When it comes to identifying NFL free agency “winners,” fans and media often roll their eyes — after all, didn’t the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles “dream team” fall apart? But a different Eagles team — the 2022 squad that made it to the Super Bowl — demonstrated the real value of being smart and capable in free agency.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals used free agency for critical players as well, and the deals made in March influence who plays 11 months later in February. Not every free agent signing will be a hit, nor will the “winners” of free agency always be the best teams during the regular season. But smart teams do smart things, and that includes filling up their roster and signing good players.
Let’s check out which NFL teams and players won free agency.
The New York Jets pulled out an enormous win in free agency when Aaron Rodgers announced his intention to play for them. There is some concern about whether or not the Jets and Green Bay Packers can agree to a compensation package, but it’s pretty clear that the Jets have vaulted themselves into playoff — or even Super Bowl — relevancy.
The Jets didn’t just win free agency with the Rodgers announcement, however. They bolstered their offensive line depth — perhaps their biggest weakness — with several interior offensive linemen signings and added a good rotational receiver in Allen Lazard. They did make some missteps in free agency, which includes Quincy Williams’ contract, but it could be in service to a larger goal of retaining Quinnen Williams going forward.
Overall, New York didn’t add a bevy of players or retain key departing free agents. But they got a lot better.
The Jets weren’t the only winner of the Rodgers announcement, of course. Jordan Love has been waiting in the wings for his turn for quite some time and could have earned the starting job a little sooner had Rodgers not put together some stellar seasons after Love was drafted.
But Rodgers wore out his long welcome, and Love has the ability to grow into a leading role with emerging players like Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs to throw to while behind a stellar offensive line.
The Chicago Bears won before the start of free agency when they traded the first overall pick for a bushel of draft selections and a high-level receiver in DJ Moore. Had they never made the trade, they still would have won.
Adding two linebackers, including one on an incredible deal in T.J. Edwards, helps quite a bit defensively, while taking a flier on Robert Tonyan should expand the number of pass-catchers Justin Fields can throw to.
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The Bears made some negative-value moves, like with Tremaine Edmunds, Nate Davis, and DeMarcus Walker. But the deals are relatively front-loaded, meaning it won’t occupy too much cap in the future if they decide to move on or require room for other free agents down the road.
Instead, Chicago can celebrate the fact that even if the deals weren’t dollar-for-dollar good value, they did make the team better, and the sting won’t last too long. In the meantime, the Bears can also be comfortable with smart additions like Andrew Billings, D’Onta Foreman, and PJ Walker.
After the San Francisco 49ers held firm in the trade market in 2022, Jimmy Garoppolo was free to hit free agency and choose his destination. Garoppolo chose the Las Vegas Raiders, who offered him above the market for a quarterback with his production profile and allowed him to reunite with Josh McDaniels.
Not only that, the Raiders have additional familiarity to work with as well. Jakobi Meyers has worked with Garoppolo in New England, and Hunter Renfrow plays the short game reminiscent of Garoppolo’s playing style. Losing Darren Waller didn’t help, but overall, Garoppolo’s situation improved tremendously.
The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t do much in free agency and lost important pieces in Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. Having anticipated the Bates’ departure, Cincinnati drafted Daxton Hill last year and moved on from Bell by signing Nick Scott to an under-market deal of just $4 million annually. That’s not quite an upgrade from an on-field perspective, but the Bengals will likely get more value for dollar from those players, so that stems the bleeding.
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But the reason that the Bengals ended up winning free agency — despite some new drama with left-tackle-turned-right-tackle Jonah Williams — is the incredible bargain they struck with Orlando Brown Jr. They had other wins, too – like resolution over Joe Mixon’s case, critically needed offensive line depth and the return of underrated linebacker Germaine Pratt. All in all, the Bengals seem to be pulling ahead.
Quarterback Daniel Jones landed a remarkable deal, earning $82 million over the first two years of his new contract with the New York Giants. It was a masterful bit of negotiating from his agent and lands him more than he would have likely received on the open market.
From a bankroll perspective, Jones pulled ahead. But on the field, the Giants have been improving. Not only did they make sure to return the few receivers that played well, but they also added players like Waller and Parris Campbell, both of whom will likely return more value than it cost to bring them in.
With other upgrades here and there — linebacker Bobby Okereke comes to mind — and limited losses in free agency, the Giants are poised to turn from a lucky team in 2022 to a legitimately good one in 2023. If Jones can keep up.
The Houston Texans may have made more moves than any other team in the NFL in the days leading up to free agency and since the league year began. Many of Houston’s signings are low-floor, high-ceiling types, with players like Robert Woods facing the possibility that he might never return to form again but could be a wickedly talented receiver if he does.
Joining him in that club are Sheldon Rankins and Chase Winovich, both of whom had some stellar seasons not too long ago. But there are unambiguously good additions, too, like the trade for guard Shaq Mason and the addition of Jimmie Ward, who has experience in DeMeco Ryans’ system.
With that and a couple of solid pieces like Andrew Beck and Noah Brown, Houston is making sure to also pay attention to the Texans’ lack of depth. The fact that they haven’t yet traded Brandin Cooks might also tell us they could actually keep him in the near future and turn an alright receiving corps into a legitimately good one.
The Kansas City Chiefs may have overpaid Jawaan Taylor, but that’s only a bad thing if you’re not Taylor. Taylor not only takes home a nice paycheck for his services, but he gets to play the position he played in college (left tackle). If he succeeds there, Taylor can leverage that for the higher paychecks that LTs get, and he might get a ring along the way.
Moving on from Trevor Lawrence, who got rid of the ball fairly quickly, to Patrick Mahomes (the opposite) will be a difficult transition, but Taylor comes out of this with the opportunity to earn both money and fame.
The Dallas Cowboys got away with robbery when they traded just a fifth-round pick for Stephon Gilmore to pair him with Trevon Diggs. Gilmore played lights-out last year, and having the two of them, as well as DaRon Bland, at corner, is a big boon to a Dallas defense that seemingly gets better despite being the best defense in the NFL for a good chunk of the year.
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The Cowboys also returned Leighton Vander Esch and Donovan Wilson, keeping the defense intact heading into next year, with some restructures to make it work. The headlines might focus on their decision to let go of Ezekiel Elliott, but Tony Pollard is the better back, and this will allow them to focus on the future without worrying about RB share.
Both Geno Smith and the Seattle Seahawks came out ahead on the newly signed contract, with Seattle taking on little risk if Smith can’t reproduce his efforts from last year. But Smith is getting more than a lot of commentators thought possible.
If Smith hits every one of his escalators, which he did last year, he’ll make $35 million per year over the life of his contract and will likely make more after that. If not, he still has good guarantees and a high salary to fall back on.
Seattle didn’t make too many other moves aside from upgrading their depth at nearly every position group. That’s not a bad thing to do, but it does make it difficult to evaluate. But for Smith’s money, the faith that the Seahawks showed in him is all that matters.
The Miami Dolphins had a great offseason, one characterized by a very smart trade for Jalen Ramsey that cost just a third-round pick and a backup tight end. Miami also re-signed key players like Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert, all while upgrading their depth.
One of the biggest such depth signings was Mike White, who largely played well for the Jets in relief of Zach Wilson and who could have a future as a high-end backup around the league. Getting Nik Needham back isn’t too bad, either.
That greatly helps, but the addition of LB David Long Jr. on an incredibly cheap deal allows the Dolphins to really pull ahead as offseason winners. Miami’s defense has had some really high highs and really low lows, and having some additional talent to allow them to have high-potential playmakers at all three levels of the defense is big.
With Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, and Christian Wilkins up front, Long at the second level, and the combination of Kader Kohou, Ramsey, Xavien Howard, DeShon Elliott, and Jevon Holland, the Dolphins’ defense is poised to do some damage.
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Eli Ricks, CB School: University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa | Conference: Southeastern Conference College Experience: Junior | Age: 21 (Week 1) Height / Weight: 6