With the first wave of 2018 NFL free agency in the books, our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders is breaking down all the action and what it means.
Next up: What signing or trade has been the best overall move?
Here are the other topics our panel has hit so far:
What has been the best overall move?
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: The Colts‘ trade with the Jets for three extra picks to move down in the draft. Disclaimer: I don’t tend to like free-agent signings very much. They leave me cold. For instance, Nate Solder was a signing that will help the Giants, but the cost was insane. Trumaine Johnson improves the Jets, but they spent so much. Same is true for Kirk Cousins, Jerick McKinnon or basically any of the Bears’ moves. So let’s tip the cap here to the Colts, who badly need to reconstruct their roster depth and just added three second-round picks (two this year, one next) by moving down only three spots at the top of the first round. Nice to have the third overall pick and not need a quarterback.
KC Joyner, NFL writer: The Vikings signing Kirk Cousins. Famed Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi once said there is no price that is too high to pay for a franchise quarterback, so forget the big price tag for Cousins. Only Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan have posted a higher total for yards per attempt on vertical passes (aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield) than Cousins over the past two years. This downfield prowess could be the push Minnesota needs to get back to the Super Bowl.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: The Saints re-signing Drew Brees. With much of the focus on Cousins commanding a guaranteed contract, New Orleans retained a future Hall of Fame QB under team-friendly terms, freeing up resources to address other areas.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: The Colts‘ trade with the Jets. The Jets overpaid even on the traditional draft value chart, and they massively overpaid according to any modern analytical draft value chart. And given the need for quarterbacks at the top of the draft, that No. 6 pick will still turn into Bradley Chubb, Saquon Barkley or Quenton Nelson — the same players the Colts would have been choosing among at No. 3.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: The Rams trading for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. In a time when cornerbacks are coveted and paid substantially on the open market, Los Angeles acquired a pair of potential Pro Bowlers for modest draft-pick compensation commensurate with their on-field abilities. While each has had some combustible moments on the field, the talent is undeniable and the Rams are confident such behavior won’t repeat itself in L.A.
Which team is the most improved after the first wave of free agency?
Graziano: New York Jets. They landed the biggest prize on the free-agent cornerback market in Trumaine Johnson. They added Avery Williamson as a leader for the linebacker corps. They added Isaiah Crowell to their running back group. All upgrades. Now, to the matter of quarterback: Josh McCown isn’t an improvement because he was already there. But the Jets’ overall plan at the position is improved, as Teddy Bridgewater has more upside than anyone else the Jets had on last year’s roster, and trading up to the No. 3 pick in the draft means they’re likely to add someone else who does, as well.
Joyner: Houston Texans. The Texans ranked 29th in my blocking grades last season. They aimed to help solve this by signing three offensive linemen, the most valuable of which could be the highly versatile Senio Kelemete. They also added Tyrann Mathieu, who can play slot, outside cornerback or either safety position or even fill in as a speedy box linebacker.
Sando: Cleveland Browns. They had lots of room for improvement and should realize upgrades from multiple newcomers, especially at QB, which offsets Joe Thomas’ retirement. However, NFL rosters are a little worse on the whole because so many depth players remain unsigned (free agents who have been added were signed at premium prices).
Schatz: San Francisco 49ers. Richard Sherman should still be one of the top cornerbacks in the league if he’s fully healed from his Achilles injury, and is a big improvement for a pass defense that was 28th in DVOA last season. Weston Richburg is a nice improvement in the middle of the offensive line, although I might have kept Daniel Kilgore around at guard instead of dealing him away afterward. Jerick McKinnon‘s flexibility and ability to catch passes will help him play a role similar to the running backs Kyle Shanahan had when he was in Atlanta.
Yates: Chicago Bears. It was sometimes painful to watch the Bears’ offense last season without any weapons and perpetually struggling. Adding Allen Robinson on a three-year contract along with the signing of versatile and talented tight end Trey Burton should bring a smile to the faces of new coach Matt Nagy and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Whether it comes to fruition on the field or not, expect an offseason worth of parallels drawn between Nagy’s relationship with Trubisky and Rams coach Sean McVay’s relationship with quarterback Jared Goff.
Which team has the most glaring need now?
Graziano: Patriots at left tackle. Look, you trust New England figures these things out, and we’re not about to pick any of the other three teams to win the AFC East. But honestly, who’s playing left tackle in New England with Nate Solder off to the Giants? Tom Brady will turn 41 before the season starts, and as brilliantly age-defying as he is, they still need to make sure he’s protected.
Joyner: Bills at quarterback. The only QBs on the roster are AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, both of whom have third-string quarterback written all over them. Without a huge upgrade here, Buffalo’s playoff streak will end at one season.
Sando: Bills at quarterback. Moving up in the draft for a QB seems like a near necessity.
Schatz: Bills at quarterback. Whomever Buffalo chooses in the first round of the draft instantly becomes the best quarterback on the roster. Honestly, if the Bills take a player at a different position, that player might still be the best quarterback on the roster.
Yates: Colts at cornerback. This wasn’t an area of major strength for Indianapolis in 2017, as veteran Vontae Davis was cut late in the year after a season-ending injury, and the team relied mostly on a youth movement. Rashaan Melvin parlayed his surprising season into a $6.5 million deal from Oakland, leaving Indy with even more question marks at the position. After the Colts traded back to pick sixth overall in the upcoming draft, I’d expect many forecasters to peg Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward as their top selection (if he’s still available).