If free-agent shopping has taught us anything through the years, it's that there is no correlation between how much a team spends to win and the realization of actual success.
The Washington Redskins became the definitive cautionary tale for the NFL's free-agency era. Spend big in the offseason, do little when the games are played.
That is, until now, with the Redskins so far seemingly content to watch as other clubs continue opening their bank vault doors.
The beginning of the free-agent signing period has been similar to that of other years, with one player landing a contract of staggering proportions, a couple of others getting some serious money, and a few other deals worth noting. The most significant difference is that the Redskins are not the team that has gone the "staggering" route; that distinction belongs to the Chicago Bears, who spent crazy money on Julius Peppers and made a couple of other big-ticket additions for good measure. Another change is the significant amount of trade activity and the prospect of more to come thanks largely to a glut of players who had been headed for unrestricted free agency but who became restricted without a salary cap in place.
In getting a handle on which teams appear to have done the most to help themselves in the early going of free agency/the trade market, it's important to separate splash from substance. Simply being active isn't necessarily a sign of progress, although clubs that are desperately in need of help and have been conspicuously inactive seem to be on a path to continued futility.
The following is a look at the initial five biggest winners and losers in free agency:
1. New York Jets: They made what looks like an ideal trade with San Diego for cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie's interceptions have declined significantly since 2007, when he led the league with 10. However, it's no coincidence that was the last season the Chargers had a dominant pass rush and Cromartie was able to do what he does best -- play mostly man-to-man coverage. He'll be back to doing much more of that for the Jets, whose aggressive blitz scheme relies heavily on their corners' single-coverage prowess. With Darrelle Revis starting on the other side, there is every reason to believe that Cromartie will go back to his ball-hawking ways. The Jets also didn't have to give up much, parting with a third-round pick in 2011 (that could become a second-rounder) when there might not even be a season. They made a couple of wise moves to gain financial breathing room by trading disgruntled free safety Kerry Rhodes -- whose reluctance to make contact made him a bad fit in Rex Ryan's defense -- to Arizona for a savings of about $4 million, and by releasing running back Thomas Jones (before having to pay him a $3.3 million roster bonus on top of a $2.8 million base salary) and cornerback Lito Sheppard. Jones was the leading rusher on the NFL's top-rushing offense and popular in the locker room, but he has been moved aside thanks to the more effective Shonn Greene.
2. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens addressed their most pressing need by trading with Arizona for wide receiver Anquan Boldin. He might not provide the game-breaking speed they still lack at the position, but he's a consistent big-time performer who should provide a major boost to the continued development of quarterback Joe Flacco. General manager Ozzie Newsome worked some wizardry on the deal, giving up a third-round pick in this year's draft and exchanging a fourth-round choice for the Cardinals' fifth-rounder. The Ravens can still pursue a receiver in the draft, but they don't have do so as early as they might have once considered.
3. Miami Dolphins: Signing free-agent inside linebacker Karlos Dansby from the Cardinals is a huge upgrade for the Dolphins' defense. Dansby was expensive ($43 million over five years, with about $22 million guaranteed), but he should be a catalyst in new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme, making plays and making certain that everyone around him is where they're supposed to be. The Dolphins will make Dansby even more effective if they can add a nose tackle and a safety. Their other smart move was re-signing veteran quarterback Chad Pennington to continue serving as a mentor for young starter Chad Henne. The chemistry between the two quarterbacks is exceptional, and if Pennington is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that cut short his 2009 season, he's as reliable a backup as any team could have.
4. Detroit Lions: It's a surprise to see the Lions show up on any list of positive moves, but they belong after the aggressiveness they displayed in their free-agent signings of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch from Tennessee and wide receiver Nate Burleson from Seattle. Vanden Bosch's productivity was a concern with the Titans, but it's reasonable to assume he can thrive now that he has been reunited with coach Jim Schwartz, his former defensive coordinator. Schwartz will know how to take full advantage of his non-stop drive and leadership that the Lions, still in the formative stages of their latest rebuilding effort, desperately need. As a player who thrived in the Seahawks' West Coast offense, Burleson is an ideal fit in the Lions' scheme because of his effectiveness on short and intermediate routes and the fact he still is a deep threat. He should be a nice complement to Calvin Johnson.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars' top need was a defensive end, and they appear to have found one of the better ones available in free-agent Aaron Kampman from Green Bay. Sure, there's some risk involved, given the torn ACL that caused Kampman to miss nearly half of last season. However, all indications are that he is recovering well. Kampman proved to be a bad fit for the Packers after they converted him from end to outside linebacker in their new 3-4 scheme. If he's healthy, he should make a tremendous impact in Jacksonville's 4-3 alignment, which will allow him to utilize his tremendous pass-rushing prowess. Kampman goes all-out all the time, which should make him a strong leader by example. The Jaguars also bolstered their special teams by adding free-agent receiver Kassim Osgood from the Chargers. Osgood is a Pro Bowl gunner, and is also looking for an opportunity to contribute as a wideout, an area of need for the Jaguars.
1. Buffalo Bills: New general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey aren't exactly off to a scintillating start in giving long-suffering Bills fans any hope that their regime is going to bring an end to a 10-year postseason drought. It's true that the Bills have far too many needs than can be fixed in one offseason, but they are conspicuous by their relative inactivity beyond signing not-so-special, free-agent offensive tackle Cornell Green. Green could be a starter for the Bills, but that's less a reflection of how good he is than a sign of how desperate the Bills are for offensive line help. This team clearly seems focused on keeping its costs down -- which every team is able to do without a spending floor in place -- and doing everything it can to get better through the draft.
2. Carolina Panthers: All the Panthers have done is show the door to their best player, Peppers, and several others, including quarterback Jake Delhomme. So far, their offseason has been dedicated to trimming costs and getting younger. Their best hope is that new quarterback, Matt Moore, is at least the same guy he was while going 4-1 late last season. Wide receiver Steve Smith needs some complementary help, but defensive line is likely to be the Panthers' priority in the draft.
3. New York Giants: Antrel Rolle is a good safety, but the Giants aren't paying the free agent from Arizona that way. They're paying him to be great, because that's all that can be expected of the highest-paid safety in NFL history ($37 million over five years, including $15 million guaranteed). The suspicion here is that Rolle probably will make a solid contribution and the media will continually pound on the fact that he isn't living up to his contract.
4. Arizona Cardinals: It has been an offseason exodus from the desert, with the Cardinals saying goodbye to Boldin, Dansby, Rolle, and (probably the biggest loss of all) retired quarterback Kurt Warner. Picking up Rhodes fills a hole at safety, and the Cards have the depth at wide receiver to withstand Boldin's departure. But they'll miss Dansby, and their offense faces plenty of question marks with unaccomplished Matt Leinart as quarterback.
5. San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have reason to wonder if Alex Smith can take them anywhere as a starting quarterback. They were wise to go into the free-agent market seeking an experienced backup at the position, but it's hard to view David Carr, whom they signed from the New York Giants, as providing any sort of meaningful help.
» OK, so it's hard to think that anything other than $23 million in guaranteed money attracted Dansby to Miami. But I believe him when he says that the man overseeing the Dolphins' football operation, Bill Parcells, was an important factor as well. "He builds winners, and for him to bring in 60-some years of experience in the NFL to the defensive side of the ball and the front office ... how can I pass on that?" Dansby told reporters in Miami. There is something to be said for credibility at the top of an organization attracting high-end free agents. And the opposite of that can also be a factor, if all else is equal from a money standpoint.
» So far, there is no indication that the New England Patriots, who have plenty of room for improvement, have done very much to get better. In fact, the argument could be made that they've gotten a little worse after losing free-agent defensive end Jarvis Green, who they wanted to keep, to Denver. The Pats' greatest shortcoming is their pass rush, and they still haven't done anything to get it fixed. But at least give them credit for making sure they kept the best pass-rusher on the roster -- outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain -- and for doing plenty for the peace of mind of their best defensive player, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, by signing him to a long-term contract. A trifecta of sorts was the Patriots retaining their best cornerback, Leigh Bodden, who was getting attention elsewhere.
» The Packers didn't make the top five list of early free-agent winners, but keeping offensive tackle Chad Clifton was a smart move. Despite the fact that he turns 34 in June and battled injuries last season, he still gives them a dependable starter, which they desperately need on their line, for at least another season or two.
» It's understandable that defensive end Aaron Schobel is taking his time to decide whether he wants to return to the Bills. For one thing, he failed his season-ending physical exam because of an elbow injury that has since been surgically repaired. He needs to pass a physical to collect a $2 million roster bonus. But Schobel is putting off traveling from his offseason home in Texas to Buffalo for the second exam because he might follow through on retirement thoughts he expressed at the end of last season. One obvious reason would be the Bills' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, which would require Schobel to switch to outside linebacker. He saw how poorly that worked out for Kampman, and player-personnel people with whom I've spoken have their doubts that Schobel would be any more successful despite how well he has played at end for most of his NFL career.