Which non-playoff teams helped themselves the most?
As Elvis Dumervil and the fax machine deadline debacle in Denver reminded us, the best-laid plans in free agency don't always produce the desired results. But some teams had better weeks than others as the NFL's shopping season opened. Free agency was especially fruitful for many teams that missed the playoffs last year and went to work trying to close the gap on the personnel front.
Five days into free agency, here's our quick-take ranking of the five 2012 non-playoff teams that have helped themselves the most so far this offseason, via signings, trades, re-signings, whatever means necessary:
1. Kansas City -- The Chiefs traded for a legitimate starting quarterback in deposed 49er Alex Smith, and that move alone could make it a successful offseason in K.C. Nothing much else matters if you don't get the QB question answered, as teams like the Chiefs, Bills and Cardinals have proven so vividly in recent years.
But it's not just the Smith acquisition that we like. Kansas City re-signed No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe, franchised offensive tackle Branden Albert, secured the services of one of the best cornerbacks available in free agency in Sean Smith for a reasonable price, added a second cornerback who at least has had past success in the AFC in Dunta Robinson, and picked up solid, dependable components like receiver Donnie Avery, defensive lineman Mike DeVito, tight end Anthony Fasano and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Topping it off, the Chiefs wisely gave themselves another intriguing option at quarterback, handing former Saints backup Chase Daniel a three-year deal worth $10 million to be their fallback plan behind Smith. If you're keeping score, Kansas City upgraded at multiple positions on offense and added significantly to the secondary on a defense that has several Pro Bowl talents in Tamba Hali, Eric Berry and Justin Houston. With the No. 1 pick in the draft still to come, and offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher both on the radar screen, Andy Reid's opening statement in Kansas City should encompass considerably more than 2-14 in 2013.
2. Miami -- Being able to keep some of their own free agents -- like receiver Brian Hartline, backup quarterback Matt Moore and safety Chris Clemons -- made for a strong first step in the Dolphins' offseason, and if they can somehow talk offensive tackle Jake Long back into the fold at a workable salary level, all the better. But the big story in Miami has revolved around improving the weapons at quarterback Ryan Tannenhill's disposal, and on that front you have to give general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin a great big 'mission accomplished.'
Miami paid ex-Steelers receiver Mike Wallace like he's one of the top three pass-catchers in the league, and he's not. But he's a talent and the Dolphins knew they were going to have to play that game in order to win the prize. In the NFL, South Beach is still not a destination spot, what with Miami making just one playoff trip in the past 11 years. Then, the Dolphins kept the passing-game theme going, signing both underrated Rams receiver Brandon Gibson and ex-Jets tight end Dustin Keller, whose loss should hurt division rival New York.
Miami -- who went 7-9 last season -- had it going for a while, but ultimately couldn't compensate for an offense that ranked 27th in points scored. That shouldn't be the case this year, even with the loss of running back Reggie Bush to Detroit in free agency. The Dolphins offense looks significantly improved, and replacing veteran linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett with Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler in free agency is a net gain on defense as well.
3. Cleveland -- If the Browns do intend to ride out the foreseeable future with quarterback Brandon Weeden, I like the approach of surrounding him with the best possible defense and running game and giving him some time to work on his craft in the NFL. That's why Cleveland's emphasis on increased pass rush and improving their defensive front seven in free agency has been a solid plan of attack. You can argue the point the Browns over-paid Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger at $8 million a year over five years, but he did lead the Super Bowl champions in sacks last season and rose to the occasion in the postseason.
Even better than Kruger's signing was the addition of ex-Oakland defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, a well-regarded talent who is going to greatly aid Cleveland's transition to the 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton. Bryant will move to end in the Browns' scheme, and he's adept at both creating pass pressure and playing the run. Bryant is known for great intensity and effort and his addition should provide some much-needed attitude to the Browns. When you factor in the bargain basement addition of free-agent outside linebacker Quentin Groves, who had a nice comeback season in Arizona playing under Horton, Cleveland's defense suddenly has a lot more firepower and the ability to quickly transition to its new formation.
Though the Browns could still use a veteran cornerback in free agency, they've still got some options in one of the deepest positions in this year's market. The additions of Kruger and Groves this week also mean Cleveland could go in a direction other than outside linebacker -- widely predicted before free agency began -- with its No. 6 pick in the first round of April's draft. If a cornerback like Alabama's Dee Milliner is still on the board, the Browns will have done deft work of making free agency set up and dovetail with their draft.
4. Tennessee -- Titans head coach Mike Munchak enters this season in a win-or-else mode thanks to an edict from owner Bud Adams following last year's 6-10 regression. But at least Adams is giving Munchak a chance to go down fighting, with Tennessee taking an aggressive, forward-leaning approach to free agency. Knowing they have to be proactive to sell players on the benefits of a small market like Nashville, the Titans went out this week and threw some cash around, landing well-respected pieces like ex-Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, former San Francisco tight end Delanie Walker and Lions defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill.
There was also the somewhat dubious decision by the Titans to award ex-Jets running back Shonn Greene a $10 million, three-year contract, but Munchak is convinced the best way to return running back Chris Johnson's game to elite status is by upgrading his blockers and giving him a backfield running mate who can shoulder some of the short yardage responsibilities. We shall see if Greene's signing was money well spent.
Levitre is the kind of quality young player who doesn't often reach free agency and his arrival signals that the Titans will pound away on the ground plenty this season. In Walker, Tennessee landed a versatile and reliable tight end, replacing the talented but maddeningly inconsistent Jared Cook, who signed with St. Louis in free agency. Hill doesn't have much name recognition, but he was a valuable cog on Detroit's defensive line and is effective at pushing the pocket and creating interior pass pressure.
5. Philadelphia -- The Eagles admittedly took some chances with their busy week of free agency, but they had a lot of ground to cover and little to lose after seeing the bottom drop out at 4-12 in 2012. I don't love any of Philadelphia's acquisitions individually, but cumulatively they make some sense and have upside potential. Seven of the team's nine new players are defenders, and that's where the emphasis should have been after last season's defensive collapse.
The Eagles secondary was horrendous last year, so new cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, as well as safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung, represent a near total makeover. Being different in this case really counts for something. Phillips is a savvy player when healthy, but his history of knee issues made the Giants wary of retaining him. With a one-year deal from the Eagles, he was a good gamble to take. Williams was too costly (three years, $17 million) and Ravens fans will tell you he's not going to be worth that kind of investment. But the Eagles had the salary cap room to work with, and didn't blink at his price tag.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin slumped precipitously last season in Houston, but he's just a year removed from an 11.5-sack showing in 2011. I think he's a good bet to rebound and offer some edge pass rush for Philly. The Eagles' other new piece that seems smart is nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, the former 49er. A transition to a 3-4 defense is underway in Philadelphia, and without a hold-the-point-of-attack space-eater, you're just spinning your wheels in the 3-4. Sopoaga isn't star material, but he's going to do the dirty work for your defense and allow other players to benefit from his presence.
One final small transaction by the Eagles has a decent chance to look good in the span of time: Friday's trade for ex-Bucs receiver Arrelious Benn. Philadelphia gave up very little to get him, and the 2010 second-round pick is still only 24. He was a non-factor in Tampa, but he's 6-foot-2 and gives the Eagles some much needed height at receiver. He was a low-risk pickup who could find new life in Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense.