Giving free agency the thumb
Which teams' offseason moves we've liked, disliked
Posted: Friday March 7, 2008 12:16PM; Updated: Friday March 7, 2008 2:56PM
Before we review the first full week of the NFL's free-agency period, a few quick points: We're going to avoid the hackneyed "winners and losers'' headings because there are no final results posted in March, at the very beginning of personnel acquisition season. We'll give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to teams, based on whether we can make sense of their offseason moves and if they strike us as reasonable and well-thought out decisions, or not. We either get it, or we don't.
Also, keep in mind that we're not just exclusively focused on free agency, but include any and all personnel moves that have transpired this offseason, be they trades, signings or retirements. Lastly, we're not striving to have a nice balanced approach here. The way we see it, there are more questions raised than answers arrived at every year in free agency, and this offseason is certainly no different.
Cleveland Browns -- Ideally what free agency is designed to do is put a team into good position for the draft, setting it up to address its remaining needs depending on the strength of those positions in the collegiate pool. Unless of course you're the Browns, who have traded away four-fifths of their draft choices and will essentially sit out the late April pick-fest.
But that looks like a smart move for the Browns, because in a draft that isn't deep at defensive tackle, they weren't going to do better than Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers with the second- and third-round picks that it cost to obtain them. The lack of a pass rush from their defensive line was the Browns' glaring weakness last season, and Williams and Rogers provide a major upgrade.
In addition, I liked Cleveland's move to wisely secure starting quarterback Derek Anderson with a three-year deal and add a decent complementary receiving weapon in Donte' Stallworth (for whom I happen to think they overpaid).
Granted, Cleveland is taking a bit of a flyer on Rogers, who was something of an enigma in Detroit. But if he's on his game, a third-round pick and cornerback Leigh Bodden in trade could wind up being a steal. The Browns were a 10-win team in 2007, just like AFC North champion Pittsburgh. With the Steelers making no real noise thus far, it seems to me the Browns have closed the gap on Pittsburgh and then some. That makes Cleveland the team to beat in its division.
Philadelphia Eagles -- The Eagles have narrowed down their draft needs, leaving themselves to address the offensive line. They're paying huge dollars to Asante Samuel, but the best thing they did for their new No. 1 cornerback was to sign an underrated pass rusher in defensive end Chris Clemons. Giving blitz-happy defensive coordinator Jim Johnson more options with his pass rush should make things easier for Samuel and the rest of Philly's secondary, which struggled to produce turnovers without much pass pressure in 2007.
The Eagles can now turn their attention to an aging offensive line in the early rounds of the draft, taking a tackle who will eventually replace either Jon Runyan or William Thomas. Better to select a tackle in the draft than to overpay for one in what was a shallow free-agent market at the position. Receiver is another area of need, and you have to at least give Philadelphia credit its willingness to swing for the fence in trying to land Randy Moss.
New Orleans Saints -- The centerpiece move for the Saints so far has been the acquisition of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who could help New Orleans take a significant step forward if he's sufficiently recovered from last fall's knee surgery. Vilma is back in a 4-3 formation, which should provide a comfort zone for the former defensive rookie of the year, after the past two seasons in the Jets' 3-4. As down on Vilma as New York head coach Eric Mangini was, he's still a 25-year-old who brings both an aggressive playing style and great leadership to the field.
The Saints undoubtedly didn't want to lose center Jeff Faine, but the Bucs were willing to over-pay to wrest him away from their division rival. That's a loss, but given New Orleans' array of talent on offense, it shouldn't be a back-breaker. The Saints retained several key performers on offense, namely receivers Devery Henderson and David Patten, as well as running back Aaron Stecker. Henderson has shown inconsistent hands, but getting him back for 2008 at a reasonable $2 million was a deft move.
Signing defensive end Bobby McCray wasn't the biggest headline, but the ex-Jaguar isn't too far removed from a 10-sack season. More important, his presence allows the Saints to line up Charles Grant inside at tackle, which allows New Orleans to, in essence, play three defensive ends and become a much more athletic front four. That's a similar approach to what worked so well for the pass rush of the Super Bowl champion Giants last season. The Saints also upgraded their depth at their No. 1-need position, cornerback, signing ex-Patriot Randall Gay to at least compete for the nickelback role.