We aren’t completely finished with free agency. There are still a handful of star players available and a bunch of solid starters and role players, i.e. the signings that will probably end up making the biggest difference when the actual 2018 season starts. But we have been through enough of the offseason to crown this year’s offseason champs.
Congratulations, Browns! You finally won something.
These rankings represent the informed opinion of our staff about which teams have done the most to improve this spring, and not something like which teams are most apt to win the Super Bowl (see Browns, Cleveland).
1. Cleveland Browns
No team has had a better run through free agency than the Browns. They snagged an above-average quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) to be their bridge guy, an outstanding possession receiver (Jarvis Landry), better cornerbacks, and more. And they still have the first and fourth picks in the draft.
We can’t wait to see how Hue Jackson manages to turn this into a 4-12 season (which would at least be an improvement over last year).
Michael Bennett’s right — Philadelphia’s defensive line really is the best in the NFL. Not only did the Eagles get Bennett from the Seahawks for a song, they also added Haloti Ngata on a one-year deal. They didn’t stop there. They swapped Torrey Smith, almost certain to be a cap casualty, to the Panthers for cornerback Daryl Worley, solid depth for the secondary. Linebacker Nigel Bradham got a five-year extension too.
Kirk Cousins was the grand prize of free agency, as weird as that is to say. Minnesota got its quarterback, for a fully guaranteed $84 million deal. The Vikings better make the Super Bowl, or Cousins’ contract is going to invite serious criticism.
Adding Sheldon Richardson to the defensive line helps them keep pace with the Eagles.
New York had a ton of cap space to work with and used it wisely. When the Jets didn’t land their white whale, Kirk Cousins, they still managed to add a top cornerback, Trumaine Johnson, and underrated linebacker Avery Williamson. Quarterback is still likely a work in progress, but they certain addressed it — and likely will again after trading for the No. 3 pick. They brought back Josh McCown and added Teddy Bridgewater is a safe, low-risk way to make sure the position is set in 2018 and possibly adds a long-term option, too.
The Rams did most of their work the week before free agency, trading for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and slapping the tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner. That’s one helluva secondary, the kind Wade Phillips can leave on their own while Aaron Donald and the defensive line tear things up. Oh, and they might have a chance to sign Ndamukong Suh.
Another narrow Super Bowl loss and a whole lot of talk about dysfunction in the locker room and in the front office isn’t going to change the fact the Patriots are among the most consistent teams in football, and they should be viewed as such until the precise moment it’s proven otherwise. New England’s biggest moves for the new league year were all trades, as they acquired cornerback Jason McCourty (a nice replacement for Malcolm Butler), defensive tackle Danny Sheldon, and wide receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson.
They also re-signed two key special team players: Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner. The Belichickian Way.
Mitchell Trubisky didn’t have much help as a rookie — Kendall Wright led the team in receiving yards with 614. No wide receiver on the Bears even had more than one touchdown. So Chicago remedied that by signing Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton. Adding receivers a year after drafting a quarterback is a strategy that worked for the Eagles and Rams, so the Bears were wise to follow suit.
The biggest changes the Texans will see in 2018 will — hopefully — be no injuries to second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and defenders J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. But in addition to those returns, the Texans addressed two of their biggest concerns, the offensive line and secondary.
Tackle Seantrel Henderson and guards Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete were added to help protect Watson. Houston also brought in two quality defenders: cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Tyrann Mathieu. The latter signing is much higher profile and could really push the Texans over the top.
Drew Brees was never going anywhere else, and the Saints made some positive strides in free agency to strengthen the team for another run or two at the Super Bowl. That includes signing defensive starters in linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Patrick Robinson, and safety Kurt Coleman. The Saints have been staring at their window potentially closing off and on for years, but it seems open, for now.
10. Denver Broncos
Last season, the Broncos started Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. In 2018, they’ll upgrade from the Cerberus of underthrown passes to Case Keenum, a player who ranked seventh in the league in passing efficiency last season. That alone makes them a winner. And while losing a still-effective, but expensive Aqib Talib to trade hurt, bringing Tramaine Brock over from Minnesota alongside Keenum should help. Brock isn’t a one-for-one replacement for Talib, but he’s just a year removed from being a useful starter with the 49ers.
The Steelers will pay a whole lot of money to keep Le’Veon Bell around for at least another season, but the most important part of that franchise tag isn’t the amount, it’s Bell’s talent: he’s really, really good. They also released Mike Mitchell, replacing him with a quality safety in Morgan Burnett, and brought in versatile linebacker Jon Bostic. They remain a strong team going into 2018.
Jimmy Graham may finally give them the tight end they’ve been pining after since Jermichael Finley’s prime, and Muhammad Wilkerson should help address some of their defensive problems. However, the secondary still has significant question marks that weren’t helped when Green Bay traded starting cornerback Damarious Randall to the Browns in exchange for DeShone Kizer.
13. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo officially ended the Tyrod Taylor era a year after unofficially ending it, shipping the Pro Bowl quarterback to Cleveland in exchange for a third-round pick. They then made moves to ensure Nathan Peterman isn’t their only option behind center by signing AJ McCarron toward an inexpensive, two-year, $10 million contract to push the 2014 fifth-round draft pick this summer. They also shipped Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati in order to move up from the 21st to 12th pick in this year’s draft — a pick that, paired with their 22nd pick, could net a solid QB prospect via trade to the top of the first round.
But that’s not all. The Bills kept Kyle Williams in town for one more year, then added his replacement with Star Lotulelei — one of the best defensive tackles on the market. Trent Murphy will add some thump to the linebacker corps. And Chris Ivory, uh, got a two-year deal despite being washed. (All right, they weren’t all winners.)
14. Tennessee Titans
The Titans got burned by Dion Lewis last year, so they went ahead and signed him. The running back market is weird and some will say they overpaid, but the pairing of Lewis and Derrick Henry is the exact definition of a two-pronged, keep-them-off-balance attack. Lewis has a lot to prove, but so does their other big signing: cornerback Malcolm Butler, formerly of the Patriots and notable for being benched in the last Super Bowl for reasons that are still quite unclear. Tennessee is on the up-and-up.
15. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers extended quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo before free agency opened — giving him the richest contract in the NFL, but also getting in before a slew of big contracts were signed. From there, they managed to bring in Richard Sherman, and negotiated a very team-friendly deal for what they believe is still one of the premium cornerbacks in the NFL. Add a young starting center in Weston Richburg and Kyle Shanahan’s newest “offensive weapon” in Jerick McKinnon, and San Francisco has a lot of reason for optimism in 2018.
Losing long-time left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency last year was a huge setback for the offense. Recognizing that that Andy Dalton needs a wall around him, they traded with the Bills to get Cordy Glenn, smart move. They kept Tyler Eifert on a cheapie deal, and if he can finally get healthy, it’s a steal. Matt Barkley is the new backup QB, so that’s a strike against them.
The Chargers have had some good luck picking up offensive linemen, and after a very quiet first few days of free agency (Virgil Green and Caleb Sturgis, anybody?), they signed Mike Pouncey, formerly of the Dolphins. That should work out great for them, and is probably one of the better signings (and contracts) of the free agency period ... period. The offensive line was the biggest concern, and they addressed it well. Safety remains a concern, however.
Adding Andrew Norwell to the middle of the offensive line was a big coup for the Jaguars, and the biggest reason the team isn’t lower. But most of Jacksonville’s moves were designed around giving Blake Bortles an upgraded group of weapons — and it’s possible it was a complete swing and miss.
Gone are Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Marcedes Lewis. The replacements are Donte Moncrief, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Niles Paul. It would’ve been expensive to keep Robinson, but it’s tough to say Bortles’ options got better.
19. New York Giants
Rebuilding the offensive line is Dave Gettleman’s first priority and adding Nate Solder is a good start — especially because it means Ereck Flowers will move to the right side, potentially fixing both left and right tackle. But the middle of the offensive line needs more work than ever, now that Weston Richburg, Justin Pugh, and D.J. Fluker all left. It’s also puzzling the Giants opted to sign Jonathan Stewart, a declining, 31-year-old running back who is years removed from his best football.
The offseason’s been a mixed bag for the Chiefs. They dealt Alex Smith, a capable starter they were ready to move on from, to Washington for a third-round pick and a starting cornerback, Kendall Fuller. But they got fleeced, or maybe they were just in too much of a hurry to deal Marcus Peters.
Sammy Watkins adds a bona fide No. 1 receiver to an already loaded offense, but they still have huge gaps on the defensive side of the ball.
21. Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco just had the worst season of his career, so Baltimore’s response has been to beef up his receiving corps ... with an aging Michael Crabtree and John Brown, who caught 38 percent of his targets with the Cardinals last fall. Those guys technically fill a need, so it could be worse, right?
22. Oakland Raiders
John Gruden began his first offseason back in the NFL with a vow to take football back to 1998. If moving backwards is the goal, the Raiders are off to a good start. Their biggest free agent move was replacing Michael Crabtree with an older Jordy Nelson. Don’t overlook the mass exodus in the secondary. They lost David Amerson, T.J. Carrie, and Sean Smith. Among their replacements, Rashaan Melvin from the Colts offers the most promise.
23. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are probably still a playoff-level team, but they have serious consistency issues, and lost one of the best guards in the NFL, Andrew Norwell, to the Jaguars in free agency. They re-signed Julius Peppers, who is still playing extremely well, and also brought in Dontari Poe. Ron Rivera wants the Panthers want to be a defensive-led team, and their free agency reflects this. They did make a really sketchy move by trading a perfectly good starting cornerback in Daryl Worley to the Eagles in exchange for Torrey Smith, an underperforming receiver who is presumably there to catch overthrown passes and not much else.
24. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons weren’t enamored with this year’s crop of free agents, and it shows. The only move they’ve made through the first week of the open market is to bring guard Brandon Fusco to shore up Matt Ryan’s protection. That’s helpful, but they’ll have to hope for a solid draft crop to make up for their early losses — namely wideout Taylor Gabriel and defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn.
25. Detroit Lions
LeGarrette Blount is at the age where him suddenly becoming ineffective wouldn’t be surprising, but for now it seems like a smart pickup for a Lions team that was completely incapable of running the ball in 2017. Unfortunately, they also lost some key pieces, including Tahir Whitehead and Eric Ebron. They also failed to sign Haloti Ngata, and signed DeShawn Shead. In other words: they’ll probably be about middle-of-the-pack again.
26. Washington NFL team
Swapping Cousins out and Smith in won’t be much of a downgrade in 2018, but Smith will be 34 this season and came at the expense of a third-round pick and a useful cornerback in Kendall Wright. Four other free agents left behind Cousins, including starters Spencer Long and Trent Murphy. After Smith, the team’s biggest addition was Paul Richardson, who got a five-year, $40 million deal after a breakout 2017 ... pairing an emerging deep-ball threat with an aging quarterback who, up until last year, has struggled to make big plays through the air.
The Bucs didn’t garner many headlines during free agency, for better and for worse: Fitzmagic returns as a solid backup to Jameis Winston (and a good locker room presence). Brent Grimes, who isn’t slowing down as he enters his mid-30s, is also back. Signing center Ryan Jensen could be their best moves, but he’s also only had one season as a full-time starter.
Yet, they didn’t do much to boost their biggest flaw last year: their lack of sack production. The Eagles were trying to unload Vinny Curry for a long time until they finally just released him. Beau Allen has great hair, but he’s not going to get after the quarterback.
28. Seattle Seahawks
It’s hard to gauge the Seahawks at this point. On one hand, they missed the playoffs in 2017 and on that same hand, they parted ways with a whole lot of players responsible for their success in year’s past. On the other hand, Pete Carroll has done more good than bad in Seattle, and the Ed Dickson signing is a sneaky-good one for Russell Wilson. The Seahawks still have plenty of great players and a competent coaching staff, but are they definitively battling with the Cardinals to stay out of the NFC West basement in 2018?
29. Indianapolis Colts
The only reason the Colts aren’t last is because they managed to trade down from the No. 3 spot in the draft and got the No. 6 pick, two second-round picks, and a 2019 second-round pick from the Jets in return.
Otherwise, what did they do? Not much. They took risks to get Andrew Luck some weapons: Ryan Grant, who failed (?) his physical with the Ravens, and tight Eric Ebron. Who knows, maybe the former first-round pick will rebound after a disappointing career in Detroit. They also curiously jettisoned defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins — just 25 and still really good.
It’s clear the Colts are going to build through the draft this year. At least they’ve got the picks to do it.
30. Dallas Cowboys
Well, they kept DeMarcus Lawrence by using the franchise tag, which was hugely important. Other than that that, the Cowboys have ... uh, well, traded for a fullback and released Orlando Scandrick, who then signed with a rival.
The Cowboys don’t have much cap space, even after Travis Frederick restructured his contract. Maybe it’s all about the second wave of free agency?
31. Miami Dolphins
The biggest moves the Dolphins made were focused on freeing up salary cap space, but they didn’t spend much of it after doing so. Their biggest signing was to bring in receiver Albert Wilson, who should be a good fit but isn’t exactly a franchise-changing player. They also signed Danny Amendola, and seem primed to try and change their fortunes with a slew of slot receivers. They used the franchise tag on Jarvis Landry and then traded him to the Browns for fourth- and seventh-round picks. Does one Wilson and one Amendola equal one Landry? Probably not.
32. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona cut ties with Mathieu in order to be able to afford at $20 million deal to replace knee injury magnet Carson Palmer with knee injury magnet Sam Bradford. Backing him up with be human scarecrow Mike Glennon (two years, $8 million). Hopefully Larry Fitzgerald is content with catching eight-yard slants for the rest of his career.