By Steve Silverman
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The 2017 season has begun in earnest, and the free agency signing season means that teams are able to take major steps toward improving themselves.
The standards set by the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders last year in free agency have been game changers. Both teams made major improvements to their rosters by bringing in veteran players, and while the NFL draft may still be the most important tool for putting a winner on the field, huge steps can be taken with smart and judicious work by NFL general managers and front-office staffs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have made a move that will turn an improving offensive team into one of the most exciting in the league, capable of striking quickly on offense.
The Bucs signed explosive wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and he will get a chance to work with third-year quarterback Jameis Winston and Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans.
Winston has shown steady improvement in each of his first two years, and he already has a wonderful working relationship with Evans, who can win the 50-50 battle due to his strength and positioning. Jackson is a speed receiver who can get downfield quickly, stretch the defense and make big plays.
In addition to adding Jackson, the Bucs signed defensive end Chris Baker from the Redskins and safety J.J. Wilcox from the Cowboys.
The Bucs look like they will become the Atlanta Falcons’ primary competition in the NFC South.
The Cleveland Browns have also taken the first steps toward becoming a respectable team. They don’t have a franchise quarterback, but they invested heavily in their offensive line as they brought in center/guard J.C. Tretter from the Packers and guard Kevin Zeitler from the Bengals. They also added a fast wide receiver in Kenny Britt from the Rams.
The Browns’ biggest move was acquiring quarterback Brock Osweiler from the Texans and getting an extra second-round pick in the process. Osweiler has a brutal contract, but the Brown have $100 million in cap space, and they can convert 50 percent of the quarterback’s $16 million guaranteed salary into a roster bonus. That would give Osweiler an $8 million salary for the upcoming season, making it easier for Cleveland to trade him for additional draft picks.
The Indianapolis Colts appear to have taken note of the success the Giants had in free agency last year when New York signed Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins to upgrade their defense. The Colts’ defense was nearly as bad this year as the Giants were in 2015, so Indianapolis added defensive end Jabaal Sheard and linebacker Barkevious Mingo from the Patriots as well as linebacker John Simon from the Texans.
Those moves should give head coach Chuck Pagano a much-improved base defense to work with this season, and if the Colts can add a couple of rookies who can contribute on the defensive side, this could be one of the most improved teams in the league.
The Tennessee Titans also followed the Giants’ 2016 model with some of their moves on the defensive side of the ball. They brought in six new players — five of them are on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Daren Bates from the Raiders, safety Johnathan Cyprien from the Jaguars, cornerback Logan Ryan from the Patriots, safety Brynden Trawick from the Raiders and nose tackle Sylvester Williams from the Broncos.
The signing of Ryan and Williams could be very significant in helping to turn the Titans into a solid team that is capable of contending for a division title.
However, not all teams that make a lot of moves have helped themselves. The Chicago Bears were a 3-13 team last season, and they have endured three straight brutal seasons.
General manager Ryan Pace finally cut the cord on recalcitrant quarterback Jay Cutler, and that was a solid move. However, new quarterback Mike Glennon has not played in two years, and it seems like Pace is making a mistake by trusting the former Buccaneers quarterback with the job. The Bears still have to draft a QB, and Glennon may be nothing more than a placeholder.
The Bears also added corner Prince Amukamara from the Jaguars, safety Quintin Demps from the Texans and wideouts Markus Wheaton from the Steelers and Kendall Wright from the Titans.
Amukamara is a talented player, but Giants fans know that he has a tough time staying on the field due to injuries. Demps is a better special teams player than he is a defensive back. Wheaton and Wright are both complementary receivers and not go-to guys.
The Bears have been busy, but they have not accomplished much.
The Giants, meanwhile, may have hurt themselves by bringing in wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who just completed a two-year run with the Jets. There’s little doubt that Marshall is a gifted athlete and a skilled pass catcher, but he has a way of turning the focus onto himself and away from the team.
If Marshall is a disruptive force, the Giants could have problems in the locker room throughout his tenure with Big Blue.
The Baltimore Ravens appear to have been hurt badly on both sides of the ball in free agency. They lost guard Vladimir Ducasse to the Bills, defensive end Lawrence Guy to the Patriots, fullback Kyle Juszczyk to the 49ers and offensive tackle Rick Wagner to the Lions.
Coach John Harbaugh may have a difficult time turning this team around in 2017.
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