Free Agency Craziness: AFC & NFC North
Last week free agency opened to a kind of complete and utter craziness I have never seen before. It was like all the players names were thrown in the air and they ended up on completely different rosters.
Anyway, I wanted to do something sooner, but decided to take the Packers approach…wait for the dust to settle and take stock of what’s happening. So I decided to wait for the majority of the moves to happen and then go through every team and evaluate how they did in free agency up until now. To complement this I will be releasing my latest mock draft later this week. Anyway, lets start with the AFC & NFC North
Cincinnati Bengals: No real big moves made by the Bengals, but they did lose a few key pieces. Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins will be big loses to a team that is so close to making it over the hump and with no signings to fill these gaps, the Bengals need to look at the draft to fill some needs at starter. The biggest signing this team made was resigning Head Coach Marvin Lewis to a 1 year deal. With a deal that short it really is make or break time for this team. To get over that hump, in my opinion they need a QB, something that seems unlikely through both Free Agency and the Draft.
Baltimore Ravens: Last year this team celebrated winning the Superbowl by getting rid of half their squad, to make Flacco one of the highest paid QB’s in the league. This year they’ve made few big signings, but they’ve resigned some important pieces, none more so than Eugene Monroe and Dennis Pitta, 2 of the more reliable Offensive players. As for signings. Adding Steve Smith is significant and gives Flacco a yards after catch Receiver this team has been desperate for since the departure of Boldin. Speaking of Departures, Corey Graham, Jemeel McClain, Arthur Jones and Michael Oher will be big loses, but replaceable ones. You have to think that in the coming weeks they’ll shore up the Secondary, D-Line, the O-line and truly woeful set of Running Backs, that could probably all be looking for a new team. This team has needs, but they are solvable, it’s just a matter of finding out if they can keep up with this years big spenders. For me they haven’t made enough changes to make a difference. That Flacco contract is proving to be a little troublesome to their cap issues.
Pittsburgh Steelers: It’s been a rough free agency for the Steelers. They have had serious cap space issues and have had to spend free agency bringing themselves under the line. To do this they’ve released a vast amount of players including: Emmanuel Sanders, Lamarr Woodley, Ziggy Hood and Jonathan Dwyer, these players join a huge list of players they haven’t given new contracts to, who include: Brett Keisel, Levi Brown, Felix Jones, Jeremy Cotchery & Fernando Verlasco. What we could be looking at here is a rebuilding year for the Steelers as they try to fight a constant issue of cap space. They have however made a couple of changes, bringing in Mike Mitchell and Cam Thomas and they have been looking in to bringing MJD in to back up Le’Veon Bell, which would be a fine addition, but there is a good chance we could be looking at the no. 4 team in the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns: They were my pick for a surprise entry into the play offs. That however didn’t happen. The Browns got rid of Head Coach and GM and brought in Pettine and Ray Farmer. However after some questionable moves, they have a boatload of Cap space and 15 draft picks. The future is definitely bright for the Browns. So what have they done so far in free agency? Well for starters, they signed Centre Alex Mack to the Transition tag, meaning that teams can come in and make offers for him, but the Browns have a chance to match that deal. As it is the interest in Alex Mack has been pretty much non-existent, good move by the Browns. The Browns have done pretty well at bringing players in, including: Karlos Dansby, Donte Whitner and Ben Tate, all players that have filled real positions of need for a team that has the nucleus to actually move forward. They did however lose a number of top players. TJ Ward will be a huge loss and the Defence will have lost some of their personality with the loss of D’Qwell Jackson, but with a ridiculous amount of draft picks in one of the deepest drafts of all time, they could be genuine play off contenders.
Green Bay Packers: There are some teams that always live up to their free agency personality and the Packers have not disappointed. On the first few days they stayed reasonably quiet, but after the dust settled they began to make their mark by bringing in ex-Bear, Julius Peppers, who will now have eyes on bringing down Bears QB Jay Cutler. They have however released & not offered a new contract to a few household names. Jermichael Finley is considered the no. 1 Tight End on the free agency market, despite coming back from back fusion surgery after a gruesome injury last year. The Packers also said goodbye to Safety M.D Jennings (Bears), Wideout James Jones (Raiders) and Centre Evan Dietrich- Smith, who joins a new look Tampa team almost certainly as starting Centre on a revamped O-line. The Packers also resigned current players, BJ Raji and Sam Shields. The Packers went a long way to filling holes on the team in a typical Packers way, now lets see how they approach the draft and if they can make it back to the Superbowl.
Chicago Bears: It was no secret that I thought the NFC North was the worst division in the NFC last year. But with some savvy free agency moves, the NFC North looks back up and running with a division chocked full of challengers, The Bears are included in this. Chicago’s best move was keeping the Offence together and only losing a few pieces (Michael Bush and Earl Bennett). As a Bears fan I’ve had a lot of conflict with a number of the head over heart moves. The Bears released a number of players that are fan favourites and I will find it very difficult to imagine Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Julius Peppers not in Blue & Orange, but being close to the cap and with serious needs on Defence they had to make some necessary changes to stay competitive in an NFC dominated by strong Defences, which meant losing some of the players that had lost a step and were due big contracts. All these players still have a lot left to give and will provide great play for their future teams, but the Bears simply don’t have the space to pay them. The Bears did make some popular fan moves though. Bringing back Charles Tillman was a great move both on and off the field. Bringing Chicago native Idonije was another popular move and bolsters a D-line that needs a lot of help. The top free agency signings however were moves that really appeal to the needs of the team. Safety & D-line. The Bears brought in: Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and MD Jennings. 3 players that completely turn this team around. When the draft rolls around the Bears list of needs will be reasonably short and they could have what it takes to be genuine Superbowl challengers.
Detroit Lions: For a team who’s record was questionable at best, the Lions had very few needs. For starters a new Head Coach will be an improvement over Jim Schwartz who just couldn’t get it done for the Lions. Jim Caldwell should help Stafford shine and look like the no. 1 pick he was set to be. As for on the field needs. The biggest need was at Defensive back… Ok no change there, but their 2nd biggest need was for a no.2 Wideout, which they did sort out by bringing in Golden Tate. Now the Lions have the WR tandem that could rival Marshall & Jeffery. But aside from Tate the Lions haven’t made a great deal of moves, which to be honest is fine. They have cap issues thanks to a number of no.1 picks before the new CBA, who are tied to huge contracts, so the best way for this team to build will be the draft, so expect the Lions to draft almost an entire Defensive backfield. With these changes this team could be set for a great season.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have quietly built a decent team that is a few moves away from getting over the hump. However those needs are huge. It seems the Vikings are destined to waiting another year for a Franchise QB and have as a result brought back the best of the 3 QB’s they had last year, Matt Cassel. In free agency however they have been smart and improved a pretty decent Defence, with some improvement at CB ( Captain Munnerlyn and Derrick Cox), which is important in a Division chocked full of Receiver talent. They have however lost some huge names to the free agency period, with Jared Allen being far and away the biggest. A loss like this makes me think they will go D-line earlier rather than later in the coming draft. The Vikings might not get over the hump this year, but the future is definitely bright for a decent young team.
So that’s the North. Next the East.