Underrated NFL free-agent signings for 2023: Eagles add Rashaad Penny, Chiefs bring aboard Drue Tranquill

Houston, Texas, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (20) rushes against Houston Texans defensive end Derek Rivers (95) in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

• Eagles get a steal with oft-injured RB Rashaad Penny: Among running backs with at least 100 carries from 2021 to 2022, Penny’s 6.2 yards per carry and 4.4 yards after contact per attempt both led the NFL.

• QB Jacoby Brissett presents excellent value for Commanders: While they may think Sam Howell could become a starting quarterback, Brissett offers a much higher floor and could get a lot out of their wide receiver trio.

• Seahawks can't pass Julian Love despite crowded safety room: Love was expected to earn much more than the pact he signed, so Seattle probably just couldn’t ignore the value, which is always smart.

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It’s been said ad nauseam at this point, but every offseason there are the big splash signings that make the headlines, and then the real winners of NFL free agency are the teams that hunt for good value, buy low and chase upside. This year, where many of the middle-market players struggled mightily to secure significant multi-year deals, it may be more true than ever. 

We’re not necessarily highlighting our favorite value signings versus expectation here, which we already covered, but the moves that didn’t receive major praise yet could make a meaningful difference in 2023.

EDGE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Cleveland Browns

Contract: Three years, $19 million ($6.33 million per year), $12.49 million total guaranteed

Only one Cleveland Browns edge defender not named Myles Garrett earned a 60.0-plus pass rush in 2022, and that was free agent Jadeveon Clowney. None surpassed a 13.5% pass-rush win rate, with Garrett miles ahead at 25.6%. Okoronkwo earned an 81.9 grade and had a very respectable 19.4% pass-rush win rate, and that was while playing on a defensive line lacking a teammate in the same stratosphere as Garrett to pull attention away.

Okoronkwo could feast if he continues to play at the same level he finished the 2022 season and, with opposing offenses chipping and doubling Garrett constantly, could rack up a ton of pressures. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz should have this overhauled defensive line playing much better against the pass and run going forward. 

LB Drue Tranquill, Kansas City Chiefs

Contract: One year, $3 million

Many league personnel were high on Tranquill’s prospects in this year’s free agency, with both AFC and NFC sources mentioning him as a player they thought could do better than expected. Despite a limited sample size as a starter, it’s not hard to see why. Tranquill’s 76.7 coverage grade ranked 11th among off-ball linebackers in 2022, and he should continue to get better at identifying offenses with more reps as a full-time starter.

The most fun utilization of Tranquill in Kansas City could be how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo brings him on the occasional blitz. Tranquill’s 23.3% pressure rate over the past two seasons ranks fourth among off-ball linebackers and his 21.1% pass-rush win rate ranks first, meaning it’s not all just unblocked pressures and clean-up work after teammates chased quarterbacks into him. He has legitimate pass-rush chops on three to four such snaps a game.

Kansas City now has four quality off-ball linebackers, which makes this an interesting fit, but as awesome as Nick Bolton is on early downs, perhaps skipping the occasional obvious passing situation would benefit the defense. 

QB Jacoby Brissett, Washington Commanders

Contract: One year, $8 million, $7.5 million fully guaranteed

Jimmy Garoppolo signed a three-year, $72.75 million contract with $45 million in total guarantees, and Brissett signed this one-year flier. Over the past two seasons on a similar amount of dropbacks, here is how the two stack up:

Player Passing Grade Big-Time Throws-Turnover-Worthy Plays Adjusted Comp. % Rushing Grade
Jacoby Brissett 77.2 23-22 74.9% 90.8
Jimmy Garoppolo 73.5 22-30 77.0% 67.3

Brissett has bounced around a few teams, whereas Garoppolo has had the stability of the best offensive play caller and arguably the most talented offense in the NFL. Garoppolo very well could be the better player, especially considering the two were on the same team at one point, but we’re not sure he is an additional $26.25 million in fully guaranteed dollars better. 

From Washington’s perspective, they had the 30th-ranked passing grade as a team in 2022, and while they may genuinely think Sam Howell could become a starting quarterback, Brissett offers a much higher floor and could get a lot out of their wide receiver trio of Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel.

RB Rashaad Penny, Philadelphia Eagles

Contract: One year, $1.35 million, $600K guaranteed

Penny carries an enormous injury risk, and there’s a reason the former first-rounder signed a borderline minimum contract, but the upside potential here is extraordinary.

Among running backs with at least 100 carries from 2021 to 2022, Penny’s 6.2 yards per carry and 4.4 yards after contact per attempt both led the NFL, and his 0.23 forced missed tackles per carry ranked 11th. He put up these numbers operating behind an offensive line that ranked 19th in run-block grade. Over the past two years, the Eagles ranked third in both run-block grade (82.5) and yards before contact per attempt (1.8). 

The sky is the absolute limit for Penny running the ball, and Philadelphia is set up well with Kenneth Gainwell on passing downs and the return of Boston Scott to provide solid depth in both facets. 

EDGE Arden Key, Tennessee Titans

Contract: Three years, $21 million ($7 million per year), $13 million fully guaranteed

New Tennessee Titan edge defender Arden Key and outgoing edge defender DeMarcus Walker are not the same player, with Walker a good bit bigger, but the two have been deployed similarly in recent years with the ability to line up on the interior and out wide. They both signed free-agent contracts for a base value of $21 million over three years with similar guarantees, and Key is a year and a half younger.

Here is how the two players have stacked up over the past two years, with both earning larger roles and developing into quality contributors after slow starts to their careers despite being drafted on Day 2:

Player Pass-Rush Win % Pass-Rush Win % — True Pass Sets Run-Defense Grade Defensive Stops
Arden Key 16.7% 18.0% 65.9 30
DeMarcus Walker 13.8% 18.5% 62.9 37

Tennessee was able to sign away a player from the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars and effectively replace an important contributor in recent years in Walker, getting a bit younger, as well. While Walker offers more size, Tennessee still has Teair Tart, Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry in the fold.

S Julian Love, Seattle Seahawks

Contract: Two years, $12 million ($6 million per year)

Seattle is the true outlier in safety spending with Jamal Adams, Quandre Diggs and even underrated restricted free agent Ryan Neal already in the fold, so it may make the Love addition a bit of a head-scratcher. Or, it could make one speculate about Adams' future now that he has very little remaining in guaranteed salary. However, Adams could be deployed in more of a linebacker-esque role à la Landon Collins at the end of his time in Washington, and he could continue to be one of the best pass-rushing defensive backs in the NFL when healthy.

Love was another player who multiple league sources expected to earn much more than the pact he signed here, so Seattle probably just couldn’t pass up the value, which is always smart. He brings a lot of versatility, with the ability to cover in the slot and play down in the box or deep, giving the team a ton of options on the back end.


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