Free-Agent Report Card: Which Teams Made the NFL’s Honor Roll?Jim Rogash/Getty Images
People say it takes five years to grade an NFL team’s draft. That doesn’t stop us from grading drafts the Monday morning after the selection process, but the only fair way to do it is really to wait a minimum of three years and see how players develop. That isn’t the case with free agency, though, when teams are making moves in the hope of providing a quick return on investment. While there are obviously rare free agents who struggle in their first year before turning things around (or vice versa), the vast majority of free agents either make an instant impact or get lost in the shuffle.
It’s fair to immediately grade that aspect of a team’s offseason and then do so again one year later. And that’s where we are. As free agency begins with the opening of the new league year on Tuesday, let’s look back 52 weeks to last year’s free-agent signing period. Teams that were flush with cash from a comfortable rise in the salary cap spent more than a billion dollars in contracts over 72 hours. With the cap rising again by $10 million, to $143 million this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see spending hit similar heights next week.
Let’s run through each of the 32 organizations to see how they fared during last year’s player acquisition period. We’ll be considering free-agent signings, re-signings of guys who would otherwise have become free agents or been cap casualties, and players who were either released or allowed to leave. This will only be for moves made during the spring, so the Patriots don’t get credit for signing LeGarrette Blount in midseason. We’ll also try to measure these moves in the context of each team’s cap and competitiveness. The Panthers had no money to spend because of moves from the past, so it would be unfair to compare them to somebody like the Jaguars, who had all the money in the world to light on fire; we’ll compare what Carolina did to what it could have done with its budget.
We’ll list some (but not all) of the key acquisitions and departures for each team, but this takes into account all of their moves and the financial context involved. And this all starts with the team that made the most surprising move of last year’s free-agent period, only to have it blow up in its face almost immediately …
New Orleans Saints
Re-signed: Jimmy Graham (franchise tag, later signed multiyear deal), Parys Haralson, Robert Meachem
Arrived: Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey, Jonathan Goodwin
Departed: Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Roman Harper, Brian de la Puente, Lance Moore, Malcolm Jenkins, Tom Johnson
The Saints went all in for 2014, attempting to build a dominant secondary to play behind those exotic Rob Ryan blitzes and their perennially excellent offense. Nobody expected them to carve out the cap space to sign Byrd, but releasing several longtime veterans and structuring the deal to pay Byrd with a two-tier signing bonus allowed them to fit the market’s preeminent safety under their cap. He was a mess, repeatedly missing tackles in the running game during the first month of the season before going on injured reserve. Bailey, expected to start, failed to make the team out of camp and left the Saints with a gaping hole at cornerback. Meanwhile, defensive contributors like Jenkins and Johnson performed effectively elsewhere at cheaper salaries. The result of all this spending? A 7-9 record and a team still nearly $16 million over the salary cap.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Re-signed: Jonathan Casillas, Jamon Meredith
Arrived: Evan Dietrich-Smith, Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner, Clinton McDonald, Anthony Collins, Major Wright, Josh McCown
Departed: Darrelle Revis, Donald Penn, Ted Larsen, Dan Orlovsky
The new Bucs regime decided it wasn’t willing to commit $13 million per year to a cornerback and cut Revis after his first season with the organization, which allowed that money to be spent elsewhere. It didn’t go well. Tampa Bay committed $39 million in guaranteed money to Johnson and Collins, both of whom were wildly disappointing (with Collins even getting benched by the end of the year). Both could be possible cap casualties as early as this offseason. The organization threw in $4.75 million guaranteed for McCown, a replacement-level quarterback coming off five starts with a fluky-low interception rate for the Bears, only to find that he was still Josh McCown. Revis? Things went all right for him last year.
Re-signed: Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Jason Worilds (transition tag)
Arrived: Mike Mitchell, LeGarrette Blount, Arthur Moats, Adam Podlesh
Departed: Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Jerricho Cotchery
Desperate for cap space, the Steelers should have made the painful move to release Polamalu last offseason, which would have saved them more than $8 million on their 2014 cap. Instead, they lowered his cap figure by signing him to a three-year extension, throwing in an extension for Miller in the process. A year later, that move looks like a brutal mistake; Polamalu continued to age, and the Steelers now want him to retire so they don’t have to publicly release him. Either way, they’ll owe $4.5 million in dead money for him on this year’s cap. Blount was gone by midseason, and Worilds delivered just 7.5 sacks in an uninspiring campaign. Antonio Brown was brilliant, but the three-year, $15 million deal Sanders signed with Denver is one of the league’s biggest bargains.
New York Jets
Re-signed: Nick Folk (franchise tag, later signed multiyear deal), Willie Colon, Jeff Cumberland
Arrived: Eric Decker, Chris Johnson, Michael Vick, Dimitri Patterson
Departed: Austin Howard, Antonio Cromartie, Mark Sanchez
You can trace the eventual firing of general manager John Idzik back to this free-agent period, when he failed to add much in the way of cornerback depth and mostly stood pat despite having about $40 million in cap space available. I can’t fault Idzik’s reticence, given how far the Jets were from competing, but the buy-low moves for second-tier weapons like Vick and Johnson failed to pan out, and Patterson curiously went AWOL during August. Cromartie and Sanchez also had bounce-back years in their new homes.
Re-signed: Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, Roberto Garza
Arrived: Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Willie Young, Brian de la Puente
Departed: Josh McCown, Henry Melton, Julius Peppers, Major Wright
Another general manager likely fired as a result of what happened during this free-agent period, Phil Emery spent heavily to rebuild his defensive line and wasn’t able to come up with a winning combination. While Young was a nice value addition on a three-year, $9 million deal, Houston tore his ACL in Week 8 celebrating his only sack of the season,1 and Allen contributed just 5.5 sacks and offered little as a run defender. Peppers, meanwhile, looked like a new man as an outside linebacker in Green Bay. It’s hard to imagine they ever really thought about letting Cutler go, but with $10 million of his 2016 base salary about to become guaranteed on Thursday, it’s possible Chicago could move on from its starter as early as this week. Even worse, it could keep him, see the salary become guaranteed, and later wish it had cut him.
Re-signed: Ropati Pitoitua, Bernard Pollard, Leon Washington
Arrived: Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster, Wesley Woodyard, Shaun Phillips, Charlie Whitehurst
Departed: Alterraun Verner, Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt, Ryan Fitzpatrick
This was a relatively innocuous free-agent period for a team that wasn’t going anywhere anyway, but it made a pair of incomprehensible signings by guaranteeing Whitehurst $2 million on a two-year deal and giving Oher, whose market was nonexistent, $9.35 million guaranteed on a four-year deal. Those aren’t terrible moves in a vacuum, but they exemplify the dramatic difference between what Tennessee is thinking about player values versus what the rest of the NFL thinks.
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San Diego Chargers
Re-signed: Donald Butler, Chad Rinehart
Arrived: Brandon Flowers, Donald Brown
Departed: Charlie Whitehurst, Derek Cox, Cam Thomas
The addition of Flowers in June after he was released by the Chiefs was a nice touch, but with limited cap space, the decision to give a replacement-level back like Brown a three-year, $10.5 million deal with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead already on the roster just didn’t make any sense. Brown got his chance when Mathews and Woodhead went down with injuries, only to average 2.6 yards per carry before blowing a block on punt protection that led to Mike Scifres’s broken collarbone. Butler’s deal is quietly massive, a seven-year, $51.8 million contract for a pretty good player at one of the league’s more replaceable positions, inside linebacker.
Re-signed: Darren McFadden, Charles Woodson
Arrived: Austin Howard, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Donald Penn, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith, Maurice Jones-Drew
Departed: Jared Veldheer, Lamarr Houston, Rashad Jennings
General manager Reggie McKenzie had more cap space than he could possibly use, with the likes of Jared Allen turning down larger offers from the Raiders to head elsewhere. McKenzie ended up with the sort of players you get when you have nothing more than money to entice people: veterans looking to get one more payday before retiring. Both Veldheer and Houston refused to re-sign with the team, while a massive move for Rodger Saffold was taken off the books when he “failed his physical.” McKenzie nailed his 2014 draft, but this was an underwhelming way to spend millions of dollars.
New York Giants
Re-signed: Jon Beason, Trumaine McBride
Arrived: Rashad Jennings, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Geoff Schwartz, J.D. Walton, Walter Thurmond, Robert Ayers, Zack Bowman
Departed: Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, Brandon Myers, Hakeem Nicks, Kevin Boothe
Jerry Reese bought high on just about everybody he signed during the offseason, many of whom (notably Jennings, Schwartz, and Walton) would have been available for marginally more than the league minimum the previous offseason. Beason predictably got hurt, while Rodgers-Cromartie delivered an uneven season as the team’s top cornerback. The defensive line, stripped of Tuck and Joseph, ranked 27th in rush defense DVOA. Hey, at least there’s ODB.
Re-signed: Greg Hardy (franchise tag), Graham Gano
Arrived: Thomas DeCoud, Antoine Cason, Ed Dickson, Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery
Departed: Steve Smith, Captain Munnerlyn, Brandon LaFell, Mike Mitchell
Carolina’s hands were mostly tied by its disastrous salary-cap situation, which dates back to the Marty Hurney days, and the team can’t really be blamed for what happened with Hardy, but the few moves the Panthers did make didn’t work out. They paid a premium for Gano after a career year and saw him retreat right back to replacement level. By the end of the year, Cason had been cut and DeCoud had been benched, moves that coincidentally turned the Carolina secondary around and probably pushed the team into the playoffs. And the Steve Smith saga still remains a mystery.
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Re-signed: Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux
Arrived: Dwight Lowery, Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson, Jon Asamoah, Devin Hester
Departed: Thomas DeCoud, Asante Samuel
General manager Thomas Dimitroff, desperately in need of a pass-rusher, somehow managed to sign several big-name free agents during the offseason without adding a single player who might be expected to take down opposing quarterbacks. Atlanta ended up with just 22 sacks, as Kroy Biermann led the team with a whopping total of just 4.5. Soliai and Jackson were brought in to improve the run defense, but neither managed to suit up for 50 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps.2 Those defensive woes kept Atlanta out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Re-signed: Brian Orakpo (franchise tag), Perry Riley, Brandon Meriweather, DeAngelo Hall
Arrived: Jason Hatcher, DeSean Jackson, Andre Roberts, Tracy Porter
Departed: Will Montgomery, Josh Wilson, Josh Morgan
Washington gave long-term deals to veterans coming off career years like Hall and Hatcher and got the regression toward the mean in return, as both missed time with injuries. The Jackson signing was a positive, but it also marginalized Roberts, who had been expected to play a starting role and became a very expensive third wideout in the process. While Orakpo simply failed to produce in his final year with the team, the deals for Riley and Meriweather — two of the lesser defensive starters in football — were curious from the moment they were signed.
St. Louis Rams
Re-signed: Rodger Saffold, Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Arrived: Shaun Hill, Kenny Britt
Departed: Cortland Finnegan, Chris Williams, Shelley Smith
The only significant move the Rams made was giving Saffold a very expensive runner-up gift after his contract with the Raiders fell through, as St. Louis handed him a five-year, $31.7 million deal with $19.5 million guaranteed. Oakland was signing Saffold to play tackle, but he remained at guard with the Rams, where he had excelled in 2013 during a six-game trial. In his first full season as a guard, he was merely competent, which isn’t enough for a guy who has the fifth-highest cap hit of any guard this upcoming season.
Re-signed: Jason Babin, Clay Harbor, Chad Henne
Arrived: Zane Beadles, Red Bryant, defensive end Chris Clemons, Ziggy Hood, Toby Gerhart
Departed: Dwight Lowery, Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Forsett
The steps taken to turn Jacksonville into Seattle East began to pay off with the additions of Bryant and Clemons, who helped shore up the Jacksonville defense. Clemons played a huge part in what was quietly the league’s second-best pass rush in 2014. More disappointing was the move to release Forsett, who was one of the league’s best running backs in Baltimore. He was replaced at three times the cost by the plodding Gerhart, who lost his job to Denard Robinson by midseason.
Re-signed: Garrett Graham
Arrived: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kendrick Lewis, safety Chris Clemons
Departed: Antonio Smith, Earl Mitchell, Matt Schaub, Owen Daniels, Ben Tate, Joe Mays
This was mostly shuffling marginal players on and off the roster, although Daniels’s work with Gary Kubiak in Baltimore suggests that Houston might have given up on its longtime tight end a year too early. The Texans probably would have made the playoffs if they had found a better quarterback than Fitzpatrick, but the truth is, there really wasn’t one lying around in free agency.
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Re-signed: Alex Mack (transition tag, later signed multiyear deal)
Arrived: Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby, Miles Austin, Ben Tate, Andrew Hawkins
Departed: T.J. Ward, D’Qwell Jackson, Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell
Whitner and Dansby were likely brought in to help improve the run defense, but the Browns combined the league’s second-best pass defense with its second-worst run defense. Tate was cut by midseason. The Browns matched Jacksonville’s enormous offer sheet for Mack that guaranteed him a whopping $26 million, more than any center should probably make in this market, but Cleveland’s offense also started to struggle almost immediately after Mack went down with a broken leg in October, so go figure.
Re-signed: Mike Pollak
Arrived: Jason Campbell, Dontay Moch
Departed: Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Kyle Cook, Andrew Hawkins
Johnson and Collins had disastrous seasons in Tampa Bay, so you can’t be too angry at the Bengals for letting them leave, but there’s no excuse for a team with the cap space Cincinnati possessed last year neglecting to replace them — or Cook — with new blood. The result was an offensive line that struggled to create running lanes for Gio Bernard and a defense that produced a league-low 20 sacks.
Re-signed: Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Nate Allen
Arrived: Malcolm Jenkins, Mark Sanchez
Departed: DeSean Jackson, Patrick Chung, Jason Avant, Michael Vick
A year later, the decision to sign Cooper to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with $8 million guaranteed while cutting Jackson seems incomprehensible. Maclin, though, was a bargain on his one-year deal, while Jenkins surpassed what had been an impossibly low baseline for Eagles safeties. And given that the other options were the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson, coming away from the quarterback pool with Sanchez as the backup for $2.25 million wasn’t all that bad.
Re-signed: Brent Grimes, Randy Starks
Arrived: Branden Albert, Earl Mitchell, Samson Satele, Shelley Smith, Cortland Finnegan, Louis Delmas, Knowshon Moreno
Departed: Richie Incognito, Paul Soliai, Dimitri Patterson, safety Chris Clemons
After inheriting one of the worst offensive line situations in league history and limited cap space from Jeff Ireland, new general manager Dennis Hickey made logical moves to rebuild the weakest point of the roster. Albert played well before tearing his ACL in November, while Satele was impressive enough in his second run as Dolphins center to move Mike Pouncey to guard upon the latter’s return.
Kansas City Chiefs
Re-signed: Husain Abdullah
Arrived: Joe Mays, Vance Walker, Chris Owens
Departed: Tyson Jackson, Branden Albert, Dexter McCluster, Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, Dunta Robinson, Brandon Flowers, Akeem Jordan
Cap woes from the huge contracts afforded core talents like Eric Berry and Dwayne Bowe forced the Chiefs to let the likes of Albert and Jackson leave in free agency, while the team eventually cut Flowers as part of the efforts to re-sign Alex Smith. With little wiggle room, there just wasn’t much general manager John Dorsey could do besides bring in bit parts like Mays and Owens.
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Re-signed: Pat McAfee, Vontae Davis, Adam Vinatieri, Ahmad Bradshaw
Arrived: D’Qwell Jackson, Arthur Jones, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Adams
Departed: Antoine Bethea, Donald Brown, Samson Satele
Trying to shore up his run defense yet again, Ryan Grigson made logical moves in adding Jones and Jackson, but injuries limited Jones to just 362 snaps, while Jackson looked a step slow. Adams quietly delivered an underrated campaign, but the Colts still missed Bethea, who played at an All-Pro level for the 49ers. Grigson’s best signing might have been McAfee, who was the best specialist in football in 2014.
Re-signed: Dan Bailey, Anthony Spencer
Arrived: Henry Melton, Brandon Weeden, Terrell McClain
Departed: DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Jason Hatcher
Dallas’s cap situation forced it to release a franchise icon in Ware, but outside of giving a silly seven-year contract to Bailey, the team stayed frugal and didn’t try to mortgage the future to add a big-name free agent. That in itself is progress.
Re-signed: Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, Daryl Smith
Arrived: Steve Smith, Owen Daniels, Justin Forsett
Departed: Arthur Jones, Ed Dickson, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, Michael Oher
Ozzie Newsome kept on doing Ozzie Newsome things, finding a useful spare part in Forsett while adding Steve Smith after his falling-out with Carolina. The move to re-sign Pitta backfired after the tight end dislocated his hip for the second time in two years, and his five-year, $32 million contract could become an albatross on the salary cap in the years to come. Baltimore also sorely missed Graham, who excelled in Buffalo, when virtually every one of its cornerbacks went down with injuries during the second half of the season.
Re-signed: Michael Bennett, Doug Baldwin, Tony McDaniel, Steven Hauschka
Arrived: Kevin Williams
Departed: Red Bryant, defensive end Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, Breno Giacomini, Golden Tate, Brandon Browner, Perrish Cox
The stream of defensive players flowing out of the Pacific Northwest was to be expected after Seattle’s dominant run to its first Super Bowl title, but John Schneider was able to convince Bennett to take a discount to stay in Seattle. Bennett was a critical part of the defense’s unholy run in the second half and might have been the best player on the field from either team in the Super Bowl. The more disappointing move was letting Tate go to Detroit; with a year of hindsight, the Seahawks would surely rather have kept Tate than Percy Harvin, who was traded away in October.
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Re-signed: Alan Branch
Arrived: Corey Graham, Chris Williams, Brandon Spikes, Boobie Dixon, Keith Rivers
Departed: Jairus Byrd, Arthur Moats
The moves you don’t make can be just as valuable as the ones you do make, and the Bills deserve a lot of credit for ducking the conventional wisdom and allowing Byrd to leave in free agency. For all the criticism they took at the time, they’re far better off having allowed him to sign with New Orleans. They also made a nice value pickup by adding Graham, with the special-teams dynamo starting nine games at cornerback. On the flip side, the Williams signing is even more inexplicable a year later, and Spikes failed to capture a regular role in an excellent Bills defense (even after Kiko Alonso was injured), while Moats enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season for the Steelers.
Re-signed: Frostee Rucker, Matt Shaughnessy
Arrived: Antonio Cromartie, Jared Veldheer, Ted Ginn, John Carlson, Jonathan Dwyer, Larry Foote
Departed: Karlos Dansby, Andre Roberts
Steve Keim did it again by coming away from the free-agent market with another veteran bargain in Cromartie, who was Arizona’s best cornerback for most of the season. Foote couldn’t live up to the Pro Bowl–caliber play of Dansby from 2013, but he was a much-needed veteran in a front seven battered by injuries. Arizona’s season ended up derailed by quarterback woes, but there’s no way Keim could have known his passer depth chart needed to go four-deep in January.
San Francisco 49ers
Re-signed: Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson, Eric Wright
Arrived: Antoine Bethea, Perrish Cox, Brandon Lloyd
Departed: Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Jonathan Goodwin
For all the turmoil in San Francisco last season, the problem with this 49ers team wasn’t the work done by Trent Baalke in free agency. Bethea was an inspired pickup who took his game to a new level in San Francisco, as the former Colts star delivered a career year. Cox, who had been a backup for the Niners before briefly leaving for Seattle, played about 90 percent of the snaps and was the team’s best cornerback while making $695,000.
Re-signed: Matt Cassel, Everson Griffen, Matt Asiata
Arrived: Captain Munnerlyn, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson
Departed: Jared Allen, Chris Cook, Toby Gerhart, John Carlson, Kevin Williams
The Vikings bet big on Griffen, giving a pass-rusher with just one career start a five-year, $42.5 million deal with nearly $20 million in guaranteed money. It paid off; Griffen had 12 sacks despite playing on a team that faced the fifth-fewest pass attempts in football. Johnson was quietly impressive in a limited role, Asiata was a serviceable goal-line back, and both Allen and Gerhart performed far worse outside of Minnesota.
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Green Bay Packers
Re-signed: Sam Shields, B.J. Raji, Andrew Quarless, John Kuhn
Arrived: Julius Peppers, Letroy Guion
Departed: Evan Dietrich-Smith, James Jones, C.J. Wilson
Ted Thompson knows best. Signing Peppers and moving him to outside linebacker seemed like a questionable move at the time, but Peppers was effective enough as a pass-rusher to allow Clay Matthews to move inside, which shored up the team’s run defense and improved the Packers at two positions. Guion, meanwhile, was a very useful fill-in at nose tackle for $1 million after Raji tore his biceps in a preseason game. The four-year, $39 million deal afforded Shields days before free agency opened doesn’t look all that bad in the context of the big cornerback deals that followed, and the timing should gratify Packers fans hoping that Randall Cobb re-signs with Green Bay before the market opens.
Re-signed: Dominic Raiola, Brandon Pettigrew, Rashean Mathis
Arrived: Golden Tate, James Ihedigbo
Departed: Willie Young, Jason Fox, Louis Delmas
I was skeptical of the move to give Tate a five-year, $31 million contract with $13.3 million guaranteed, but it looks like a masterstroke one year later. Tate kept the Detroit passing attack afloat while Calvin Johnson was down with his ankle injury, a bargain for a guy whose cap hit was just $3.1 million. Even at $5.4 million in 2015, he’ll be one of the better bargains in football. Ihedigbo and Mathis were starters in a shockingly effective secondary. The only downside was the departure of Young, an underrated pass-rusher who had an impressive season for the Bears.
Re-signed: Andre Caldwell, Chris Harris
Arrived: Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders, Will Montgomery
Departed: Zane Beadles, Eric Decker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Adams, Robert Ayers, Knowshon Moreno, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey, Shaun Phillips
The Broncos made an uncommon number of player-for-player swaps last offseason and won virtually all of them. A year later, you would rather have Sanders than Decker, and Talib over Rodgers-Cromartie, and Harris over Bailey, and it’s not really close. Ware was obviously a massive upgrade over the likes of Phillips, and Ward helped upgrade what ended up as the league’s third-best run defense. With key contributors like Terrance Knighton and Julius Thomas about to hit free agency, John Elway will need to pull a similar high-wire act this offseason.
New England Patriots
Re-signed: Julian Edelman, Michael Hoomanawanui, Ryan Wendell
Arrived: Darrelle Revis, Patrick Chung, Brandon Browner, Will Smith
Departed: Aqib Talib, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher
The champs, perhaps not coincidentally, end up with Denver at the top of the free-agency charts. Replacing Talib with Revis worked to perfection, as Bill Belichick naturally managed to get the most out of the most talented cornerback he’s ever coached. Browner provided a physical presence across from Revis and allowed the Patriots to play the most aggressive man coverage they’ve used since the glory days of Ty Law, while Chung was a surprisingly important part as a run-stifling safety. And while most of the additions were improvements for the defense, it’s worth remembering that nobody in the league was willing to give Edelman even $1 million in free agency two years ago; he signed a four-year, $17 million deal last offseason, and the league’s best secondary couldn’t find a way to stop Edelman in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
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