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  • The Titans continued to take from the Patriots while the Bills moved into position to draft a quarterback.
By Jonathan Jones
March 15, 2018

Every year come mid-March, “winning” NFL free agency is akin to winning on the field—at least that’s the way we hear it. Even though making a shrewd trade or gutsy free-agent signing will not exactly translate to a win, now is the time for improving one’s football team and there are clearly teams that have done so in the past few weeks.

The Cleveland Browns were winners last March even though they couldn’t win a game when it counted this season. And they were about to be this year, but the retirement of future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame left tackle Joe Thomas with no immediate backup plan sinks all the goodwill the Browns earned from this reporter after signing Carlos Hyde and Chris Hubbard, and trading for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry.

So I give you my top five four teams who improved their chances of winning in 2018 at the start of free agency, in no particular order.

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Buffalo Bills

A big few weeks for the Bills because lest you forget they agreed to terms with Vontae Davis at the end of February. Also, the team shipped left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati and swapped first-round draft picks, which allows Buffalo to move in position to strike for a top-five pick in the NFL draft. Now the Bills hold picks 12 and 22 (along with two picks in rounds two and three each), so all signs point to them using that capital to trade up and grab a top-five pick, allowing them to draft the quarterback of their future.

No, that QB is not A.J. McCarron, who the Bills signed to a low-risk, two-year deal. This allows Buffalo to see if the quarterback they draft in April is the real deal. Wise were the Bills to not reach and overpay for a quarterback in this free-agent class after Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum were off the board.

The draft capital was the best free-agent acquisition the Bills had, but they got plenty more, too. They re-upped veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams a day after they agreed to sign tackle Star Lotulelei to a five-year deal. Shortly after the Williams’ signing they got Trent Murphy on a three-year deal to really strength their pass rush across the line.

They even got some insurance for Shady McCoy by getting Chris Ivory. Indeed, the Bills have to pick their rookie quarterback correctly for any of this to matter, but the draft isn’t for another six weeks, making them winners today.

• What’s a day during NFL free agency like for Adam Schefter? We spent 24 hours with him in 2017. Watch only on SI TV.

Chicago Bears

Thanks to a wonky receiving market this offseason, the Bears had to spend high in order to land Allen Robinson. Mitch Trubisky had a single receiver (Kendall Wright) catch at least 400 yards last season, so receiving help had to be at the top of GM Ryan Pace’s do-to list this month.

Pace was aggressive in signing Robinson to a three-year deal worth $42 million in hopes that he returns to pre-ACL tear form when he had nearly 2,300 receiving yards in 2015 and ’16 combined. For a speed option, Pace sought out Taylor Gabriel, a former undrafted free agent who showed how special he could be in Kyle Shanahan’s Falcons’ offense before getting lost in Steve Sarkisian’s version of it. Chicago also added tight end Trey Burton, who fought for playing time behind Brent Celek and Zach Ertz in Philadelphia.

Throw in Chicago’s solid ground attack with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, marry that to new head coach Matt Nagy’s offensive mind and the Bears will most certainly improve from their position as the league’s third-worst offense in 2017. To boot, the Bears also signed kicker Cody Parkey for a $15 million deal. Parkey went 21-for-23 on field goals last year for the Dolphins and will immediately help a Bears team that made just 16 with three different kickers last year and was 29th in the league in field goal percentage (72.7).

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San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers would have made it on this list with one contract alone—nabbing Richard Sherman was a huge get for San Francisco. Ignoring the debate over whether Sherman needed an agent to represent him, there’s no debate that this is the best low-risk, high-reward deal for a team this free-agency cycle. If Sherman isn’t ready for the season or doesn’t perform at a high level, no sweat for the Niners. If he does return to All-Pro form, he’s paid at a commensurate rate and then gets his salary guaranteed next year for what would be below-market for an All-Pro.

On the offensive side, Shanahan gets new toys for Bay Area Savior Jimmy Garoppolo. Weston Richburg could very well be Garoppolo’s new center after signing from New York this week, which would kick Daniel Kilgore over to guard and solidify the interior of the line. Not only will they protect Garoppolo but they’ll be blocking for new running back Jerick McKinnon, who signed a four-year deal worth up to $30 million. He’s shown his ability to run and catch out of the backfield while carrying the load as the lead guy after Dalvin Cook went down last year.

Tennessee Titans

Bolstering the defensive backfield was a priority for GM Jon Robinson, because no defense faced more passes attempted in 2017 than the Titans—their opponents threw the ball 605 times and paid for it only 12 times (with safety Kevin Byard nabbing eight of those interceptions). Robinson went with another familiar face in free agency, landing Malcolm Butler from the Patriots one year after getting cornerback Logan Ryan from his old team, too.

Continuing the trend on the offensive side, Robinson inked running back Dion Lewis to share the backfield with Derrick Henry. DeMarco Murray’s production took a hit last season (he rushed for half of what he did in 2016), and Henry showed in the postseason that he can be the workhorse moving forward. Keeping right guard Josh Kline on a four-year, $26 million to maintain continuity was also a great move by Robinson and Co. as they search for consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2007–08.

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