Every NFL Division's Biggest Winner Through Early Free Agency
Free-agent signings provide hope. Nothing is more important in a league that stresses parity and feeds off the notion of "any given Sunday."
Winning the offseason is only important if a team can translate its transactions into regular-season victories. Otherwise, the process is pointless.
Some will succeed in this endeavor. Others will fail. But every team is looking for opportunities to improve its roster through free agency.
A year ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Calais Campbell to a four-year, $60 million contract. Campbell provided the best season of his career and helped mold the Jaguars into Super Bowl contenders. The opposite happened after the Cleveland Browns made Kevin Zeitler the league's high-paid guard (at the time). Zeitler's play didn't amount to much on a 0-16 roster featuring an unprepared rookie quarterback.
Excitement builds around squads that make the biggest free-agent splashes, because it's a sign they're not willing to accept previous standings.
Those squads in need of the most improvement often use free agency as a buoy to plug numerous holes before the draft arrives. These organizations tend to be the biggest winners in free agency, because they accomplish the most in a short amount of time.
As English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, "Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering 'it will be happier.'"
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
After two years of misery, a ray of hope shines upon the city of Cleveland and its love-hate relationship with the Browns. A 1-31 record over the last two seasons, including the NFL's second-ever 0-16 campaign, officially became the franchise's low point. Some might even say the organization's current shell of an existence is worse than Art Modell's betrayal.
All of that is in the past, because new general manager John Dorsey isn't willing to accept the Browns' previous failures and took the immense amount of draft capital and salary-cap space accumulated by his predecessor, Sashi Brown, to make the biggest moves in the trade market and supplemented them with seven free-agent signings (so far).
Cleveland forced the league to pay attention by agreeing to trades for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and defensive back Damarious Randall prior to the start of the new league year.
Landry is a Pro Bowl-caliber performer with more receptions (400) in his first four seasons than any receiver in NFL history. Taylor provides stability at quarterback—which is something the Browns haven't had since Bernie Koser played for the franchise. Randall, meanwhile, is the teams new starting free safety.
Those moves unto themselves make the Browns a much better and more competitive squad. Dorsey wasn't done, though.
Once free agency officially began, Cleveland found new starters in running back Carlos Hyde, right tackle Chris Hubbard, and cornerback T.J. Carrie, while adding rotational pieces in tight end Darren Fells, defensive end Chris Smith and cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
If not for Joe Thomas' retirement, the Browns already experienced the best offseason they could have possibly envisioned to potentially overtake the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
"This is not a team that is done (with moves), I'll just say that," the general manager told NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala, courtesy of 92.3 The Fan's Keith Britton.
NFC North: Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are building something fun to watch around second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
The organization already hired an offensive-minded head coach in Matt Nagy, who, in turn, brought along a brilliant collegiate coach in Mark Helfrich to become the Bears' new offensive coordinator (and add some spread principles). It's easy to envision a high-flying offense with these two concocting weekly game plans. It's even easier to imagine knowing the talent the team now has in place thanks to free agency.
General manager Ryan Pace has been busy securing the best toys for Trubisky to play with after boasting one of the league's worst wide receiver corps last season.
Allen Robinson is nearly three years removed from a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown campaign. He disappointed in 2016 before tearing an ACL in Week 1 of the following season. His rocky path in recent seasons adds perspective since he was still considered the top available wide receiver in free agency.
Robinson is only 24 years old with the skill set to be a true No. 1 receiver in the Bears offense.
"He's just a big target (6'3" and 210 pounds) that knows how to get open," Pace said, per the Chicago Tribune's Colleen Kane. "He's a savvy route runner that can set guys up and he's just a proven receiver. He's a physical guy that can body and out-position guys, and it's a guy that obviously we targeted and are excited to get here."
The Bears also signed Taylor Gabriel, who is one of the NFL's fastest and most explosive targets. The 5'8", 167-pound Gabriel works primarily out of the slot, and he's tremendous after the catch. His quickness next to the bigger Robinson should give defenses headaches trying to cover both.
Trubisky leading Nagy's offense with his choice of targets in Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, Shaheen, Josh Bellamy, a fully recovered Cameron Meredith and Jordan Howard or Tarik Cohen out of the backfield has the potential to be special.
AFC East: New York Jets
The New York Jets entered free agency with the most available salary-cap space and took advantage by signing the top available cornerback, a starting running back, a new inside linebacker and two bridge quarterbacks.
Trumaine Johnson is the obvious headliner after being counted among the best-available free agents. The Jets paid dearly to acquire his services by agreeing to a deal worth nearly $15 million annually, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. Johnson's inclusion to the Jets secondary makes the entire unit better after finishing 21st overall in pass defense last season, because a trickle-down effect should.
Morris Claiborne's retention will be overlooked, but he and Buster Skrine played a significant amount of snaps last year as the Jets' starting cornerbacks. Now, they'll be the defense's second and third options with Johnson drawing coverage responsibilities on an opponent's best receiver.
New York didn't sign Johnson to replace anyone; he'll supplement and improve the Jets secondary.
The quarterback situation is a little more dubious since the organization couldn't lure Kirk Cousins to the Big Apple. Instead, the Jets chose to re-sign Josh McCown for another season and take a chance on Teddy Bridgewater. Neither prevents the team from selecting a quarterback high in April's draft, yet there's far more stability at the position than Todd Bowles' crew experienced last season.
The 38-year-old McCown is a consummate professional, and he's coming off a career season before suffering a broken hand. Bridgewater is the lottery ticket. The 2014 first-round pick hasn't played a significant snap since the 2015 campaign due to a devastating knee injury yet looked like a potential franchise quarterback during his first two seasons.
The quarterbacks will be joined by Isaiah Crowell in the backfield. Bilal Powell led the Jets last season with 772 rushing yards. Crowell ran for at least 853 in each of the past two seasons as the Cleveland Browns' leading rusher. The 25-year-old back is at his best when utilized as a downhill runner with homerun capabilities.
Finally, Avery Williamson becomes the Jets' new defensive field general. Williamson is younger (26 years old) and a better working in space compared to Demario Davis, who signed with the New Orleans Saints.
The Jets surprised most with a 5-11 record last season. New York may not have reached the point where it can compete with the New England Patriots for an AFC East crown, but the franchise has the potential to finish second in the division, especially after its recent additions.
NFC East: New York Giants
Ereck Flowers is no longer the New York Giants' left tackle. This fact alone makes New York's offseason a success.
Flowers has been a severe disappointment since former general manager Jerry Reese selected the offensive tackle with the ninth overall pick in 2015. Dave Gettleman rectified this mistake with his first major free-agent acquisition since taking general manager duties.
The Giants made left tackle Nate Solder the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman on an annual basis to take over Eli Manning's blind side.
"Nate has been a quality left tackle in this league since the day he entered," Gettleman said, per Michael Eisen of the team's official site. "He's physically matured and he's become as good a run blocker as he is a pass blocker. We're just very, very pleased that he wanted to come here. ... Every decision that comes out of the GM's office sends a message and I think this is a very strong statement."
The start of free agency hasn't been as kind to the rest of the division.
The Giants have been helped by the fact the Dallas Cowboys had little financial wiggle room to attack free agency and the Washington Redskins already made their biggest decision by trading for Alex Smith instead of retaining Kirk Cousins. The Super Bowl champion Eagles gained Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata and Daryl Worley yet lost Torrey Smith, Trey Burton, Beau Allen and Patrick Robinson.
New York landed another valuable piece via trade. Gettleman flipped 2018 fourth- and sixth-round draft picks to the Los Angeles Rams for Alec Ogletree and a 2019 seventh-round selection. The 26-year-old Ogletree led the Rams defense last season with 95 total tackles.
Reese never placed much emphasis on the linebacker position. Oftentimes, the Giants' second line of defense became an afterthought with heavy investments in the defensive front and backfield. To place this into perspective, last year's leading tackler among their linebackers, Calvin Munson, finished fifth on the team with 60 total stops.
The Giants had two massive holes on the roster for years. Gettleman solved both problems in less than three months on the job.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas Chiefs decided to shake up the status quo after five straight winning seasons without any payoff in the playoffs.
Of course, Alex Smith's trade to the Washington Redskins set the tone for the entire offseason. But the Chiefs are comfortable moving forward with last year's first-round pick, Patrick Mahomes. Plus, the Smith trade brought Kendall Fuller back in return. Fuller allowed a league-low 55 passer rating last season when covering the slot, according to Pro Football Focus.
Fuller, along with David Amerson's addition, allowed the front office to trade Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams. Along with Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali's exoduses, it's obvious the Chiefs are trying to build a new culture while continuing their recent winning ways.
In order to improve upon the team's previous approach, the coaching staff must be flexible in its approach, particularly with Mahomes taking over the offense. Mahomes' skill set is very different than what Reid and Co. grew accustomed to with Smith. As a result, the offense required a different type of receiver.
Enter Sammy Watkins.
The Chiefs offense grew stagnant in their playoff contest against the Tennessee Titans after tight end Travis Kelce suffered a concussion, because the unit lacked an option opposite Tyreek Hill. Kansas City signed Watkins to a three-year, $48 million deal in hopes of being another dynamic vertical threat.
Mahomes has one of the league's strongest arms, and the Chiefs plan on taking full advantage of his skill set.
"We will try to utilize his strengths,” Reid said, per the Kansas City Star's Terez A. Paylor. "One of the things as a coach, that is what you do. You exploit their strengths and you work on things they need to get better at. Will the offense change a little bit? Yeah, it will."
The Chiefs mentality won't be the same in 2018 since they're expected to be far more aggressive with different key components at crucial points on the roster.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
First and foremost, the San Francisco 49ers never allowed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to test the open market by agreeing to a five-year, $137.5 million deal to become the face of the franchise. With a young franchise quarterback in place, the 49ers quickly developed into a favorite up-and-coming squad and a free-agent destination.
Carlos Hyde and Aaron Lynch left, but neither were ideal fits in the 49ers schemes. Instead, Kyle Shanahan brought in talent catered for his systems, both offensive and defensively.
Richard Sherman's addition is, of course, the most noteworthy offseason movement since the cornerback is a four-time Pro Bowl performer, a former Super Bowl champion and one of the league's most recognizable personalities.
However, Sherman turns 30 years older later this month, and he's coming off a torn Achilles tendon. So, the 49ers provided an incentive-laden $27.15 million contract to maximize Sherman's overall worth while minimizing risk.
Jerick McKinnon and Weston Richburg's additions didn't receive nearly as much publicity even though their inclusions have a chance to be far more important toward any future 49ers success.
San Francisco stunned many when the franchise handed out, by far, the largest running back contract in free agency. McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million deal to become San Francisco's starting running back. Shanahan envisions the collegiate quarterback as an ideal fit in his scheme with the skill set to excel in today's game.
"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said, per the Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows. "...I definitely think he's an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run."
In order for McKinnon to succeed, Richburg must set the tone as the new starting center. The position is extremely important in Shahanan's offense, because it dictates blocking points and cutback lanes.
A five-game winning streak to end last season is only the beginning. The 49ers should continue to improve, because the organization is getting the right talent in place.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are known for winning the offseason. After all, they've done so the last two years with multiple headline-stealing signings. Yet the Tennessee Titans are taking a different path under the direction of general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel. This new approach has them pulling players from their old stomping grounds.
Malcolm Butler's time with the New England Patriots ended on a down note, but he was still counted among the top two available cornerbacks in free agency, alongside Trumaine Johnson. Butler is an ideal fit for Vrabel's secondary alongside Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson.
Logan and Butler were teammates in New England for three seasons before he signed with the Titans last offseason. The previous experience should benefit Tennessee's defense this fall.
"Me and Logan together man, I got the fast guy, he got the biggest guy," Butler said during his introductory press conference, per the Tennessean's Jason Wolf. "We're going to communicate when the bunches come up. We've just got great communication and great chemistry over the three years we played together."
Tennessee won't be exposed anymore when Ryan slides inside to cover the slot with Butler and Jackson capable of matching up with any opponent's outside targets.
The Titans also signed the Derrick Henry's ideal complementary backfield mate in another former Patriot, Dion Lewis.
DeMarco Murray kept Henry off the field because of the veteran's ability to contribute in the passing game as a blocker and receiver. Henry showed he can be the team's starting running back late last season and the organization released Murray as a result. Lewis provides a change of pace to the hulking Henry. The 5'8", 195-pound back is simply electric in space as a runner or receiver.
Robinson also prevented the Titans from becoming weaker on both sides of the line of scrimmage by re-signing guard Josh Kline and defensive lineman DaQuan Jones. Kline and Jones combined to start 56 games the last two seasons.
The Titans built an identity under Mike Mularkey's direction. Robinson and Vrabel, along with their recent additions, should bring consistency and improved play.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints re-signed Drew Brees to a two-year, $50 million contract. Everything else beyond that point is icing on the cake.
No one actually expected Brees to leave the Big Easy but getting a deal done wasn't a given. According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, another franchise offered $60 million in an attempt to entice the 39-year-old signal-caller to leave his home.
"But for me, this was about putting our team in the best position to go win a championship in the next few years," Brees said. " ... I've made it very clear from day one that I was always gonna be a New Orleans Saint as long as they would have me."
Aside from the Brees' new contract, the Saints had two specific problem areas on defense in need of attention: linebacker and pass-rusher.
Demario Davis, who signed three-year, $24 million contract, brings a different presence to the New Orleans linebacker corps. No one on the Saints roster is as quick diagnosing or physical defending the run. Davis experienced a career season with the New York Jets last year when he registered a team-high 135 tackles and five sacks. The 29-year-old defender does struggle in space. Even so, he's still an upgrade over Manti Te'o.
Meanwhile, Alex Okafor decided to return and signed a two-year, $10 million contract, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Okafor played well opposite Cameron Jordan and tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks despite missing the final six contests after suffering a season-ending ACL tear. A healthy Okafor makes the Saints' pass-rush far more potent.
Patrick Robinson's decision to return to New Orleans after being a Saints' first-round pick in 2010 came as a surprise. Robinson's career didn't take off until he left the organization and finally blossomed into a well-rounded cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles defense as part of last year's Super Bowl run. The Saints are already set at outside cornerback with Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. Robinson is expected to serve as the secondary's nickel corner.
A possible Ndamukong Suh signing may be forthcoming as well.