Every NFL offseason, mock drafts take over, captivating eyeballs for weeks -- if not months -- at a time. But too often, they overlook the fact that an entire veteran market must unfold before teams turn their eyes to April's rookie class. Of course, that's not entirely true; long-term visions involving draft prospects can influence an organization's approach in free agency. But either way, the signings and trades of early spring are first on the docket.
So let's mock-draft free agency! Why on Earth would we do this, you ask? Well, No. 1, because it's fun. Half the reason the NFL offseason is a thrill is the sheer volume of scenarios we can dream up. No. 2, because it actually helps identify the year's most valuable free agents, as well as teams' top offseason needs.
Some ground rules, before we dive in:
- Eligible players: We've used educated guesses (and considered well-informed reports from across the league) to exclude free agents who are all but certain to either be re-signed or tagged by their current teams. Those players are: Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, Giants QB Daniel Jones, Jaguars TE Evan Engram, Chiefs OT Orlando Brown Jr., Commanders DT Daron Payne and Eagles S C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
- Draft order: Instead of using the actual draft order, which would exclude certain teams without a first-round pick, we've incorporated all 32 by listing teams in order of projected 2023 cap space. This also aligns with the free agency exercise, considering this will provide a rough pecking order of clubs capable of spending big on veterans.
Now, without further ado, the 2023 NFL Free Agency Mock Draft:
1. Bears: DT Javon Hargrave
Supporting QB Justin Fields with better protection and receivers is paramount, but Hargave is the best value at another area of need. Matt Eberflus' defense sorely lacks punch up front, and Hargrave is still in the thick of his prime at 30, fresh off a career-high 11 sacks as the most consistent interior starter on the Eagles' conference-winning unit.
2. Falcons: DL Zach Allen
The Falcons have Grady Jarrett but little else up front, hence their perpetual need for more pocket-pushers. Allen, 25, may not be a big name, but he proved a worthy J.J. Watt successor on an otherwise poor Arizona "D" in 2022, racking up 5.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 20 QB hits and eight pass deflections. Arthur Smith would adore such a hard-nosed building block.
3. Raiders: CB James Bradberry
There are bigger holes at QB and up front, but with so many stopgap signal-callers available, they can afford to splurge on "D," where Josh McDaniels is used to having stingy pass coverage on his side from his days in New England. Bradberry is 30, but he's coming off a career All-Pro season in Philly. He'd instantly give the Raiders more of a lockdown cover man.
4. Giants: WR Jakobi Meyers
With Daniel Jones presumably back on a tag or new deal, their focus would inevitably turn to securing the young QB better playmakers. Meyers, 26, doesn't scream "superstar," but he's probably the most well-rounded wideout available, capable of winning on the margins both inside and outside. Reliability is precisely what Brian Daboll should be looking for at the position.
5. Texans: DE Marcus Davenport
Five years into his career, Davenport's name is still a bit bigger than his resume. But Houston needs immediate and long-term help off the edge, and at 26, he's still got room to grow. He also flashed Pro Bowl ability in 2021 with a nine-sack breakout. If anyone could help him reach the next level, it'd probably be DeMeco Ryans, who led San Francisco's nasty front.
6. Bengals: OT Mike McGlinchey
Forever in search of a stable O-line for Joe Burrow, the Bengals may part ways with La'el Collins at right tackle, which would open a job for McGlinchey, a 49ers starter of the last five years. While not flawless, with an injury history of his own, McGlinchey has been an above-average blocker when healthy. That counts for a whole lot in the NFL.
7. Patriots: OT Kaleb McGary
New England could go so many routes with holes out wide and on defense. But first and foremost the Patriots need better bookend play for Mac Jones or whomever takes over at QB under Bill O'Brien. Like McGlinchey, the veteran Falcons starter has been a reliable right tackle for years. More than that, he's been relatively durable, missing just three games in four seasons.
8. Seahawks: DL Dre'Mont Jones
An underrated staple of Denver's front, Jones has been a steady presence in opposing pockets despite only emerging as a full-time starter in 2022, when he logged 6.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss and 10 QB hits. The Seahawks, meanwhile, badly need any kind of DL presence they can get, and Jones' flexibility as a 3-4 end or 4-3 tackle would likely be tantalizing to Pete Carroll.
9. Ravens: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Assuming Lamar Jackson is back in some form, the Ravens will need to address a lackluster WR corps. Smith-Schuster isn't necessarily a splashy addition on his own, but after an efficient run as Patrick Mahomes' top outside target in Kansas City, he'd easily enter as Baltimore's most reliable possession receiver. As a bonus, JuJu would get to play the Steelers twice a year.
10. Cardinals: CB Jamel Dean
New Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon is a defensive backs guy by trade, so upgrading a mostly barren cornerback room will likely be near the top of his priority list. Dean, 26, isn't a widely heralded cover man, but he was arguably the steadiest starter at his position for the Buccaneers' defense in 2022. He'd also represent a longer-term solution for a team in transition.
11. Lions: CB Cameron Sutton
Few vets did more to boost their free agent stock down the stretch than Sutton, 27, who embodied the Steelers' never-say-die toughness with some clutch pass coverage. He had a quiet start to his career, but in Detroit, he'd make for a physical complement to former first-rounder Jeff Okudah, who's probably had too much on his plate.
12. Titans: OT Jawaan Taylor
Even if longtime left tackle Taylor Lewan hadn't been exiled as a cap casualty, they were going to be in the market for OL help, regardless of the future at QB. Taylor, meanwhile, has endured the highs and lows of Jacksonville but emerged as the Jaguars' sturdiest pass protector for Trevor Lawrence in 2022. At 25, having never missed a start, he'd be a potential intra-division steal.
13. Colts: TE Dalton Schultz
Tackle is a need, as is QB, of course, but assuming Indy uses the draft to address the gaping hole under center, Schultz is a logical multipurpose investment. Tight end may not be in shambles, but he primarily functions as a pass-catcher. Still just 26, he'd theoretically take some of the pressure off Michael Pittman Jr. as an over-the-middle outlet.
14. Broncos: LB Tremaine Edmunds
After years of enjoying Demario Davis' patrolling presence at the heart of his Saints defense, Sean Payton could be eager to replenish Denver's already-stout "D," and Edmunds has the unteachable traits to make plays behind their front. Somehow still just 24, he also stands out as more of a viable long-term starter than fellow free agent LBs like Lavonte David.
15. Eagles: CB Byron Murphy Jr.
With James Bradberry headed elsewhere (above), the Eagles figure to revisit the veteran market for a plug-and-play cover man opposite Darius Slay, allowing reserve Zech McPhearson to keep developing. Murphy, 25, is a prototypical Howie Roseman gamble: lesser-valued coming off injury, but with an early-round pedigree and lots of growth potential at multiple positions.
16. Commanders: QB Derek Carr
Our first QB off the board! Washington might rather draft and develop here, but they're not supremely positioned to secure a top prospect, making Carr the next-best thing among proven starters. While more serviceable than special, the ex-Raiders leader has the gutsy mentality Ron Rivera would endorse. Paired with Eric Bieniemy and Terry McLaurin, maybe he could surprise.
17. 49ers: OG Isaac Seumalo
San Francisco generally gets high marks for its OL play, but after getting shellacked by the Eagles in the NFC title game, they could stand to upgrade for whichever QB can stay healthy going into 2023. Seumalo is the unheralded name from Philly's own front, but he'd project as an immediate upgrade at either guard spot.
18. Steelers: OT Andrew Wylie
The Steelers could use fresh bodies on both sides of the ball, especially with internal free agents at LB and CB, but priority No. 1 should be restoring the trenches for QB Kenny Pickett. While Wylie, 28, is nowhere near the physical talent of fellow Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown Jr., he's fresh off a sterling Super Bowl run and racked up 59 starts for K.C.'s emergent dynasty.
19. Jets: QB Geno Smith
Yes, you read that right! The Jets may have sights set on bigger names like Aaron Rodgers, but sealing the deal on a blockbuster is easier said than done. If Smith gets loose from Seattle, he'd profile as an instant upgrade in his old stomping grounds, giving New York's playoff-caliber lineup a far more explosive pocket passer. His arrival also wouldn't necessarily preclude team brass from pursuing a longer-term answer down the road.
20. Chiefs: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
The rich get richer. Beckham's market is unpredictable considering his injury history, but at full speed, he's still a legit weapon as a route-runner and downfield threat. K.C., meanwhile, may have something spicy in Kadarius Toney but can never have enough toys for Patrick Mahomes and Co., especially with JuJu Smith-Schuster heading elsewhere in this exercise.
21. Packers: TE Mike Gesicki
With or without Aaron Rodgers back under center, the Packers need more pass-catchers, whether out wide or in line, where Robert Tonyan is due for free agency. Gesicki was severely underutilized in Miami after the Dolphins' addition of Tyreek Hill, and he's got the playmaking wherewithal to at least be a red zone complement to Christian Watson.
22. Cowboys: RB Saquon Barkley
Can you imagine? Barkley is certainly worthy of an earlier pick, but at a devalued position, you can see why he'd slide. With Tony Pollard headed for free agency and Ezekiel Elliott's future unclear, the Cowboys could give Dak Prescott an unexpected boost of skill talent by pairing him with the rejuvenated Giants star. And they'd be robbing their rivals of a freakish athlete in the process.
23. Panthers: LB Lavonte David
Carolina has young stars at the front and back of its defense, but the Panthers could still use a heartbeat at the center, and David, 33, has long provided that for the rival Buccaneers. Yes, he's older, but his play has not slipped, and his leadership would surely be welcomed by new coach Frank Reich, who's especially keen on fostering growth on and off the field.
24. Browns: S Jordan Poyer
Poyer basically got his career started in Cleveland, spending 2013-2016 with the Browns. Now, with Buffalo pressed to navigate a tight cap, he'd represent a needed injection of both ballhawking and leadership to a "D" that sorely underperformed in 2022.
25. Rams: OG Dalton Risner
Los Angeles may end up cleaning out a portion of its regular OL after an injury-ruined 2022 campaign. Risner would help shore up the interior after a solid run in Denver, hopefully allowing Matthew Stafford to regain confidence under center.
26. Dolphins: QB Jimmy Garoppolo
They have a more immediate need at corner, where new coordinator Vic Fangio will attempt to revive their "D." But the Jimmy G connection makes too much sense: as much as this team is publicly committed to Tua Tagovailoa, the young QB cannot -- and should not -- be trusted to stay on the field. Garoppolo has his own availability concerns, but he's at least guided multiple playoff runs in the 49ers system from which Mike McDaniel hails. At the very least, he'd be premium insurance at a premium position.
27. Bills: RB Josh Jacobs
Like Saquon, Jacobs' individual talent warrants a much higher pick here. But as a bruising, occasionally nicked-up vet at this position, he's potentially more of a short-term investment. In Buffalo, Jacobs would be an imposing addition to an offense begging for more balance on the ground, pairing with Josh Allen to create one of the NFL's most formidable rushing attacks.
28. Chargers: WR Parris Campbell
With Keenan Allen a potential cap casualty coming off an injury-shortened year, the Chargers may be in the market for a WR2 opposite Mike Williams. While Campbell has had his own issues staying on the field, he broke out as a speed threat for the Colts in 2022. His multipurpose abilities alongside RB Austin Ekeler would potentially spice up the offense for Justin Herbert.
29. Jaguars: DL Dalvin Tomlinson
With Calvin Ridley set to join the WR corps and Evan Engram on track to return in some fashion, the Jaguars may be focused on improving their young, inconsistent "D." Tomlinson has been a sturdy anchor wherever he's been, hence the Vikings' apparent interest in keeping him around. He'd be a physical boost for their improving D-line.
30. Vikings: S Jessie Bates III
Minnesota could be in for a major overhaul of its porous secondary, with CB Patrick Peterson and S Harrison Smith expected to set sail. Bates, meanwhile, has been one of the NFL's steadiest roaming safeties of the last half-decade; his ball skills (14 career picks) would surely aid the CB group as well. He's also just 26, making him a longer-term bet.
31. Saints: DE Yannick Ngakoue
With Marcus Davenport and Kaden Elliss both slated for free agency, the Saints will probably need at least one veteran addition off the edge. Ngakoue has never rounded into form as a run defender, but his pass-rushing acumen is undeniable, making him a potential plug-and-play Pro Bowl talent for Dennis Allen's unit.
32. Buccaneers: CB Patrick Peterson
Assuming they're still committed to contending post-Tom Brady, the Bucs could use help on the back end, where Jamel Dean is a free agent and Todd Bowles' once-vaunted "D" may be even more pressed to carry the club. Peterson, 32, fits for many reasons: he's a rental coming off a surprisingly solid year, he was born and raised in Florida, and he could conceivably help mentor some of the younger DBs for beyond 2023.