NFL Free Agency 2019: Which Teams Have Improved the Most so Far?

Derrik KlassenContributor IMarch 16, 2019

NFL Free Agency 2019: Which Teams Have Improved the Most so Far?

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Not even a full week into free agency, many of the NFL's top free agents and trade candidates have already found new homes. 

    A few teams swung for the fences with elite wide receiver acquisitions for their young quarterbacks, while other franchises strengthened their defense to return to playoff form. 

    In varying fashion, five teams have come out ahead during free agency's early stage. Let's dive into how those squads have improved.

Cleveland Browns

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns had by far the best first week of free agency.

    Their trade for former Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. headlined it all. The Browns surrendered a first-round pick, a third-round pick (acquired via Patriots) and safety Jabrill Peppers in exchange for the 26-year-old wideout.

    Considering the team still has its own third-round pick and can play safety Derrick Kindred in Peppers' place with little drop-off, it didn't give up much for one of the NFL's best wide receivers.

    Beckham and quarterback Baker Mayfield should score in bunches. Mayfield's 27 passing touchdowns in 14 games last season broke the rookie record previously held by Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning (26). Meanwhile, Beckham's 44 receiving touchdowns rank 12th all-time for a player's first five years—and could be much higher if not for injuries.

    That wasn't the only deal the Browns made with the Giants, as they sent guard Kevin Zeitler to New York in exchange for defensive end Olivier Vernon.

    Zeitler is the better player, but Cleveland moved the high-quality starting guard because it seems confident in 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett. 

    Additionally, Vernon is an edge upgrade. He won't rack up double-digit sacks every season, but he consistently pushes the pocket and generates pressure. Though he accrued just 22 sacks in three years with the Giants, Vernon pressured the quarterback 117.5 times over that span, according to Football Outsiders. He'll be an excellent addition opposite Myles Garrett.

    The Browns also bolstered their defensive line by signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. He's bounced around the league the past couple of seasons, but he's an explosive presence who can change the identity of Cleveland's front. Though primarily a 3-technique defensive tackle, he can move to different positions along that front, especially on passing downs. Richardson posted 4.5 sacks last season with the Vikings, bringing his career total to 23.5.

    Overall, the Browns are much better on both sides of the ball. Investing everything to do right by their two No. 1 overall picks is not a novel strategy, but it is refreshing to see the Browns on the right path.    

Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Longtime Green Bay Packers Clay Matthews (free agent) and Nick Perry (cut) will no longer be with the team in 2019. 

    The two edge vacancies left room for the Packers sign Preston and Za'Darius Smith.

    Preston Smith is a more traditional outside pass-rusher. He wins with speed and bend around the edge, often proving too slippery for opposing offensive tackles. In four years playing opposite Ryan Kerrigan in Washington, Smith totaled 24.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss and 59 quarterback hits.

    The 26-year-old also flashed versatility with four interceptions and 13 passes defended, proving he can drop into short-area coverage assignments.

    Za'Darius Smith, is a different player as a hybrid outside linebacker and defensive lineman. On first and second down, Smith, 26, can play as the strong-side edge defender and should provide stout run defense and be a pocket-pushing bully against the pass.

    However, on third down, he's best utilized as a defensive lineman between the offensive tackles. Smith's agility and explosion doesn't always cut it on the edge, but when working against guards on passing downs, he typically has the athletic advantage and can force a pressure. His versatility netted him 8.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in 2018. 

    The Packers also added former Bears safety Adrian Amos. He's suited more for a strong safety role that puts him against tight ends, running backs and underneath zone assignments. However, the Bears often played two-deep safety coverage with Amos, so it's not as if he is coverage-averse.

    He's a serviceable cover safety who provides consistent tackling and willing run defense—something the Packers were lacking for years.

    On the other side, the Packers shored up the offensive line. Offensive guard Billy Turner, who had somewhat of a breakout year with the Broncos last season, signed earlier this week.

    Though he's not a star, Turner's nasty downhill blocking was instrumental in the Broncos' rushing success. He ranked 33rd out of 77 qualifying guards last year, per PFF. If nothing else, he'll be an upgrade over Justin McCray and Byron Bell at right guard.    

Detroit Lions

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions' slew of free-agent additions give them a playoff shot.

    With a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Patricia, the Lions unsurprisingly bolstered that side of the ball. And defensive end Trey Flowers was the headliner.

    Flowers worked under Patricia, a former Patriots defensive coordinator, from 2015 to 2017 in New England. They used the 25-year-old primarily as an edge defender but moved him all around the front as a mismatch. He possesses the strength and nastiness to win inside, as well as enough bend and craftiness to threaten from the edge.

    His versatility is exactly what Patricia needs. The coach tried to mold the Lions defense into a hybrid front last year but didn't have the right personnel. Flowers is the skeleton key that can unlock the rest of what Patricia wants to do.

    Sticking with pass-rushers, the Lions also retained defensive end Romeo Okwara on a two-year, $6.8 million deal. Okwara isn't a household name, but he was a great addition to the Lions last season. He had just one career sack in two years with the Giants but erupted for 7.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in 2018. 

    Detroit also brought in nickel cornerback Justin Coleman from the Seahawks. The Lions have struggled to find consistent nickel play over the past few seasons, but Coleman will change that. Though he recorded just one interception and 10 passes defended last season, he also posted a 62 percent success rate in coverage, per Football Outsiders. That put him fifth in the league among qualifying cornerbacks last year—sandwiched between Dre Kirkpatrick and Patrick Peterson.

    The Lions also made a point to retool their pass-catching unit. After tight end Eric Ebron left before last season and it traded wide receiver Golden Tate at the deadline, Detroit had a top-heavy group. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are a fantastic duo, but quarterback Matthew Stafford had zero viable options beyond those two.

    Wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Jesse James came in this week to fill out the offense. Amendola is on the last leg of his career, but he should provide decent production in the quick game, which the Lions lacked without Tate.

    Likewise, James is a solid, jack-of-all-trades tight end who can provide Stafford with a security option over the middle and help the offensive line in the run game.

    Neither player is a game-changer, but they are upgrades over the post-Ebron and Tate group.

    Though Detroit's offensive moves were temporary solutions, the team got better on both sides of the ball. Patricia can now mold the defense in his vision, while Stafford will have more quality options.    

Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    No amount of roster turnover was going to fix the Oakland Raiders in one offseason, but they've done about as well as anyone could ask through nearly one week of free agency.

    The headliner, of course, is the trade for Steelers All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. It only cost the Raiders a third- and fifth-round pick. The 30-year-old Brown's age played a part in the low price, but the Raiders are more than pleased to get an elite wide receiver for a pair of middle-round picks.

    Brown has produced at least 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns in each of his past six seasons. Over that span, he averaged 1,590 yards and 12 touchdowns per 16 games. That is a career year for most any other wide receiver. 

    New arrival Tyrell Williams will complement Brown. The 27-year-old receiver got buried in a talented Los Angeles Chargers offense over the past two seasons. In 2016, he played a larger role for the Chargers because of injuries to others. Williams caught 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns, serving primarily as a horizontal and vertical field-stretcher. Williams' speed and open-field talent should be unlocked as opponents focus on Brown.

    With more pass-catching help, quarterback Derek Carr also needed better protection. The Raiders allowed 52 sacks last season for an adjusted sack rate of 8.7 percent, putting them 25th in the league in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. Thankfully for Carr, the team handled this problem, too.

    Oakland signed former Patriots left tackle Trent Brown for four years and $66 million. The 25-year-old previously spent time across the Bay with the 49ers before they traded him to the Patriots last offseason. He can fill both tackle positions, though he played left tackle for the Patriots and will do so for the Raiders. Brown's presence on the blind side helped the Patriots attain a league-best 3.8 percent adjusted sack rate on their way to another Super Bowl title.

    The Raiders made the right choice to go all-in on the offense and allow themselves to build the defense through the draft. Two explosive wide receivers and a shutdown left tackle will go a long way in returning Carr to his 2016 status.     

San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    General manager John Lynch wasted no time in improving the 13th-ranked San Francisco 49ers defense this offseason. The secondary still needs work and may be addressed in the draft, but the front seven is in a much better spot than it was a week ago.

    Trading for Dee Ford marks the 49ers' first clear effort to fix their outside pass rush since they drafted Aldon Smith in 2011. San Francisco gave up a 2020 second-round pick for Ford—a fair price for a substantial upgrade.

    Ford's reputation suffered because his infamous offside penalty cost the Chiefs the AFC title game, but he's better than that. He's a pure speed-rusher who wins with his first step and adequate bend around the edge.

    In 37 games over the last three seasons, he racked up 25 sacks and 53 quarterback hits. Additionally, Ford forced nine fumbles over that period—seven of which came last season. The 49ers just got their best outside pass-rusher in a half-decade.

    Inside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who signed with the 49ers on Wednesday, will play behind Ford and fill the void Reuben Foster left.

    The 6'1", 227-pound Alexander is an athletic linebacker with sideline-to-sideline prowess and functional coverage skills. His space-oriented game will play well next to a thicker, stronger linebacker in Fred Warner (6'3", 236 lbs). Solid run defenders DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead will also keep Alexander cleaner in that area than his Tampa teammates did.

    Of course, head coach Kyle Shanahan couldn't get through free agency's first week without indulging himself. The 49ers signed former Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, who played under Shanahan in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016.

    Coleman is an explosive straight-line runner when sprung into the open field. He is also a decent pass-catcher with dangerous yards-after-catch potential. Given Shanahan has proved he can get 10-plus touchdowns out of Coleman—like he did in 2016—this is a smart reunion.     

    An improved defense, the addition of another offensive playmaker and the return of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from a torn ACL could be enough to propel the 49ers to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.