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Market conclusions: Thoughts as free agency winds down

The beginning of the NFL Annual Meeting signals the end to free agency for most teams, as focus shifts from free-agent targets to the upcoming NFL draft.

Many teams have executed their plan perfectly, some had no plan at all and others did the best they could with what they had to work with. Even though Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland reminded everyone last week "to let the process play out," it is hard not to step back and draw a few conclusions on what just happened in the NFL.

Here is my review of the 2012 free-agency period, which has included many notable signings and a few significant trades. I have divided key participants into four categories:

Smart shoppers

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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With all their cap room, the Bucs finally invested significant money in quality players. Did they overpay for wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks? Of course. But it was something they had to do to ensure each acquisition. Teams like the Bucs -- coming off a losing season with a ton of cap room -- are not going to get great bargains. But at least they came away with a few difference makers. The key for new coach Greg Schiano will be for him to demand the most from his entire roster, creating an environment in which these high-quality players can thrive. Tampa Bay's offensive line has the potential to be the best in football -- but right now it's only on paper, not on the field.

2. Chicago Bears: Just before the free-agency period officially began, the Bears made a massive splash by acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Dolphins. Marshall is inconsistent in everything he does, on and off the field, but his reunion with Jay Cutler does give the Bears' quarterback a big-time receiver -- something Cutler has missed in his time in the Windy City. I loved the Eric Weems signing, as he fits philosophically with the Bears' affection for controlling field position with the return game. Former Oakland Raiders running back Michael Bush is another talented player who can make Matt Forte even more effective, particularly in the nickel sets. Forte might hate the signing -- wondering why the Bears dropped cash on another back before giving him a long-term deal -- but he will benefit from Bush's presence in the long run. With Bush taking some of the load off Forte, it will be more realistic for Forte to earn all the money in the new, long-term contract he eventually will sign with the Bears. After the savvy moves of the past couple weeks, the Bears can now focus on acquiring defensive players.

Junior college recruiters

(Often in college football, schools will recruit junior college players to add depth and avoid putting all the pressure on the incoming recruiting class. Junior college players are ready to play, allowing schools to continue being competitive while developing raw underclassmen.)

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1. New England Patriots: The Patriots improved their depth on offense, allowing them to focus their full attention on defense in the 2012 NFL Draft. Adding wide receiver Brandon Lloyd will make their dynamic tight-end duo even more potent in the passing game. And the addition of blocking tight end Daniel Fells should improve New England's running game, making this offense that much tougher to stop.

2. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys had several critical needs before free agency started, but then the NFL took away significant cap room (as a penalty for front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season), thus preventing Dallas from being in the Carl Nicks sweepstakes. Still, the 'Boys were able to fill many holes. With the addition of corner Brandon Carr and inside backer Dan Connor, Dallas added two players who will help the defense become faster and more athletic. However, the Cowboys' best addition this offseason is Bill Callahan to their coaching staff. Listed as offensive coodinator/offensive line coach, Callahan will make a difference in both run and pass and make the 'Boys a more physical line. Heading into the draft, the Cowboys have just one glaring need: safety.

3. San Diego Chargers: Losing Jackson hurt, but deciding to use his money and sign two receivers might prove to be a wise move. Assuming he can stay healthy, Eddie Royal will finally give the Chargers an inside receiver to help take some of the pressure off tight end Antonio Gates. Robert Meachem is not as good as Jackson, but he offers the ability to similarly stretch the field for Philip Rivers. If Malcolm Floyd stays healthy and Vincent Brown continues to develop, the Meachem signing will pay off. Jarret Johnson gives the Chargers some help off the edge for at least one year, then hopefully some of the 2012 draft picks will be ready to play.

The "If" group

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(i.e. IF the player we just signed returns to form, we had a great offseason.)

1. Denver Broncos: The Broncos made the biggest news of the offseason, winning the Peyton Manning derby. If Peyton can return to Peyton form, the Broncos will be a Super Bowl contender in 2012. If not ... Well, we don't need to go there.

2. Kansas City Chiefs: If Peyton Hillis can resemble the breakout player who rushed for 1,177 yards and caught 61 passes in 2010, the Chiefs might have the perfect complement to a healthy Jamaal Charles.

3. Philadelphia Eagles: The Birds took a completely different approach this offseason, re-signing their own players, as opposed to actively pursuing free agents. But they did make a trade, and if DeMeco Ryans is able to return to his old form, showing more speed and the ability to play on passing downs, then the Eagles had a fantastic March.

We shall see ...

1. New York Jets: Everyone is anxious to see how the Tim Tebow trade will pan out for the Jets (and particularly, for Mark Sanchez). I think it has disaster written all over it, but I guess we'll have to wait and see how Tebow is utilized.

2. Miami Dolphins: Ireland says he has a plan, and that it does not depend solely on the free-agency period, but I am having a hard time seeing it.

3. Cleveland Browns: No quarterback, no receivers and no running backs signed in this free-agency period, so I'm guessing they're looking for the draft to fill all of these needs. We shall see.

4. Buffalo Bills: I know the Bills paid big money for Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, but weren't both those players on the 2010 Houston Texans team that could not play any defense? Just because you spend a ton of money does not mean that it is going to work. However, I will reserve judgment until the games begin.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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