Thirty-two teams, 32 thoughts on the opening week of the league year with free agency.
1. Chicago. The Bears traded ownership of the draft to Carolina, then owned the first week of free agency.
After a conversation with Bears GM Ryan Poles the other night, it sounds like the trade was almost THE TRADE. Poles told me he had significant discussion with Houston at number two that could have made him trade down twice in the top 10—with both the Texans and Panthers. He wouldn’t be specific on what broke down, but he did say: “I thought there was an opportunity to do something historically pretty cool with a trade from one to two and two to nine. That had potential to add more draft capital this year, and then the possibility that you’re sitting on three ones in the following year. That had my attention. But my gut told me to trigger on it now. At the combine, I thought those quarterbacks did an outstanding job in their interview process. A lot of teams felt really good about some of those guys, but as you get further away from the combine, maybe there’s a bad pro day or something that turns teams off.”
My sense is that Poles is close to Carolina GM Scott Fitterer from years of road scouting and personnel conversations, and he could get a read on exactly what Carolina would do and what it wouldn’t. He doesn’t know Houston GM Nick Caserio as well, so it could be Poles was never sure how far the Texans would go to do the deal. In a draft with questions about all the top quarterbacks and no Andrew Luck or Trevor Lawrence in the group, once Carolina agreed to send wideout D.J. Moore and two ones and two twos, Poles was convinced he shouldn’t wait.
“Scott and I have a pretty good relationship, being around each other on the road,” Poles said. “I think that played a big part of it. And trust. He wanted to get it done. He was clear with his intentions.”
As for the free-agency investments, Poles staked big claims on two defenders, Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, to remake the linebacker corps. Combined, he committed seven years and $91 million to Edmunds and Edwards after both had breakout seasons last year. Edmunds will play this year at 25, Edwards at 27. Edmunds was inconsistent in Buffalo, but, per PFF, was football’s best cover linebacker last year. Edwards was the league’s sixth-rated linebacker last year, per PFF, with the versatility coach Matt Eberflus demands from his every-down linebackers. (Edwards played 1,183 snaps in Philadelphia last year.) For those who’d question huge spending on linebackers, that’s fair. But Eberflus was an NFL linebackers coach for nine years before taking coordinator and then head-coach jobs, so it’s obvious these are two players he wanted and thinks can fit his defense.
Chicago got a starting guard, Nate Davis of Tennessee, and a solid complement to Cole Kmet at tight end in Green Bay’s Robert Tonyan. In the span of two weeks, Poles radically bolstered the offense around Justin Fields while keeping two first-round picks in the bank for next year, if he needs to think about moving on from Fields—which he doubts he’ll have to do. Now, with the ninth overall pick and four picks in the top 64, Poles can upgrade the roster at pass-rush and offensive line, to start.
Poles and the Bears, to this point, have won March. But winning in March is a bitter victory if losing in the next three years follows. So these three things are vital for the Bears in the next six weeks:
Win the ninth overall pick. Either trade down if you don’t love what’s there, or make the right choice in a tricky spot. The biggest X factor in this draft will be Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who possibly will fall to nine now after being the best overall prospect two months ago, then having a disastrous off-season. Poles has to figure out if Carter’s a legit hard-trying football guy or an irresponsible problem person, and whether he’s the kind of person and player he wants to bring in to a building franchise with character and ethos crucial elements to long-term success. I can’t emphasize how important this is. If Carter is there when Poles picks, he has the kind of decision to make that could define his term as Chicago GM.
It’ll be fascinating if Carter and one or both of the top two offensive tackles, Peter Skoronski and Paris Johnson, are there at nine. Both needs are major. Do you take the giant risk guy who is the best talent in the draft? Or do you take a solid prospect with perfect makeup at a need position to help protect your young quarterback in a vital developmental year?
Understand that all of this is about 2024 and beyond, not 2023. Don’t make decisions to win now. Make decisions to be the best team over the next five years.
2. San Francisco. Signing Javon Hargrave, quite possibly the best talent in this free-agent class, adds to an embarrassment of riches on a strong defensive front. Aaron Donald is PFF’s only defensive interior player with a higher rating than Hargrave over the past two years. The Niners, in strengthening a strong group, did something smart and underrated. With all the quarterback uncertainty entering the new season, they know they may have to win a bunch of 20-16 games. This ensures a better chance to win the low-scoring ones.
3. Detroit. The signing of cornerback Cameron Sutton is interesting, and says so much about how deals in free agency get done. The Lions on Monday went hard after the former Pittsburgh corner, 28, and the deal got finalized somewhere around 2:30 that afternoon. Agent David Canter had told Sutton he hoped his contract would end up around $10 million a year. Sutton was one of the more highly regarded defensive players in free agency; last year, his 47-percent completion average on men he was covering was 10th in the NFL for corners who played more than 500 snaps.
For players in demand, Canter explained, “The rapidity of how it happens is shocking.” Agents are texting and phoning multiple teams on multiple players. The Lions were straightforward with Canter about wanting to get Sutton done, and when the three-year, $33-million deal with $22.5 million guaranteed (he’d made $23 million total in his six Pittsburgh seasons) was finalized, Canter told the Lions he’d call Sutton to get his okay on the deal. He told the Lions to hold.
“You’re gonna be a Detroit Lion in about three minutes,” Canter told Sutton, who was ready for anything. Canter said he didn’t have much time, but told him the basics of the deal: $22.5 million guaranteed, $33 milion total, with a signing bonus more than he’d made altogether in his last two years in Pittsburgh.
“Really?” Sutton said, getting emotional.
Canter said Saturday, “He just started crying. He told me, ‘This changes my life. Let’s go to Detroit, baby!’”
4. Denver. The most fascinating signing of the first week: quarterback Jarrett Stidham, two years, $10 million, $5 million guaranteed … after starting a grand total of two games in his four-year NFL life. But one of those games convinced Sean Payton to take a chance on him. After Derek Carr was benched in Vegas in late December, Stidham, in his first NFL start and facing the best defense in football, San Francisco, put up 365 passing yards, three TD passes and 34 points. So now Payton buys him to be Russell Wilson’s backup, and nothing needs to be said to Wilson about it. If Wilson by midseason 2023 is having a similarly disastrous season to his first one in Denver, Payton won’t have to punt on the season. He’ll have an intriguing backup waiting in the wings. But Payton did not go hard after Stidham to put the pressure on Wilson. He considered his options at backup QB and thought he could play it safe for around the same money with an Andy Dalton type, or swing for the fences on a young prospect with significant upside. I like the logic.
5. New York Jets. So they’ll get their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, eventually. What does that mean for their 2023 schedule? A lot. I mean, a lot.
In 2022, the Jets played one game in prime time, a Thursday-nighter against Jacksonville. (The league mandates every team play one nationally televised game, minimum, per year.) Their remaining 16 games were all early-Sunday-window starts. This year, I expect the Rodgers-led Jets to get a full complement of prime-time games—five of them. If you love the Jets and are used to settling in at 1 o’clock Sunday to watch them, those days are over. In 2023, anyway.
Let’s mull over what the league might do when the schedule is announced in May. All of what I’m about to write is educated conjecture because of my years following the scheduling process. The schedule reveal is still seven-plus weeks away.
I’d bet the Jets will appear in either the Sunday or Monday prime-time opener. The league loves Aaron Rodgers. The league will try to capitalize on the fascination of Rodgers changing teams to have a ratings bonanza in week one. My money’s on NBC getting, say, Jets-Eagles or Jets-Bills on the opening Sunday night. Last Jets game on Sunday night on NBC: 2011. But the amazing part of that factoid is the Jets played a Sunday night game on NBC in three of the first 10 weeks of 2011 … and never in the 11 seasons then.
But wait. What about Jets-Cowboys? Wouldn’t that be a ratings rager? Of course it would be, and the league could do that. But often the NFL figures that games on opening weekend will get big numbers, and Rodgers versus the Cowboys will be one of the five biggest draws of the season, so the league could make it an October or November megagame somewhere. The league also has to be concerned about CBS and FOX on opening weekend, because the schedule will include doubleheader games on both networks that weekend. So maybe Dallas in the FOX doubleheader window, and maybe Joe Burrow or Josh Allen in the CBS slot. Again, just spitballing.
Re: national TV games: The Jets had one last year. I bet they have 11 or 12 this year—between a Thursday-nighter, maybe two on Sunday night, one or two on Monday night, maybe five Sunday late-window doubleheader games, and one of the newish late-season games moved to ESPN on a Saturday.
Amazon could provide an interesting Jets alternative this year. For the first time ever, the league has scheduled a 3 p.m. Black Friday game on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving. Might Amazon, likely to get one Jets appearance this year, push for the Jets to host a game in the cradle of capitalism, on the busiest shopping day of the year? My guess is Amazon probably would want to sign up for more of a sure thing for this precedent-setting game, maybe the Eagles playing at home with a guaranteed rocking crowd.
In any case, one byproduct of New York employing Aaron Rodgers this year would be the Jets becoming a national team. For 2023 anyway.
6. Green Bay. While we’re on the subject of Rodgers, two points about the Packers:
- I think it’s silly to try to get a first-round pick off the Jets this year. New York picks 13th in the first round, and with no apparent guarantee that Rodgers, entering his age-40 season, will definitely play in 2024, the Jets would be foolish to give up a pick that could be used on the second- or third-best offensive lineman in the draft—to protect Rodgers. (If that’s how they choose to use the first-round pick.) The fairest deal: Jets trade a second-rounder this year (43rd overall) and a conditional pick in 2025, not 2024, based on whether Rodgers plays football for New York in 2024. If he plays 100 snaps or more in 2024, the Jets give Green Bay a first-round pick. If Rodgers plays less than that, the Jets give Green Bay a third-rounder. So if Rodgers plays two years for New York, the price is a first- and a second-; if he plays one year, the price is a second- and a third-. I totally see Green Bay’s point about playing hardball for Rodgers, but the 13th pick in the draft for a guy who might play one year? I don’t see it. Unless Rodgers flat-out guarantees the Jets he’s there for two years, minimum, I’m not considering paying the 2023 one for him.
- Having covered Brett Favre from Green Bay to the Jets 15 years ago, I find this one part of the comparable stories to be eerily similar. Green Bay GM Ted Thompson wanted an all-in Favre in March 2008, Favre wasn’t willing to commit to being an off-season warrior, and retired before coming back in a trade to the Jets. I think when this story is finished, we’ll see that Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst wanted an all-in Rodgers in March 2023 and knew he wouldn’t get it. More evidence for that got piled on the other day when Rodgers told Pat McAfee he was 90-percent retired when he went into his recent darkness retreat. So just like the late Thompson turned to the unproven fourth-year former first-rounder, Rodgers, to step in for Favre, now Gutekunst turns to the unproven fourth-year former first-rounder, Jordan Love, to replace Rodgers.
7. Washington. In the ultimate last gasp of the Snyder Administration (D.C. fans can only pray the end is nigh), a franchise that has finished 25th, 23rd and 24th in scoring in the past three seasons, a franchise in the same division with the NFC champ, explosive Dallas and the rising Giants, a franchise in search of a franchise quarterback since forever will cast its lot this season with the 144th pick of the 2022 draft, Sam Howell, and Jacoby Brissett. No need to even speak with the 2019 MVP who plays just up I-95 in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson. Nope. That’d be a waste of time, right? I’m not suggesting the Commanders absolutely should sign a 26-year-old franchise quarterback with injury question marks, but to not even go down the road with Jackson? How do you say you’re doing everything you can to win when you don’t sit with him and see what Lamar Jackson is all about? What does that cost, exactly?
8. Indianapolis. The Matt Gay signing got zero buzz, but it’s a big one. In 41 games for the Rams, over a 2.5-year stretch, Gay hit 74 of 80 field goals (.925), including 12 of 15 from 50-plus. Now there are only two kickers—Gay and Justin Tucker of the Ravens—averaging more than $5.5 million a year. Gay will make $9 million all told in year one and $5.625 million a year for four years, which, for a kicker languishing on the Colts’ practice squad in October 2020, is pretty amazing. This deal got done at 11:45 p.m. ET Monday, and there was this nice touch to it: When agent David Canter texted Sean McVay to tell him Gay was leaving for the Colts, McVay called Gay to tell him how much he appreciated everything he did for the Rams, and to tell him how happy he was that Gay was getting a big contract. The great thing for Gay’s numbers: Kicking in retractable-roofed Lucas Oil Stadium, and in the temperate AFC South, should be very good for his career.
9. Miami. Mike White for two years and $4.5 million guaranteed is a great contract, particularly for a team that wanted to upgrade at the number two QB. Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson were 1-4 in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, and Miami scored 11 points in the one win. White started seven games for the Jets and threw for 405, 369 and 315 yards in three of them, and the locker room loved him. I love Mike McDaniel using White as a ball of modeling clay for the next two years.
10. Cincinnati. Most surprising signing of the first week of free agency: Orlando Brown doing a deal with the Bengals for four years, $64 million. That’s a $16-million average. That makes Brown, per overthecap.com, the 10th-highest-paid left tackle in football.
Think of how the business works. One contract at a position leapfrogs another. In 2020, Laremy Tunsil signed for $22 million a year in Houston. In 2021, Trent Williams signed for $23 million a year in San Francisco. In 2022, a good but not great tackle, Cam Robinson of Jacksonville, signed for an average of $17.5 million a year. This week, Tunsil signed an extension with Houston for $25 million a year.
Next season: Williams is 35, Tunsil is 29. Robinson is 28. Brown is 27.
Brown has less guaranteed money in his contract in four years than Robinson, a lesser player, got in three. It’s not that Brown isn’t better than Robinson; he is. It’s just that with the exception of Tunsil’s extension, the tackle market didn’t go insane, and no team out there loved Brown. But good for Cincinnati. Brown is a good buy for $16 million a year.
Re: the dissatisfaction of left tackle Jonah Williams, who asked for a trade … Grant it. Take a three for him.
11. Baltimore. And on the sixth day, we waited.
All that matters now is one team out of 31 not named the Ravens reaching out and negotiating in good faith with Lamar Jackson. No one can seem to find one of those teams. Tennessee or Indy, maybe. Doubt it. Candidates continue to fall by the wayside—Miami committing to a fifth year at big pay for Tua Tagovailoa in 2024, the Jets committing (apparently) to Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay using Baker Mayfield for an apparent bridge year, Vegas going with Jimmy Garoppolo, Washington passing, Atlanta likely to stay with Desmond Ridder, Carolina opting for a rookie. Today is the sixth day teams are allowed to negotiate a contract with Jackson, and there are not even quiet rumors that any team is doing so.
Jackson could take the lack of interest as a hint that he’d be best off to take a shorter, guaranteed deal with Baltimore—two or three years. He implied that was on the table on Twitter last week. If he has gotten a three-year guarantee in the neighborhood of $44 million a year, I think he’d be smart to take it, even if it won’t be as much as he wants. Simple reason: If no one out there is giving him more fully guaranteed for three years, obviously feeling that his injuries must factor in (Jackson has missed 34 percent of the Baltimore snaps in the last two seasons), he could take a three-year deal and be a free agent again at age 29.
If Jackson simply figures he doesn’t want to play for the Ravens anymore and would risk missing the 2023 season over that—and I have no idea if this is the case—then he can sit out this season and see if the Ravens would get tired of the drama and cut him after the season. Do I think that’s probable? No. But I also never thought we’d be in a situation where a 26-year-old former MVP is sitting out there with scant interest either.
12. Philadelphia. For now, the ethos should be, “In Howie we trust.” After building a terrific roster and coming within a few snaps of a Super Bowl win with a neophyte QB, GM Howie Roseman chose to bring back some of the longest-in-the-tooth Eagles: center Jason Kelce, who will be playing his age-36 year in 2023; defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, who will play this year at 33 and 35, respectively; and 32-year-old corner Darius Slay. The last two teams that reached the Super Bowl and tried to run it back didn’t. Tampa Bay brought back every starter from its 2020 Super Bowl team and lost in the divisional round in ’21. The Rams got all emotional after winning it in 2021 and had a disastrous 5-12 season last year.
The difference here may be that Kelce played as a top center in the league last year, and spot-playing Graham—43 percent of the snaps, his lowest over a full season in eight years—led to his first double-digit sack season. But sticking with four vets to play prominent roles at an average age of 34 is pretty risky.
Roseman did bring back his best cover corner, James Bradberry, and didn’t get seduced into a second contract for an effective back, Miles Sanders. Paying running backs often leads to wasteful deals, sadly for them, and the Eagles budgeted wisely in the backfield.
13. Seattle. Hard not to love the signing of safety Julian Love for the reasonable sum of $12 million over two years. If you watched much of the Giants last year, you saw an impact player in every game. Imagine the combinations Seattle will be able to use in the back seven if Jamal Adams can stay healthy with Quandre Diggs and Love.
14. Dallas. The Sunday acquisition of Brandin Cooks sets what I believe to be an NFL record: Cooks is the first player to be traded four times before turning 30.
I’d be bullish on this trade if I were Dak Prescott. Here’s why: Cooks just finished three years with the Texans—one year with Deshaun Watson, one year with Davis Mills/Tyrod Taylor, and the last year with Mills. He averaged 76 catches a year with the Texans in the midst of the QB mayhem. He’s on the last year of a bloated two-year, $39.6-million contract, but the Texans will pay $6 million of the $18 million he’s due this year, and the deal cost the Cowboys fifth- and sixth-round picks. I think it’s a smart trade for both teams. Houston clears out a big salary and deals a player who wasn’t happy being there. The Texans now have a league-high 13 picks in the April draft.
15. Las Vegas. Interesting trade, basically, that the Raiders worked out. They sent tight end Darren Waller to the Giants, signed wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in free agency, and got a third-round pick in return from New York. On the surface, you think it’s a hard move to justify, trading an offensive tight end and great complement to Davante Adams when you’re trying to build around new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But Waller’s entering his age-31 season and has missed 14 games due to injury over the past two years. Meyers, an egoless guy, is four years younger and had 150 receptions over the past two seasons, playing 31 of 34 games.
Re: the third-round pick, 100th overall, the Raiders have four picks in the top 100 now, with a tight end need whether Foster Moreau leaves in free agency or not, and this is a draft heavy on tight ends.
Re: the quarterback situation, it’s got to be a significant disappointment for Josh McDaniels to lose Jarrett Stidham. McDaniels coached him in New England, traded for him in Vegas, and prepped him for a very impressive late-season two-start run for the Raiders. Stidham jumped to Denver for what couldn’t have been much more money. I hear Stidham figured with Garoppolo coming and the chance the Raiders could take a quarterback with their early first-round pick, he’d have a better chance at playing time under Sean Payton in Denver. I’m not so sure the Raiders will pick a quarterback at number seven, or wherever they end up in the first round. (Certainly, with the departure of Stidham, they’ll pick a quarterback in the top three rounds.) To me, the opportunity with the Raiders likely not trading into the Bryce Young/C.J. Stroud stratosphere and with Garoppolo’s injury history would have been golden in Vegas.
Notes on 16 through 32.
Arizona is not gaining ground on the NFC West, though importing LB Kyzir White from Philadelphia is a plus … The reunion of Jonnu Smith with coach Arthur Smith in Atlanta should rekindle some of the innovative ways Arthur Smith used Jonnu in Tennessee—and a Kyle Pitts–Jonnu Smith combo platter will be tough to defend … I guess Jordan Poyer will have to stomach those New York taxes for at least another year in Buffalo. I love Poyer and Matt Milano returning, though Tremaine Edmunds will be a tough loss … Carolina’s offseason is the trade for the top pick. The Panthers will try to buck the don’t-pay-running-backs trend by investing $24 million in Miles Sanders … Cleveland’s been quiet with the exception of an intriguing Edge bookend for Myles Garrett, signing Ogbonnia Okoronkwo—who had an impressive second half—from Houston … Smartest move by Jacksonville: re-upping consistently underrated defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris … Smartest move by Kansas City: stealing under-valued edge player Charles Omenihu (54 QB pressures in spot play last year, per PFF) from the Niners. Not sure about the Orlando Brown-for-Jawaan Taylor swap, particularly paying Taylor $4 million more per year than Brown got in Cincinnati … The L.A. Chargers are gambling that Eric Kendricks, a top-five NFL linebacker in 2020, can regain that form in the middle of the Charger D at age 31 … The L.A. Rams are in a gap year, trying to get their team and future and cap right in 2023 with a recharged Sean McVay. It’s smart, and don’t expect them to apologize for winning a Super Bowl while robbing from the future in 2021.
Minnesota signed versatility in slot/outside CB Byron Murphy, and they’ll need top production to make up for the loss of Patrick Peterson to the Steelers … New England is a cautionary tale for this time of year. Two years ago, the smartest man in football, Bill Belichick, went nuts in free agency, signing 11 players from outside the team in a post-Brady roster makeover. Last week, the Pats parted ways with two of those mainstays, Jonnu Smith and Jalen Mills. The only star of the group: Matt Judon, with 28 sacks from the edge in two years. DT Davon Godchaux and TE Hunter Henry have been solid, but it all goes to show you that winning free agency in March is a hollow crown. New England is 18-17 since, with zero playoff wins … New Orleans is doggedly trying to stay relevant, signing Derek Carr and praying that Michael Thomas (last three years: 40 games missed, 10 games played) might turn into Michael Thomas again … The N.Y. Giants are the richest slot team in football, with the very bright prospect Wan’Dale Robinson due back from ACL surgery early in the season, free agent Parris Campbell in from Indy and Sterling Shepard re-signed for a song. Along with Darren Waller (fingers crossed he can stay on the field), Daniel Jones has some significant security blankets in the intermediate area now … Pittsburgh signed the best guard in free agency, Isaac Seumalo, from the Eagles on Saturday night … Kudos to Tampa Bay for keeping its two best free agents, corner Jamel Dean and linebacker Lavonte David. Baker Mayfield, on his fourth team in 15 months (true fact: he played with Cleveland on Jan. 9, 2022, and has meandered to the Panthers, Rams and Bucs since), seems like a bridge to 2024 to me … He’s a little light at 228, but Azeez Al-Shaair is Mike Vrabel’s kind of sideline-to-sideline linebacker and will play as many special teams snaps as Tennessee wants. He’s one of my favorite players, and should be just entering his prime in his age-26 year.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column