6 Biggest NFL Free Agency Surprises, According to Execs, Coaches & Agents

Ezekiel Elliott Dalton Schultz

Getty Former Dallas Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz (left) and RB Ezekiel Elliott (right).

Two weeks into NFL free agency, the Chicago Bears have seemingly jumpstarted their ability to rebuild, via a blockbuster trade and several marquee signings. The Philadelphia Eagles have lost some star power but brought back some of the most vital players in franchise history. And Aaron Rodgers will seemingly be a New York Jet. At some point.

However, Rodgers’ fate has been one of the biggest surprises of the offseason, so far. Not necessarily that he emerged from the darkness and expressed his desire to be a Jet, but that Green Bay and New York haven’t been able to come to terms on a new deal.

“That the Rodgers trade can’t get done is a bit of a shocker,” an AFC front office executive told Heavy. “The Packers lost all leverage.”

Likewise, an offensive coach tells Heavy he’s also surprised that the trade hasn’t happened yet.

Regardless of Rodgers’ future, much has changed across the NFL. Especially since the calendar turned to March and the league’s coaches and executives flew out of Indianapolis and back to their outposts with the framework of trades and signings in tow.

Some positions, well, not much has changed. Yet.

“The lack of a market for the tight end group has been really surprising,” an NFC pro personnel director told Heavy. “Even with good talent at the position in the draft, the lack of movement — or even interest — with that group was really shocking to me.”

To get a feel for how those inside the league feel free agency has played out, Heavy surveyed dozens of current coaches, executives and agents with high-profile clients on what has surprised them the most so far in 2023. Here are some of their answers.

NFL personnel executive: “That Lamar Jackson hasn’t signed anywhere.”

There has never been an MVP-winning quarterback, who can sign an offer sheet, and be had for a pair of first-round picks. Yet, Lamar Jackson hasn’t signed, and within moments of the Baltimore Ravens using the non-exclusive franchise tag on their star quarterback, teams lined up to publicly distance themselves from the 26-year-old.

While there likely isn’t an NFL owner group chat or e-mail chain explicitly saying as much, the league is collectively, on an individual level, banding together to prevent Jackson — or any quarterback, from garnering a fully guaranteed contract that mirrors the Browns’ $250 million pact with Deshaun Watson. It will be fascinating to see whether Jackson winds up playing under the tag, or forfeiting a year of service towards free agency by sitting out this season, which feels like a possible outcome of these negotiations.

AFC scouting director: “The Dallas Cowboys got Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks for nothing.”

After making the expected move of releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott — more on that below — the Cowboys didn’t waste any time putting the nearly $11 million in cap space the move saved to good use.

Dallas acquired Gilmore (PFF’s No. 9 ranked CB in 2022) for a fifth-round pick, in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts, and dealt a 2023 fifth-round pick and 2024 sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans for Cooks.

An argument can be made that committing top-dollar to Elliott cost the Cowboys Amari Cooper in 2022, but it’s impossible to suggest Dallas isn’t a better team after acquiring Gilmore and Cooks than they were without them and with Elliott on the roster.

NFL offensive coordinator: “The lack of running back value as a league has been eye-opening. The amount of money these guys requested vs. what teams had on the table was so far apart across the board.”

With the exception of Miles Sanders’ four-year, $25 million deal with the Carolina Panthers, running backs largely haven’t cashed in.

It’s almost as if teams have realized that second contracts for running backs carry a significant risk of diminished returns, and it is more prudent to continue cycling through drafting players at the position than [over]paying for an accomplished veteran.

NFL tight ends coach: The tight end market. It just never really developed, and there hasn’t been much movement. But, the Giants got around that, and got a hell of a deal with Darren Waller. He’ll really elevate their passing game.

Tight end, puzzlingly, has been a market that had loads of star power, with the likes of Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki, Hayden Hurst, and Austin Hooper, who represent three of the top 40 players at the position, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet, Gesicki and Schultz each sighed one-year contracts, and Hooper remains available.

Meanwhile, the Giants added Waller for a pittance — a third-round draft pick, dropping one of the premier pass-catchers at the position into quarterback Daniel Jones’ arsenal. As one NFL offensive coordinator raves; “Waller is a stud, he’s one of the few tight ends left that make a huge difference in the passing game.”

AFC personnel executive: “That Juju Smith-Schuster deal was a surprise. Big contract for an average player.”

Juju Smith-Schuster arrives in New England, coming off his most productive season since 2018, inking a three-year deal worth $25 million. Whether Smith-Schuster is the answer to the Patriots’ wide receiver inconsistency remains to be seen, but he has only surpassed 1,000 yards once in his career, and he’ll likely be asked to sit atop the depth chart for the first time in his career.

NFL agent familiar with QB market: The Eagles signing Marcus Mariota, after he quit on the Falcons last season.

The Eagles will likely sign Jalen Hurts to a massive extension at some point this offseason, but inked Mariota to a one-year deal worth $5 million during the first week of free agency.

Mariota provides steady experience as a starter, having made 74 career starts as a 62.6% passer with 92 touchdowns to 54 interceptions since being chosen No. 1 overall by the Tennessee Titans back in 2015. However, Mariota left the Falcons after suffering a knee injury last season, rather than finishing out the season in the quarterbacks room helping rookie Desmond Ridder develop. Now, he’ll back up Hurts, as a clear upgrade from Gardner Minshew in Philadelphia.

Matt Lombardo Column

Quote of the Week: Baker Mayfield

“I wanna go somewhere we can win right away, and this is that place.” – Baker Mayfield on signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Baker Mayfield arrives in Tampa with the unenviable task of following Tom Brady, but joins a veteran roster with plenty of firepower on offense, in a division that’s pretty wide open … even after the New Orleans Saints signed Derek Carr, and the Carolina Panthers added Miles Sanders, Hayden Hurst, and a quarterback to be named later with the No. 1 overall pick this offseason.

At worst, Mayfield is a bridge for the cap-strapped Buccaneers to field a steady veteran quarterback in 2023, perhaps to a first-round rookie chosen this April or a marquee addition next offseason. But, Mayfield showed in four starts with the Los Angeles Rams last season that with competent weapons around him, he can be a competent passer.

“I think it’s a really good fit for Baker,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “Especially working with Dave Canales. Those two are a solid match.”

Mayfield completed 63.8% of his passes in a Rams uniform for 850 yards with 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. Landing in an offense with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and emerging running back Rachaad White, Mayfield has the opportunity to audition to be a part of Tampa’s or 31 other teams’ future.

Final Thought: Ezekiel Elliott Has Become the Ultimate Cautionary Tale

The Dallas Cowboys’ additions of cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks could prove to be two of the more impactful pickups any team has made this offseason. However, the Cooks addition in particular is a clear downgrade from what Dallas lost when they committed just a little too much to Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys will release Elliott as a June 1 cut, saving more than $10 million against the cap in 2023, but the damage from his six-year contract extension worth $90 million that included over $50 million guaranteed is done.

Last offseason, the Cowboys were forced to trade prolific wide receiver Amari Cooper, in part because Dallas was paying Elliott $18.2 million against the cap. The Cowboys also misjudged Michael Gallup’s ability to take a big step forward in his development, and as a result, quarterback Dak Prescott’s supporting cast was far less dangerous and efficient than it had been.

Now, after applying the franchise tag to the younger and more explosive Tony Pollard, the Cowboys are hoping Cooks can return to his 1,100-plus yard per season form as the deep threat in Prescott’s arsenal. In 2022, as a member of the Houston Texans, Cooks pulled down 57 passes for 699 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Cooper caught 78 balls for 1,160 yards and 9 touchdowns in Cleveland.

As for Elliott, don’t expect a strong market to develop, or a big payday to arrive.

Multiple agents familiar with the running back position suggest that Elliott might have to settle for a contract close to the veteran minimum. Likewise, the market for Elliott is limited at age 27, but multiple agents and team sources across the league believe the Buffalo Bills could be an ideal fit, because of their need for a big running back to complement their stable of Devin Singletary and James Cook.

The Cowboys’ inability to move on from Elliott cost them in 2023, and it will be interesting to see if teams around the NFL learn from Jerry Jones and company’s misstep.

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