Let’s try to find team fits for a few of the most notable NFL free agents still on the market. Teams often find bargains after waiting for the first few days of free agency, as players who had expectations of landing multiyear pacts instead settle for one-year deals with an opportunity to test things all over again next offseason.
Last year’s best example might be Geno Smith, who signed a one-year deal to return to the Seahawks more than a month after free agency began. All Smith did was beat out Drew Lock for the starting job in camp, throw 30 touchdown passes and earn a three-year, $75 million deal to return to the team earlier this month. Not a bad use of $3.5 million for Seattle, huh?
I’ll also hit two players who could be on the trade market and try to find a logical deal to land them new homes. First, I’ll start with the free agents:
After a disappointing 2021 season led the Seahawks to cut their legendary linebacker, Wagner caught on with the Rams and looked rejuvenated. The future Hall of Famer might not be quite as fleet of foot as he once was, but he racked up six sacks and 10 tackles for loss, dropped his passer rating in coverage by more than 10 points and missed just two tackles all season.
One year into what was billed as a five-year, $50 million deal, Wagner and the Rams parted ways. I thought he would be an obvious fit for the Chargers, who run the same defense as the Rams and had a hole on their roster with Drue Tranquill leaving in free agency, but they opted to sign veteran Eric Kendricks instead. The market for starting off-ball linebackers has settled in the $6 million to $8 million range, and we’ve seen a lot of opportunities be filled over the past week. Is there a spot for Wagner?
Possible deal: One year, $6 million with the Bills. Buffalo lost Tremaine Edmunds to a mammoth offer from the Bears, leaving them with a hole next to Matt Milano. A.J. Klein is also a free agent, and although the team drafted Terrel Bernard to serve as a possible replacement for Edmunds, the 2022 third-round pick played just 111 total snaps as a rookie.
Sean McDermott’s defenses have been built around a pair of effective linebackers going back to his days in Carolina; Wagner would be a stable presence for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Perhaps owing to a frustrating 2022 season, Bridgewater remains available. It never felt as if he got settled in Mike McDaniel’s offense in Miami, as he was injured on the opening series of his first spot start in place of Tua Tagovailoa against the Jets, then played virtually the entire game the next week after Skylar Thompson went down. His other spot start came against the Patriots, a game in which he suffered an injury at the end of a pick-six and then wasn’t able to play in the postseason. Try not to have your only two starts come against the pass defenses ranked second and fourth in DVOA if you want to look good at the end of the year.
Bridgewater’s 5.1% interception rate was out of character for his career, and one of his four picks came on an ugly drop. Over more than 2,000 pass attempts, he has proved to be an accurate, low-ceiling passer who is absolutely beloved by his teammates. He probably has gone from being overqualified to be a backup quarterback to now becoming a top-tier backup, but this is the same league that has repeatedly undervalued him throughout his career, so I’m not surprised he’s still unsigned. There are a few teams not pursuing Bridgewater right now that will wish they had when their starter goes down in December.
Possible deal: One year, $5 million with the Ravens. Although Baltimore is already the only team with a Pro Bowl quarterback on their roster as a backup, I’m not sure Tyler Huntley is an NFL-caliber player. Although he has admittedly not had much to work with at receiver, the restricted free agent has averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, and it’s almost impossible to sustain an offense with a passer who is that inefficient.
Bridgewater is not going to do much more than the occasional scramble as a runner, so he’s obviously not a fit for the same offense the Ravens run with Lamar Jackson. With Jackson’s status for 2023 uncertain and Baltimore hiring Todd Monken as offensive coordinator, though, the job posting for the Ravens likely no longer requires experience running quarterback power. Bridgewater would be a solid fill-in starter if Jackson holds out or leaves the organization and a much better backup than Huntley if Jackson returns and misses time with an injury for the third consecutive year.
While Elliott’s ill-fated final snap with the Cowboys came as a center, his inevitable release allows us to focus on what he does well. No, after steadily declining over the past three seasons, he’s not one of the league’s top runners or the focal point of an offense. It was clear to see that before last season, when Dallas finally let itself believe in Tony Pollard, who ran for 1,007 yards and had 12 touchdowns from scrimmage last season.
On what will be a much cheaper deal, Elliott could be valuable. He was a competent runner between the tackles in 2022, generating 26 rush yards over expectation (RYOE) on 117 carries. (His 114 carries outside the tackles, unfortunately, generated minus-85 RYOE.) After a sloppy season in 2020, he has fumbled just once on 532 touches over the past two seasons. Crucially, he is an excellent pass protector, which could help establish his role in a running back rotation.
Possible deal: One year, $4 million with the Buccaneers. Here, he would be part of a split backfield alongside Rachaad White, who would serve as the team’s primary pass-catcher out of the backfield. Elliott would be an early-down runner and much-needed pass protection specialist for an offense currently expected to start Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask at quarterback.
Tampa will likely move toward a more run-heavy approach after Tom Brady’s retirement, so it is going to need someone to rotate with White.
It feels as if the three-time Pro Bowler has been around forever, but Peters just turned 30 and should still have something to offer. He missed all of 2021 with a torn ACL and wasn’t quite at his best last season, as he wasn’t ready to play in the opener and then missed three games in December with a calf injury. When he did play, he struggled, allowing a 113.7 passer rating and seven touchdowns in coverage.
Peters is always going to allow a big play or two, but his ability to read opposing quarterbacks and create takeaways has made him more than $60 million in contracts. He’s likely looking at a one-year deal for modest money, but is there a place where he could fill a role?
Possible deal: One year, $2.5 million with the Giants. Peters thrived after joining the Ravens in 2019 under the stewardship of defensive coordinator Don Martindale, who has since joined the Giants. Martindale’s defense picked off just six passes last season, which was tied for the fewest of any team.
The Giants could use a playmaker in the secondary. With Fabian Moreau on the free agent market, they have an open cornerback spot. Peters could compete with 2022 third-round pick Cor’Dale Flott for that opportunity.
Are you willing to deal with a penalty or two? Smith is a competent player at a high-value position, but he has the propensity to hold. His seven holding calls for the Bucs last season was the most of any lineman, and he leads the NFL in holding calls (15) and total penalties (32) over the past three seasons. No. 2 over that same timeframe is Jawaan Taylor, who just inked a massive deal with the Chiefs, so committing penalties in bulk isn’t entirely disqualifying.
Offensive linemen are like pitchers in baseball: Even if it looks as if your team has enough on paper as the season begins, it always needs more. Every team has a swing tackle, but most of them are liabilities on the left side. Even if Smith is a low-end starter on the blind side, he would be an extremely valuable swing tackle in a league in which those players make more money than you think.
Possible deal: Two years, $13 million with the Colts. Indy needs to lock down its pass protection for its next quarterback, which presumably will be its selection with the No. 4 pick. Rookie third-rounder Bernhard Raimann was prematurely thrown into the mix out of desperation last season, starting 11 games with iffy results. He ranked 60th out of 64 tackles in pass block win rate (PBWR) and allowed six sacks.
Raimann was drafted as a project, but this might not be the right time to have an inexperienced player protecting a rookie quarterback’s blind side. Signing Smith (who actually ranked 63rd out of 64 tackles in PBWR a year ago) would give the Colts a veteran to push Raimann in camp and a player who can step in if Raimann struggles during the season.
Ngakoue has somehow turned into the defensive version of Josh Johnson, as he has been a part of five NFL organizations since the start of 2020. The Jags franchised him before trading him to the Vikings, who then moved him on to the Ravens later that fall. He then signed with the Raiders in free agency in 2021 before being traded to the Colts last March to clear out a spot on the edge for Vegas’ ill-fated move to sign Chandler Jones.
Ngakoue generally has lived up to expectations as an edge rusher, averaging 10.1 sacks per 17 games with the Jags and 9.9 sacks per 17 games with every other team. His teams haven’t held up their end of the bargain, however. The Vikings started 1-5 before trading him to the Ravens. The Raiders signed him to a two-year deal and then changed coaches. The Colts did whatever the Colts did last season. Ngakoue can still rush the passer, and as a player who is about to turn 28, he should still have a few more valuable seasons for a competing team.
Possible deal: Two years, $19 million with the Chiefs. Kansas City is transitioning along the D-line. Frank Clark was released, Carlos Dunlap is a free agent and Chris Jones is entering the final year of his deal. George Karlaftis, a first-rounder in 2022, is going to play a bigger role — and the team added Charles Omenihu in free agency — but it could add at least one more pass-rusher to its rotation.
Ngakoue’s consistency could appeal to a Kansas City team that didn’t always get that sort of reliability from Clark before the postseason.
In a thin market at wide receiver, Chark is one of the few players offering meaningful upside. After suffering a season-ending ankle injury four games into the 2021 season for the Jaguars, he signed with the Lions but then aggravated the ankle issue last season. He missed six games and most of a seventh, then played the eighth on a short week and didn’t make an impact.
From Dec. 1 on, though, he was a superstar. He racked up 21 receptions and 388 receiving yards over the final six games as the primary deep threat in Detroit’s offense. Over that stretch, he ranked second in the league in yards per target (13.9) and had four catches of 35 yards or more, trailing only A.J. Brown and Davante Adams. Chark’s 2.03 yards per route run over that stretch ranked 27th among wideouts, but that’s right around Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Lockett and Christian Kirk over that same stretch.
With Chark a year further removed from his ankle injury, the hope naturally will be that he’ll look like that player from the end of 2022 throughout the entirety of next season. Still only 26, he might also benefit from building any sort of chemistry with one quarterback, given that he has caught passes from eight passers across his five-year career. The only quarterback to target Chark at least 100 times is Gardner Minshew, and he averaged 1.74 yards per route run with Minshew. Chark has averaged a combined 1.47 yards per route run with all the other quarterbacks.
Possible deal: One year, $8.5 million with the Chargers. The Chargers desperately need downfield speed in their offense, especially with coordinator Kellen Moore’s arrival likely to spur a more aggressive approach than the one preferred by former coordinator Joe Lombardi. Last season, L.A. had just one catch from a player who topped 20 mph during the play, and that came from Jalen Guyton, who had two catches for the year.
Chark might seem like a luxury in an offense that already has Keenan Allen, Joshua Palmer and Mike Williams at wide receiver, but quarterback Justin Herbert has had those three on the field for less than 15% of his pass attempts over the past two seasons. (His QBR is 21 points better with all three on the field at the same time.) Chark would be both a speedier replacement for Palmer and more depth in case of injuries. This would also be a place for him to rebuild his value in hopes of landing a multiyear deal next offseason.
The on-again, off-again courtship between Beckham and the Cowboys appears to be off after they traded for Brandin Cooks, which should lead them to move forward with Cooks, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb as their three wideouts. The Giants signed Parris Campbell and brought back Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. The Rams are rebuilding. The Chiefs are going to give Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney more opportunities.
Does any team want to sign Beckham? Well, not at the price Beckham might want:
I’m just so confused where the quote is from me tht said I want 20…..😭🙄all I’m sayin is 4 AINT enough
— Odell Beckham Jr (@obj) March 18, 2023
I can understand why he might be insulted, given his résumé, but teams aren’t spending gobs of money at wide receiver this offseason. Beckham hasn’t been the same player since suffering his ankle injury in New York in 2017, and he wasn’t able to return at all last season after tearing his ACL in Super Bowl LVI. He is a great teammate by almost every account you can find, but he doesn’t play special teams, which hurts his value relative to otherwise less impactful wideouts. Beckham could outplay a $4 million offer, but I would be surprised if he landed much more this offseason.
Possible deal: One year, $5.5 million with the Ravens. Since Baltimore has mostly stayed out of free agency, I’ll add another player for it here. Beckham would be the team’s third option in the passing attack after Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman. He wouldn’t have been a great fit for the Greg Roman offense, but the Ravens are shifting styles this offseason. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken had pleasant things to say about Beckham after coaching him with the Browns in 2019, which can’t hurt. Beckham also wouldn’t cost the organization the fourth-round compensatory pick it is expected to land for Ben Powers.
Signed to a three-year, $33.8 million deal by the Browns in 2021, Johnson didn’t meet his new organization’s expectations and was released after two years. Given that many of Cleveland’s defenders have failed to develop over the past couple of years, the hope for teams acquiring him would be that he’ll thrive once again under better coaching. After establishing himself as a valuable contributor during his time with the Rams, where could Johnson go to rebuild his career?
Possible deal: Two years, $8 million with the Rams. General manager Les Snead & Co. have been stripping the roster bare over the past few weeks in hopes of resetting their cap sheet and getting younger before trying to compete again in 2024. As Mike Clay noted on Twitter, their defensive depth chart is virtually unrecognizable beyond Aaron Donald and Ernest Jones. On paper, they look like an expansion defense with one Hall of Famer thrown into the mix.
L.A. isn’t about to go on a defensive spending spree, but Johnson could make sense for a few reasons. He already is familiar with the organization. At 27, he isn’t past the prime of his career . He’s not likely to cost more than a few million dollars. And because the Browns released Johnson from his contract, he wouldn’t impact the compensatory pick formula, which the Rams likely will use to scrounge up a few extra selections in 2024.
I’m surprised there wasn’t more of a market for Risner, who has been a consistently effective guard since being drafted in the second round in 2019. Risner ranked 10th in run block win rate last season, and although he gave up too many sacks, he has committed just one holding penalty in four seasons. He would have made more money in a run-happy NFL 25 years ago, but he’s still an above-average starter, and plenty of teams need help at guard.
Possible deal: Three years, $21 million with the Falcons. Atlanta has invested a lot of money this offseason to re-sign former first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, but if coach Arthur Smith is going to move forward with Desmond Ridder at quarterback and run the football, Risner would be a major upgrade on what the team has put out at left guard over the past couple of seasons.
Jalen Mayfield wasn’t impressive in 2021 and then missed all of 2022 with a back injury, while Elijah Wilkinson, Matt Hennessy, Colby Gossett and Chuma Edoga each started games at left guard. Edoga, Gossett and Wilkinson are all free agents, and Risner would be a physical force for a team that wants to overpower defenses with its rushing attack.
I’ll finish by sneaking in two players available for trade. The two-year, $54.5 million deal Hopkins signed with the Cardinals is just about to technically start, but he reportedly wants to do something about the remaining two years of his deal. It’s unclear whether that would manifest as a new contract, an extension or some sort of further guarantee on the $34.4 million remaining, but after he pushed through a deal with the Cardinals with three years remaining on his last contract, teams are going to be reticent.
Hopkins turns 31 in June and was out for the first six weeks of the 2022 season after drawing a PED suspension. He missed most of the second half of the 2021 season with hamstring and knee injuries. He is a tough, physical receiver with excellent hands, and he averaged an impressive 2.15 yards per route run after returning from the suspension last season. It’s clear, however, that the league didn’t value him the same way it shelled out for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill last season.
That’s bad news for the Cardinals, who were hoping to recoup something more than the second-round pick they sent the Texans as part of the lopsided deal for Hopkins in 2020. This hasn’t been a great market for veterans in trades; Houston netted only two late-round picks for Brandin Cooks and needed to eat $6 million to get the deal done, while Jalen Ramsey and Stephon Gilmore both landed much less than their résumés would have indicated.
Possible deal: Traded to the Panthers. In this deal, the Panthers would send the No. 93 selection to the Cardinals, who would pick up $10 million of Hopkins’ $19.5 million base salary in 2023. Carolina would also guarantee Hopkins’ $14.9 million salary for 2024, putting it on the hook for two years and $24.4 million.
For the Panthers, this would lock in a No. 1 receiver for the first two years of their new quarterback’s career. They would sport a much older receiving corps than we see for most rookie quarterbacks — they would be starting Hopkins and Adam Thielen in Week 1 — but there’s nothing wrong with locking in experienced receivers before working in cheaper options as the quarterback (hopefully) gets closer to earning an extension.
Hopkins wouldn’t get an extension, but he would get his 2024 salary guaranteed and have one more shot at free agency in 2025. This isn’t a perfect deal for everyone involved, but he would get an additional year of guarantees, the Cardinals would unload salary and get a meaningful draft pick, and the Panthers would get two years of a WR1 at a cost well below market value.
Most Bengals fans were thrilled to hear the team had landed left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on a four-year, $64.1 million deal last week. One of the few who was not? Williams, who responded to the move by requesting a trade. Cincinnati imported Brown to take Williams’ spot, and he apparently doesn’t feel too thrilled about moving to the less lucrative position of right tackle.
Of course, if the Bengals were thrilled with his progress on Joe Burrow‘s blind side, they wouldn’t have needed to sign a left tackle in free agency. Williams was injured for his entire 2019 rookie season and got a pass by playing alongside less competent linemen in 2020 and 2021, but even when given more help last season, he was a liability. Despite playing with a quarterback who got the ball out at the league’s second-fastest rate, he allowed nine sacks. There are tackles who struggle with power but are able to match finesse, or vice versa, but he had trouble with both bull rushes and spin moves.
On paper, a 25-year-old with playoff experience at left tackle would be a valuable trade chit. In reality, other teams will be questioning whether Williams is really an NFL-caliber left tackle or whether they should be trading for a player who doesn’t appear to be excited about the idea of lining up on the right side or moving to the interior. The Bengals hold the leverage in these negotiations and might just tell Williams to return and play right tackle in 2023, but there is a team that might be interested in getting a deal done …
Possible deal: Traded to the Jets. This would be a swap of tackles who are out of favor with their current regimes. The Jets would send Mekhi Becton to the Bengals for Williams. Becton has played just one game over the past two seasons because of injuries and would require a lengthy physical, but he looked like a franchise left tackle in 2020. He would get a shot on the right side for Cincinnati, which is trying to get more physical up front.
Williams has the more significant résumé as a pro, but Becton’s 2020 season was better than Williams has looked at this level. Becton also has a fifth-year option available, although I would expect the Bengals to decline it because of his injury history. Williams is more expensive, and Cincinnati could use the $9 million or so it would save with this swap to work on rebuilding its secondary.
The Jets can’t promise Williams the left tackle job with Duane Brown in the mix, but the longtime Texans tackle is 37 and entering the final year of his deal. If Williams proves himself on the right side for the Jets in 2023, there would probably be an opportunity for him to move back to the left side on a new deal next year.