The first day of the legal tampering window is usually an exciting one, with new announcements on “deals” that have not been signed yet changing odds in Las Vegas and wowing observers with the number of zeros attached to each number. Finding “free agency” winners and losers is a natural inclination, as they could set the stage for the season to come.
The effectiveness of NFL free agency is always hard to figure out at this point in the offseason, however. The Eagles and Bengals both advanced pretty far with several splash free agent signings that took them nearly to the peak of the mountaintop, while the Chiefs were ultra-efficient in free agency and used pieces gathered here and there in 2022 to supplement their roster — instead relying on a strong 2021 free agency class and a host of excellent draft picks.
Still, the early returns are worth breaking down, which is why we looked at the winners and losers after the first day of (soft) free agency. We’ll also include the few days leading up to the beginning of the period, which means some player trades.
NFL Free Agency Winners and Losers
Winners | Chicago Bears
The Bears entered the free agency period with boatloads of cap space and were willing to use it, signing two of the best linebackers on the market, trading for a high-end receiver, and adding a guard. The goal for Chicago this season — aside from winning as many games as possible — is to get a true evaluation of Justin Fields.
Flush with picks and cash, Chicago can surround him with the talent he needs in order to succeed, allowing them to more accurately determine whether or not any failures, if any, are on the QB position.
Quarterback is the most important role to get right, and they put themselves in position to see if they have, but there’s also the matter of making sure the team is complete. The Bears ranked dead last in EPA per play on defense, a combination of their last-overall ranking in EPA against the pass and 28th-ranked EPA against the run.
MORE: Chicago Bears Free Agency — Bears Add Tremaine Edmunds To Reshape Defense
In order to win games and put Fields in a position to succeed instead of attempting a comeback every week, they needed to bolster their defense quickly. Signing Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards should do that, given their complementing skill set.
Chicago still hasn’t invested in some of the premier positions — cornerback and EDGE — which tend to control defensive outcomes quite a bit more than linebacker. It’s fair to wonder if the Bears finished the day with a plan there.
Still, they ended up getting their guys and improving their team. A great day for Chicago.
Losers | Aaron Rodgers Watchers
Early in the day, it was reported by a number of people in the media that Aaron Rodgers had not yet informed the Jets of his decision about retiring or being traded. The fact that the Jets were forced into a holding pattern while other quarterbacks were signing with their respective teams felt like a shot to New York fans and was a source of consternation from Packers fans hoping to move on.
Later, Pro Football Network’s Trey Wingo reported that the deal had been done, a statement that was followed by celebrations from Jets players on Twitter. But other sources hesitated to confirm that the deal had been done outright, with other national reporters indicating that the momentum was on the side of a deal getting done and that it was close but that nothing had been set in stone.
At the end of the day, it’s almost certain that Rodgers will become a Jet. But watching from the sidelines — whether that’s as a reporter or a fan of either team — is gut-wrenching. Without a sense of finality on the trade, it’s becoming annoying to see the will-they-won’t-they nature of this drama play out.
Winner | Chris Lindstrom
Chris Lindstrom is coming off of a fantastic season with the Falcons. One that perhaps went unheralded given Atlanta’s overall level of play, but seeing him strike a deal worth $21 million a year was eye-popping, even in the larger cap environment of 2023. Prior to this, the largest APY for a guard was Quenton Nelson’s $20 million a year, a comparable salary from a different cap environment.
But aside from Nelson, there aren’t many other comparables. Elgton Jenkins, who can play all five positions across the line of scrimmage, signed for $17 million a year, while Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney, the offensive line gems from their free agency class, signed for $16.5 million and $16 million a year, respectively.
Lindstrom played lights out last year and has a strong history of high-level production, but it would have been difficult for him to find a similar deal had he left Atlanta. Now, depending on the contract structure and the guarantees, he can secure a great deal. We don’t know if Atlanta is on the verge of building something, but at least Lindstrom has cashed in while the Falcons move in on big improvements.
Losers | Los Angeles Rams
Teams that don’t make any moves in free agency aren’t necessarily losers. We’ve seen teams sit out the free agency period with some minor moves to fill out their training camp roster and end the season strong. The issue with the Rams is two-fold: not only do they not have that kind of luxury, they also lost value in their trade with the Miami Dolphins.
Sending Jalen Ramsey over to Miami was the correct move, as the Rams couldn’t find a way to put all of that salary together in a way that would allow them to rebuild and become relevant contenders again. Shedding big contracts from stars is one way to help a team achieve long-term goals and generate more draft picks.
But for that to work out, the team has to make sure that they get a good return on the trade and invest in some young players who will be around for the long haul so that they have a core in place when they have the talent to make a run at a ring.
MORE: Grading the Jalen Ramsey Trade
The Rams only received a third-round pick and a backup tight end in exchange for Ramsey, a top-five cornerback in the NFL whose contract means the Dolphins won’t have to absorb a cap hit over $20 million for the next three years.
By contrast, Xavien Howard has three years of his contract exceeding $20 million in cap liability, as do Marlon Humphrey and Jaire Alexander. The other top cornerbacks in average annual value, Marson Lattimore and Denzel Ward, have four years where they exceed $20 million in cap liability.
Darius Slay is on the trade block precisely because his cap hit in 2023 is $26 million for the Eagles.
That’s why the Rams should have been able to get more for a cornerback who exceeded all the others on that list in performance for a much more manageable contract. Instead, they received mid-round compensation and a player with one career reception. Without any other moves in free agency as of yet, it’s easy to argue that the Rams lost the opening salvo of the legal tampering window.
Winner | Daron Payne
With the possibility of a franchise tag looming over his head, Daron Payne was still able to negotiate a deal that made him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL behind Aaron Donald. There was a pretty decent chance he’d be able to make that kind of money in free agency, but Payne wasn’t poised to hit free agency. He was functionally locked into negotiating with one team after the Commanders tendered the franchise tag.
That’s what makes his current deal such a big win. Payne was able to secure what is probably an above-market deal with a lot less negotiating leverage than most players in his position and stay with a franchise he seemingly wanted to maintain continuity with.
Though Payne did not play at the level of Donald, Quinnen Williams, Chris Jones, or Dexter Lawrence last year, he was very good and could have been the top interior defensive lineman on the market. Finding a way to get top-defender money while being off the market is a big win for Payne, especially with the $60 million he’s been guaranteed.
Loser | Lamar Jackson
There was a chance that after a number of teams expressed explicit disinterest in Lamar Jackson that a few teams who had remained quiet would contact him and offer contracts after the beginning of the legal tampering period. Thus far, there hasn’t been any news of Jackson receiving any contract offers from other teams.
Some reasons track for why teams around the league would be hesitant, while other reasons don’t quite make sense. In either circumstance, it demonstrates the raw deal that players get from the franchise tag system — a system that developed as a means of clawing back control that owners had lost in the 1993 court case that established NFL free agency.
Should teams continue to turn down the chance to sign the former NFL MVP, Jackson will either be forced to play on the Ravens’ franchise tag this year or accept the deal Baltimore offered months prior, which did not include the guarantees Jackson was looking for.
If Jackson takes the franchise tag — the less expensive, non-exclusive one — he could see the process repeat next year with a second potential franchise tag. The two combined will likely result in a two-year take-home of $70 million. By contrast, Daniel Jones’ new deal ensures he receives $82 million in cash over the next two years
This essentially forces Jackson’s hand into accepting a deal he never liked. Without teams willing to at least allow Jackson to put his contract offer in competition with other offers, that’s all he has.
Winners | Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons may have overpaid Lindstrom, but they still came away with many assets that, on the whole, gave the team a lot of value going forward. Not only is it better to have overpaid a keystone player instead of losing him outright, Atlanta was also able to reunite tight end Jonnu Smith with Arthur Smith for just a seventh-round pick and added safety Jessie Bates III, a potentially elite centerfielder that can help supplement high-level corner A.J. Terrell.
Atlanta also added defensive tackle David Onyemata, who played extremely well in 2020 and 2021 before turning in a fairly average performance for the Saints last year. If the Falcons can unlock what made Onyemata so effective over those two seasons, they’ll have struck a huge bargain in free agency and can field a stout interior with Grady Jarrett alongside him.
Atlanta still has some ways to go, with questions at edge rusher, linebacker, and quarterback. But with several questions resolved on the first day — including a more filled out receiving corps featuring Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Smith — promise in the running back room and a defense that has a much more functional secondary and interior defensive line, the Falcons can begin the seemingly tireless trudge out of the NFC South mess.
Losers | Philadelphia Eagles
It was easy to anticipate after seeing the number of free agents that they had on their defensive roster, but the Eagles have “officially” lost on a few of them, including starters Javon Hargrave, T.J. Edwards, and Marcus Epps. Philadelphia retained Brandon Graham, and they might be able to hold on to Fletcher Cox or James Bradberry, but the odds are long. On top of that, Darius Slay has been granted permission to seek a trade.
The Eagles’ defense that helped bring them to the Super Bowl last year is being gutted, and though some key players, like Graham and Haason Reddick, will be back, it’s hard to envision the same level of success without that secondary — especially if they also lose C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
MORE: Best Remaining Free Agents After Day 1 of Legal Tampering Include Orlando Brown Jr., C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Jakobi Meyers
Not only that, the market is moving on some of the positions Philadelphia needs to fill. If they can’t resign Gardner-Johnson, they’ll have fewer safeties to choose from in free agency. So too, with Kyzir White, the other starting linebacker on their roster.
There are still names there, like Lavonte David and Bobby Wagner at linebacker and Jordan Poyer and Jimmie Ward at safety, but it looks like it will be difficult for the Eagles to truly restock. They’ve just now become cap compliant with about $1 million in effective space after accounting for their draft picks. Late news, like the Broncos re-signing Alex Singleton and the Giants agreeing to terms with Bobby Okereke, hurts even more.
Winner | Miami Dolphins
Not only did the Dolphins secure Jalen Ramsey for next to nothing, but they also added David Long Jr. in free agency along with Mike White. Miami also resolved the fact that they had no running backs under contract by signing Salvon Ahmed to an extension.
Ahmed and White won’t change any odds in Vegas, but both represent key pieces for a franchise that knows intimately well how much injury can change things. White is perhaps one of the most intriguing and effective backup quarterbacks in the league, something that should be a priority for a team with significant injury throughout the year for their already injury-prone QB.
Long, who carries health concerns of his own, is a remarkably efficient linebacker when healthy and should allow a defense with Howard, Ramsey, Christian Wilkins, Jevon Holland, and Jaelan Phillips to sing.
If all goes according to plan, Miami’s offense will be a bigger driver of wins than the defense. But having a rock-steady defense backing them up will go a long way towards making sure that they’re real players in an AFC East with Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and whatever plans Bill Belichick has up his sleeve.
Losers | Buffalo Bills
The Bills are still not cap compliant. And though they don’t need to be until March 15, it underscores a problem that has already begun to materialize in free agency. In losing Edmunds and Case Keenum, they’ve already demonstrated their awareness of their limited cap space.
It’s not all bad news for Buffalo. Extending Matt Milano for two more years and taking care of role positions like punter is healthy, but it seems like there will be more pain to come for the franchise.
Losing Edmunds hurts, given his incredible range and developing coverage ability. Losing Keenum hurts substantially less, but every team should have a solid backup plan at quarterback. Now, the Bills suddenly lack one despite fielding a quarterback that seems more important to their run game than their actual running backs.
In addition to Edmunds, Buffalo is likely to lose Jordan Poyer, a borderline elite safety that was critical to their back end. The fact that their DB depth was tested last season, and much of that depth will be unavailable or hitting free agency, is even more alarming. Dane Jackson, Jaquan Johnson, and Dean Marlowe are also open-market players that may not return.
Buffalo has agreed to terms with players like cornerback Cam Lewis and linebacker Tyler Matakevich, but the potential signings are limited in their projected role while the potential losses are piling up.
All of this is happening with a background of a stronger division. Both the Jets and the Dolphins figure to be much more competitive than last year. In absolute terms, the Bills seem to be getting a little worse next year. In relative terms, they could be losing a lot of ground.