Every NFL Division's Biggest Winner Through Early Free Agency

Marcus Mosher@@Marcus_MosherFeatured Columnist IMarch 16, 2019

Every NFL Division's Biggest Winner Through Early Free Agency

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    The first wave of NFL free agency has come and gone. Most top-level players have signed new deals.

    Now that the biggest splashes are behind us, teams will focus on finding hidden gems throughout the next portion of the offseason. But before we get to that part of the process, let's review the biggest winners from the first week. 


AFC North: Cleveland Browns

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Have the Cleveland Browns emerged as the NFL's biggest winner through the first week of the offseason?

    Despite giving up their 2019 first-round pick and guard Kevin Zeitler, they were able to acquire arguably the best receiver in the league (Odell Beckham Jr.) and a talented edge-rusher (Olivier Vernon) from the New York Giants.

    While the Browns had one of the most exciting offenses in the league last season, the team lacked a true No. 1 receiver. Jarvis Landry led Cleveland in targets with 149, but he was only able to produce 976 yards and four touchdowns. Beckham's role in the offense will be twofold: He will be the team's No. 1 receiver, and he will draw extra coverage, allowing Landry to work more from the slot. Beckham is exactly what the Browns needed on offense to take the next step in the passing game.

    Vernon is an upgrade over current starter Emmanuel Ogbah, as he has tallied 10 sacks in his last 16 games. He gives the Browns a quality bookend opposite Myles Garrett and arguably one of the best pass-rush duos in the NFL.

    On top of the two trades, the Browns signed a couple of important free agents, including defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Cleveland desperately lacked interior disrupters last season, and Richardson, at worst, has proved himself a quality rotational piece. Last year with the Vikings, Richardson totaled 4.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position. Pairing him with Larry Ogunjobi, who had 5.5 sacks last season, makes a lot of sense in the middle of the defense. Together, they are a fantastic pair that can stop the run and rush the passer.

    Given the moves general manager John Dorsey has made this offseason, the Browns are positioned to become a real AFC contender next season. Expect Cleveland to continue its aggression in free agency and through the NFL draft.

AFC East: Buffalo Bills

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    The New York Jets made the biggest splashes in the AFC East by signing running back Le'Veon Bell and linebacker C.J. Mosley.

    But the Buffalo Bills quietly had the best week. They were aggressive filling needs and found several starters during the first week of the offseason.

    The Bills knew they needed to get better at receiver and signed two starting-caliber free agents in John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former will likely be the team's top outside threat, while the latter should make his money from the slot. Both are proven veterans in the NFL and will provide some consistency for second-year quarterback Josh Allen. 

    Buffalo continued to supplement its offense by signing tight end Tyler Kroft and running back Frank Gore. They'll likely be part-time players in 2019 but at least offer more depth.

    Last but not least is the offensive line, which was among the NFL's worst units in 2018. The Bills ranked No. 23 in pass protection and finished ahead of only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jets in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. To address that need, they poached center Mitch Morse from the Kansas City Chiefs and signed veteran swing tackle Ty Nsekhe, formerly of the Washington Redskins. Both should start right away and provide a significant upgrade on the line.

    While this group may lack star appeal, Buffalo got much better this offseason.

AFC West: Oakland Raiders

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The clear-cut winner in the AFC West is none other than the Oakland Raiders, who began their wild offseason with a trade for wide receiver Antonio Brown.

    On the first day of the legal tampering period, the Raiders signed former New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown to a record-setting deal. While they may have overpaid, Brown will be an instant starter and a quality upgrade at tackle. 

    Versatile safety Lamarcus Joyner was another significant addition. Oakland needed to find another defensive back to pair with Karl Joseph, and the ex-Los Angeles Ram is a perfect fit. The 28-year-old can play in the slot, down in the box or as a true free safety.

    Tyrell Williams, formerly with the Los Angeles Chargers, will be another key signing for the Raiders. He's become a reliable deep-threat receiver and should be a perfect complement to Brown on the outside. Look for the two receivers to make the Raiders passing attack far more dangerous.

    Oakland is still a few years away from becoming a contender, but it improved significantly during the early stages of the free-agency period and should be much more competitive in 2019. 

AFC South: Tennessee Titans

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    For the most part, the AFC South has remained relatively quiet in free agency. But the surprisingly active Tennessee Titans have been the exception.

    Grabbing offensive guard Rodger Saffold, who spent the previous nine seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, is the biggest move thus far. Saffold is 30 years old but has started 111 NFL games at various spots across the offensive line. In Tennessee, he is expected to play left guard and replace Quinton Spain.

    The Titans wanted to improve their passing offense this offseason and needed to find another reliable target for quarterback Marcus Mariota. They did so with Adam Humphries, who was one of the best options on the market. While he should spend most of his time in the slot, Humphries will give the Titans passing game another weapon aside from Corey Davis and should catch around 70 passes in 2019.

    Finally, Tennessee signed veteran pass-rusher Cameron Wake to a three-year deal.

    After Brian Orakpo's retirement, the Titans needed to find a pass-rushing complement to Harold Landry. Though he's 37 years old, Wake still knows how to bring pressure, as he recorded six sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 2018. He'll be used primarily in that role during his Tennessee tenure. 

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Quietly, the aggressive Green Bay Packers brought in one the best free-agency hauls. They signed four high-priced players—something that would never have happened during the Ted Thompson era.

    Their two most significant signings were edge-rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Neither player has produced double-digit sacks during a single NFL season, but both are phenomenal against the run and are average pass-rushers, at worst. More importantly, they give the Packers more length and athleticism at the position.

    Expect both players to be significant upgrades over Clay Mathews and Nick Perry.

    Adrian Amos will also make a big impact after he started a total of 56 games for the Chicago Bears over the past four seasons. Just 25 years old, he might be one of the best value signings during the early portion of free agency and possesses the ability to play both safety spots. He should line up next to Tramon Williams and be an instant starter for the Green Bay defense.

    Finally, the Packers signed offensive lineman Billy Turner to help protect Aaron Rodgers. Turner has started 25 games over his last four years with the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. He has the flexibility to play both guard and tackle, but he'll likely kick inside for his new team.

    Overall, this is a fantastic free-agent class that nets the Packers four immediate starters—not a bad haul for general manager Brian Gutekunst.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    As is typically the case, the NFC East has been busy.

    The New York Giants traded away their best player (Odell Beckham Jr.) and lost their two best defenders (Landon Collins and Olivier Vernon). The Washington Redskins signed Collins to a deal worth $84 million, which forced them to move on from players such as Zach Brown and Jamison Crowder.

    Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles have enjoyed the division's best offseason. 

    They were able to trade Michael Bennett—a player they were likely to cut due to salary-cap restraints—to the New England Patriots and turned a 2020 seventh-rounder into a 2020 fifth-rounder. In typical Howie Roseman fashion, they also replaced him right away with Malik Jackson, another former Pro Bowler.

    Jackson figures to start next to Fletcher Cox, which gives the Eagles even more talent on the defensive line. Best of all, he was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars, which means his signing won't count against Philadelphia's compensatory pick calculation. (Plus, it can expect to receive at least a third-round pick in 2020 for Nick Foles' departure.)

    Philadelphia also needed to upgrade at wide receiver after Golden Tate hit the open market and joined the Giants. To replace him, Roseman grabbed DeSean Jackson by engaging in a late-round pick swap with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.

    The Eagles continue to employ one of the best front offices in all of football, as shown by their enduring dominance during the free-agency period. 

NFC South: Carolina Panthers

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Through the first week of free agency, the NFC South as a whole hasn't signed or traded for many big names. But the Carolina Panthers made the biggest splash, inking center Matt Paradis to a three-year deal worth $27 million.

    Paradis was a sixth-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2014, and he went on to start 57 games for the team. In 2015, he featured during the Broncos' run to the Super Bowl. Last year, he was one of the best interior offensive linemen in the NFL and graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 center.

    Carolina had to upgrade its offensive line this offseason, especially after the retirement of Ryan Kalil. Signing Paradis—along with retaining tackle Daryl Williams—is a massive step in the right direction. The team also released tackle Matt Kalil, who was injured for the entire 2018 season. That will save the Panthers over $7 million in cap space and open up a starting spot for Taylor Moton. Despite only one big free-agent signing, it's been a productive offseason for the Panthers.

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have entered the NFC West arms race.

    On the first day of free agency, they signed one of the best linebackers on the market in Kwon Alexander, who previously excelled with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alexander is coming off a torn ACL that cost him most of his season in 2018. However, the expectation is that he will be 100 percent for the team's opening game of 2019. Alexander will now be paired with young standout Fred Warner (124 tackles as a rookie) to give the 49ers one of the most athletic linebacker duos in football.

    But the biggest need for the 49ers was an elite edge-rusher.

    While those players rarely hit the open market, San Francisco found another way to acquire one—trading a 2020 second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for Dee Ford, who had been franchise-tagged earlier this offseason. The Niners followed that move by handing the pass-rusher a five-year, $87.5 million contract.

    They could still draft an edge-rusher such as Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, but they won't be forced to do so now. Ford gives them enough juice off the edge and dramatically improves their pass rush.

    The 49ers also signed talented running back Tevin Coleman, who previously played with head coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta. While the move might have seemed odd in the moment, the contract details make this a low-risk move. Coleman received just $3.6 million guaranteed, all of which comes in the first year of the deal. If he struggles this season, the 49ers can cut him with no dead money on the books. Considering his history in Shanahan's schemes, that's a great gamble. 

    Finally, they took a chance on talented but oft-injured cornerback Jason Verrett—another low-risk, high-upside move for a franchise that seems close to contending in the NFC.

    All reported deals courtesy of NFL.com's free-agent tracker. Salary-cap info courtesy of Spotrac.