NFL News & Analysis

Pending 2024 NFL free agents who have raised their stock the most this season

2T5HX3Y Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) celebrates his sack of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

•Justin Madubuike will be near the top of the interior defender market: He has gone from a good all-around player to a great all-around player and, after the market explosion among interior defenders who can rush the passer last offseason, earned himself a ton of money along the way.

• Josh Dobbs has set himself up nicely for the offseason: The importance of backup quarterbacks is clear, and Dobbs has performed at a high level at times this season.

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Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

Now through Week 13 of the 2023 NFL season, the free agency picture is becoming much clearer and players up for new deals are separating themselves from the pack with strong performances in contract years. We highlighted our top 10 free agents at each position to kick off our free agency coverage, and now we turn to 10 players who have boosted their stock the most thus far in 2023.

This article isn’t necessarily about who will make the most money; it is about the players who had some — or many — questions heading into the season and have done their best to answer them positively.

QB Josh Dobbs, Minnesota Vikings

Dobbs has come back down to earth a bit in recent weeks after looking like the story of the 2023 NFL season, but his campaign will nonetheless be one we won’t forget for a very long time. He has earned himself many more years in the NFL with legitimate backup quarterback money and status, at the least.

Dobbs was traded to the Arizona Cardinals about two weeks before Week 1 kicked off and filled in very admirably on a roster that has a case as the league’s least talented, and then he won a game against the Atlanta Falcons less than a week after joining the Minnesota Vikings. In Weeks 2-3 in Arizona, Dobbs completed 38 of his 52 attempts (73%) for 417 yards (8.02 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns to zero interceptions, adding 96 yards and a touchdown on the ground with a great performance in a win over the Dallas Cowboys. Against Atlanta in Week 9 right after the trade deadline, Dobbs completed 20 of his 30 passes with two touchdowns while throwing to receivers he met that week, adding 66 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Dobbs has a high-variance nature to his game, which was a big reason why his teams were able to win games but also can lead to negative plays. However, a key element to Dobbs’ game that should earn him more jobs going forward is his 14.7% pressure-to-sack rate, which is the seventh-best mark in 2023 among 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 pressured dropbacks.

G Kevin Dotson, Los Angeles Rams

Dotson has always been a good pass protector, dating back to his Pittsburgh Steelers days, but after the Los Angeles Rams acquired him this offseason for two pick swaps where the Rams moved down a round early on Day 3, Dotson has taken his game to another level.

Not only does Dotson’s 72.8 pass-blocking grade in 2023 rank 13th out of 79 qualifying guards, but his 22.0% positively graded run-block percentage is the second-best mark among guards through Week 13. Dotson appears to have benefited from the switch to a rushing scheme that incorporates more outside zone, but he also sports an 88.0 run-blocking grade on gap rushes — which ranks fourth out of 73 qualifying guards.

The former fourth-round pick has developed into a strong all-around player, with four consecutive seasons of earning pass-blocking grades above 72.0. That’s going to get a player paid in the NFL, especially now amid the influx of interior pass-rushers taking the league by storm. The guard market has risen in tandem to a degree, and Dotson could be a major beneficiary of that trend this upcoming offseason.

C Lloyd Cushenberry III, Denver Broncos

Cushenberry had a promising Year 2 jump after a tough rookie campaign but then missed the second half of 2022 with an injury. Through Week 13 of 2023, Cushenberry is back on track and having a career year as a pass blocker and a run blocker.

Cushenberry’s 73.0 pass-blocking grade on true pass sets in 2023 ranks second among centers, with his 1.9% pressure rate allowed on the season the third-best mark at the position. Cushenberry’s 70.7 run-blocking grade is a career high by nearly 10 grading points, and while it’s not the strength of his game, a high floor in the run game coupled with a very high ceiling as a pass protector is a welcome profile for a free agent center.

Cushenberry could stand to clean up some pre-snap and post-snap penalty issues and get even more consistent, but the talent is there.

T Austin Jackson, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins appear to have finally found a home on the offensive line for former first-round pick tackle Austin Jackson, who earned the starting job at right tackle and is having a strong fourth season. Jackson has continued to play better and better with increased confidence, earning the best single-game grade of his career by more than 10 grading points in Week 13 (87.0).

Jackson’s 91.1 run-blocking grade in Week 13 was also a career-best mark by 13 points, and he allowed zero quarterback pressures on 25 pass-blocking snaps, though he did lose two reps.

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Nonetheless, Jackson was an extremely young draft prospect back in 2020 and is coming into his own while still only 24 years old in his fourth NFL season. He’ll still be 24 until August of 2024, and the foundation could be in place for a young athletic tackle to take his game to the next level on a second contract. Jackson went from looking at potential minimum contracts to fighting for a swing tackle job to now perhaps playing his way into a solid payday as a high-upside tackle.

It should certainly be noted that Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s league-fastest average time to throw and head coach Mike McDaniel’s wide-zone rushing scheme have boosted the numbers of offensive linemen for years, but Jackson’s age and potential will be very intriguing if the former first-rounder reaches unrestricted free agency.

DI Justin Madubuike, Baltimore Ravens

Madubuike had already established himself as a good all-around defender with consistent down-to-down effort on tape and a developing pass-rush arsenal, but the fourth-year breakout here has been noticeable.

Madubuike now has far more pressures (45) and nearly double the sack total (10) through Week 13 of this season than he's had in any full season prior, with his career-high 13.3% pass-rush win rate ranking 16th among interior defenders. Madubuike’s 78.6 pass-rushing grade on true pass sets ranks 17th out of 114 qualifying interior defenders in 2023, and he has recorded eight of his sacks on those plays.

Madubuike's 70.5 run-defense grade and 9.8% run-stop rate are also career highs. He has gone from a good all-around player to a great all-around player and, after the market explosion among interior defenders who can rush the passer last offseason, earned himself a ton of money along the way.

EDGE Jonathan Greenard, Houston Texans

Perhaps Greenard’s biggest question mark entering this season was simply whether he could stay healthy and carry a full workload. So far in 2023, he’s been able to stay on the field and consistently make plays, already logging over 100 more snaps than in any full season to date.

Greenard’s 8.8% run-stop win rate over the past two seasons ranks seventh out of 75 qualifying edge defenders, and his 27 defensive stops in 2023 are tied for the eighth most among edge defenders.

Greenard is an every-down contributor who has gotten better as a pass-rusher and also benefited from teammates around him who threaten opposing offenses, such as draft pick edge defender Will Anderson Jr. and free agent addition interior defender Sheldon Rankins. Greenard should not apologize for this whatsoever, as it’s very hard to win as a rusher with so few threats around you.

Greenard could be the primary beneficiary of the franchise tags that seem inevitable for players like Josh Allen and Brian Burns. In addition, many of the other top edge defender free agents are older, carry more serious injury concerns or are viewed as specialists to varying degrees.

EDGE Andrew Van Ginkel, Miami Dolphins

Van Ginkel has been a productive player in a rotational capacity, but there is now a huge opportunity in front of him with ascending star edge defender Jaelan Phillips out for the season due to a torn Achilles. So far, Van Ginkel has made the most of it, with the following production over Weeks 12 and 13:

  • 91.2 pass-rushing grade (second among edge defenders)
  • 32.4% pressure rate (third), 11 total pressures, two quarterback hits
  • Four defensive stops
  • A pick-six against the Washington Commanders, reading a screen perfectly and taking it to the house unassisted

Van Ginkel’s 17.5% pressure rate on the season ranks seventh among edge defenders, and while he has benefited from some unblocked and cleanup pressures, his 16.0% pass-rush win rate is still a top-25 mark at the position. Van Ginkel has a 90.1 pass-rushing grade on true pass sets, good for fourth at the position.

While Van Ginkel may be viewed by some teams as a better member of a platoon than an every-down guy, though he’s not a liability by any means against the run, he logged 801 snaps in 2021 and earned a 70.1 pass-rushing grade with 45 pressures. Now, he’s wreaking havoc as a pass-rusher with high-impact plays that are going a long way in determining game outcomes.

LB Blake Cashman, Houston Texans

Cashman was acquired via trade from the New York Jets before the 2022 season but went on to play just 149 defensive snaps due to a concussion sidelining him for a while. Flash-forward to 2023, with the arrival of new head coach and former NFL linebacker DeMeco Ryans, and Cashman is having a career year.

Cashman in his first year in Houston displayed an ability to come forward and get after the quarterback, with 11 pressures and three sacks on just 58 pass-rush snaps. Not only has that carried over into 2023, but every other facet of linebacker play has been top notch.

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Cashman’s 558 snaps in 2023 are almost as many as his career total in his first four seasons, and his 89.8 overall grade ranks third among linebackers. Cashman’s eight tackles for loss or no gain against the run is a top-15 mark, and his 82.5 coverage grade ranks seventh.

Cashman has once again been an asset on the occasional pass rush, with seven pressures and two sacks on 33 pass-rush reps. The off-ball linebacker market in free agency is a fickle beast, but Cashman has earned himself some cash, man.

CB Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears

Johnson had already established himself as a highly skilled, technically sound outside cornerback with serious shutdown potential against opposing wideouts of any size or style, but he’s taken his game to another level in 2023.

Johnson’s 90.4 coverage grade leads all cornerbacks through Week 13, his 90.2 coverage grade without pressure on the opposing quarterback ranks fifth and his 92.6 coverage grade against passes thrown in three seconds or less also leads the NFL. The latter two are what PFF defines as stable metrics at the cornerback position. Johnson’s 4.0 yards per coverage target allowed, 0.5% explosive reception allowed rate and 0.45 yards per coverage snap allowed rate are all top-five marks among cornerbacks.

Ball production has always been a knock on Johnson, and although he has three dropped interceptions on the year — the second most among cornerbacks — he also has a career-high three interceptions, including a pick-six. Johnson’s 17.5% forced incompletion rate is a top-20 mark overall, as he’s been a lockdown player for much of the 2023 campaign.

S Geno Stone, Baltimore Ravens

Ballhawking deep-third free safeties don’t always cash in when free agency rolls around, as the league perceives some of the production to be largely predicated on the surrounding circumstances. Stone has certainly benefited from an ideal supporting cast with the Ravens and defensive coordinator Mike McDonald this season, but his ball production can't be ignored.

In his first season playing in a full-time role on a defense that deploys three-safety looks as much as any team in the NFL, Stone boasts an 89.6 coverage grade and an NFL-leading six interceptions through Week 13. Stone has been credited with allowing just 18 receptions for 120 yards on 29 targets into his coverage, surrendering just one touchdown and only two receptions of 15-plus yards.

The knocks on Stone will be about his lack of deployment in the box or the slot and his poor run defense/tackling. However, if a team is looking for an eraser on the back end to make opposing quarterbacks think twice about chucking it deep, Stone has been that man this season.

S Xavier McKinney, New York Giants

McKinney didn’t exactly do himself any favors last season by earning a career-low grade and suffering an injury to his hand in an ATV accident, and his public comments about defensive coordinator Wink Martindale not listening to defensive leaders this season caught the respected coach off guard. Still, McKinney's talent and production when healthy are undeniable.

McKinney’s coverage grades in 2023 when lined up as a free safety, down in the box and in the slot are all top-10 marks among safeties, with decent enough sample sizes for the latter two to be worth noting. Over the past three seasons, McKinney’s 7.0 yards per coverage target is a top-25 mark among safeties and his 17 combined interceptions and forced incompletions are a top-20 mark.

While he could make more plays at or near the line of scrimmage, McKinney rarely whiffs on open-field tackles, with his career 7.8% missed tackle rate ranking as the 11th-best mark among 89 safeties with at least 100 tackles over the past four seasons.


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