2014 NFL Draft: The free agent signings likely to impact the draft

The Jags have beefed up their defense with Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, so QB may be the draft focus. (USATSI)
Jags have a beefed-up defense with Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, so QB may be the draft focus. (USATSI)

More NFL offseason: Mock Drafts | Prospect Rankings | Pro Days | Top free agents

The goal of every NFL franchise is to build through the draft. Savvy teams, however, make re-signing their own best players as a top priority and then use veteran free agency to fill obvious gaps in the roster. With their biggest concerns met with established players, clubs can follow the Best Player Available strategy in the draft.

Spending millions on a veteran won't preclude a team from doubling down with an early pick in the draft. Evidence of this can be seen just last year when the Browns signed former Ravens pass rusher Paul Kruger to a five-year $41 million deal only to complement him with Barkevious Mingo at No. 6 overall. The Titans were similarly determined to improve their offensive line, inking former Bills guard Andy Levitre to a six-year, $46 million contract before adding Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick.

Generally speaking, however, once a team fills a big need in free agency, they'll turn their attention to other areas of concern. As such, keeping track of the biggest moves can provide a clue as to what teams are planning to do in the draft.

What follows are the 15 free agent signings likely to impact the 2014 NFL Draft:

WR Hakeem Nicks to the Colts: The anticipated healthy return of Reggie Wayne and addition of Nicks gives Andrew Luck two established outside receivers to complement speedy slot T.Y. Hilton. Nicks signed a one-year deal with the obvious hope that he'll parlay this contract into a much bigger one a year from now with a bounce-back season.  

LB Karlos Dansby, S Donte Whitner to the Browns: With these moves the Browns quickly filled gaps in their defense left with the loss of D'Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward. While Dansby and Whitner are older (and proved more expensive) than their predecessors, they should have an immediate impact, allowing Cleveland to focus on more pressing needs on offense.

S Jairus Byrd to the Saints: Pairing Byrd with last year's first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro gives defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a duo of safeties as athletic as any in the league. That would seemingly open the door for the Saints to focus on pass rushers early and often in the draft.

OT Michael Oher to the Titans: In large part due to the hype created with The Blindside, the novel and movie based on his early life, Oher has been painted by some as a bit of a bust. While he's not an  elite pass blocker, he is a highly physical and durable right tackle -- precisely what the Titans need with longtime starter David Stewart released and expected to retire.

WR Eric Decker to the Jets: Decker's length, sharp routes and soft hands should make him a quality possession receiver for Geno Smith. Don't be surprised when the Jets supplement Decker with a speedier option at wide receiver (Marqise Lee?) or tight end (Eric Ebron?) via the first round.

WR Steve Smith to the Ravens: With a talented quarterback and an established big-play threat in Torrey Smith already in place, Steve Smith could enjoy a rebirth of sorts with the Ravens. Set to enter his 14th season, Smith is getting a bit long in the tooth but his addition (along with the re-signing of Jacoby Jones) may mean that GM Ozzie Newsome can cross receiver off his draft's to-do list.

OT Branden Albert to the Dolphins: Albert's solid protection at left tackle played an underrated role in the Chiefs' rise from the league's worst team (at least according to record) in 2012 to the playoffs this past season. Albert is an upgrade over embattled former Dolphin (and current 49er) Jonathan Martin and could allow the Dolphins to shift their attention to left guard or elsewhere in the draft now that quarterback Ryan Tannehill can breathe a little easier.

Lovie, Licht living it up in Tampa: Given Lovie Smith's wizardry on the defensive side of the ball and Licht's skill as a talent evaluator, the Bucs' signing of defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald could pay off big in the NFC South race. Johnson and McDonald are each ascending talents who, now paired with holdovers Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, quietly give the Bucs one of the best young defensive lines in the league. Expect Tampa Bay to focus on adding a quarterback or wide receiver at No. 7 overall.

CBs Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner to the Patriots: Bill Belichick is often characterized as a defensive genius and his five Super Bowl rings (three as head coach of the Patriots, two as the defensive coordinator of the Giants) speak for themselves. His ability to adjust to the ever-evolving NFL was shown with the signings of Revis and Browner, whose length and physicality on the boundaries will allow the Patriots to focus elsewhere in the draft.

Jaguars build up defensive line: The Jaguars are a convenient landing spot for South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney at No. 3 overall for many mock draft enthusiasts but with the addition of five-technique Red Bryant and a pair of two established LEOs in Chris Clemons and Jason Babin (who re-signed with the team), it would be a surprise to see Jacksonville eschew their greatest remaining need -- quarterback -- to take a player from any other position in the first round.

Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson bulk up Atlanta DL: The addition of the highly physical Soliai and Jackson on the defensive line and guard Jon Asamoah could bring some of the grit that has been missing from these Dirty Birds. Soliai and Jackson are perfect schematic fits for the 3-4 look favored by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and sets up the Falcons to target an impact rush linebacker early in the draft.

WR Golden Tate to the Lions: Detroit has been searching for an ideal complement to Calvin Johnson for years and few seem better suited to handle this role than Tate, whose average of 8.0 yards gained after each catch was better than any wide receiver who caught more than 15 passes in 2013. More protection up front for Matthew Stafford or a back seven defender seems likely in the first round for the Lions.

OT Jared Veldheer to the Cardinals: Despite operating behind one of the league's leakiest offensive lines, Carson Palmer quietly enjoyed a solid first season in the desert. Palmer's ratio of touchdowns (24) and completion percentage (63.3 percent) was his best since 2007 and he knows better than most how underrated Veldheer is after the left tackle protected his blindside for two seasons in Oakland. With Veldheer manning left tackle and 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper expected to make a full recovery from the broken leg that ended his rookie season in August, Arizona is closer to competing with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West than many realize.

Da Bears bring back da D: Given the Bears' toothless defense a year ago and the explosive offenses of the NFC North it seemed obvious just a few days ago that Chicago would be focusing on defensive linemen with the No. 14 overall pick. The addition of Lamarr Houston and Willie Young -- two gifted and young defensive linemen just now beginning to realize their potential -- could shift Chicago's attention to the back seven.

Denver is all in: With the signings of three Pro Bowlers in pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward, the Broncos made an emphatic statement in free agency that the time is now. These moves will give John Elway and John Fox plenty of wiggle room on draft day and could set them up for selecting No. 32 overall a year from now.

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