NFL Nation: Eight in the Box 032213

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A look at whether each AFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been losers in free agency mostly due to inactivity. Buffalo made just one signing: linebacker Manny Lawson. With a new head coach and new schemes on offense and defense, the Bills need a lot more than one linebacker to be competitive next season. Most importantly, they need to find a quarterback after cutting former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo also lost starting guard Andy Levitre, linebacker Nick Barnett, veteran safety George Wilson and receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson. The team has yet to fill those holes. Interestingly, the Bills were major players in free agency a year ago. They signed defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million contract and made several other signings. However, Buffalo finished 6-10 in 2012 and decided to take a much quieter approach in 2013.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are big winners in free agency. They landed the best wide receiver on the market (Mike Wallace) and the top linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe). Miami also signed a pass-catching tight end (Dustin Keller) and an additional, athletic linebacker (Philip Wheeler). Miami’s roster looks much stronger and more dynamic than it did heading into the 2012 season, when the team went 7-9. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said it was his goal to close the gap with the New England Patriots. Ireland deserves a lot of credit for a solid game plan and executing it well. The Dolphins still have holes to fill at cornerback, left tackle and at pass-rusher. But Miami still has cap room to spend and 11 total draft picks next month. The Dolphins are not finished adding talent.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have had mixed results in free agency. But overall I would just barely put them in the winners' category. I do not like what they've done on offense, where they lost two starting receivers: Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. The pair accounted for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. That's a lot of lost production that Danny Amendola and Donald Jones -- New England's two free-agent signings at receiver – will not be able to match. The Patriots also haven't re-signed starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who remains a free agent. New England must patch these two holes offensively. On the other hand, I like what New England has done defensively. The Patriots solidified their secondary by signing former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and re-signing No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib. They also re-signed backup corners Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole and added exciting kick returner Leon Washington on special teams.

New York Jets: The Jets are huge losers so far in free agency. They lost talented players much faster than they can replace them. Former New York starters Shonn Greene, Keller, LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell, Sione Pouha, Bart Scott and Calvin Pace were either recently released or signed with other teams. The Jets are hamstrung by a tight salary cap. Therefore, first-year Jets general manager John Idzik has been forced to bargain shop. New York made several low-cost signings, such as tailback Mike Goodson and guard Willie Colon. But overall, the Jets have more holes than they can fill in one offseason.
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A look at whether each NFC West team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals set a low bar in free agency and cleared it pretty easily. They weren't in position to attack the market aggressively because they had some salary-cap and player-valuation issues to address in the immediate term. New coach Bruce Arians and new general manager Steve Keim parted with Kevin Kolb, Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, William Gay, Beanie Wells and Early Doucet. Some of those moves cleared significant cap room, but the dead money left over was enough to crimp the Cardinals' style. The first nine players Arizona signed in free agency (Frostee Rucker became the 10th on Wednesday) counted $12.9 million against the salary cap in 2013. That was about how much the team cleared by releasing Kolb and Rhodes. Call it addition by subtraction and give the Cardinals a passing grade in free agency under difficult circumstances. Quarterback Drew Stanton and running back Rashard Mendenhall are the only offensive players added to this point in the process. Arians thinks better health will restore the offensive line. He also loves the talent at that position in the draft. The team is setting itself up to draft for offense, it appears.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams are losers in free agency if you think they "lost" Danny Amendola, Steven Jackson, Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Gibson and Robert Turner. The team was willing and sometimes even eager to move on from most of those players, however. The Rams plan to develop their younger players while acquiring more of them through free agency and the draft. They paid big money for two free agents, and both are relatively young, a plus. Tight end Jared Cook is not quite 26 years old. Left tackle Jake Long could be an old 27 based on recent injuries, but he's right around the league average for age. We could mark down St. Louis for losing both starting safeties (Quintin Mikell was released for cap purposes) and failing to land a replacement. The draft appears strong at that position, however, and Mikell could be re-signed at some point. We're only 10 days into the process, and the Rams haven't made any ridiculous moves. Getting Long on a relatively short-term deal (four years) seemed like a positive.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers watched longtime contributors Delanie Walker, Isaac Sopoaga and Dashon Goldson sign elsewhere. That was the plan given the price tags associated with all three players. The 49ers knew they couldn't pay premium dollars to those players after fielding the NFL's most expensive defense last season. Their disciplined approach to the market has served them well in recent seasons. This year, it helped them find room on the balance sheet for receiver Anquan Boldin, acquired from the Baltimore Ravens. The signing of Glenn Dorsey to the defensive line seemed curious at first, but it's clear to me the 49ers have special plans for the player drafted fifth overall back in 2008. Although Phil Dawson's signing stabilizes the kicking situation, his $2.35 million cap figure for 2013 means the team will again be paying a bit of a premium at the position, particularly with former kicker David Akers' terminated contract still counting against the cap. With 14 draft picks, couldn't San Francisco have found a rookie to do the job at lower cost?

Seattle Seahawks: Jason Jones is the only Seattle free agent to sign with another team this offseason. Seattle appeared to upgrade from Jones by getting Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett on a one-year deal counting $4.8 million against the cap. Signing Bennett and former Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril to short-term deals makes the Seahawks a pretty clear winner in free agency to this point. Percy Harvin was not acquired in free agency, so he isn't counting in the equation. His addition addressed the position, however, diminishing the need for Seattle to sign a veteran wideout. Upgrading the pass rush was really the only priority for the Seahawks once the Harvin trade went through. Bennett and Avril combined for 18.5 sacks last season. Both are playing on short-term deals with plenty to prove and only short-term cap ramifications for the team.
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A look at whether each NFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Atlanta Falcons: The process is far from over, but the Falcons are winners so far. They made a significant upgrade to their running game by signing Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. That alone made the offense instantly better than it was last season. I also like the way the Falcons have kept their own, re-signing potential free agents Sam Baker and William Moore, and coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez back for another season. If the Falcons can re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes at a reasonable price and add a pass-rusher, this would look like a team without any holes.

Carolina Panthers: You have to call the Panthers losers in free agency so far, unless you want to give them credit for leading the league in signing mediocre defensive backs (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore and re-signing Captain Munnerlyn). I didn’t expect the Panthers to be big players in free agency, because their salary-cap situation prohibits that. The Panthers had to let go of No. 1 cornerback Chris Gamble because of the salary cap. That was inevitable, but replacing him with a slew of No. 3 cornerbacks doesn’t generate much hope or excitement.

New Orleans Saints: Despite a tight salary-cap situation, the Saints have been winners so far. Yes, they have a major hole to fill after losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod via free agency. But the Saints have pulled rabbits out of hats on their offensive line in the past, and they can do it again. The upside is that the Saints made themselves a lot better at cornerback by adding Keenan Lewis, and at tight end with the addition of Benjamin Watson. Lewis is a player with lots of upside, who should provide much-needed help for the secondary. The Watson signing probably hasn’t received as much praise as it deserves because people assume he’ll be nothing more than a backup to Jimmy Graham. But coach Sean Payton is crafty, and I expect Watson to play an important role in the passing game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: You have to call the Bucs winners because they got Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson right out of the gate. That was a great start, but the Bucs have been quiet since then. Can they afford to let every quality free-agent cornerback go elsewhere as they wait to see if the New York Jets blink in their talks about a trade for Darrelle Revis? It’s also somewhat bizarre that the Bucs were so willing to let defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller leave as free agents even though they didn’t get big money. The Bucs will tell you that Bennett and Miller were “just guys" and they might have a point. But Bennett and Miller must have been doing something right, because the Bucs ranked first in the league in run defense last season.
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A look at whether each AFC West team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Denver Broncos: Yes, the Elvis Dumervil fax-machine fiasco will long be remembered. The Broncos may be guilty by association, but the ball was in the court of Dumervil's now-fired agent at the deadline, so Denver really was a frustrated bystander when it mattered. That incident shouldn’t sully an otherwise-terrific offseason by Denver. The Broncos had a plan and executed it well. It starts with Wes Welker. The slot receiver is a perfect weapon for Peyton Manning. Welker’s signing was affordable and hurt AFC rival New England -- a strong addition for a team that has Super Bowl designs. Former San Diego guard Louis Vasquez, former Philadelphia cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton were all smart, impact signings. This was a winning offseason.

Kansas City Chiefs: It’s difficult to find anyone who would argue that this wasn’t a winning offseason. In fact, the Chiefs might be among the biggest winners in free agency in the entire league. The Chiefs were aggressive and addressed every big need. First, they traded for quarterback Alex Smith, answering their most glaring hole with the best available player at the position. Then, they kept three key free agents in receiver Dwayne Bowe, punter Dustin Colquitt and left tackle Branden Albert. And after that, the Chiefs jumped aggressively into free agency. The additions of Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith could give Kansas City the best group of cornerbacks in the NFL. The Chiefs added in several other areas, including field-stretching receiver Donnie Avery and run-stuffing defensive lineman Mike DeVito. The new brass is determined to move on from the 2-14 disaster that was 2012.

Oakland Raiders: This is a difficult one. For the second consecutive year, the Raiders have been strapped by lingering salary-cap issues. They were forced to cut some players and saw several others leave as free agents. The exodus of young, talented players included tight end Brandon Myers, defensive linemen Desmond Bryant and Matt Shaughnessy and linebacker Philip Wheeler. The Raiders responded nicely by adding three linebackers and three defensive linemen as they totally reconstruct their defense. Players such as linebacker Nick Roach and defensive linemen Vance Walker and Pat Sims have a chance to help immediately. And yet it is difficult to think that this team, which went 4-12, has improved. Yes, the Raiders got some good players, but many holes remain. Again, it’s just a fact of life for this strapped team, whose reconstruction is very much under way.

San Diego Chargers: It would be difficult to make a case that this team has been neither a winner nor a loser in free agency. The Chargers have just kind of been hanging around. They haven’t lost much, but they haven’t added much, at least in terms signing players sure to fill holes. But new general manager Tom Telesco is known for finding good players at a good rate. The Chargers haven’t had a ton of cap space and have been fairly conservative. They have added some good players, starting with cornerback Derek Cox and guard Chad Rinehart; both are highly respected around the league. Running back Danny Woodhead also will help the offense. Questions remain on the offensive line and in the secondary, but it seems as though Telesco is going to work selectively to build a program his way. It remains to be seen if it will help the Chargers improve immediately.
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A look at whether each NFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Chicago Bears: A hot start in free agency netted left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. The Bears had been trying for five years to find a genuine left tackle, and Bushrod's arrival should boost the faith of quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett, meanwhile, gives the Bears the kind of pass-catching tight end they once had in Greg Olsen. But Bushrod and Bennett accounted for most of the salary-cap space the Bears had budgeted to use, and now they are nibbling the edges. Overall, however, the Bears improved two important positions, making them winners in free agency.

Detroit Lions: The NFC North's most active offseason team has added three new starters in running back Reggie Bush, defensive end Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. Bush will have a big impact on balancing the explosiveness in the Lions' offense, and Quin will pair with the returning Louis Delmas to give the Lions their best safety duo in recent memory. The Lions have improved as many positions as they could have given their tight salary-cap situation.

Green Bay Packers: It's difficult to win when you don't play, and general manager Ted Thompson is notoriously reluctant to compete financially in the market. He allowed receiver Greg Jennings to sign with the Minnesota Vikings and didn't make a good enough offer on running back Steven Jackson. But the Packers have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons by following a similar approach. These days, their focus is on saving enough salary-cap space to re-sign quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers won't find two players better than that on the free-agent market.

Minnesota Vikings: In essence, the Vikings traded receiver Percy Harvin for Jennings, along with a first-, third- and seventh-round draft pick. They won't replace Harvin's unique skill set, but that's not a bad recovery. The Vikings are also in a better spot at backup quarterback with Matt Cassel rather than Joe Webb. But they don't have a middle linebacker after bidding farewell to Jasper Brinkley, and they remain thin at cornerback after releasing Antoine Winfield. The Vikings remain a work in progress this offseason. They haven't won or lost yet.
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A look at whether each AFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Baltimore Ravens: Losers. No debate here. The Super Bowl champions have been among the biggest losers in free agency. The Ravens have parted ways with seven starters (including five on defense), and free agency is only 11 days old. Baltimore also lost a chunk of its history when linebacker Ray Lewis retired and safety Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans in free agency. Both players were past their prime, but their departures create a major leadership void. The losses that will hurt the Ravens the most are wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami). The Ravens don't have the depth at either position to replace them. The only additions have been defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, both of whom will improve the run defense.

Cincinnati Bengals: Winners. You can't really call the Bengals "losers" because they've only lost one starter from last season's playoff team, and Cincinnati wasn't interested in bringing back outside linebacker Manny Lawson (signed with Buffalo). The biggest criticism is the Bengals haven't been aggressive in free agency. Cincinnati is one of three teams that haven't signed a free agent from another team this offseason. The Bengals have been active in keeping their team intact, re-signing nine of their own free agents. That list includes three starters (linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers), kicker Mike Nugent and punter Kevin Huber. The Bengals will feel more like winners if they can retain their top priority, offensive tackle Andre Smith. With about $30 million in salary-cap room remaining, Cincinnati is looking to bring back cornerback Terence Newman and extend the contract of defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The Bengals also need to address voids at strong safety and outside linebacker.

Cleveland Browns: Winners. This is a close call. The Browns improved their front seven by signing linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and added to the pass rush by bringing in linebacker Quentin Groves. Cleveland overpaid for Kruger ($20 million guaranteed for someone who has 15.5 career sacks), but the Browns get the sacks leader from the Super Bowl champions who is entering the prime of his career. The best signing was Bryant, an under-the-radar free agent who can become a game-changer up front in the Browns' new 3-4 defense. The excitement over these additions is tempered by the fact that the Browns said goodbye to two longtime franchise fixtures in kicker Phil Dawson (signed with San Francisco) and receiver-returner Josh Cribbs (expected to sign with Arizona). The Browns can come out of free agency looking much better if they can land Falcons free agent Brent Grimes, the top cornerback remaining on the market.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Losers. This is no surprise. The Steelers' salary-cap restraints have meant a significant amount of losses and few additions in free agency over recent years. This offseason, the Steelers cut their top pass-rusher (aging James Harrison) after he refused to take a pay cut, watched their best deep threat (Mike Wallace) get $30 million guaranteed from the Miami Dolphins, chose not to outbid the New Orleans Saints for their young rising cornerback (Keenan Lewis) and declined to re-sign a former first-round pick (running back Rashard Mendenhall). There will also be changes along the offensive and defensive lines. Pittsburgh released guard Willie Colon and aren't expected to re-sign offensive tackle Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Steelers added depth with quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, cornerback William Gay and wide receiver Plaxico Burress. But Pittsburgh has to cross its fingers that New England won't sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet.
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A look at whether each AFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Houston Texans

They wouldn’t have had to do a lot to be considered a winner, so the acquisition of veteran safety Ed Reed (Baltimore) keeps them out of the loser's bracket. They’ve lost safety Glover Quin (Detroit), outside linebacker Connor Barwin (Philadelphia) and fullback James Casey (Philadelphia). They did retain nickel cornerback Brice McCain. Is there a receiver or a nose tackle out there whom they would consider among the cheaper options? If there is, they should.

Indianapolis Colts

In terms of numbers, it’s a raging success and they are winners. To what degree the free-agent class improves the Colts remains to be seen. But two elements are undoubtedly better today than they were at the end of the 2012 playoff season. Gosder Cherilus is a far better right tackle than Winston Justice, and Donald Thomas figures to upgrade one of the guard positions. Defensively, the Colts were a bad run-stopping team, and they’ve added better run-stoppers at all three levels -- from Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin on the line to Erik Walden at outside linebacker to LaRon Landry at strong safety. They are better equipped to run Chuck Pagano’s 3-4. Many of the contracts they’ve negotiated are front-loaded, so any mistakes will not sting very badly in future years.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are in a patient rebuilding mode, and it doesn’t include any big free-agent expenditures. So far they’ve shopped for role players like cornerback Alan Ball, running back Justin Forsett and defensive tackle Roy Miller, a good run-stopping defensive tackle. They re-signed longtime center Brad Meester and slot receiver Jordan Shipley, whom they got for cheaper after not tendering him as a restricted free agent. At the same time, they’ve watched Derek Cox, a high-quality but often-injured cornerback, and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, whose play trailed off in Year 4, move onto San Diego and Denver, respectively. It’s not fair to call non-players in the free-agency game losers at it, but if I am being forced to say they’ve won or lost so far, I can’t say they’ve won. They'd say the only way to win is not to play.

Tennessee Titans

They didn’t bring in as many people as the Colts did, but the Titans have addressed many of their weaknesses and needs. Guard Andy Levitre gives them an interior stud at a spot they’ve pledged to upgrade, and center Robert Turner can be better interior depth than they’ve had recently. Shonn Greene is going to take carries away from Chris Johnson but make the Titans two-dimensional at running back, where getting a tough yard won’t be so tough. The team wants to get back to moving an H-back tight end around a lot with shifts and formations, and Delanie Walker is better at that than Jared Cook was, though he had some drop issues last season with the 49ers.

For two years, they wanted to get bigger on defense, and Sammie Lee Hill is a bigger tackle who should help stop the run if he’s ready to take on a bigger role than the one he had in Detroit. Matt Hasselbeck was shipped out to cut costs, and while I am not a big believer in Ryan Fitzpatrick, he was probably the best backup quarterback option on the market. We need to see these guys play to know what the Titans got themselves, but on paper they are better than they were before free agency opened.
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A look at whether each NFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Dallas Cowboys: Loser. The only significant free-agent move the Cowboys have made is the franchising of Anthony Spencer, who will be one of the starting defensive ends in their new 4-3 defensive alignment. Even if you like that move, you have to acknowledge that its $10.6 million cost has worked as a detriment for a team that had no cap room to start with. The Cowboys still need a lot of help on the offensive line and at safety but have been unable to maneuver around the cap. Their inability so far to reach agreement on a long-term deal with quarterback Tony Romo -- a move that would reduce his 2013 cap cost -- has also deprived them of the ability to address needs so far. The Cowboys haven't lost any significant pieces in free agency, but a lack of flexibility compounded by $5 million in leftover cap penalties has kept them from adding where they need to add.

New York Giants: Winner. I mean, not in the same way that teams like the Seahawks or the Chiefs have been winners, but in their own, Giant-like way. Replacing tight end Martellus Bennett with Brandon Myers at low cost, re-signing left tackle Will Beatty before the market opened, signing Keith Rivers and Dan Connor at linebacker ... nothing that's going to knock your socks off, but some targeted, low-financial-impact moves designed to keep the program winning. The Giants still could turn out to be losers if they don't do at least some work on the offensive line. And I think it's possible they'll end up missing safety Kenny Phillips more than they think. But to this point, they're operating their offseason the way they like to operate it. Low-key but productive.

Philadelphia Eagles: Winner. Again, we're operating on a curve here. This division in general has not been the league's most exciting since the start of the free-agency period. But the Eagles have added two starting safeties (Patrick Chung and Phillips, on a low-risk/high-reward deal), two starting cornerbacks (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher), pass-rusher Connor Barwin, a versatile fullback/tight end type in James Casey and a big, 24-year-old wide receiver in Arrelious Benn. The Eagles still have plenty of cap room with which to pursue the right tackle they need, and they've addressed enough positions to allow them flexibility with the No. 4 pick in next month's draft. No one can predict how their new additions will play, but they do seem to have targeted and acquired the players they wanted.

Washington Redskins: Loser. They've actually done well to hold together as much of their division-champion team as they have, considering the $18 million in cap penalties they're still dealing with this year. But they had to cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall, lost special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, and have yet to re-sign tight end Fred Davis. More importantly, though, they still have major needs in the secondary and have been unable to land the free safety or the starting cornerback they need. E.J. Biggers is probably better as a No. 3 cornerback, though at this point he may project as one of their starters. The good thing is that the safety and cornerback market still has lots of options, and the prices aren't going up. But the Redskins have no first-round pick next month, so they have some challenges ahead.

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