2019 NFL Free Agency Awards

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

2019 NFL Free Agency Awards

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    NFL front offices came into the 2019 offseason ready to maneuver the trade and open markets. Free agency didn't fall short on jaw-dropping transactions.

    In terms of roster building, multiple teams fared well at the beginning of the new calendar using different methods. Aggressive buyers struck gold and patient general managers picked up gems after the first wave of signings.

    Some clubs went straight to the bargain bin to add talent, stretching their cap space and filling shallow spots across the depth chart. Time will reveal the benefits or mistakes of those deals. 

    Based on potential impact and roster needs, we'll hand out awards to the best acquisitions during free agency and highlight the teams that started the offseason on the right track.


Best Addition: RB Le'Veon Bell to the New York Jets

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The New York Jets landed the top free agent on the market. Running back Le'Veon Bell will immediately improve Gang Green's offense after general manager Mike Maccagnan invested $52.5 million in the dual-threat playmaker.

    Bell accumulated 7,996 yards from scrimmage in five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's a significant threat on the ground and in the passing game, which provides the coaching staff with a variety of options in future game plans. The 27-year-old can take 20-plus handoffs against weak run defenses or split out wide to exploit a favorable matchup against a linebacker. 

    After sitting out an entire season, Bell should be able to handle a high volume of touches. He'll force defensive coordinators to scheme for his versatility, which opens up the field for tight end Chris Herndon and wideouts Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder. 

    In addition to Bell's on-field benefits, Maccagnan didn't have to reset the running back market with a deal worth more than Todd Gurley's four-year, $57.5 million contract.

    Runner-Up: QB Nick Foles to the Jacksonville Jaguars

    The Jacksonville Jaguars deserve mention for their biggest free-agent addition. Starting quarterbacks rarely hit the open market. Nick Foles doesn't compare to Kirk Cousins in terms of career production, but he's a solid upgrade over Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler, who started in Jacksonville last year. 

Best Re-Signing: CB Ronald Darby Re-Signs with Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Ronald Darby briefly tested the market: According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Darby visited the Kansas City Chiefs before an about-face to re-sign with the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite a 2018 campaign shortened by a torn ACL, the 25-year-old listed atop a mediocre cornerback group during free agency. 

    Darby could have talked to more teams, but he signed a modest one-year, $6.5 million deal with the Eagles. That's a win for general manager Howie Roseman, especially given the team's injury issues in the secondary. Second-year cornerback Sidney Jones has appeared in 10 games because of a torn Achilles and a hamstring injury. After an improved sophomore season, third-year veteran Jalen Mills took a step backward before suffering a season-ending foot injury last season.

    The Eagles have depth at cornerback, but Darby is the most proven starter at the position. According to Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane, the fourth-year veteran expects to suit up for Week 1 of the 2019 campaign. If that's the case, he'll serve as the team's top cover man on the boundary.

    Runner-Up: DE Henry Anderson re-signs with New York Jets

    The Jets sneak into the runner-up spot for this award with Maccagnan retaining an upstart interior pass-rusher for Gregg Williams' 3-4 base scheme. Henry Anderson broke out with a team-leading seven sacks last year, which tied outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. Following his 2018 performance and a three-year, $25.2 million deal, he will likely have more opportunities to build upon a strong season in New York.

Best Bargain: CB Bashaud Breeland to the Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Chiefs didn't land Darby, but they stole cornerback Bashaud Breeland on a one-year, $2 million deal. The 27-year-old came off a down season largely because he signed with the Green Bay Packers in late September.

    Last year, the Carolina Panthers voided Breeland's three-year, $24 million contract because of a failed physical due to a left foot injury. He visited teams over the course of six months before the Packers signed him to a one-year, $5 million contract. Kansas City acquired him for less than half of that amount.

    In seven games, Breeland logged four pass breakups and two interceptions with the Packers. It's not a terrible showing given a late start to the season without training camp or preseason reps. At the end of the 2018 term, he was the only player on Green Bay's active roster with multiple picks.

    The five-year veteran goes to a pass defense that ranked 31st in yards allowed last year and lost top cover man Steven Nelson to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Breeland is a strong candidate for a bounce-back season: from 2014 to 2017, he tied Casey Hayward and Johnathan Joseph for sixth in pass breakups (64)

    Runner-Up: RB Latavius Murray to the New Orleans Saints 

    The New Orleans Saints allowed running back Mark Ingram to walk; he signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens. The front office replaced him with Latavius Murray on a four-year, $14.4 million pact. Both ball-carriers rumble between the tackles. And although Ingram is a better pass-catcher, Murray's physical run style complements Alvin Kamara at a cheaper price. The 29-year-old averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2018. 

Best Trade: WR Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders

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    DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr. may claim some votes for best wide receiver in the game, but Antonio Brown's recent production presents a legitimate case for the crown.

    Brown led the league in receiving yards (1,533) for 2017 and then logged the most touchdowns among wideouts last year with 15. We'll find out how a new quarterback affects his numbers, but the Oakland Raiders acquired an elite talent for just third- and fifth-round picks. 

    Pittsburgh wanted a first-rounder and Oakland has three going into the draft, but general manager Mike Mayock successfully kept his four picks within the top 35 by starting with No. 66 and working his way back.

    The Raiders received great value in the deal. The acquisition also puts quarterback Derek Carr in the spotlight. If he's able to optimize Brown's talent, it would go a long way toward silencing his critics and quelling the trade buzz around his name. 

    Runner-Up: WR Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland Browns

    The Cleveland Browns also pulled off a splashy deal for an elite wide receiver. General manager John Dorsey gave up first- and third-round picks along with safety Jabrill Peppers to land Beckham. More importantly, quarterback Baker Mayfield will have a top-five wide receiver on the perimeter. Unlike Brown however, Beckham struggled with injuries over the last two seasons, missing 16 games during that span.

Best Offseason: New York Jets

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    New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley
    New York Jets linebacker C.J. MosleyJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Let's see how the new acquisitions pan out before we give Maccagnan another Executive of the Year award. With that said, he's a big winner in free agency. The Jets' transactions significantly help quarterback Sam Darnold.

    The front office added Bell, one of the top active running backs in the league; Crowder, a solid slot receiver; and attached a second-round tender to Robby Anderson, who led the team in receiving yards over the last two seasons.

    Don't overlook the move to swap a fifth-round pick for guard Kelechi Osemele and a sixth-rounder in a trade with the Raiders. He'll clear lanes for Bell on the interior and provide more space for Darnold in the pocket.

    Williams won't have to build his defense with unproven starters in key areas. Maccagnan signed four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and nickelback Brian Poole, who's coming off his best season in coverage with three interceptions and six pass breakups for the Atlanta Falcons. Listed as the runner-up for best re-signing, Henry Anderson should continue to provide pocket pressure up front. 

    The Jets didn't just fill holes, they stacked the roster with quality talent on both sides of the ball. 

    Runner-Up: Buffalo Bills

    The Buffalo Bills stretched their money with less flashy signings, but general manager Brandon Beane made a concerted effort to improve last year's 30th-ranked scoring offense and surround quarterback Josh Allen with compatible skill players and better pass protectors. 

    Wideout Cole Beasley has been a reliable slot option in Dallas. Wide receiver John Brown threatens defenses downfield: In 2018, he averaged 17 yards per catch. Tight end Tyler Kroft fits into the offense as a viable red-zone threat: He caught seven touchdown passes in 16 starts during the 2017 campaign. And running back Frank Gore averaged 4.6 yards per carry through 14 games with the Miami Dolphins last season.

    Buffalo also acquired five offensive linemen: Mitch Morse, Spencer Long, Jon Feliciano, Ty Nsekhe and LaAdrian Waddle. Morse seems like the only lock to start, but the Bills will have strong camp competition across the offensive line, which ranked 23rd in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

    In totality, Buffalo's haul should improve their scoring output next season.

Most Improved: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles
    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick FolesJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The Jets could've won this award as well, but we'll focus on the most improved team based on projected wins and losses. In 2018, the Jaguars finished 5-11 without a firm starter under center. The coaching staff benched Bortles, and Kessler took over the huddle in Week 13. 

    In a quarterback-driven league, an upgrade at the position should precede more victories for the following term. Foles hasn't started a full season in seven years, but he's undoubtedly the starter at his new destination. 

    Foles will also reunite with his former quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who's the Jaguars offensive coordinator. In Minnesota, the play-caller helped guide Kirk Cousins through one of his most productive seasons (4,298 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) before the team fired him in December.

    The Foles-DeFilippo connection may not click like it did during the Eagles' Super Bowl LII run, but the Jaguars could show moderate improvement on offense with a more balanced attack. Jacksonville also maintained key components to its top-five defense in yards and points allowed. Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye still man the boundaries with Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue on the front line, pushing the pocket. 

    The Jaguars won't topple the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South, but the cumulative talent—now with a serviceable quarterback under center—should elevate this squad back into playoff contention.

    Runner-Up: Green Bay Packers 

    Green Bay added three starters on defense: Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and Adrian Amos.

    The Packers can rely on the Smiths to add toughness to the run defense and bring consistency to the outside pass rush. They combined for 12.5 sacks during the 2018 term, despite Preston hurting his sack numbers by frequently dropping back into pass coverage for Washington. He'll likely re-emerge as a disruptor near the pocket in the upcoming season. Amos just finished his best year as a pro with two interceptions and nine pass breakups in Chicago.

    In 2018, Green Bay's defense finished 22nd in points allowed, and Kyler Fackrell became the most reliable edge-rusher. In 2019, quarterback Aaron Rodgers may not need to score 28-plus points for a Packers victory. The defense has the talent to win low-scoring, physical contests. As a result, this team's 6-9-1 record may improve to 10-6 or 11-5 in 2019.