over a month ago.

    Players who hit the open market are typically flawed in some way, though there are always a few exceptions each year. That's why they're given an opportunity to explore free agency at all. Maybe they're aging, or often injured, or needing to silence character concerns, or they only fit a specific scheme. Or worse, their production has simply fallen off.

    So no, you don't win a trophy for collecting the best players among that group. But teams can still make the right moves to address core needs and do so while inserting the perfect piece to push their roster to another level.

    Teams can improve in that regard and plant the seeds for a solid offseason blueprint to be built upon in late April at the draft. They can redirect their draft focus by grabbing a much-needed, deep-threat wide receiver, just as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles did in the opening days of free agency. Or they can get creative and move draft picks to give an aging quarterback another weapon, as the New England Patriots did.

    Free agency is only the beginning of an offseason filled with shuffling, dismantling and tinkering, or all of them at once. Great strides can be made, though, with the right moves at the right value.

    Let's look deeper at the five teams that have improved the most so far. They were ranked according to how well they achieved the aforementioned goal: To acquire difference-maker players who are solutions to problems and do so at a reasonable cost.

5. Detroit Lions

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    If you're going to take a risk, you do it on T.J. Lang. That was surely the Detroit Lions' thinking when they lured the veteran guard away from division rivals Green Bay Packers.

    Lang was the second-best guard available in free agency next to Kevin Zeitler. He had to wait on his market to develop for a few days because of an always lethal combination: age and injuries.

    Lang will enter his age-30 season in 2017, and more importantly, he's coming off recent hip and foot surgeries. So there is risk tied to him, but that's mitigated by the $19 million in guaranteed money the Lions gave Lang, which ranks 10th among guards, according to Spotrac.

    It's a risk they had to take, too, because Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has waited far too long for even adequate protection in front of him. Stafford has been sacked 35-plus times in each of the past three seasons and a total of 126 times since 2014 (third among all quarterbacks during that time period).

    In 2016, Stafford was forced to wave his magical late-game wand so many times, resulting in a record number of fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks, in part due to that constant pressure. Too often the offense's rhythm would be disrupted, with quality drives derailed.

    Inserting Lang is the best possible attempt the Lions could make to both plug that hole and rejuvenate a stagnant rushing offense. Lang has allowed only five sacks over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, and he consistently grades out as one of the best run-blocking guards (PFF has given him a career grade of 47.6). The Lions averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in 2016.

    The Lions also signed Ricky Wagner, one of the best tackles on the market. They replaced Riley Reiff and Larry Warford with Lang and Wagner and then also made quality low-cost additions on the other side of the ball by signing cornerback D.J. Hayden and middle linebacker Paul Worrilow.

    The primary aim and hope of the Lions' offseason so far has been to finally provide Stafford with something resembling consistent protection. If that happens, the Lions offense could take a leap forward, and they won't be asked to orchestrate weekly late-game miracles.

4. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Say this with me now: Progress isn't linear.

    That's true for, well, pretty much everything that requires progress, but especially the learning curve rookie quarterbacks need to conquer. So few rookie quarterback seasons have looked like the one Dak Prescott put together for the Cowboys—and he had the help of fellow stud rookie Ezekiel Elliott and an incredible offensive line.

    Often rookie quarterback seasons look like what the Eagles' Carson Wentz did in 2016. He started out sizzling, with seven touchdown passes and only one interception over his first four career starts, three of which ended in wins.

    Then quickly, as his game film piled up, defenses adjusted, and Wentz couldn't counter. He logged only two interception-free games during the second half of his rookie season, finishing with 14 total picks and an average of only 6.2 yards per pass attempt.

    The true Wentz is likely somewhere in between those extremes. Much of the 24-year-old's inconsistencies were a product of his own doing because of poor vision and decision-making while getting acclimated to the speed of NFL defenses.

    Still, there was a dire need for better support as Eagles receivers repeatedly dropped passes in key situations. Eagles pass-catchers dropped 24 of Wentz's throws in 2016, which remarkably and sadly was an improvement over 2015 when they dropped 37 balls.

    They desperately needed to improve the targets available for Wentz and risked shattering the confidence of their young quarterback right away. The solutions the Eagles found in free agency were the right ones: Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.

    Both receivers were signed to short-term contracts with little commitment beyond 2017, which is ideal for a team still exploring what it does or doesn't have in Wentz. Jeffery was signed to the classic one year "prove it" deal but at the shockingly low rate of $8.75 million guaranteed.

    He's an athletically gifted vertical option and has the catch radius to reel in poorly thrown balls. But his value was kept low because of recent injuries and a suspension. So Jeffery will be motivated to produce and cash in next spring, and if either his play or health turns south, the Eagles can move on quickly.

    Same with Smith, who was given just $500,000 in guaranteed money. Both Smith and Jeffery had poor seasons in 2016, but please recall the quarterback situations they're coming from.

    Smith dealt with the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, while Jeffery had to navigate Jay Cutler and the Bears' carousel of passing awfulness. Yet they both still combined for 1,088 receiving yards, which tragically isn't far behind the total of 1,561 yards posted by the Eagles' top three receivers.

    That's how badly the Eagles needed to inject life into the offense around Wentz.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Much like the Eagles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers badly needed to find support for their young quarterback. But their situation was arguably worse, because the Bucs also needed to support their young receiver.

    In 2016, Buccaneers quarterbacks threw for 4,165 yards. And Mike Evans, their skyscraper of a wide receiver, was on the other end for 1,321 of those yards. That's 31.7 percent of Tampa's passing yards, and the next two leading Bucs wide receivers (Adam Humphries and Russell Shepard) combined for only 963 yards.

    So the item atop the Bucs' free agency shopping list was clear: A wingman for Evans, and someone who could also be a deep threat to take advantage of quarterback Jameis Winston's booming arm.

    DeSean Jackson checks off both of those boxes, and he's set to do it at an affordable price.

    The Buccaneers signed Jackson to a contract that will pay him an average of $11.2 million over three years. That annual average makes him only the league's ninth highest paid receiver, per Spotrac. And more importantly, his $20 million in guaranteed money ranks tied for 12th.

    The cost for his services was kept low because of Jackson's age. He's a speed-based wideout who just turned 30 years old in December. But the Buccaneers shouldn't be worried about an abrupt downturn in production. Jackson has totaled 1,000-plus receiving yards in three of his past four seasons, and the only exception was an injury-plagued 2015 when he appeared in 10 games.

    Jackson is fresh off of averaging 17.9 yards per reception in 2016, too. Aging also wasn't much of a concern when he grabbed 16 receptions that traveled 20-plus yards through the air, which was the league's second-highest total in 2016, per PFF. He's the turf burner that both Winston and Evans needed. Jackson can be the deep option for the former and draw attention away from the latter.

    The Bucs didn't stop there while spreading around their wealth of salary-cap room. They also bolstered an already quality pass rush (38 sacks in 2016) by signing defensive end Chris Baker. He finished with 42 pressures in 2016, per PFF, and is only one year removed from a year with six sacks.

    And on the back end, safety J.J. Wilcox was also added to improve a 22nd-ranked pass defense. Wilcox swings a mean hammer as a heavy hitter and had six passes defensed in 2016. 

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars acted like a kid with a blank check at Toys R Us during the opening days of free agency. That is normally not a compliment, and it often leads to regret and wasted dollars.

    But they had mounds upon mounds of money and spent it the right way.

    Exactly how much sweet, sweet cash did the Jaguars have? They handed out $68 million in guarantees and still have the third-most cap space, according to Spotrac ($58.4 million).

    With that spending, they took an existing strength and made it into a potentially imposing juggernaut by adding some of the best available defenders.

    A.J. Bouye led that group as both the top cornerback available and arguably the top free agent on the open market because of his age and the fact he may not have reached his talent ceiling yet.

    Bouye will turn only 26 years old later this offseason, and in 2016, he allowed a passer rating in coverage of only 58.5 while with the Houston Texans, per PFF. That includes two playoff games, and he snatched an interception in both.

    Bouye was signed to a five-year contract worth $67.5 million, and he'll now slide in alongside Jalen Ramsey. The two will be a formidable and young cornerback duo capable of generating turnovers. As an impressive rookie, Ramsey allowed a reception on only 52.9 percent of his targets in coverage, per PFF.

    In between those two will be safety Barry Church, who signed a deal with the Jaguars set to give him $12 million guaranteed. Church led the market at his position and is coming off a season with 15 defensive stops and two interceptions.

    So the league's fifth-ranked pass defense in 2016 should remain at that level or higher, and opposing quarterbacks will also face the possibility of a pancaking more often after defensive end Calais Campbell was added, too.

    The best remaining pass-rusher after franchise tags were applied may be aging a bit and will turn 31 just prior to the 2017 season. But that's mattered so little recently for the 6'8" and 300-pound giant with his eight sacks in 2016, and Campbell has also been a consistently reliable edge setter against the run.

    All of those imposing defensive pieces will be plugged into a unit that already boasts high-end talents like defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Myles Jack and safety Tashaun Gipson.

    The bar for quarterback Blake Bortles to clear with his performance on the other side of the ball has never been lower. But his play is still a looming question mark over an otherwise talented team ready to finally take a step forward.

1. New England Patriots

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    It's been a rough winter for the legions of New England Patriots haters. But hey, at least the snow should melt soon and another Boston team will begin steamrolling opponents, too.

    Those who don't enjoy watching the Patriots win so damn much are already finding their face and palm meeting regularly just because of quarterback Tom Brady's refusal to age like a normal human. Brady will turn 40 years old before the beginning of the 2017 season, and he's fresh off a championship year when he averaged 8.2 passing yards per attempt while throwing only two interceptions with 28 touchdown passes.

    And now it'll be easier for Brady to fight off age demons and stay at that high level of performance after what the Patriots did to begin their offseason.

    Brady has spent much of his career turning overlooked or discarded pass-catchers into heroes. In 2016, wide receiver Chris Hogan was a prime example. Prior to 2016, Hogan had a career single-season high of 450 receiving yards. Then Hogan was a key figure in three playoff games when he totaled 332 yards.

    Brady hasn't had many established deep-threat receivers at his disposal throughout his time in New England, with one notable exception (Randy Moss). Now that will change after the Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks.

    The shifty and speedy wideout has recorded 1,100-plus receiving yards in two of his first three NFL seasons after being a first-round pick in 2014. He's also scored 20 touchdowns over only 42 career games.

    And most importantly for Brady's outlook with a new deep hookup target, Cooks also recorded 544 receiving yards in 2016 on balls that traveled 20-plus yards through the air. That was the league's second-highest total, per PFF.

    Cooks can create yards after the catch on short-to-intermediate throws as well, which is key if Brady does begin to age and see his arm strength fade. His addition will keep the Patriots' window to tack on more championships to the Brady-Belichick era wide open.

    The same can be said for adding tight end Dwayne Allen to replace the departing Martellus Bennett, bringing back defensive tackle Alan Branch and his 49 tackles in 2016 and aggressively pursuing and signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of the best available players at his position.

    New England also fortified its league-best defense by re-signing safety Duron Harmon and core middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, per ESPN, and plugging in defensive ends Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy.

    The Patriots' latest Super Bowl win is still large in the rear-view mirror. And by adding Cooks, beefing up their defense and getting tight end Rob Gronkowski back from injury, they're in prime position to be champions again in 2017 for the third time over the past four years.


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