NFL experts debate free agency: Best bargain deals, most head-scratching

NFL experts debate free agency: Best bargain deals, most head-scratching

The 2022 NFL free agency deals are just now starting to slow down, but a handful of the top names are still on the market. Numerous playmakers and impact talents have agreed to terms for 2022 and beyond, and we’ve seen some wild movement on the trade market, especially under center. Which moves stand out so far, and what have we learned from a week of players headed to new teams?

The Jaguars came out of the gate with their wallet open. The AFC West turned into a race to the top with big-name signings and trades. Teams with glaring issues attacked their weaknesses with savvy deals. Some of the NFL’s top teams made moves that could put them over the top, while others quietly made smaller impact signings. Who is leading the way so far this offseason?

Our expert crew weighs in on free agency, including our favorite signings and the most improved teams. We will update this file all week with a new question each day, hitting top signings, biggest head-scratchers and top bargain deals. Let’s dive in on our reactions to this offseason’s free-agent frenzy.

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What was the best bargain signing of free agency?

Stephania Bell, fantasy football analyst: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Chiefs. Value, like beauty, truly lies in the eye of the beholder. Given that Smith-Schuster has proven himself to be a solid yards-after-catch producer out of the slot, his acquisition is a very attractive get for Kansas City. In 2018, he thrived playing in an offense that worked at a quicker pace than league average. Sound familiar? Smith-Schuster can be back in a role in which he has previously flashed game-breaking abilities, particularly with Tyreek Hill now in Miami.

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Chiefs. Smith-Schuster gives the Chiefs a physical presence in the slot. He can work inside the hashes and produce as a catch-and-run target for Patrick Mahomes.

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Mike Clay, fantasy football writer: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster to the Chiefs. Landing a player of Smith-Schuster’s caliber at a $3.25-million base is as good as it gets. Sure, he is coming off a lost 2021 campaign, but he posted a 111-1,426-7 receiving campaign as a 21-year-old in 2018 — and he is still in his prime at age 25. With a big upgrade from late-career Ben Roethlisberger to Mahomes, Smith-Schuster has bounce-back written all over him. And even if he doesn’t work out, the low base salary isn’t a roster construction roadblock.

Tristan H. Cockcroft, fantasy football writer: WR Russell Gage to the Bucs. While perhaps an odd choice as a “bargain” considering it was for $30 million and three years, Gage’s deal fits the description, strengthening the depth of the team’s receiver corps on the heels of Tom Brady’s retirement change-of-heart. Gage delivered an average 102-69-778-4 (targets-catches-yards-TDs) stat lines the past two seasons as an effective third-in-the-pecking order receiver, and he’s now in a much better situation to step up those stats in 2022.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: OT Terron Armstead to the Dolphins. Armstead will get $75 million over five years with upside to $87.5 million. That base value of $15 million per year ranks him 12th among left tackles in per-year average, sandwiched between Donovan Smith and Taylor Decker. There aren’t 11 tackles better than Armstead. There might not be five. Durability was likely a factor here — he hasn’t played a full season and turns 31 in July — but this is still a bargain. Elite left tackle play is tough to find.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: QB Teddy Bridgewater to the Dolphins. A veteran quarterback with 63 career starts for $6.5 million? In this market? Given Tua Tagovailoa’s injury history, the Dolphins needed a backup they know can start a couple of games for them. And if Tua flat-out flops, Bridgewater is more than capable of getting the season to the finish line as long as the group around him is solid. The only way this could have been a better fit for Miami is if Bridgewater were left-handed.

Eric Moody, fantasy football writer: G Rodger Saffold III to the Bills. The former All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl guard will provide valuable pass protection for franchise quarterback Josh Allen, but I am eager to see how he impacts Buffalo’s rushing game since the Bills rank 23rd in run block win rate.

Matt Miller, NFL draft analyst: CB D.J. Reed to the Jets. The market for Reed was healthy, but choosing the Jets after the team got off to a slow start was crucial for Joe Douglas’ class. Reed is a tough cover man who projects as the team’s CB1 before the NFL draft. Reeling in Reed seemed to kick start the Jets’ free agent signings while also filling arguably the biggest need on the roster.

Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: G James Daniels to the Steelers. Considering his age at the start of the season (25) and experience at both center and guard, it was surprising that the fourth year veteran didn’t demand more on the open market. Signing a three year, $26.5-million deal is great value for the Steelers at a need position. The former second-round pick likely will step in as the starter at right guard, but he is capable of playing any three positions along the interior. That type of versatility should have been coveted by more teams that were searching for interior offensive line help.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: LB Jordan Hicks to the Vikings. Changing defensive schemes can be expensive and inefficient, but the Vikings did well to sign Hicks as a second inside linebacker alongside Eric Kendricks in their new 3-4. Hicks didn’t miss a start in three seasons with the Cardinals, is an established leader and arrives with a salary cap number of $3.5 million this season and $6.5 million in 2023.

Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front office insider: QB Mitch Trubisky to the Steelers. Trubisky needs to clean up his red zone interceptions after having eight in Chicago, but even if he plays slightly above average, his deal will be a massive bargain ($7.1 million per year) compared to all of the other recent quarterback deals. For instance, how much worse is he really than Kirk Cousins? Cousins just signed an extension that averages $35 million per year.

Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: OT Morgan Moses to the Ravens. Baltimore will pay just $15 million over three years with only $5.5 million guaranteed for a reliable 31-year-old who finished 16th among tackles in pass block win rate last season. What am I missing here? Poor tackle play can crush an offense, and Baltimore somehow took care of its right tackle spot with spare change.

Field Yates, NFL analyst: CB Casey Hayward Jr. to the Falcons. Not many cornerbacks who will be 33 when the season begins are good bets in free agency, but Hayward isn’t your average veteran corner. He continues to be a confident and effective player in man-to-man coverage and has been extremely durable, missing just two games over his past eight seasons. At two years and $11 million, I think Atlanta spent its money well.

What was the most head-scratching signing of free agency?

Bell: WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars. Living up to a contract that will be widely scrutinized is a tough ask for any athlete; some will shine under the spotlight while others will struggle. We will have to wait and see which it will be for Kirk, who at age 25 has his best years ahead of him. But does he merit up to $84 million over four years? Kirk has missed multiple games in three of four seasons and — perhaps more importantly — has never been asked to assume the role of an elite receiver. The Jags were largely dependent on shorter-yardage completions last season, which could bode well for Kirk’s slot receiver skills. It’s worth noting, though, that over the past three seasons, he ranks 42nd of 55 qualified receivers in yards after the catch per reception. This is pricey for a player who might not be the perfect fit, especially at roughly 175% the annual cost of what DJ Chark Jr. signed for in Detroit.

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Bowen: QB Mitch Trubisky to the Steelers. In Matt Canada’s offense, the Steelers can set up Trubisky with defined throws off movement and play-action. I still have concerns about Trubisky’s ability as a pocket thrower in critical game situations, though — that’s the mechanics and the eyes. Let’s see if Pittsburgh drafts a rookie quarterback to compete with him next month.

Clay: TE Will Dissly to the Seahawks. Seattle acquired 24-year-old, standout tight end Noah Fant in the Russell Wilson trade and then proceeded to sign backup Dissly to a three-year, $24 million contract. That makes him one of the position’s top-15 highest-paid players. It’s a big commitment to a player who missed most of his first two pro seasons due to injury (10 games played during 2018-19) and who doesn’t offer much as a pass-catcher (46 receptions for 483 yards and three touchdowns during the 2020-21 seasons).

Cockcroft: WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars. His four-year deal with $37 million of it guaranteed seemed like an odd move. He has reached neither the 80-catch, 1,000-yard nor eight-touchdown thresholds in any of his four NFL seasons, and his past two were played in a pass-friendly offense. There isn’t even that clear WR1 opportunity awaiting him in Jacksonville, where Marvin Jones Jr. should still be the WR1.

Fowler: TE Will Dissly to the Seahawks. This deal was truly shocking. Even the player was shocked. Dissly is a nice player and worked hard for this, but he has never caught more than 24 passes in any of his four seasons. He is a stout blocker against the run or the pass, and tight ends who do this effectively are considered rare in the modern game. All it took was for a few teams to come in hot and Seattle had to pay a big price to keep him. This one might have been more surprising than the Kirk deal, honestly.

Graziano: QB Russell Wilson being traded by the Seahawks. I get why they did it — they looked a year down the road and anticipated a frustrating contract negotiation) — and I like the return they got. But all we heard last offseason was that the Seahawks wouldn’t make this move without knowing where they were turning next at quarterback. And it doesn’t appear they do. They didn’t get involved in the Deshaun Watson trade, which is fine, good for them. But right now it’s Drew Lock and maybe a draft pick? Or maybe a Baker Mayfield thrown into the mix at some point? With a 70-year-old coach and a fan base used to contending every year, it seemed odd for Seattle to just jump off the high dive into the deep end the way they did.

Moody: DE Randy Gregory to the Broncos. Denver is paying him like a top-level pass-rusher. Despite his talent, though, Gregory is an inconsistent edge rusher with durability issues. He has never played a full season in his career. While defense is definitely an area where the Broncos need to improve, there are better ways to do so.

Miller: WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars. I like Kirk and believe his best football is ahead of him, but signing him to such a big deal is a head-scratcher. Even if you’re banking on his best ball being ahead of him, resetting the wide receiver market for him is this offseason’s biggest question mark.

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Reid: WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars. Paying Kirk a guaranteed $37 million in the first two years of his four-year contract is a sizable amount. With the 2022 receiver class deep once again, the resources on the position could’ve been spent to get a player similar to him, but the team had little hesitation with completing a deal that froze the market at the position for a couple of days because of how unexpectedly hefty the price tag was.

Seifert: QB Deshaun Watson to the Browns. I understand why any team builder would want Watson playing quarterback for them. His past performance and production speaks for itself. But ultimately, the Browns were lured into bidding for the right to a quarterback who still has 22 lawsuits against him alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct. The team’s eagerness to give up five draft picks — including three in the first round — and $230 million fully guaranteed was a disquieting revelation that will reflect poorly on the franchise for a long time.

Tannenbaum: WR Christian Kirk to the Jaguars. Part of free agency is understanding value and strategy. There were multiple wide receivers — including Allen Robinson II and Robert Woods — who were better values than Kirk, who is a productive player. If we factor in a loaded receiving group in the NFL draft, the Jaguars would have been better off adding another offensive lineman (Terron Armstead) or a pass-rusher (Haason Reddick).

Walder: LB Foyesade Oluokun to the Jaguars. Jacksonville severely overpaid at a non-premium position, as he got $28 million fully guaranteed. Oluokun is fine, but there is nothing in the metrics that I’m seeing — whether it’s run stop win rate, pass rush win rate, nearest defender coverage data or Pro Football Focus grade — that suggests he is a high-end off-ball linebacker. Meanwhile, other defenders such as Carlton Davis and Haason Reddick received comparable guarantees despite being better players at more important positions.

Yates: RB James Conner back to the Cardinals. I’m thrilled for Conner, who just kept finding the end zone last season and emerged as a leader for the Cardinals. The part that I’m more skeptical of is the money involved, as Conner’s deal makes him the 10th-highest paid back in the league. That felt like a premium for a player who finished 27th in the league in rushing yards and 43rd in yards per carry.

What was the best overall free-agent signing?

Bell: WR Allen Robinson II to the Rams. I love the improvements from the Bills and Bengals, and the Rams fall into that same bucket in rescuing Robinson from Chicago. It’s fair to say that despite the ultimate success of Matthew Stafford’s 2021 season, he wasn’t exceptionally precise when throwing the ball downfield (27th in deep pass accuracy). Enter Robinson, who dropped just one (one!) deep pass on his 128 deep targets in Chicago. He’s a player who will win 50-50 balls and is still in his prime (he turns 29 in August). The rich get richer, much to the dismay of the rest of the NFC West.

Bowen: OLB Haason Reddick to the Eagles. He can set the edge as a strongside linebacker in the Eagles’ base defense and then drop down to rush the passer in sub packages. Reddick has an electric first step, with the ability to bend/flatten off the edge. Philly landed a disruptor here.

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1:01

Ryan Clark weighs in on Mitchell Trubisky’s signing with the Steelers.

Clay: OT La’El Collins to the Bengals. The offseason doesn’t get much better than watching a team identify and successfully fill a clear problem area. After watching franchise quarterback Joe Burrow take 70 sacks in 20 games last season, Cincinnati was aggressive in upgrading a weak offensive line. That included a pair of solid interior players in guard/center Ted Karras and guard Alex Cappa, as well as Collins, the highlight of the group. Add in 24-year-old left tackle Jonah Williams and 2021 second-rounder Jackson Carman at left guard, and the Bengals’ line suddenly has a chance to be an asset rather than a major liability.

Cockcroft: OLB Von Miller to the Bills. Miller is coming off a strong bounce-back season, including a great showing during the playoffs. He might be the last piece needed to help push the Bills over the top to a Super Bowl win.

Fowler: S Marcus Williams to the Ravens. It’s not hyperbole to say the Ravens haven’t had a ball-hawking safety like this since Ed Reed. They’ve had great overall safety play, to be sure, but Williams has elite ball skills with 38 pass deflections and 15 interceptions in five seasons in New Orleans. Williams paired with corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters will be a problem for AFC North quarterbacks.

Graziano: WR Allen Robinson II to the Rams. And they got him for less than the Jaguars are paying Christian Kirk! Robinson is basically the wide receiver version of what Matthew Stafford was last offseason — a guy we all feel pretty sure is very good but has been held back by his circumstances for way too long. The list of quarterbacks from whom Robinson has had to try to catch passes during his career is too depressing to get into right now, but it suffices to say he has never had a quarterback like Stafford. In Sean McVay’s offense, with Cooper Kupp drawing attention, Robinson could have a career year.

Moody: WR Chris Godwin back to the Bucs. A knee injury prevented him from playing the final three games of the regular season and the postseason. Godwin posted 98 catches for 1,103 yards and six touchdowns before the injury. As one of the league’s best blockers, he’s an important part of the Buccaneers’ passing attack. His three-year contract reflects that.

Miller: CB J.C. Jackson to the Chargers. If you’re going to play in the AFC West, you have to have a lockdown cornerback. Chargers coach Brandon Staley has his now with the ball-hawking Jackson. He’ll see plenty of one-on-one matchups against Courtland Sutton and Davante Adams, which is why L.A. spent big money ($82.5 million over five years) to lock up one of the NFL’s best corners.

Reid: OT La’El Collins to the Bengals. Even though the Bengals reached the Super Bowl, it was clear that the offensive line needed significant upgrades. The signing of Collins took their offseason upgrades over the top. Reuniting with Frank Pollack, his offensive line coach for the first three seasons of his career, Collins is the rock-solid starter at right tackle who Cincinnati sorely needed.

Seifert: CB Carlton Davis to the Bucs. With some patience, the Buccaneers got Davis back on their roster for significantly less than top cornerback value. They’ll pay him $30 million over the next two seasons, while the Chargers will pay J.C. Jackson $40 million over the same period. Jackson might make a few more splash plays, but you won’t find too many people in the NFL who think he’s worth 33% more than Davis in cash and cap value.

Tannenbaum: OLB Chandler Jones to the Raiders. He immediately makes Maxx Crosby better, as it’s hard to double-team two edge rushers at the same time. For the Raiders to get to where they want to go, they have to beat Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert in the AFC West. Having two difference-making defensive ends is a great way to improve.

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2:10

The Get Up crew is raising eyebrows after the majority of the panel picked the Bills to win the AFC over the Bengals and Chiefs.

Walder: OLB Haason Reddick to the Eagles. Reddick has a ton of green flags: back-to-back seasons of double-digit sack production, produced for multiple teams, a top-10 pass rush win rate last year, and he’s only 27. It made him, in my estimation, the top free-agent pass-rusher available. And while Reddick’s contract wasn’t cheap, it also wasn’t overly expensive at what could be either $30 million over two years or $45 million over three.

Yates: G Alex Cappa and G/C Ted Karras to the Bengals. Cincinnati’s offensive line need was known to everyone entering the offseason, but it has been softened quite a bit by the additions of two rugged, dependable players in Cappa and Karras. While both project to slide in at the guard spots, Karras also can play center if ever needed. These two should be favorites of Joe Burrow sooner rather than later.

Which is the most improved team after free agency and other moves over the past two weeks?

Bell: Bengals. They might not have made the sexiest moves, but the offensive line was perhaps the main thing that stood between them and a Super Bowl victory. Quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times last season. Teams went 16-34 last season when pressured on at least 42% of dropbacks, and the Bengals’ Super Bowl loss was among them (42.9%). The addition of right tackle La’el Collins — Burrow’s new self-proclaimed bodyguard — and interior linemen Ted Karras and Alex Cappa might be just what’s needed to put them over the top in 2022.

Bowen: Bills. The Bills added a game-changer in pass-rusher Von Miller, while defensive tackles Tim Settle and DaQuan Jones bolster the interior of the front. Buffalo upgraded the defensive line here to keep the AFC’s top quarterbacks in check and make a Super Bowl run.

Clay: Chargers. There are plenty of good options here, but I’ll give the nod to the Chargers for their success in surrounding young QB Justin Herbert with a much better supporting cast. Cornerback J.C. Jackson and edge rusher Khalil Mack are among the best in the league at their respective positions. Los Angeles’ run defense was atrocious last season, so defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson were much-needed improvements up front. Re-signing receiver Mike Williams and adding tight end Gerald Everett help the cause on the offensive side.

Cockcroft: Chargers. They rolled on offense in 2021 but were severely lacking on defense, having surrendered the 10th-most yards and fourth-most points. It was probably the primary reason they just missed the playoffs. But the Chargers have done quite a good job upgrading that area, with the additions of Mack, Jackson, Joseph-Day and Johnson. And re-signing Williams and keeping the offensive parts in place certainly helps, too.

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1:08

Louis Riddick weighs in on the Raiders’ signing of pass-rusher Chandler Jones.

Fowler: Raiders. A team on the cusp just added the necessary players to make a serious run. The Davante Adams trade elevates the entire offense, and Chandler Jones is a Hall of Fame-level edge rusher. With Jones taking Yannick Ngakoue’s spot opposite Maxx Crosby, the Raiders flipped Ngakoue for Rock Ya-Sin, an intriguing 25-year-old corner with untapped potential. The Raiders got a lot better, and the AFC West will notice. Now, about addressing that offensive line …

Graziano: Jaguars. You can argue with some (if not all) of the contracts, but you can’t say the Jaguars aren’t working to get better in free agency. They landed a top guard in Brandon Scherff, a starting cornerback in Darious Williams, and two key defenders who drew interest from other teams in LB Foyesade Oluokun and DT Folorunso Fatukasi. I don’t know exactly how the pass-catcher situation shakes out with new guys Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram in the mix, but the receivers they had last year weren’t lighting the world on fire. Plus, factor in a dramatic upgrade at head coach. I don’t think the Jags are ready to compete with all of those AFC heavyweights, but after a 3-14 mess, I expect them to be at least a lot better than they were.

Moody: Bengals. They added offensive linemen Collins, Karras and Cappa to help protect their franchise quarterback. And considering the other offensive playmakers on the Bengals’ roster, tight end Hayden Hurst — on a one-year deal — will be a mismatch for opponents.

Miller: Broncos. The trade for quarterback Russell Wilson will receive the most attention (and rightfully so), but adding to an already impressive defense by signing edge rusher Randy Gregory and defensive tackle D.J. Jones could make the Broncos a legitimate AFC West contender.

Reid: Chargers. Having a quarterback on a rookie deal, as the Chargers do with Herbert, is a big roster-building asset. It helped them sign Williams to an extension. But their most impressive moves mostly came on defense. Trading for Mack and signing Joseph-Day and Jackson provided upgrades in key spots. The AFC West is going to be a battle week in and week out, and the Chargers have improved significantly on the defensive side to help complement an explosive offense led by their ascending star under center.

• Tracking signings, more » | Grades »
• Early winners, losers » | Top teams »
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More NFL free agency coverage »

Seifert: Ravens. I thought about the Browns but wondered how much quarterback Deshaun Watson will impact them considering he could serve a suspension. The Broncos made the Wilson deal but play in the toughest division in football. The Ravens, meanwhile, have addressed big needs with good players — safety Marcus Williams and right tackle Morgan Moses, among others — and should be right back in the AFC North mix this season.

Tannenbaum: Browns. The dramatic upgrade at quarterback overshadows everything else. Watson gives them a chance to meaningfully compete for a Super Bowl each year that he stays healthy. An improvement at receiver with Amari Cooper replacing Jarvis Landry makes Cleveland’s offense even more difficult to stop, considering that it already has playmakers around Watson and Cooper in tight end David Njoku, running back Nick Chubb and running back Kareem Hunt.

Walder: Broncos. The upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater/Drew Lock to Wilson outpaces any gains made by other teams and instantly transformed Denver from non-contender to contender.

Yates: Broncos. The additions of Gregory and Jones help fortify an already rock-solid defensive front seven, but the trade for Wilson is what cements Denver as the pick here. No team has been the subject of more “if only they had a quarterback” conversations than the Broncos. They should feel confident they now have one who can lead them to a Super Bowl.

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