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NFL 2023 Free Agency Preview

With the Combine wrapped up and the new league year set to start on March 15th, it's time we look at some NFL vets who could be on the move this offseason. There are a lot of top tier names who are currently available at nearly every position, and that should shake up plenty of rosters. From dual threat QBs to edge rushing demons, this free agent pool has every niche of football to offer.

Photo: Maddie Mayer/Getty Images

 

Best Free Agent by Position

Quarterback

Andy Dalton*

Running Back

Miles Sanders

Wide Receiver

Odell Beckham Jr

Tight End

Mike Gesicki

Offensive Tackle

Orlando Brown Jr

Guard

Ben Powers

Center

Ethan Pocic

Interior Defensive Lineman

Javon Hargrave

Edge Defender

Marcus Davenport

Linebacker

Bobby Wagner

Cornerback

Jamel Dean

Safety

Jessie Bates

Kicker

Robbie Gould

Punter

Tommy Townsend

Long Snapper

Andrew DePaola

* - If Tom Brady doesn't come out of retirement


Big Names to Note


Mike Gesicki - Tight End


Until this season, Mike was clearly a top 10 tight end in the league in terms of receiving. After a down year in 2022, teams may be more aggressive in pursuing him since his contract won't be as hefty. I'm a firm believer that Gesicki was unproductive last season since he didn't fit in Mike McDaniel's system, and whoever picks up Gesicki is getting a stud.


Bobby Wagner - Linebacker


Despite his age, Bobby is coming off a top 3 LB season across the league, and he could greatly help a contending team. I'm not sure if he'd be open to taking a team-friendly deal to chase a title, but he'll be a great addition to any defense he steps foot into.


Jamel Dean - Cornerback


Dean has been underrated ever since he entered the league, and most of that is due to his low INT count (7 in four seasons). Since being drafted in 2019, he's been the Bucs top corner every season and has never had a coverage grade below 75.5. When considering he's had 25 pass breakups over his career, and allowed just .764 yards per coverage snap this season, he'll attract a ton of attention.


Under the Radar Free Agents


Kaleb McGary - Offensive Tackle


McGary is coming off a career year where he anchored the right side of a top offense. He was the 4th highest graded offensive tackle overall, and finished 2nd in run blocking with a 91.6 mark; behind only Trent Williams. He allowed 19 pressures across 517 pass block snaps as well, generating a 3.68% pressure allowed rate. If he can cut those pressures down, he'll secure himself as a top 3 right tackle in the league.


Zach Allen - Interior Defensive Lineman


In his second year playing next to JJ Watt, Zach broke out for the Cardinals and had a good season. Overall, he ranked in the top 25 interior defenders across the entire league, as he posted 35 pressures and 5.5 sacks on 427 pass rushes; along with 21 stops + TFLs on 225 run defending snaps. He can play across the entire defensive line, but will do best as a true 3-tech.


Kaden Elliss - Linebacker/Edge Defender


I don't know what it is, but I love how Kaden Elliss played this season. The Saints used him at both linebacker and edge defender, totaling 332 and 252 snaps at each spot respectively. He did well at both places despite minimal playing time, as he tallied 20 pressures and 7 sacks on just 103 pass rushing snaps, and recorded 36 stops + TFLs on the other 500+ snaps. I think he plays best as an edge, but its good enough to be a hybrid threat.


Overrated Free Agents


Jamaal Williams - Running Back


I love Jamaal as a human and as a player, but I don't see him coming anywhere close to repeating his insane production from this past season. He fits really well in Detroit, so I hope they bring him back, but it'll be tough to replicate 1,000+ yards and 17 rushing TDs, especially when most of his scores came within 5 yards of the goal line.


Orlando Brown Jr - Offensive Tackle


I've seen a decent amount of people begging for their team to pick up Orlando - Cardinals fans included - but there's too much downside for his hefty asking price. A top offensive tackle, or one who wants to get paid like it, shouldn't be allowing nearly 50 pressures on less than 800 pass blocking snaps.


Jadeveon Clowney - Edge Defender


Jadeveon never fully developed into the player he was supposed to be, and he seems to be on his way out of a decent NFL career. The 30 year old recorded just 29 pressures on 305 pass rushes (9.51% pressure rate), while not supporting much in the run game with just 15 stops + TFLs. I don't think he's worth his asking price, especially with such a deep edge class in this draft.


Potential Cap Casualties


Joe Mixon - Running Back (2023 Cap Hit: $12.8 million)


Mixon missed a few games this year and was used less in the pass game when he returned in Week 14 through the AFC Championship (Samaje's 125 pass down snaps to Joe's 94 - not including the Week 17 game Mixon missed). With Samaje hitting free agency, and some legal concerns surrounding Mixon, the Bengals may cut him and move onto a rookie.


Post June 1st Cut: $10.0 million in 2023 savings, $2.8 million in 2024 dead money


Michael Thomas - Wide Receiver (2023 Cap Hit: $13.6 million)


It's no secret Michael's unavailability has greatly hurt the Saints, especially after the massive contract he commanded following his record breaking 2019 campaign. Given his massive cap hit in 2024 and success from young receivers in Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, I think it makes sense for MT to get a fresh start elsewhere.


Post June 1st Cut: $1.6 million in 2023 savings, $14.2 million in 2024 dead money

*has a $59 million cap hit in 2024*


Khalil Mack - Edge Defender (2023 Cap Hit: $27.4 million)


This one may be controversial, but the Chargers defense needs severe help in the pass defense unit. It sounds counterintuitive to cut a proven edge rusher just to pick up another one via draft or free agency, but with his high cap hit and lack of real production (hasn't had a 10 sack season since 2018), it would benefit the Chargers to save on cap space. Sign defenders in the secondary, and draft a young edge in April.


Post June 1st Cut: $22.9 million in 2023 savings, $4.5 million in 2024 dead money


Harrison Smith - Safety (2023 Cap Hit: $19.1 million)


Harrison's time as a Viking may come to a close. Although he has been productive with 11 picks in the past 3 seasons, he hasn't generated a PFF grade above 80 in that same span, despite starting his career with 5 out of 8 seasons at that mark or higher. With his age reaching 34 this offseason, and Lewis Cine coming back from IR, it makes sense to cut ties with an all-time Viking great.


Post June 1st Cut: $15.2 million in 2023 savings, $7.8 million in 2024 dead money

Photo: Andy Kenutis/Minnesota Vikings


Franchise Tagged Players


What's a franchise tag? When a player's contract is expiring, their team can elect to give said player a one year deal. The value of that deal depends on their position, as they will make the yearly average of the top five earners at their position. Each team is allowed to use one franchise tag per year, although most teams elect not to.


Although it didn't happen this season, if a player is tagged in consecutive years, like Terrell Suggs in 2008 & 2009, the same top five stipulation applies - while also accounting for 120% of the previous year's tag, applying whichever number is larger. If a player is tagged for a third straight year, then that number shoots up to 140% of the previous year's figure, again taking on the larger value. For example, if a player is tagged at $10 million in 2023, then tagged again in 2024, that value shoots up to $12 million. If that number is larger than the average salary of the top five positions, the tag is then set for $12 million. If that same player is tagged for a third time in a row, that tag now shoots up to $16.8 million, and will be applied as long as it is larger than the top five average.


In terms of types of tags, there are three different kinds:

  • Exclusive - The most common tag, this allows a team to sign a player at the top five average value as previously stated, and that player is no longer allowed to negotiate with other teams until the following offseason, permitting they don't get tagged again.

  • Non-Exclusive - This tag, although not used too often, comes at a potentially hefty price. In this scenario, the tagged player is allowed to negotiate with whichever team they want, and if that team offers them a contract, the tagging team must match or exceed the offer in order to retain the player. If the offer is not met, then the signing team will pick up the tagged player in exchange for two first round picks. If a team has two first round picks in the same season, the later of the two picks is used in the compensation package, with the following year's first round pick used as well (same deal if the team has two first round picks the following season).

  • Transition - This offer hasn't been used as much recently, but it can be useful depending on the team and position the tagee plays. The value is determined by the top ten earners at the corresponding position, and a player who is placed under this tag is free to negotiate with any team. If the offer is not matched by the tagging team, then that player is signed to their new team, and no draft compensation is sent back in return. This tag is riskier in terms of losing the player, but isn't as much of a cap hit if no team challenges the tag.


Let's look at the players tagged this season, and the uniqueness of each situation:


Lamar Jackson - Quarterback (Tag Value: $32.4 million)


This one is a doozy, especially given a certain player's contract at the same position (you guessed it: The Predator). Lamar is representing himself, and he has made it clear he wants a fully guaranteed contract, meaning he'll make every penny regardless of injury or being cut/traded. This doesn't mean he wants to be the highest paid QB in the league, he just wants to be protected financially. This is in large part due to Deshaun Watson getting a fully guaranteed contract worth $250 million, despite not playing in nearly two seasons.


As a result of their negotiations going nowhere, the Ravens placed a Non-Exclusive Tag on Lamar. The problem? Five QB needy teams have already announced they aren't going to consider Lamar. There are multiple reasons for this, but the main two are that no ownership is willing to fully guarantee a QB contract that massive besides the Browns owner, Dee Haslam, and no other franchise wants to give up first round picks in consecutive years, and then have to pay a massive contract in conjunction with that. I do think it's sketchy and there is some collusion going on, especially since said teams won't even meet with Lamar, but even moreso because we know that - when healthy, Lamar is one of the best players in the league.


*From here on out, every player mentioned was placed on an Exclusive Tag*


Saquon Barkley - Running Back (Tag Value: $10.1 million)


Saquon was tagged mainly due to the Giants reaching a big contract with Daniel Jones, who would've been tagged if the deal wasn't made. This is a slap in the face to a game-breaking player, but I understand why. A running back's best seasons are typically at the start of their contract, and given Saquon's injury history after his rookie season (played in 26 out of 49 full games between 2019 and 2021), the Giants felt a large contract for Saquon wouldn't benefit the franchise.


Similar to Lamar, when Saquon is healthy, he is a top running back in the league and transforms the Giants offense. Despite this, large running back contracts usually don't work out for the team that signs him (Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Darren McFadden). It's a high-risk high-reward when offering that much money to a volatile position, and rarely works out for the signing team.


Josh Jacobs - Running Back (Tag Value: $10.1 million)


With a new coaching regime entering Vegas in 2022, they decided to forgo Josh's fifth-year option despite solid production to start his career (over 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of his first three seasons). How did Jacobs respond? With a 2,000+ scrimmage yardage season to the tune of 12 TDs. The Raiders did the right thing by tagging him as a "prove-it deal". Jacobs is still just 25 years old and will command a large contract after the 2023 season.


Tony Pollard - Running Back (Tag Value: $10.1 million)


The Cowboys are in a tough spot, as they still owe Zeke a minimum of nearly $53 million over the next four seasons, and Tony Pollard is coming off a broken leg suffered in the playoffs. Snap count wise, Tony played 627 total snaps compared to Zeke's 634 total snaps throughout the regular season and playoffs. If not for Tony's injury in the Divisional Round, Pollard would have most likely finished with a higher snap count than Zeke, despite Elliott's massive contract. In addition, Pollard not only had similar playing time, but he was far more productive on his snap count, averaging 5.81 yards per touch versus Elliott's 3.78 yards per touch. It's a tough call either way, but tagging Pollard is the right decision in my opinion.


Evan Engram - Tight End (Tag Value: $11.4 million)


Engram has struggled with consistency to start his career, but seemed to hit his stride in the second half of the Jaguars season. After the Jags Week 11 bye, and through the Divisional Round, Engram had the second most receiving yards among all tight ends with 538, adding in 4 TDs as well. This would put him on pace for 1,016 yards and 7 TDs across a 17 game season, which would be a career year for Engram by far. In addition, the Jags will have Calvin Ridley for the 2023 season, opening up the offense to give Engram more chances to make plays. I think it's a good deal all things considered.


Daron Payne - Interior Defensive Lineman (Tag Value: $18.9 million)


With some uncertainty along the defensive line with guys like Chase Young's availability and Daron's playing ability, it was a smart call to tag him. Daron has regressed the past two seasons, generating overall grades of 63.9 in 2021 and 58.4 in 2022. Outside of this, he's only had one good overall season, with 2020 being the only year he obtained a 70+ overall grade. If he can get back to being a stout run stopper and continue to increase his pass rush production, this will be a bargain deal, especially when pairing him up next to Jonathan Allen.

Photo: Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

 

Final Notes:


There are plenty of viable free agents in this pool that can make immediate impacts on an every-down basis. There are also guys who are more specialized, but above average in their craft who will be just as useful. Additionally, where this draft lacks in talent, these free agents make up for in their own ways. Expect an exciting and fluctuating free agent period in the coming weeks!

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