Broncos, Pats headline free-agency winners; Fins striking out

Now that Manningmania has died down, it's an appropriate time to look at the league as a whole. After all, free agency is officially a week old today. So, who are the free-agency "winners" thus far? Who's dropped the ball?

Well, the obvious "loser" candidates are the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers, as both were left at the Peyton Manning altar Monday. But let's not be overly simplistic. The 49ers still appear likely to get back last year's starter Alex Smith, he of the lowest interception percentage in the league. (If not, 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is waiting in the wings.) Signing Randy Moss to an incentive-heavy deal and acquiring Mario Manningham were both smart moves. Ditto re-signing cornerback Carlos Rogers. So this was far from a failed free-agency period.

As for the Titans, see below.

Meanwhile, the team that came out of the first week of free agency with its head held high is youknowwho.


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Denver Broncos: John Elway just redefined the franchise he's leading near the front of the line in the AFC. Getting Peyton Manning was absolutely huge, on many levels. He'll make Denver's promising young receiver duo (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker) much better. He'll also make a very average offensive line (that could certainly use Jeff Saturday) look effective with his accelerated decision-making and quick release. Moreover, Manning will benefit from a running game that was the strength of the team in 2011.

As I wrote yesterday, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller benefit, too. It should be noted that the Broncos' defense re-signed linebacker Joe Mays, while adding safety Mike Adams, a 16-game starter in Cleveland who had a nice year in coverage.

New England Patriots: New England reportedly flirted with acquiring Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith last offseason, and in hindsight, should have. Bill Belichick did not miss a chance to get a crafty veteran this time around, signing Brandon Lloyd to a deal on St. Patrick's Day.

OK, so why is the Lloyd signing notable? Lloyd will be reunited with Josh McDaniels, who coached him last season in St. Louis, and in Denver before that. Lloyd's productivity was hampered when the Broncos went with Tim Tebow at quarterback, and a relocation to St. Louis took some getting used to. Yet he still caught 70 passes for 966 yards in 15 starts. In 2010, Lloyd led ALL receivers with 1,448 yards. He's more of a playmaker than the serviceable Deion Branch, and will make teams pay for giving the Patriots' tight ends too much attention inside the seams. All that, and he costs New England less per year than Pierre Garcon or Josh Morgan command in Washington ... or Laurent Robinson in Jacksonville, for that matter.

Besides Lloyd, New England got Anthony Gonzalez to provide depth in the receiving corps, safety Steve Gregory, guard Robert Gallery, defensive end Trevor Scott and tight end Daniel Fells (just what the Pats need -- another tight end). Re-signing center Dan Connolly was a nice move, too.

Kansas City Chiefs: Meanwhile, down in Kansas City, former Patriots executive Scott Pioli is making the most of this offseason. The team signed former Oakland corner Stanford Routt back in February, ensuring they had a viable starter opposite Brandon Flowers and wouldn't be sucked into the Brandon Carr sweepstakes. Because Pioli didn't franchise Carr, the team was able to retain its top receiver by slapping the tag on Dwayne Bowe.

The offense got more than just Bowe back, as Pioli added power to his backfield with the addition of Peyton Hillis, quarterback insurance in Brady Quinn and tight end depth in Kevin Boss. All three starters at those positions -- Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel and Tony Moeaki -- sustained season-ending injuries a year ago. Throw in the acquisition of Eric Winston, a starting tackle that contributed to Arian Foster's running success, and you have a pretty darn productive offseason in Kansas City.

However, I'm still surprised, as are many people, that the Chiefs didn't make a push for Manning ...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay could have afforded to seriously throw their hats into the ring on Manning, seeing as this organization had a ton of cap space ($44 million!) coming into last week. Still, it's hard to find too much fault with how they used it. (And Josh Freeman still has plenty of promise behind center at age 24.)

The club signed the playmaking wide receiver it's needed for, well, forever in Vincent Jackson. The Buccaneers also strengthened the O-line with the addition of Saints standout guard Carl Nicks. Lastly, Tampa Bay addressed the tenuous status of the cornerback position by signing veteran Eric Wright, a five-year starter in the NFL. Make no mistake, the Bucs want Ronde Barber back, but considering he'll be 37 in a couple of weeks, you never know what his motivation is. And like the Pats, the Bucs also re-signed a key contributor on the offensive line in Jeremy Zuttah.

The one quibble here so far is the guaranteed money paid to Jackson: $26 million. That's a lot of dough for just walking through the door, especially for a guy who isn't even in the same stratosphere as Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson.

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Dallas Cowboys: Surprisingly, the Cowboys have done a lot with not much cap room. Jerry and Stephen Jones upgraded at corner with the Brandon Carr signing, although Carr needs to engage at the line more. And as colleague Steve Wyche pointed out, the move for Kyle Orton was slick on several fronts.

In less-heralded maneuvers, the Cowboys added some inside-linebacker insurance by signing Dan Connor, and also acquired safety Brodney Pool (a slight upgrade over Abram Elam). Meanwhile, the offensive line got marginally stronger with the additions of Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, both of whom will provide depth (if Livings doesn't start). New fullback signee Lawrence Vickers will help matters for the line -- a weak spot in 2011 -- by being a strong blocking presence for DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones.

All of these were small moves, but often it's those slight, reasonably priced improvements that make up the better part of discernment in free agency. Most of the successful teams through the years have finessed these kinds of moves rather than make the big splashes (like the Giants and Patriots of the past).

On the Fence ...

Tennessee Titans: Tough call here. The Titans lost Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones in free agency, while gaining Steve Hutchinson. Jones' versatility will be missed, but Finnegan's price tag was a bit steep for a 28-year-old corner who might not give the Rams five healthy years. They needed Hutchinson.

Yes, the Titans missed on Manning, but the strong sales pitch made sense. Unlike some other teams (See: Dolphins, Miami), they could afford to lose the Manning auction with veteran Matt Hasselbeck and 2011 first-rounder Jake Locker already on board. They also showed their fan base that this is an organization that truly wants to win now.

On the flip side, the failed courting of Manning cost the Titans the opportunity to get a pass rusher like Mario Williams or John Abraham. On Tuesday, they settled for Kamerion Wimbley. He could represent an improvement at defensive end, but definitely a tick below what the organization might've scored had it initially chased the bigger fish. Overall, it wasn't a bad free-agent period. But the Denver surprise/Manning whiff puts Tennessee somewhere in that middle ground.

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St. Louis Rams: I love the Scott Wells signing. The former Packers center instantly makes the line in St. Louis better. Of course, despite the high dollars and his potential to be a small distraction, Finnegan's addition is big, and more than makes up for the loss of Ron Bartell.

Still, this is a team devoid of weapons, and one that just lost Lloyd. With nearly every team in the NFL going three-wide half the time, rolling with the mediocre Brandon Gibson, coming-off-a-gnarly-injury Danny Amendola and unproven Greg Salas doesn't generate much confidence. If the Rams are still able to get top WR prospect Justin Blackmon with the sixth pick overall, this "on the fence" will turn into "winner." But make no mistake, the Ramsneed Blackmon.

Washington Redskins:As mentioned in my column last week, I like that the Redskins once again showed some restraint. But it's impossible to not raise an eyebrow at the guaranteed money ($20-plus million) paid to Pierre Garcon -- who has never been a No. 1 option -- and the healthy sum spent on question mark Josh Morgan.


Honestly, calling any team a loser this early in the game is a bit rough.

OK, now that we've got that out of the way, let's proceed ...

Miami Dolphins: Miami lost out on Manning. Miami lost out on backup plan Matt Flynn. Miami is rolling Matt Moore out there once again ... unless the previously unemployed David Garrard makes a strong comeback. Either way, both qualify as a loss for an organization that, through its free-agency flirtation, seemed to promise its fan base much more. Keep in mind, Chad Henne is no longer sitting on the back burner, either.

Making matters worse, GM Jeff Ireland jettisoned Brandon Marshall for two third-round picks in a move that some felt was partially to make room for Manning. While the front office implied that wasn't the case, there is no doubt the already mediocre offense is weaker now than it was at the outset of last week.

Hey, the club did re-up nose tackle Paul Soliai. Get excited.

Arizona Cardinals: This judgment might be harsh, but making a half-thrust for Manning did this franchise no favors. GM Rod Graves surely knows what he's doing, but if that's true, wouldn't landing the future Hall of Fame quarterback be a partial admission that the six-year, $65 million deal given to Kevin Kolb last year was a mistake? The team could still cut Kolb next year, but they were forced to pay him a $7 million bonus last Friday. And what is Kolb's confidence level these days? He watched backup John Skelton win games down the stretch last season and then saw his bosses making a play for Manning in the offseason.

Arizona also re-upped Levi Brown and signed Adam Snyder to, in theory, shore up the offensive line. Brown gave up the third-most sacks in the NFL last season (11.5), while Snyder is an OK lineman who can play multiple positions. Neither signing helps the Cardinals close the gap on the 49ers in the NFC West.

Cleveland Browns: While adding Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker to the defensive-line rotation were subtle moves, Cleveland needs a playmaker on offense so very badly. How about a right tackle? Help Colt McCoy -- or whoever the quarterback is going to be ... please. Doing nothing in free agency can be savvy. But not in this case.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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