Spending in the spring simply for the sake of spending is frivolous. Measured moves that ideally align a team’s greatest needs with the strengths and weaknesses of free agency and the draft shows good foresight.
Today our goal is to shine a light not on which clubs spent the most in free agency, but the ones that have spent the most wisely, simultaneously improving their roster while maximizing their draft flexibility.
A couple quick reminders before we begin: The draft’s greatest strengths are on the edges up front on both sides of the ball, along the interior defensively and at tight end. There’s also plenty of depth at receiver and safety. Conversely, it’s slim pickings at quarterback, interior offensive line, inside linebackers and at corner.
And in the NFL in 2019, the opening of the league year now marks both the start of free agency and trading season. Trading has never been a more viable alternative, and the smart teams have caught on to the fact that a trade can't cost future compensatory picks but can actually help earn them. For instance, when a club acquires a player in a contract year, he plays well and earns a lucrative deal elsewhere the following season, that team just reaped the benefits twofold: The production that helped that player become a compensatory free agent and potentially a draft pick the following year.
Here are the five teams (in original 2019 NFL draft order) with the best free-agent approaches relative to their needs and draft outlook:
No team has been busier, but unlike, say, the Raiders and Jets, Arizona has attacked a ton of its biggest needs without going cap crazy. Welcoming Terrell Suggs and Darius Philon struck a nice defensive balance of vet experience with continued production (Suggs) outside and underrated but still loads of untapped potential (Philon) from the interior. Whether you had EDGE or DT first or second on the list of needs to begin the offseason, Keim attacked both with impressive results.
We had receiver behind DL/EDGE, and it's arguably the only one of the Cardinals' needs still requiring a lot more attention, with only ex-Bears first-round flameout Kevin White new to the mix.
But the Cardinals capably filled their long-burnable CB2 spot opposite Patrick Peterson with vets Robert Alford and Tramaine Brock, and added two starters up front in a trade with Pittsburgh for RT Marcus Gilbert and signing OG J.R. Sweezy.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the Kyler Murray vs. Josh Rosen debate, and we'd be lying if we said we're not still trying to wrap our arms around the idea of bypassing Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams for Murray. When was the last time a team drafted top-10 QBs in consecutive years? It's almost unfathomable.
Until we not only hear Goodell announce Murray as the first overall pick but see the return on Rosen, we'll reserve our final judgment.
After the mass OL turnover last offseason and trade for Josh Allen, who as a rookie ran frequently for his life behind an awful line, we're good with splurging on 27-year-old C Mitch Morse and the additional signings of experienced OGs Spencer Long and Quinton Spain and OT LaAdrian Waddle. And similarly to the offensive line, we understand the decisions to sign John Brown and Cole Beasley. Receiver was Buffalo's biggest need after blockers and another dicey position to expect immediate rookie results. Smoke's speed and Cole's slot chops should mesh well with Allen and play caller Brian Daboll.
Throw in a low-risk investment on a former first-rounder in CB Kevin Johnson, who reunites with his first NFL position coach, Bills DBs instructor John Butler; a strong veteran addition in RB Frank Gore to pair with LeSean McCoy; and the re-signing of talented DT Jordan Phillips, whom Buffalo pushed the right buttons with following his mid-season arrival, and we already see the makings of a much-improved club for Sean McDermott.
You didn't think we'd fail to recognize the NFL's new darlings, did you? We had their needs entering 2019 slotted: OLB, OT, DT, CB and WR. No, they haven't truly addressed the first one, but the other upgrades have been nothing if not explosive.
Greg Robinson was as surprising a LT elixir in a post-Joe Thomas Cleveland as imaginable. However, his re-signing could be a win-win, if he continues the career revival he began last season, now under the strong tutelage of new OL coach James Campen. Sheldon Richardson pairing with Larry Ogunjobi in the middle of Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon?
That could work.
And if (when) it does, blitz-happy Steve Wilks won't feel pressure to dial it up nearly as often as was necessary over the past two seasons in Arizona and Carolina.
The Browns also re-signed CB Phillip Gaines, replaced Jabrill Peppers with fellow former John Dorsey find in Kansas City, Eric Murray (the return in the Emmanuel Ogbah trade) and added a receiver you might recognize. Odell Beckham's career 92.8 receiving yards per game ranks second in NFL history ... on the receiving end from Eli Manning.
What will he do with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland's evolving downfield passing game?
The Eagles began free agency by re-signing stalwarts Jason Peters and Brandon Graham. The Eagles also re-signed Isaac Semualo, further fortifying their OL depth. Next they signed Malik Jackson to replace Michael Bennett (traded to New England) and brought back Vinny Curry on a one-year deal after he flopped in Tampa. Consider the trenches in tip-top shape, even with Bennett's departure and the retirements of Haloti Ngata and, potentially, Chris Long.
What about the skill positions, you say?
Enter (or should it be reenter?) DeSean Jackson, who brings the feared lid-lifting speed the offense sorely missed last season. Also arriving via trade (and also not affecting Philly's 2020 compensatory equation) is Jordan Howard, still only 24, for a potential career reboot. The part lost seemingly by many in Howard's acquisition is all the familiar faces that could help him find a soft landing after a Year 3 thud: OC Mike Groh, WR Alshon Jeffery, Pro personnel maven Joe Douglas and more.
The Eagles attacked every one of their needs prior to the draft. Remember when their salary cap situation was going to be prohibitive in achieving that goal? Neither do we.
Executive of the Year Chris Ballard's Colts showed awesome patience in free agency, focusing first on re-signing their own (NT Margus Hunt, CB Pierre Desir, PK Adam Vinatieri, OG Mark Glowinski) prior to a pair of big splashes: WR Devin Funchess and EDGE Justin Houston.
Funchess fits snugly as the big-bodied, between-the-numbers WR force in Frank Reich's offense. Houston instantly becomes the franchise's most established pass rusher since the Freeney/Mathis days. Remember, Ballard just had a draft for the ages that helped propel his Colts to the division round and has four picks in the top 89 to continue adding defensive playmakers — the strength of this draft.