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The beginning of the free agency period always sparks a frenzy of activity throughout the league, none more so than this year. Big names have moved on to unfamiliar territory and will be expected to perform instantly, in some cases providing their new teams with the tools to be able to make a run at the playoffs (Buffalo Bills fans be warned, Mario Williams is just one man).
With many of the more high profile players already signed to new deals, it is time to take a step back and look at the winners and losers of what has been a surprisingly interesting free agency thus far.
Given the relatively weak class of free agents this year, it is perhaps not surprising that many teams have swooped early and signed some of the better players to very lucrative contracts, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showing very little restraint early on. They have helped quarterback Josh Freeman immensely with the signings of Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson.
Freeman’s development seemed to stall last year, Tampa Bay will be hoping for a return to form with the added protection of Nicks and the top receiving target of Jackson. They have also strengthened a fairly weak secondary with Eric Wright, formerly of the Detroit Lions, as they look for the secondary to match up with their formidable defensive line.
The Buccaneers can be fairly pleased with their moves in free agency so far, spending big (and with their cap space and poor form last season, why wouldn’t they?) but acquiring key pieces which have helped strengthen a very young team.
Another team who has spent well so far, but gone under the radar in comparison to Tampa Bay, has been the San Diego Chargers. They have brought in Le’Ron McClain (the injury prone Ryan Matthews will be eternally grateful) to help shore up their running game, whilst the arrival of wide receivers Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem should help to make up for the loss of Jackson to Tampa Bay.
Perhaps their most useful signing so far will be on the other side of the ball, with former Baltimore Raven linebacker Jarret Johnson making the move to San Diego, a signing which will surely aid the Chargers’ poor run defense. Given that both Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have labeled Johnson as the key to the Ravens unforgiving defense, he could be exactly the man the Chargers need to take the next step on their way to becoming Super Bowl contenders.
The biggest signing of the Free Agency thus far has arguably been Mario Williams’ move to the Bills. He singlehandedly improves their defense immeasurably and will give Tom Brady something to fear when his Bills meet the Patriots next season. This will of course be trumped by the signing of Peyton Manning once the quarterback decides whether his future lies in Denver, Tennessee or San Francisco as he not only singlehandedly improves a teams’ offense, but makes them a Super Bowl contender, such is the talent he brings to a team.
Not every time has been so active in the early stages however, with the likes of the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots all biding their time given that their limited cap space means they cannot compete with the Buccaneers and Bills of the league in terms of lucrative contracts.
While the Patriots will retain the nucleus of their team next season, the Ravens have already lost starters in the forms of Ben Grubbs, Corey Redding and Johnson, whilst the Steelers have had to cut several key players in order to stay under the cap and face the challenging task of trying to sign star wide receiver Mike Wallace to a new contract. Both teams will need to spend wisely towards the end of free agency if they are to retain their statuses as genuine Super Bowl contenders.
Whoever ends up with Manning, whether it be the Broncos, Titans or 49ers, is a strong candidate for the team to have done best in the free agency, as are the previously mentioned Buccaneers.
However, the fairly understated signings that the Chargers have made will help them immeasurably, potentially putting them back into the playoffs and therefore could well be the best signings of the Free Agency period so far. At the other end of the spectrum are two AFC North sides, the Ravens and the Steelers.
The Ravens are noted for building through the draft and do have some cap room left to make some important moves, but the Steelers could be in genuine trouble. With little to no cap room left and the likes of Farrior and Smith already cut, there is little to celebrate in Pittsburgh this offseason and fans will be hoping for some very good prospects in the upcoming draft lest the Steelers fall below the Ravens in the battle for supremacy of the AFC North.