NFL Offseason Opens With a Bang

The National Football League's open period of free agency technically begins on Wednesday, but a number of significant cuts, signings, and trades have occurred already. The Seattle Seahawks cut star cornerback Richard Sherman for salary cap reasons, and he immediately signed with their biggest rival, the San Francisco 49ers. The Kansas City Chiefs cut five-time Pro Bowler Tamba Hali after 12 years and 89.5 sacks, the most in franchise history by anyone not named Derrick Thomas. Dozens more players are set to become free agents tomorrow, including big names like Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, and Ndamukong Suh.

Some teams couldn't wait, though, as high-profile players found new teams last week. The most active and intriguing teams so far have been the Bills, Browns, Eagles, and Rams.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are 1-31 over the last two seasons, but they appear poised to improve rapidly. Last year's Jacksonville Jaguars showed that veteran acquisitions can turn a franchise around. The Jags, who had finished 5-11 or worse for six years in a row, doubled their win total and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Last year's New Orleans Saints demonstrated that a great draft can do the same thing, as they produced the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year and ended a streak of three straight losing seasons. New Orleans won the toughest division in football and came a Stefon Diggs miracle away from the NFC Championship Game.

The Browns could combine those improvements. They have acquired capable veterans, and they still have the most draft capital of any team in a quarter-century: it's conceivable they could compete for a Super Bowl in the next three years. (I'm not betting anything I value on the Browns becoming an elite team, but it's conceivable.)

The Browns made three or four big trades, acquiring (h/t Mary Kay Cabot) QB Tyrod Taylor, WR Jarvis Landry, DB Damarious Randall, the Packers' 4th- and 5th-round draft picks, and the Patriots' 3rd-round pick in 2019. That's a quarterback who led the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since Doug Flutie in 1999, who in the last three years threw 51 TDs and 16 INTs, who rushes for 500 yards a season — a poor man's Cam Newton. It's a 25-year-old wide receiver who has 400 receptions in four years and fights for yardage like he weighs 250 instead of 205. It's a defensive back with at least three interceptions every season of his career, and 2 INT TDs in three seasons.

In return, the Browns gave up a very reasonable haul: QB DeShone Kizer, DT Danny Shelton, a 3rd-round pick, two 4th-round picks, two 5th-round picks, and a 7th-round picks in 2019. Once you sort through the draft exchanges and round off a little, the Browns essentially acquired Taylor, Landry, and Randall for Kizer, Shelton, and 3rd- and 5th-round picks. That's a helluva return on a quarterback who looked lost as a rookie, a DT who didn't fit their scheme, and a couple of mid-round draft picks.

The Browns have immediately and dramatically addressed their most glaring weakness, passing offense, with a proven QB and Pro Bowl-caliber WR. Landry joins a receiving corps that, if they can stay on the field, includes Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman. Terrelle Pryor, who had a 1,000-yard season for the Browns in 2016, is a candidate to return in free agency, as well.

These moves are an even bigger win if they convince All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Thomas to hold off on retirement, believing he might finally have a winning team around him. The Browns aren't done adding talent, either, because they still have a stunning haul of high draft picks, including the No. 1 and No. 4 overall choices. They also have two of the first three 2nd-round selections, plus another pick at the end of the 2nd round.

Several of the trades won't become official until 4 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, when the new league year begins, but the Browns have already positioned themselves as a team likely to improve dramatically in 2018 and going forward.

Los Angeles Rams

Like the Browns, they have agreed on several trades that won't be official until Wednesday. I'm using the past tense anyway.

The Browns were somewhere between an afterthought and a joke last season, but the Rams were contenders. They led the NFL in scoring, won 11 games, and won the NFC West for the first time since 2003. They're clearly all-in for 2018, though changing so many starters could backfire.

The Rams parted ways with defensive starters Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree, and Trumaine Johnson. They added cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Sam Shields.

Quinn had double-digits sacks every year from 2012-14, and he was the team's second-leading sacker (8.5) last season. Ogletree led the Rams in tackles in three of his four healthy seasons. Johnson was the top cornerback on a unit that allowed just a 78.4 passer rating last season. Quinn is gone for salary cap reasons, Ogletree because he's not the right fit in Wade Phillips' scheme, and Johnson because he's being replaced by Talib and Peters.

Talib, who excelled for Phillips in Denver, had other suitors, but reportedly wanted to play for either Phillips or for the Patriots' Bill Belichick. Peters, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 and a Pro Bowler in 2016, wore out his welcome in Kansas City. The low point was Week 13, when Peters picked up an official's flag and heaved it into the stands. If he plays hard and fits in the Rams' locker room, Peters was a bargain in trade. Shields hasn't played in the NFL since Week 1 of the 2016 season.

The Rams now have an intimidating defensive backfield, with Talib and Peters joining John Johnson, who played well as a rookie last season, and franchise player Lamarcus Joyner. If the offense leads the league again and they can replace Quinn through the draft or free agency, the Rams are going to blow some opponents out of the water next season. They're also gambling, though, that Talib still has it and that the problems Peters had in Kansas City don't translate to L.A. The biggest concern, though, may be the loss of Ogletree. Phillips' fingerprints are all over these moves, and he's earned the right to make some bold decisions, but he and the team need to replace Ogletree in the middle, or Peters and Talib may find themselves without many leads to protect.

Philadelphia Eagles

Per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia, Eagles GM Howie Roseman has made 15 trades since Chip Kelly was fired two years ago. Most recently, Roseman traded for Seahawks DE Michael Bennett, a three-time Pro Bowler, and Carolina Panthers DB Daryl Worley, a third-year pro who turned 23 last month.

To acquire Bennett and Worley, Roseman sent speedy WR Torrey Smith to the Panthers and a 5th-round draft choice to the Seahawks, along with backup WR Marcus Johnson. Bennett made three straight Pro Bowls from 2014-16, and at age 32, he could still have five good years ahead of him. On a line with Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long, Bennett should get plenty of time to rest, so he can perform at his best when he's on the field. It's a great fit for both player and team. Worley provides some depth and promise in the secondary, and Smith was a likely salary cap casualty.

The concern, besides whether they can really keep Nick Foles on the bench for the next 16 games, is that the Eagles have used up most of their drafting power in trades. Philadelphia only has one pick in the first 129: their first-round choice, 32nd overall. They traded their 2nd-round pick as part of the trade to draft Carson Wentz and their 3rd-round pick in last year's Ronald Darby/Jordan Matthews trade. The Eagles do have extra picks in the 4th and 5th rounds, but those seldom yield starters, especially in Year One.

With Jarvis Landry off the market (see above), Philadelphia will probably look at the draft for wide receiver help, with the rest of the team largely static. You don't want to fix something that's not broken, but the limited draft options do put some pressure on the Eagles to retain free agents like DB Patrick Robinson.

Buffalo Bills

Unlike the Eagles, the Bills are loaded with draft capital. Not as much as Cleveland, whose trove of high picks is historic, but pretty loaded. The Bills have two picks in each of the first three rounds! That's thanks to last year's trades for: the 10th overall pick (which the Chiefs used on Patrick Mahomes), Sammy Watkins (Rams), and Ronald Darby (Eagles). Buffalo, coming off its first playoff appearance in two decades, is about to reap the rewards of those trades.

They'll do so without quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who kept the ship steady but never impressed the current coaching staff as a franchise quarterback. Trading Taylor to the Browns gave Buffalo a second 3rd-round selection (joining the Eagles' pick), since the Bills traded their own for Kelvin Benjamin during the 2017 season.

It seems unlikely that the Bills will sit on all six picks through draft weekend, especially with their hole at QB. They would be wise to add a cheap veteran, maybe an A.J. McCarron type, from the deep free agent QB class, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if they also package two or three picks to move up from 21st into the top 10, where they could have a shot at one of the premier QBs in this year's draft class (Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and Josh Rosen). That makes sense, but I hope the Bills won't be over-aggressive in trading away the picks they've acquired, putting all their eggs in one basket. Careful drafting could set this franchise up to succeed for a long time into the future.

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