2023 NFL Free Agency Losers: Lamar Jackson, Austin Ekeler, and the Packers All Losers After First Wave

2023 NFL Free Agency Losers: Lamar Jackson, Austin Ekeler, and the Packers All Losers After First Wave

The first week of 2023 NFL free agency has come and gone, and what a (relatively) quiet week it was. After some action during the legal tampering period, the market had slowed to a crawl by the official start of free agency on Wednesday.

Still, enough has happened to assess who “lost” the initial waves of free agency. These players and teams still have time to rebound, but this past week was not kind to their 2023 prospects.

Losers of 2023 NFL Free Agency

Lamar Jackson

The free agent market hasn’t produced any new developments for Lamar Jackson, who was assigned the non-exclusive franchise tag by the Ravens earlier this month. Jackson is free to sign an offer sheet with another club — if Baltimore chooses not to match, they will receive two first-round picks as compensation.

Several teams relayed their lack of interest in Jackson as soon as the Ravens gave him the tag. It always seemed odd that the NFL as a whole would decide not to pursue a 26-year-old MVP-winning quarterback, but Jackson hasn’t met with any teams since the market opened on Wednesday.

Among the franchises that haven’t declared themselves out of the Jackson sweepstakes, the Colts, Titans, and Patriots could still make sense as landing spots for the Louisville product. Those teams still have time to give Lamar an offer sheet, but if any team were interested, they probably would have made their move by now.

Pair that cold market with Jackson’s seeming admission that he turned down a fully guaranteed three-year, $133 million deal from the Ravens, and it’s been a bad week for one of the league’s most exciting players. Baltimore could potentially retain Jackson through 2025 on three non-exclusive tags for a total cost of roughly $127 million and no year-to-year guarantees.

If Jackson ends up playing for the Ravens next season, he could return to an offense largely similar to its 2022 iteration, aside from new play-caller Todd Monken. While head coach John Harbaugh said in a year-end press conference that Baltimore would “rebuild” its wide receiver room, general manager Eric DeCosta admitted having a “big-ticket item at quarterback” can make it financially “challenging” to acquire proven pass catchers.

Thus far, the Ravens have been one of the least active teams in free agency. Aside from franchising Lamar, their only transaction on the offensive side of the ball was re-signing third-string running back Justice Hill. If the season started today, Jackson’s top two receivers would be Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay — the same pair that failed to stay healthy through the 2022 campaign.

Green Bay Packers

The entire NFL world was subjected to Aaron Rodgers’ history lesson on the Packers’ front office structure on Wednesday, but that obviously wasn’t the main takeaway from his appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” Rodgers stated his intention to play for the Jets in 2023 and suggested that Green Bay’s asking price was the only thing standing in the way of a trade.

While I’ve seen speculation that the Packers now hold leverage over the Jets, given that Rodgers has made his preferences known, Green Bay’s front office is facing plenty of pressure.

MORE: Aaron Rodgers Headed to NY Next Week, Deal ‘Nearly’ Done

Team president Mark Murphy has already spoken in the past tense about Rodgers, noting, “he had a great career here.” Outwardly, the Packers seem ready to move on from the Rodgers saga. But if they’re holding out to acquire the No. 13 pick from New York, a trade agreement might take a while to sort through.

Assuming Jordan Love takes over as Green Bay’s starting quarterback in 2023, the former first-round pick will command a Packers offense that looks exactly the same as it did in 2022. Green Bay has done virtually nothing in free agency — their only two moves have been to re-sign their kick returner and their long-snapper.

The Packers currently have the third-most cap space in the NFL. Adding a new wide receiver, tight end, or even a piece on defense should be at the top of their agenda over the next week.

Austin Ekeler

There’s no doubt that Austin Ekeler is both a multi-talented running back and underpaid. The former undrafted free agent has posted at least 900 rushing yards and a dozen rushing touchdowns in back-to-back campaigns, and he also managed 107 receptions in 2022, tied for the second-most by a running back in a single season in NFL history.

Ekekler is scheduled to earn just $6.25 million in 2023, the final year of his contract, and the Chargers haven’t shown a willingness to give him a new deal. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Ekeler has been granted permission to seek a trade out of Los Angeles.

A few years ago, Ekeler might have commanded $12 million or more on an extension, but teams are becoming warier of handing out big-money deals to aging running backs. Ekeler is entering his age-28 season, and there aren’t a lot of clubs that have a void in the backfield and would be open to doubling his salary.

Teams like the Panthers (Miles Sanders), Eagles (Rashaad Penny), Lions (David Montgomery), Bears (D’Onta Foreman), and Dolphins (Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert) have already filled their RB vacancies. The Bills might be able to use a running back and reportedly inquired about Christian McCaffrey at last year’s trade deadline, but they’re not in a financial position to give Ekeler a raise.

It’s a rough reality for veteran NFL running backs. Ekeler might have to play out the season with the Chargers and hope he can get some semblance of a payday on the 2024 free agent market.

The Veteran Cornerback Market

NFL teams aren’t willing to pay for running back production, and they’ve started to be cautious about cornerback contracts, too.

Jamel Dean and James Bradberry, the top two cornerbacks on the free agent market, were widely expected to garner $15 million annually on new deals. But both defensive backs ultimately re-signed with their incumbent teams on contracts that averaged roughly $13 million per year. Meanwhile, veterans like Marcus Peters, William Jackson III, and Shaquill Griffin remain unsigned.

MORE: Ranking the NFL’s Cornerback Duos — Are Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard the New No. 1? 

It’s been a similar story on the trade market. Jalen Ramsey is still one of the best corners in the NFL, but the Dolphins landed him from the Rams in exchange for a third-round selection and backup tight end Hunter Long. Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year who posted another outstanding season in 2022, was sent from Indy to Dallas for a fifth-rounder.

It’s possible that NFL clubs are starting to view defensive backfields in the same manner as offensive lines — weak-link systems where competency at an affordable price trumps elite play at an exorbitant cost. Corners viewed as lockdown defenders may still garner expensive contracts, but second- and third-tier CBs might no longer find the money they’d come to expect in free agency.

Odell Beckham Jr.

Speculating on Odell Beckham Jr.’s next team has become something of a cottage industry within the NFL. OBJ and his team got plenty of headlines in 2022 as he claimed to be nearing full strength following his Super Bowl 56 ACL tear, but the 30-year-old wideout never landed a contract.

Beckham recently held a workout for interested teams and is reportedly at 100%, but it still seems unlikely he’ll walk away with a significant contract. At times, reports have indicated OBJ is looking for a multi-year deal or a $20 million average salary, neither of which is likely to occur.

The Giants won’t consider a reunion with Beckham now that they’ve signed former Colt Parris Campbell, per Dan Graziano of ESPN. But the Jets remain interested after Rodgers placed Beckham on his Gang Green wishlist, per ESPN’s Dianna Russini.

Beckham can still offer something to clubs with a need at receiver, but his market appears to be more sizzle than steak. When he does eventually sign with a new team, the terms of his contract are likely to be disappointing.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were the clear losers of the Panthers-Bears swap that sent the No. 1 overall pick to Carolina. The Panthers and Texans will likely select quarterbacks with the first two choices in the draft, and the Cardinals could trade the third pick to another team with a vacancy under center.

In that scenario, Indianapolis wouldn’t have its pick of quarterback prospects at No. 4 — they’d be backed into taking whatever passer remains on the board. That strategy could still work out; no one really knows if Will Levis will be better or worse in the NFL than C.J. Stroud, for example. But the Colts will have limited flexibility with their selection.

Indy should be taking advantage of a potential rookie quarterback contract by adding veteran players. But they’ve been quiet, with edge rusher Samson Ebukam garnering the only Colts contract worth more than $5 million annually.

The Colts have a hole at right guard, might have an opening at center if they trade or release Ryan Kelly, could stand to add another pass catcher, and desperately need help at cornerback after trading Gilmore. With more than $20 million in cap space still available, Indianapolis needs to do serious work during the second and third waves of free agency.

Dalton Schultz

Tight end movement hasn’t stagnated this offseason — Dalton Schultz just hasn’t been part of the action.

Evan Engram received the franchise tag from the Jaguars. Darren Waller and Jonnu Smith were acquired via trade. Hayden Hurst, Mike Gesicki, and Robert Tonyan have all found new homes. Even new Vikings blocking specialist Josh Oliver got a three-year deal.

MORE: Highest-Paid Tight Ends in the NFL 

Schultz, who played on the franchise tender with the Cowboys in 2022, hasn’t received a hint of known interest. There’s a chance his asking price is out of whack, especially in a league where Travis Kelce earns just $14 million per year. Dallas wasn’t willing to pay Schultz $12.5 million on a second tag, and it seems likely he’ll have to settle for $10 million or less annually.

The Cowboys weren’t expected to re-sign Schultz, but is there a chance he could return if his market becomes even softer? The Packers, Bengals, Commanders, and Texans are also among the teams with a need at tight end who could eye the Dallas free agent.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Jordan Poyer

Jessie Bates III became the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid safety by agreeing to a four-year, $64 million pact with the Falcons, and plenty of other veteran defensive backs — including Juan Thornhill, Vonn Bell, Donovan Wilson, and Marcus Epps — commanded at least $6 million annually on multi-year deals.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Jordan Poyer were the two best available safeties on the market after Bates, but neither can be pleased with how free agency has turned out.

Gardner-Johnson might not be back in Philadelphia after the Eagles seemingly prioritized other internal free agents. The Broncos have reportedly expressed interest, which makes sense given that current Denver and former New Orleans head coach Sean Payton drafted CJGJ. But his market has been relatively cold.

Poyer re-signed with the Bills, but he’s accepting a discount compared to his previous extension in Buffalo. The 31-year-old will receive only $10 million over a two-year term, including just $3.74 million in fully guaranteed money.

Although Poyer missed time with injuries last season, he was a first-team All-Pro as recently as 2021. It’s incredibly surprising he couldn’t find a more robust market.