I know. I miss you guys too. This period in between now and midterms has left me without time to write articles for the Wheel. Furthermore, with the football season ending, there has been little news up until now. Because now we have free agency! Free agency in the NFL is one of my favorite off-season periods in all of sports.

Only in the NFL can superstar players be forced to restructure their contract or risk being released. Only in the NFL can productive players around the age of 30 have trouble finding work and have to wait a season or even retire due to a lack of league-wide interest. And only in the NFL do teams sign players before they draft (in the MLB, the draft happens during the season, so I consider it similar to the NBA). This means that teams get the opportunity to address their holes by signing players and then head into the draft to put the finishing touches on their team.

This offseason has been very beneficial to teams looking for a complete overhaul but not so great for older superstars who were unwilling to restructure their deals. There is still a lot of time between now and the NFL draft, but teams have had enough time to define their offseason and earn categorization as a winner or a loser. This is not necessarily a list of the teams that have added the highest or lowest number of pieces or signed the best or worst players. Instead, it is a list of teams that have made the best moves in symmetry with their goals for next season and beyond. So without further commentary (or an introduction to even further commentary), here is a list of offseason winners and losers thus far.

WINNERS:

Miami Dolphins:

The Miami Dolphins have been looking for a marquee match for years. Whether it was attempting to bring Peyton Manning to South Beach or hiring Nick Saban for coaching star power, the Dolphins have tried and failed to put themselves on the map for good in the AFC East since the Dan Marino days. With their first selection in last year’s draft, the Dolphins selected the raw but chock-full-of-potential Ryan Tannehill to be their quarterback of the future. Last season, he showed flashes of brilliance, a solid amount of head-scratching and proved that the Dolphins needed to surround him with talent. And did they ever. Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller will join Brian Hartline to create a formidable set of weapons for Tannehill. They replaced aging linebackers Karlos Dansby and Morgan Burnett with the younger Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. They did lose Jake Long, Sean Smith and Reggie Bush, but each one of them commanded a salary too expensive for the Dolphins’ budget, and they can easily be replaced by cheaper alternatives through the draft. The Dolphins can certainly compete for a wild-card spot in the AFC today, and in a few years as their team grows as a unit, they can potentially fight with the Patriots for the AFC East crown.

Atlanta Falcons:

The Atlanta Falcons have been quietly making smart personnel decisions that put them in a great position to head to the NFC Championship game once again, but this time, I think that they can win. Resigning Tony Gonzalez was extraordinary. Most people thought he was planning on retiring, but having him both on and off the field make the Falcons significantly better, regardless of his age. He was one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL last season, and he will continue to be one of the best this season as well. The “swap” of Steven Jackson instead of Michael Turner was one of the most underrated moves this offseason. Michael Turner looked old and out of shape whereas Steven Jackson has been one of the most productive running backs in the NFL since he has entered the league. His ability on the ground will force teams to keep an eye on him, opening up the passing game for Matt Ryan. This will only bolster one of the best offensive attacks in the league. The recent signing of Osi Umenyiora will counter the loss of Jason Abraham at a lower cost, and the re-signing of Sam Baker and Garrett Reynolds will keep together a very powerful offensive line. In the draft, the Falcons need to focus on finding a cornerback to replace Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, as well as an edge rusher. But as currently created, the Falcons have made the smart moves to keep together their strong, successful nucleus.

 

LOSERS:

Baltimore Ravens:

The Baltimore Ravens opened up the offseason by shelling out the big bucks to keep their championship quarterback in purple and black for the next half decade. This was a move that was forced upon them by his success, so while I disagree with the amount of money they paid him, I am not so sure that they had a choice. The loss of Ray Lewis to retirement was supposed to be filled by Dannell Ellerbe, but he left for the Dolphins, leaving a gaping hole at one of their most steady positions in team history.

Ed Reed’s loss will also be devastating. Not only is he one of the best safeties in the game, he is a locker-room leader and great role model for the younger players. With Paul Kruger, Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard leaving as well, the team was ransacked, and many holes are still unfilled. Ozzie Newsome is a great general manager, and his shrewd signings of Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff and Chris Canty will help soften the blow. But the reigning champions have lost many of their important pieces, and this turnover will absolutely prevent them from making it back to the Super Bowl, despite having the highest paid quarterback in the league.

Buffalo Bills:

This has been an unfortunate offseason for the Buffalo Bills. After overhauling their defense last season, most notably with the signing of Mario Williams, the Bills envisioned competing at the top of the AFC East and heading to the playoffs. This was absolutely not the case.

Other than having C.J. Spiller’s breakout season, last year was an absolute misery. Their super-defense was exposed on their ground, and Ryan Fitzpatrick proved that he was not the right guy to lead the Bills to the promise land.

This offseason, the Bills have cut many players who were supposed to be important pieces for their championship run, in an attempt to rebuild. New coach Doug Marrone, formerly of Syracuse University (N.Y.), will have to find a new quarterback, rebuild an offensive line, provide his quarterback with weapons and stimulate a talented but underperforming defense.

While the moves made by the Bills were not bad ones, it was just unfortunate that this overhaul occurred right after their spending spree last year. The Bills will most likely be in the cellar this year as well, wasting away the prime of Mario Williams, Stevie Johnson and Marcell Dareus. If they cannot turn the tide, the Bills will be in the awkward phase of trying to rebuild but having too much salary on the books to do so.

By Jayson Patel