2023 NFL Free Agency: Lamar Jackson, Saquon Barkley, and Jamel Dean Among Players Who Have Boosted Their Stock

With an eye toward 2023 NFL free agency, which players have improved their stock the most through three games?

The 2022 season still has a ways to go, but teams, players, and their agents are already looking ahead to 2023 NFL free agency.

In just six short months, clubs will be scrambling to fill their rosters via the open market. How players perform through the rest of the season will determine whether they rake in life-altering money next spring.

With that in mind, which players have done the most to boost their free agent stock over the first three games? Let’s begin in Baltimore, where a former MVP is playing spectacular football.

2023 NFL Free Agency Stock Watch: Offense

Quarterback: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson is betting on himself, and through three games of action, that bet is paying massive dividends. The 25-year-old is off to arguably the best start of his career, and he’s getting it done both through the air and on the ground.

Lamar leads the NFL in passing touchdowns (10) and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.99), and he’s second in QBR (78.4) and EPA per play (0.382). The Ravens’ running backs haven’t been able to get anything going, but Jackson leads the league in yards per rushing attempt and is fourth in total rushing yardage.

He’s essentially running a one-man offense in Baltimore. Because the Ravens can still use two franchise tags on Lamar to cover the 2023 and 2024 seasons, he will have to uphold this level of production if he eventually wants to land a fully guaranteed contract. But Jackson’s proven that he’s a truly singular talent among NFL quarterbacks.

Honorable mention: Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland Browns

Running back: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

The last two seasons have been rough for Saquon Barkley, as injuries and ineffectiveness have sapped potential from one of the league’s most explosive running backs. Now starring in a Brian Daboll-led offense, Barkley is performing more like the player we saw at Penn State.

The former No. 2 overall pick is averaging 6.1 yards per carry (sixth in the NFL), and he’s doing so behind an offensive line that’s struggling aside from left tackle Andrew Thomas. Barkley ranks fourth in rushing yards over expectation, meaning he’s generating his own production regardless of what his blocking provides.

Barkley has only managed 46 yards in the passing game, but that total obfuscates his actual usage. He’s received 11 targets through two games, good for a 20.8% target share that ranks second among RBs, and he’s run a route on 86% of his passing snaps, per Pro Football Focus.

The obvious question mark for Barkley is health. After missing 18 games over the past two years, can he stay on the field for all — or most — of the season? If he does, it will only take one team to decide he’s worth the $15+ million salary earned by Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Ezekiel Elliott.

Honorable mention: Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns; Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Wide receiver: Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots

The 2023 free agent market could have included one of the best wide receiver classes in recent memory. But after A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, DJ Moore, Mike Williams, Chris Godwin, and Diontae Johnson all signed extensions, the WR pool is largely depleted.

That’s not meant as a slight to Jakobi Meyers, a talented receiver in his own right. But he’s hardly an alpha WR1, and he’s not playing in a passing offense that will allow him to put up eye-popping numbers.

Meyers was inactive in Week 3 due to a knee injury, but given that he put in a limited practice on Friday, this doesn’t appear to be a long-term issue. Through two games, Meyers has posted a 29.7% target share (first among pending free agent WRs).

Honorable mention: Sterling Shepard, New York Giants; Noah Brown, Dallas Cowboys

Tight end: Foster Moreau, Las Vegas Raiders

Two tight ends are currently playing on the franchise tag, but neither is in a good position to improve their free agent standing. Mike Gesicki has been almost totally removed from the Dolphins’ offense, and he received just one target in two of Miami’s first three games. Meanwhile, Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz will be catching passes from Cooper Rush instead of Dak Prescott for at least the next few weeks.

Instead, let’s go off the board a bit and highlight Raiders backup tight end Foster Moreau, a talented player who’s blocked by Darren Waller in Las Vegas. A fourth-round pick out of LSU in 2014, Moreau actually played more snaps than Waller in Week 2. In Week 3, he made a few nice catches, including this one where he went up the seam to find the soft spot in the Titans’ defense.

A few plays later, Moreau made another outstanding reception, tapping his toes after a 14-yard catch down the right sideline. Moreau’s a natural receiver with soft hands, and he’s a willing blocker at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. A tight-end-needy team could do far worse than Moreau in 2023.

Honorable mention: Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers

Offensive tackle: Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco 49ers

The Chiefs’ Orlando Brown Jr. is probably the best offensive tackle scheduled to hit free agency in 2023, but I’m assuming Kansas City will use a second franchise tag to retain him. Teams don’t often let cornerstone left tackles get away — right tackle, though, is a different proposition.

The 49ers are already paying Trent Williams as the highest-paid tackle in the NFL, so they may not be interested in retaining Mike McGlinchey at cost. The market for right tackles still lags behind that of their blindside brethren, but Ryan Ramczyk got $19.2 million annually on his Saints extension.

McGlinchey has a first-round pedigree and plays in a successful offense. He may not be able to exceed Ramczyk, but he should be able to reach $18 million without any issues.

Honorable mention: Brown; Yosh Nijman, Green Bay Packers (RFA)

Guard: Nate Davis, Tennessee Titans

The Titans have made several errors at right tackle. They let Jack Conklin walk in free agency, then whiffed on two early-round replacements in Isaiah Wilson and Dillon Radunz.

Tennessee was much more astute at right guard, where they unearthed Charlotte’s Nate Davis in the third round of the 2019 draft. He’s entering his fourth season as a starter for the Titans, and he appears to be coming into his own.

The Titans got destroyed by the Bills in Week 2, but Davis was one of the few bright spots. He gave up just one pressure (and has allowed just two all year, per PFF), and he played well in the run game. Here, he assists center Ben Jones with a double-team on Buffalo’s nose tackle before moving to the second level to seal off rookie linebacker Terrel Bernard.

The Titans will be without left tackle Taylor Lewan for the rest of the year after he suffered a knee injury against the Bills. They’re playing a rookie right tackle in Nicholas Petit-Frere and another inexperienced player at left guard in Aaron Brewer. Davis has no choice but to be the rock of this unit for the remainder of the season.

Honorable mention: Dalton Risner, Denver Broncos

Center: Ethan Pocic, Cleveland Browns

A lot of things had to go Ethan Pocic’s way for him to be in his current position as the Browns’ starting center. Cleveland released veteran JC Tretter in March, elevating Nick Harris into the starting lineup and creating a void for a backup pivot. Pocic filled that hole by signing a one-year deal in April, and after Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, Pocic found himself working with the ones.

He’s surrounded by All-Pro level talent on Cleveland’s offensive line, but Pocic has posted his own high-quality results through three games. At 6-foot-6, he’s big for a center, but Pocic still displays excellent movement skills in one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, and he has power to work with, too.

It never made sense that the Seahawks moved on from Pocic to sign Austin Blythe, who played just 12 offensive snaps in 2021, to a $4 million contract. Still only 27 years old, Pocic can use the rest of this season as an audition for a larger deal next spring.

Honorable mention: Connor McGovern, New York Jets

2023 NFL Free Agency Stock Watch: Defense

Edge rusher: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

It’s almost hard to believe Bradley Chubb is in his fifth NFL season already — because he just hasn’t played all that much. He’s only completed one entire campaign (his rookie year in 2018), and injuries have forced him to miss 26 games over the last three seasons.

Chubb has stayed healthy through three games, and he’s played extremely well for the Broncos. He’s posted three sacks, five pressures, and a forced fumble, and he would have had a pick-six on Sunday night if 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t stepped out of the end zone for a safety.

Draft pedigree matters in free agency. We see proof of that every spring. Aside from Barkley, Chubb is the highest-drafted player on this list. If he continues to ball out throughout the 2022 season, he’ll be able to write his own ticket next offseason.

Honorable mention: Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints; Malik Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers

Interior defender: Daron Payne, Washington Commanders

Just as we discussed that the 49ers could be reticent to extend McGlinchey given how much they’ve invested in Trent Williams, the Commanders have already made defensive tackle Jonathan Allen the fifth-highest-paid player at his position. Does that mean they’ll be reluctant to work out a new deal with fellow interior defender Daron Payne?

Washington received trade offers for Payne over the summer, but they rejected what Ben Standig of the Athletic described as “significant” compensation. That could be an indication the Commanders want to hold onto him long-term, but it’s hard to retain two expensive players at DT.

Payne has two sacks, three tackles for loss, and six quarterback hits through three games, and he also got Washington on the board against the Eagles by tackling Boston Scott in the end zone for a safety. The 25-year-old is effective against the run, but he’s a monster as a rusher, ranking fourth among DTs in pass-rush win rate.

Honorable mention: Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia Eagles; John Cominsky, Detroit Lions (injured)

Linebacker: T.J. Edwards, Philadelphia Eagles

Lavonte David and Tremaine Edmunds are better overall players, but no linebacker has cemented his 2023 free agent case like T.J. Edwards.

His path toward a substantial contract began last season. Edwards played only 36.8% of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps over the first eight games of the year. But over the final eight games, Edwards had turned into a three-down LB, playing 94.9% of the team’s snaps.

That increase is largely due to Edwards’ progression as a coverage defender. Pigeonholed as a classic Wisconsin two-down thumper coming out of college, Edwards has clearly worked to improve his range and instincts against opposing passing attacks. Through three games, he’s giving up just 5.8 yards per completion, the lowest mark of his career.

Honorable mention: David; Edmunds; Bobby Okereke, Indianapolis Colts

Cornerback: Jamel Dean, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

We’ll finish up with two defensive backs from the same secondary. The Buccaneers are lapping the field when it comes to coverage (-0.293 EPA/play), so it’s no surprise they have two pending free agents who could receive hefty contracts next spring.

Let’s start with Jamel Dean, who was up and down over his first three seasons but now seems to be coming into his own. The former third-round pick is allowing 6.2 yards per completion (eighth-best among corners), and he’s doing so despite being targeted at an average depth of 16.8 yards, the eighth-deepest in the NFL.

Tampa Bay was in a similar position last offseason, when fellow CB Carlton Davis III ascended to become one of the best defensive backs in football. After handing Davis a three-year, $44.5 million extension, the Bucs might not be willing to invest in the position again.

Honorable mention: Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals; Cameron Sutton, Pittsburgh Steelers

Safety: Mike Edwards, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After the Buccaneers signed Logan Ryan over the offseason, I had questions about Mike Edwards’ role in 2022. I originally thought Edwards would be a direct replacement for Jordan Whitehead, who signed with the Jets after four seasons in Tampa Bay. But Ryan’s addition complicated that scenario.

Turns out, the Bucs wanted to get Edwards on the field all along. He’s played every defensive snap for Tampa Bay, lining up at safety alongside Ryan and allowing Antoine Winfield Jr. to become the team’s full-time slot defender.

Thus far, Edwards has filled up the stat sheet. In Week 2, he returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to cement a victory over the Saints. In Tampa’s Week 3 loss to the Packers, Edwards posted a whopping 13 tackles.

The question — again — for the Buccaneers is financial. Sure, they’d love to retain Edwards, but they’re already projected to be $41 million over the cap in 2023. It seems more likely that Edwards will reach free agency, and he should have a bevy of suitors thanks to his reliability and versatility.

Honorable mention: Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs; Nasir Adderley, Los Angeles Chargers

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