The Saints defense took a major step forward with safety Jairus Byrd. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Now that the dust has settled in the 2014 NFL free agency process, it's time to bow to convention and hand out premature grades. We must wait to see what actually happens on the field, of course, but here's how we think each NFC team did through the first few weeks of free agency:
Best addition: DT Henry Melton
Biggest loss: DT Jason Hatcher
The Cowboys have been cap-strapped for the last few seasons with bad deal after bad deal by Jerry and Stephen Jones coming back to bite the franchise. The losses of DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos and Jason Hatcher to the Redskins were two side effects. Ware is coming off a disappointing season, to be sure, but he could just as easily be reborn in a system more tailored to his strengths. Not having Hatcher will be a bigger blow -- the veteran is one of the more underrated interior pass rushers in the NFL. Dallas got Henry Melton to fill those gaps on a decent low-ball deal, but there's little else to show for this free-agency period (the signing of backup quarterback Brandon Weeden was notable only for Weeden's flameout in Cleveland after his misbegotten first-round selection), and as the team keeps pushing its higher-valued contracts down the road in a cap sense, one wonders when the Joneses will be able to rebuild.
Best addition: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Biggest loss: DT Linval Joseph
The Giants made a lot of signings that didn't explode off the page, but added talent and depth at several key positions. With cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond in the fold, a secondary that was once a weakness now becomes a strength. Former Raiders and Jaguars running back Rashad Jennings is an underrated producer in a rotational role, and center J.D. Walton and guard Geoff Schwartz add considerably to an offensive line that has been breaking down over the last few seasons. General manager Jerry Reese did a fine job, and though the loss of Linval Joseph will be a problem, he can be replaced in a draft that has a deep class of defensive tackles.
Best addition: CB Nolan Carroll
Biggest loss: WR Jason Avant
The Eagles scored big, and they started by re-signing their own key players in left tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce, and receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. The ongoing soap opera with receiver DeSean Jackson hasn't come to a head yet, so we'll leave this grade where it is for now. Getting cornerback Nolan Carroll from Miami was a big deal, because Philly's secondary was a flat-out mess last season. The Eagles also overhauled their safety rotation with Malcolm Jenkins, and getting Darren Sproles in a trade with the Saints should add some interesting firepower to Chip Kelly's offense.
Best addition: DT Jason Hatcher
Biggest loss: DE/OLB Darryl Tapp
After two years of league-imposed salary cap penalties, the Redskins finally got to spend in free agency again, and they pulled off a nice move in getting Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys. He'll fit perfectly in Washington's 3-4 defense, and most likely make Dallas pay next season for considering him redundant. Akeem Jordan will help replace London Fletcher in the middle of that defense. Two moves have us shaking our heads, though -- the re-signing of cornerback DeAngelo Hall and the contract given to former Browns guard Shawn Lauvao, who was quite the turnstile last season.
Best addition: DE Lamarr Houston
Biggest loss: QB Josh McCown
One thing's for sure -- Bears general manager Phil Emery was hell-bent on improving a defensive line that was the team's primary problem in 2013. Chicago signed the versatile Lamarr Houston, who can play everything from three-tech tackle to stand-up outside linebacker; the underrated Willie Young, who racked up all kinds of hurries in Detroit's defense; and came through with Wednesday's agreement with Jared Allen. These moves take the sting out of losing Henry Melton and Julius Peppers to the Cowboys and Packers, respectively, but Josh McCown's departure to the Buccaneers puts head coach Marc Trestman in a bit of a quandary -- the veteran backup was tremendous in relief of Jay Cutler last season, and Trestman must now further expand his reputation as a quarterback whisperer with somebody else.
Best addition: WR Golden Tate
Biggest loss: DE Willie Young
The Lions got an estimable No. 2 target behind Calvin Johnson in Tate, who can play in the slot or outside, and adds value as a returner. Losing safety Louis Delmas to the Dolphins was tempered by the addition of James Ihedigbo, and the loss of Willie Young to the Bears is something the team can take care of in the draft. The Lions didn't do a lot in free agency, and Young was the only major hit to their personnel along the way.
Best addition: DE Julius Peppers
Biggest loss: WR James Jones
The Packers retained tackle B.J. Raji, linebacker Mike Neal and cornerback Sam Shields for a defense that underperformed in 2013, and the likely defections of linemen Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly mean that there's work to do in the draft. Keeping Neal was particularly important, as he can play all around the front seven. Receiver James Jones' signing with the Raiders will test the theory that anyone can excel when Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback, and center Evan Dietrich-Smith's signing with the Buccaneers puts a hole in the offensive line. Of course, the big deal was the three-year, $30 million contract given to Julius Peppers, which doesn't have a lot of guaranteed money involved. Redefining Peppers in a 3-4 base defense is a big ask, and he's always tended to disappear at times, but the Packers need to add spark to their defense, to be sure.
Best addition: DT Linval Joseph
Biggest loss: RB Toby Gerhart
With new head coach Mike Zimmer in tow, it was clear that the Vikings would commit heavily to their defense, and they did -- not only re-signing end Everson Griffen to a contract that could be a bit of an overpay, but also grabbing underrated tackle Linval Joseph from the Giants. With Joseph, Griffen, Sharrif Floyd and Brian Robison, Minnesota now has a seriously formidable base four-man front. Tackle Corey Wootton, formerly of the Bears, will add an interesting rotational wrinkle. Adding cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox, though not flashy moves, should help a secondary that was frequently toasted in 2013. It's clear that the team will have to address its quarterback situation in the draft -- re-signing Matt Cassel and hoping Christian Ponder turns the corner won't feed the bulldog.
Best addition: DT Paul Soliai
Biggest loss: FS Thomas DeCoud
The Falcons jettisoned a lot of formerly great players this offseason, including DeCoud, cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas. Now with a commitment to reverse the mistakes made on both sides of the line over the last few seasons, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli went heavy on the defensive line as the team transitions to more of a 3-4 look. Problem is, the Falcons are paying those guys heavily, too -- and not always in range with their career performance. Soliai has been a high-quality player for a while, so his five-year, $33 million deal with $14 million guaranteed makes sense. But the five-year, $25 million deal given to defensive end Tyson Jackson makes little sense -- outside of 2013, Jackson has never been more than a decent run-stopper, and one wonders if this wasn't Pioli trying to make right the fact that he overdrafted Jackson in Kansas City. Atlanta also re-signed defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. They'll desperately need to deal with the offensive line at some point -- certainly in the draft.
Best addition: WR Jerricho Cotchery
Biggest loss: WR Steve Smith
Conclusion: Yes, general manager Dave Gettleman is still dealing with the cap ramifications of the mistakes made by predecessor Marty Hurney, but losing your three best receivers in Smith, Brandon LaFell and Tedd Ginn doesn't help Cam Newton much. The way Gettleman handled the Smith situation was ham-fisted at best, and he'll have a lot to answer for if Smith balls out in Baltimore and the Panthers can't re-stock their receiver corps. Cotchery is a step in the right direction. Placing the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy apparently was a necessary move, bit it further hamstrung the front office, and now the Panthers must hit several home runs in the draft.
Best addition: FS Jairus Byrd
Biggest loss: RB Darren Sproles
Adding Byrd to a secondary that already includes the dynamic and versatile Kenny Vacarro means the Saints may have the best safety duo in the NFL right now. Byrd was the No. 1 defensive free agent, and his range in coverage is hard to top. On offense, losing Sproles wasn't so much of a hit, because it was fairly clear that the team was ready to move on. It may cast them in a bad light if Sproles excels in Philadelphia, but Sean Payton has earned a considerable amount of credit when it comes to helping players excel in his offense. The re-signing of right tackle Zach Strief was an important bridge. The Saints will take their needs on both sides of the line to the draft.
Best addition: CB Alterraun Verner
Biggest loss: FB Erik Lorig
Not only did the Bucs pick up a large number of impact players on cap-friendly deals, but also they lost little of import -- as long as Verner isn't a one-year wonder and doesn't prove to be vastly inferior to Darrelle Revis, who is now in New England. Other than that, Tampa Bay's front office scored big. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith is a tough, reliable veteran to add to the offensive line, and replacing Donald Penn with Anthony Collins at left tackle was about as big an upgrade as is possible. Former Bengals end Michael Johnson should be able to do in Tampa for Lovie Smith what Julius Peppers did for Smith in Chicago -- provide serious pass rush outside, and kick inside in certain instances. Former Seahawks tackle Clinton McDonald will add power and pass rush in rotation, and the addition of Josh McCown gives the Bucs intriguing (and much-needed) quarterback options. It's one thing to win in March and quite another to do so the next February, but the Bucs' franchise overhaul continues -- and it's been very impressive.
Best addition: OT Jared Veldheer
Biggest loss: ILB Karlos Dansby
Getting Veldheer on the cheap was a huge gain for general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians -- with a consistent left tackle in the fold and 2013 first-round guard Jonathan Cooper coming back from injury, the Cards have more offensive line stability than they've had in eons. However, losing Dansby is a blow for Todd Bowles' highly-ranked defense, because Dansby and Daryl Washington worked in perfect concert together. Kevin Minter, projected to replace Dansby, is a forward-motion player without Dansby's versatility. However, adding Antonio Cromartie on a one-year deal to supplement cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu could give Arizona the best trio at the position in the league. Receiver Ted Ginn adds deep playmaking ability and return acumen, and Jonathan Dwyer adds to the running back rotation.
Best addition: SS Antoine Bethea
Biggest loss: SS Donte Whitner
The 49ers probably got a bit better at the strong safety position in upgrading from Whitner to Bethea, and hey ... maybe Jim Harbaugh can turn the recently traded Blaine Gabbert into a serviceable backup quarterback. But with Tarell Brown off to Oakland and Carlos Rogers unsigned, expecting new arrival Chris Cook to do much in that regard is a fool's errand -- Cook allowed nine touchdowns in coverage and gave up a league-worst 140.3 quarterback rating last season. Acquiring Jonathan Martin will be better than a PR ploy only if Martin plays at a position that works best for him -- he's not a natural left tackle at the NFL level.
Best addition: DE Michael Bennett
Biggest loss: WR Golden Tate
The Seahawks added so little in free agency that it makes sense to add Bennett to this list, because he was the one player the team desperately wanted to re-sign. They reached out to Jared Allen and were outbid by the Bears, took a pass on the free-agent guards (though it remains a position of severe need) and said good bye to several formerly great but recently flawed defenders in Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. Clearly, after making several big splashes with trades and in free agency last season, the Super Bowl champs are looking to the draft, and they have to save their pennies for the impending re-signings of quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas. Losing Tate to the Lions opens up a specific need that the team will have to address in the draft, because they can't count on Percy Harvin making it through a full season healthy.
Best addition: DE Alex Carrington
Biggest loss: OG Shelley Smith