The NFL free agent frenzy has slowed after last week’s chaos and many teams improved themselves greatly. Let’s take a closer look at some of the teams who “won” free agency.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How many of you thought that Tom Brady was going to end up in Southwest Florida? Shockingly, Brady left the Patriots to face new and exciting challenges in Tampa. Immediately, the Bucs' Super Bowl chances shot up according to Las Vegas (going from 40-1 to 22-1) and the Bucs have a realistic chance to make the playoffs after missing them since 2001.
Can one man make such a difference? Well, if that player is Tom Brady the answer is yes. The Bucs lost a host of close games last season and there is no doubt that a calm, collected Tom Brady would have been a significant advantage over turnover prone QB Jameis Winston.
Many fantasy football owners might be wondering if the addition of Brady will affect stud WRs Mike Evans (1157 yds/8 TDs) and Chris Godwin (1333 yds/9 TDs). I think both players could have similar numbers to last season. Brady’s arm may not be as strong as it once was, but he is still incredibly accurate, and the Bucs will be a pass first offense under Bruce Arians. I can also guarantee that fantasy owners will see a huge increase in the output of TE O.J. Howard. Howard was a monumental disappointment for his fantasy owners last season (459 yards/1 TD) and if anyone can get him to rebound it is Brady.
Outside of Brady, the Bucs did an excellent job as well in keeping their own players. They placed the franchise tag on LB Shaq Barrett who had 19.5 sacks last season. They also secured the services of sack happy edge rusher JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) for another two seasons. The Bucs' defense really started to pick up DC Todd Bowles’ system towards the end of last season and could be primed into becoming a top defense in 2020.
One other move of note is that the Bucs also signed OL Joe Haeg from the Colts to help solidify their offensive line and give Brady more protection.
All in all, there are huge expectations in Tampa right now. The NFC South now has two Hall of Fame QBs in Brady and Drew Brees. Should be an interesting battle for the division.
If I asked you which NFL team had the most disappointing result in 2019, you would likely have said the Cleveland Browns. I concur with that answer. Former coach Freddie Kitchens was in way over his head and had no idea how to run an offense, let alone an entire team. QB Baker Mayfield sputtered, the wide receivers squabbled, and everything came to a head when out of frustration, DL Myles Garrett used his helmet as a weapon against Steelers QB Mason Rudolph. The Browns needed to fix a lot of things and they certainly have done that this offseason.
Firstly, Kitchens was mercifully fired and Kevin Stefanski, the runner-up for the job previously, was named head coach. Stefanski comes over from the Minnesota Vikings where he served as the team’s offensive coordinator. Stefanski is a very bright offensive mind and should immediately figure out how to help Baker Mayfield fulfill his potential.
To that end, the Browns did three things that were very important in free agency. Firstly, they signed OL Jack Conklin from the Titans. Conklin was universally thought of as the top OT available in free agency and the Browns knew that, so they paid heavily ($42 million/3 yrs.) to get him. It is also expected that the Browns will use their first-round pick on another OT who can bookend with Conklin to give Mayfield more time to throw. Secondly, everyone knows that to help develop a quarterback, you need to give him a good tight end as a security blanket. The Browns did that by bringing in TE Austin Hooper from the Falcons. Did they overpay Hooper? Probably, as they gave him $42 million over four years, but Hooper was sensational in 2019 setting career highs in receptions (75), yards (787) and TDs (6) in only 13 games.
The last thing that the Browns did offensively was to add backup QB Case Keenum on a three-year deal. This was a stellar move by the team. Keenum is intimately familiar with Stefanski’s system from his playing days in Minnesota (where Keenum had his career best season), plus Keenum is a great resource for Baker Mayfield as a sounding ear and mentor. Under-the-radar signings like this really can make the difference between a team making the playoffs and finishing 6-10.
Interestingly, this is where reality does not always mesh with fantasy. While I love the Conklin and Hooper signing for Mayfield’s fantasy value, I do not like it nearly as much for WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Both receivers and Hooper will compete with RB Nick Chubb for touches, which could certainly lower their overall value. The only saving grace might be that the offense will be run more proficiently, which will help all the players’ productivity.
The Browns not only shined in adding Conklin and Hooper, but they were also very active on the defensive end. The team lost LBs Joe Schobert (overpaid by Jacksonville) and Christian Kirksey (Packers) but they added to their secondary with the signings of S Karl Joseph, S Andrew Sendejo, as well as CB Kevin Johnson. In particular, I love the additions of Joseph and Johnson. Joseph was a highly respected, big-hitting safety from the Raiders, who just was never able to stay healthy. Once the team drafted Jonathan Abram last season, Joseph’s days with the team were numbered. Johnson was one of the better slot cover corners in the NFL in 2019 and he will join CBs Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams as one of the top secondary units in the league.
The Browns may not make the Super Bowl, but if they continue making moves like these, they will easily make the AFC playoffs on a regular basis.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Strip might be closed, but the Las Vegas Raiders have been open for business throughout free agency with some impressive results. The Raiders have made key additions on both offense and defense (especially defense) and have the makings of a playoff team.
Initially, fantasy owners won’t look at what the Raiders did and think it’s very impressive, but if they look a little deeper, they just might change their minds. The Raiders added QB Marcus Mariota from Tennessee to compete with Derek Carr to be their starting QB. It’s common knowledge that Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn’t think that Carr is the right person to lead his offense, and I can see the Raiders making a mid-season change in 2020 much like the Titans did in 2019. When the time comes, Gruden will tailor his offense to meet with Mariota’s skill set, using RPOs to run the ball and then take his chances down the field deep.
The Raiders also added a couple of veterans to their offense that fantasy players have come to know well over the years. TE Jason Witten was brought over to mentor stud TE Darren Waller while WR Nelson Agholor was added as depth to a receiving corps which was depleted last season.
However, it is on defense where the Raiders really made their greatest additions. Not only did the Raiders add do-everything LB Cory Littleton from the Rams, they also invested in tackling machine LB Nick Kwiatkoski from the Bears. Edge rusher Carl Nassib was brought over for $25 million for three years to help their pass rush, and DT Malik Collins was given a one-year, $6 million "prove it" deal to be a run stuffer. Finally, CB Eli Apple and S Jeff Heath were brought over to improve the team’s weak secondary.
The Raiders still play in the very difficult AFC West (home of the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs) but they are a much better team today than they were last year at this time.
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