spent early and often in free agency, hoping to improve a roster that finished 4-12 last year. (Cliff Welch/Icon SMI)
Declaring winners and losers in free agency is not unlike handing out draft grades in the immediate aftermath of that event -- in that, both sets of reactions usually turn out to be at least 50-percent wrong.
We can only base opinions off what we know (or what we think we know) for the time being, though. Thus, the early stars and stumblers from NFL free agency:
• Tampa Bay ... to a point: The Buccaneers' first offseason under Lovie Smith and GM Jason Licht has started with a bang. They have secured no fewer than four impact players in DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, CB Alterraun Verner and underrated DT Clinton McDonald. TE Brandon Myers should help, too, assuming he can fend off Tom Crabtree and 2013 surprise Tim Wright.
Two of the biggest headlines thus far for Tampa Bay, though, involve significant question marks. As in, is Josh McCown really a No. 1 starter? And will the team regret cutting Darrelle Revis? Swapping in Verner for Revis made sense financially, plus Verner may be a better fit for Smith's defensive scheme. Still, Revis is arguably a top-two cornerback in this league, so handing him his walking papers is a gamble.
McCown has unseated Mike Glennon at QB for the moment, despite the fact that prior to Jay Cutler's injury last season McCown had started just two games over the previous four seasons.
So, the quick strikes may not propel this 4-12 team to the Super Bowl. Still, Tampa Bay does look as if it will be far more competitive in 2014, regardless of who's under center.
MORE: 2014 NFL free agent tracker | NFL mock draft database: SI’s experts weigh in
• Cornerbacks: Always a premium position, made more so by Seattle's success with Richard Sherman and the proliferation of spread offenses league-wide. Not surprisingly then, the market has been extremely friendly here so far.
Darrelle Revis received $12 million for the 2014 season from New England; Sam Shields and Vontae Davis each took home $39 million deals, with Davis scoring a whopping $20 million guaranteed; Aqib Talib landed six years and $57 million. The list goes on and on. At least one more sizable contract remains -- that of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Oh right, safeties have not fared too poorly either. Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner all scored massive deals, with Byrd getting six years and enough money to buy the entire Bayou a round of frozen daiquiris.
• The Broncos-Patriots rivalry: If you were hoping there would be a different set of AFC favorites headed into next season, well, sorry. The Broncos landed a shot across the Patriots' bow by signing Aqib Talib away in free agency. New England counter-punched by snatching up Darrelle Revis -- somehow upgrading at CB while also likely landing a 2015 compensatory draft pick via Talib's departure. (Since Revis was cut, Tampa Bay is not entitled to a similar benefit.)
Denver also has continued loading up for what may be its last Super Bowl shot with Peyton Manning by signing DE DeMarcus Ware and S T.J. Ward, both among the top players out there at their respective positions. Both teams still have spots to improve, particularly New England which is depleted at receiver and short of impact pass-rushers.
But these are the teams to beat right now in the AFC.
• Washington: Working without a first-round draft pick -- again -- Washington has hit the ground running in free agency. The star of the show so far is Jason Hatcher, who not only is coming off an 11-sack campaign but left Dallas for D.C., something that will delight Redskins fans. Hatcher excelled in a 4-3 with the Cowboys and has to move into a 3-4 with Washington so there could be some hiccups, but he's a load up front.
Washington has complemented that move with some crafty work elsewhere. Andre Roberts could be a breakout star paired with Pierre Garcon at WR, while Shawn Lauvao bolsters the O-line. Tracy Porter's best days may be behind him, yet he has a chance to rebound as a slot corner.
For a franchise that has too often thrown money around haphazardly, the start to free agency has been measured and well-done in Washington.
• Gus Bradley's defensive line: Bradley is a defense-first coach, so it was far from a secret that he wanted to repair his team's front this offseason. So far, mission accomplished. The Jaguars signed Red Bryant and Chris Clemons away from Seattle -- both are familiar with and fit into Bradley's scheme. They also retained Jason Babin, the team's leader in sacks last season, and took a shot on ex-Steeler Ziggy Hood, who should fit far better in this defense than he did in Pittsburgh's.
The pieces are falling into place. Could Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack complete the puzzle?
• Andrew Hawkins: The ideal scenario for a player tendered as a restricted free agent is that another team will swoop in with a substantial offer. Hawkins is living that dream right now. Sitting on a four-year, $13.6 million ($5.8 million guaranteed) offer from Cleveland, Hawkins either will take that money and leap into a larger role with the Browns or he'll get the same deal to stick with the Cincinnati team he's played for throughout his short NFL career.
Either way, Hawkins stands to be overpaid -- at least relative to what he's done as a pro thus far.
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• Carolina's offense: Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. combined for 100 catches and more than 2,200 all-purpose yards last season. (Not to mention that Smith is one of the most popular players in franchise history.) Both are now gone.
OT Jordan Gross started 16 games in 2013. He recently retired, along with fellow linemen Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers. Guard Travelle Wharton, a 12-game starter last season, is contemplating hanging up his cleats as well.
Even with Cam Newton starring, the '13 Panthers finished just 18th in points scored and 26th in yards. To even keep the offense on a level plane, the front office has significant work to accomplish between now and the end of the draft. Worse yet, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay all appear to have improved on paper -- the last thing Carolina needs to hear as it regroups.
• Running backs: Positional value here is down some, but this is a little ridiculous. The RB market has been a wasteland over the first 48-plus hours of free agency, with the matching $10.5 million-over-three-years deals of Toby Gerhart (Jacksonville) and Donald Brown (San Diego) and Rashad Jennings' four-year, $14 million contract topping the charts. Still sitting without teams are Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, LeGarrette Blount and a boatload of others.
Franchises are learning that it is easier and easier to find RB talent all over the place -- undrafted free agents, practice squads, etc. Paying big for the presumed top players may be a thing of the past.
• Dallas' defensive line: The Cowboys were forced to shed salary this offseason to get under the cap, hence the release of DeMarcus Ware and decision to let Jason Hatcher walk. The money they would have spent on both may be put to better use elsewhere. Unfortunately, because of those calls, the current two-deep up front is as short on legitimate talent as any in the league. Case in point: Right now, Dallas might be looking at asking Jeremy Mincey to start after signing him to a two-year deal. He was waived by the Jaguars last December.
• The AFC North, possibly: The Bengals, true to form, have barely made a peep while free agency swirls around them -- both DE Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins will be wearing new uniforms next season, and Hawkins stands to be a Brown. Pittsburgh did add S Mike Mitchell and lock up OLB Jason Worilds, but that's pretty much been it for a team with little cap room and ample needs.
The Ravens do deserve some props for getting Eugene Monroe, Dennis Pitta, Daryl Smith and Jacoby Jones locked up. They could still make a splash here or there in the coming days, too, though they have yet to sign anyone from outside their own organization and lost both CB Corey Graham and DT/DE Arthur Jones (and possibly James Ihedigbo). Let's not forget this team was not good enough to even make the playoffs last season.
Cleveland has been the most active in the North, swapping out D'Qwell Jackson
for Karlos Dansby
and T.J. Ward for Donte Whitner. If those moves do not work out, this may go down as a failed March for the Browns.