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The Best and Worst of NFL Free Agency So Far

The Jaguars are spending big, the Bengals are protecting Joe Burrow, and Tom Brady, de facto GM, highlight the early wave of signings

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the start of NFL free agency, which, as usual, is not remotely near the start of NFL free agency. The official league year began Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET, but many deals have been in place for days now. Most big-name players, from J.C. Jackson to Brandon Scherff to Randy Gregory to Chandler Jones, have already found their landing spots. But since the NFL gets a jump-start on its business, we can do the same in doling out some superlatives on the big moves thus far.

Biggest Surprise: The Bucs Look All the Way Back

First, Tom Brady un-retired, which immediately helped Tampa Bay smooth its cap issues and reconstruct most of the 2020 Super Bowl squad during an offseason where it looked like the Bucs were going to lose far more talent than they actually did. The biggest pieces were re-signing center Ryan Jensen on a three-year, $39 million deal and cornerback Carlton Davis on a three-year, $45 million deal.

Both contracts look like instances in which the player was willing to take a little less money to stay with the cap-strapped-but-competitive Bucs. According to ESPN’s Bucs reporter, Jenna Laine, Brady called Jensen ahead of announcing his un-retirement to tell him he was coming back and that he hoped Jensen would too. Jensen wound up accepting a contract worth $13 million in average annual value even though he and his agents figured he could get more like $15 million elsewhere. In Davis’s case, he was part of a cornerback market that wound up looking a little depressed relative to expectations, but it’s still excellent business for the Bucs to get a 25-year-old top cornerback on a deal that, once you adjust for the rising salary cap, is similar to what players like Trae Waynes, James Bradberry, William Jackson III, and Shaquill Griffin have gotten in recent years.

Tampa Bay had holes to fill at guard once Ali Marpet retired and Alex Cappa went to the Bengals, but they may have already filled both of them by re-signing Aaron Stinnie, who has played well in relief of Cappa in the past, and trading with the Patriots for Shaq Mason. Had any executive other than Bill Belichick been the one to say goodbye to Mason, that trade would be getting billed as an absolute steal for Tampa Bay. Mason is only 28, and though he’s a better run blocker than pass blocker, he’s consistently among the best guards in the NFL. He cost Tampa Bay only a fifth-round pick and his contract is extremely manageable—$16 million over the next two years.

The Bucs also managed to pilfer receiver Russell Gage from the Falcons on a three-year, $30 million deal. It looks like a smart deal, given that Gage will eventually fit in as the no. 3 wideout in Tampa Bay and give Chris Godwin extra time to recover from his torn ACL. Gage is also a brutal loss for Atlanta, a division rival, which just lost top receiver Calvin Ridley for the 2022 season due to suspension. Gage would have been at the top of the Falcons’ depth chart in 2022.

It’s probably no accident that so many of these deals are for three years. The Bucs are going to have to hit the reset button at some point soon (?) when Brady actually retires. But a few days ago, Tampa Bay looked like a shell of its former self. Now, the Bucs look like a clear Super Bowl contender.

Biggest No-Brainer: Bengals Protecting Joe Burrow

No team has telegraphed their moves like the Chargers during this free agency period—er, legal tampering window—and we’ll get to the team’s acquisitions. But let’s start with the Bengals, who knew they had to get better at protecting Joe Burrow and have checked that box thus far.

The relatively big-splash signing was signing Cappa to a four-year, $40 million deal. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Cappa ranked 44th among players in pass block win rate in 2021, while the Bengals didn’t have any linemen ranked higher than 57th.

Cincinnati also signed interior lineman Ted Karras from New England to a three-year, $18 million contract. Karras isn’t a superstar, but he’s entering his fourth season as a starter and has played both guard spots and center.

Perhaps there’s more to come. Saints tackle Terron Armstead is still available. So is New England’s Trent Brown. If the Bengals don’t make additional moves or address the line successfully through the draft, they may regret letting players like Morgan Moses or Brandon Scherff go elsewhere. But even now, Cincinnati has worked on the thing they needed to, and both moves look sound.

Did Too Much: Jacksonville Spends Big … on What?

The Jaguars have made big moves, signing Scherff to a three-year, $49.5 million deal that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid interior lineman by average annual salary, and bringing in former Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk on a four-year, $72 million deal that has some additional incentives. Jacksonville is a better team with those players than without them but, particularly in Kirk’s case, it’s just … a lot.

Kirk had a career year in 2021, gaining nearly 1,000 yards after Larry Fitzgerald left the lineup. The Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence could use his 1.8 yards per route run last year, but they’re paying him like a top-five wideout when slot receivers can usually be found for cheaper than premier outside receivers. The $19.5 million annual salary the Jaguars will owe Kirk for at least the next two seasons based on the contract structure is just barely under what the Browns will be paying Amari Cooper or what the Packers would pay Davante Adams if he were to play under the franchise tag this season.

Jacksonville also signed two players from bad defenses at non-premium positions—defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi from the Jets and off-ball linebacker Foyesade Oluokun from the Falcons—to three-year deals worth $30 million and $45 million, respectively. Both players are promising, but it’s hard to see either one getting the same contract elsewhere. Jacksonville has to lure free agents somehow, but the spending looks excessive.

Did Too Little: Dallas, Chicago, Miami, New England

Free agency isn’t over, rosters aren’t complete until after the draft, and it’s often the big, immediate-splash moves that teams come to regret more than the patient, value-conscious free agent signings. With that caveat, I wonder whether the front offices in Dallas, Chicago, Miami, and New England won’t find themselves scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Dallas started free agency facing a cap crunch, which made moving on from Amari Cooper a necessity. But other than the pick swaps that were part of that trade with Cleveland, the Cowboys haven’t been able to do much to cut costs or recoup draft picks. And when salary-forfeiture language in the contract the Cowboys offered edge rusher Randy Gregory led him to choose Denver’s offer over Dallas’s, they wound up with a new roster hole to fill.

The Bears have made a couple of nice moves for players like former Bengals DT Larry Ogunjobi and they’ve signed one offensive lineman in former Packer Lucas Patrick but, so far, they haven’t done all that much to improve Justin Fields’s surroundings. Trading Khalil Mack made sense given where they are as a team; it’s just a move that’s hard to get excited about.

Miami and New England look like they’re in similar situations. The Dolphins haven’t been aggressive in upgrading the offensive line yet (though they could focus on one of the premier right tackles still out there to protect Tua Tagovailoa’s blind side), and the Patriots have said goodbye to Mason and Jackson, two of their best players last season.

Got It Right: Baltimore, Buffalo

Again, only time will tell, but there’s a pair of AFC contenders who look like their usual cool, collected selves. The Ravens and the Bills, so far, have both used free agency to fill needs without spending too much.

In Baltimore, safety Marcus Williams signed for five years, $70 million and offensive tackle Morgan Moses signed for three years, $15 million. Moses hasn’t missed a game since 2014 and is a bargain at $5 million per year for a quality starter at tackle. Williams is more expensive, but the Ravens badly needed to improve their pass defense. Baltimore also managed to outbid the Jets and the Eagles for Williams without letting the costs get out of hand—$14 million annually makes him the league’s seventh-highest-paid safety, which seems more than reasonable.

The Bills haven’t spent as much but have still plugged some key holes. Buffalo lost defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to the Vikings, but added former Panthers DT DaQuan Jones on a two-year, $14 million deal and former Commanders DT Tim Settle on a two-year, $9 million deal. Former Titans offensive guard Rodger Saffold signed a one-year deal and will serve as Buffalo’s replacement for Daryl Williams. The Bills, without much cap room, were also able to keep a few of their own: center Mitch Morse, cornerback Siran Neal, and slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie all re-signed with the team. Buffalo waited until after the first big wave of signings to make its biggest move, signing outside linebacker Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal that, for the first four years, averages $17.5 million in annual salary. We won’t really understand what kind of commitment the Bills are making until we see contract details, but Miller adds an elite, explosive presence to Buffalo’s already-deep defensive line.

The Kirk Cousins Award for Getting the Bag Goes To …

Kirk Cousins. It was overshadowed by Brady’s news, but THIS MAN got another $35 million guaranteed in the form of a contract extension. Cousins has $161 million in career earnings, and every dollar since his first franchise tag in 2016 has been fully guaranteed.

The Los Angeles Chargers Award for Impending Offseason Hype Goes To …

The Los Angeles Chargers. J.C. Jackson gives the Chargers a ball-hawking corner who can play against top receivers on the outside, taking pressure off Michael Davis on the other side and allowing Asante Samuel Jr. to play more consistently in the slot. It was obvious the Chargers were interested in Jackson by the time he and Derwin James were posting eyeball emoji simultaneously on social media, and the deal got done. Los Angeles also desperately needed run defense help, and got it in former Rams defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day. Day was another oft-predicted Chargers target given his success in Brandon Staley’s defense. He got a good deal at three years and $24 million, but it’s hard to get worked up about $8 million in annual salary for a premier player at a position of need, even if it’s not one that usually commands such a premium. Oh yeah, and the Chargers also traded for Khalil Mack and re-signed receiver Mike Williams.

*resists the urge to make Super Bowl pick*

Biggest Market Shift: Receivers Got Top Dollar

While the cornerback market didn’t quite meet expectations, the receiver market exceeded them. Christian Kirk has gotten more money in average annual value than any other free agent signing so far, according to Spotrac. Even further down the list, players like Gage getting $10 million annually represents a robust market.

As the QB Wheel Turns …

Thus far, Aaron Rodgers has signed his extension, Russell Wilson has been traded to the Broncos, Cousins has cemented himself in Minnesota, Carson Wentz has been traded to the Commanders, Brady has un-retired, Teddy Bridgewater has been signed to be a high-quality backup in Miami, Baker Mayfield has posted a long non-goodbye-goodbye post to Cleveland on Instagram, and Mitchell Trubisky has signed for two years and $14 million in Pittsburgh. The Steelers may see Trubisky as a solid enough option to relieve some pressure to have to find a quarterback in next month’s draft, but given that Trubisky’s contract isn’t even at the top of the backup market, it seems more likely that the Steelers are hoping he’ll wind up in that role, sort of like the one Mike Glennon filled in Chicago when the Bears drafted Trubisky. (If you can’t spot the Glennon in the quarterbacks room …)

Signing Trubisky probably takes Pittsburgh off the veteran quarterback market, though. Who’s left? The Colts, Seahawks, Saints, Panthers, Falcons, and Browns. Player-wise, Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson are the two remaining major pieces, though Matt Ryan would likely join the mix if Atlanta were successful in its pursuit of Watson, who has met with the Falcons, Carolina, Cleveland, and New Orleans. (It was Cleveland’s meeting with Watson that seemed to precipitate Mayfield’s post.) There has been movement among teams presenting trade packages for Watson to the Texans since a grand jury declined on Friday to indict Watson on criminal charges stemming from accounts of harassment and sexual assault from 22 women.

Best Player(s) Still Available

The quarterbacks are probably the most valuable, but in terms of pure ability, the tackles Armstead, Trent Brown, and Duane Brown; receiver Allen Robinson; cornerback Stephon Gilmore; safety Tyrann Mathieu; linebacker Bobby Wagner; and pass rushers Akiem Hicks and Jadeveon Clowney are big names that make up the best of the rest.