With 2023 NFL free agency set to ramp up next week — the negotiating window starts March 13 at noon ET — ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder is grading every big NFL signing and trade of the offseason.
To determine each grade, Walder is evaluating moves based on factors including: on-field impact, salary-cap implications, draft compensation, player value/age and the context of a team’s short- and long-term outlook. How large is the effect of this decision, and how sure are we it’s a good or bad choice? In addition, the backdrop to every decision should be: How does this affect a team’s chance to win the Super Bowl, either this season or in the future? General managers making transactions don’t have the luxury of seeing how it all plays out, so neither should we.
We also will have NFL draft analysts Matt Miller and Jordan Reid approach the biggest moves from a draft perspective. What do the top deals mean for that team’s first-round outlook come April, and how do they impact where the top prospects might be selected? Taking into account team needs, positional value on draft boards and what they’re hearing from around the NFL, they break down what it all means.
Follow along as our experts evaluate and grade each move, with the most recent grades at the top.
Seahawks re-sign QB Geno Smith to multi-year deal
The deal: three years, $105 million
Smith represented such a strange free agency case because he’s a 32-year-old quarterback we’re still figuring out. He legitimately played well in 2022, ranking sixth in QBR, stunning the league and bringing the Seahawks to the postseason. He led all QBR qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage over expectation (plus-4%), per NFL Next Gen Stats, and ranked third in off-target rate (11%).
He was in a surprisingly strong situation with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf at receiver — Russell Wilson missed them quite a bit, it turned out — and was pretty well protected after the Seahawks hit on rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas. Smith’s performance dwindled as the year rolled on: He ranked fourth in QBR in the first half of the season (games 1-8) before ranking 15th in the second half.
But let’s be clear, Smith played well. His efficiency numbers don’t just happen.
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It left Seattle in a bit of a weird place. They had overachieved with Smith, but he still represented plenty of unknown and the team is sitting on the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
In my view, the franchise tag was the slightly more preferable play here. One year ago, Smith was considered in the Jacoby Brissett and Marcus Mariota class of quarterbacks. Would it be that wild if a year from now we thought of him in that tier again? By tagging Smith, the Seahawks could have gotten another year’s sample to find out what he is — all for just $32 million instead of $52 million within the first calendar year. It limits the downside risk.
In addition, one of the best assets a team can have in football is a first-round quarterback you don’t trade up for. The added benefit of tagging Smith is that it would leave the Seahawks flexible enough to take a QB with the No. 5 selection should one they like slide to that spot.
All that being said, I can understand why the Seahawks would want to sign Smith to a deal now — it removes the risk he plays well next season and they end up having to pay more (though that’s a scenario where they get another strong season of QB play, which doesn’t seem so bad). — Walder
What this means for the 2023 draft: Smith re-signing in Seattle shapes the draft more than you might think. The Seahawks had been connected to Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, but they won’t make that move at No. 5 overall now that they have Smith as the starter for at least the next two seasons. Instead, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker might be an ideal option in Round 2 as he works back from a torn ACL suffered in November. With Smith a solid short-term option but likely not a long-term one, quarterback remains a need. Seattle also owns the No. 20 pick in Round 1. — Miller
Saints agree to deal with QB Derek Carr
The deal: four years, $150 million with $60 million guaranteed
One year ago the Saints showed irrational self-confidence by dealing a pile of future assets for an extra first-round selection to take a non-quarterback. This year, they’re doing something similar by signing Carr.
Don’t get me wrong, Carr improves the Saints right now. He’s a consistently just-above-average performer who has been ranked from 10th to 14th in QBR in each of the past four seasons, though the fact that he was only 14th last year behind a pretty solid pass-protecting offensive line (the Raiders were 10th in pass block win rate) and throwing to All-Pro receiver Davante Adams is somewhat of a red flag. Still: New Orleans sees an opportunity to steal a division title in the fallow NFC South and Carr gives the team a better chance to do that than Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton.
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Does signing Carr get the Saints closer to, or further from, a Super Bowl though? That’s the ultimate measure, and I’m skeptical that the answer is the former. This is a team that was 7-10 a season ago with the league’s oldest roster in snap-weighted age and one that sits at $18 million over the cap prior to signing Carr, according to ESPN’s Roster Management System, even after restructuring a slew of players to push money into the future. They rank in the bottom five in cap space in 2024 and 2025 currently, too, per OverTheCap.
To win the Super Bowl with Carr on a veteran contract, just about everything has to break right elsewhere on the roster. And the aging and cap-strapped Saints are in a position where that’s particularly unlikely.
The price is more or less in line with the market for a veteran free agent middle-class quarterback. If we adjust for cap inflation, Carr’s deal now is similar to Jimmy Garoppolo‘s 2018 deal with the 49ers in terms of fully guaranteed money at signing and average per year, per OverTheCap. Ryan Tannehill‘s contract in 2020 with the Titans included $70 million fully guaranteed in today’s dollars, and Carr gets a little less than that but at a higher APY (though Carr’s full guarantees increase to $70 million after Year 1).
In both examples, the quarterback in question was coming off a better performance in limited sample seasons than what Carr did in 2022. That Carr received a no-trade clause increases the discomfort for New Orleans, because it can potentially limit the Saints’ options to get out early should they choose.
I understand the desire to win as many games each year as possible, but at some point (two years ago, and if not then, last year, and if not then, now) the Saints would be wise to understand who they are and think about more than just increasing their mean expected wins for the next season (as opposed to future upside). They ought to be trading veterans, saving money and prioritizing long shots and variance, a tactic that would result in short-term pain but medium-to-long-term strength.
In signing Carr and refusing to reset, the Saints have committed to mediocrity for at least another couple of seasons. — Walder
What this means for the 2023 draft: The Saints own the No. 29 overall pick, and they weren’t expected to be in on the big four quarterbacks in this draft. They had been a team connected to quarterbacks on Day 2 of the draft, however. Carr signing with New Orleans for four seasons seemingly puts an end to that conversation. Hendon Hooker (Tennessee) and Tanner McKee (Stanford) are both in the mix as second- or third-round passers who will now be off the Saints’ radar. The team could still invest a late-round pick in a backup such as Jake Haener (Fresno State) or Stetson Bennett (Georgia), but quarterback no longer is a priority in this draft for the Saints. — Miller