NFL Draft 2018: 7 Ways Free Agency Has Reshaped the Draft

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMarch 16, 2018

NFL Draft 2018: 7 Ways Free Agency Has Reshaped the Draft

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    NFL mock drafts between January and March are entertaining, but they're always missing one vital piece of the information puzzle: free agency. 

    Teams' free-agent moves will reshape how many of them approach the draft, especially in the first few rounds. What once looked like a glaring need may now be patched up with a big-money signing, while other teams might hone in on the draft to fix the unaddressed holes in their rosters.

    Free agency isn't over by any means, and several teams will make draft-altering moves in the coming days and weeks. But in the meantime, here's how the early free-agent happenings will affect the 2018 NFL draft.  

Quarterback Carousel Spins

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Five teams with top-15 picks made a splash at quarterback over the past week.

    The Cleveland Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor. The Denver Broncos signed Case Keenum. The New York Jets signed Teddy Bridgewater and re-signed Josh McCown. The Buffalo Bills signed AJ McCarron. The Arizona Cardinals signed both Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon. 

    But will any of those additions deter their respective teams from spending a first-round pick on a quarterback?

    The Browns still need a long-term option behind Taylor, and they have two picks in the top four. The Broncos only signed Keenum to a two-year contract, while Bridgewater and McCown agreed to one-year deals with the Jets. McCarron signed with Buffalo for backup money, and the Cardinals can't be comfortable at quarterback without establishing some kind of future behind two big question marks. 

    While there's been plenty of movement in the quarterback market, much of the action was about filling an immediate need. The draft, meanwhile, can provide long-term answers. 

    So, where's the shakeup? For starters, Kirk Cousins landed in Minnesota, leaving several of the teams picking early (Jets, Broncos, Bills, Cardinals) to sign stop-gap options. Don't be surprised if one or more of those teams aggressively attempts to trade up to find its franchise quarterback, as free agency didn't provide many answers.

Teams Bound to Benefit?

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Even after all of the free-agent movement, too many teams still have a big need at quarterback. However, there's a dearth of first-round-quality quarterbacks in this year's draft class.

    The resulting supply-and-demand conundrum will create opportunities for teams who have stable quarterback situations and are armed with a top-15 pick. 

    The Indianapolis Colts could field a firestorm of trade offers for the third overall pick. The Browns could move the fourth pick if they select a quarterback first overall. The Broncos (No. 5), Jets (No. 6), Dolphins (No. 11), Bills (No. 12) and Cardinals (No. 15) are all lingering, and if a few of the top quarterbacks come off the board early, teams are going to get angsty. 

    All the while, teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7), Chicago Bears (No. 8), San Francisco 49ers (No. 9), Oakland Raiders (No. 10) and Green Bay Packers (No. 14) can relax, let the quarterback frenzy play out and wait on top-tier non-quarterbacks to fall into their laps. Those teams' general managers must be thrilled about how the quarterback market unfolded in free agency. 

Bears Don't Need to Reach for a Pass-Catcher

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky looks like a big winner from the first wave of free agency.

    Chicago signed receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton, giving Trubusky a trio of immediate difference-makers in the passing game. Considering only one Bears pass-catcher topped 500 yards last season, that's a marked upgrade.

    The additions also should give general manager Ryan Pace move options with the eighth overall pick, as he no longer has to consider reaching for an offensive playmaker. Instead, Pace can sit tight, watch a few quarterbacks come off the board during the first seven picks and then take the best remaining player, whether it's on defense or up front on the offensive line.

    Which team could be the first to seriously consider a receiver? It's becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint when a player like Alabama's Calvin Ridley will come off the board. 

Saquon Barkley No Longer in Play at No. 1 Overall?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    A team preparing to spend the first overall pick on a running back wouldn't add one in free agency, right?

    The Browns signed former San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde to a three-year deal worth more than $15 million, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. He'll join Duke Johnson, a versatile option who Cleveland selected in the third round of the 2015 draft, in the Browns backfield. 

    ESPN.com reported the addition of Hyde won't stop the Browns from taking Barkley at No. 1 overall, but it's getting easier to read the tea leaves. The Browns will presumably take a quarterback with the first pick, and signing Hyde represents a strong insurance policy in case Barkley is off the board by the fourth pick or if general manager John Dorsey doesn't want to use a top-five pick on a running back. 

    Barkley might still be in play for the Browns, but he isn't likely to be the first pick. 

Patriots Need a Left Tackle

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The New York Giants raided the AFC champions for their new starting left tackle, signing Nate Solder to a four-year, $62 million deal, according to Rapoport. Solder gives the Giants a foundation to build around on the offensive line, but it also leaves the Patriots without a legitimate option at left tackle. 

    LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are free agents, Marcus Cannon is more of a right tackle and the free-agent market is now paper-thin on enticing options at the position. 

    Tom Brady is a master of subtle pocket movements and throwing quickly to negate pressure, but the Patriots don't want to go into 2018 with a shaky situation on the blind side of a 41-year-old quarterback. They might have to look ahead to the draft to find an answer. 

    Will a left tackle capable of starting as a rookie be available with the 31st pick in the first round? If not, the Patriots may have to move up the board to draft Solder's replacement. 

Teams Fill Needs at Cornerback

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Several teams removed the cornerback position from their list of priority draft needs by making aggressive moves for the top players.  

    The Los Angeles Rams traded for Pro Bowlers Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and re-signed Nickell Robey-Coleman, solidifying the position for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. 

    The Tennessee Titans gave new head coach Mike Vrabel a complete trio of cornerbacks when they added former New England Patriot Malcolm Butler to a group already including Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson. 

    The Jets used a big chunk of their cap space to sign Trumaine Johnson, who provides head coach Todd Bowles with the kind of long, athletic cornerback he once enjoyed in Arizona with Patrick Peterson.

    The Carolina Panthers replaced Daryl Worley with Bashaud Breeland, who will start opposite James Bradberry.

    The 49ers moved quickly to sign former Seahawks great Richard Sherman, lessening their need for another cornerback in the first round.

    The Houston Texans stole Aaron Colvin away from the Jaguars, mirroring Jacksonville's heist of A.J. Bouye last offseason. 

    The Bears put the transition tag on Kyle Fuller and then re-signed Prince Amukamara, keeping two key parts of Vic Fangio's secondary together. 

    That's seven teams making at least one big move at a premium position. Expect the early rounds of the draft to reflect the free-agent investments made at cornerback.

Packers Must Now Prioritize Cornerback

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Packers entered the offseason with as big of a need at cornerback as any team in the NFL.

    How did general manager Brian Gutekunst address the hole? He traded away his best cornerback from last season (Damarious Randall) and then watched all of the top cornerbacks on the market sign elsewhere. 

    Perhaps Gutekunst wasn't comfortable paying the price to land one of the top options, such as Johnson, Colvin or Butler. But the Packers appear to have backed themselves into a corner at a position that has plagued their defense each of the last two seasons. 

    Green Bay still may dip into free agency to add a veteran cornerback or two, but Gutekunst will need to use the draft—perhaps the 14th overall pickto upgrade that spot as well. 

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