Responsible free-agent spending is a pipeline to the Super Bowl, which is something that sounds obvious but may not always have been. The difference between teams’ merely splurging in free agency versus actually being good at it is the link between the pro scouting department and the coaching staff. I spoke with Bengals folks before the Super Bowl who were wondering why everyone (ahem, myself included) predicted they’d win so few games in 2021. They were thrilled with the idea of pairing Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie together. They did not believe Trey Hendrickson was a product of Dennis Allen’s defense.
Why? Because their scouting staff and coaching staff were asked to do a hybrid job of bringing their evaluations together and voicing opinions. We’ll see what this year holds as we gather to instantaneously grade the individual transactions worth noting, but keep in mind that J.C. Jackson might be the cornerback who alters the market, but that does not mean he’ll significantly alter the 2022 season. The same can be said about any of the top players broken down on our best available list.
We should also note the familiar refrain by this point that the contract terms we see bandied about when free agency opens are often not all they appear to be. Years vanish and nonguaranteed dollar figures drop before teams actually have to pay them. So we’ll analyze each move based on talent and fit, and take a look generally at the terms but won’t get hung up on exact dollar amounts before we know more.
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CB J.C. Jackson to the Chargers
Arguably the biggest domino in free agency has fallen. J.C. Jackson, who was among the top players on everyone’s free agent big boards (but the second corner on MMQB’s big board) goes to Los Angeles to join a revamped defense under second-year head coach Brandon Staley. Jackson is a former undrafted free agent who blossomed in Bill Belichick’s dizzying, coverage-focused defense. Jackson had a league-high 23 passes defensed last year and has twice in his four years forced an opposing quarterback completion rate below 50% for the season. While there is always a chance that Jackson is yet another player who will struggle outside of the instructive Belichick system, Staley has some similar asks of his corners in the Chargers’ system. Jackson immediately gives Los Angeles some heft at the position.
QB Mitch Trubisky to the Steelers
Trubisky should be thanking his agents and any/all guiding spiritual deities for the way the past two years have worked out. After the way his Bears tenure ended, Trubisky sidled up next to Brian Daboll in Buffalo and sparked interest in his revival. Now, he lands in Pittsburgh, which will give him a chance to win the post–Ben Roethlisberger job outright with a great running game and solid receiver core. Trubisky goes from Daboll to Matt Canada, another talented coordinator who can divert backfield traffic with his inspired presnap game. Trubisky also falls into line behind a head coach who, unlike Matt Nagy in Chicago, is tenured enough not to have to worry about legitimizing Trubisky just to keep his job. The politics of the quarterback position in Chicago were a mess. In Pittsburgh, where the Steelers simply don’t post losing seasons, Trubisky can springboard himself into a future that looks far brighter than it might have a few seasons ago. Also, replacing Roethlisberger, as daunting as it seems, is not the same after the future Hall of Famer’s middling career finale. Had Roethlisberger been forced out, or left any lingering animus between himself and the organization, there’s a chance Trubisky could’ve gotten caught in the crossfire. This is less like Cam Newton succeeding Tom Brady on the Patriots, which should decrease any needless pressure.
This is about the best Pittsburgh was going to do in free agency. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins are spoken for. Jimmy Garoppolo will likely drive the market out of the sensible range.
CB Carlton Davis re-signs with the Buccaneers
The Buccaneers may have had the best free agent corner on the market coming into free agency and managed to bring him back. Carlton Davis, who has been a stalwart in Todd Bowles’s defense, is back on a deal that should take him through his early athletic prime. The Buccaneers’ secondary ran into some injury issues last season, but Davis, through 10 games, maintained an opposing QB rating in the low 80s and consistently played competitively against opposing teams’ top wideouts. He has some solid performances on tape over the past two seasons against the likes of Michael Thomas and both of the Cowboys’ top wideouts. He is the kind of corner who can at least hang with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, which is worth keeping him around for alone.
Edge Haason Reddick to the Eagles
The Eagles landed some pass-rushing talent to supplant the (chosen) loss of Derek Barnett in free agency. The former situational inside linebacker turned deadly outside rusher, who played on more than 80% of the Panthers’ snaps last year, adds a different dimension for the Eagles than they’ve had previously. In the era of simulated pressure, Reddick is athletic enough to approach the line and drift back into coverage to cloud throwing lanes. He’ll immediately improve Philadelphia’s prospects against a lineup of quarterbacks in the NFC East that are positively feastworthy outside of Dak Prescott (who is strangely one of the most-blitzed quarterbacks in the NFL). He could easily be in for his third straight double-digit sack season. Philadelphia was 21st in pressure percentage last season, and if the Eagles intend to continue blitzing at the paltry 16% rate they did a year ago, they’ll need a spark such as Reddick.
LB De’Vondre Campbell re-signs with the Packers
With the Davante Adams situation simmering, Brian Gutekunst avoided one contractual landmine by re-signing Campbell, a linebacker who changed Green Bay’s makeup defensively a year ago and had arguably the best season at the position outside of Micah Parsons. Campbell was fantastic and wouldn’t come cheap like he did a year ago as a flier prospect leaving the Cardinals (what’s going on with the talent sieve out of Arizona, by the way?). The off-ball linebacker market exploded over the last two years, with Darius Leonard and Fred Warner both getting paid significantly. Somehow, Campbell comes in under their $19-plus million price tag.
G Laken Tomlinson to the Jets
An under-the-radar signing here, but the Jets have now locked down both of their guard spots heading into the 2022 season, which is a monstrously important task given the importance of the position to outside-zone principles. Tomlinson is essentially a plug-and-play option, having played under Jets run-game coordinator John Benton before Benton’s arrival with the Jets. Tomlinson is quick off the snap, possessing the necessary speed to get out ahead of defensive linemen chasing the running back play side. The former first-round pick found his comfort zone in Kyle Shanahan’s system and now heads to New York on a rapidly improving offensive line.
G Alex Cappa to the Bengals
Bengals general manager Duke Tobin boldly defended his maligned offensive line at the combine, reciting Joe Burrow’s statistics and mentioning that Burrow would not have had the season he did without their pieces up front. It was an admirable move but also foretold the team’s plunge into free agency. Burrow cannot sustain another season like the one he did in 2021, taking a league-high 51 regular-season sacks and then 19 more in the playoffs. Cincinnati’s offense will sometimes ask Burrow to hold on to the ball for a bit longer (even though he had one of the quickest snap-to-throw times in the NFL last year, about 0.02 seconds faster than Mac Jones), as it’s more reminiscent of a pre-2019 pro style system. That means offensive linemen need to hold their blocks for longer, at times. While Cappa made a name for himself in the Tom Brady Bucs era, and Brady is a notoriously quick-release player, the Bengals’ staff rarely misses in free agency and has built its team’s foundation in the veteran market over the past three years.
The fact that they got Cappa for a reported four years and $40 million, about $6 million below the league high for the position, is a bit stunning and shows that Cincinnati has crawled from the team players avoid to the one for which they might take a little less to play.
C Ryan Jensen re-signs with the Buccaneers
Jensen slots just under Frank Ragnow as the NFL’s second-highest-paid center, which is the kind of transaction the Buccaneers can make now that they are certain they’ve lured Brady out of his brief retirement. One could argue that the center position, which has a handle on in-game protection shifts and calls, is more valuable than ever given the increased propensity for teams to simulate pressure and force linemen to block ghosts. Former Tampa Bay guard Ali Marpet told me before Super Bowl LV that life was good blocking for Brady, but Jensen has earned the top coin and is not just a lineman riding the coattails of a quick-release quarterback. Jensen has incredible flexibility and speed, rarely leaving another blocker in the weeds if he’s uncovered at the snap. Yes, he’s 30 years old, but that position tends to age a little better than outside spots that deal with more consistent speed rushing.
Edge Emmanuel Ogbah to the Dolphins
Ogbah is an agile defender who will fit well in the Dolphins’ Bill Belichick–inspired system, which is placing more of an emphasis on rushing as few defenders as possible and dropping more defenders into coverage. Ogbah, who is 28, cashes in on a deal reportedly worth $16.5 million per season, which is worth breaking out and discussing independently. There were general managers who planned to stay at an arm’s length from this year’s edge market, especially after last year when teams such as the Bengals and Patriots cleaned up on premium young talent for cheaper rates. The market was expected to overheat in 2022. But landing Ogbah is a win for stunt-happy DC Josh Boyer, and Miami doesn’t end up paying too much of a tax for the privilege.
TE C.J. Uzomah to the Jets
One of my favorite moves of free agency so far, Uzomah gives Zach Wilson some serious peace of mind as an additional edge blocker and expert blitz pick-upper in the backfield. Watch some of the damage he was able to do in the backfield last year in Cincinnati. Had it not been for Uzomah, Joe Burrow may have been sacked 100 times. It always seemed like he’d fit ideally with an outside zone team given his quickness off the ball and his eagerness to block. Uzomah played well enough to price himself out of the Bengals’ market while the team spent their money on the offensive line. He was, behind the scenes, one of the team’s great “locker room guys” of the Super Bowl run.
RB Chase Edmonds to the Dolphins
If the Dolphins are indeed planning to build around Tua Tagovailoa, signing Edmunds to a reportedly two-year deal that isn’t breaking the bank is a good start. What Miami probably loves about Edmonds is his ability to complement the quarterback in the passing game, especially when the play breaks down. Kyler Murray struggled generally with checkdown throws a year ago and often found himself struggling to hit outlet passes quickly when the lanes were swarmed with bigger defenders. Edmonds could often be seen juking and weaving his way into vacant space for Murray to make life easier. He could be a similar, heady security blanket for Tagovailoa.
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G Brandon Scherff to the Jaguars
The 30-year-old Scherff, a former top-five pick, is finally out of Washington and will replace the departing Andrew Norwell in Jacksonville. The move would seem to be a slight upgrade in terms of skill set, though Norwell was no slouch and played 17 solid games for the Jaguars last year. He was a former All-Pro and was one of the bigger free agents signed by the Jaguars during the pre–Urban Meyer era. Scherff is the first major move of the Doug Pederson–Trent Baalke partnership and signals an obvious desire to give Trevor Lawrence some time and space in the backfield. With the franchising of Cam Robinson, it’s clear the Jaguars have pivoted a bit in their evaluation of talent up front and aren’t exactly following the prevailing school of thought upstream. Scherff, when healthy, can anchor a side of the line and stabilize both the tackle and guard positions within his reach, but he has not played a full 16-game season since 2016.
WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars
It’s possible to think the move is fine and absolutely hate the initially reported cost. We heard at least one general manager talking about the depth of this year’s wide receiver class, but the Jaguars continued their free-agent headhunting spree by signing Kirk to one of the more lucrative receiver deals in the league. If the reported, agent-veiled figures hold up, Kirk is going to slide in right behind DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones as the third-highest-paid receiver in football (I am sure Davante Adams’s agency is doing backflips right now). One reason for optimism? Kirk was one of the best wide receivers in the league on deep contested catches. The trend of contested-catch wideouts seeing their APY elevated slightly, especially when they come to teams with developing young quarterbacks (see: Kenny Golladay and Daniel Jones) is shaking up the market. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if this cash could have been spent better elsewhere. The Jaguars’ approach continues to be one of aggression, but it lacks a sensible narrative tying it all together.
QB Teddy Bridgewater to the Dolphins
The next in a long line of veteran quarterbacks to back up/vaguely threaten Tua Tagovailoa, Bridgewater comes from Denver, where he had an under-the-radar solid season and was one of the more efficient passers in football. Bridgewater is accurate, plays the deep ball surprisingly well and will be solid off run action, undoubtedly a staple of the Dolphins’ offense to come. Bridgewater is, at this point, the ideal high end backup/spot starter, taking the mantle from Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Should the Dolphins decide to bail on their former No. 5 overall pick, they still have a player who can keep them afloat in the AFC East.
WR Mike Williams re-signs with the Chargers
Williams was the most vertically oriented wide receiver in football last year and saw his target share increase by nearly 50% with the arrival of a new coaching staff. Clearly, despite a 58% catch rate, he dutifully filled the schematic role laid out for him. While it may be difficult to get excited about Williams, given that he could disappear for longer stretches of the season after hammering an opponent and getting coverage rolled in his direction, the fact that he possesses the ability and the size to completely dismantle an opposition’s game plan four or five times a season is well worth the investment. Minus any true, durable vertical threats on the market, the Chargers had no choice but to allocate $40 million annually to their top two wideouts (both Williams and Keenan Allen are making about $20 million per season).
RB James Conner re-signs with the Cardinals
Conner is a phenomenal player, and a tough runner who brings the offense a punch at the goal line. But if I was a member of the Cardinals’ front office I would wonder what else is out there and who might be able to get me a little more, given that my running backs are facing eight-man boxes almost 10% less frequently than Jonathan Taylor and Dalvin Cook, and 20% less frequently than Derrick Henry. Arizona’s continued veteran grab is a curious strategy for general manager Steve Keim, whose contract was recently extended nearly through the next presidential term despite not reaching the divisional round since the Bruce Arians era. It’s moves like this that confound. The running game can be a gutting weapon for four-wide teams at the right moment. Conner, according to Next Gen Stats, was net negative in rushing yards over expectation.
TE Zach Ertz re-signs with the Cardinals
There’s a premium placed on comfort blanket receivers for Kyler Murray, who is going to struggle to replicate his downfield success in 2022 with the departure of Kirk and needs to become a more traditional Air Raid quarterback if the Cardinals are going to succeed. That means getting rid of the ball faster than Jared Goff and Daniel Jones (Murray is upper-middle of the pack in terms of snap-to-throw times). Ertz was fifth among tight ends in targeted air yards last season, finishing closely behind Travis Kelce, meaning the midseason investment was worth the rental for Arizona. Still, Ertz doesn’t offer as much as he used to as a run blocker and at 31, isn’t helping the top-heavy Cardinals reduce their status as one of the oldest teams in the NFL.
TE Evan Engram to the Jaguars
The most factual way to describe the Jaguars’ offseason so far would be to say: Trent Baalke is acquiring lots of players. Some of us may have gotten our hopes up when Engram was linked to the Colts, where his otherworldly athleticism could finally be taken advantage of. Instead, he lands as the “A” option in Jacksonville, which feels complicated for multiple reasons. Engram was always going to need a quarterback to meet him at his level and put the ball where he felt comfortable. He needed to be worked into a game plan and not just targeted cold when his number was up midway through the second quarter. Instead, he was wedged between a late-career Eli Manning and an early-career Daniel Jones. The narrative on Engram has always been that he drops passes, though it felt like the numbers weren’t that egregious outside of the 11 he let go his rookie year. Still, is he the pace-setting, reception-gobbling tight end that can aid the development of a second-year passer in need of a lifeline?
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