In the real world, it’s usually better to get your holiday shopping done as early as possible. In the NFL, the opposite might be true. You don’t want to wait until the last possible second to sign somebody to your roster, but smart organizations often take it easy during the opening days of free agency before pouncing later in the offseason.
For those teams, it’s not just about whom you sign. When you sign a player matters, too. Organizations like the Rams and Ravens focus on the compensatory pick formula, which allows them to get draft picks in return for the players they lose in free agency. By waiting until after the compensatory pick deadline, teams can sign players without needing to forgo their free midround selections. If getting an extra fifth- or sixth-rounder doesn’t sound exciting or valuable, consider that the Patriots once turned a sixth-round compensatory pick into Tom Brady.
With the compensatory pick formula deadline and the draft both passed, we’ll see teams begin to pick through what’s still a surprisingly notable class of remaining free agents. The Saints were first to the punch, signing star safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year deal. By waiting until May 3 to confirm the deal, the Saints were able to bring the former LSU star home without impacting the comp formula.
Here, I’ll look at 10 matches of remaining free agents and new homes and explain why a deal might make sense for both sides. I’ll leave out re-signings to keep things interesting, so while I think tight end Rob Gronkowski will re-up with the Buccaneers, I don’t think you need me to describe what the fit between those two might look like. I also won’t include trades, so nothing on quarterbacks Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo. There are still plenty of well-known players to talk about, though, and I’ll begin with the one of the many prominent wide receivers still looking for a new team.
Landry’s market hasn’t been as robust as the former Browns wideout might like, given that he is rumored to be looking for something in the ballpark of $20 million per year. Some of that owes to falling production over the past three seasons, as well as possible concern over signing a player who underwent serious hip surgery after the 2019 season. The Browns weren’t interested in paying Landry just under $15 million for the 2022 campaign, and I don’t think he’ll see that much on a one-year deal in this market.
In part, that’s because there really aren’t many competitive teams that need a slot receiver at this point of the offseason. The Bears and Falcons need receiving help, but they’re mostly using 2022 as an exercise in dumping dead cap. The Seahawks aren’t going to use three-wide sets frequently enough to justify a deal for Landry. The Browns, who could have re-signed Landry to a smaller deal, are going to move forward with third-round pick David Bell in the slot.
So unless somebody gets hurt, the two competitive teams left with vacancies in the slot are the Colts and Ravens. I think you could make a case for either team, but the Ravens are typically more aggressive in this window when it comes to adding veterans. I’d like to see Baltimore add something more of a downfield threat, with William Fuller V still an open-market option, but the Ravens could use Devin Duvernay as that speedy third wideout and add Landry as a chain-mover for quarterback Lamar Jackson. They would probably be looking at a one-year deal in the $6 million range for the 29-year-old.
There has been virtually no chatter around the longtime Falcons standout, who just limped through an injury-riddled disaster of a season with the Titans. Just three years removed from leading the NFL in receiving yards, the 33-year-old Jones was a salary-cap casualty in Tennessee, with GM Jon Robinson & Co. moving on after one year despite trading a second-round pick for Jones last summer.
Jones was still playing like a star in 2019 and was productive when healthy in 2020, so I think it’s a little too early to suggest that his career as a useful wideout is over. Jones averaged 2.7 yards per route run in 2020, which ranked right in line with stars like Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, albeit over only a half-season of work. Jones has primarily been an outside receiver during his career, but I wonder if a team might be able to extend his NFL run by moving him inside more frequently, as the Cardinals did with Larry Fitzgerald in his 30s.
A deal with the Colts would give Jones a chance to spend time both on the outside and in the slot, given that Parris Campbell has struggled to stay healthy and second-round pick Alec Pierce may need some time to adjust to the league. It would also get Jones back inside a dome for his home games and reunite the seven-time Pro Bowler with his longtime quarterback, Matt Ryan.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has been hesitant at times to make free-agent signings outside of the organization, but his new quarterback should be able to vouch for Jones. Again, a one-year deal in the $5 million to $6 million range would make sense.
Let’s hit one more receiver. Beckham is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during the Super Bowl, so while anything’s possible, it would be a surprise if the 29-year-old were ready to start the 2022 season. Realistically, any organization acquiring Beckham would expect to place the former Giants star on the physically unable to perform list to start the campaign before working him into the lineup during the second half of the year.
If any organization can afford to be patient, it’s the Packers, given that Green Bay is the prohibitive favorite to win its fourth straight NFC North title. Nobody can afford to sleepwalk through the regular season, but the Packers have a clearer path to the postseason than most, and it’s easier for them to justify adding Beckham now, even while knowing that they may not get much out of him until Halloween.
If Beckham can be the guy we saw for the Rams during this past postseason by the time we get to the playoffs, that would be worth what the Packers are likely to pay. Green Bay is currently set to earn a fifth-round compensatory pick for losing receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the Chiefs, and it would now be able to sign Beckham without jeopardizing that selection.
Beckham was reportedly considering the Packers before joining the Rams last year, and while things worked out very well in Los Angeles, the circumstances have changed. The Rams have replaced Robert Woods with a big-ticket investment in Allen Robinson II. The Packers, meanwhile, suddenly lack a No. 1 wideout after dealing Davante Adams to the Raiders. Green Bay did draft Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs in the second and fourth round, respectively, but Beckham would get a chance to be a true WR1 with a great quarterback if he joined the Packers this time around. That opportunity just doesn’t exist anywhere else, and Beckham’s best chance of earning a significant contract in 2023 is to excel with the Packers in 2022.
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Let’s move to the guys who are tasked with stopping those wide receivers. Kansas City GM Brett Veach has typically preferred to go bargain shopping at cornerback while spending money just about everywhere else on defense. The Chiefs did use a first-round pick on Washington corner Trent McDuffie, but they lost Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes in free agency. Lonnie Johnson Jr. was acquired from the Texans, but I’d expect the Chiefs to make a dart throw or two at veterans to compete with McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed.
As a former first-round pick with the Vikings, Waynes wasn’t always a consistent player, but the player out of Michigan State did enough to convince the Bengals to extend a three-year, $42 million deal during free agency in 2020. Cincinnati got a lot of moves right in rebuilding its defense, but the Waynes contract was a disaster, as the 29-year-old missed all of 2020 with a torn pectoral muscle and played just 243 snaps in 2021. Waynes was healthy during Cincinnati’s postseason run but didn’t play a single defensive snap, which was remarkable for a player who had the largest cap hit of any Bengals player.
The Bengals unsurprisingly released Waynes after the year, and this could be an opportunity for the Chiefs to add a viable starting cornerback at the absolute nadir of his value. The Chiefs still need to get an Orlando Brown Jr. extension done, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to bring in Waynes on a one-year deal for about $2.5 million.
The Cardinals need to take a bigger swing. After re-signing tight end Zach Ertz and running back James Conner, and using their first-round pick to acquire receiver Marquise Brown, Arizona is plenty set with weapons for quarterback Kyler Murray. But they haven’t done enough to address their defense. Chandler Jones wasn’t replaced in free agency off the edge, and while Arizona got a surprisingly healthy season out of Robert Alford a year ago, the former Falcons corner is a free agent. Byron Murphy Jr. is set in the slot, but Arizona needs more than Jeff Gladney and Marco Wilson outside.
Enter Bradberry, who was cut by the Giants after a desperate, springlong effort to trade the veteran corner fell short. New Giants general manager Joe Schoen needed to cut Bradberry to create the cap space needed to sign his draft class, and while the Giants weren’t able to create leverage on the trade market, Bradberry should have plenty of interest as a free agent.
The Cardinals don’t exactly have a lot of cap space, which could make this difficult, especially given Murray’s very public requests for a new contract. If Bradberry can get a multiyear deal elsewhere, Arizona might be in trouble. But if he just gets a one-year contract, the Cards should be able to use voidable years to get such a deal for about $9 million done.
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Like the Cardinals, the Browns have obviously made bigger headlines on offense this offseason than they have on the other side of the ball. GM Andrew Berry and Cleveland’s front office still have to address Baker Mayfield’s future, but with Malik McDowell and Malik Jackson both leaving the organization, the Browns need to hit defensive tackle. Taven Bryan will take some of those snaps alongside 2020 third-rounder Jordan Elliott, but the Browns could stand to add at least one veteran to their defensive tackle rotation.
Suh might not be the two-way force we saw during his time with the Lions, and the Bucs were careful to reduce his snap rate down from 77% in 2019 to 63% this past season, but he’s still a reliable interior disruptor. The man just doesn’t get hurt; Suh hasn’t missed a single game due to injury as a pro across 12 campaigns.
Goldman isn’t exactly the sexiest signing out there, but it takes only one look at the game film from the Super Bowl to see how players like Sebastian Joseph-Day and A’Shawn Robinson controlled the line of scrimmage and helped slow down Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon. Joseph-Day left for the Chargers in free agency, and while the Rams might give more reps to 2021 fourth-rounder Bobby Brown, Goldman’s size and experience in a Vic Fangio-style scheme would make him a valuable rotational piece for the Rams.
A salary-cap casualty in Chicago, Goldman would be in line for a pay cut from the $8.9 million he was set to make in 2022.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the Chargers have almost entirely rebuilt the offensive line entrusted with protecting franchise quarterback Justin Herbert. They used their first-round pick on an offensive lineman for the second consecutive season, adding guard Zion Johnson to left tackle Rashawn Slater. With Bryan Bulaga released after two injury-riddled years, the Chargers only need to address right tackle to complete the set.
Duane Brown and Eric Fisher are still available on the left side, but if we focus on right tackles, Remmers and Brandon Shell might be the best options available. Remmers has been overmatched when placed at left tackle and missed most of 2021 with a knee injury, but the 33-year-old is a competent right tackle when healthy.
I would understand if Chargers fans want someone more spectacular, but at this point of the offseason, adding a competent, versatile lineman for $2 million or so would be a smart move.
Speaking of Fisher and the left tackle market, there really aren’t any openings remaining at the moment. The Panthers and Seahawks addressed their holes in the draft. The Bears need a left tackle, but they don’t seem committed to spending much money or helping Justin Fields in 2022. Fisher and the Colts weren’t able to come to terms on a new deal in March, and if a reunion was going to happen, it seems like it would have taken place by now.
The Steelers started rookie fourth-rounder Dan Moore for 16 games in 2021 and didn’t get great results; Moore ranked last in the NFL among tackles in pass block win rate and was about league average against the run. The Steelers shouldn’t immediately abandon their hopes of developing Moore into a valuable tackle, but adding Fisher would give them a reliable left tackle to protect first-round pick Kenny Pickett. Pittsburgh already imported Mason Cole and James Daniels this offseason, so we know it is comfortable adding linemen in free agency.
In 2019, the Jets signed Barr to a five-year deal in the $70 million range amid rumors that they were going to turn the linebacker into an edge rusher. Barr backed out of the deal and re-signed with the Vikings, but while he saw occasional reps on the edge, the Vikings didn’t unleash Barr as a pass-rusher. He racked up four sacks over three seasons while missing 22 games, most notably with a torn pec in 2020.
Now that he’s a free agent, what if a team took a chance on using Barr in more of a hybrid role? We saw the Cowboys unlock something truly special from Micah Parsons by using their 2020 first-round pick as both an off-ball linebacker and an edge rusher a year ago. Barr isn’t Parsons, but after Dallas lost Randy Gregory this past offseason, Barr would give the Cowboys another eligible rusher who is also capable of playing a more traditional linebacker role.
Barr and Leighton Vander Esch would each be leverage against the other’s injury history, and senior Cowboys defensive assistant George Edwards served as Barr’s defensive coordinator between 2014 and 2019.