The Detroit Lions were in a great spot to start this offseason.
They were the hottest and probably the best team to not make the playoffs. A win over the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale gave them momentum into the winter and spring. They had draft capital and plenty of salary cap space for free agency. It looked like an enticing situation for free agents.
But you need to land the right players. And it's not like Detroit has been a major destination for free agents.
Something is brewing with the Lions. It's a place players want to be. Give credit to head coach Dan Campbell (and maybe "Hard Knocks") for that.
The Lions came into free agency with a major need in the secondary, and they've fixed it. Cameron Sutton was first, a solid cornerback from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He got $33 million over three years. Next was Emmanuel Moseley, who is a risk as he recovers from ACL surgery. But he got just $6 million for one year. Then came a steal that could transform the defense. Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson wanted more than the Philadelphia Eagles were willing to spend, then in a market in which Jessie Bates III got $16 million per year over four years from the Atlanta Falcons, Gardner-Johnson agreed to a one-year deal worth a reported $8 million. That's big for the Lions, who got one of the top safeties on the market without committing much.
Players are excited to be a part of what the Lions are building.
“Seeing what he’s been doing around the league, it’s exhilarating, man,” Sutton said, via MLive.com. “Like, guys love this guy [Campbell]. Not just me speaking, but you see how far it spreads around the league. Guys want to play for him."
Add in what Detroit thinks is an upgrade at running back with David Montgomery coming and Jamaal Williams going, and the Lions have gotten better. They did so without overextending themselves in future years. Detroit still has the sixth and 18th picks in the first round of the draft, and four picks in the top 55. The Lions can fill in remaining gaps that way.
“I know they’re doing the right things," Sutton said, via MLive.com. "You know that they bring the right people in the building, and we’re close. Organization’s ready to turn the hump, regardless of what you may see or what you may think or any other stuff."
The Green Bay Packers are wrestling with Aaron Rodgers uncertainty. The Minnesota Vikings didn't have the cap space to do much and haven't improved (and as we all heard, they were pretty lucky to win 13 games last season). The Chicago Bears have made moves but it's a work in progress.
The Lions are the favorites to win the NFC North. They haven't won a division title since 1993. Detroit still has to turn the good vibes into wins, but things are heading in the right direction. It has been a long time since that was the case.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from the first week of free agency:
49ers defense: The San Francisco 49ers landing the best defensive player in free agency came out of nowhere. It's not the worst thing to make your strengths stronger.
The 49ers signed defensive lineman Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million deal. Hargrave had an excellent season with the Philadelphia Eagles, collecting 11 sacks. He should pile up more with the talent up and down the 49ers' defensive line taking up blockers.
The 49ers' quarterback situation is scary. Sam Darnold was added as insurance if Brock Purdy (elbow) isn't ready for the start of the season, but Darnold is no sure thing for a team with Super Bowl dreams. But the defense should be the best in the NFL. That's a great start.
New Orleans Saints and Derek Carr: The NFC South was up for grabs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are having to retool. The Carolina Panthers are in transition, and that could work out but it's no sure thing. The Atlanta Falcons are seemingly banking heavily on Desmond Ridder at quarterback.
One big move would change the balance of power in the division, and the Saints made it.
Carr isn't a top quarterback but he's the best one in the NFC South. The Saints didn't have to give up any picks after the Las Vegas Raiders fumbled that situation and had to cut Carr. The Saints are the new favorite in the division. It's a chance for Carr to write a new chapter with a second team. It's not guaranteed to work out, but the Saints have to feel they leapfrogged their division rivals with one signing.
Chicago Bears, kind of: The Bears made a great move before the draft, trading down from the first pick and grabbing many valuable picks in return and also a No. 1 receiver in DJ Moore. That was huge in a receiver-thin market.
The rest of free agency was odd. The Bears had more cap space than any other team by a mile. They added good players, but double-dipping on Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards when off-the-ball linebackers are being devalued (and undrafted Jack Sanborn finished last season on a promising note) was questionable. Guard Nate Davis helps, but the Bears could have easily outbid anyone on a top tackle like Orlando Brown Jr. or Jawaan Taylor and didn't.
There are still a lot of needs, especially on both lines, and not much left in free agency. The Bears are being fairly patient, and maybe that will be the right method, but now seemed to be the time to get aggressive with their needs.
Atlanta Falcons: It never happens that 26-year-old former MVP quarterbacks hit free agency. The Falcons had an opportunity that might never arise again.
And they're not interested, at least not yet.
The Falcons had the cap space to give Lamar Jackson what he wanted, and the cost of two first-round draft picks to Baltimore if the Ravens didn't match is a low cost (look at what the Denver Broncos gave up for Russell Wilson last season). Passing on the wide-open opportunity to sign Jackson, just to roll with Ridder, seems like something that could haunt the franchise.
The fan base wouldn't forgive the Falcons for a long time if they pass on Jackson and the quarterback situation doesn't work out. The Falcons have added good players like safety Jessie Bates III and defensive lineman David Onyemata. They retained offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. But that's not what we'll remember from their offseason.
There's still time and maybe the Falcons make a move with Jackson. But it doesn't seem like it's coming, and that's confusing.
Raiders becoming the Patriots: If Jimmy Garoppolo didn't play for the New England Patriots once upon a time, would he be the Las Vegas Raiders' quarterback? Seems unlikely. Would Jakobi Meyers be with the Raiders if he didn't start with the Patriots? Probably not.
One of Josh McDaniels' biggest issues when he failed as the Denver Broncos' head coach was an over-reliance on former Patriots. That's a common mistake former Bill Belichick assistants have made. And now the Raiders seem intent on redoing the roster with players who know "The Patriot Way," though that has been a losing strategy in the past. It was for McDaniels many years ago.
The Raiders downgraded at quarterback. Meyers signed a reasonable deal at three years, $33 million (the horrible receiver market could have inflated his contract more than that) but traded tight end Darren Waller to clear up cap space for it. Maybe that's the right move, and the draft could reveal a clear plan for the future at quarterback. But right now it looks like the main strategy for the Raiders is becoming Patriots West.
The Broncos' salary cap: The New Orleans Saints' model for most of Sean Payton's time there was to spend like crazy without any thought to cap ramifications.
Payton joined the Denver Broncos this offseason, and their approach looked familiar.
Denver got out the credit card for free agency. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey was the key addition. Defensive lineman Zach Allen and guard Ben Powers each got more than $13 million per year. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was a luxury signing. Running back Samaje Perine got a two-year, $7.5 million deal.
Those are good players. The Broncos should be better. But it seems Denver is heading down a path of mortgaging the future to spend now.