As we close out the first week of NFL Free Agency we’re starting to get a decent idea of how teams will look entering the draft. Plenty of good players remain available and will continue to be signed in the coming weeks, but we’ve more or less seen the biggest dominos fall.
Unlike 2022 we haven’t seen the huge shoe drop on a totally ludicrous market like the Jaguars did with Christian Kirk, wrecking the expectation for receiver salaries and forcing the reset we’re seeing now. This was always an inherently weak class too, meaning that teams looking for premiere help were forced to spend a lot to get there, while others were happy making some value pickups.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
There’s no doubt that the 49ers have lost a lot during this free agency. Success does that to a team, and players previously flying under the radar catch everyone’s attention, leading to huge money like what OT Mike McGlinchey got from Denver.
Still, landing a player of Javon Hargrave’s talent as a cash-strapped team pegged to be losing a lot this season and expected to bring in very little is a massive boon. It’s difficult to call defense a “need area” for San Francisco, but losing Jimmie Ward and Emmanuel Moseley damages the team’s secondary, and they’re electing to overload on the pass rush instead of overpaying their defensive backs.
This team can still play around in the draft to round out its depth, but immediately a defensive line of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and now Javon Hargrave is absolutely terrifying and makes the best defense in the NFL even more fearsome.
Winner: Chicago Bears
The Bears were always going to be big players in free agency this year with a ludicrous amount of cap space to play with. Where the team’s moves have been smart is not running into free agency like a kid in a candy store, instead picking their spots and improving the team holistically without drastically overspending in any area.
The trade with the Panthers plays a role in why they’re free agency winners too. Getting wide receiver D.J. Moore enabled the Bears to address other need areas, without overspending in a bad wide receiver FA class. Had the team not acquired a true No. 1 they’d be in a much more difficult position, probably leaning on someone like Jakobi Meyers or JuJu Smith-Schuster right now, rather than a young, franchise WR.
In terms of their actual signings GM Ryan Poles has been very smart too. Tremaine Edmunds is one of the best pure tackling linebackers in the NFL, Nate Davis will be a huge boon to the interior offensive line, and DeMarcus Walker helps replenish the pass rush.
The team still has plenty of more money to play with, but their value signings on Thursday of RB D’Onta Foreman and TE Robert Tonyan offer short-term relief while they can stock up in the draft.
Simply great moves all around.
Winner/Loser: Denver Broncos
There was no question that Sean Payton would arrive and aim to make a splash … but did he, really? Nobody has been more active this year than the Broncos, and if you look at what they’ve added from top to bottom it’s difficult to see how this team really got much better considering the money they laid out.
Don’t get me wrong, Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers are two big upgrades on the offensive line — but both were significant overpays. Meanwhile losing Dre’Mont Jones, and replacing him with Zach Allen at almost the same money is a talent downgrade that really banks on Allen becoming a 10+ sack player, which is a crapshoot.
The cheaper depth moves Denver has made aren’t bad, but they all feel like lateral moves. It appears that Payton is wanting to go all-in on running the ball by signing run blockers like McGlinchey and Powers, but that doesn’t offer much help to Russell Wilson — and makes reduces his role significantly.
If that plan is correct then this team will take a step forward, but it feels like we’re still a far cry from the Broncos hanging in the AFC West.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers carried a lot of dead money into free agency with Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore yet to come off their books, but they found tremendous value in need areas while using Frank Reich’s influence and connections to sign good players.
Locking up Miles Sanders for four years at a meager $25M was a great move. It shouldn’t be expected that he’ll be a 1,300 yard back like he was in Seattle, but he was a value for the price that gives Carolina a dual-threat back who can make things easier for whichever quarterback is taken at No. 1.
Adding to this is TE Hayden Hurst and SS Vonn Bell — both of whom are huge upgrades. While fixing the team’s transition to a 3-4 defense by finalizing their front with Shy Tuttle and DeShawn Williams. To cap it all off the team grabbed Andy Dalton to serve as a veteran in the QB room, as well as a potential starter, should the team decide on a more developmental passer in the draft.
Carolina had myriad things to fix with their roster, and it didn’t feel like they had the ability to do it. Instead the Panthers addressed all their needs and didn’t overpay for anything.
Loser: Kansas City Chiefs
What happened with Orlando Brown Jr. is going to be one of those great mysteries of free agency. When you’re a Super Bowl champion with an elite tackle under the age of 30, you pay him — simple as that.
Not only did the Chiefs let Brown go, but they replaced him with Jawaan Taylor, for more money, and he’s very much unproven when it comes to playing left tackle. They might like his upside and potential, but immediately you’re walking away from one of the best tackles in the NFL, who is now in Cincinnati (a major threat to your team in the AFC) and you’re left with hope.
There’s still a chance Kansas City could wind up having a good free agency. They have some money to play with. However, the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t been accounted for yet, Mecole Hardman is still on the open market, and while Travis Kelce is unquestionably one of the best tight ends in the NFL, he’s also 33-years-old and the wheels could fall off soon.
The Chiefs are playing a risky game, and so far their moves haven’t been great.
Loser: Green Bay Packers
This is a self-inflicted wound. The Packers’ ability to be players in free agency entirely hinges on trading away Aaron Rodgers, but all signs point to the front office playing hardball and trying to squeeze the Jets for all they can get.
The problem is that the Packers have no leverage. Rodgers has them over a barrel, and whenever the trade is finalized they’ll essentially need to settle for whatever scraps the Jets throw to them.
Not acknowledging that has led to stagnation. The only player they’ve signed is a long snapper, while losing Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan. Life for Jordan Love will get continually more difficult while the front office bickers with the Jets and ends up missing out on more players who could help their team.
Winner: New York Jets
This is all about Aaron Rodgers. The team’s free agency is being help up a little by the Rodgers trade, but not a lot. They have been able to dabble a little more, and Lazard has been their big addition so far.
The process is simple: Acquire Aaron Rodgers. Get players to make him happy.
So far the team is pulling it off, and when the dust settles I think we’ll see how far out ahead the Jets came.
Loser: Los Angeles Chargers
Being cheap is rearing its head once more. Right now the Chargers still have 22 players in free agency, and they’ve brought in exactly one. It’s not even clear if that one player, LB Eric Kendricks, will be a difference maker for the Chargers.
The saving grace is that a lot of the players leaving came from the team’s depth, rather than true marquee names, but it’s still wild to see this franchise 10th in available cap space with $21M and not making even small moves that could improve the team.