The Ravens, Patriots and Saints have some holes to fill after key departures in NFL free agency.
Each season, there are teams who lose a great many players in free agency for a number of reasons—franchise disinterest in retaining those players, a bad fit between player and team or salary cap issues. Traditionally, the media overreacts, touting such teams as losers of the free agency derby, and while sometimes it does play out that way, the severe reduction of a roster in March can pay dividends through the season in other situations.
Last year, the Panthers lost their three primary receivers in free agency, but after an outstanding draft, managed to win the NFC South for the second straight season (though, to be fair, they did so with five fewer wins than in 2013). The Cowboys' defense was supposed to be sunk with the departures of Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, but with the combination of brilliant defensive coaching and a new emphasis on power running, they went to the playoffs for the first time since '09.
There are times when key losses in free agency are necessary and inevitable—a deconstruction to re-construct, if you will—and other times when those losses are simply organizational mistakes. We're not yet sure where these three teams land on that scale, but they've each suffered some key cuts in the last week. Note: Though the 49ers' roster has been fairly decimated at this point, they've been affected by retirements as much as anything (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith).
In 2014, the Ravens ranked seventh in Football Outsiders' Defensive Adjusted Line Yards metric, and were one of the best teams between the guards. As it's been for a long time, that had a lot to do with mammoth nose tackle Haloti Ngata, whose versatility allows him to play everywhere from straight over a center to 3-4 end. Ngata also did an impressive job of getting after the quarterback, registering three sacks, two quarterback hits and 20 hurries in 646 total snaps. But when Ndamukong Suh left the Detroit Lions for the Miami Dolphins, signing the richest deal ever given to a defensive player in NFL history, the Lions turned to Ngata as a replacement, trading two mid-round picks and a seventh-round pick to the Ravens for the nose tackle. Baltimore does have an excellent run-stopping tackle in Brandon Williams, but he doesn't have Ngata's versatility, and while Timmy Jernigan showed a great deal of potential as a run-stopping lineman with some potential for pass rush, the Ravens may struggle to replicate Ngata's every-down, every-gap presence in the short term.
And speaking of versatility gone missing, there's the matter of Pernell McPhee, who was characterized as an outside linebacker in Baltimore's base defense, but provided impressive pass pressure and run-stopping ability from just about every gap—from wide-nine end to nose-shade tackle, with his hand off the ground and in a three-point stance. McPhee signed a five-year, $39 million deal with the Bears to play a similarly impactful role in Vic Fangio's conversion to a 3-4 defense, and though he hasn't been a starter per se, he's got everything it takes to be a top-level disruptor in any situation. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has been great at replacing talent for years, but it's tough to lose two key players who can fill multiple roles with such authority.
There's also the question of who will replace Torrey Smith as the team's primary deep receiver. Smith took a five-year, $40 million contract with $22 million guaranteed with the 49ers, leaving the Ravens without a credible, consistent threat downfield. Smith didn't match his 65-catch, 1,128-yard 2013 season, but he did increase his touchdowns, going from four to 11.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick always has a plan, right? Well, losing two quality starting cornerbacks in any free agency period is a hit, no matter how well-prepared your front office is. Yes, the Patriots had to know from the start that Darrelle Revis probably wouldn't be around for the second year of the two-year deal he signed before the 2014 season. The $20 million second-year option was prohibitive from a salary cap perspective, and when the New York Jets came calling with far more cap space to spend, it was all over but the negotiating. There was no way the Pats could—or were going to—match the Jets' five-year, $70 million offer with $39 million fully guaranteed. But matching Revis' talent will be tough—before the Patriots acquired him, they'd been vulnerable to deep balls and against top receivers for a number of years, and it's no coincidence that his arrival in Foxboro aligned with New England's first Super Bowl title in a decade.
Then, factor in that Brandon Browner, Revis's primary bookend in 2014, was also cut loose when the Patriots declined to pick up his option. Browner is penalty-prone and will get beaten deep at times, but he's also a very physical player who can dominate in short areas. Logan Ryan can step up to replace Browner, and Kyle Arrington's in the mix, but Arrington was pulled from the Super Bowl because he was getting killed by Seahawks reserve receiver Chris Matthews.
So, the Patriots will have to re-jigger—and again, Bill Belichick has proven through the years that few adjust better to changing realties. He'll need to find a way to avoid all those questions about New England's secondary that had been around for years.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints had to pluck players from their roster just to get under the cap; linebacker Curtis Lofton was summarily dismissed on March 9 to save $4.25 million in cap room, and pass-rusher Junior Galette had to do some major re-working of his current deal to avoid a cut. Of course, the big news was the trade of Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks; Graham has been Drew Brees' primary target since 2011, and though the Saints received center Max Unger and Seattle's 31st-overall draft pick in the deal, that may or may not work out as the Saints have intended -- Unger is a great player when healthy, but he's missed a lot of time over the last two seasons.
General manager Mickey Loomis said that they traded Graham to allow more flexibility in improving the team's defense, but Loomis is the same guy who signed former Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract in March of last year, then watched as he was toasted and abused by every offense he faced before he was lost for the season in early October to a knee injury. Byrd has seen his own contract adjusted to adapt to New Orleans' current cap constraints, but even with that extra first-round pick in hand, there's reason to be skeptical about New Orleans' current plans.