Biggest surprises of 2023 NFL free agency: Lamar Jackson's market, New England's restrained approach and more

Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

• The San Francisco 49ers making arguably the biggest splash: The 49ers had a lot of money to spend, but few expected them to give Javon Hargrave the bag and add another elite pass-rusher to an already nasty defensive front.

Lamar Jackson‘s had a quiet few days: It’s tough to tell what’s more surprising, Jackson being hit with the non-exclusive tag or that there hasn’t been a succession of teams bidding to acquire a former league MVP in the prime of his career.

• New England falling behind? With the Buffalo Bills already an elite team, Miami adding huge pieces to one of the best-coached teams in the league and the New York Jets calling any available Butte Community College alumni in their pursuit of Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots could find themselves adrift at the bottom of the AFC East in a hurry.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


NFL free agency has been a whirlwind. And while many of the deals that will significantly impact the 2023 regular season are still to be made, enough has happened that we can start to look at the biggest surprises and takeaways.

The relatively quiet trade market

With such a weak group of free agents in several key areas, it seemed likely that teams might turn to the trade market the way they did a season ago when elite playmakers seemed to be constantly on the move.

While some big names have been involved in trades this free agency — namely Jalen Ramsey and Darren Waller — the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Brandin Cooks have yet to be traded, let alone any of the other players who were the subject of trade rumors before free agency began.

There is still plenty of time for such trades to materialize, but many expected the trade market to be much livelier than it has been, especially since the draft class is also weak in several key areas.


The San Francisco 49ers making arguably the biggest single splash

The 49ers had a lot of money to spend, so there were always going to be some big contracts handed out. Still, few expected them to give Javon Hargrave — arguably the prize of the free agency this offseason — the bag and add another elite pass-rusher to an already nasty defensive front.

San Francisco can reap the benefits of having two different quarterbacks on rookie contracts and dole out money they otherwise might not have had. Hargrave produced 66 total pressures last season, including the playoffs. The eight interior rushers the 49ers used last season combined for just 88.


Chicago spending big money on off-ball linebackers after eschewing Roquan Smith

Bears general manager Ryan Poles made a big deal of positional value when they traded away Roquan Smith for a second-round pick rather than investing big money in him. And there was a lot of sense in what he was saying, particularly given where the rest of the roster was.

So, it was strange to see the Bears turn around and invest comparable money in Tremaine Edmunds in free agency. They still have a huge need along their defensive line, which was the worst unit in the NFL last year — Chicago's defensive line produced a pressure rate of just 19.4% last season, the worst mark in the league — and that’s a need that will affect how well their linebackers can play.

Edmunds is coming off a career year, but Smith's performance before and after the trade shows how important the supporting cast is.


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Lamar Jackson being hit with the non-exclusive franchise tag

The longer negotiations dragged out between Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, the clearer it became that the franchise tag was going to be a live possibility. But very few expected it would be the non-exclusive version that exposed him to the market and offers from other teams — until it happened.

The two sides are far enough apart that Baltimore is willing to let the market negotiate for them and implicitly dare Jackson to get a better offer than they are offering by giving him less guaranteed money than the exclusive version of the franchise tag. This is not a scenario many people saw coming.


Lamar Jackson having seemingly little trade market

It’s tough to tell what’s more surprising, Lamar Jackson being hit with the non-exclusive tag or that there hasn’t been a succession of teams bidding to acquire a former league MVP in the prime of his career.

It was also curious to see the number of teams that seemingly distanced themselves from the race almost immediately after the Ravens used the tag.

When you consider the real mechanics of how the offer sheet would work — that any prospective team needs to carry that contract on their books for the week that Baltimore has to decide whether to match, effectively prohibiting their ability to do anything else in free agency — it starts to make a little more sense.

Ultimately, however, NFL teams tend to move heaven and earth for the chance at an elite quarterback, and the fact that no team has been willing to move so much as a phone to their ear publicly has been a real shock.


Michael Thomas re-signing with the Saints

It seemed like a given that Michael Thomas and the New Orleans Saints would part ways after his contract was reworked the last time, but retaining him on a deal worth just $10 million in base value — $15 million in potential at the top end — is a huge move and a real surprise.

Thomas has been battling injury for the last three years after making his name as one of the most dominant receivers in the game, but he scored three touchdowns and saw 22 targets in his three games last season, with passes thrown his way netting a 134.7 passer rating.

He can be an impact playmaker if he can stay on the field, particularly as New Orleans has upgraded the receiving corps around him.


New England keeping quiet while the rest of the division engages in an arms race

JuJu Smith-Schuster represents the biggest move the New England Patriots have made, and that is a minor upgrade over Jakobi Meyers, if at all.

With the Buffalo Bills already an elite team, Miami adding huge pieces to one of the best-coached teams in the league and the New York Jets calling any available Butte Community College alumni they can in their pursuit of Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots could find themselves adrift at the bottom of the AFC East in a hurry.

It hasn’t generally been a New England approach to make aggressive moves in free agency — outside of a couple of years ago — but they may need to if they have any hope of contending just within their own division next season.


 

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