The bulk of the free-agency craze is over. Sure, there's always a surprise move or two before the draft, but in a year with no cap and not much star power, there isn't much more of substance to come down, in all likelihood.
I'd anticipate a few restricted free agents still changing teams -- more on that later -- but there isn't much left of this free-agent crop. With OTAs just around the corner, I figure this is as good a time as any to look at teams that have made the most of the league's most fertile period of significant activity, and those who did not.
I'm going to take into account the overall movement of these organizations since the season ended; in some cases, the best moves were those never made, and for some teams their greatest gains were not roster moves.
Let's start with the winners:
San Diego Chargers
General manager A.J. Smith benefits from the uncapped year and is able to retain the rights to five players who would have been unrestricted free agents, and gets to keep all of them cheaply with a first- and third-round tender to keep other teams largely away (we're talking studs such as Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill in this group, as well as Darren Sproles, who is not quite as productive but who would have made a splash in free agency nonetheless).
Smith then takes a corner (Antonio Cromartie) whom he did not want to pay and who had off-field issues, and turns him into a third-round pick (and possibly a second-rounder depending on his production with the Jets). Then he takes a third-string quarterback who has never thrown a pass in a regular-season game (Charlie Whitehurst) and turns him into a very high third-round pick (from Seattle), plus moves up high into the second-round by flipping second-rounders.
All of this from a club that generally can't afford to spend big, and excels at the draft. Oh yeah, and they already had arguably the league's best team for a good chunk of 2009. Smith is as good as they come.
Kansas City Chiefs
Nothing flashy in free agency, but added experience and depth to try to stabilize the interior of the line, and Thomas Jones very likely will be the best running back in free agency in 2009.
The Chiefs still lack playmakers, and this will be a process, but above all that, adding coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel is no small thing. This coaching staff has been upgraded from last season's version, and with Weis there quarterback Matt Cassel should have a proven infrastructure in place and every chance to succeed. Weis' presence gives coach Todd Haley another strong offensive mind to cull.
In the AFC West, with a little better protection, a little better quarterback play, and, who knows, maybe they can finish second to the Chargers.
Green Bay Packers
Like San Diego, this is never going to be a team equipped to be among the heaviest spenders with any regularity. And, like San Diego, this is a young and talented team that was among the most-feared coming down the stretch in 2009. So for them to retain both veteran offensive tackles -- Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher -- and then get all-underrated nose tackle Ryan Pickett and safety Nick Collins signed to nice extensions was big.
In a free-agent class like this, keeping your own best players -- guys who know your system, coaches and locker room, and provide a great fit -- is the way to go. The Packers also knew when to let go with Aaron Kampman -- can't help but wonder if the Jaguars will regret giving him $11 million guaranteed given his health problems.
So much of this sport is cultivating talent, self-scouting and knowing who from within to give the money to, and who to let walk.
The Ravens finally get a top-flight receiver, Anquan Boldin, without having to give up a pick in the top two rounds, then get him signed to an extension with less guaranteed money than Nate Burleson got from Detroit. They needed someone to stretch the field, and got Donte' Stallworth on the ultimate low-risk/potentially high-reward deal (one year, veteran minimum).
The Ravens then re-sign Derrick Mason, turning their long-time No. 1 guy into a solid part of the mix. It still stands to reason that tackle Jared Gaither -- a fifth-round supplemental pick just a few years ago -- could end up departing (with a first-round pick coming back as compensation).
So now the strong-drafting team is well positioned to bolster the pass rush and secondary in April, and Joe Flacco has a full complement of options. The Ravens should also continue to accrue a healthy dose of compensatory picks as they know when to let free agents walk.
This team refused to over-spend and let players leave Redskins Park without a contract, added a few pieces to both sides of the line that could contribute and found a running back (Larry Johnson) who should be plenty motivated with Clinton Portis' future production in question. You have to applaud the change in approach by the Redskins.
Now, how about the losers?
Just as the Chiefs made potential gains via additions to the staff, I have to wonder if the Bills will slip for their brain drain. Many of the coaches they discarded were quickly scooped up elsewhere -- beginning with interim head coach/defensive coordinator Perry Fewell (now the Giants' defensive coordinator). In their place is a largely inexperienced staff under Chan Gailey, who was let go as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator before the 2009 season began. Gailey wasn't on any other club's radar for openings, and general manager Buddy Nix's hiring -- his first GM job at age 70 -- was met with derision by some around the league as well.
Perhaps the Bills will prove a lot of people wrong, but given their small-market status in what is a big-money division, the odds are going to be stacked against them. They have yet to do anything to upgrade a curious-at-best quarterback situation and their offensive line overhaul is going to be difficult.
For the most part, you can't blame the front office or coaches for this one. The moment Kurt Warner ended his Hall of Fame career and retired, well, this team got a whole lot worse. That's just reality. Couple that with the departures of Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby in free agency (and Boldin via trade), and it's hard to say the Cardinals are still the favorites to win the NFC West.
You can't go from Warner to Matt Leinart/Derek Anderson and call that anything other than a massive dropoff. Warner made that thing go. Finding a way to extend Darnell Dockett, maximize the talents of Kerry Rhodes, bolster the running game and find some gems in the draft is a must ... but even then, losing a quarterback and leader such as Warner leaves a gaping void.
You can understand why a struggling, rebuilding team such as the Browns would have to pay a premium to attract free agents. However, the deals given to Scott Fujita and Tony Pashos were eye-popping and shocked many around the league. Ultimately, you end up paying a price for that down the road.
The Browns are short of talent on both sides of the line. They dealt arguably their best defensive player (linebacker Kamerion Wimbley), and still don't have a quarterback who can inspire immediate confidence despite filling Jake Delhomme's pockets.
It was always going to be a steep climb out of the AFC North basement, and you have to acknowledge owner Randy Lerner's willingness to spend on players -- as well as a Mike Holmgren-led front office -- but can't help but wonder if this will end up misguided. Still, full respect goes to the team for finally paying Josh Cribbs, and sending the right message to the locker room in that regard. In the end, it will be very interesting to see how much bang the Browns get for their buck when splurging in such a limited free-agent class.
The word that came to mind most with the Bears this offseason was "desperation." They had a long and winding route to fill out their coaching staff and missed out on many top candidates on both sides of the ball. Their initial foray into free agency -- with many jobs on the line in the coaching staff and front office -- had a desperate air about it.
Despite all the moves, they're probably the third-best team in the NFC North and one possibly looking at an overhaul in 2011. They still lack playmakers on offense, in terms of pass catchers. We'll see how much the presence of Julius Peppers changes their woeful play on the back end, but they were willing to give Peppers a whole different realm of money than what New England and Philadelphia had in mind.
There are still some decent value plays out there on the restricted free-agent market, and a few players who could end up switching teams via an offer sheet or trade.
Anthony Hargrove (Saints) could prove well worth a third-round pick; interestingly enough, St. Louis and Buffalo -- his former teams at a time in which he was struggling with addiction -- would make a whole lot of sense for him. Rob Sims, an offensive lineman with the Seahawks, has been drawing significant interest, according to sources, and carries just a fourth-round tender. With the Jets paying so much to other running backs, don't rule out someone putting something together for Leon Washington. Baltimore's Gaither, as mentioned earlier, could end up commanding attention as the draft approaches.
And, as we all know, Brandon Marshall remains out there. He visited Seattle, but nothing is imminent, according to sources. If the Broncos hold out for no less than a first-round pick as compensation, then they may well face the same headaches as in years past and remain at loggerheads with a talented-but-sometimes-troubled star whom they have been unwilling to reward with a big-time contract.
Over the past five seasons, Devery Henderson leads all players with a 19.7-yard average per catch, nearly three yards more than any other player (Vincent Jackson is second with a 17.2 average). ... If you made me pick today, I'd have Sam Bradford (first overall going to the Rams) and Jimmy Clausen (fourth overall to the Redskins), both going in the top five. I continue to think that the Lions might come away with offensive tackle Russell Okung at second overall. I see the Buccaneers taking one of the two stud defensive tackles at third overall, and the other going fifth. Unless, of course, the Browns move up to take a quarterback ahead of the Redskins at fourth overall, and I'm not ruling that out by any means. That's what makes mock drafts such a moot point, especially this far off.