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NFL free-agency superlatives: The best and the most puzzling moves so far

We’ve completed four days of NFL free agency, and nearly 100 of my top 150 players have come off the board, in addition to dozens of other signings and a handful of trades. Here are my biggest takeaways from the first week of the new league year.

Live updates: Free-agent news from across the NFL
FA tracker: New teams and contract details for the top 150 free agents
Best available players: Who’s still on the market?
Grades: Best and worst of free-agent deals

Losing four front-seven players from your roster could be devastating for many teams. Vikings edge players Danielle Hunter, D.J. Wonnum and Marcus Davenport and linebacker Jordan Hicks all left for various deals elsewhere.

But Minnesota had a plan, replacing them with Jonathan Greenard (two years younger than Hunter), Andrew Van Ginkel (young, ascending player) and Blake Cashman, whose football IQ, range and ability to slip blocks make him a three-down inside linebacker and an upgrade over Hicks. That trio gives the Vikings a better package on defense moving forward than what walked out the door. Sometimes plans have to be fluid, and the Vikings’ decision-makers made me a believer in their evaluation skills, which I’d had some doubt about previously.

I also like the pivot to Sam Darnold for $10 million on a one-year deal while letting Kirk Cousins leave for $45 million per year over four years in Atlanta. The money saved can still be put to use by upgrading their third wide receiver spot and extending wideout Justin Jefferson.

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Without a doubt, it has to be what GM Jason Licht has done over the past week with the Buccaneers’ roster. No GM has protected his roster and re-signed his core guys like Licht. After tagging Pro Bowl safety Antoine Winfield Jr., he re-signed quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Mike Evans and found a way to keep linebacker Lavonte David. Licht also brought back defensive tackle Greg Gaines and safety Jordan Whitehead, who was on the Super Bowl champion team in 2020. The band is back together just in the nick of time.

Licht also acquired a third-round pick to supplement his roster with some youth come draft day by trading cornerback Carlton Davis (who had a hefty cap number in the last year of his contract) to the Detroit Lions. That was another shrewd move, in my view. Sportsbooks have made the Atlanta Falcons clear favorites to win the NFC South after they added Cousins and others, but I would still favor the Bucs after they maintained continuity.

If this were a game of old-fashioned “Battleship,” the Ravens’ ship would be, at minimum, listing starboard and perhaps on the verge of tipping over. Given how many pending free agents Baltimore had, this was to be expected, as I wrote last week.

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The Ravens kept Justin Madubuike and added Derrick Henry, but they have already lost Patrick Queen, John Simpson, Gus Edwards, Geno Stone and Ronald Darby, with Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr. and Kevin Zeitler still on the market. Add in the decision to move on from starting right tackle Morgan Moses (let’s term this “friendly fire”), and they have taken their share of hits.

Rebuilding this roster will challenge GM Eric DeCosta and his staff to the highest degree. They have always been intentional about having a plan when something happens, so I don’t doubt their answer will be evident. I just worry this inordinate amount of change will lead to a natural adjustment period, which could take time. Nobody wants to turn a retool into a rebuild. Time will tell how much change one roster can absorb.

go-deeper

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The Giants added proven but still ascending players on the offensive line in former Green Bay Packers guard Jon Runyan Jr. and former Las Vegas Raiders guard/tackle Jermaine Eluemunor. Being able to add two starting offensive linemen who have clear bodies of work is rare. These were two of the top five linemen on our free-agent board. Eluemunor was very good at right tackle for the Raiders in 2023 but can also play guard. That flexibility is valuable, given Evan Neal’s issues at right tackle. Runyan has top-notch initial quickness and the ability to engage his lower body on contact, which you seldom see any more in our world of spread offenses.

Oh yeah: Adding Brian Burns — who was my top-ranked player before he was franchise-tagged and the closest thing to Micah Parsons I’ve seen on tape recently — for second- and fifth-round picks is like adding a first-round talent on draft day. Any team would make that trade. The Giants struck in an opportune way.

go-deeper

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What Giants’ bold trade for Brian Burns tells us about their future, Joe Schoen

Yes, they lost Saquon Barkley and Xavier McKinney, two of my favorite players in this class, but it’s hard to justify paying major money at running back and safety on a team that isn’t close to contention. Improving the offensive line and landing Burns will help them tremendously.

Favorite signing

Fantasy owners, take note. I loved the Los Angeles Chargers adding Edwards from the Ravens. I had thought all along that Barkley would be a culture upgrade for new coach Jim Harbaugh and his vision for the Chargers’ new offense. But as Barkley’s contract numbers crept higher, Edwards became more attractive.

He brings a full toolbox and good production with just a bit less dynamic athleticism. The Ravens’ running-back-by-committee kept Edwards’ numbers down, but he is a better player than that. He will be a 235-pound bellcow for a Chargers team looking to add toughness and physicality to fit its new identity.

Most puzzling signing

I was not surprised with how many expensive veteran safeties were released before free agency. I am shocked that teams are still adding veteran safeties who have marginal athletic ability. The Chicago Bears’ signing of Kevin Byard was a great example. The Philadelphia Eagles bet on Byard last season at the trade deadline, acquiring him from the Tennessee Titans. Not only did it not work out, but it went very badly.

In a passing league, it’s very hard to hide players who struggle in space, whether covering or tackling. There is no longer a “box safety” position. Byard was a great player a few years ago, but he’s clearly lost a step. Bears fans have to hope it turns out differently as he joins his third team in six months.

Deepest positions remaining

Rarely is it possible at all to find quality edge pass rushers or offensive perimeter speed on the open market. This year, there are options on the market for both, even after the free-agent tree has been picked of its low-hanging fruit. Clowney and Van Noy — who each signed after camps opened last fall — and Chase Young and Bud Dupree can all still contribute to teams looking for upgrades rushing the passer. Teams probably won’t have to pay retail prices for them, either.

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The same can be said at wide receiver. Vastly underrated Lions wideout Josh Reynolds can still provide an impact as a solid WR2 or WR3. Beckham, whom everyone loves to hate, is still very explosive and can change games. I realize this year’s draft is loaded with good young wideout prospects, which might be affecting the market, but these guys are proven commodities who would be great gets, at the right price.

The value stage is here

There is typically a pause in free agency after the initial bonanza of big-money signings and news conferences before the market settles into the “finding value” stage. From what I see, the market has already reached that stage. I see players willing to take less-than-premium deals to avoid being left without a chair when the music stops.

Guys like Gaines (back to the Bucs for one year, $3.5 million), Zack Baun (to the Eagles for one year, $3.5 million), Nick Harris (to the Seattle Seahawks for one year, $2.51 million) and Saahdiq Charles (to the Titans for one year, $2.5 million) might normally have hung on the market for weeks or months after their markets didn’t materialize. Instead, they signed quickly, and teams could find some value in those deals.

I credit agents for doing their homework — most likely at the combine in Indianapolis, during meetings with teams — and team-builders for identifying down-the-line guys who fit them. These value deals are a great way to build depth and have contributors who are ready when injuries strike.

Are teams getting wiser?

With the $30 million rise in the salary cap, teams are spending freely, but I think — this year more so than other years — teams are spending more wisely, too. Normally at this stage, I would have questions about several signings where the plan appears hard to justify. I have very few of those question marks through four days of the free-agent shopping season.

My objective in free agency was always to fill needs and check as many boxes as I could, within my cap restraints, before the draft. This allows you to draft without as much concern about needs, taking the best players available more often than not, rather than reaching for worse players in the early rounds. This has been a tried and true philosophy for years, and I think teams are following it, using value signings to fill holes and add flexibility.

(Photos of, from left, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Brian Burns and Kevin Byard: Adam Bettcher, Grant Halverson, Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

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