Ranking the Most Significant Upgrades in 2020 NFL Free AgencyMarch 24, 2020
Ranking the Most Significant Upgrades in 2020 NFL Free Agency
There are as many approaches to free agency as there are teams in the NFL.
Some franchises are free-spenders. Others prefer second-tier signings. A handful sift through the bargain bin. Then there are the Houston Texans and whatever the heck they're doing this year.
No matter the strategy, every NFL team has one thing in common this offseason: They all want to get better, whether it's addressing an area of need or making a strength that much stronger.
Some teams have done a much better job of that than others.
Certain squads added a game-changing veteran, whether it was a player who is among the league's best at his position right now or one who may be the best ever to play at his spot.
Other clubs cast a wider net. One of the AFC's best squads overhauled its defensive line with the addition of a pair of potential difference-makers. Another team completely overhauled an offensive line that was among the league's worst in 2019.
Here are the biggest upgrades to date based on the resume of the player(s) acquired and the impact those acquisitions had on their respective teams.
10. Indianapolis Colts Sign Philip Rivers
Jacoby Brissett got off to a solid start last year for the Indianapolis Colts after Andrew Luck's stunning retirement. While it wasn't entirely his fault that the Colts came apart over the second half of last season, he struggled in a big way.
Bringing in an eight-time Pro Bowler in Philip Rivers looks like a huge leap forward for the Colts.
The problem is that the Colts don't know which Rivers they will get.
If Rivers can come anywhere close to recapturing his top form in 2020, the Colts will be the team to beat in the AFC South. He might not have the one-two punch at wide receiver he had in Los Angeles, but a healthy T.Y. Hilton isn't cat food. The Colts have a solid ground game, a significantly improved defense with the addition of DeForest Buckner, and one of the best offensive lines in the AFC—if not all of the NFL.
But the Rivers we saw in 2019 looked like a quarterback careening toward the end of the line. He threw 20 interceptions for the third time in his career and posted his second-lowest passer rating since 2007.
In other words, he's an upgrade in theory, but not necessarily in reality.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Add Tom Brady
Ranking Tom Brady's arrival in Tampa Bay ranked this low will undoubtedly infuriate Buccaneers fans.
But the jury remains out on just how big an upgrade Brady will be over Jameis Winston under center.
Brady isn't going to turn the ball over nearly as often as Winston did. Winston threw 30 interceptions last season and lost five fumbles. Brady has had 35 total turnovers over the last four seasons combined.
However, Brady will turn 43 in August. He's coming off his worst season in terms of passing yards since 2016 and his fewest number of touchdown passes since a torn ACL wiped out his 2008 campaign. His 60.8 completion percentage was his worst since 2013. His 6.6 yards per attempt was his lowest since 2002. And his 88.0 passer rating was his lowest since 2013.
Yes, Brady will have much better passing-game weapons in Tampa Bay than he had in New England last year. But his arm isn't what it used be, and the Bucs' run game and offensive line are both potential weak spots.
The Buccaneers will be better in 2020. But penciling them in as the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium is asking to be disappointed.
8. Los Angeles Chargers Bolster Offensive Line
The Los Angeles Chargers' lackluster offensive line wasn't solely responsible for Philip Rivers' struggles in 2019, but it played a significant role.
That line got quite the boost over the last week.
First, the Chargers acquired guard Trai Turner from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for tackle Russell Okung. It might seem unwise to swap an interior lineman for a tackle, but Okung is 32 and missed 10 games in 2019, while Turner is only 26 and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons.
"It's kind of like a fresh start," Turner said, via Chris Hayre of the team's website. "I get to be in a new facility, new teammates, new coaches, new city. I'm looking at it as like a rejuvenation of my football career."
The Bolts weren't done yet. They also added long-time Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, who ranked 12th among all tackles in ESPN's pass-block win rate last season (91.7 percent), per Gavino Borquez of Chargers Wire.
To say that Bulaga is a clear upgrade over Sam Tevi at right tackle is a bit like saying that a brand-new Camaro is an upgrade over a 1982 Chevette.
The irony is that the Chargers will have a substantially improved offensive line in 2020 protecting stopgap starter Tyrod Taylor. At least until the rookie they draft sixth overall—looking at you, Justin Herbert—takes over midseason.
7. Philadelphia Eagles Trade for Darius Slay
The Philadelphia Eagles came into free agency with a pair of glaring needs at wide receiver and cornerback.
While they'll have to address receiver early in the 2020 draft, they took a major step toward improving a cadre of cornerbacks that was the defense's weakest link in 2019.
According to ESPN's Michael Rothstein, the Eagles traded a third-round pick and fifth-round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for cornerback Darius Slay. The 29-year-old, who has been named to three Pro Bowls over his seven-year career, had 46 tackles, two interceptions and 13 passes defensed in 2019.
Slay said he's thrilled to be joining a winning organization, per Rothstein.
"Oh man, it's a great organization, great guys. I know a couple of guys on the team, man, they talk highly about them. About the organization, about the owners, about everything. From the top down they seem like an amazing organization. I'm looking forward to going out there and trying to help whatever they needing me to do. I want to be a great teammate, as I've always been. Continue to keep competing at a high level as I've always been and I thank the Eagles organization for believing in me and trusting in me to go out there and handle the job they need me to do. I'm looking forward to going out there and competing with them."
The Eagles handed Slay a three-year, $50 million extension as part of the move. But for a defense that was 19th in the league against the pass in 2019, getting a cover man of Slay's caliber was worth the price.
6. New York Jets Overhaul the Offensive Line
The New York Jets' offensive line was downright offensive in 2019.
The Jets allowed 52 sacks, the fourth-most in the league. The line ranked 31st in run blocking and 30th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders.
Given those ugly numbers, it no surprise that the Jets were linked to most of the bigger free-agent offensive linemen. Although they missed out on big names like Jack Conklin, they still improved markedly.
Per Darryl Slater of NJ.com, Jets general manager Joe Douglas went for quantity over quality in free agency.
"Of the five outside free agents signed by Douglas this offseason, four are offensive linemen. Douglas also added left tackle George Fant and center Connor McGovern. Like (guard Greg) Van Roten, they figure to be starters in 2020, though Douglas could draft a tackle at No. 11 next month. Douglas addressed depth on his offensive line, too, by re-signing guard Alex Lewis and adding guard/center Josh Andrews."
Individually, those names don't generate a ton of excitement. But as a group, there's cause for enthusiasm. Fant started seven games in Seattle last year. McGovern started all 16 games for the Denver Broncos in 2019. Van Roten has 27 starts over the last two seasons for the Carolina Panthers.
Add in the potential to add another tackle like Iowa's Tristan Wirfs in the first round this year, and you're talking about a complete overhaul that should offer Sam Darnold a much better chance to succeed in 2020.
5. Miami Dolphins Revamp the Pass Rush
In 2019, the Miami Dolphins were last in the league with only 23 sacks. They also entered free agency with more salary-cap space than any other team, which gave them substantial ammunition to address their pass-rushing deficiency.
It didn't take long for the Dolphins to start opening fire.
They gave 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson a three-year, $30 million deal to leave Buffalo. They gave Emmanuel Ogbah a two-year, $15 million deal after he tied his career high in sacks last year with the Kansas City Chiefs. And Kyle Van Noy hit the jackpot with a four-year, $51 million deal after spending the last three-plus years with the New England Patriots.
The Dolphins may not be finished adding talent to the front seven, either. They still have upward of $40 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap, and have three first-round picks in the 2020 draft after last year's veteran fire sale.
It might behoove the Dolphins to add at least one more pass-rusher. Miami's front seven should be better in 2020, but Van Noy, Lawson and Ogbah combined for only 18.5 sacks last season, and none has ever had a 10-sack season in the pros.
4. Baltimore Ravens Build a Stout Defensive Line
The Baltimore Ravens' defensive line is something of an exception here, as it didn't need to be improved in 2020. They ranked fourth in the NFL last year in total defense and fifth against the run.
But the Ravens didn't just bolster their defensive line in free agency; they installed a turbocharger. Michael Pierce's departure from Baltimore means little since the Ravens added two better players in Michael Brockers and Calais Campbell.
Brockers is coming off the best statistical season of his eight-year NFL career, having set a career high in tackles (63) while adding three sacks. Campbell, who has been widely regarded as one of the league's best defensive ends for years, has 31.5 sacks over the past three seasons and was the Pro Football Writers of America's Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.
As Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun noted, that pair of additions should terrify the rest of the AFC.
"With Campbell, the Ravens got the heart and soul of the Jaguars defense, which is why some nicknamed him 'Mayor of Sacksonville.' The Ravens got a player who has been to the Pro Bowl five times in the past six years for a two-year contract worth $27 million and a fifth-round draft pick. Brockers, 29, is as much of a specimen as Campbell. At 6-5 and 305 pounds, he has consistently been one of the best run-stoppers in the league, collecting more than 50 tackles in each of his past three seasons."
Throw in nose tackle Brandon Williams, and the Ravens have the best three-man front in the NFL.
3. Buffalo Bills Acquire Stefon Diggs
The Buffalo Bills aggressively bolstered their receiving corps in free agency last year, adding vertical threat John Brown and slot receiver Cole Beasley. Those moves paid off, as Brown set career highs in receptions (72) and yardage (1,060), Beasley set career bests across the board and the Bills made the playoffs.
However, the Bills lacked a true No. 1 receiver—a go-to pass-catcher who strikes fear into the hearts of opposing defenses.
They don't lack one anymore.
The Bills shipped a package of picks (including No. 22 overall this year) to the Minnesota Vikings in return for sixth-year wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The 26-year-old reeled in 63 passes last year for a career-high 1,130 yards and six scores for the Vikings in 2019.
Despite those robust numbers, Diggs grew unhappy as his role decreased in Minnesota's run-heavy offense. After catching 102 passes and being targeted 149 times in 2018, Diggs was targeted just 94 times last year. But as his average of almost 18 yards per catch demonstrates, Diggs remains dangerous down the field.
Diggs' arrival doesn't just give Josh Allen a proven primary weapon in the passing game. It's going to have a trickle-down effect. Doubling up Brown or Beasley is essentially out of the question now. Like Brown, Diggs is more than capable of beating opponents over the top.
And with that pair and a cannon-armed quarterback in Allen, there are some long days coming for deep safeties in the AFC East.
2. Las Vegas Raiders Fortify the Linebackers
The Raiders were a disaster last year defensively. Only the Miami Dolphins had a lower defensive efficiency rating at Football Outsiders.
There were multiple reasons for those struggles, but the Raiders boasted one of the league's weakest groups of linebackers. That isn't the case anymore.
The Raiders started their linebacker renovation by signing Nick Kwiatkoski to a three-year, $21 million deal. This will be Kwiatkoski's first opportunity to be a full-time starter, but the fifth-year pro started 22 games in Chicago, including eight in 2019. He doesn't possess elite range, but he's a smart, tough player who has shown he can hold down the middle of a defense.
The Raiders weren't done there, as they also signed Cory Littleton to a three-year, $35.25 million deal. As Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic noted, Littleton's coverage skills and athleticism will be welcome on the weak side of the Las Vegas defense.
"Littleton can match up with tight ends, cover and tackle in space. He has five interceptions, 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Littleton has never missed a game due to injury, and only five players have more tackles than him over the past two seasons. He'll be just 26 at the start of next season. In my opinion, Littleton was the top off-ball linebacker available on the open market."
The Raiders need to keep bolstering their defense, but their linebackers are exponentially better than they were at this point a year ago.
1. Arizona Cardinals Steal DeAndre Hopkins
The wide receiver position wasn't the Arizona Cardinals' biggest area of need entering free agency. They could have taken advantage of a loaded wideout class in Round 1 of the draft this year.
The Cardinals apparently didn't feel like waiting that long.
Arizona pulled off perhaps the single most stunning move of free agency, flipping oft-injured tailback David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans for superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick. Although the trade shocked fans and pundits alike, it delighted Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
"To have a young quarterback, a guy you're trying to build things around and bring in a piece like (Hopkins) is huge," Kingsbury said, via Darren Urban of the team's website. "Everything I have ever heard about the guy has been top notch, his work ethic, his toughness. To add him to the roster, we couldn't be more pleased."
The addition of Hopkins completely remakes Arizona's receiving corps. In four of the last five seasons, Hopkins has caught at least 95 passes and topped 1,100 yards. In three of those five seasons, Hopkins piled up double-digit touchdown catches. In two of those seasons, he topped 1,500 receiving yards.
If Hopkins isn't the NFL's best overall receiver, he's on the short list. By adding him to a receiving corps that already included promising youngster Christian Kirk and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have given Kyler Murray one of the league's best sets of passing-game weapons.
All contract information via Spotrac, unless otherwise noted.