The Biggest Winners and Losers of Early NFL Free Agency

Marcus Mosher@@Marcus_MosherFeatured Columnist IMarch 18, 2019

The Biggest Winners and Losers of Early NFL Free Agency

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    The first week of free agency has come and gone, and most of the top talent has already been signed or traded. Teams have addressed some of their most significant needs, while others have lost a lot of top-end talent. Today, we are looking at the biggest "winners" and "losers" of the first week of the league year. Some of these selections are teams, players or even positional groups.

Winner: Quarterback Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

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    Arguably the biggest winner of free agency is Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.  As a rookie, Mayfield was phenomenal, throwing 27 touchdowns in 13 starts. He finished the season averaging 7.7 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 93.7.

    Mayfield was spectacular last year because he managed to be successful without a No.1 receiver. The team's leading receiver was Jarvis Landry, who is at his best when he is in the slot. On the outside, Mayfield was forced to rely on targets such as Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins and Breshad Perriman. While all of those receivers can fill specific roles, none should be used as the team's starting outside receiver.

    Enter Odell Beckham Jr. General Manager John Dorsey identified the No.1 receiver need and set out to find the best option available. When Beckham is on the field and is healthy, it's pretty easy to make the case that he's the best receiver in football. Playing with the declining Eli Manning, Beckham caught 77 passes for 1,052 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games last season. He was just as dominant as ever, demanding double-teams and extra coverage on nearly every snap.

    Together, Mayfield and Beckham should only make each other better. It wouldn't be that surprising if Beckham set career highs in Cleveland now that he has a younger, more aggressive quarterback. Mayfield has another weapon in his arsenal, making the Browns one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL. This was a huge win for Cleveland and especially Mayfield.

Loser: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    One of the biggest individual losers of the offseason is Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. From an on-field perspective, the Steelers lost a lot of talent this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Roethlisberger will miss his top target in wide receiver Antonio Brown, a reliable starter in tight end Jesse James and an All-Pro running back in Le'Veon Bell.

    To make matters worse, the Steelers also lost offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the Denver Broncos. Under Munchak, Roethlisberger has been sacked a total of 115 times in his five years in Pittsburgh, according to No quarterback who has started at least 70 games in that period has been sacked fewer times than Roethlisberger. All in all, that is a lot for the 37-year old quarterback to overcome this season.

    And this doesn't even account for Roethlisberger's character issues, which might have led to the departure of Brown. Roethlisberger has been called out by former teammates and players across the league, including being accused of fumbling a ball on purpose because he didn't like a play call.

    With likely the biggest workload of his career now upon his shoulders, it's up to Roethlisberger to carry the Steelers to the playoffs. Without Brown or Bell, that could be a tough task.

Winner: Quarterback Sam Darnold, New York Jets

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    Sam Darnold had a fascinating rookie season with the New York Jets. In his first nine starts, Darnold had a passer rating of just 68.3 as he threw only 11 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. However, he got hot in the final month of the season, throwing six touchdowns to just one interception. As the Jets entered the offseason, one thing was clear: They had to surround Darnold with more weapons.

    That's precisely what they did. The Jets signed receiver Jamison Crowder to be their new slot receiver. In four years in Washington, Crowder caught 221 passes for 2,628 yards and 14 touchdowns. When he is healthy, he is one of the more dynamic slot receivers in the league, getting open with ease and making plays after the catch. He figures to be the team's No. 3 receiver behind Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa.

    The team also signed former Bears receiver Josh Bellamy to be its No.4 receiver. Additionally, the Jets traded for more interior line help, acquiring former Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele from Oakland. While he had a down year in 2018, he might already be the team's best offensive linemen.

    And last, but not least is Le'Veon Bell. While his contract has been discussed ad nauseam, his fit in New York is perfect. Bell is arguably the best receiving running back in the game, with a career average of five receptions for 43 yards per game.

    If nothing else, Bell gives Darnold another reliable receiver who can take some of the load off of his shoulders. Entering Year 2, Darnold is now equipped with enough weapons to be successful in the passing game and should be able to build on his strong finish to 2018.

Loser: Kansas City Chiefs

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    The team that may have lost the most talent this offseason is none other than the Kansas City Chiefs, who were one offside penalty away from going to the Super Bowl.

    Not surprisingly, a lot of their depth was signed by other teams this offseason. Players such as Chris Conley, Mitch Morse and Steven Nelson all signed big deals during the first week of free agency. Those losses alone are going to have a significant impact on this team.

    However, because of cap restraints, the Chiefs were forced to make some pretty big decisions this offseason. A few of those decisions included releasing Justin Houston, trading Dee Ford to avoid paying him and cutting Eric Berry.

    While the Chiefs were able to sign a few solid veterans in Tyrann Mathieu, Alex Okafor and Carlos Hyde, it doesn't make up for all of the talent they lost. For a team that was so close to accomplishing the ultimate goal last year, this has been quite a rough offseason.

Winner: San Francisco 49ers

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    Another Bay Area team that has had success this offseason are the San Francisco 49ers. Coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, the 49ers have entered the arms race in the NFC.

    On the opening day of free agency, the team signed linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-year deal worth up to $54 million. However, according to Spotrac, the 49ers gave themselves a potential out after the 2019 season, making this deal all the better. Alexander is coming off of a torn ACL, but he is one of the best cover linebackers in the league when healthy. He and Fred Warner will instantly make the 49ers defense drastically faster.

    The team also made one of the biggest trades this offseason, moving a 2020 second-round pick for edge-rusher Dee Ford.

    Heading into the offseason, finding a pass-rusher was easily the team's biggest need. Now, Ford will fill some of that void as he has proved to be one of the league's best sack artists. While he has dealt with some injuries in the past, there is no doubt about his production. In his last 41 games, Ford has tallied 61 quarterback hits, 35 tackles for loss and 29 sacks. Now that he is joining a team with DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, that production should only improve.

    Outside of the Alexander signing and the Ford trade, it was their "other" moves that impressed. The team gambled on talented cornerback Jason Verrett, who has struggled to stay healthy. However, when he is on the field, you can make a case that he is a top-20 cornerback. The team also signed running back Tevin Coleman, who had success with Kyle Shanahan in the past.

    Altogether, this was a big offseason for the 49ers, and they have brought in a number of high-quality players in just the first week of the new league year.

Loser: New York Giants

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    The New York Giants have had one of the most puzzling offseasons so far, as the direction of the club is a mystery. The team traded arguably the most talented receiver in the NFL in Odell Beckham Jr. for just a mid-first-round pick, a third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers. The move is quite surprising after the Giants just gave Beckham a contract extension last year, making him the highest-paid receiver in the league at the time.  

    The team also traded its best pass-rusher in Olivier Vernon for 29-year old guard Kevin Zeitler. In three years with the Giants, Vernon racked up 56 quarterback hits, 28 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. In 2018, Vernon made the first Pro Bowl of his career, accumulating seven sacks in just 11 games. To give him away for a guard is a strange move, at best.

    The Giants' free-agent moves made even less sense. The team didn't franchise or attempt to re-sign Landon Collins, who has made three Pro Bowls since being drafted in 2015. Collins turned out to be a better player than the Giants could have even imagined, and they let him walk out the door with zero compensation.

    If the goal were for the team to "tank" and save cap space this season, then the plan would have made at least some sense. However, that doesn't appear to be the case. The team signed veteran receiver Golden Tate to a four-year deal with $23 million guaranteed. That move alone will likely cancel out Collins' departure, which would have given the Giants a compensatory draft selection in 2020. To replace Collins, the team signed 34-year-old Antoine Bethea to shore up the safety spot.

    Whatever the plan is for the Giants, it's hard to see it as of now. Considering the amount of talent they lost this offseason, they have to be considered one of the losers of the new league year.

Winner: Oakland Raiders

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    Associated Press

    Due to multiple big moves, the Oakland Raiders had to be one of the free-agency period's biggest winners.

    The largest move, of course, involved trading for four-time All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Through two separate swaps, the Raiders were able to acquire Brown and the No. 27 pick for Amari Cooper, a third-round pick and a fifth-round selection. Brown is still one of the best receivers in the league and a perfect fit in Jon Gruden's offense.

    But that trade was only the beginning of the roster overhaul.

    In the first week of free agency, the Raiders signed three high-quality players who should start right away: Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner and Tyrell Williams. 

    Brown figures to be the Raiders left tackle on opening day, which will allow them to slide second-year player Kolton Miller to right tackle. Brown has started 42 games over the last three seasons and has proved himself a solid blocker. If nothing else, Brown is a significant improvement over the likes of Miller and Brandon Parker. 

    To help Antonio Brown on the outside, the team signed the best receiver on the market in Tyrell Williams. Williams is one of football's premier deep threats, and he doesn't require a lot of targets to produce. His role on the team will be to keep safeties honest and away from Brown.

    Finally, the Raiders needed to add help in the secondary, and they signed one of the most versatile defensive backs in Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner lined up all over the field for the Los Angeles Rams last season and is likely to do the same in Oakland. With Karl Joseph already on the roster, expect him to play both in the slot and as a true free safety. 

    This is quite the haul for Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden. The team is still a few years away from functioning as a Super Bowl contender, but it's a dramatically better one now than at the end of the 2018 season. 

Loser: Outside Receivers

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    One of the oddest trends in the NFL this offseason saw slot receivers signed early in the free-agent process, while a number of outside receivers had to wait their turn. Not only were they coveted earlier in the proceedings, but most also received bigger deals.

    That's quite unusual, considering how little the NFL thought of slot receivers just a few years ago. Players such as Cole Beasley and Adam Humphries signed long-term contracts, despite neither having a 1,000-yard season to his name.

    Outside receivers such as Michael Crabtree, Mike Wallace and Rishard Matthews all continue to wait for teams to offer them deals, even though they've produced in the past. 

    In this new age of the NFL, slot receivers have become incredibly valuable. But outside receivers, especially older ones, are seen as a dime a dozen. As teams start to incorporate even more spread schemes into their offenses, this trend will only continue. 

    Don't be surprised if you see slot receivers selected higher than ever in the 2019 NFL draft.


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