Every year in NFL free agency, teams find themselves striking bargains and enabling their runs at a ring. Last year, both the Eagles and Bengals rode the wave of strong free agency classes in the prior two years to make their respective conference games, while Philly even advanced to compete for the Super Bowl title. We’ll take a look at some of NFL free agency’s best contracts.
That said, “best contracts” is a matter of perspective. From the point of view of a player or an agent, some of the best contracts in the NFL are really just the least secure or underpaid offer sheets that they can muster. This is often the product of teams exercising their leverage.
Today, we’ll look at it from the perspective of teams — which NFL franchises struck deals rather than which players struck gold.
2023 NFL Free Agency Best Contracts
When evaluating contracts, we’ll look at the structure, not just the totals. As an example, Von Miller’s deal with the Buffalo Bills last year was below market value from an average-per-year perspective at just $20 million a year. But the inflation of his cap hit and guarantees are onerous for a 33-year-old edge rusher, and he’s difficult to cut until 2026.
Though his first two years of cap charges are just $5.1 million and $7.9 million, his third- and fourth-year cap hits are $23.9 million when he should be on the downswing of his career. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad contract — the Bills probably come out ahead if not for his injury — but it certainly isn’t as good of a contract as it looks.
Teams were much more judicious this year. That’s not great for players, but it did result in a number of “team-friendly” deals.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
It’s not always the case that the best team contract coincides with the worst player contract, but it seems to be the case with Lamar Jackson. Jackson is looking for long-term security and a payout commensurate with his résumé.
The Ravens gambled correctly when they applied the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, and no teams have put in an offer sheet, meaning that they have a quarterback worth about $50 million a year on the open market for $32.4 million.
Not only that, their injury concerns can be assuaged by the fact that it’s not a long-term commitment. They essentially have a team option for a $39 million contract next year with a second franchise tag. They get millions of dollars in surplus value and aren’t on the hook for any risk.
Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks signing Geno Smith to a $25 million-per-year deal is a great move, but the structure of the contract really stands out. Smith has escalators in his contract matched to his 2022 performance, and every escalator adds $2 million per year to his remaining contract, with an additional $5 million bonus if he hits all five, meaning he stands to gain $15 million more each year in 2024 and 2025.
Functionally, that would mean he carries a $10 million cap hit in 2023, and the team can move on from him if he doesn’t play well in 2024 if they’re comfortable taking on a $17 million dead cap hit, saving $13.8 million. But if he does play well and exceeds his escalator, his cap hits will look like the $45 million cap hits we see from high-level quarterbacks.
That’s not a bad deal for Seattle, though one suspects Geno could have received more in the form of guarantees.
David Long, LB, Miami Dolphins
Miami signed David Long to a two-year $11 million contract, and though we don’t know the details of the structure, there aren’t many ways this can be broken down that would make it look bad for the Dolphins.
Long played like a linebacker worth twice his expected annual average salary, with phenomenal sideline-to-sideline capability and great run defense. He’s also one of the best off-ball linebacker blitzers in the NFL and has consistently found ways to generate pressure when sent after the quarterback.
After cleaning up play diagnosis issues early in his career, he’s turned into an above-average coverage defender — he can cover, rush the passer, or tackle depending on what the offense does or what the defense needs.
Injuries are probably the biggest reason why Long’s $5.5 million APY contract wasn’t greater. He hasn’t played more than 750 snaps in a season, though part of that is because he was a rotational player before 2021. In particular, multiple hamstring injuries depressed Long’s market.
But there is enormous upside, and injury risk can be overstated. Miami didn’t commit too much to a risky investment but still has a high ceiling with this contract.
T.J. Edwards, LB, Chicago Bears
One of the best linebackers in the NFL last year, T.J. Edwards ascended up the depth chart as an undrafted free agent — in part, a product of a poor pro day — and established himself as one of the top linebackers in the NFL. He’s played very well over the past three years but really broke out last year as a premier run defender and excellent blitzer.
He executed his assignments very well in coverage, too, though his range is not quite up there with other high-level players. That could be why the Bears were able to secure him for $6.5 million a year, but he genuinely seemed to perform as well as a player like Matt Milano, who rightly earned a $14 million-a-year extension from Buffalo.
The only year the Bears have guaranteed is the first, and Edwards’ cap hit never raises above his value. If, for whatever reason, the contract doesn’t work out for the Bears, they can cut him in 2024 or 2025 without much recourse.
Jakobi Meyers, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
Jakobi Meyers may have only earned 800 receiving yards and rose to the top of free agency lists by dint of having few receivers to compete with in free agency, but he’s legitimately a very good player. His production was in spite of a remarkably poorly coordinated offense that struggled to get more out of its passing game.
Patriots passers had a 119.6 passer rating when targeting Meyers, while the other pass catchers generated an 88.2 passer rating.
He was an enormous boon to the passing game and may have been worth upwards of $15 million a year — not the $27-30 million contracts of top-level receivers but historically closer to Sidney Rice’s deal with Seattle in 2011, Curtis Samuel’s contract with the Commanders in 2021, Allen Hurns’ contract with the Jaguars in 2016, or Anquan Boldin’s contract with Baltimore in 2010.
Instead, he takes up a contract value more akin to Marquez Valdez-Scantling’s deal with the Chiefs last year, DJ Chark’s deal with the Lions last year, Jamison Crowder’s deal with the Jets in 2019, or Marvin Jones’ deal with the Lions in 2018.
It’s a bargain, and the Raiders came out ahead. Although his 2024 salary is functionally guaranteed, they have a lot of flexibility in dealing with it without ever seeing too much cap space taken up in any particular year.
Orlando Brown Jr., OT, Cincinnati Bengals
There was an expectation that Orlando Brown Jr. was going to sign a deal worth around $20 million a year, or 8.9 percent of the cap. It’s not as expensive, relatively speaking, as Ronnie Stanley’s $19.8 million deal in 2021 in that cap environment and would be closer to Jordan Mailata’s deal with the Eagles last year.
Brown’s market looked like the market one would see for a good offensive tackle that hadn’t quite hit elite territory. Instead, he took a deal far smaller, worth $16 million a year and historically comparable to Riley Reiff’s deal with the Vikings in 2017, Duane Brown’s deal with the Texans in 2012, Donovan Smith’s deal with the Buccaneers in 2019, and D.J. Humphries’ deal with the Cardinals in 2020.
Brown isn’t the best left tackle in the NFL and sometimes struggles against speed, but he’s a good deal better than most players who sign contracts for similar average dollar value. He did get something out of it, though. He’s virtually uncuttable for the first three years, and the fourth year of the deal is essentially bait for a restructure.
The Bengals are notoriously stingy with guaranteed money but were willing to dole it out to upgrade their left tackle position. And Brown protected himself against that with the lower average and higher percentage of guaranteed money.
The knock-on effect of potentially losing Jonah Williams does throw a wrench into the works, but it’s a limited loss. Even though they planned on playing him on the right side, they still find themselves upgrading in a big way on the offensive line even without him — especially with a projected $12.5 million in cap savings on a Williams trade.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers will still want to find a quarterback next year if they’re able, and it’s a mark against them that they weren’t in the market for some of the veteran QBs that hit free agency. But the strategy is one thing, and the contract is another. On paper, the contract with Baker Mayfield is very good.
Generally speaking, backup quarterbacks who aren’t expected to start would earn $7-15 million in the 2023 cap environment. That $7 million number is close to the percentage amount that Nick Foles signed for in Philadelphia in 2017, Teddy Bridgewater signed for with the Jets in 2018, Case Keenum signed with the Commanders in 2019, and Marcus Mariota signed with the Raiders in 2020.
In the $15 million range, after adjusting for era and cap, that’s close to Josh McCown’s deal with the Jets in 2018, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s deal with the Commanders in 2021, and Andy Dalton’s deal with the Bears in 2021.
Instead, Baker Mayfield signed for $4 million a year and has the potential to start. A competition with Kyle Trask won’t knock him out of the running, and he’s flashed very high-level play before — with the Browns in two different years and for moments with the Rams. He’s not a lock to play well, but the upside is there, and the potential for him to vastly outplay his contract is bigger than it is for most players.
Mayfield is a potential Comeback Player of the Year candidate, like Geno Smith, and the downside for the Buccaneers if he doesn’t realize that potential is that they have one of the better backups in the NFL.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, New England Patriots
It’s easy to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s production in Kansas City and dismiss a lot of it as being a product of working in an offense designed by one of the best offensive minds in the history of football and executed by one of the greatest quarterbacks we’ve ever seen.
It would be fair, and probably why the market — and the Patriots — were able to secure him for a lot less than we typically see near 1,000-yard receivers go for.
At $8.5 million annually, Smith-Schuster signed for the same amount Russell Gage is contracted for with the Buccaneers. This type of money is complementary receiver money, and at less than four percent of the cap, it’s less than what Percy Harvin signed for … with the Bills.
As someone whose contract generally replicates Zay Jones’ with the Jaguars, Smith-Schuster doesn’t have a high bar to clear in order to provide value.
He fell below that bar in 2021 and 2019, but he has provided value well above that level of play most of his career. He has upside to be an elite receiver but does not need to hit that mark in order to be valuable at his contract number.
The contract does tie him to the team until 2025, but it’s not onerous, and the Patriots can get out from under it before the beginning of the 2025 season with very little pain.