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NFL Free Agency 2023: Grading the major signings so far

Let’s grade the biggest names to move teams this season.

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

NFL Free Agency becomes official on Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET. This is when teams are able to finally ink players after the legal tampering period, get pen to paper, and feel better there wasn’t some last-minute trickery or curveballs.

You can find the complete list of every signing from free agency here. We won’t be covering every single deal here, but rather the biggest names moving teams that could have a significant impact on the season ahead. In some cases teams did really well to upgrade their rosters in substantial ways, while others ... well, at least they tried.

Bengals sign OT Orlando Brown Jr.: 4 years, $64 million, with $43 million guaranteed

It’s a big year for offensive line contracts, and the Bengals found a way to get the best in class — and for less than other teams spent.

Orlando Brown Jr. is everything you could want in a big money free agent. He’s only 26-years-old, meaning Cincinnati shores up their left tackle position for the entirety of Brown’s prime, he has proven production with four straight Pro Bowl appearances, and they got a steal to boot.

While $64M over four years is a lot for an offensive tackle, it’s an absolute steal compared to the overpayment that the Broncos and Chiefs made in free agency to get right tackles. At this point Cincinnati’s path to sustained success is simple: Keep the offense ticking, continue to build the defense through the draft. This move allows that to happen.

Grade: A+

Patriots sign WR JuJu Smith-Schuster: 3 years, $25.5 million, with $16 million guaranteed

One of the biggest questions facing the Patriots this offseason was what receiving weapons they can put around quarterback Mac Jones, particularly with Jakobi Meyers signing with the Las Vegas Raiders. The answer to date? JuJu Smith-Schuster, who parlayed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Chiefs into his new deal with the Patriots.

This is a solid signing for both team, and player. Smith-Schuster’s base salary for 2023 is rather low, as it clocks in at just $1.1 million, before escalating to $7 million in 2024. Both of those seasons are fully guaranteed. But for the receiver, the incentives are critical. The deal has up to $1.5 million in receiving incentives for 2023, and up to $3 million in incentives for 2024 and 2025. His play style, and willingness to work underneath and over the middle, should pair well with Jones, and Bill O’Brien’s offense.

Grade: B+

Panthers sign RB Miles Sanders: 4 years, $25 million, with $13 million guaranteed

Sanders is a poster child for how far running back contracts have fallen. A decade ago a 25-year-old running back coming off a 1,200+ yard season would have commanded over $15M a year, now contracts are a fraction of that.

Assuming Sanders is going to be a 1,300 yard+ staple is foolish. He benefitted massively from the Eagles’ running schemes and a system that naturally allowed him to flourish, however, Carolina’s offensive line is extremely underrated at opening up holes in the running game, and Sanders has the ability to be an impact player.

This is a solid upgrade at the position for the Panthers that doesn’t break the bank. Even if Sanders regresses to the mean and gives them 1,000 all-purpose yards a season this was a great deal for a team moving on after Christian McCaffrey.

Grade: B+

Broncos sign DE Zach Allen: 3 years, $47.7 million, with $32.5 million guaranteed

After losing Dre’Mont Jones the Broncos were in need of a new defensive end, and make a pretty interesting move here. Allen should fit well into Denver’s defensive scheme with former Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, but the money on this deal isn’t fantastic.

Money wise it’s almost a lateral move from Allen to what Jones got from the Seahawks, but with less established production. This move could definitely pay off and Allen could develop further into a great pass rusher, but he’s already being paid like a great rusher without the production to back it up.

This wasn’t a bad move, it’s just a little risky.

Grade: B-

Lions sign RB David Montgomery: 3 years, $18 million, with $11 million guaranteed

Another signing that feels more like a lateral move than a true, mammoth upgrade when looking strictly at talent-to-talent. Ultimately this feels more about skillsets than anything else.

As a pure runner Williams might be better as a three down back, but Montgomery has proven himself to be a better receiving threat out of the backfield — something the Lions haven’t really had during this new era outside of D’Andre Swift.

This allows more offensive continuity, regardless of the who the back is and should work well.

Grade: B

Panthers sign TE Hayden Hurst: 3 years, $21.7 million, with $11 million guaranteed

Carolina continues to rebuild its offense by addressing another need area. Tight end has been in flux for the Panthers since Greg Olsen’s retirement, and while Hurst isn’t going to light the world on fire, he will offer another reliable veteran presence on offense for whichever quarterback the Panthers take with the No. 1 overall pick.

Solid, albeit unremarkable move.

Grade: B-

Jets sign WR Allen Lazard: 4 years, $44 million

We all know why this happened. Wide receiver wasn’t a huge area of concern for the Jets, but this is all about laying the foundation to make Aaron Rodgers happy. Lazard is an upgrade at the No. 2 receiver position for New York, even if not an immediate need.

The point is less about Lazard, and what this precipitates. If you trade for Aaron Rodgers you need to do everything to have him happy and invested, so from that perspective this was a big win.

Grade: A

Raiders sign WR Jakobi Meyers: 3 years, $33 million, with $21 million guaranteed

Despite this being a weak class for wide receivers the Raiders got phenomenal value considering they were first to sign and got arguably the best receiver in the class. Meyers is a solid No. 2 receiving option with over 800 yards of proven production in back-to-back seasons, who should slot in really nicely with Davante Adams and give Jimmy Garoppolo another target.

This move gives their offense a big boost and didn’t break the bank. There’s not much more you can ask for.

Grade: A

Falcons sign DT David Onyemata: 3 years, $35 million, with $24.5 million guaranteed

With Ryan Nielsen coming over to Atlanta from the Saints to call the defense, it’s expected that the Falcons sign a few of the defensive free agents that New Orleans couldn’t sign. Onyemata had five sacks last year for the Saints, and while he’s 30 years old, he provides a great pairing to Grady Jarrett, at a massive position of need. Onyemata has an $11 million AAV, which is fine given where the Falcons are in terms of restructuring their defense.

The Falcons needed a complement to Grady Jarrett, and they got it.

Grade: A-

Broncos sign G Ben Powers: 4 years, $52 million, with $28.5 million guaranteed

Denver’s offensive line signings are a bit of a mixed bag (we’ll get to the other in a bit), but Ben Powers is a GREAT get. He’s a fluid, athletic guard who has great footwork as a pass blocker and will immediately make life easier for Russell Wilson.

Sean Payton has always used athletic guards as a blocking solution for a smaller quarterback, and Wilson is naturally more elusive than Drew Brees was. This is a good scheme fit, and an excellent player to boot. The only potential hangup is the amount of money, but that element can be worked around.

Grade: A-

49ers sign DT Javon Hargrave: 4 years, $80 million, with $40 million guaranteed

The salary cap is a lie. Despite only having $3.8M in effective cap space, the 49ers pulled off a coup by signing one of the best defensive players of free agency. They’ll work out the money side later, so this isn’t a huge issue for them.

Since 2020 the only defensive tackle with a higher pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus is Aaron Donald, and now Hargrave slides into a defensive line with Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. This is a huge move that takes the league’s best defense in 2021, and makes them even better. It’s going to be so much fun to see the havoc this team brings.

Grade: A+

Broncos sign OT Mike McGlinchey: 5 years, $87.5 million, with $50 million guaranteed

Mike McGlinchey is a solid offensive tackle. You don’t pay “solid” $87.5M. Yes, the salary cap is going up in years to come, which will soften the blow of this deal — but it’s remarkable to see Denver invest so heavily in offensive linemen from teams with established blocking schemes.

The 49ers naturally blocking make linemen look better individually than they are, and to be honest, McGlinchey didn’t always look great. Now he’s getting paid among the absolute best players at RT in the NFL, and I don’t think the Broncos are going to get near the impact they spent on the investment here.

Grade: D

Lions sign CB Cam Sutton: 3 years, $33 million with $22.5 million guaranteed

There are a lot of reasons to love this move. The Lions were in dire need of help in their secondary, and the 28-year-old Sutton can step in and help immediately. Detroit didn’t overspend at a critical position for their development as a football team, and perhaps most importantly it opens up the draft for Dan Campbell’s team.

Up to this point it felt like a foregone conclusion that the Lions were going to have to take a cornerback with the 6th overall pick out of necessity. It wouldn’t have been a bad move, but signing Sutton and taking the pressure off the draft will allow the team to sit in an enviable position to either take the best defensive player on the board, or perhaps even trade back with a quarterback-needy team and amass more assets.

Grade: A

Raiders sign QB Jimmy Garoppolo: 3 years, $67.5 million with $34 million guaranteed

They had to get a quarterback from somewhere, right? This makes more sense than just a random off-the-street signing because of Jimmy G’s familiarity with Josh McDaniels from their time together in New England. The weird part is that this feels like a total lateral move, talent wise.

Replacing Derek Carr with Garoppolo puts a lot of stock in this idea of the former 49ers QB being a “winner.” The truth is, we just don’t know who he is as a quarterback without an elite defense and removed from Kyle Shanahan’s system. Could it work? Maybe. Is it enough to hang in the AFC West? Probably not.

The draft should answer a lot of questions. There remains every possibility that Las Vegas takes either of the more developmental quarterbacks in Will Levis or Anthony Richardson, with the idea that Garoppolo will be a bridge — but if they go elsewhere in the draft and truly think this is a three year answer then they’re misreading things.

Grade: B-

Chiefs sign OT Jawaan Taylor: 4 years, $80 million with $60 million guaranteed

On one hand, the Chiefs got a tackle who’s seen as an ascending talent. Taylor played the best football of his career last year and is only 25 years old, so the Chiefs are banking on the upside. Taylor is a better pass protector than he is a run blocker, so he fits where the Chiefs want to succeed.

However, if the Chiefs want to move Taylor from right tackle to left, then they’re paying a lot of money to take that risk. Taylor has exclusively been a right tackle his entire career, and the odds of him continuing to trend upward at a new position might not be a guaranteed success. However, if Taylor is going to make the change, it’s best that it’ll be under Chiefs OL Coach Andy Heck, head coach Andy Reid and QB Patrick Mahomes

Grade: B

Bears sign Nate Davis: 3 years, $30 million

The best part of this signing is the scheme fit. Davis started his NFL career in Tennessee in a heavy zone-blocking system, and that meshes well with the offense Luke Getsy has installed in Chicago for the Bears. Chicago does have Cody Whitehair and Teven Jenkins in place, but both players struggled with injuries last season, and Whitehair could be a cut candidate given his contract.

The price tag might seem steep, but the scheme fit balances out the sticker shock.

Grade: B

Falcons sign S Jessie Bates III: 4 years, $64.02 million

Love it. No notes.

Seriously though, the Falcons getting Jessie Bates III was a major get for a defense that struggled so much in the secondary a year ago. Atlanta were 25th against the pass in the NFL last season, failing to have a single playmaker outside of their defensive front.

Bates III isn’t a guy who will make 10 eye-popping plays a season, but his best quality is how his name isn’t really called. He’s a reliable veteran force who can both help to organize the secondary, and make sure the team isn’t burned deep nearly as often. Those are two major issues the Falcons have had, and now they’ve corrected the problem ahead of the draft.

Grade: A

Bears sign LB Tremaine Edmunds: 4 years, $72 million

The difficulty with offering grades before the end of free agency is that you do not see the entire picture. At the moment, the Bears have added to the interior on both sides of the ball, with linebackers T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds — that’s sure to be confusing in the fall — guard Nate Davis, and defensive tackle DeMarcus Walker. They need help on the outside, and while they acquired D.J. Moore in a trade, some corners and edges would be nice to see. Perhaps the draft is when those players will be added.

As for Edmunds, he is a young, athletic linebacker who is coming off his most complete year as a professional. He showed great strides in coverage, and at just 24 years old (he will turn 25 in May) there is still room for development.

Grade: B+

Seahawks sign DT Dre’Mont Jones: 3 years, $51 million

Earlier this month, when the Seahawks reached an extension with Geno Smith, we made the case that his play last season not only earned him a new deal, it bought Seattle some options.

Signing Dre’Mont Jones is a piece to that puzzle.

Adding Smith on a fairly friendly deal allowed them to address a huge need with Jones, as the Seahawks struggled to get pressure on the passer, and to stop the run. Jones gives them some push on the interior, and is an immediate upgrade to their defensive front. Now, with a pair of picks in the first round, they can go in a number of different directions. A great move for Seattle.

Grade: A-

Browns sign DT Dalvin Tomlinson: 4 years, $57 million with $27.5 million guaranteed

This is another great move on the interior of the defensive line for a team that had a huge need in that area. Like the Seahawks, the Browns struggled to stop the run in 2022, and pressured the opposing passer on just 18.2% of dropbacks a season ago, sixth-fewest in the league. Tomlinson might be best used as a 0- or a 1-technique nose tackle, but showed some versatility in Minnesota, spending more time as a 3-technique. This was a big hole in Cleveland, and he was a fantastic signing.

Grade: A