- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Normally, the NFC East wins offseasons with aggressive signings and bold moves. This year, the nod goes to the AFC East.
In the toughest year to judge who did the best because of the limitations created by the uncapped year, three of the top five offseasons belong to AFC East teams: the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and New York Jets. That shouldn't be a surprise. You have Bill Parcells going against Bill Belichick and Mike Tannenbaum, all of whom have worked together on highly competitive, aggressive teams.
The uncapped year -- the first in nearly two decades -- depleted the market for available players. Only 48 unrestricted free agents have moved to new teams from a list of 221 who had to have six years in the league to qualify. Only 22 received contracts in excess of $3 million a year. The lack of unrestricted free agents resulted in 38 players moving via trades and more than 40 signing with new teams after being cut.
To be perfectly honest, teams didn't get much better. The Washington Redskins made the single best move of the offseason, acquiring Donovan McNabb in a trade, but their league-high seven new unrestricted signings are countered by the 11 players they released to clean up future salary caps.
The Pittsburgh Steelers became a deeper team by reacquiring Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden, Larry Foote and Byron Leftwich, but off-the-field problems forced them to trade Santonio Holmes and will cost them quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four to six games. The Denver Broncos beefed up their front seven on defense and found two young receivers, but they had to trade Brandon Marshall and temporarily lost left tackle Ryan Clady to a knee injury. The Chicago Bears invested $111.5 million in contracts for three unrestricted free agents, but defensive end Julius Peppers was the only starter of the group.
The Philadelphia Eagles have been one of the more aggressive teams in trying to get younger and deeper, but their offseason will be judged on the McNabb trade to Washington.
So who are the five teams that did the best this offseason?
1. New England Patriots: Re-signings aren't sexy to fans, but the Patriots faced a difficult challenge before free agency began. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork headed a list of 10 potential unrestricted free agents. Owner Robert Kraft invested $84.414 million in contracts to re-sign Wilfork, guard Stephen Neal, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, cornerback Leigh Bodden and running back Kevin Faulk. The only losses -- tight end Benjamin Watson and defensive end Jarvis Green -- were replaceable. Belichick may not have hit home runs in the draft, but he loaded the bases with plenty of singles. The Patriots needed to add a cornerback with the additions of Holmes and Marshall to the AFC East, so they drafted Devin McCourty in the first round. Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes give the Patriots much-needed youth at linebacker. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez more than fill the void at tight end created by Watson's departure. The Patriots added a dozen draft choices and have two firsts and two seconds next year. They've also beefed up their defensive line by signing Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis to one-year contracts, and added Alge Crumpler at tight end and Torry Holt at wide receiver.
2. Miami Dolphins: The key to the 2010 offseason is making more advances than retreats. Sure, the Dolphins took a hit to their pass rush by cutting Joey Porter and losing Jason Taylor to the Jets, but they added two impact players: Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Dansby more than makes up for the release of linebacker Akin Ayodele. Dansby, considered one of the main prizes in free agency, signed a five-year, $43 million contract. The Marshall deal could be the key to the season. The Dolphins didn't have a big receiver with yards-after-the-catch ability. They were trying to get by with mostly slot receivers. Marshall gives Chad Henne a big target. He's had three 100-catch seasons and is much better than Ted Ginn Jr., who had speed but didn't seem to fit into Parcells' long-term plans. Guard Richie Incognito could add more attitude to the offensive line. The Dolphins lost 16 of their 44 team sacks with the departures of Taylor and Porter, but they believe Cameron Wake, a former CFL pass-rushing star signed last year, can help. The draft gave them a quality defensive end in Jared Odrick, a linebacker in Koa Misi and a big guard in John Jerry.
3. New York Jets: Teams that finished in the final eight of the playoffs couldn't do much in free agency because of the restrictions caused by the uncapped year. In the case of the Jets, they had to lose a free agent to sign a free agent. Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson (Saints) was the only unrestricted free agent who went to a final four team other than the Jets. Give Tannenbaum credit. He was aggressive despite the free-agency handcuffs. He made more with less. The Jets clearly have more coverage ability at cornerback with Antonio Cromartie and first-round choice Kyle Wilson than they had with departed veterans Lito Sheppard and Donald Strickland. Brodney Pool was a sleeper who signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal to help at safety. Rex Ryan convinced Taylor he could get 15 sacks as a pass-rushing linebacker, and if he can, that would be five more than Ryan received from the other Jets linebackers combined. Getting Holmes for a fifth-round pick should help even if he plays only 12 games. The only debatable moves are how well LaDainian Tomlinson and fourth-round pick Joe McKnight do replacing Thomas Jones and Leon Washington at running back and how ready second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse is to replace Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca.
4. Detroit Lions: General manager Martin Mayhew has taken the volume approach to fixing one of the thinnest rosters in the league. His biggest advance was on the defensive line. He added Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams at defensive tackle and Kyle Vanden Bosch at defensive end. The push coming from this new defensive line could help the continued renovation of perhaps the league's worst secondary. Mayhew had to totally turn over the secondary last season and he's doing it again this year with younger players -- cornerbacks Amari Spievey and Chris Houston being the latest additions. Wide receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Tony Scheffler should help Matthew Stafford spread the field more with receiving weapons. Rob Sims should solve the revolving door at left guard. The most exciting addition is halfback Jahvid Best, who adds big-play ability to a backfield that had only five runs of 20 yards or more.
5. Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll had more holes to fill on the Seahawks' roster than he had scholarships at USC. Except for defensive end, Carroll filled a lot of holes. He was the big winner in the draft, adding nine rookies and three veterans acquired in trades who should help. As many as four starters could come out of the draft -- left tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas, wide receiver Golden Tate and defensive end E.J. Wilson. Two sleepers could be Kam Chancellor, a 230-pound safety who could help on run downs, and tight end Anthony McCoy, a third-round talent from USC who slipped to the sixth because of a positive marijuana test. During the draft, Carroll may have fixed his backfield problems by trading for LenDale White and Washington. White now weighs 218 pounds, a far cry from his 250-pound days. Washington is coming off a broken leg. Okung will play next to veteran Ben Hamilton on a revamped left side of the line. The Seahawks led the league with six players acquired in trades. Defensive end Chris Clemons could add some pass rush at defensive end. Charlie Whitehurst came from San Diego as a quarterback who could eventually take over for Matt Hasselbeck.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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