NFL free agency winners, losers: Who took hardest hit?

Nate Davis
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) stands on the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The NFL's landscape already looks markedly different than it did when the new league year (and free agency) began Tuesday afternoon. After a flurry of major trades and signings, who's reaping the benefits and who needs the benefit the doubt? An assessment of free agency's winners and losers:


Running backs: Devalued? Hardly. Rushing champ DeMarco Murray signed with the Philadelphia Eagles for five years and $42 million, probably less than he could have procured elsewhere. Marshawn Lynch decided to return to the Seattle Seahawks rather than retire. And the Buffalo Bills dealt for LeSean McCoy and sweetened his contract. All told, this trio managed to rake in more than $110 million with better than $60 million in guarantees with their new and/or restructured pacts despite playing a position recently categorized as a dime per dozen. Even C.J. Spiller, Frank Gore, Ryan Mathews, Justin Forsett, Darren McFadden, Reggie Bush and Shane Vereen were paid as well or better than last year's premier free agent backs.

Ndamukong Suh: The new Miami Dolphin wanted to be the NFL's best-compensated defender. Mission accomplished. And as he begins accruing paychecks that could add up to $114 million, Suh will do so in the comfort of a state that doesn't charge income tax. Suh-weet, indeed.

Darrelle Revis: His all-star reps, Neil Schwartz and Jon Feinsod, struck again. After Revis pocketed $28 million courtesy of separate deals the past two offseasons in Tampa Bay and New England, his negotiating team brokered his return to the New York Jets for $70 million more over the next five years. The only drawback is Team Revis presumably won't be providing further entertainment by holding NFL GMs hostage in 2016.

Eagles PR machine: Whether you love or hate the personnel strings coach Chip Kelly has tugged, Philadelphia has been and certainly will remain one of league's most talked about teams as the mad scientist continues tinkering in his football lab. The defense should be better. But the offensive overhaul highlighted by the arrival of Murray and QB Sam Bradford and departures of McCoy and WR Jeremy Maclin will burnish or blemish Kelly's rep.

Aaron Rodgers: Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson re-signed the MVP's No. 2 receiver, Pro Bowler Randall Cobb, and underrated RT Bryan Bulaga. Meanwhile, Suh bolted the NFC North, Adrian Peterson remains in limbo and the rival Chicago Bears are a mess. R-E-L-A-X-E-D.

Colts: They were the only team among the AFC's elite – and we're including the Pats, Broncos and Ravens – in a position to improve their roster than whack away at it to remain cap-compliant. Signing proven vets like WR Andre Johnson, RB Frank Gore and OLB Trent Cole is just what a young team that looked cowed on the AFC Championship Game stage last January needed.

Early retirees: Patrick Willis stood to bank the many millions he was owed over the next few years. Jason Worilds and Jake Locker stood to earn a nice penny themselves in free agency. Yet all walked away from the NFL for personal reasons that outweighed the almighty dollar. Bravo.

Eli Manning and Philip Rivers: They're both staring at free agency in 2016. Yet they just saw their 2004 draftmate, Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, score a second contract in the nine-figure range. No reason to do any belt tightening, fellas.

Russell Wilson: He hasn't gotten his big payday ... yet. But Seahawks GM John Schneider did get his quarterback an early gift by obtaining Pro Bow TE Jimmy Graham, who's snared 46 TDs over the past four years. Wilson's never had a receiver catch more than seven TDs in a season, and Lynch led the way for Seattle with four TD grabs in 2014. Graham immediately provides a new threat in the red zone and should also dissuade defenses from almost exclusively gearing up to stop Lynch.

AFC East pretenders: The Dolphins reeled in Suh and former Pro Bowl TE Jordan Cameron. The Bills got McCoy, re-signed OLB Jerry Hughes and traded for veteran QB Matt Cassel. The Jets brought Revis back and added WR Brandon Marshall while making a flurry of other likable additions. These three teams have combined to win their division twice in the past 14 years. However it appears they've collectively closed quite a bit of distance with the Patriots.


The champs: After a decade-long title drought, the Patriots finally won their fourth Super Bowl in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. But was Revis the guy who truly put them over the top? Will they feel the leadership void left in Vince Wilfork's absence. Will this defense be nearly as effective without Revis and fellow CB Brandon Browner in coverage? The NFL is a league based on parity, and the Pats seem to be quickly backpedaling toward the pack.

Cap-flush teams: The Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns entered free agency with more than $200 million in cap space. However with the exception of the Jags' signing of TE Julius Thomas and maybe Tennessee's signing of injury-prone OLB Brian Orakpo, these teams – they combined for 15 wins in 2014 – didn't manage to attract much star power. Jacksonville did import immediate starters like T Jeremy Parnell and DT Jared Odrick, solid players if not headline makers, and even GM Dave Caldwell conceded he'd only hit a double in his bid to upgrade. For now, fans in these cities can only hope the secondary free agent market and draft are kinder to their clubs.

Dallas' chances for NFC East repeat: NFL offensive player of the year Murray now works for the enemy. WR Dez Bryant is steaming mad about that franchise tag and likely a holdout candidate. And a defense that has a net loss at linebacker, even with Sean Lee returning, is at greater risk to exposure without Murray eating up the clock. The NFC East crown has changed hands among all four of its members over the past four seasons and seems likely to be on the move again in 2015.

Drew Brees: A year ago, the New Orleans Saints quarterback lost his favorite outlet receiver, Darren Sproles. Then Tuesday, another body blow with the trade of Graham on the heels of Pierre Thomas' release. Speedy WR Kenny Stills was traded Friday. And the arrival of run-blocking C Max Unger and four-year commitments to RB Mark Ingram and Spiller suggest Brees' days as a 5,000-yard passer are officially over.

Former No. 1 receivers: Twelve months ago, Dwayne Bowe, Percy Harvin, Greg Jennings, Stevie Johnson and Reggie Wayne were each accustomed to being the man their quarterback relied on. Now all are looking for jobs with the exception of Harvin, who will be playing second fiddle to Sammy Watkins in Buffalo. At least perennial Pro Bowler Andre Johnson parlayed a demotion in Houston into a long-awaited chance to chase the Super Bowl with the Colts.

49ers: Willis is gone. Gore is gone. Jim Harbaugh is gone. Mike Iupati is gone. Justin Smith might be, too. Replacing talent is one challenge. Losing your identity may be a far tougher obstacle to surmount. (And it didn't help that the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams all beefed up over the past week.)

Players seeking a second chance: Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald were all embroiled in infamous domestic violence cases last year. All are currently free agents and seem likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.


Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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