The highlight of the offseason is always the NFL draft. It’s at that event that the league’s future stars appear on the scene and each team makes selections that will impact their fortunes for years to come. Still, it’s not the only star of the offseason. Playing second fiddle to the draft is free agency, an event that, much like the draft, can turn a team’s fortunes around, for better or worse.
The first round of free agency is always the most exciting. That’s when most of the big stars go off the board.
For some teams, especially the Cowboys and Raiders, among others, the draft suddenly means more than ever. Dallas and Oakland both bungled their way through free agency. For Dallas, the even was generally lacking in productivity. For the Raiders, the open market was an unmitigated failure. The Raiders must pay more than almost every team in the league to bring talent to town, and even when they do just that, they’re unable to actually keep their players as in the case of Rodger Saffold.
Failures aren’t the only events to change the outlook of the draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars, a team with a huge amount of cap space, spent big on their defensive line. By remaking nearly their entire defensive front, the Jaguars now have room to pass on Jadeveon Clowney if he were to fall to the third overall pick in the draft.
In fact successes may come to characterize this year’s open market. Teams like the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago largely due to the success they had in free agency. That parity has characterized the league since the inception of free agency. Suddenly the have nots are becoming the haves and some of the haves have become have nots.
Teams at the top of the draft order are always expected to make a splash in free agency, largely because they normally have the cash available to sign big-name stars. That wasn’t the case with the Texans, who control the first overall pick in the draft. Having not acquired a quarterback to lead their team forward, it’s hard to imagine the Texans passing on taking a quarterback with their first round pick.
The St. Louis Rams have been relatively quiet since the start of free agency. They appear to be ready to move forward with Sam Bradford as their quarterback. It’s unclear if Bradford will be a long-term success, but the move does give the Rams flexibility in the draft. They can add a top ranked prospect to their team with the second overall pick, or they can trade down in an effort to pick up more core players.
Other teams are in a similar position. The Buccaneers’ aggressive plays in the open market have given them the ability to refrain from stretching for a quarterback in the draft.
The Browns, by contrast, have done themselves no favors in free agency. The additions of Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner does allow them to address needs left behind by T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson. In addition, center Alex Mack is likely headed out of town, despite the transition tag the Browns slapped on him.
Ultimately, free agency has simply shuffled needs from one team to another. Quarterbacks are still in style, and playmakers on defense are at a premium as always. There’s no way of determining exactly what free agency has changed league-wide. Each team’s needs are now slightly different than they were before the league year started, but that’s the nature of free agency.