The winners and losers of free agency

Now that a large portion of free agency is wrapped up (though I’m still interested to see where Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Hankins wind up), it’s time to hand out the oh so infamous “Winners” and “Losers” tags.

The Winners

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Tampa did an excellent job of helping out the best players already on its roster. The addition of DeSean Jackson will force teams to opt between rolling their coverage over toward Mike Evans — leaving Jackson 1-on-1 — or toward Jackson himself, leaving Evans — possibly the league’s best jump ball receiver — to battle against an individual defensive back.

Adding depth on its defensive line was a must. Chris Baker, who joined from Washington, is going to make life much easier for Gerald McCoy and Noah Spence. Baker is a tenacious and powerful player. Politely, he’s a nuisance. He’s going to work over whichever lineman he lines up across from, and will help make McCoy damn near unblockable on early downs.

The outpouring of cash and the length of some deals are concern. But the team is improved on-the-field, and that constitutes a win.

Denver Broncos — It wouldn’t have taken much for John Elway to land the Broncos on this list: Add a competent offensive lineman or two and the first stage of free agency would be deemed a success.

Elway did just that.

The addition of Ronald Leary is as good a player-to-scheme fit as you could find in free agency, if Denver continues to run their outside-zone/stretch based run-game. Leary has experience in just that offense, excelling in a scheme that asks linemen to first move laterally rather than push up field.

Elsewhere, they added Domata Peko and Zach Kerr and much needed bulk to a defensive front that, though littered with talented individuals against the run, could not contain runners as well as they would have hoped in 2016.

Tennessee Titans — Tennessee once again showed interesting restraint in free agency.

Not handing out big money to aging stars is a smart strategy. However, the Titans are now in danger of missing their “Russell Wilson Window” — having a top-tier quarterback on a rookie deal, allowing the team to sign veteran free agents, stagger their contracts and load up on impact talent before needing to commit $20 million-plus to the quarterback spot.

Titans general manager Jon Robinson would likely argue they’re building from the ground up by focusing on the draft. Again, that has merit. But I can’t help but feel like not taking a gamble on a front-loaded A.J. Bouye deal was a missed opportunity.

However, Robinson did dole out some smart money.

Adding cornerback Logan Ryan was one of the best free-agent signings anywhere. In an era where opposing offenses are running an expansive number of formations, and constantly moving prior to the snap (shifts and motions), having cornerbacks who can line-up inside or outside — allowing the defense to limit communication and thus the potential for miscommunication — is an extraordinarily valuable skill. Ryan perfectly fits the Titans zone-blitz heavy defense. He can line up in any spot and make plays anywhere on the field.

Jacksonville Jaguars — It’s easy to come out on top of free agency when you’ve stunk for years, have a ton of cash and get free reign to add good players. Having said that, I like the job the new Jacksonville brain trust has done so far.

Just thinking of Bouye and Jalen Ramsey in a new press-man system gives me hot flushes. The pair of them have a chance to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Bouye has rare instincts. His understanding of route combinations is advanced, allowing him to consistently undercut throws and make plays on the ball. His 2016 season came from out of nowhere, but the traits he showed weren’t athletic-based flukes; he’s the real deal. Now it’s up to new defensive coordinator Todd Walsh to harness talent where many of of his predecessors have failed.

Calais Campbell was the other big signing, he’ll make life easier for every defensive player. He’s one of the league’s top run defenders — inside or outside — and can generate pressure on the quarterback from any spot in any front.

The signing of Barry Church went under the radar. He doesn’t do anything at an extremely high level, but he does everything well. He represents incremental change, as the Jaguars look to get slightly better at each position on the field (Church is a more well-rounded and better player than the outgoing Jonathan Cyprien).

New England Patriots — Bill Belichick continues to keep the Patriots juggernaut rolling.

I delved deep into each transaction on a recent podcast with SB Nation’s Pete Rogers, and detailed the impact that Brandin Cooks will have on their offense here.

The “I Don’t Knows”

Detroit Lions — I think I love what the Lions did. They added Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang to their offensive line for less money than the outgoing pair of Reily Reiff and Larry Warford (am I talking myself into this?). On paper, they now have one of the most talented units in the NFL (side note: Taylor Decker was extraordinary in his rookie year and didn’t receive anywhere near the same level of praise as his former Ohio State teammates Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa). But offensive lines don’t play on paper. More than any other unit, they rely on continuity — it allows teams to know which concepts are successful, where to tweak concepts,and where to move the launching point to help make plays more successful.

The process for figuring all that out starts again for Jim Bob Cooter, Matt Stafford and the Lions offense.

Stafford had an excellent year last season. He was given greater command of the offense than he’s ever had before, responding with his best overall season.

Here’s hoping the talent upgrade is more impactful than the loss of continuity.

San Francisco 49ers — The 49ers were certainly the most active players in free agency. But there’s one key question: Did they get much better?

I like some of John Lynch’s moves: Identifying and going hard after Pierre Garcon and Kyle Juszczyk. I dislike others: I don’t understand handing a real contract to Malcolm Smith when his skill-set is regularly found in late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents.

Overall, if you scored each move based on the talent of the player and the contract, the Niners would be in the plus column. However, I’m not sure if their team is that much better than they were before. Some smart moves, but not greatly impactful ones.

The Losers

Chicago Bears — I like a lot of what Ryan Pace and John Fox pulled off in free agency. They wound up with a ton of value at important positions, including a Prince Amukamara contract that is a flat-out steal. However, their free agency period boils down to this: The Mike Glennon contract will wind up getting everyone in the building fired. It sounds cold, but that’s the reality.

Front offices and coaching staffs are often judged primarily by who they put their trust in at quarterback. I don’t know if there was a better choice out there, but Glennon isn’t the answer. He delivers a nice ball, and can make every throw from within a clean pocket. The issue comes when he’s asked to make throws under fire. Get him off-platform, and he becomes a mess. His mechanics become sloppy and his decision making borderline awful. It’s possible he’s grown some in his couple of years as a backup, but not to the extent Chicago needs.

Dallas Cowboys — Dallas had one job: Find an edge rusher. That guy may come in the draft, but it’s unlikely that any rookie they find can make a championship-level impact in their first year. Instead, the Cowboys sat back and watched impactful players walk out the door, while replacing them with very little. They swapped out Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr for Nolan Carroll, which I’m not sure is an upgrade. When you’re signing a player from a team who needs guys at that position, and they don’t compete to re-sign them (and they have more cap room/flexibility), it’s a red flag.

The losses of Ronald Leary (to Denver) and Doug Free (who retired) also hurt. La’El Collins should be able to step in and adequately replace Leary, but they’ll be searching for a competent starter at tackle.

Cincinnati Bengals — Remember a couple of years ago when the Bengals ran two-deep with starter level talent all over the field. Man, that feels like a lifetime ago.

Cincy has experienced more talent and brain drain than any organization in recent memory. They’ve lost a slew of talented coordinators and position coaches: Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer, Vance Joseph and Hue Jackson just to name a few, and have lost key contributors to its offense in back-to-back years — Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones a year ago, and now Kevin Zeitler (one of the best interior football players walking the earth) and Andrew Whitworth this year. (On a side note: the Bengals terminology and teaching mechanics along their offensive line is different than almost every team in the league. I’m not so sure that Whitworth — who has only played in Cincinnati — will be the same player in L.A., given his age, the learning curve, and having received his money up front).

It feels like a make-or-break year for Marvin Lewis. And it’s started out poorly.

Green Bay Packers — I don’t know what Ted Thompson is doing. For years now, they’ve espoused their holier-than-thou “draft and develop” philosophy, as though no one else is attempting to develop the guys they draft, and as if it’s served them winning championships (when you have HOF quarterbacks back-to-back, you’re going to win a ton of games. How about signing some impact veteran free agents that help win titles?).

Given those beliefs, this free agent period was just bizarre. Green Bay appears to have drafted, developed and then let players go play their prime years elsewhere. Micah Hyde will be an impact loss — more detail here — and JC Tretter — who left to the Browns — looked like the ideal replacement for the recent interior losses of Lang and Josh Sitton. Alas, it was not to be.

It’s OK though, because this new philosophy of letting guys entering their prime, or still in their prime — Casey Heyward, Sitton, Lang, Hyde, Tretter, Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy, et al. — walk, was because of a new-found belief to shop at the top-end of the market, or grab some impact players with experience, right? Nope.

Once again it appears the Packers are going to rely on inexperience to try to help them win Super Bowls. It won’t.

Thompson continues to waste away some of the greatest years of quarterback play we will ever see from Aaron Rodgers with a less than impressive supporting cast

Originally published at www.all22.com on March 22, 2017.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.