NFL Teams That Crushed It in 2020 Free Agency
A strong free-agency haul doesn't necessarily equate to regular-season wins, but it puts teams in a position to change their outlooks for the following year and beyond.
This offseason, multiple clubs pulled off big-time trades, using draft capital as assets in deals to swing for the fences. By and large, teams that acquired notable playmakers should reap early benefits from the blockbuster transactions.
Most front-office executives spread their money to fill roster voids, and a few general managers allowed themselves immense draft flexibility to fill several holes on the depth chart. They have the freedom to shake up April's selection process with surprising picks within the top 10.
Before we pivot into full draft mode, we've ranked five squads that crushed free agency with shrewd signings and trade acquisitions set to have an immediate impact.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Before free agency kicked off, most teams, whether interested in Tom Brady or not, wanted to know where he'd sign this offseason. Initially, Tampa Bay seemed like an unrealistic landing spot for the six-time Super Bowl champion. Well, anything is possible once a team pushes all of its chips to the middle of the table.
According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the Buccaneers were "all-in" on Brady. The club deserves major credit for signing its coveted target. The 42-year-old signal-caller is at the end of his playing career, but he immediately elevates the NFC South club into the playoff discussion.
In 2019, with quarterback Jameis Winston throwing 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, the Buccaneers offense ranked third in scoring. Assuming Brady commits fewer turnovers, Tampa Bay should have a more efficient offensive attack.
Brady will play with a strong supporting cast. He has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the perimeter—both wideouts had at least 1,150 receiving yards last year. The offense also features a solid duo at tight end in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Running back Ronald Jones II racked up 1,033 yards from scrimmage (724 rushing and 309 receiving) in 2019.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Buccaneers will likely remain stout against the run with Ndamukong Suh on another one-year contract. Tampa Bay had the stingiest group against ground attacks, giving up the least number of rushing yards (73.8) in 2019.
The Buccaneers didn't crush free agency with volume, but Brady moves the needle. He changes their expectations. Now, the squad is a potential contender after missing the postseason for 12 consecutive campaigns.
4. Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals executed a trade that bears two benefits. They acquired star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and unloaded running back David Johnson's albatross contract that carries an $11.2 million cap hit for 2020 and $18.3 million in dead cash, per Spotrac.
Furthermore, the Cardinals didn't have to toss in the eighth overall pick to sweeten the deal. Along with Johnson, Arizona sent its second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-rounder to land Hopkins and a fourth-round selection.
Next season, quarterback Kyler Murray will have a three-time All-Pro wide receiver in his prime. Over the last three seasons, Hopkins has recorded at least 96 catches and 1,165 receiving yards in each term.
The Cardinals also addressed multiple issues within their front seven, specifically the linebacker corps and the pass rush.
In 2019, Arizona ranked 22nd in quarterback pressures (136) and tied for 17th in sacks (40). Linebacker Haason Reddick, a 2017 first-rounder, lost his starting job to Joe Walker six weeks into the season. The latter signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers during free agency.
Devon Kennard and De'Vondre Campbell will shore up the outside and inside linebacker spots, respectively.
Last season, Kennard and defensive end Trey Flowers led the Detroit Lions defense with seven sacks apiece. Campbell can play multiple linebacker positions, but he'll likely man the spot alongside Jordan Hicks on the inside.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips registered 9.5 sacks in the last term, leading the Buffalo Bills pass rush. He'll have a chance to build upon a breakout season in a prominent role on the Cardinals front. The 27-year-old signed a lucrative three-year, $30 million deal.
When the league releases team schedules, the Cardinals may have a prime-time game or two with their new recognizable quarterback-wide receiver tandem. The defense could make strides after allowing the most yards and ranking 28th in scoring for the 2019 campaign.
The Cardinals' big acquisition for a player still in his prime elevates them over the Patriots for the No. 4 spot.
3. Buffalo Bills
The Arizona Cardinals pulled off arguably the biggest trade during free agency, acquiring wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. With that said, we can't overlook what the Buffalo Bills did in addition to their blockbuster deal, which netted wideout Stefon Diggs.
The Bills added several players on defense who should be ready to contribute Week 1 because of their familiarity with head coach Sean McDermott. Even if we exclude cornerback Josh Norman, whom the team signed before the official start of free agency, Buffalo picked up three former Carolina Panthers defenders connected to its lead skipper.
Linebacker A.J. Klein, defensive tackle Vernon Butler and edge-rusher Mario Addison have all played under McDermott in Carolina. They also fill roster needs.
The Bills lost their sack leader in Jordan Phillips, who signed with the Cardinals. Coming off his best season with six sacks and seven tackles for loss, Butler could provide an impact with interior pressure.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander retired, which opens up some snaps on the second level of the defense. At the same position, Klein started 42 out of 43 contests for the New Orleans Saints over the last three seasons, logging 193 tackles, 18 for loss, nine pass breakups and two interceptions. Going into his age-29 term, he should have a lot left in the tank.
Addison is one of the most underrated additions across the league. Since 2016, he's 11th in sacks with 39. The 32-year-old has blossomed into a consistent pocket pusher, registering 51.5 sacks over the last six campaigns. Under McDermott, the pass-rusher found a steady role on the edge in Carolina.
Don't forget, the Bills also signed former Panthers offensive lineman Daryl Williams, who can provide depth at tackle and guard.
In 2019, the Bills defense ranked third overall and second in scoring. McDermott's rapport with several newcomers should help the team field another stingy unit. Now, with Diggs coming off back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons, he'll elevate the 23rd-ranked scoring offense on a balanced roster.
The Bills' additions on defense should have a seamless transition under McDermott, which increases the probability of an immediate impact. That aspect gives Buffalo the third spot.
2. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos acquired two Pro Bowlers, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye, via trade in separate deals. Those additions cover the losses of interior tackle Derek Wolfe and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., respectively.
Furthermore, Bouye is better-suited to line up on the perimeter than Harris, who's going to man the slot for the Los Angeles Chargers. Denver can use cornerback Bryce Callahan on the inside exclusively. For most of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, he lined up in that position under head coach Vic Fangio, his defensive coordinator in Chicago.
The Broncos only gave up a seventh-round pick for Casey, which is a steal for a defensive tackle with at least five sacks in seven consecutive terms who's earned Pro Bowl invites in each of the previous five campaigns.
Denver also upgraded at center. The front office signed Graham Glasgow, who allowed zero sacks last year, to replace Connor McGovern, a three-year veteran who allowed 3.5 sacks in 2019, per Stats (via the Washington Post).
The club re-signed Shelby Harris. The 28-year-old versatile defensive lineman logged six sacks, eight tackles for loss and nine pass breakups last season.
Offensively, the Broncos have a two-man backfield with a new lead ball-carrier. According to NFL Network's James Palmer, running back Melvin Gordon will be the bell-cow running back in Denver.
Behind an offensive line that ranked 11th in run blocking last season, per Football Outsiders, the Broncos should field a strong ground attack with Gordon and Phillip Lindsay.
Denver has a rushing offense capable of grinding down its division rival and reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs twice a year. The defense is built to make quarterback Patrick Mahomes work for his yards. He'll see pressure up front with Casey and Harris on the interior. Bouye can limit his receivers downfield.
The Broncos executed two separate deals for Pro Bowlers who are 30 years old or younger, filled holes and strengthened their ground attack with an upgrade at center and a new lead ball-carrier. Overall, that's a slightly more impressive group than the Bills' free-agent haul, which features two standouts (wideout Stefon Diggs and edge-rusher Mario Addison) and multiple glue guys for the defense.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
The Denver Broncos weren't the only AFC West team with strong moves during free agency. Other than a question mark on the future at quarterback with Tyrod Taylor taking over for Philip Rivers, the Los Angeles Chargers don't have any glaring roster voids.
According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, left tackle Russell Okung was "skeptical" of the team's direction and his future in Los Angeles. The Chargers traded him to the Carolina Panthers for five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner.
The team signed right tackle Bryan Bulaga to strengthen the pass protection on the perimeter following Okung's departure and another rough campaign from Sam Tevi, who's allowed 11.5 sacks over the past two seasons, per Stats (via the Washington Post).
The club used the franchise tag to keep tight end Hunter Henry and extended new lead running back Austin Ekeler on a four-year, $24.5 million contract.
Defensively, interior tackle Linval Joseph could bolster the Chargers' run defense, which ranked 18th last year and gave up 15 touchdowns (21st). He recorded 44 tackles, 26 solo, and six for loss in 2019.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. drew interest from multiple clubs, per Troy Renck of Denver7 ABC. He joins a secondary that's already loaded with talent, featuring All-Pro safety Derwin James, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward, the team's 2019 interception leader Rayshawn Jenkins and versatile defensive back Desmond King.
Because of the Chargers' balanced roster, general manager Tom Telesco has plenty of options with the sixth overall selection. He can pick a quarterback to learn behind Taylor, a tackle to line up opposite Bulaga or choose the best available player on the team's draft board regardless of position.
They would not have had that much flexibility without nailing free agency.