• Geno Smith, Andy Dalton among QBs who exceeded contracts: Those two and Jacoby Brissett took advantage of their playing time on meager deals.
• D.J. Reed Jr. forms elite duo with Sauce Gardner: Reed complemented Gardner's lockdown abilities to perfection, in turn creating one of the NFL's most formidable cornerback pairings.
• James Bradberry hits market again: A late-offseason cut by the Giants, Bradberry far exceeded his one-year deal with the Eagles in 2022 as the team made its Super Bowl run.
Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins
NFL free agency is a chance for teams to find bargain-bin values in players who far exceed their contracts. That can arise from one-year fliers or from long-term deals. Regardless, the teams that “win” free agency each year are those who squeeze as much value out of their signings.
We’ll examine some of the best free agents of the past offseason who created that surplus of value.
QB Andy Dalton, New Orleans Saints
- Age (at start of 2022 season): 34
- Contract: One year, $3,000,000
- PFF Grade: 82.1
- Key Stat: 80.7 passing grade vs. blitz (best in NFL; min. 200 dropbacks)
In the year of the backup quarterback, Andy Dalton was the best among them. While Dalton won’t often tantalize with arm strength, he will manage the game with veteran savvy and intelligence. He stepped in after Jameis Winston was injured and never relinquished the job, all while developing a key rapport with Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Chris Olave.
The Saints had a subpar season for a lot of reasons, but Dalton was nowhere near the top of that list. Now 35 years old, he won’t be a long-term solution for a quarterback-needy team, but he will provide stability as a bridge option or as arguably the best backup in the NFL.
QB Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland Browns
- Age: 29
- Contract: One year, $4,650,000
- PFF Grade: 82.6
- Key Stat: 91.5 rushing grade (T-3rd best in NFL)
Brissett had a tough job in Cleveland knowing he would be replaced by Deshaun Watson after 11 games. Despite the distraction, Brissett performed very well and the Browns were much better offensively with him at the helm compared to Watson.
Like Dalton, Brissett isn’t a franchise quarterback, but he is a valuable bridge or backup option who is capable of moving the chains. He flashed a newfound ability to scramble and occasionally showed high-end passing ability, as evidenced by his six big-time throws against the Buffalo Bills in Week 11.
QB Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks
- Age: 31
- Contract: 1 year, $3,500,000 guaranteed ($3,500,000 more in incentives)
- PFF Grade: 79.3
- Key Stats: 99.2 passing grade on 20-plus yard throws (best in NFL)
Geno Smith could have sought greener pastures but chose to stay in Seattle and compete with Drew Lock for the starting job ahead of the 2022 season. And Seahawks brass and fans are glad he did. Smith spearheaded the team, projected by some to have a bottom-five roster, to a playoff berth while earning Pro Bowl and Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Smith’s efforts are made all the more incredible by the fact that Seattle was deploying rookies at running back and both tackle spots. For having started only five games since 2015, Smith showed no rust and has never played better. He’s earned every future dollar he will make in Seattle or elsewhere.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kansas City Chiefs
- Age: 25
- Contract: One year, $3,760,000
- PFF Grade: 70.1
- Key Stat: 80.7 catch rate when targeted (4th in NFL; min. 35 targets)
Smith-Schuster revitalized his career in Kansas City. He was the team's most consistent wide receiver in 2022 and became a route-running specialist, beating zone defenses in the short game with aplomb. He occasionally flashes his trademark after-the-catch ability but more often moves the chains and keeps drives alive.
Smith-Schuster isn’t in the elite class of receivers, but he formed an invaluable connection with Patrick Mahomes in 2022 and is still very young. He and the Chiefs would be wise to reunite.
TE Evan Engram, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Age: 28
- Contract: One year, $9,000,000
- PFF Grade: 67.6
- Key Stat: 573 yards after catch (2nd in NFL among tight ends)
A reclamation project similar to Smith-Schuster, Engram found the perfect match in Doug Pederson and the Jaguars. Engram gave opposing defense headaches as the year progressed, especially when split out wide.
His athletic ability has always been evident, and his career-low 4.5% drop rate is indicative of an improvement in focus. Engram, should Jacksonville choose to re-sign him, would give Trevor Lawrence a dangerous weapon for years to come as they continue to build up the franchise.
C Ethan Pocic, Cleveland Browns
- Age: 27
- Contract: 1 year, $1.1875M
- PFF Grade: 79.0
- Key Stat: 89.5 zone blocking grade (2nd in NFL among centers)
The two best centers in football faced off in the Super Bowl, and the next best was Cleveland’s Ethan Pocic. The former Seahawk never fully found his footing in Seattle, but Pocic proved to be a perfect fit in head coach Kevin Stefanski's outside zone scheme.
That fit puts Pocic in line for a big raise and quelled any concerns about J.C. Tretter’s retirement last offseason. Pocic may have been the biggest bargain signing in the NFL last offseason. He’s due for free agency again, but he will be a fixture wherever he ends up in 2023 and beyond.
T Morgan Moses, Baltimore Ravens
- Age: 31
- Contract: Three years, $15,000,000
- PFF Grade: 78.6
- Key Stat: 84.1 overall grade from Week 8 onward (5th among tackles in that span)
Moses is a consistently solid player who doesn’t quite make the cut as an All-Pro candidate in any given year. Still, he is always productive enough to make a big impact. For a mere $5 million per year, the Ravens managed to scoop up the sixth-best right tackle in football this past offseason
Moses was the highest-graded lineman playing for an elite unit. He is a near-elite tackle with a salary comparable to what some teams pay for a backup. Moses is a stud, and the Ravens should be very glad to have him.
EDGE Haason Reddick, Philadelphia Eagles
- Age: 27
- Contract: Three years, $45,000,000
- PFF Grade: 84.6
- Key Stat: 90.7 pass-rush grade (3rd in NFL among edge defenders)
Our first example of a non-bargain bin signing, Reddick finally lived up to his first-round billing. Including the postseason, he totaled a league-leading 21 sacks and was the most productive member of the Eagles’ league-best pass rush.
While Reddick did struggle in the Super Bowl, he did everything he possibly could to get the Eagles there, racking up 15 sacks from Week 11 through the NFC title game. His presence keeps Philadelphia’s front seven in good shape going into 2023.
LB Bobby Wagner, Los Angeles Rams
- Age: 32
- Contract: Five years, $50,000,000
- PFF Grade: 90.7
- Key Stat: 91.1 run-defense grade and 91.0 tackling grade (both best in NFL among linebackers)
A $10 million average annual value for a linebacker comes with expectations, and Wagner absolutely shattered them in what turned out to be his only season in Los Angeles. His 90.7 overall grade was the best in the regular season by nearly six points. His performance would arguably warrant double the salary he made in 2022, likely a reason he and the Rams are parting ways.
Not only was Wagner the NFL’s best run defender at linebacker, but he carried a 77.9 coverage grade, as well — a top-10 mark for the position and his best coverage grade since 2018. Wagner was named a second-team All-Pro, which almost feels like a travesty. He’s a future Hall of Famer and will substantially help whichever team he signs with next.
CB Stephon Gilmore, Indianapolis Colts
- Age: 31
- Contract: Two years, $20,000,000
- PFF Grade: 79.1
- Key Stat: 78.6 coverage grade in man coverage (5th among cornerbacks; min. 300 coverage snaps)
Among the 86 cornerbacks who played 500 snaps in 2022, four of the top 10 in coverage grade were signed as free agents (more on the rest below). Gilmore was the best among them. The former Defensive Player of the Year continues to age gracefully and carried the fourth-best coverage grade of the aforementioned group.
Gilmore did not give up 80 yards in coverage in any individual game, and his presence is a primary reason the Colts can focus on their offense this offseason.
CB Patrick Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
- Age: 32
- Contract: One year, $4,000,000
- PFF Grade: 77.8
- Key Stat: Five Interceptions (T-2nd in NFL among cornerbacks)
Peterson’s signing was actually a reunion, but he was an unrestricted free agent and coming off a 2021 campaign in which he earned a mere 63.0 grade. Peterson enjoyed a bounce-back season and was arguably the only bright spot in a Vikings secondary that struggled throughout the year.
His 79.7 coverage grade ranked sixth best among cornerbacks (min. 500 snaps), and while he may have to find work year to year, he proved he can still produce for a team in need of coverage help.
CB D.J Reed Jr., New York Jets
- Age: 25
- Contract: Three years, $33,000,000
- PFF Grade: 72.5
- Key Stat: 1.2% rate of 15-plus-yard plays allowed (2nd in NFL among cornerbacks; min. 300 coverage snaps)
Reed may be the most overshadowed star of the 2022 NFL season. A crafty signing by the Jets, he was paid to be the Robin to Sauce Gardner’s Batman. While it is hard to be Gardner’s equal, Reed gave it his best effort.
Reed ranked eighth among cornerbacks in coverage grade (min. 500 snaps). He gave up only one play longer than 20 yards all season, and even that took an exceptional throw from Aaron Rodgers into tight coverage. Reed was tested often as Gardner’s reputation grew, and he passed those tests with flying colors.
CB James Bradberry, Philadelphia Eagles
- Age: 29
- Contract: One year, $7,250,000
- PFF Grade: 71.7
- Key Stat: 51.8 passer rating allowed (best in NFL)
While his season-ending holding penalty will be unfairly remembered, Bradberry put together a stellar season that should garner more recognition. His 77.1 coverage grade ranked 10th best among cornerbacks who played at least 500 snaps. Including the postseason, Bradberry led the league in passer rating allowed and forced incompletions.
The pairing of Bradberry and Darius Slay was elite for the Eagles, and Bradberry is in line for a huge payday this time around.