Friday, February 23, 2024

2023 NFL free agency winners and losers: Giants, Jets among early victors for developments at QB

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The first week of 2023 NFL free agency is nearly in the books. The official league year didn’t start until Wednesday, but big-name deals have been pouring in since Monday, and already dozens of the top veterans available have found new homes.

You can get yourself caught up on all the action with these important pieces:

Now, if you’re wondering which teams really hit the ball out of the park after the first wave of activity (and perhaps which ones dropped the ball), we’ve also identified winners and losers from the first week:

Jets GM Joe Douglas
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They wanted a proven quarterback, and now that Aaron Rodgers has publicly broadcast his intentions to play for them, they’ve essentially got one. Never say never, of course; Rodgers remains under contract with the Packers. But Green Bay doesn’t have much leverage now that A-Rod has revealed the team is ready to move on. Sure, the Pack would benefit financially by delaying a trade until this summer, barring a big renegotiation of Rodgers’ deal, but are they really prepared to turn this inevitable breakup into an ugly months-long divorce, repeating the Brett Favre saga? That’s not to say the Jets won’t have to surrender some kind of premium compensation to seal the deal, but at the end of the day, they’re poised to get what they wanted all along: A franchise QB for a playoff-caliber lineup.

Sticking to the AFC East, it’s hard to be over the moon about what New England is doing offensively (again). Bill O’Brien’s arrival probably means more for QB Mac Jones than any of their lineup shuffling. But committing $25 million to JuJu Smith-Schuster instead of $33M for incumbent target Jakobi Meyers? It can be forgiven, but it reads like a lateral move for a more injury-prone player. Signing James Robinson for $4M per year (roughly top-16 RB money) is more questionable after his flat 2022 campaign, especially with Rhamondre Stevenson headlining their already-competent backfield. That’s saying nothing of their investment in Bengals and Bears castoff Riley Reiff as a likely starting tackle. 

Jordan Love
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Because the Packers, for all intents and purposes, are his team now. He may be a relative unknown after almost two decades of MVP-caliber production from Rodgers. But A-Rod himself basically deemed Love a worthy successor while addressing his 2023 plans this week. Entering a contract year (with a fifth-year option likely to be tacked on), he’s got a chance to earn his own big-money extension by showcasing his live arm in Matt LaFleur’s offense.

Loser: Ron Rivera

You might’ve swapped Commanders QB Sam Howell into Rivera’s place here, seeing as Jacoby Brissett’s arrival via free agency may well spell the end of Howell’s tenure as QB1 before it began. But the real loser has to be the man up top, who — barring a blockbuster move up for a QB in the draft — will enter his fourth season as Washington’s coach simply extending a marriage to middling veteran signal-callers. From Alex Smith to Ryan Fitzpatrick to Carson Wentz to Taylor Heinicke, Rivera has never fielded a sustainable winner under center, and the trend appears destined to continue, even though the team wisely added Chiefs tackle Andrew Wylie for better protection up front.

Daniel Jones
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The Giants are really betting on their medical staff this year, as their top non-QB re-signing (RB Saquon Barkley) and top external additions (WR Parris Campbell, TE Darren Waller) have all battled serious and/or persistent injuries in recent years. Provided they stay mostly healthy, however, they should give Jones more confidence coming off an ultimate confidence-building debut under Brian Daboll. A true No. 1 WR would still be nice, but the young QB at least has more playmakers at his disposal — not to mention a big raise courtesy his own $160M extension. A year ago, not even Jones could’ve anticipated rewriting his reputation in a new system, then cashing in as the ninth-highest-paid QB in the game, then finally getting actual weapons.

Loser: The TE and EDGE markets

Typically pass rushers help set the tone for free agency; in fact, 15 different edge players currently average at least $15M per year on their current deals. This week, only Marcus Davenport topped $10M per year, and he settled for a relatively team-friendly one-year, $13M deal with the Vikings. There simply wasn’t an abundance of ascending Pro Bowl-caliber vets available at the position. At tight end, meanwhile, the Vikings curiously committed $7M per year to backup Josh Oliver, but not even that inflated deal has revved up a free-agent pool still featuring unsigned starters like Dalton Schultz, although Mike Gesicki did reportedly sign a one-year deal with the Patriots on Friday.

Winner: Sean Payton

Sean Payton
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Regardless of what happens with Russell Wilson, the Broncos‘ new coach has wisely poured lots of money into the team’s infrastructure, spending top dollar to bolster the trenches on both sides of the ball. Sure, they may be overpaying a bit for the big-name O-line additions, Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers, but that investment could/should mark a return to the run-first offense that better suits Wilson. Ascending ex-Cardinals prospect Zach Allen should fit in nicely as the centerpiece of the D-line, meanwhile, and ex-Raiders backup Jarrett Stidham is a sneakily high-upside emergency option behind Wilson.

Loser: Chiefs

OK, so obviously, as long as Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are in Kansas City, we’re never actually down on the Chiefs. But the early goings of free agency haven’t necessarily been promising. They were probably right to back down from Orlando Brown Jr.’s demands, and the market seemingly validated them, with the Bengals signing the left tackle for $16M per year — a far cry from the reported $23M annual total K.C. offered him prior to 2022. But then the Chiefs turned around and spent $80M ($20M per year) on Jawaan Taylor, who was uneven during his Jaguars tenure and could be changing positions to fill the LT hole. On top of that, they’ve still got a WR hole to fill with JuJu Smith-Schuster departing for New England.

Justin Fields
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Chicago certainly did right by QB Justin Fields by landing WR D.J. Moore as part of its trade down from the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. OG Nate Davis also helps up front. But did the Bears really need to commit $90M-plus to Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards at linebacker, especially after dealing Roquan Smith as a result of his contract demands in 2022? The Eagles should be happy to have Brandon Graham, Jason Kelce and Darius Slay back in the locker room, plus James Bradberry back at corner for a reasonable number. Their Rashaad Penny gamble at RB is also cost effective. But you wonder if their allegiance to Super Bowl veterans — such as both Slay and Bradberry in an aging CB room — may be perceived differently down the road. And Carolina should be elated to have its choice of top QB prospects after moving up to the No. 1 overall pick. Andy Dalton is also a solid bridge QB. But after moving D.J. Moore, they still sorely lack reliable weapons for whichever QB they welcome to town.

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