David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Every NFL Division's Biggest Winner Through Early 2020 Free Agency

Maurice Moton

NFL teams build rosters to beat the best squad in the division or maintain the top spot with the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl title.

Intradivision competition is the initial measuring stick for a team's improvements. As quarterback Tom Brady leaves New England for Tampa Bay, the Buffalo Bills are probably sizing up the club that has won 11 consecutive AFC East titles.

Beyond division competition, front offices must address roster needs. Instead of going into April with glaring holes, general managers can fill voids with proven talent, taking pressure off hit-or-miss draft choices.

Last year, the Green Bay Packers infused their defense with veteran acquisitions that paid dividends. Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos balanced the roster and helped stifle division opponents, holding all of them to 22 points or fewer in going 6-0 in the NFC North.

While breaking down signings and trades that happened early in free agency, we'll crown a winner in each division with an emphasis on the quality of acquisitions, how players fit team needs and the overall effect on the club's 2020 season outlook.

       

AFC East: Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

In 2019, the Buffalo Bills posed the biggest threat to the New England Patriots, finishing 10-6 with two single-possession losses to the AFC East champions.

Quarterback Tom Brady's decision to leave New England creates a prime opportunity for Buffalo to claim a division title next season. Furthermore, the Bills added significant help on both sides of the ball.

Buffalo pulled off a blockbuster trade for receiver Stefon Diggs, per Jay Glazer of Fox Sports. The 26-year-old should become quarterback Josh Allen's No. 1 pass-catching target. He recorded 63 receptions for 1,130 yards and six touchdowns with the Minnesota Vikings in 2019.

Allen could see a spike in his passing numbers with Diggs' playmaking ability on the perimeter.

Head coach Sean McDermott's past ties to the Carolina Panthers probably factored into signing interior tackle Vernon Butler and edge-rusher Mario Addison. The two defenders logged a combined 15.5 sacks last season.

Butler and Addison will replace defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who left for the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, in free agency. The Bills front seven remains stout with two acquisitions who know McDermott's system.

While the Patriots search for Brady's successor, the Bills have closed the talent gap, and likely the disparity, between New England and AFC East competition.

AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns acquired arguably two of the top available players at their respective positions. General manager Andrew Berry struck early on the open market, addressing a major need and adding a luxury for the offense.

Last year, opposing defenses restricted Cleveland's offense with constant pressure. Quarterback Baker Mayfield took the seventh-most sacks (40), and Browns running backs logged 851 yards before contact, which ranked 22nd leaguewide.

Jack Conklin should solve some of the Browns' issues in the trenches. He's an effective-run blocker who had a major role in Derrick Henry's claim to the 2019 rushing title. The Tennessee Titans ball-carrier logged 1,540 yards with some help from his former right tackle, who can aid Nick Chubb in the same fashion.

Conklin will also be an asset to the aerial attack. In pass protection, he allowed just three sacks in 16 starts, per STATs (via the Washington Post).

Cleveland has a young athletic tight end in David Njoku. The coaching staff can run two-tight end sets with him and Austin Hooper next season.

Hooper has a solid resume with two Pro Bowl seasons, registering 214 receptions, 2,244 yards and 16 touchdowns in four terms.

If wideout Jarvis Landry's recovery from hip surgery lingers into the season, Hooper should command several targets. He'll have room to catch and run as wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. draws heavy coverage.

Hooper's pass-blocking ability doesn't compare to his receiving skills, but he's adequate in that aspect. The 25-year-old uses his 6'4", 254-pound frame to chip defenders on the edge.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

Thus far, Indianapolis hasn't filled the transaction wire with constant activity, but general manager Chris Ballard made two big splashes—a trade acquisition and a significant signing at the most important position on the roster.

The Colts executed a blockbuster deal for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, sending their 13th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Indianapolis gave up premium draft capital, but the front line will feature a dominant force who can play multiple positions on a four-man front, stuff the run and attack the pocket.

In four seasons, Buckner has recorded 263 tackles, 38 for loss and 28.5 sacks—good luck taking him on alone in the trenches. At 6'7", 295 pounds, he's strong enough to lock horns with guards and overpower lean offensive linemen at the points of attack.

Buckner will probably draw some double-teams, which may lead to one-on-one situations for interior tackle Denico Autry or edge-rusher Justin Houston.

Indianapolis also signed quarterback Philip Rivers, who's coming off a season filled with turnovers. He threw the third-most interceptions (20) in the league. Going into 2019, the 38-year-old had recorded at least 24 touchdown passes in 11 consecutive campaigns. That streak ended in the last term.

We'll find out if Rivers had an off year or was beginning a sharp decline. Because of his scoring consistency in the passing game, he deserves the benefit of the doubt until we see a new pattern.

On a one-year contract, Rivers will have an opportunity to show he has something to offer at his age. If that's the case, the Colts have an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, who's still developing as a signal-caller.

AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers

Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

For now, the Los Angeles Chargers will move forward with quarterback Tyrod Taylor under center, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The front office acquired multiple assets to help him succeed.

The Chargers signed tackle Bryan Bulaga, and their trade that netted five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner became official Wednesday.

With two quality additions to the offensive line, Taylor should have solid pass protection. Turner could also help bolster the team's run blocking, which ranked 13th last campaign, per Football Outsiders.

Los Angeles also added key playmakers to its defense, which ranked sixth in the NFL but gave up 94 points in the final three weeks of 2019.

Interior tackle Linval Joseph doesn't rack up a lot of sacks, but he's a strong run-stopper with a stout 6'4", 329-pound frame to clog gaps. The Chargers need him in the middle to improve their 18th-ranked run defense that allowed 15 scores on the ground.

In 2020, Los Angeles could field one of the league's best cornerback groups with the addition of Chris Harris Jr. He's a versatile cover man capable of playing on the boundary or inside. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can move him and Desmond King II around in the secondary to show opposing quarterbacks different looks.

Last season, the pass defense ranked fifth in yards allowed and gave up 21 touchdowns (tied for eighth). Now, with Harris lurking on the back end, expect those numbers to improve. Teams will find it difficult to move the ball through the air against the Chargers' cornerback unit.

NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Eagles signed one of the top interior tackles on the market in Javon Hargrave.

Playing alongside All-Pros Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt in Pittsburgh, Hargrave goes to Philadelphia as an underrated signing with a little buzz but a lot of upside. He has 14.5 sacks in four seasons and logged a career-best 35 solo tackles in 2019.

Hargrave won't outshine All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in the middle, but he'll have more opportunities to win battles on passing downs because of the latter's presence. Between the two, the Eagles have an established playmaker and an ascending talent to keep rushing gains to a minimum and guards on their heels in pass protection.

General manager Howie Roseman pulled off a trade for cornerback Darius Slay on Thursday, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. According to Slay's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, the Eagles signed the All-Pro cover man to a three-year, $50 million extension. The move addresses a major need in the secondary with Ronald Darby on the open market and Jalen Mills set to play more snaps at safety, per NJ.com's Mike Kaye.

In his prime at 29 years old, Slay can lock down one side of the field and blanket wide receivers. He allowed completion rates of 46.8 and 55.9 percent in the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, respectively. Furthermore, the former Lion has ball-hawking tendencies, snagging 13 interceptions over the last three terms.

Philadelphia's 15th-ranked scoring defense should surrender fewer points next season with two new high-quality Week 1 starters on the field.

NFC North: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins Associated Press

The Detroit Lions became the New England Patriots of the Midwest this week. The team signed linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who will likely replace Devon Kennard and A'Shawn Robinson, respectively. The front office also acquired Duron Harmon via trade.

Lions head coach Matt Patricia coached two of those players when he served as the defensive coordinator in New England. Clearly, the 45-year-old lead skipper will attempt to recreate what the Patriots had during his tenure with the club.

Collins can match Kennard's impact near the pocket and provide more to the pass defense. In addition to seven sacks, he logged seven pass breakups and three interceptions during the 2019 term.

Shelton didn't play under Patricia in New England, but he had his best season last term, registering career highs in sacks (three) and tackles (61) as a solid run-stopper with an occasional flash near the pocket. The 26-year-old should bolster the Lions' 21st-ranked run defense.

Harmon has developed into a versatile safety with above-average ball skills in center field. Over the last three seasons, he's recorded 10 interceptions in primarily a reserve role, though the 29-year-old has played at least 61 percent of the defensive snaps in each of those campaigns.

At safety, Harmon could alternate snaps with Will Harris alongside Tracy Walker.

Detroit lost multiple players in free agency and replaced them with guys who know Patricia's scheme, which is crucial for a defense that ranked 26th in scoring and allowed the second-most yards last year.

The Lions released right tackle Rick Wagner and saved $6.1 million against the cap. The front office put that cash toward Halapoulivaati Vaitai's five-year, $50 million deal. That's a risky investment for a four-year veteran with just 20 starts, but the 6'6", 320-pound tackle could seal the edge for outside runs and engulf edge-rushers on his side of the line.

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

One name matters here: Tom Brady. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers landed the most notable free agent on the market.

Brady will turn 43 years old in August, but he's a six-time Super Bowl champion with an unwavering passion for the game and winning. Because of his arrival, the Buccaneers will go into playoff mode. That says a lot considering this franchise hasn't clinched a postseason berth since 2007.

Starting next season, Brady will change the aura around the Buccaneers organization. He'll have Pro Bowl wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the perimeter. O.J. Howard (6'6", 251 lbs) and Cameron Brate (6'5", 245 lbs) are big-bodied pass-catching targets at tight end.

In 2019, Brady threw for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a limited pass-catching group that featured one receiver who eclipsed 645 yards (Julian Edelman). He could light up the box score and scoreboard with an offense full of playmakers.

Brady may have some concerns about the Buccaneers' 29th-ranked scoring defense, but the team retained its top two edge-rushers, placing the franchise tag on Shaquil Barrett and signing Jason Pierre-Paul to a two-year extension.

Last year, the Buccaneers tied the Atlanta Falcons for second in the division at 7-9. Swapping out quarterback Jameis Winston's 30 interceptions and seven pick-sixes for Brady's efficiency, Tampa Bay should inch closer to the New Orleans Saints near the top of the NFC South division.

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins Associated Press

The Arizona Cardinals pulled the lever on the first blockbuster trade during free agency, acquiring three-time first-team All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in exchange for running back David Johnson, a second-rounder and a 2021 fourth-rounder, per the Houston Chronicle's John McClain.

The Cardinals can celebrate a net win for the deal. The front office added an elite playmaker to the offense. Quarterback Kyler Murray could form an electric rapport with Hopkins, who battles for contested targets, consistently wins in one-on-one matchups and produces in the red zone with three seasons of double-digit touchdowns.

Secondly, the Cardinals dumped Johnson's big contract, which carries an $11.2 million cap hit and $16.2 million in dead cash, per Spotrac. His exit allows the team to move on with Kenyan Drake, who holds the transition tag after leading the club in rushing yards (643) for the 2019 campaign.

Coming into the offseason, the Cardinals needed a lot of help on the second level of their defense. General manager Steve Keim signed Devon Kennard and De'Vondre Campbell to address voids at inside and outside linebacker.

Kennard can line up opposite Chandler Jones as a pass-rusher. He's recorded seven sacks in back-to-back seasons. The Phoenix native can also play the run well, logging 41 tackles for loss in six seasons.

Campbell could flank middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, which is important to note because Haason Reddick lost his starting job last year. The former Falcon lined up on the inside and outside in head coach Dan Quinn's 4-3 base defense, but he's a solid fit between Kennard and Jones within Vance Joseph's 3-4 alignment.

At 6'3", 232 pounds, Campbell has the length to disrupt the short passing game and the speed to track down running backs on the ground. He'll bring a much-needed skill set to the linebacker unit.


All signings and extensions are relayed from Spotrac.

   
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