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The Biggest Winners and Losers of Early NFL Free Agency

Maurice Moton

It's not always easy for NFL free agents. While some veterans sign multiyear deals with preferred teams, others have to settle for whatever the market dictates. The same goes for teams in pursuit of quality talent.

Following the first week of free agency, we'll highlight the top two winners and losers among teams and players.

For teams, signings and trades will factor in. For players, let's take a look at who landed in a spot with a great opportunity, may have signed an unexpected major deal or misjudged their market value.

      

Winner: Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Here come the Buffalo Bills.

With Tom Brady off to Tampa Bay, the Bills can disrupt the New England Patriots' 11-year stronghold on the AFC East crown. Buffalo also acquired wide receiver Stefon Diggs from the Minnesota Vikings. 

Wideout John Brown logged career highs in catches (72) and receiving yards (1,060) with the Bills last season, but Diggs is an ascending talent who's on another level. 

While Brown's catch rates have fluctuated over the years, Diggs hasn't finished with a percentage below 61.9. The latter averaged 17.9 yards per reception as a big-play threat for the Vikings in 2019. Now, the Bills will have someone to stretch the field and take full advantage of Josh Allen's strong arm.

Head coach Sean McDermott added pieces from his Carolina Panthers defense years ago. He'll work with familiar faces, which eases their transition into the Bills' scheme.

Buffalo signed linebacker A.J. Klein, edge-rusher Mario Addison and defensive tackle Vernon Butler. Team brass also added cornerback Josh Norman, who the Washington Redskins released in February.

The players' ties to McDermott should help them contribute right away, further strengthening a stingy defense that ranked third overall and allowed the second-fewest points in 2019.

Loser: New England Patriots

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady Bill Sikes/Associated Press

It's rare to see the New England Patriots listed as the biggest loser in any aspect, but free agency ravaged their roster. 

Tom Brady is the biggest loss. Even if he's on the decline, the 42-year-old threw for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions last year. Secondly, the Patriots don't have a succession plan, with three uninspiring in-house options.

In his rookie campaign, Jarrett Stidham completed two of four passes for 14 yards and threw a pick-six. Cody Kessler, a 2016 third-rounder, has just 12 career starts, and he didn't play in 2019.

Brian Hoyer signed with the Patriots on Sunday. He's familiar with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from previous stints with the team, but the 34-year-old is a journeyman who has suited up for seven clubs and logged 38 starts in 11 seasons.

Until the Patriots settle on a quarterback plan, they're easily the biggest loser because of the drop-off between Brady and Stidham, Kessler or Hoyer.

Beyond Brady, the Patriots lost key defensive starters who signed with former assistants.

Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton joined the Lions, while Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts inked deals with the Dolphins. Those players combined for 17.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in 2019.

Ted Karras, who filled in for center David Andrews (blood clots), signed with the Dolphins as well.

New England traded ball-hawking safety Duron Harmon and a seventh-round pick to the Lions for a fifth-round pick. Since 2017, he's recorded 10 interceptions.

We'll see a different Patriots team in more ways than one in 2020.

Winner: Denver Broncos

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Although the Buccaneers signed the biggest name on the market, Tom Brady will turn 43 in August and will be in a new system. Like the Bills, the Denver Broncos acquired a better overall haul.

Two weeks before the official start of free agency, the Broncos acquired cornerback A.J. Bouye from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fourth-round pick. That allowed the front office to let Chris Harris Jr. test the open market, as Denver didn't have to aggressively pursue him with a young Pro Bowl-caliber cover man in the fold. 

During free agency, Denver sent a seventh-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for Jurrell Casey, who's a consistent force on the interior, logging at least five sacks in seven consecutive seasons. The 30-year-old has earned Pro Bowl honors every year since 2015, and he'll ease the sting from potentially losing defensive linemen Derek Wolfe, Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris.

According to Mike Klis of 9News, the Broncos pulled an offer for center Connor McGovern once Graham Glasgow agreed to terms on a four-year, $44 million deal. 

Glasgow will man the pivot, but he can play all three positions on the interior. He's allowed 1.75 sacks over the last two seasons, per STATs (via the Washington Post), so Drew Lock won't have to worry about pressure right in front of his face. 

Running back Melvin Gordon III didn't command the market he likely hoped to see during free agency. Nonetheless, the 26-year-old signed a two-year, $16 million deal and landed in a good spot. Last season, Denver's offensive line ranked 10th in run blocking, per Football Outsiders

Now, the Broncos have a strong two-man backfield, featuring Phillip Lindsay and Gordon. The former has back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard rushing seasons. The latter is a two-time Pro Bowler and exceptional pass-catching threat, logging 224 receptions for 1,873 yards and 11 touchdowns for his career.

Loser: Los Angeles Rams

Roger Steinman/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Rams took major losses on defense and hold an expensive financial responsibility for one notable cut.

New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley won't have edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker Cory Littleton, defensive lineman Michael Brockers or slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. The first three of four signed with new teams.

The cap-strapped Rams released linebacker Clay Matthews and saved $5 million. They would recoup another $2 million if he signs with another team for that amount or more, per Rich Hammond of The Athletic.

With those subtractions, the Rams wave goodbye to two of their top three pass-rushers, a versatile defender on the front line and a solid cover man.

The front office added nose tackle A'Shawn Robinson and edge-rusher Leonard Floyd. Although both have flashed with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, respectively, the roster departures outweigh the additions. Neither has logged more than 4.5 sacks in a single term since 2016. 

Who's going to cover the middle of the field and the slot? While the Rams will use the offseason to answer those questions, they'll send checks to running back Todd Gurley, who is no longer with the team. 

Los Angeles discussed Gurley in trade talks, but the 25-year-old didn't generate enough interest, so the Rams released him as a post-June 1 cut. The club still has to pay $20.2 million in dead cash, a costly split for a team that went into the offseason with limited financial flexibility.

Gurley has an arthritic knee that likely led to a lighter workload. In 2019, he averaged a career-low 14.9 carries per contest and logged 857 rushing yards—his lowest single-season total.

For now, Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown and John Kelly are projected to fill the void, but none has more than 255 rushing yards in a single term.

Winner: QB Teddy Bridgewater

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Among the players who sought new opportunities, Teddy Bridgewater potentially signed a career-changing deal with the Carolina Panthers.

Beyond the financial gain on a three-year, $63 million deal, he will likely return to a starting role following a challenging five-year period.

In 2015, Bridgewater went to the postseason with the Minnesota Vikings but suffered a torn ACL and dislocated knee during the 2016 offseason. After serving in a backup role for the New York Jets during the 2018 preseason and New Orleans Saints over the last two campaigns, he'll take control of another huddle in a full-time starting position.

Furthermore, Bridgewater landed in a favorable spot. He'll play under offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who served as an offensive assistant for the Saints between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The familiarity between the two should bode well for the signal-caller's transition from New Orleans to Carolina.

At 27 years old, Bridgewater can still experience significant growth. He's only opened 34 contests for his career, which include six fill-in starts for Drew Brees over the last two terms.

The Panthers opted to move on from Cam Newton and pay Bridgewater $21 million annually, so he's going to have every chance to become a franchise signal-caller under new head coach Matt Rhule. 

Going into the 2020 season, Bridgewater will be on the Comeback Player of the Year radar.

Loser: DE Jadeveon Clowney

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Jadeveon Clowney is the most notable name left on the market. 

According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Clowney overestimated his market value. ESPN's Dianna Russini added further context.

"Sources say Jadeveon Clowney wants about $20mill per year. Interested teams aren't coming up that high as of now. Look at the players in his position who were tagged, Judon, Dupree, Barrett, Yannick. Teams don't want to pay $5mill more than the franchise tag," Russini tweeted. 

In 2019, Clowney's production fell short of a player able to command a top-three salary at his position. Even though sacks aren't the end-all, be-all statistic for defensive ends, that pass-rushing number helps in contract negotiations.  

Last season, Clowney recorded 31 tackles, seven for loss, three sacks, four forced fumbles, three pass breakups and an interception. On paper, that's a decent year...for a player who would expect less than $15 million on the market. 

Although dominant toward the end of the last term, Clowney hadn't done nearly enough to reach his expected salary expectation. With that said, the Seattle Seahawks would come close with a reasonable offer, per SI.com's Corbin Smith.

"Per sources, the Seahawks initially offered him $18.5 million on a multiyear deal, but no teams have been willing to approach that threshold to this point," Smith wrote.

Defensive end Everson Griffen won't re-sign with the Minnesota Vikings. He's a capable pass-rusher with eight-plus sacks in five of his last six seasons. At 32 years old, the four-time Pro Bowler would cost less than Clowney and boost the Seahawks' pocket pressure.

Clowney may want to settle for the Seahawks' proposal before someone else cuts into the team's budget, or else the three-time Pro Bowler could struggle to find a comparable deal.

Winner: OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Who says you need a breakout season in a contract year to command a lucrative salary? Halapoulivaati Vaitai didn't receive that memo.

In 2019, Vaitai played 41 percent of the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive snaps, making three starts in 16 contests. He's opened 20 games with the first unit through four seasons. The 26-year-old has allowed 16 sacks for his career, per STATs (via the Washington Post). 

Neither Vaitai's numbers in pass protection nor his experience suggest he's worth a five-year, $50 million deal, but the Detroit Lions will roll the dice on his potential. 

Other than the 2017 campaign when he allowed seven sacks as a 10-game starter, Vaitai hasn't held a steady first-unit role on the Eagles offensive line. Perhaps his development in a reserve position helps him flourish in Detroit. 

Nonetheless, this is a risky signing for the Lions and an unexpected payday for Vaitai. For perspective, his annual $10 million salary ranks fifth among right tackles, per Spotrac. He's certainly raised the bar for future veteran perimeter linemen on expiring contracts.

Vaitai will replace right tackle Rick Wagner, who the Lions released, in the projected starting lineup. 

Loser: WR Robby Anderson

Steven Ryan/Getty Images

NFL Network's Tom Pelissero estimated Robby Anderson could command $12-15 million on the open market. However, he hasn't garnered much buzz during free agency, per Connor Hughes of The Athletic:

"I've made calls to virtually every source I have around the league—agents, executives, personnel people, scouts. It's radio silence on the Robby Anderson front. … One front-office official said that if Anderson had any type of contract offer that resembled what he thought he'd get in free agency, he would have signed it yesterday."

At the end of the 2019 season, Anderson didn't have an interest in giving the New York Jets a hometown discount, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. A week before free agency, on ESPN's NFL Live, the 26-year-old expressed interest in re-signing with Gang Green (h/t ESPN's Rich Cimini). 

"l think they definitely want me back," Anderson said. "I truly do want to be back with the Jets."

Anderson hasn't eclipsed 941 receiving yards in a season for his career. Going into the 2019 campaign, he ran a limited route tree and needed to show more versatility as a contributor in the Jets' aerial attack. Lastly, the 2020 draft class features a strong group of wide receivers. Those factors hurt the four-year veteran's market.

Note: According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Anderson signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Carolina Panthers.

   
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