• A trio of new Falcons is off to a hot start: Safety Jessie Bates III, interior defender David Onyemata and linebacker Kaden Elliss have all made an early impact for the 2-0 Falcons.
• The Colts made a shrewd move in signing Gardner Minshew: The journeyman quarterback stepped up in Week 2 to ensure the Colts finished off the Texans.
• Bobby Wagner is back at it in Seattle: The longtime Seahawk's four tackles for loss or no gain and 13 defensive stops are both top-two marks at the position, as are his 23 solo tackles.
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
It’s still early in the 2023 NFL season, but a few free agent additions from this offseason are already making waves with their new teams. The PFF grades and data will obviously continue to evolve for the individuals and the teams, but it’s clear that the overall complexion of some units has materially changed based on key free agent acquisitions.
We kick things off with a trio of Atlanta Falcons defensive additions. While their opponents through the first two weeks — the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers — are both starting new and inexperienced quarterbacks, Atlanta’s new-look defense has been wreaking havoc.
Onyemata was coming off a down 2022 season that started with a six-game suspension, but he’s off to an incredibly fast start in 2023. His 91.5 overall grade trails only Kansas City Chiefs superstar Chris Jones among interior defenders, and he’s one of two interior defenders with 80.0-plus grades against the run and as a pass rusher (Philadelphia Eagles interior defender Jalen Carter). Onyemata's 28.9% pass-rush win rate is also second to Chris Jones.
Bates made a major splash in free agency by signing a four-year, $64.02 million contract, and thus far he’s been worth every penny. Bates’ 93.3 overall grade sits atop the safety position through two weeks, as does his 91.4 coverage grade. His 83.1 run-defense grade ranks fifth. Bates snagged two crucial interceptions in a Week 1 win over the Carolina Panthers but has also allowed just one reception for four yards into his coverage through two games. As a run defender, he has added a forced fumble and defensive stop.
Elliss is a Swiss Army knife talent who was buried on a deep and talented New Orleans Saints depth chart throughout his rookie contract, which made his three-year, $21.5 million free agent deal with the Falcons a bit of a surprise. Then-Saints defensive coordinator and now-Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen knew the talent Elliss possessed, and it’s already showing up in a full-time role in Atlanta.
Elliss has registered a quarterback pressure in each game thus far, including a sack in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, all on just 10 pass-rush reps. In coverage, Elliss has earned a 74.0 grade with four receptions allowed for 27 yards. Finally, he has been stout as a tackler and run defender, with three defensive stops and 12 tackles while missing zero tackle opportunities.
It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to see Meyers in Week 2 after a violent hit from Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson landed him in the concussion protocol, but he was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s go-to target in a Week 1 win at the Denver Broncos. Meyers hauled in nine receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns, and he notably lined up out wide on 83% of his total snaps after playing in the slot roughly two-thirds of the time with the New England Patriots. His ability to win no matter his alignment is a nice value add, and he had two contested catches to go along with a forced missed tackle in his first outing with the Raiders.
In terms of a larger team impact, Meyers’ hot start possibly makes the likelihood of a Hunter Renfrow trade even more likely before the deadline on Oct. 31. Even without Meyers in Week 2, Renfrow played sparingly despite a game script that required the Raiders to pass for effectively the duration of the game, garnering just one target.
Wagner may no longer be the elite coverage linebacker he was for the better part of a decade in Seattle, but he’s still among the game’s best run defenders, with his 91.3 run-defense grade through Week 2 leading the position. Wagner’s four tackles for loss or no gain and 13 defensive stops are both top-two marks at the position, as are his 23 solo tackles. With Jordyn Brooks making a remarkable recovery from a torn ACL sustained late last season, the duo should be a problem for opposing defenses over the middle as Brooks continues to get healthier.
Billings was an under-the-radar addition for an overhauled Bears defensive front, agreeing to a one-year, $2.75 million deal after a strong season with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022. Billings’ 87.0 overall grade through two weeks is a top-10 mark among interior defenders, and his two tackles for loss or no gain are tied for sixth.
On just 13 pass-rush snaps in Week 2, Billings was credited with six quarterback pressures and a 38.5% pass-rush win rate. The massive nose tackle was primarily brought in to plug gaps in the run game, but if he can also continue to contribute here and there against the pass, it provides a major boon to the unit.
Compared to last year, the Browns' revamped defensive front has had remarkably different results against the run through two games. Cleveland allowed the fifth-highest expected points per rush figure in the NFL in 2022, ranking in the bottom 10 in tackles for loss or no gain against the run and top-10 in missed tackles against the run. The Browns were also in the bottom 10 in success rate allowed against the run.
Harris has two tackles for loss or no gain so far through two contests, with six additional defensive stops leading to a 77.8 run-defense grade. The late-offseason addition also has two pressures and a half-sack on 20 pass-rush reps. While he’s been a rotational player thus far with just 44 total snaps, perhaps his role increases as he works his way into better and better shape. Regardless, he’s making a major impact next to fellow free agent signing Dalvin Tomlinson.
We continue to stress the importance of a quality backup quarterback in today’s NFL, especially with a dynamic rushing threat like Anthony Richardson as the starter. Clearly, head coach Shane Steichen saw the value in Chase Daniel with the Los Angeles Chargers as well as Jalen Hurts and Gardner Minshew in Philadelphia.
With Richardson knocked out of a Week 2 matchup with the division rival Houston Texans on his second rushing touchdown of the day, Minshew stepped in and the offense didn’t miss a beat. The journeyman earned an 81.0 passing grade in relief, putting up a stat line of 19-of-23, 174 yards and one touchdown. Minshew averaged a lightning-fast 2.34-second time to throw, getting the ball out quickly to playmakers and letting them go to work — exactly what you want from a backup quarterback.
Minshew may get another start in Week 3, depending on how Richardson progresses through concussion protocol, and the Colts face a major step up in defensive competition with the Baltimore Ravens next on the schedule.
Holcomb didn’t get off to the best start in his Pittsburgh debut, but Kyle Shanahan has also made a career of tormenting off-ball linebackers. In Week 2, Holcomb made a huge impact in a come-from-behind win for the Steelers led by a phenomenal defensive effort, in particular with a key forced fumble of Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku.
Holcomb earned an 81.0 grade in Week 2 on a robust 78 snaps, with his 80.6 coverage grade exactly why Pittsburgh signed him to play alongside thumpers like Elandon Roberts and Kwon Alexander. Holcomb allowed just one reception for eight yards in coverage, making two defensive stops. He also added a quarterback pressure, one of over a half-dozen Steelers to wreak havoc on Deshaun Watson.
If Holcomb can continue to man the middle of the field and up the seams in coverage and prevent throws between the second level and the single-high safety that Pittsburgh generally deploys, he’ll be a huge benefit to this talented defense.
Long didn’t get off to a hot start in a shootout Week 1 contest with the Los Angeles Chargers. Teams that can put him in conflict with elite passing attacks, such as Justin Herbert’s, could cause him to play fewer snaps as he did in that game. However, against teams like the New England Patriots that lack any explosiveness, enabling him to keep things in front of him and play downhill is where he’ll thrive, as he certainly did in Week 2.
Long registered three quarterback pressures — including a sack and a hit — and added two defensive stops. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has loved sending off-ball linebackers like Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith from his Chicago days screaming into the backfield on blitzes, and Long is as good in that area as any off-ball linebacker in the game.