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McClain: Gauging the NFL’s offseason winners, losers

April 6, 2017

If teams could win Super Bowls in March, the Jacksonville Jaguars would be perennial champions.

For the second consecutive year, Jacksonville has been crowned champion of free agency.

A lot of good it did the Jaguars in 2016 when they spent money like it was sand on the Ponte Vedra beach but still finished 3-13.

Despite their miserable record last season, the Jaguars ranked sixth in defense. So rather than improve an offense that finished 23rd, new vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin bolstered his defense.

The Jaguars signed cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Barry Church. They’re expected to use the draft to improve the offense.

As impressive as the Jaguars’ defensive haul was in free agency, they still didn’t win the offseason. That distinction belonged to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Considering trades as well as free agency, the Patriots surpassed every team in the NFL with the most impressive offseason. And that’s just what the league needs – the defending Super Bowl champions strengthening their roster – or simply a case of the rich getting richer.

Loaded with $65 million in salary cap space when free agency began, the Patriots signed cornerback Stephone Gilmore, running back Rex Burkhead and defensive end Lawrence Guy.

Belichick traded for receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and outside linebacker Kony Ealy.

“The Patriots did a great job,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “They’re the best team in the league. They set the tone right now. We all know who we need to beat.”

The Texans lost at New England twice last season, including in the divisional round of the playoffs. They visit the Patriots again next season.

While the Patriots are getting better with trades and free agent signings, the Texans haven’t signed a free agent from an opposing team.

“They’ve done a good job of adding players they feel fit their system,” O’Brien said. “I think everyone understands that the Patriots aren’t going anywhere. Everybody’s chasing them. They’re on top right now for obvious reasons. They have a great coaching staff and great players.

“They’re doing what they need to do. I know the players they added, whether it’s Cooks or Gilmore, those guys are good players, and they’re going to help them.”

Expect more moves

At this point in free agency, there are a lot of bargains. On May 9 - 10 days after the draft - expect another wave of free agents to sign. On that day, unrestricted free agents become street free agents and no longer subject to the compensatory formula that rewards teams with picks based on how many players they lose and sign.

The Texans haven’t signed a free agent, and they can expect three compensatory picks in 2018 for losing Bouye, outside linebacker John Simon and safety Quintin Demps. Bouye should be worth a third-round compensatory pick.

Another team that should benefit from losing a lot of players is Dallas. The Cowboys lost four defensive backs and guard Ron Leary. They may be awarded with more compensatory picks than any team.

Linemen cash in

No position has benefited more in free agency than the offensive line.

Of the 10 highest-paid free agents, five are offensive linemen: Cleveland guard Kevin Zeitler (five years, $60 million), Minnesota tackle Riley Reiff (five years, $58.7 million), Carolina tackle Matt Kalil (five years, $55.5 million), Los Angeles Chargers tackle Russell Okung (five years, $53 million) and Detroit tackle Ricky Wagner (five years, $47.5 million).

There are 10 offensive linemen among the 25 highest-paid free agents.

Quarterback, the highest-paid position in the NFL, has one player among the top 50 - Chicago’s Mike Glennon (three years, $45 million). The Bears took a huge risk on Tampa Bay’s backup.

No position is worth less in free agency than running back. LeGarrette Blount was a 1,000-yard rusher who scored 18 touchdowns and helped New England win a Super Bowl, but he’s still unemployed.

So is Adrian Peterson. At 32, he’s one of the greatest runners in history, but he’s still looking for a job. He’s visiting the Patriots this week.

It’s hard to imagine, but a fullback - San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk - signed a four-year deal worth $21 million to move across the country from Baltimore. A fullback signed for more money than any running back has been able to get. Go figure.

Intrigue at wideout

Some of the more intriguing free agent additions have been wide receivers.

For instance, the Buccaneers added deep threat DeSean Jackson to take some pressure off Mike Evans, providing Jameis Winston with another target.

Brandon Marshall left the New York Jets for the Giants, where he should give Eli Manning another weapon to go with Odell Beckham Jr.

Alshon Jeffery (Philadelphia) and Pierre Garcon (Los Angeles Rams) are two more big-time receivers who switched teams.

A lot of teams worked hard to improve one side of the ball. Indianapolis signed five defensive players. The Colts are expected to use the draft to improve their offense.

“It’s been great,” coach Chuck Pagano said about their free-agent acquisitions. “We’ve done our due diligence, and we feel like we’ve acquired some really good players in free agency. We got some guys who are big and fast and have some experience. We’re trying to create as much competition as possible.

“We’ve lost some really good players. We’d love to keep them all, but you can’t. You have to make decisions on what gives you the best chance to win and what’s best for the team.”

The Cleveland Browns paid dearly to improve their offensive line by making Zeitler the highest-paid guard in history and signing center J.C. Tretter.

“I love the improvements we made on our offensive line,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “It was needed. I think we’ve addressed that issue.”

Most teams that signed free agents believe they’ve addressed issues, but the reality is that many players will be out of work after two seasons with their new teams.