The initial days of free agency were a seller's market as usual when players received the most lucrative contracts. The pendulum has swung in the other direction since the first wave is over. It's now a buyer's market. Nearly all of the consensus best players available at the start of free agency have been signed.
The NFL annual owners meeting, which is March 26-29 in Phoenix, typically signifies the end of free agency for all practical purposes. Teams will devote most of their attention to the upcoming NFL Draft held April 27-29 after the meeting wraps up.
Here are 10 contract-related thoughts and observations relating to free agency and the early part of the offseason.
1. Philadelphia freedom
The Eagles got to Super Bowl LVII with a deep and talent roster that's strength was on the offensive and defensive lines. As expected, multiple starters, particularly on defense, have left in free agency. The biggest blow was losing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. He was expected to price himself out of Philadelphia after he had a career-high 11 sacks in 2022, which was fourth in the NFL among interior defensive linemen. He went to the 49ers, who the Eagles beat in the NFC Championship Game, on a four-year, $80 million deal with $40 million fully guaranteed.
The Eagles lost starting linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White. Edwards signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Bears that has $12.025 million in guarantees. White received a two-year, $10 million deal (worth up to $11 million with incentives) from the Cardinals.
Both starting safeties left as well. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson reportedly overplayed his hand by turning down a multiyear contract from the Eagles early in free agency. After the Eagles went in a different direction with the money, he took a one-year, $8 million deal from the Lions. Marcus Epps signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Raiders containing $10.34 million of guarantees.
The losses aren't nearly as substantial on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Miles Sanders took a four-year, $25.64 million contract from the Panthers. Offensive guard Isaac Seumalo reportedly signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Steelers.
The Eagles were able to keep one of the league's best cornerback duos together. James Bradberry returns on a three-year, $38 million contract where $20 million is fully guaranteed. Darius Slay went from the chopping block to getting a three-year deal worth $42 million with $24.5 million fully guaranteed.
Seasoned veterans Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are returning to the defensive line on one-year deals worth $10 million and $6 million, respectively and 35-year-old center Jason Kelce has decided to put off retirement for at least one year. He is making $14.5 million in 2023.
There is some continuity in the rushing attack with running back Boston Scott coming back on a one-year, $2 million contract. Raashad Penny is a low-cost addition to the backfield with upside provided he stays healthy. He signed a one-year, $1.35 million deal with $750,000 in incentives.
The NFC East has not had a repeat champion since 2004. It remains to be seen whether the Eagles can end the streak.
2. Trading frenzy
It's been an active trade market with several notable players being dealt. The acquisition costs generally have been modest.
The blockbuster trade was the Panthers moving up to the first pick overall in the 2023 draft by sending the Bears wide receiver D.J. Moore, 2023's ninth overall pick, a 2023 second-round pick (61st overall), a 2024 first-round pick and a 2025 second-round pick. Moore signed a three-year contract extension, averaging $20.628 million per year, last March The Bears get for quarterback Justin Fields a primary receiving threat who is under contract through the 2025 season for $52.265 million.
The Dolphins arguably have the NFL's best cornerback tandem after acquiring Jalen Ramsey to pair him with Xavien Howard. Miami gave up a 2023 third-round pick and tight end Hunter Long.
The Raiders dealt tight end Darren Waller to the Giants for a 2023 third-rounder despite signing him to a three-year, $51 million extension right before the start of the 2022 regular season, which made him the league's highest-paid tight end at $17 million per year. The Giants have Waller for the next four years at $51.475 million. Waller's last two seasons have been derailed by knee and hamstring injuries. When healthy, Waller is one of the game's five best tight ends.
The Cowboys made two moves. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who is the final year of his contract for $9.98 million, was obtained from the Colts for a 2023 fifth-round pick. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who didn't want to go through rebuilding with the Texans, was acquired for a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-round pick. He had $35 million left on his contract, including a fully guaranteed $18 million 2023 base salary. The Texans converted $6 million of the $35 million into a signing bonus pre-trade so the Cowboys are responsible for the remaining $29 million.
One team's trash is another team's treasure with tight end Jonnu Smith. He had been a major disappointment since signing a four-year, $50 million contract containing a tight end-record $31.25 million fully guaranteed with the Patriots in 2021 free agency. The Patriots only obtained a 2023 seventh-round pick. Smith reworked his deal in the process. He was scheduled to make $23 million over the next two years where $6.25 million was fully guaranteed. It's now a two-year, $15 million deal with $8.5 million fully guaranteed.
The Texans got offensive line help by obtaining offensive guard Shaq Mason and a 2023 seventh-round pick from the Buccaneers for a 2023 sixth-round pick. Mason is scheduled to make $8.5 million in 2023, which is the final year of his contract.
The biggest veteran player trade is probably forthcoming, presumably before the 2023 draft. The Packers are expected trade to quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the Jets. The parties are at a stalemate on trade compensation for the 39-year-old, four-time NFL MVP.
Five-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is on the trading block. New Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort may have to adjust his asking price for Hopkins, which was rumored to be at least a second-round pick, after the Cooks trade. He may also have to eat some portion of the $34.365 million Hopkins is scheduled to make over the next two years ($19.45 million in 2023 and $14.915 million in 2024) like the Texans did with Cooks.
3. It pays to be in the trenches
The offensive tackle and offensive guard markets were reset with contract extensions. Laremy Tunsil became the NFL's first $20 million-per-year offensive lineman with his three-year extension, averaging $22 million per year, in 2020. Tunsil just got another three-year extension, which makes him the first to $25 million per year offensive lineman. He signed a three-year, $75 million extension with $60 million in guarantees, of which $50 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Chris Lindstrom is the first offensive guard to sign for more than $20 million per year. He received a five-year, $102.5 million extension from the Falcons, averaging $20.5 million per year. Lindstrom established new offensive guard benchmarks for guarantees with $62.702 in total guarantees and $48.202 fully guaranteed at signing.
The Chiefs surprisingly put offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor in the $20 million per offensive lineman club, which now has six members, rather than re-sign left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who played 2022 under a $16.662 million franchise tag. Taylor, who will be making the transition from right tackle to left tackle, signed a four-year, $80 million deal with $60 million in guarantees where $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Speaking of Brown, he went to the Bengals on a four-year, $64.092 million deal. His $31.1 million signing bonus is the largest ever for an offensive lineman. The Broncos signed right tackle Mike McGlinchey to a five-year, $87.5 million deal with $52.5 million in guarantees ($35 million fully guaranteed at signing).
4. Revamping Rams
A 5-12 record during an injury-plagued 2022 season was a reality check for the Super Bowl LVI champion Rams. Depth was sacrificed with a top-heavy roster.
In a foreshadowing of things to come, the Rams announced a mutual parting of the ways with linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was a 2022 Second Team All-Pro by the Associated Press, in late February after just one season in Los Angeles. Five million of salary cap room was picked up with Wagner's departure. Wagner made $10.5 million for his brief stint with the Rams.
As mentioned above, Ramsey was dealt to the Dolphins. The Rams created $5.6 million of cap space with the trade. Ramsey's dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, is $19.6 million.
Edge rusher Leonard Floyd was released in another cost-saving maneuver. He had two years remaining for $31.5 million on a four-year, $64 million contract signed in 2021. Three million of cap space was gained while the Rams are left with $19 million in dead money.
The Rams would like to move on from wide receiver Allen Robinson after a disappointing debut season in Los Angeles. Robinson signed a three-year, $46.5 million contract (worth up to $48 million through incentives) with $30.75 million fully guaranteed last March. His agent has been given permission to seek a trade.
5. An inside job
Interior defensive linemen have gotten big paydays. Four players topped the $15 million-per-year mark. It didn't take long for the Commanders to lock up franchise player Daron Payne. He signed a four-year, $90 million contract to become the league's second highest paid at the position. Payne's deal has $60.02 million of guarantees with $46.01 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Hargrave received a four-year, $80 million deal with $40 million fully guaranteed from the 49ers despite being 30 years old. Dre'Mont Jones signed a three-year, $51 million contract with the Seahawks, which has $30 million in guarantees. Zach Allen got $15.25 million per year from the Broncos to offset the loss of Jones. He signed a three-year, $45.75 million contract with $32.5 million fully guaranteed.
6. Soft wide receiver market
Teams exercised fiscal restraint with a weak free agent wide receiver class. There haven't been any surprising deals like Christian Kirk's four-year, $72 million contract (worth up to $84 million through incentives) with $37 million in guarantees from the Jaguars last year that easily exceeded all reasonable projections. Nobody has come close to the three-year, $46.5 million contract (worth up to $48 million through incentives) with $30.75 million fully guaranteed Robinson got from the Rams in free agency last year after a subpar 2021 season.
The top deals have been for $11 million per year, which is what Nelson Agholor got from the Patriots in 2021 free agency. Allen Lazard received a four-year, $44 million contract from Jets with $23 million fully guaranteed. The Jets gave Corey Davis a three-year, $37.5 million deal, averaging $12.5 million per year with $27 million fully guaranteed, in 2021 free agency. New York also added former Chiefs speedster Mecole Hardman on a reported one-year deal worth up to $6.5 million and then shipped off 2021 second-rounder Elijah Moore and a 2023 third-round pick to the Browns for a 2023 second-rounder.
Jakobi Meyers went to the Raiders on a three-year, $33 million deal. There are $21 million in overall guarantees and $16 million was fully guaranteed at signing. JuJu Smith-Schuster finally got a long-term deal in his third straight year on the open market. He signed a three-year, $25.5 million contract (worth up to $33 million through incentives) with the Patriots with $16 million fully guaranteed.
7. Falcons' spending spree
The Falcons entered free agency well-positioned to make a move in 2022's weakest division. The entire NFC South was below .500 last season. With Tom Brady retiring after spending three seasons with the Buccaneers, the NFC South is up for grabs.
Atlanta had the NFL's second most salary cap space at close to $70 million as the start of the 2023 league year was approaching. The primary emphasis was on defense in free agency. Most notably, Jessie Bates signed a four-year, $64.02 million contract with $36 million fully guaranteed. The deal makes Bates the NFL's fourth-highest-paid safety at $16.005 million per year.
New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen's ties to the Saints have come in handy. Defensive tackle David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss followed Nielsen to Atlanta from New Orleans. Onyemata signed a three-year, $35 million contract with $24.5 million fully guaranteed. Elliss, who can also rush the passer, received a three-year, $21.5 million contract with $10.16 million fully guaranteed.
Offensively, right tackle Kaleb McGary was retained after declining a $13.202 million fifth-year option for 2023. He returns on a three-year $34.5 million contract with $15 million fully guaranteed. Lindstrom reset the offensive guard market with his monster extension.
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke signed a two-year, $14 million contract (worth a maximum of $20 million through incentives). He could push 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder for the starting job.
Smith, who was acquired from the Patriots, is reunited with Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, who was his offensive coordinator during his final two seasons with the Titans (2019 and 2020) and tight ends coach beforehand (2017 and 2018). Wide receiver Mack Hollins was a value signing with a one-year deal for $2.5 million after catching 57 passes for 690 yards with four touchdowns, all career highs, for the Raiders last season.
8. Running back woes
Free agency hasn't been kind to running backs in recent years. James Conner and Leonard Fournette established the second tier of running back salaries at $7 million per year with the Cardinals and Buccaneers, respectively, on the open market last year. Sanders couldn't reach that mark despite career highs of 1,269 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, which were fifth and eighth in the NFL, respectively, in 2022.
He signed a four-year, $25.64 million contract with the Panthers, averaging $6.35 million per year with $13 million fully guaranteed. The next best deal belongs to David Montgomery. He went to the Lions for $18 million over three years. There are $11 million in guarantees with $8.75 million fully guaranteed at signing.
9. Tight end timing
Mike Gesicki and Dalton Schultz are victims of bad timing. The franchise tag proved to be their enemy. Both may have topped the $12.5 million-per-year deals Hunter Henry and Smith received from the Patriots in 2021 free agency if on the open market last year instead of playing under $10.931 million franchise tags. They had career years in 2021. Gesicki caught 73 passes for 780 receiving yards. Schultz had 78 catches, 808 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
There wasn't a strong tight end draft class last year. The first tight end drafted was Trey McBride by the Cardinals late in the second round with the 55th overall pick.
The Dolphins and Gesicki reportedly never really engaged in contract talks. Schultz and the Cowboys were never close to reaching a deal. Frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, Schultz skipped the final part of organized team activities last June. My understanding is Dallas' best offer before the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long term was five years, averaging $11.75 million per year, with a team friendly structure. Negotiations never resumed before free agency started on March 15.
Gesicki wasn't a great fit in new Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel's offense last season because blocking isn't his strong suit. The 2022 season was Gesicki's worst since his rookie year in 2018. He had 32 catches, 362 yards and five touchdowns. His playtime went from 71.73% in 2021 to 45.17% last season.
Schultz didn't approach his 2021 production because of being slowed by a PCL issue in his right knee that kept him out of two games. A lack of chemistry with backup quarterback Cooper Rush while Dak Prescott missed five games with a fractured right thumb was also a contributing factor. Nonetheless, he had 57 receptions, 577 yards and five touchdowns. Schultz was instrumental in the Cowboys' playoff win over the Buccaneers with seven catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
The 2023 tight end draft class being considered extremely strong didn't help Gesicki and Schultz. Multiple tight ends are expected to be off the board before where McBride was drafted last year.
Gesicki and Schutlz took "prove-it" deals. The Patriots signed Gesicki to a one-year, $4.5 million deal worth up to $9 million through incentives. Schultz got a one-year, $6.25 contract from the Texans, with an additional $3 million in incentives.
10. Building a bridge
Teams didn't hesitate to invest in potential bridge quarterbacks. The Commanders declared that 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell would begin the offseason as their No. 1 quarterback. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Jacoby Brissett, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal (worth up to $10 million through incentives), beat out Howell. Heinicke joined the Falcons. There isn't an established starting quarterback in Atlanta as Ridder started the final four games last season.
Andy Dalton signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Panthers. Incentives make the deal worth as much as $17 million. Dalton could begin the season as Carolina's starting quarterback if the quarterback who's taken with the first overall pick isn't thrown immediately into the fire. Baker Mayfield, the first overall pick in 2018, signed a one-year, $4 million deal worth up to $8.5 million with incentives to compete with 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask for the Buccaneers' starting quarterback job. Trask has thrown nine passes in his two-year NFL career.