Winners and Losers of NFL's 2023 Early Tampering Period
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
The unofficial start of free agency can be considered the official start of free agency, with the unofficial start actually taking place two weeks earlier at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
The tampering period is merely three days of agreements coming to light until individuals can put pen to paper.
Dozens of players already agreed to terms between Monday's false start and Wednesday's 4 p.m. ET bell, with hundreds more looking for new deals.
As always, certain signings are applauded, while others raise an eyebrow. Inevitably, winners and losers emerge. Either way, massive amounts of money flood the system as teams look to improve their rosters.
By Wednesday morning, the 32 franchises already had deals in place worth over $1.1 billion in total contractual value just among the top 20 free agents.
That's the starting point. Markets reset. Trades occurred (or didn't). Next month's draft has been drastically affected.
All of these factors came into play when determining who should be considered as an early success or failure.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers' Pals
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Wide receiver Allen Lazard (left) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (right)Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
What's old is new again. The New York Jets are once again waiting with open arms for a future Hall of Fame quarterback from the Green Bay Packers.
"My intention is to play and to play for the New York Jets," Aaron Rodgers revealed during Wednesday's interview on the Pat McAfee Show (h/t ESPN's Dan Graziano). "I haven't been holding anything up at this point. It's the Packers and the compensation they're trying to get for me."
And the quarterback is trying to bring some of his old teammates to his new stop.
According to ESPN's Dianna Russini, Rodgers "provided the NY Jets with a wish list of free agents he would like them to target and acquire. It includes Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Marcedes Lewis and….Odell Beckham Jr."
To clear up the timeline, Russini's report came four days after Rodgers made his intentions known to the Packers. This isn't a situation in which the quarterback is holding a team for ransom. The Jets understand this, and they're going to do what it takes to make their eventual franchise quarterback happy.
The approach seemingly began when New York handed out the offseason's largest free-agent deal for a wide receiver. Allen Lazard agreed to a four-year contract worth $44 million.
Rodgers' wish list shouldn't be viewed as demands. But Gang Green should look at the other names as enticing additions to an already exciting group that features running back Breece Hall and wide receivers Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The four-time league MVP has wanted a say in matters. He's seemingly getting that with the Jets. The quarterback's friends will be the biggest beneficiaries.
Loser: Lamar Jackson
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Quarterback Lamar JacksonRob Carr/Getty Images
To be clear, potential suitors for Lamar Jackson couldn't speak with the quarterback until the start of the new league year because he lacks representation from an agent. Technically, he was a player still under contract with the Baltimore Ravens until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
We'll never know whether Jackson would have received an offer during the tampering period. More concisely, it doesn't matter.
What matters is what occurred at the game's most important position as Jackson waited for his chance to be courted.
Essentially, the Ravens weaponized the non-exclusive franchise tag.
The organization knew: A) only a handful of teams could even afford Jackson based on his request of a fully guaranteed deal somewhere in the range of Deshaun Watson's contract; B) that contingent grew even smaller since interested parties needed to have first-round draft picks to surrender in this year and next year if the Ravens didn't match an offer; and C) most organizations wouldn't want to sit back and wait the five-day period to see if Baltimore planned to match an offer sheet.
Because of these factors, the quarterback carousel ensued without Jackson.
Among the organizations with major decisions to make under center this offseason:
- The Seattle Seahawks agreed to a three-year, $75 million contract with Geno Smith.
- Derek Carr joined the New Orleans Saints on a four-year, $150 million deal.
- The Carolina Panthers traded up to the No. 1 overall pick to presumably draft their preferred QB prospect.
- The Houston Texans sit at No. 2 to land another top prospect.
- The Indianapolis Colts are positioned well to draft a quarterback with the fourth selection (more on that in a bit).
- The Las Vegas Raiders agreed to sign Jimmy Garoppolo to a three-year, $72.8 million deal.
- The Atlanta Falcons brought in Taylor Heinicke on a two-year, $14 million contract to compete with Desmond Ridder for the starting spot.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought in Baker Mayfield on a one-year prove-it deal.
The pool of potential suitors for Jackson's services is shallow, if not nonexistent beyond the Ravens. By not doing anything, the 26-year-old 2019 league MVP lost because any leverage he had quickly disappeared.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
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Quarterback Matt RyanMichael Hickey/Getty Images
From a draft perspective, the quarterback movement over the last two weeks worked in the Indianapolis Colts' favor.
They were initially seen as the favorites to trade up for the No. 1 overall pick. Maybe general manager Chris Ballard wasn't as interested as it seemed from the outside, and the Carolina Panthers pulled the trigger on a deal that sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks and wide receiver D.J. Moore to the Chicago Bears for the top selection.
A few factors need to be taken into consideration to see why a non-move ultimately works out in the team's favor.
"My sense, after some conversations the last few days: Colts feel pretty strongly there isn't a [Joe] Burrow/[Trevor] Lawrence in this draft, so they won't act out of desperation," The Athletic's Zak Keefer reported.
With the draft still six weeks away, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young are considered the favorites, in some order, to go first and second overall to the Panthers and Houston Texans.
Ballard is a plus-traits evaluator. He believes in investing in prospects with significant athletic potential and upside. As such, the Colts have been regularly linked to Florida's Anthony Richardson and Kentucky's Will Levis. Both could be QB1 among Ballard's options.
Furthermore, the Colts may not be forced to make any kind of trade up for their preferred signal-caller. No. 3 is another potential inflection point, with the Kyler Murray-led Arizona Cardinals sitting directly in front of Indianapolis.
Who would make that move, though?
As stated earlier, the majority of teams that were sitting directly behind the Colts already made significant investments in the quarterback position.
A strong possibility exists that Ballard and Co. stand pat, get their preferred quarterback prospect and not give up anything for him.
Loser: Wide Receiver Market
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Wide receiver Jakobi MeyersAP Photo/John Minchillo
The difference between last year's wide receiver market and this year's couldn't be more extreme.
In 2022, teams went wild in acquiring talented targets and paying them to the point where wide receiver needed to be considered professional football's fifth premium position alongside quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback.
Three wide receivers—Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown—signed contracts worth at least $100 million in total value. The average annual salary among the league's 14 highest-paid targets now falls between $20 and $30 million.
Granted, these deals were the byproduct of big trades or re-signings. But those numbers are where the top of the market resides.
None of this year's free-agent crop even came close to those numbers despite a significant bump in the salary cap. Teams decided they wouldn't pay a premium for non-premium talent.
Even in last year's free-agent market, Christian Kirk and Allen Robinson warranted $18.0 million and $15.5 million on an annual basis, respectively.
Despite projections of slightly higher numbers, Jakobi Meyers (Las Vegas Raiders), Allen Lazard (New York Jets) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (New England Patriots) topped this year's crop. All did so at $11 million annually.
Neither Meyers nor Lazard has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in single season. Then again, Kirk hadn't at this same point last year. Their valuation is based on projection and how they'll be used. Both Meyers and Lazard will be the second- or third-best options with their new squads.
Even Smith-Schuster has never truly thrived as the focal point of a passing attack, whether he was playing alongside Antonio Brown or as a component to the Chiefs' vaunted offense.
A true WR1 can't be found on the current market. As such, suitors are unwilling to pay the same type of money the league saw a year ago.
Winner: Defensive Tackle Market
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Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (97)Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The position market that did heat up to nova-level can be found along the defensive interior.
Traditionally, defensive tackles aren't considered nearly as valuable as their running mates working off the edge. The Lawrence Taylor blindside effect still has its claws in how some prioritize paying for a pass-rusher.
But interior pass-rushers can be as effective, and they're far more scarce. While those inside rushers haven't reached the top of the edge market, they're getting closer.
Obviously, Aaron Donald has been the outlier for a long time. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is arguably the best defensive player of his generation, and he could enter the conversation about whether he's the best ever.
Beyond Donald, the Indianapolis Colts' DeForest Buckner and Kansas City Chiefs' Chris Jones were the only defensive tackles with average annual salaries of $20 million or more. In 2023, two more entered the same rarified financial status, while a third didn't fall too far behind.
The Washington Commanders placed the franchise tag on Daron Payne before the two sides agreed to a four-year, $90 million contract extension. Payne's exit from the open market made both Javon Hargrave and Dre'Mont Jones more valuable.
Hargrave is set to sign a four-year, $84 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. Jones, meanwhile, agreed to a three-year, $51 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks to place him among the top 10 highest-paid for his position group.
A pocket that collapses on a consistent basis is hell for opposing quarterbacks. Defenders who can do that are now being paid in accordance with their skill set.
Loser: Tight Ends
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Dalton SchultzAP Photo/Chris O'Meara
The top of the tight end market didn't budge during the tampering period. Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki, Austin Hooper and Robert Tonyan are still waiting.
Josh Oliver, Chris Manhertz and Hayden Hurst were the only ones who agreed to deals before the new league year.
A team can sign Schultz or Gesicki—both of whom operated under the franchise tag last season—and give them top dollar. But why would they do so this offseason?
Numbers among the highest-paid tight ends range from $13 to $17 million annually. Both have been productive and key components to their teams, with a combined 240 catches and 20 touchdown receptions over the last two seasons.
However, two factors are at play with this particular position group.
First, Schultz and Gesicki are the top options. They're good. But they're not on the same level as Travis Kelce, George Kittle or even Mark Andrews. Other teams saw what happened with the Las Vegas Raiders after they invested in Darren Waller—making him the league's highest-paid tight end by average annual salary in September—only to trade him for a Day 3 draft pick.
Secondly, general managers know the money at play and that a strong tight end class awaits them in April. This year's group is arguably the best in recent memory (and much cheaper for salary-cap purposes).
Notre Dame's Michael Mayer, Georgia's Darnell Washington and Utah's Dalton Kincaid are first-round talents, according to Bleacher Report's Scouting Department. Four or five more could hear their names called on the draft's second day.
Winner: Middling Offensive Linemen
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Offensive tackle Jawaan TaylorCooper Neill/Getty Images
The lack of quality offensive linemen in the NFL becomes more apparent each year, as teams pay premiums for average blockers.
The league and NFLPA created quite the conundrum in the name of player safety.
Because the sides scaled back the number of padded practices and physicality involved, offensive linemen tend to be less prepared for the game's rigors. The simplicity of some collegiate offenses and lack of quality coaching at lower levels have exacerbated the issue.
As a result, teams tend to spend a lot on competent options.
Everyone saw this when average free agents agreed to massive deals.
A couple signees happened to be well worth their new contracts, though.
The Atlanta Falcons provided Chris Lindstrom with the largest deal for a guard in NFL history, and right tackle Kaleb McGary agreed to a three-year, $34.5 million contract. But they're two of the league's best run blockers at their positions.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs plopped down a four-year, $80 million contract for Jawaan Taylor. The expectation is for Taylor to replace Orlando Brown at left tackle, though Taylor has been a right tackle since his days with the Florida Gators.
Mike McGlinchey received an even bigger deal to leave the San Francisco 49ers and join the Denver Broncos: five years and $87.5 million. McGlinchey does excel as a run blocker, but he's inconsistent as a pass protector.
Andre Dillard started all of nine games after becoming a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019. The Tennessee Titans still agreed to pay him $29 million over three years.
NFL teams are desperate to find reliable trench options. But they pay hefty prices for lesser talents.
Loser: Tennessee Titans
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David Long Jr.AP Photo/Jeff Lewis
The Tennessee Titans are entering a rebuilding phase, but it's difficult to ascertain anything else after their recent moves.
Multiple longtime stalwarts are already gone. The team released left tackle Taylor Lewan and center Ben Jones. Kicker Randy Bullock, wide receiver Robert Woods and linebacker Zach Cunningham are also out the door, and tight end Austin Hooper and edge-defender Bud Dupree are free agents.
Basically, the team wiped the slate clean when it came to highly paid veterans.
All-world running back Derrick Henry is on the trade block, too, according to Bally Sports' Michael Silver, though CBS Sports' Jonathan Jones refuted that report. The team certainly isn't settled at quarterback, either, as Ryan Tannehill is entering the last year of his contract.
Clearly, new general manager Ran Carthon is placing his stamp on this team. Yet the organization is scrambling, trying to fill holes but not doing so adequately.
Linebacker David Long Jr. and right guard Nate Davis are solid players in their primes who will walk via free agency once they sign agreed-upon deals with other franchises.
Tennessee already featured one of the league's worst offensive lines. The additions of Andre Dillard and Daniel Brunskill were perplexing. As mentioned earlier, Dillard has only nine career starts without the kind of play to warrant a $29 million contract. Carthon certainly knows Brunskill since both are coming from the San Francisco 49ers, though Brunskill didn't start but twice last season.
These acquisitions are questionable in addressing the team's biggest need.
Mike Vrabel is an excellent head coach, and the Titans can lean on their defense. At the same time, they seem destined to make a top pick in the draft and to potentially choose a high-level quarterback prospect.