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Friday, April 19, 2024

NFL Free Agency 2024: Most Improved Teams Include Raiders, Bears, Falcons

Many NFL teams improved after the first wave of free agency and they did it in a variety of ways.

For example, the Chicago Bears traded players and spent money on top free agents. They even traded away one of their best players to make room for an intriguing quarterback from USC. Well, that’s what everyone is assuming, at least. And that player the Bears traded made the Pittsburgh Steelers stronger.

Many teams made moves with the 2024 NFL draft in mind, while others went all in on veterans with the hopes of becoming Super Bowl contenders. The Houston Texans are one of those teams, becoming a trendy pick to possibly upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.

The Titans, Falcons and Raiders were among the teams that improved the most during the first wave of free agency with the additions of Ridley, Cousins and Wilkins.

Steve Roberts/USA TODAY Sports (left); Jamie Sabau/USA TODAY Sports (center); Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports (right)

Here are the eight teams that improved the most after the first week of NFL free agency. Remember, most improved teams, not the best teams.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers

Notable additions: S DeShon Elliott, QB Justin Fields, CB Donte Jackson, WR Van Jefferson, LB Patrick Queen, QB Russell Wilson

I wanted to rank the Steelers much higher because they got better at the most important position, but there are unknowns with the arrivals of Wilson and Fields. Wilson will reportedly start the offseason workouts and training camp as QB1, which seems like a mistake after two subpar seasons with the Broncos. Fields offers the most upside, but he hasn’t been as consistent a passer as Wilson. If Fields finds consistency and wins the job over Wilson, perhaps this No. 8 ranking will look silly later this year.

There are also unknowns with Queen, the former 2020 first-round pick coming off a breakout season after three quiet seasons to start his career with the Ravens. Queen improved once Roquan Smith and former defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald arrived in Baltimore. Time will tell if Queen can be the top inside linebacker on a team and play up to his three-year, $41 million contract. He could succeed playing behind edge rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

Pittsburgh found a starting cornerback opposite Joey Porter Jr. after trading wide receiver Diontae Johnson to the Panthers for Jackson, who has started 76 games in his six-year career.

7. Tennessee Titans

Tennessee added a versatile playmaker in Pollard after agreeing to a three-year, $24 million deal.

Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

Notable additions: CB Chidobe Awuzie, C Lloyd Cushenberry, LB Kenneth Murray, RB Tony Pollard, WR Calvin Ridley, QB Mason Rudolph

For starters, I’m not a fan of the lucrative long-term contract the Titans agreed to with Ridley (four years, $92 million), but his arrival made the Titans better in the short term. Ridley will be tough to keep tabs on for opposing defenses if DeAndre Hopkins continues to play at a high level. Ridley also fills a need because 2022 first-round pick Treylon Burks hasn’t found his footing in the NFL. There were other options for adding wide receiver depth, but that’s a different story. Ridley’s arrival should help second-year quarterback Will Levis, too.

There’s also a case to be made that the Titans overpaid for Cushenberry (four years, $50 million), but he was the top center on the market, and it’s never a bad idea to splurge on rugged offensive linemen. Tennessee added a versatile playmaker in Pollard after agreeing to a three-year, $24 million deal, which was more than the two-year, $16 million contract Derrick Henry got from the Baltimore Ravens. But Pollard is four years younger than the 30-year-old Henry and offers more as a pass catcher.

The arrivals of Pollard, Cushenberry and Ridley gives new coach Brian Callahan plenty to work with. He’s set up well to form a dynamic offensive scheme for Levis.

6. Washington Commanders

Notable additions: RB Austin Ekeler, OG Nick Allegretti, Edge Dorance Armstrong, C Tyler Biadasz, S Jeremy Chinn, Edge Clelin Ferrell, LB Frankie Luvu, QB Marcus Mariota, LB Bobby Wagner

The teams that make the most noise in free agency often regret the spring shopping spree come fall. Perhaps the Commanders have found the right formula for spending in free agency after many of their signings went unnoticed.

The additions of Armstrong and Luvu are two of many smart, savvy signings the Commanders had last week. Their presence will help one of the worst defenses in the league, and it didn’t require the team to overspend on the open market. Armstrong, the former underrated Cowboys edge rusher, agreed to a three-year, $45 million contract. Luvu, the former versatile playmaker of the Panthers, agreed to a three-year, $36 million contract.

Washington also added Farrell, Wagner and Chinn on one-year deals. New coach Dan Quinn now has the talent to improve the defense without the team having to make long-term commitments. The incoming rookie quarterback—the Commanders have the No. 2 pick in the draft—could have a decent surrounding with the arrivals of Ekeler, Allegretti and Biadasz.

5. New York Giants

New York could have one of the best defensive fronts in the league, with edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and Burns.

Morgan Tencza/USA TODAY Sports

Notable additions: Edge Brian Burns, OL Jermaine Eluemunor, QB Drew Lock, WR Isaiah McKenzie, OG Jon Runyan, RB Devin Singletary, OG Aaron Stinnie

Some might not be happy with the Giants being ranked this high because their skill-position group could be the worst in the NFL, which is nothing new for New York in the Daniel Jones era. But this year, the Giants won’t have Saquon Barkley and could regret not paying him before he bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles.

So, yes, the Giants have plenty of unfinished business offensively—they have the No. 6 pick to possibly select a talented wide receiver in next month’s draft. But Jones—if he’s the starter this upcoming season—finally has a quality offensive line after the team added Runyan and Stinnie to possibly take over as the starting guards. Last year, the team neglected the guard position and the results were disastrous. The Giants appear to have learned their lesson the hard way, and even added an insurance plan in case right tackle Evan Neal struggles again. Eluemunor started at right tackle for the Raiders last season and has plenty of experience playing at guard.

The Giants’ biggest acquisition last week was the trade for Burns, who immediately agreed to a five-year, $150 contract. New York could have one of the best defensive fronts in the league, with edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and Burns.

Now if the Giants can land either Malik Nabers or Rome Odunze in the draft to go with their revamped offensive line and defensive line, perhaps they could be a sleeper postseason squad.

4. Las Vegas Raiders

Notable additions: RB Alexander Mattison, QB Gardner Minshew, IDL Christian Wilkins

The Las Vegas Raiders don’t have a laundry list of newcomers, which is a testament to how much the team has improved in the past year with coach Antonio Pierce and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. The Silver & Black wisely provided help for Maxx Crosby with the splash signing of Wilkins, one of the top free agents on the market this year. Don’t be surprised if the Raiders are atop most defensive categories in 2024.

Las Vegas also got better at quarterback, going from Jimmy Garoppolo and Aidan O’Connell last season to Minshew, who was a fourth-down conversion away from guiding the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason in 2023. Minshew isn’t a long-term answer at quarterback, but he could immediately help an offense that features Davante Adams, Michael Mayer, Zamir White and Mattison. The Raiders’ offseason, however, would look much better if they pair Minshew with a rookie quarterback such as Michael Penix Jr. or Bo Nix.

3. Houston Texans

Mixon had a bounce-back 2023 season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards for the first time since ’21.

Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports

Notable additions: LB Azeez Al-Shaair, DL Denico Autry, DT Folorunso Fatukasi, Edge Danielle Hunter, RB Joe Mixon, CB Jeff Okudah, DL Tim Settle

The Texans revamped their defensive front with experienced playmakers, including Hunter, one of the best edge rushers in the game. Hunter and Will Anderson Jr., the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, could form a dominant pass-rushing tandem in 2024. They might see plenty of favorable matchups, with Houston adding Al-Shaair and Autry, taking two top players from its rivals, the Tennessee Titans.

On paper, DeMeco Ryans’s defense improved with these free-agency acquisitions, but they also got older after saying goodbye to Jonathan Greenard, Blake Cashman and Sheldon Rankins. The Texans, however, needed more experienced playmakers because they already have plenty of youth, with Anderson, Jalen Pitre, Derek Stingley Jr. and Christian Harris all 24 or younger. The Texans’ defense could take steps forward this season after adding many players who fit Ryans’s scheme.

The offense also improved after the Texans landed Mixon in a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals. Mixon had a bounce-back 2023 season, recording more than 1,000 rushing yards for the first time since ’21. C.J. Stroud could have a consistent running game, something he didn’t have during his rookie season.

2. Chicago Bears

Notable additions: WR Keenan Allen, OL Ryan Bates, S Kevin Byard, TE Gerald Everett, S Jonathan Owens, OL Coleman Shelton, RB D’Andre Swift

The Bears have a hole at quarterback after trading Fields to the Steelers. But we’ll make an exception here, because it’s obvious Caleb Williams will be landing in Chicago in about a month, and it appears he’ll be walking into an appealing situation based on the moves the Bears made, starting with the trade for Allen.

Williams—again, assuming he’ll be the top pick—will have many reliable targets, with the pass-catching group of Allen, DJ Moore and Cole Kmet. Allen’s presence was instrumental in helping Justin Herbert win Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Chargers in 2020. The Bears also added Swift and Everett, two versatile playmakers who can contribute in the passing game. And they didn’t ignore the trenches, signing Shelton. With how well the defense played last season, the Bears could be on the rise if the new offensive pieces come together quickly.

1. Atlanta Falcons

Cousins will have more pieces to work with after the Falcons signed Mooney.

Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports

Notable additions: QB Kirk Cousins, WR Ray-Ray McCloud III, WR Darnell Mooney, WR Rondale Moore, TE Charlie Woerner

The Falcons are the most improved team after the first wave of free agency because they added the best available quarterback to an already impressive roster. Cousins could quickly turn the Falcons into a high scoring offense because of his strong skill-position group featuring Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts. Cousins might not have a Justin Jefferson in Atlanta, but he could spread the ball around, with the depth the team added after he committed to a four-year, $180 million contract.

New offensive coordinator Zac Robinson will have many pieces to work with after the Falcons added Mooney, Moore and McCloud. Last season, the Falcons had one of the worst receiving corps behind London and it didn’t help that former coach Arthur Smith failed to get Pitts involved. Now Atlanta has the quarterback, weapons and new coaching staff to match what the Falcons’ defense did last season, a unit that could do better with the arrival of coach Raheem Morris. The new-look Falcons are the favorites to win the NFC South this season. 

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