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Five Important Takeaways From the First Wave of NFL Free Agency

From a value signing in Cincinnati, to what we can learn from the Broncos’ spending spree, to the one team that should make a play for Lamar Jackson, here’s what we learned from the first week of free agency

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first wave of NFL free agency featured a dizzying number of moves, including the Cincinnati Bengals landing a new left tackle, the Las Vegas Raiders taking another shot at a quarterback, the Denver Broncos reshaping their roster, and the Philadelphia Eagles keeping (some of) the band together.

There’s still a lot of offseason left, but here are some takeaways on what we’ve seen from the free agent market so far:

1. The Cincinnati Bengals hit a home run with the Orlando Brown Jr. signing.

Before free agency started, I thought that Brown would find a deal north of $23 million per year. I wasn’t the only one who set the bar high for him. Former agent Joel Corry, who does a terrific job in analyzing the market, suggested in a column that Brown’s deal would be in the neighborhood of four years, $94 million with $51.5 million fully guaranteed. The reasoning was simple. Young, durable, above-average left tackles rarely hit the open market, and when they do, they cash in. Brown has missed just one game in his five-year career, and he’ll be just 27 years old at the start of the 2023 season.

But Brown didn’t find the deal he was looking for, and his price dropped—substantially. A big part of free agency, for teams and players alike, is having a plan B, C, and D. Teams go into the offseason with goals of what they want to accomplish. But the market can be unpredictable, and teams that are able to adjust can find an edge. In Brown’s case, according to The Athletic, it was actually his agent who approached the Bengals about a potential deal. The two sides agreed to terms on a four-year, $64.09 million deal ($16.02 million per year) with $31 million fully guaranteed. That makes Brown the NFL’s 10th-highest-paid left tackle. The deal looks even better for the Bengals after Laremy Tunsil reset the market on Monday with an extension from the Texans that will pay him $25 million per year.

Brown has his flaws, especially in the way that athletic edge rushers can give him problems in pass protection. But O-line guru Brandon Thorn had Brown as his top tackle on the market and his eighth-ranked left tackle overall. Again, age and durability matter—a lot. Having All-Pros is great, but oftentimes building an offensive line is about not having a weak link. Based on history, the Bengals can reasonably expect Brown to be on the field for them for most of this contract. And if he performs at a slightly above-average level, this signing is a huge win for a team whose offensive line has been an issue in recent postseasons.

A week ago, it looked like the Bengals’ options for landing a long-term left tackle were limited. Jonah Williams has not played great and is entering the final year of his contract. The Bengals needed a plan for 2024 and beyond to protect Joe Burrow. That could’ve meant signing a Band-Aid veteran option, trading for a left tackle, or trying to land one in the draft. But all those options would’ve come with much more uncertainty than signing Brown does.

The Bengals had no plans of spending big on a left tackle, but when the opportunity to add Brown presented itself, they pounced. If we view quarterback, wide receiver, and left tackle as premium positions on offense, the Bengals might be in the best shape of any team in the NFL with Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, both of whom will command massive new contracts in the near future, and Brown.

The Bengals lost some key pieces on defense in safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. But offensive efficiency is easier to sustain than defensive efficiency, and the Bengals were third in offensive DVOA last season. Maintaining an elite offense year after year is the best way for Cincinnati to keep its Super Bowl window open. By adding Brown on a reasonable contract, the Bengals increased their chances of improving an already strong offense. Even if the Bengals don’t make another addition for the rest of the offseason, they’ve got to be considered legit Super Bowl contenders once again.

2. Sean Payton has no intention of letting Russ cook.

The Broncos were surprise spenders during the first wave of free agency. They signed the following players:

  • OT Mike McGlinchey for five years, $87.5 million
  • DT Zach Allen for three years, $45.75 million
  • Guard Ben Powers for four years, $52 million
  • LB Alex Singleton for three years, $18 million
  • QB Jarrett Stidham for two years, $10 million
  • RB Samaje Perine for two years, $7.5 million
  • TE Chris Manhertz for two years, $6 million

McGlinchey’s strength is his run blocking, not pass protection. Powers comes from the run-heavy Ravens. And Manhertz is a blocking tight end.

One of Payton’s strengths as a coach is his ability to look at his roster, adjust, and determine how to give his team the best chance to win. We saw that in the latter stages of Drew Brees’s career in New Orleans, when Payton helped design an offense around a quarterback with limited arm strength. We saw it when Brees missed time with injuries, and the Saints won games with Taysom Hill at quarterback because of their defense and special teams.

It sure looks like Payton is telling us what he thinks is the best way to win with Wilson—and that’s to limit what Wilson has to do. Payton wants to run the ball efficiently (the Broncos were 26th in rushing DVOA last year), and he wants to win with defense and special teams.

The Stidham addition was especially intriguing. That felt less like an “in case Wilson goes down” signing and more of an “in case Wilson is unfixable” signing. Would you really be surprised to wake up to a Jay Glazer tweet on the Wednesday before Week 7 that reads: Jarrett Stidham is expected to take first-team reps for the Broncos today at practice? I didn’t think so.

The Broncos have just two picks in the top 100 of this year’s draft, so I get why they felt like they needed to be aggressive in free agency. But I think they may have been a little too aggressive, and I am skeptical that these moves will work out. The history of free agency suggests they’ll have more hits than misses in this bunch. More than anything, though, I’m intrigued by what Payton is (or isn’t) going to ask from Wilson in this offense and whether Wilson fully buys in. It’s already one of the biggest story lines of the 2023 season.

3. There are red flags everywhere with Josh McDaniels’s Las Vegas Raiders.

Taken in isolation, there’s nothing egregious about the moves the Raiders have made recently. Their commitment to Jimmy Garoppolo is essentially one year for $33.75 million (the amount of the full guarantee). That’s pretty much in line with the deals for guys in the same QB tier, like Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins. The Raiders also signed wide receiver Jakobi Meyers for three years, $33 million, which is reasonable for a starting wide receiver.

But zooming out, my question is: What exactly is the Raiders’ plan? Last offseason, when McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler first arrived, they eschewed a rebuild and went into “win now” mode, trading for wide receiver Davante Adams and signing edge defender Chandler Jones. They finished 6-11 and Carr was abruptly sent packing in December. According to The Athletic’s Vic Tafur, the Raiders’ brass didn’t feel that Carr was a culture fit.

So, what culture is McDaniels trying to build? He is now 17-28 (.378 winning percentage) as a head coach. McDaniels has directed four offenses outside of New England in his career. Those units have finished 18th, 17th, 32nd, and 17th in DVOA. The lowest-graded category for the Raiders in a recent NFLPA survey was their coaching staff. Respondents noted that McDaniels was less likely to listen to his players than other head coaches.

In signing Garoppolo, Meyers, and even Jones last year, McDaniels opted for familiar faces from his New England days. But what is the Raiders’ vision? They could have tried to trade Carr last offseason, and they could have accumulated draft capital rather than trading for Adams. Adams played great last year, but the additional picks would have given the Raiders more resources to find a long-term answer at quarterback.

Instead, they’ll ride with Garoppolo and hope that he starts more than 10 games for the third time in his career. They’ll also hope that McDaniels can uncover the same efficient version of Garoppolo that we saw under Kyle Shanahan. That feels like a stretch.

Maybe there are a few moves left for the Raiders, and it’s possible I’ll feel differently about them after the draft. But right now, the signs around McDaniels suggest he could be facing the same, familiar failures we’ve seen with other former Bill Belichick assistants.

4. The Lions should be pursuing Lamar Jackson.

Starting last Wednesday, teams were allowed to contact Jackson, but as of this writing, we haven’t heard a single report of a team being interested in the Ravens QB. There are legitimate reasons why teams wouldn’t want to do it—signing Jackson would require a significant financial investment for a quarterback who’s missed 10 games in the past two seasons. Plus, you have to give up two first-round picks. Even then, the Ravens could match the offer, and you could be left with nothing.

But if there’s one team that has to at least set up a meeting, it’s the Lions. Jared Goff played well last year, but we now have seven seasons’ worth of evidence telling us who Goff is. If the circumstances (play-calling, offensive line, weapons) are set up favorably, he can absolutely run an efficient offense. But he doesn’t offer the same upside that Jackson does.

It’s fair to point out that the Ravens’ passing game has had inconsistencies with Jackson, but he has absolutely been an elevator for Baltimore. According to TruMedia, with Jackson on the field over the past three seasons, the Ravens have performed like the NFL’s sixth-best offense in terms of expected points added per play. Without him, they’ve performed like the 31st-ranked offense.

Lions fans, imagine a version of Jackson running and throwing behind that excellent offensive line. A slant to Amon-Ra St. Brown that turns into an explosive play. A bomb downfield to Jameson Williams for a 50-yard TD. A mic’d up clip of Dan Campbell telling Jackson he loves him after a game-winning run at Lambeau Field. Can’t you just see Jackson in that Honolulu blue uniform?

The Lions have built their roster the right way. If the season started today, they’d probably be the favorites in the NFC North. But the conference is wide open, and every organization is chasing sustained success. For the Lions, that means not being risk-averse and at least looking into the possibility of adding a former MVP QB.

5. The Eagles have a lot riding on their 2022 and 2023 draft classes.

Taken individually, the Eagles made what seemed like a number of reasonable moves to retain, restructure, and extend their own players:

  • Center Jason Kelce on a one-year, $14.25 million deal
  • CB James Bradberry on a three-year, $38 million deal
  • CB Darius Slay on an extension that includes $23 million guaranteed
  • DT Fletcher Cox on a one-year, $10 million deal
  • DE Brandon Graham on a one-year, $5 million deal

All were key players during last year’s Super Bowl run, but each of them will be 30 or older at the start of the 2023 season. Players in that age range tend to see their level of play decline. Meanwhile, the Eagles are facing other factors that could lead to regression. They were the third-healthiest team in the NFL last season and also faced the league’s easiest schedule.

So what’s the case for the Eagles to avoid a hangover and compete for a Super Bowl once again? They are returning nine of 11 starters on an offense that ranked third in efficiency a year ago. Players like Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert are either ascending or in their primes. But a big key will be whether the Eagles’ first- and second-year players can fill key gaps after Philly lost the following starters in free agency:

  • DT Javon Hargrave (to the 49ers)
  • RB Miles Sanders (to the Panthers)
  • Guard Isaac Seumalo (to the Steelers)
  • LB T.J. Edwards (to the Bears)
  • LB Kyzir White (to the Cardinals)
  • S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (to the Lions)
  • S Marcus Epps (to the Raiders)

The Eagles traded up during last year’s draft to take defensive tackle Jordan Davis at 13. He battled through injuries and was a nonfactor as a rookie. Now he’ll be called on to replace Hargrave and make an impact. They drafted center Cam Jurgens with the 51st pick as Kelce’s eventual replacement. But Kelce is back, and Jurgens could now be asked to start at guard in place of Seumalo. The Eagles drafted linebacker Nakobe Dean in the third round. He barely got on the field as a rookie but now too could be a projected starter.

The Eagles also have two first-round picks and four picks in the top 100 in this year’s draft. Their depth will likely be tested more in 2023. Having a couple of rookies contribute in meaningful ways would be helpful.

As mentioned above, the NFC should be wide open, and the Eagles are better positioned than most of their peers. But with players who are 30 and older, you go in knowing that not everyone will be able to sustain their level of play from the previous year, and improvement is highly unlikely. To balance that out, the Eagles will need their first- and second-year players to pick up the slack.

Leftovers From the First Wave

  • Among the teams that paid quarterbacks, the Seahawks were the big winners. The Geno Smith deal was initially reported as three years, $105 million. Those numbers were inflated. It was actually three years, $75 million. And even then, Smith gets just $27.3 million guaranteed. If he plays well in 2023, the Seahawks can stick with him and he can earn a bigger payday through incentives. But if things don’t work out, the Seahawks aren’t committed past next season. And nothing is stopping them from considering a quarterback with the no. 5 pick. That’s a great job by the Seahawks front office of maintaining optionality.
  • An under-the-radar signing I liked: The Titans adding pass rusher Arden Key on a three-year, $21 million deal. Key can line up on the edge or the interior and has shown real improvement with 11 sacks and 32 QB hits over the past two seasons.
  • Another one I liked: The Lions signing CB Cameron Sutton to a three-year, $33 million deal. Sutton is 28, can line up on the outside or in the slot, and has not missed more than one game in any of the past four seasons. Detroit did a nice job remaking its secondary with reasonable signings.
  • One signing I didn’t get: The Vikings signing tight end Josh Oliver to a three-year, $21 million deal. Oliver is a blocking tight end, and I will readily admit that I have a bias against blocking tight ends. He has 26 career catches for 230 yards in 35 career games (11 starts). Oliver could end up being the best blocking tight end the NFL has ever seen. I just wonder about the use of resources there. The Vikings traded for T.J. Hockenson last season, and this draft class is considered especially strong at tight end. With other holes on the roster, it feels like that $7 million per year could have been put to better use.
  • And one more head-scratcher: The Giants signing linebacker Bobby Okereke to a four-year, $40 million deal with $21.8 million guaranteed. Okereke projects as a solid starter, but other players in his tier—David Long Jr., T.J. Edwards, Germaine Pratt—found deals in the $5 million to $7 million per year range. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but I wouldn’t have felt the need to go so far above that for Okereke.