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March 14, 2005
March 14, 2005

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March 14, 2005

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Don Banks's Inside the NFL

This is an article from the March 14, 2005 issue Original Layout

The early leaders in the NFL's annual shopping spree are easy to identify. Here are the most improved teams.

1. Oakland Acquiring the game's premier playmaker (wideout Randy Moss) in a trade with the Vikings and signing former Jets running back LaMont Jordan (right), who adds muscle to the embarrassingly weak Raiders ground game, instantly upgrades a franchise that is just 9--23 since losing Super Bowl XXXVII.

2. Dallas Owner Jerry Jones handed out bonus checks as if they were autographed pictures of himself: Every free agent who asked for one got one. Nosetackle Jason Ferguson, late of the Jets, allows the Cowboys to switch to a 3--4 defense. Anthony Henry was only the fifth-best available cornerback, but the former Brown is young and physical. Though guard Marco Rivera, at 32, is a little old, he was a solid performer for the Packers. Ex-Bill Drew Bledsoe isn't the long-term answer at quarterback, but Bill Parcells wants to be a winner in the third season of his four-year contract.

3. Carolina Versatile guard Mike Wahle (formerly of the Packers) helps solidify an offensive line that had a revolving-door quality to it, and Ken Lucas (Seahawks) has developed into one of the league's most complete cornerbacks. In fact, given the choice between Lucas or the more highly regarded Fred Smoot, I'd have taken Lucas too. With the numbers Muhsin Muhammad hung up last season (93 catches, 1,405 yards), it's hard to say the Panthers won't feel the loss of their top receiver, a free agent who signed with the Bears. But a healthy Steve Smith will get a lot of those catches and yards, plus promising second-year man Keary Colbert now can grow into a larger role.

On the other hand, here are the teams that lost the most ground during the first week of unfettered player movement.

1. Green Bay The Packers' starting guards, Wahle and Rivera, left town, which is one more reason for 35-year-old Brett Favre to consider retirement. And safety Bhawoh Jue bolted to San Diego, creating a hole in an already troublesome secondary.

2. New England Given the Patriots' track record with trades, you can't argue with giving up a third-round pick to Arizona for cornerback Duane Starks. But the Super Bowl champs have to endure the loss of guard Joe Andruzzi to Cleveland and speedy receiver David Patten to Washington. Things could get worse if Troy Brown, a receiver, cornerback, punt returner and team leader, also checks out.

3. Minnesota With lots of cap room to work with and former Bills defensive tackle Pat Williams already on board, the Vikings still might wind up among the teams that helped themselves this off-season. (They are talking with Steelers free-agent receiver Plaxico Burress.) But until the draft and the free-agent signing period plays out, Minnesota has only linebacker Napoleon Harris to show for the loss of Moss in the blockbuster deal.

• For more of Don Banks's report on free agency--and for columns from Peter King and Dr. Z--go to SI.com/nfl

The Poll Position

Which NFL team has helped itself the most this off-season?

Ο Raiders Ο Cowboys Ο Panthers Other

Which team has suffered the most?

Ο Packers Ο Patriots Ο Vikings Ο Other

Cast your vote atSI.com/nfl

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (JORDAN)