Free Agency  

 

Free agency: What's next for most active -- and inactive -- teams?

The big-ticket wave of free agency effectively ended over the weekend, and now the bargain-hunters -- and they are often one and the same as the smartest teams -- are picking through what is left. Just because the first week is over doesn't mean the reshaping of rosters takes a rest.

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Last year, the Denver Broncos -- who haven't been shy in free agency under John Elway -- made one of their most important signings at the end of April, when they inked Shaun Phillips to a one-year contract, and he proceeded to morph into the team's sack leader.

And Teddy Bridgewater's well-attended pro day on Monday should serve as a reminder: The most important team-building activity doesn't take place for another seven weeks.

So it's time to take the long view for some of the most active -- or startlingly inactive -- teams.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

To review: The Bucs' overhaul has included getting rid of their best player in Darrelle Revis, then using the savings to reel in a number of members of the NFL's middle class, solid players (many of them starting-caliber) who simply do not command the kind of money that Revis did with one contract. Among them: highly sought-after cornerback Alterraun Verner, new starting quarterback Josh McCown and several pieces to reshape both the offensive and defensive lines. In all, Tampa Bay's new regime has signed 10 unrestricted free agents, at least seven of whom can be safely penciled in as starters.

The end result: The team's glaring needs have been reduced, but it says something that the Bucs were in the mix for receiver Emmanuel Sanders before the Broncos (them again) signed him over the weekend. Using the seventh overall pick on a wide receiver from a very deep class almost certainly will be a consideration, but between now and the end of the draft, the Bucs still could stand to add a third cornerback (Mike Jenkins reportedly visited with the team on Monday) and a guard to fill out the retooled offensive line.

Cleveland Browns

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How busy were the new-look Browns? At one point last week, they released two quarterbacks within about a half-hour.

Some of the moves were questionable. ... Is Donte Whitner that much better than a younger T.J. Ward at safety? Is Karlos Dansby a gigantic leap over D'Qwell Jackson at linebacker? Maybe those were marginal improvements, but signing restricted free-agent receiver Andrew Hawkins away from the Bengals gives the Browns an upgrade over the unpredictable Davone Bess. And they also signed running back Ben Tate. While Tate didn't draw a franchise-back type of contract, this 25-year-old could be the reliable runner Cleveland has needed since trading Trent Richardson and leaving the running back room empty -- if, of course, Tate can remain healthy.

The Browns couldn't convince Revis to take a pay cut to facilitate a trade to Cleveland. And while Cleveland showed some interest in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the cornerback signed with the New York Giants on Monday. This underscores one of the Browns' most critical needs, but let's face it: With two first-round draft picks in May (Nos. 4 and 26), the franchise must stabilize the quarterback position at some point, even with a QB class that's littered with question marks. After all, signal-caller has essentially been an issue since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999.

The Browns have 10 picks overall, and the Tate signing relieves any pressure there might have been to take a running back in the early rounds. But with so many picks, it is how first-year general manager Ray Farmer drafts that will determine if 2014 counts as a success.

New England Patriots

We don't usually think of the Patriots as splashy free-agency players, but this is all you need to know: They lost their best defensive contributor to their chief AFC rival and then managed to make their defense stronger. Much stronger.

The contract with Revis -- one that includes a second year that is basically a fake year, which is a bit out of character for them -- is essentially a one-year rental. Revis is worth it, if for no other reason than that watching how Bill Belichick deploys such a supreme talent will be a weekly pleasure. Then they signed cornerback Brandon Browner, who will bring Seattle's brand of physical play east -- when he can take the field, that is. (He must first serve a four-game suspension.) But if the Patriots and Broncos are engaged in an arms race -- not just to outdo each other, but to gain ground on the best of the NFC in Seattle and San Francisco -- then shoring up the cornerback position was a huge step forward for New England.

They also kept in the fold receiver Julian Edelman, who emerged as Tom Brady's most dependable target last season. And they signed Brandon LaFell from the Panthers. They're taking a look at Kenny Britt, too. All of this means the Patriots have attacked the two areas that plagued them last year: the paucity of steady receivers for Brady (particularly when Rob Gronkowski was hurt) and a shaky secondary. What's next? Well, what do they do with Vince Wilfork? The big man in the middle of the defensive line is still in limbo -- he has asked for his release because he won't take a pay cut. And offensive line, a point of emphasis early in free agency, is something the Patriots are likely to revisit.

New York Jets

General manager John Idzik's deliberate approach to free agency is giving anxious fans agita, but the signing of receiver Eric Decker was an important one. The Jets are desperate for playmakers, and even if Decker is not widely regarded as ideal-No. 1-receiver material, he is still far better than anything Gang Green had on the roster last season.

So the current crisis has switched to cornerback, where the Jets let Antonio Cromartie go, missed out on Verner, did not make a run at bringing Revis back into the fold and just saw Rodgers-Cromartie opt instead for the crosstown Giants. That last development reportedly has Rex Ryan "pissed."

The Jets still have a lot of needs besides cornerback, such as finding more receivers (Jacoby Ford is taking a physical, and they are interested in Sidney Rice) to counter the Patriots' moves at cornerback. They also must, of course, make a decision at backup quarterback, where Mark Sanchez is due a $2 million roster bonus on March 25. If they have not signed a replacement for Sanchez by then -- hello, Michael Vick? -- would the Jets release him anyway? This long-running drama is finally coming to a head. No matter what happens in the next few weeks, it's hard to imagine the Jets won't dip into the very deep receiver pool in this draft.

Houston Texans

Maybe the biggest news about the Texans had nothing to do with free agency. Running back Arian Foster tweeted over the weekend that he has been medically cleared by his doctors following back surgery. That's great news, especially considering that his backup, Tate, just signed with Cleveland.

The Texans have otherwise been very quiet, befitting a team with some monumental decisions ahead. The first: whether/when to release quarterback Matt Schaub if he cannot be traded. The Raiders and Browns have an interest in Schaub, according to my colleague Ian Rapoport, but the $14.5 million cap hit will make any sort of swap difficult. The end result, though, is probably the same: Schaub likely is finished with the Texans one way or another, unless Bill O'Brien would rather keep him around as insurance while the team develops its next quarterback. Is that going to be someone the Texans pick first overall? Maybe, but if not, they will get one somewhere in this draft. And if they don't go with a quarterback with the first overall pick, another possibility is an offensive lineman. Defensive tackle is another need.

Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton's ascent might encounter some very rough air if the Panthers don't start getting some receivers for him. At this point, Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. are all gone, and Hakeem Nicks is not arriving. Again, it's a very strong draft class at receiver, but the Panthers now have to rebuild the entire thing. And the secondary, which was the weak link of the defense last season, lost Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell. Oh, and left tackle Jordan Gross retired.

The Panthers have their work cut out for them in the next few weeks if they are to assemble an offense capable of scoring enough points to stay with the Saints, but Newton will have to be extraordinary to make up for the complete lack of continuity, no matter who general manager Dave Gettleman gets in the next few months at receiver.

Dallas Cowboys

There must be a plan for improving the defense, right? The Cowboys let DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and possibly Anthony Spencer leave. Maybe taken individually, they were the right moves, but how, exactly, is the NFL's worst defense getting better right now?

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Jared Allen, a free agent who was a target of the Broncos until he hesitated and Ware became available, is due to visit this week, and that could take some of the sting out -- but only if the Cowboys get Allen at their price, not his. They were unwilling to go above the price they set for Ware or Julius Peppers, but if they have reached a point of desperation and have to overpay Allen, it'll be fair to criticize owner Jerry Jones -- who was praised for having the discipline to release Ware -- for not simply signing the player they knew best. Defensive tackle Henry Melton is also on Dallas' list, and he would fill a need, as well. Depending on how all this winds up, the Cowboys will clearly need help -- either in the quieter phase of free agency or in the draft -- on both lines and at receiver, where they also let go of Miles Austin.

The real bottom line is this: Jones, in his role as general manager, has to draft better. As hectic as free agency already has been, the draft remains how teams build toward their future.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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