Updated NFL Division-by-Division Rankings After 1st Week of Free Agency
The first week of free agency is winding down, but the sheer number of moves around the NFL has significantly shifted the pecking order of the league's divisions.
More than 100 free agents have already signed new contracts this past week, but the biggest headlines have been blockbuster trades. From Antonio Brown's move to Oakland to the Cleveland Browns' acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr., the trades have overshadowed some of the bigger free-agent signings.
Now that things are settling down, it's an appropriate time to look at the rankings for the NFL's best divisions. These are based off the overall talent of the franchises in each division, along with projections for team success in 2019.
8. AFC East
By no means is this to suggest the New England Patriots are bad. However, through the first week of free agency, it's hard to say the three other AFC East teams are much better.
The Patriots have already lost some key contributors from their Super Bowl team in offensive tackle Trent Brown and defensive ends Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn. The trade for Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett is intriguing, but the Patriots may have lost more talent than they have gained this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins traded Ryan Tannehill to Tennessee and may be in full tank mode the next couple of seasons to potentially snag Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. As for the Buffalo Bills, they've made some solid offensive upgrades by adding offensive linemen (Mitch Morse, Ty Nsekhe) and weapons for quarterback Josh Allen (Cole Beasley, John Brown), but they're likely still a couple of years away from being a true AFC contender.
The biggest free-agency winner in the AFC East has been the New York Jets, who have broken the bank for running back Le'Veon Bell (four years, $52.5 million) and linebacker C.J. Mosley (five years, $85 million). Overspending may hurt them in the long run, but all of the moves have Jets fans excited for the future.
7. AFC South
The AFC South is one of the more unpredictable divisions, but free agency hasn't done much to move the needle for most of its teams.
Heading into the offseason with over $100 million in cap space, per the NFL Players Association, the Indianapolis Colts have been quiet in free agency. Aside from re-signing a few of their own players (Pierre Desir, Margus Hunt), Indianapolis has only signed former Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess to a $13 million, one-year deal.
Given the talent the Colts have and how close they were to making a Super Bowl run in Frank Reich's first year as head coach last season, it'd understandable for Indy fans to be impatient.
The Houston Texans have made a handful of moves in their secondary, but it's hard to replace talent like Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu. To make matters worse, the Texans haven't addressed their glaring issues on the offensive line, which needs to improve to keep the pressure off promising 23-year-old quarterback Deshaun Watson, who took an NFL-worst 62 sacks last year.
As for the Jacksonville Jaguars, moving on from Blake Bortles and replacing him with Nick Foles should help right the 5-11 ship, but they have a lot to prove before they convince everyone 2017's AFC title-game run wasn't a one-year fluke.
With the Tennessee Titans, Marcus Mariota has to stay healthy to give them a chance at being a playoff-caliber team.
6. NFC East
The NFC East got a lot worse this week, and that's because one of the biggest superstars in the NFL left.
New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman traded Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns, shocking everyone around the league. Instead of trying to build around Beckham and running back Saquon Barkley while looking for a future quarterback, the Giants decided to deal Beckham and rebuild from there, upsetting Giants fans everywhere.
The Dallas Cowboys retained talented 26-year-old pass-rusher Demarcus Lawrence on a second franchise tag but have stayed relatively quiet in free agency. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles have been active, re-signing Brandon Graham and Ronald Darby while also trading for one of their former stars in wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
Washington may have made the most strides in the division this past week, trading for quarterback Case Keenum, re-signing Adrian Peterson and bringing in All-Pro safety Landon Collins.
The Eagles and Cowboys will be playoff contenders, but Washington may work its way into that conversation if its free-agent moves pan out. As for the Giants, losing arguably their best player means this team will likely be in the conversation for a top draft pick this time next year.
Unfortunately for the division, the Beckham trade outweighs Washington's improvements, putting the NFC East in the bottom half of these rankings.
5. AFC West
A lot has been going on in the AFC West the past week, but this division was going to be in decent shape regardless, considering reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes is the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
The good news for Chiefs fans is that despite losing Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Dee Ford, the team signed a huge playmaker in safety Tyrann Mathieu. If the defense can add a few more pieces, the Chiefs should be a Super Bowl contender again in 2019.
Antonio Brown's move to the Oakland Raiders was a big boost to the division as well, and they'll be a fascinating team to keep an eye on. Not only have they added a handful of wide receivers and a new offensive tackle in Trent Brown, they also have three first-round picks to accelerate the rebuild.
Joe Flacco is now the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and they've been busy in free agency, even signing top-tier slot cornerback Bryce Callahan. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers are working on retaining as many of their players as possible to fight for another playoff spot.
The AFC West may not be football's best division, but it might be the most improved of the new league year.
4. NFC South
Even if the NFC South hasn't been the most active division in free agency, there are three formidable teams in the group, and one that's trying to quickly rebuild under a new head coach.
The New Orleans Saints will continue to be Super Bowl contenders as long as Drew Brees is there, and they've added a couple of solid free agents in Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards Jr. Losing Mark Ingram to Baltimore hurts, but Alvin Kamara has shown he can be a top-end featured back.
While the Carolina Panthers haven't made a ton of moves, they did quietly make one of the best pickups of free agency by signing former Broncos center Matt Paradis to a three-year, $27 million deal. That's a huge step in the right direction for a team that needs to keep Cam Newton upright and open rushing lanes for Christian McCaffrey.
The Atlanta Falcons lost a couple of key contributors in running back Tevin Coleman and special teams star Justin Bethel, but there's still hope they can right the ship after a disappointing 7-9 2018. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Arians is taking over a team that's struggled to find success the past few years but snagged an underrated pass-rusher in Shaq Barrett.
It's not always the prettiest division, but the talent speaks for itself in the NFC South.
3. NFC North
The power dynamic in the NFC North has shifted considerably over the past couple of years, but all four teams should be competing for the division title in the final weeks of the 2019 season.
Matt Nagy's Chicago Bears are the clear front-runners to win the division again after a strong run last season that ended in heartbreak against the Eagles in the Wild Card Round. Losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio along with players such as safety Adrian Amos and corner Bryce Callahan will hurt the defense, but there's still plenty of talent there to scare any opponent.
After a brutally disappointing season, the Green Bay Packers are making a lot of changes, from hiring a new head coach in Matt LaFleur to being more aggressive in free agency than they've been in over a decade. Signing Amos along with a pair of edge-rushers in Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith has gotten this offseason off to an exciting start. A healthy Aaron Rodgers and a new offensive system will potentially make the Packers a force to be reckoned with once again.
Although the 8-7-1 Minnesota Vikings had a disappointing season, there's still hope that the team can make another deep playoff run. Retaining Anthony Barr was a huge win for Minnesota after he nearly signed with the New York Jets.
In Detroit, a rough 6-10 start for new Lions head coach Matt Patricia wasn't what they wanted to see. However, with the additions of defensive end Trey Flowers and corner Justin Coleman, a more formidable defense could help the Lions win more games.
Four teams with playoff potential? That sounds like a scary group to play in.
2. NFC West
Two of the four teams in the NFC West own the top two picks in the NFL draft, but the future is still bright for all of the franchises in this division.
Coming off a disappointing Super Bowl performance, the Los Angeles Rams have lost a few players in free agency, including Lamarcus Joyner, Rodger Saffold and likely Ndamukong Suh. However, with a bright young coach in Sean McVay, 33, and a lot of other star players, the Rams will fight for a title.
Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks exceeded all expectations last year, and although they've lost safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Justin Coleman, things are still looking up in Seattle. That is, of course, as long as they're able to work with Frank Clark on a long-term deal, as a holdout is possible after the team franchise tagged its talented pass-rusher.
As for the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, they're on two different paths. Despite having the No. 2 pick, the 49ers will get Jimmy Garoppolo back under center after his torn ACL and have added linebackers Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford along with running back Tevin Coleman this past week.
For the Cardinals, everyone is waiting to see if they'll stick with last year's rookie quarterback, Josh Rosen, or trade him and take Kyler Murray No. 1 overall. It's an extremely difficult decision to make, but the Cardinals will probably struggle to make much noise this early in their rebuild regardless.
1. AFC North
Of all the teams to make big splashes this week, no one did it quite like the Cleveland Browns.
GM John Dorsey has been aggressive to start the NFL offseason. Not only did he trade away offensive guard Kevin Zeitler for a talented pass-rusher in Olivier Vernon, but he also made the swap of the year by sending a first- and third-round pick along with safety Jabrill Peppers to New York for Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns now have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball and a reliable starting quarterback in Baker Mayfield, making them the team to watch in 2019.
However, they weren't the only AFC North team to make noise last week. The Baltimore Ravens made big moves by signing elite safety Earl Thomas to a reasonable four-year, $55 million deal and then agreed in principle with running back Mark Ingram (three years, $15 million) the same day.
The overall identity of the Ravens is changing with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, and losing the likes of C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs will hurt, but all of the moves appear to be steps in the right direction for a team trying to build around a young QB.
Even though they lost Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers are still a playoff contender every year Ben Roethlisberger is at quarterback. They haven't made any big signings, but that's because running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are already reliable replacements for Bell and Brown.
The only team in the division that's a concern is the Cincinnati Bengals, who have spent free agency by overpaying offensive linemen Bobby Hart (three years, $16.2 million) and John Miller (three years, $16.5 million). The Bengals are in a rough transition phase, but on the bright side for their fans, they finally have a new head coach in Zac Taylor, who should help shake things up.
Division-title and playoff races are always off the wall in this division, but with the added talent on the Browns and Ravens, this year could be even more wild.
Reported deals via NFL.com's free-agent tracker.