We'll take a look at the teams that have done the best job in free agency thus far in this installment.
1) Minnesota Vikings – If you drew up an off-season draft plan for the Vikings, it probably would have included a run-stuffing defensive tackle, an upgrade or two at linebacker, an upgrade at cornerback, and possibly upgrade at safety, and of course find a replacement for wide receiver Randy Moss. By golly, that's pretty much what the Vikings have done in free agency thus far minus the Moss replacement.
The biggest priority of the free agency period had to be to upgrade the interior of their defense. By adding mammoth defensive tackle Pat Williams, they've added perhaps one of the best run stoppers at his position around the NFL.
By adding veteran linebacker Sam Cowart to the middle, they've gained badly needed experience to the position, and he should still have something left in the tank for the next few seasons now that he's healthy.
While their secondary certainly wasn't a weakness of their defense, it certainly could use some help. By adding former Redskin cornerback Fred Smoot, they've gained a solid cover corner who is in the prime of his career. Teaming him with veteran Antoine Winfield gives the Vikings perhaps one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFC and possibly the whole league.
But Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski and his staff didn't stop there, he also added linebacker Napoleon Harris in the Moss deal and also added a high first-round pick. While the addition of former Ravens wide receiver Travis Taylor probably didn't get any Viking fans to do jumping jacks, he'll get to play in an offense that will take advantage of his ability to get down field.
An underrated part of free agency is being able to re-sign your own players. Don't underestimate the re-signing of tight end Jermaine Wiggins. With Moss gone, Wiggins' presence will be needed even more and it doesn't hurt that he's coming off the best season in his career.
For the first time in recent memory, the Vikings can actually look to take the best player available in the first round, and with two first-round picks who could argue that they haven't been the winner in free agency so far?
2) Arizona Cardinals – This was an important off-season for the Cardinals. Fans have been restless for years, and without much success you have to wonder how much more losing they can take. The good news is head coach Dennis Green and Vice President of Football Operations Rod Graves have put together perhaps the most aggressive off-season since the club left from St. Louis.
When you look at what they have done on offense, it may not look like much, but when you examine it further, there's more than meets the eye.
By adding veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, they've added a proven winner. Although he's clearly not the same player he once was, he'll be successful if the offensive line can block up front for him.
To help in that area, they added former Steelers tackle Oliver Ross, who is coming off of his best season of play. Ross may not be All-Pro material but he's more than serviceable and he's in the prime of his career.
Defensively, the Cardinals really needed to add another pass rusher, and they did that with Chike Okeafor, who is coming off of perhaps his best season as a pro. Not only does he play with a high motor, he's an excellent team leader. He's the kind of edge rusher that can cause havoc all game to opposing offenses.
While it won't probably go down as an impact signing, adding another former Seahawk in middle linebacker Orlando Huff isn't a bad move. He has starting experience and will get a much better chance to handle that role with his new team.
To help their shaky secondary, veteran safety Robert Griffith was added. He proved last season he has plenty left in the tank. While he's not the player he once was, Griffith will be an upgrade at the position.
When you look at the players they decided to let go and who they've brought in, it's hard to argue that the Cardinals haven't done a nice job in free agency.
3) Cleveland Browns - Senior VP and GM Phil Savage knew he had his work cut out for him when he left the Ravens to take over the new job.
Savage is known as one of the best talent evaluators in the business so it's not much of a surprise that he's let seven starters from last season go or leave via free agency or by trade.
To start rebuilding the Browns, he knew he had to improve their woeful offensive line and has done so by adding three-time Super Bowl Champion guard Joe Andruzzi. While he's not the best at his position, he certainly is an upgrade and is also as tough as nails. He's the kind of player that the "Dawg Pound" will love. The other guard that was added, Cosey Coleman, is a steady player who is durable.
While the acquisition of veteran signal caller Trent Dilfer may seem minor on the surface, but Dilfer is only 33 years old and still has a strong arm. He should be able to man the position until a younger replacement is found — perhaps in this month's draft.
Defensively, Savage either traded or released five starters, and another starter, cornerback Anthony Henry, signed with Dallas in free agency, and linebacker Warrick Holdman isn't expected back.
Much to almost everyone's surprise, Savage was able to replace Henry with perhaps a better player in Gary Baxter. Sure, it helped that Savage was involved in the drafting of Baxter when he was with the Ravens, but the bottom line is he was able to get him signed.
Probably one of the more underrated signings that the Browns made was in journeyman defensive tackle Jason Fisk. He's another workmanlike player who is good at one thing — stopping the run — and that's something that their defense hasn't been great at in recent seasons.
Another underrated move by Savage was the signing of former Falcons linebacker Matt Stewart. He's the type of player that should thrive in head coach Romeo Crennel's scheme. In fact, some believe he could be another Mike Vrabel type of player. Vrabel wasn't a factor at all with the Steelers but has become a pretty good player with the Patriots.
While most of the moves that the Browns have made this off-season don't seem to be of impact at first glance, the bottom line is those players that were added are upgrades.
4) Oakland Raiders – While their defense still needs a lot of help, you have to be impressed with their two offensive additions in wide receiver Randy Moss and running back LaMont Jordan.
Their offense really lacked a true No. 1 wide receiver last season. While Jerry Porter seemed to be having a good year, most close to the team questioned if he's really a true lead receiver. With Moss, they have the best receiver in the game who is still in his prime. With veteran quarterback Kerry Collins throwing to him, you can bet the return of the vertical passing game will begin immediately.
The running game was the worst statistically in the NFL last season. That was then, this is now. What they got in Jordan is a between-the-tackles runner who gets better with more carries. He's a great fit for head coach Norv Turner's offense.
With both of those additions, the front office can turn their attention to defense.
They made one impact move on defense so far with the signing of former Eagle end Derrick Burgess. The oft-injured player is still only 26, but he has missed 35 games over the last three seasons. When healthy, Burgess is a pretty good edge rusher who has a nice upside. Will he be the player that the Raiders saw rack up three sacks and nine solo tackles in the playoffs in two games? Time will tell, but he's certainly going to help their pass rush any time he's on the field.
Although they only signed three free agents, those moves will significantly upgrade the team.
5) Kansas City Chiefs - President/GM/CEO Carl Peterson got tired of hearing it. Why is their defense so bad?
Tiring of hearing and seeing it, Peterson made his moves — three in total so far on defense.
To help their underachieving linebackers, he signed the oft-injured but very talented Kendrell Bell. When at his best, Bell is an impact defender who can take over a game. Whether he's lined up inside as a run defender or outside as a pass rusher, Bell can upgrade a defense. Which Bell will they get? The one in his rookie year who looked to be on the verge of greatness or the one who has missed 17 games over the last three seasons? If Bell can get his injuries behind him, the Chiefs got a steal no matter where they line him up.
Another solid pickup was of veteran safety Sammy Knight. Knight is a good hitter in the secondary who also has a nose for the ball. He's also a solid veteran leader.
The last move should help their pass rush. The addition of former Titans end Carlos Hall is a good one. While he has yet to prove that he's a solid starter, he has good pass-rush skills and should be at least a good third end.
There should be one other move coming in the form of Dolphin cornerback Patrick Surtain. If they're able to get him in the fold, you'll start to see defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham bring the heat a lot more.
The bottom line is their defense will have a new look in 2005, and a much better one at that.
2005 NFL Free Agency Winners
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