The first two days of NFL free agency are in the books, with Wednesday at 4 p.m. the official start of the new league year. In a market filled with more offensive linemen, defensive tackles and safeties and fewer high-profile skill-position players, trades — or the possibility of trades — have been the higher-profile stories. Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Jalen Ramsey and pass-catchers DJ Moore and Darren Waller already have been dealt, while running back Austin Ekeler has joined wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Courtland Sutton on the trade block.
Oh, and there’s that other trade that hasn’t happened yet. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ move from the Packers to the Jets is the worst-kept secret in the league, but it seems stuck in neutral. Rodgers said he wouldn’t hold the Packers hostage with his decision, which is technically true; ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported Tuesday that he sent the Jets a number of players to consider acquiring, which feels a lot like a list of demands. New York added one of those receivers when it signed Allen Lazard, but the Rodgers trade remains on hold.
I have lots of questions about the Rodgers situation and everything else happening over the first few days of free agency. I’ll start with the team that might acquire Rodgers, though, because it’s in a vulnerable position:
Jump to a question:
Will Ekeler have a trade market?
Are the Chiefs putting Mahomes at risk?
Should the Eagles have been more aggressive?
What is the Jets’ backup plan at QB?
Why are star cornerbacks suddenly cheap?
What are the Patriots thinking at WR?
Are Denver’s moves aimed at its QB?
What will the Saints do without DTs?
What is the Jets’ backup plan if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t join them?
Let me start with this: I still think Rodgers ends up on the Jets. Everyone involved should be motivated to make a move happen. The chatter around the deal has been incessant for weeks. There’s no other obvious landing spot for the future Hall of Famer, especially if the Packers want to keep him out of the NFC. It’s clear Green Bay wants to move forward with Jordan Love as its starter, which would mean picking up his fifth-year option for 2024 by May.
As someone who once wrote an entire column about Antonio Brown being traded to the Bills, though, I know things can change. Smoke doesn’t always equal fire. The majority of people I’ve spoken to around the league expected this deal to be done, at least in name, before the legal tampering period began Monday. Instead, it’s unclear whether Rodgers has even confirmed he’ll play anywhere in 2023, let alone for the Jets.
While it has been waiting, many of New York’s other options have gone in other directions. Derek Carr, who the organization reportedly said could become “a first-ballot Hall of Famer” if he signed there, went to New Orleans. Jimmy Garoppolo signed with the Raiders. Even secondary options such as Taylor Heinicke, Andy Dalton and Jets cult hero Mike White found deals elsewhere.
So, let’s say Rodgers decides to retire. What could the Jets do next?
Sign Jacoby Brissett. Brissett had the best 2022 season of the remaining free agent quarterbacks. He finished with a 60.0 Total QBR, the eighth-best mark in football, placing him just in front of Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert and well ahead of Rodgers, who came in at 26th. Brissett, 30, averaged more yards per attempt and was more effective as a runner. Oh, he’s also nine years younger than his counterpart, and he’ll come at a fraction of the cost.
I was talking myself into Brissett over Rodgers there! I don’t think Brissett was really the league’s eighth-best quarterback last season, but I do think he’s underrated and someone who could be a much cheaper replacement. Brissett doesn’t have Rodgers’ improvisational skills, but he comes close to matching Rodgers’ historically impressive ability to protect the football. Brissett has thrown interceptions on just 1.5% of his passes since entering the league in 2016. Rodgers is at 1.1% over that same time frame. If the Jets’ game plan is going to be to win with defense and protect the football, Brissett should fit.
Sign another free agent. The other options available aren’t exactly inspiring. Marcus Mariota ran the LaFleur offense in Tennessee, so if Jets coordinator Nathaniel Hackett plans to install a version of that attack, Mariota has some experience. Teddy Bridgewater, who spent a preseason with the Jets in 2018, has been an entirely competent starter when given the opportunity and won plenty of games on teams with good defenses. Carson Wentz is around if the Jets want to redirect some of the fan base’s vitriol against Zach Wilson toward another player.
Consider trading for Ryan Tannehill. It isn’t as if there are many teams who have a quarterback they’re desperate to unload, so the Jets would need to pay a premium. The two most notable choices are Matthew Stafford and Tannehill. Stafford started last season dealing with an elbow issue, finished with a spinal cord contusion and has thrown 19 interceptions across his past 17 regular-season games. He has a $26 million option bonus that needs to be exercised by Friday, so if the Rams were willing to do this deal, the Jets don’t have much time to get it done.
Tannehill, 34, has $27 million due in the final year of his deal for a Titans team that appears to be blowing things up and rebuilding. He generally posts excellent efficiency numbers, but the Titans only call on him to throw the ball about 28 times per game. If Hackett installs something like the offense we saw in Green Bay, Tannehill should be comfortable. He’s a realistic option.
Sign Lamar Jackson to an offer sheet. Jackson is the most notable name behind Rodgers on the market, but I don’t think it’s a great fit. The Jets have only $16 million in cap space, so they would need to give him a deal without a huge first-year number to get the contract he reportedly wants on the books. Formulating that sort of deal isn’t a problem, but it also makes that contract easier for the Ravens to match.
With the No. 13 overall pick in April’s draft and a 2024 first-rounder going to the Ravens, I’m not sure Baltimore would be blown away with the compensation and prefer to keep the picks. Jackson is the best player the Jets can acquire if Rodgers is off the table, but I don’t think it’s likely to be the backup plan.
Russini explains Aaron Rodgers ‘wish list’ to the Jets
Dianna Russini explains whether Aaron Rodgers’ “wish list” is a requirement for him to join the Jets.
Move forward with Zach Wilson. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas both have suggested Wilson is going to be part of this franchise in the future. I lived through the Cardinals insisting Josh Rosen was their guy two months before they drafted Kyler Murray and traded Rosen.
The Jets’ interest in Carr and Rodgers suggests they’re moving on from Wilson, but if they really think Wilson can turn into a viable quarterback, they could bring in a veteran to compete and give Wilson some semblance of a path to the starting job. I’d prefer Brissett or Tannehill, but these are the same people who believed Wilson was a franchise quarterback in the making as recently as last September.
What will the trade market look like for Austin Ekeler?
Most second contracts for running backs don’t work out. One notable exception has been Ekeler, who has vastly outplayed the four-year, $24 million deal he inked with the Chargers in 2020. Since moving into the lead role in 2021, he ranks third among backs in yards from scrimmage and has 38 touchdowns, 12 more than any other player.
Advanced metrics are also fond of Ekeler’s work. For a back who was once considered too small to play near the goal line, he has scored 12 touchdowns on 17 carries inside the 3-yard line, generating three conversions more than an average back would have in the same spots, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He has averaged 1.75 yards per route run over that stretch, in line with No. 1 wideouts such as Mike Evans and Diontae Johnson.
At 27, Ekeler is still young enough to be a valuable part of a great offense over the next several seasons. That offense might not be in Los Angeles, as the Chargers reportedly weren’t willing to give him what he wanted and have allowed his representation to look for a trade. Everyone would agree he deserves a raise, but the Chargers are heavily invested at wide receiver with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, handed out significant money to center Corey Linsley and are about to give Justin Herbert a massive raise.
It’s unclear what Ekeler is looking for on a new deal, but it would hardly be unreasonable to ask for double the $6.25 million he’s owed in 2023. In a different era (and adjusting for the changes in the salary cap), he would have no shortage of suitors at that price. This year, with teams loath to spend money on veteran running backs, the Chargers are likely letting him explore trade options because they don’t think he’ll find a fit.
Run through the league. How many teams are in position and inclined to pay a running back, even one as talented as Ekeler, north of $12 million per season? Not many. The Bills repeatedly have looked to add a receiving back in recent years, but they don’t have the cap space. Neither do the Chiefs, Buccaneers or Rams. The Eagles just signed Rashaad Penny and don’t spend significant money on backs.
The most obvious landing spot might be in Carolina. The Panthers desperately need help at receiver after trading away DJ Moore in the deal for the No. 1 overall pick, and Ekeler would be both a creative solution to their problem and a safety valve for a rookie passer. I’m not sure they would be desperate to pay a running back after going through a frustrating time with the Christian McCaffrey contract, but this might be a better use of their money than paying for someone such as JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency. They are also low on draft capital after the move up No. 1, making a trade difficult. My guess is that Ekeler returns to L.A. in 2023.
Are the Chiefs putting Patrick Mahomes at risk?
Speaking of Smith-Schuster, let’s get to the defending champs. One year after trading Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins and winning a Super Bowl anyway, coach Andy Reid & Co. were comfortable walking away from another key offensive player this offseason. The organization once sent a first-round pick to the Ravens as part of the package to acquire tackle Orlando Brown Jr., but after franchising him a year ago, it decided to let him leave in free agency this offseason. Brown was much closer to good than great during his time in Kansas City, but moving on for nothing was a curious move for a team that didn’t have a clear replacement on the roster.
The Chiefs’ plan for replacing Brown became clear Monday. They signed former Jaguars right tackle Jawaan Taylor to a deal that will pay him $60 million over the next three years. Subsequent reports and the price of Taylor’s deal imply they plan to move Taylor, 25, to the left side of the line to protect Mahomes’ blind side.
Now, when the Chiefs acquired Brown, they traded for a player who had spent the vast majority of his pro career on the right side. Brown had started nine games at left tackle for Baltimore, filling in for the injured Ronnie Stanley, and requested a trade because he wanted to play the position full time. Left tackles get paid a premium; the top 10 in the league heading into this season averaged about $18.5 million per season on their deals, while the top 10 right tackles came in around $14.3 million.
Taylor, on the other hand, has never started an NFL game at left tackle. When the Jaguars lost left tackle Cam Robinson to an injury last December, they installed swing tackle Walker Little on Trevor Lawrence‘s blind side and kept Taylor on the right side. Taylor took only a handful of snaps at left tackle during his time in college. The Chiefs are about to protect the most valuable blind side in football with a guy who has not played left tackle regularly since high school. This seems aggressive!
Switching from one side to the other isn’t impossible by any means, but it’s harder than you might think. Footwork changes. The angles and timing as a blocker are unfamiliar. Right tackles typically get help more often from tight ends than left tackles — they’re out on an island more often.
The Chiefs will have a new right tackle after losing Andrew Wylie in free agency to the Commanders, so Taylor is going to be the tackle they lean on in 2023. He’s also moving from a quarterback who threw the ball at the league’s third-fastest rate in 2022 to Mahomes, who got rid of the ball at the 24th-fastest rate. The Chiefs are making a very big bet with this move.
If this were most other teams, I would be terrified. Given that it’s Reid, though, I’m willing to give him some benefit of the doubt. Reid generally has had impeccable taste in left tackles: He helped mold Tra Thomas into a Pro Bowler in Philadelphia before trading for Jason Peters, who will join Reid in the Hall of Fame one day. Reid used his first pick with the Chiefs on Eric Fisher, then transitioned to Brown. If he thinks Taylor can play left tackle, I’m willing to take the plunge. There just might be a scary moment or two along the way.
Should the Eagles have been more aggressive about trying to keep their roster together?
The Eagles were the NFL’s most complete team in 2022, but it’ll be tough for them to claim that same spot in 2023. After losing both coordinators to head-coaching jobs, they already have had several key defensive contributors walk out the door in free agency. Star defensive tackle Javon Hargrave signed with the 49ers, while starting linebackers Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards joined the Cardinals and Bears, respectively. Safety Marcus Epps, who missed just 10 defensive snaps during the regular season, left for the Raiders. Darius Slay, the team’s top cornerback, also has been allowed to seek a trade.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Philadelphia re-signed cornerback James Bradberry, who excelled in 2022, and brought back stalwart defensive end Brandon Graham. Legendary center Jason Kelce is back in the fold, and it replaced free agent back Miles Sanders with Rashaad Penny. With starters including guard Isaac Seumalo, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox still on the open market, though, more changes are likely.
In a perfect world, would the Eagles be able to keep their starters around for another year or two? Of course. In this NFL? Not quite as easy. Jalen Hurts is about to get a massive raise, as a quarterback who was making about $1.5 million per season should be landing somewhere around $51 million per year on a new deal. General manager Howie Roseman will do what he can to finesse their cap situation, but they were in a mess during Carson Wentz‘s last season with the team in 2020. They haven’t had years to roll over gobs of money.
This team already has made significant commitments in terms of average annual salary to three offensive linemen, a tight end, a wide receiver, two edge rushers and (for now) two cornerbacks. Hurts’ deal has to come from somewhere. The Eagles value depth along the line of scrimmage more than any other team, so they’re going to cut back on linebackers and safeties and try to draft and develop players there. Nakobe Dean will step in for Edwards. Cam Jurgens likely will replace Seumalo. They’ll use one of their two first-round picks on a defensive lineman.
Roseman didn’t nail those picks once Wentz got expensive, as Andre Dillard, Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside didn’t pan out. Philadelphia found replacements and thrived, but now, it has no choice but to draft well to keep its roster humming.
Why are superstar cornerbacks suddenly cheap (and available)?
Darius Slay isn’t the only cornerback to seek a trade. We’ve seen two other notable cornerbacks move this offseason, and it has been for prices way below what many would have expected. Jalen Ramsey, a key part of the Super Bowl-winning Rams 12 months ago, was sent to the Dolphins for backup tight end Hunter Long and a third-round pick. Former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore followed, as he was shipped from the Colts to the Cowboys for a fifth-round compensatory selection. These are big names for relatively modest picks.
Ramsey’s deal was particularly shocking. This is a player the Rams traded two first-round picks to acquire in 2019 before Ramsey was a first-team All-Pro in 2020 and 2021. If you told a Rams fan this time last year they would deal a healthy Ramsey for a third-round pick and a guy who played 93 snaps on offense last season, they would have laughed at you. A year later, here we are.
Money plays a big role here. The Rams are trying to free up some as they retool after a chastening 5-12 season. They’ve cut linebacker Bobby Wagner and edge rusher Leonard Floyd and offered to eat money to accommodate a trade for disappointing wide receiver Allen Robinson. Their roster looks unrecognizable from the one that landed a Super Bowl at home last February:
This is what the Rams roster looked like last February as they were about to win the Super Bowl.
I’ve crossed out the players who are either no longer on the roster or are about to become unrestricted free agents. pic.twitter.com/P4jIyWiRfu
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 12, 2023
Ramsey had three years and $55 million left on his extension, none of which was guaranteed. He reportedly wanted the Rams to guarantee his 2023 and 2024 base salaries, which were worth a combined $31.5 million. A new deal was likely to follow, probably as early as next offseason. The last time he wanted a new contract, he showed up in a literal armored truck at training camp with a hype man. The man is not subtle.
The Rams weren’t willing to do it. Given the fact that no team was willing to top a third-round pick for a 28-year-old future Hall of Famer, it doesn’t appear many other teams found the idea particularly appealing, either. Ramsey took a step backward in 2022, with his passer rating in coverage jumping from 71.1 to 84.5, but he’s a smart, versatile player. The money he wanted guaranteed isn’t much more than what the Bengals gave Trae Waynes in free agency three years ago on a smaller cap. It’s a bit of a surprise that L.A. was willing to move on from a franchise cornerstone for a midround selection and cap space.
The Gilmore move seems more in line with the past, but it still tells us what little appetite there is for corners exiting their prime. At 32, Gilmore has toiled anonymously for a pair of bad teams over the past couple of seasons in the Panthers and Colts. He was good in his season with the Colts, allowing a 74.0 passer rating while playing 99% of the defensive snaps, but a rebuilding Indianapolis team didn’t have much use for a mid-30s corner.
The Cowboys do, and they’ll pay Gilmore just under $10 million in 2023 to play across from Trevon Diggs. With Ramsey landing only a third-round pick and Gilmore a fifth-rounder, though, it’s difficult to believe there will be significant interest in both trading significant draft capital for Slay, 32, and giving him a new contract in the process. Like in Ekeler’s case, the market likely will push Slay back to his current team.
What are the Patriots thinking at receiver?
In a league where most teams are desperate to get their quarterback as many playmakers as possible, Bill Belichick & Co. appear to be going in the other direction. The Pats traded disappointing tight end Jonnu Smith to the Falcons just before the legal tampering period and already have lost Jakobi Meyers, their top wideout over the past two seasons, to the Raiders in free agency. Nelson Agholor, another underwhelming member of the free agent class of 2021, is back on the market.
New England’s depth chart isn’t pretty. It has Hunter Henry at tight end and Devante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton at wide receiver. Parker now has one season with more than 800 receiving yards in seven tries, as his 2019 campaign looks like a flash in the pan. Bourne fell out of favor with the coaching staff and barely played for long stretches last season. Thornton was exciting as a rookie, but he’s not close to being a complete player. In a make-or-break season for quarterback Mac Jones, that’s not just good enough of a receiving corps.
The Pats could consider a wide receiver with the No. 14 overall pick, but it’s more likely they use that selection on a left tackle. The top wideout on the trade market is DeAndre Hopkins; Belichick regards Hopkins as a superstar, but his new offensive coordinator is Bill O’Brien, whose tumultuous relationship with Hopkins in Houston culminated in a disastrous trade. Bygones can always be bygones, but it’s difficult to imagine Hopkins being thrilled about reuniting with his former coach.
My instinct is that the Patriots have learned from their mistakes in 2021. Then, without much on the receiving depth chart and with a rookie quarterback, they went all-in on the first two days of free agency to sign Agholor, Bourne, Henry and Smith. Many of those deals didn’t look good a few days later, when arguably better players signed smaller deals to go elsewhere. Agholor and Smith are gone without much of an impact, and Bourne might join them on the market before the end of the offseason.
If Belichick is willing to be patient, he might land more reasonable deals. This isn’t a great market for wide receivers, but JuJu Smith-Schuster, DJ Chark, Darius Slayton and Braxton Berrios are available. Adding a couple of those players won’t land the Pats a No. 1 target, but they could try to build a deeper depth chart without any stars.
What do Denver’s moves tell us about how Sean Payton’s going to try to fix Russell Wilson?
Bigger is better. In Payton’s first free agent window with his new organization, the Broncos emulated some of the tactics we saw from his tenure in New Orleans. At the tail end of Drew Brees‘ career, the Saints prioritized building a deep, dominant offensive line to protect their quarterback. The team imported veteran standouts such as Max Unger and Larry Warford before using three first-round picks and a second-rounder across five drafts on linemen.
The Broncos don’t have that draft capital after trading it for Wilson and Payton, so off they went into free agency. On the first day of the legal tampering period, they handed a massive deal to former 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The ninth pick in the 2018 draft never seemed to emerge as an upper-echelon tackle in San Francisco, but Denver gave him $52.5 million over the first three years of a five-year pact, the second-largest mark for any right tackle in football. It followed up with a four-year, $51.5 million deal for former Ravens guard Ben Powers, who completed his first full season as a starter in 2022.
The Broncos’ third move wasn’t as significant, but it might be more telling, as they inked former Jaguars tight end Chris Manhertz to a two-year, $6 million pact. Manhertz will come in to play the same role Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill played at different times for Payton in New Orleans, the run-blocking tight end who occasionally slips out off play-action to hit a big play or two. With 2022 second-rounder Greg Dulcich on the roster, Denver might play more 12 personnel.
All these moves suggest Payton is going to place a heavier focus on running the football to take some of the pressure off Wilson. If the Broncos are going to operate out of 12 personnel and throw the ball less often, a team that has spent heavily might be operating from a surplus of wide receivers. It’s no surprise that ESPN’s Dan Graziano has reported the Broncos are talking with teams about trading away one of their wide receivers between Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy or KJ Hamler.
Naturally, the price they would get in return depends on which receiver they choose to deal away. Jeudy hasn’t had that breakout season everyone’s waiting to see, but he did average an impressive 2.27 yards per route run in a broken offense last season, which was in line with Amari Cooper and Terry McLaurin. Hamler has been limited to 312 snaps over the past two seasons with injuries, but he has shown field-stretching speed at times. Sutton has the only 1,000-yard season of the group, but he’s three years removed from that campaign and is owed $14.5 million in 2023.
Subtracting a wide receiver doesn’t sound like it’ll help Wilson, but the Broncos are retooling without many draft picks. Moving toward a more balanced offense sounds more like the attack Wilson wanted to escape for years in Seattle, but after the disaster that was 2022, something more familiar might be the first step in getting the embattled signal-caller back on track.
What will the Saints do without defensive tackles?
If you’re a Saints fan, you’re rightfully excited about what they’ve been able to do with limited cap space in retooling on offense. Derek Carr joined from the Raiders. Quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Michael Thomas both were expected to be cut, but New Orleans was able to convince both players to come back on reduced deals. Thomas is now three full seasons removed from his last dominant campaign in 2019, but if he somehow returns to that form with Carr, he would be a bargain.
The defense is another story altogether. Cameron Jordan took the latest in a series of restructures to create cap space, then suggested (or hoped) on Twitter that the Saints would use the room to sign a prolific defensive tackle. I’m not sure they had the sort of space Jordan was hoping for in sending off that tweet, but what happened next wasn’t exactly exciting, either.
Just about every other significant defensive lineman the Saints have went out the door. Even worse, several joined division rivals. David Onyemata, the team’s best, left for the Falcons. (He was followed by linebacker Kaden Elliss.) Shy Tuttle also stayed in the South and went to the Panthers. Marcus Davenport, the defensive end the team once used two first-round picks to acquire, inked a one-year deal with the Vikings. Kentavius Street and Malcolm Roach, the other members of the defensive tackle rotation, are both free agents. That’s a combined 2,562 defensive snaps out the door, including virtually every snap at tackle.
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The Saints can stay put with what they have on the edge. Payton Turner has been limited by injuries to just 314 snaps over his first two seasons, but the former first-round pick will need to move into a bigger role. Carl Granderson and Tanoh Kpassagnon will be in the mix on the outside. They never replaced Trey Hendrickson — and Jordan turns 34 in July — but edge isn’t the problem here.
At defensive tackle? The Saints need to build a whole new rotation of players. They’ll have to do that with limited cap space, which means they’ll likely hand veteran players one-year deals with four voidable years. Onyemata and Davenport, who are playing for other teams this season, are responsible for a combined $17.8 million on the New Orleans cap in 2023 despite their departures. This organization probably won’t be able to spend that much on the four defensive tackles it will need this offseason.
The Saints were the league’s oldest team in 2023, so they don’t really have much choice beyond getting younger up front. Landing the No. 29 overall pick for Payton gave them a much-needed draft selection to use on one tackle, and that won’t be the only selection they use on the interior. I would expect them to add a veteran or two, but like their additions of wideout Jarvis Landry and safety Tyrann Mathieu a year ago, they’ll probably be stuck waiting to see which players don’t develop a meaningful market before landing in their price range.