Commentary

Free-agency winners, losers

Early returns favor aggressive Bucs and Skins; Fins fail to land big fish -- again

Originally Published: March 16, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Perception means a lot in the first week of free agency.

Although proclaiming winners and losers after three days is like projecting a football game in the first quarter, defining patterns emerge in how teams handle their free-agent business.

The action has been fast and furious. The list of 427 unrestricted free agents was trimmed by 72 as players moved to different teams or re-signed.

Here are the early winners and losers.

Winners

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After a 10-win season in 2010, the Bucs signed only a punter last year in free agency and fell to 4-12, costing coach Raheem Morris his job. This year, the organization was aggressive. The Bucs signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Eric Wright and backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. They ate up $34.75 million of cap room. They committed $143.55 million in contracts for the four players. The smart move was getting more resources for quarterback Josh Freeman. Nicks will help keep the pocket clean with his blocking, and Jackson gives Freeman a big, downfield target.

2. Buffalo Bills: This is where perception comes into play in a positive way. Signing the best free agent on defense is a big win for a franchise that has struggled for more than a decade. The $100 million contract given to defensive end Mario Williams placed the Bills back on the map. Bills general manager Buddy Nix proved to be a good salesman. The Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks couldn't -- and didn't even try to -- match or challenge the Bills. After his official visit, Williams stayed in Buffalo awaiting more options, but that only gave Nix and his coaching staff more time to recruit him.

3. Washington Redskins: Give the Redskins credit for scrambling. As free agency opened, the Redskins were given a $36 million salary-cap deduction over two years for front-loading the contracts of Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall before the 2010 uncapped season. That didn't stop owner Dan Snyder from being aggressive. Scrambling is going to be a big part of the Redskins' future after Snyder gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder to be in position to draft Robert Griffin III. The Redskins went 2-for-3 in upgrading the receiving corps, adding Pierre Garcon as a downfield threat and Josh Morgan as a possession receiver. They tried to get Eddie Royal, but the San Diego Chargers landed him. That still gives coach Mike Shanahan the option of keeping Santana Moss and using him in the slot. On Thursday, the Redskins added hard-hitting safety Brandon Meriweather.

Losers

1. Miami Dolphins: This is where perceptions come into play on the negative side. The Dolphins were informed they were out of the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. That means that, in two seasons, they have failed to land three main targets: Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Fisher and now Manning. They traded away a Pro Bowl receiver, Brandon Marshall. You figure the Dolphins have a good shot at getting a consolation prize of Matt Flynn at quarterback, but the loss of Manning took a lot of the buzz out of Miami's offseason. At some point, the Dolphins need to show they can land a big recruit.

2. Arizona Cardinals: Coach Ken Whisenhunt and team president Michael Bidwill put on a full-court press to land Manning. They reached out and flew him to the desert and felt good about their chances. But, unlike the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos, they had a time limit. Friday was the deadline regarding whether to keep or cut quarterback Kevin Kolb, who had a $7 million roster bonus due. Because they couldn't reel in Manning, the Cardinals decided to pay Kolb's bonus instead of releasing him. The Cards will try to change the perception that last year's trade for Kolb wasn't a good one. Arizona signed 49ers offensive lineman Adam Snyder, but his reputation as a blocker is spotty.

3. New Orleans Saints: The $14.4 million franchise tag number given to QB Drew Brees handcuffed the Saints in trying to keep all of their top free agents. They kept wide receiver Marques Colston, but lost wide receiver Robert Meachem and Nicks. General manager Mickey Loomis did a good job of adjusting by signing Baltimore Ravens guard Ben Grubbs. Now, the Saints await a big draft choice penalty for the pay-for-hit controversy. They could lose a high draft choice this year and maybe next year's first-rounder.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer