The first wave of NFL free agency has come and gone. And even amid complaints that there wasn’t a ton of top-end talent in this year’s free-agency class, there were plenty of intriguing names and useful players to be found.
I looked at a group of signings across the league and the possible effect they could have on the 2023 NFL Draft — for the team that signed the player, the team that lost the player and any other teams (or players) that possibly got caught up in the wake of the signing.
To start, we looked at one of the largest dominoes to fall, both figuratively and literally.
Best remaining available: The Athletic’s top 150 free agents
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Free agency grades: The Athletic’s Mike Jones grades all the signings
Does free agency work?: Evaluating value from 2020-2022
A jumbo-sized butterfly effect
As soon as it came out that the Chiefs were letting offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. test the free-agency waters, his potential market was a fascinating one — especially when combined with Brown’s insistence that he remain at left tackle. The Bengals ended up winning the right to ink Brown to a four-year, $64 million contract with $31 million in guarantees.
While Brown didn’t get quite the contract he’d clamored for, the Bengals emerged as winners by getting an upgrade at a key position with a firmly above-average-to-good starting left tackle, and doing so on an extremely team-friendly contract that essentially amounts to a two-year deal. The deal also has less guaranteed money and a lower average annual value (AAV) than other tackles like D.J. Humphries and Braden Smith.
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Brown will have his up-and-down moments as a pass protector, but he will be an asset in the run game, especially for a revamped Bengals run attack that diversified its scheme throughout the 2022 season to produce one of the NFL’s most efficient ground games. What the Bengals end up doing at right tackle between former first-round pick Jonah Williams (who has reportedly requested a trade) and 2022 offseason signing La’el Collins will be interesting.
How might this impact the draft?
Brown’s signing with the Bengals impacted several other teams. His former club, the Chiefs, signed former Jaguars tackle Jawaan Taylor and plan to have him replace Brown at left tackle, despite Taylor owning just a smattering of snaps at the position throughout his professional and college careers. This doesn’t preclude the Chiefs from still turning over rocks in free agency on players like Isaiah Wynn or restricted free agency Yosh Nijman, who was given a second-round tender by the Packers this week. There have been rumors of the Chiefs sniffing around on a possible trade for Texans OT Laremy Tunsil, too. But it all makes the Chiefs a candidate to fill their right tackle position with final pick of Round 1.
There are plenty of intriguing tackles in this year’s draft class, although evaluators are all over the place on how they rank the position. Tennessee’s Darnell Wright — a prospect I am particularly bullish on — would be a home run at the 31st pick, but he’ll likely be gone well before. Ohio State’s Dawand Jones was actually the Chiefs’ pick in the latest mock draft by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, and it would be a match of value and fit that makes sense.
The Bears, another team long rumored to be interested in Brown, said that he was actually not a scheme fit for them.
That makes sense given that Brown is ideal for gap- and man-based run schemes, where he’s used to down block or pull. Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan has a background in Shanahan offenses, however, which prefer to major in outside zone, something in which the strong but heavy-footed Brown does not particularly excel.
The Bears have the No. 9 pick and could go in a variety of directions, with the offensive line still being featured on their 2023 offseason GPS. Chicago signed Nate Davis to play guard and could slide Cody Whitehair over to center, but that still leaves the Bears with a hole at either right tackle or left guard. (I’ll give 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones the benefit of the doubt after he played winning football on the blindside as a rookie.)
Northwestern’s versatile Peter Skoronski can play across the offensive line and would give the Bears a handy tool in figuring out their best five linemen for the future. Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr., Georgia’s Broderick Jones and Wright also could be options at the ninth pick. Johnson and Jones have more experience at left tackle than right (which shouldn’t preclude the Bears from drafting the best player available), while Wright has experience at both tackle spots.
Carolina used free agency to help restock its skill-position rooms, which had been left empty by departing free agents and trade sweeteners (more on that in a moment).
Running back D’Onta Foreman had a strong second half to his 2022 season but signed with the Bears as a free agent, leaving Chuba Hubbard and his 466 yards as the Panthers’ leading returning rusher. They addressed this by signing Miles Sanders to help eat carries, reuniting him with former position coach Duce Staley.
At tight end, the Panthers signed Hayden Hurst, a player who does a lot of things well and gives the Panthers’ tight-end room a viable auxiliary pass catcher. Hurst might not be a true matchup nightmare, but he is a much better receiving option than the block-first Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble (62 combined targets in 2022).
How might this impact the draft?
The Panthers were the team that lit the fuse for the 2023 draft, trading with the Bears and taking the pole position at No. 1.
Carolina will have a top-end offensive line and projects to have one of the league’s better defenses. By all accounts, then, the Panthers moved up to take their quarterback of the future. While the package they sent Chicago featured a healthy assortment of draft capital, though, the inclusion of wide receiver D.J. Moore also left the Panthers without a true No. 1 option at wide receiver (apologies to the stockholders of Terrace Marshall Jr., Inc.).
The Panthers still have their second-round pick (No. 39) and the 49ers’ third-round pick (No. 93, via the Christian McCaffrey trade). Considering this year’s crop of receiver prospects, that’s a reasonable area to target that position. It’s hard to predict which wide receivers will go in the first round, but Boston College’s Zay Flowers might be there early in the second. He is undersized but has an inside-outside skill set to translate to the next level and quickly become a young quarterback’s favorite target.
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With the Panthers meeting recently with free-agent wide receiver D.J. Chark and having their No. 1 options other skill position spots, they’re in position to make a potential rookie quarterback’s acclamation go as smoothly as possible.
Eagles re-sign a foursome of defensive vets
How many players the defending NFC champions would lose on defense was a compelling subplot entering free agency. GM Howie Roseman and the Eagles’ personnel department had decisions to make involving several starters and key rotational players. Four moved on to greener (as in the color of money) pastures: Javon Hargrave signed a big deal with the 49ers, safety Marcus Epps headed to the Raiders, and linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White took their talents to Chicago and Arizona, respectively.
The Eagles did re-sign four of their more experienced veterans coming off positive seasons. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia’s 32-year-old defensive tackle, and soon-to-be 35-year-old defensive end Brandon Graham returned on one-year deals, while cornerback James Bradberry re-signed for three more years and cornerback Darius Slay signed a two-year extension after it initially appeared the Eagles would release him.
How this might impact the draft
The Eagles hold two first-round selections in this year’s draft, including the No. 10 pick. They looked like they were going to have to replenish a possibly depleted defensive group, so returning two contributors on their defensive line (Graham was rejuvenated in 2022 on a more limited snap count) and their two starting cornerbacks was a great way to find answers for the upcoming season.
It also kept options open for whichever way the Eagles want to go in the draft. Cornerback might no longer be a need (unless the Eagles want to inject some youth into the position), but safety and linebacker are spots the Eagles might explore. Epps joined the Raiders and fellow safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson is still available on the free-agency market, which leaves question marks for Philadelphia at the safety positions.
The Eagles also may look to find a way to drop in another player alongside 2022 third-round selection Nakobe Dean to shore up the position, although this linebacker class is not particularly deep.
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Texas running back Bijan Robinson has been a player constantly connected to the Eagles, and he could add even more talent to their offense. The Eagles also signed Rashaad Penny to a one-year contract. Penny, when healthy, is one of the more talented players — at any position — in the NFL. While it will be hard to rely on him to last a whole season because of his injury history, Penny running behind the Eagles’ offensive line should be a real joy to watch. That signing also could help dispel the rumors or Robinson being an option at No. 10, but what about at No. 30?
The Eagles love to use the draft to add talent to their lines, on both sides of the ball. With Hargrave gone and Graham and Cox continuing to age, the Eagles might gravitate to adding another player with pedigree to their talented (and deep) front.
The too long; didn’t read version of this: The Eagles have options in the draft and they all make sense. And that’s not the worst place to sit coming off of a Super Bowl appearance.
Even with the resurgent play of 2020 first-round selection Jeff Okudah, cornerback was a glaring hole for a Lions team looking to make a playoff push in 2023 (and beyond).
The Lions decided to double-tap that depth chart by signing Cameron Sutton to a three-year contract and taking a flyer on Emmanuel Moseley, who’s coming off an October ACL injury. Both players are clear upgrades and will help give the Lions options at cornerback, where before they were just inserting players and telling them to hang on for 60 minutes.
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How might this impact the draft?
The cornerback position is no longer as glaring of a need for the Lions, who own two first-round picks. And that leaves the draft open to a choose-your-adventure-type proposition for the decision-makers in Detroit. Having said that, GM Brad Holmes absolutely could continue to rejuvenate his cornerback room by selecting a rookie cornerback to drop in alongside Sutton and Moseley.
It is a pretty loaded cornerback class. There are six cornerbacks (counting Alabama’s do-it-all player Brian Branch, who projects to play in the slot at the next level) in the top 26 on The Athletic’s Consensus Big Board. And the Lions have flexibility with picks at Nos. 6 and 18.
If they do want to add youth, Sutton played a chunk of snaps in the slot while in Pittsburgh, so he could give the Lions some flexibility. With Moseley coming off injury (and on a one-year deal), drafting a cornerback also would give Detroit them ways to shore up the position and figure out its best grouping.
If the Lions feel they have answered their cornerback conundrum through free agency, however, they’ll have an opportunity to add to their defensive front early in the draft. This is a team positioned to be big winners by grabbing a talented defensive lineman, if there is an early run on quarterbacks like is currently slated to happen.
The Lions are going to be a wildly interesting and entertaining team in 2023. Their offense could rank among the league’s best — even glass-half-empty projections should have them in the top 10. While I’m focusing on the defense early for the Lions, there is nothing that precludes them from adding a tight end or even an offensive guard with that 18th pick. Doing so would add even more talent to an already strong unit that got great play out of Jared Goff and features winning players at O-line and receiver and, despite losing fan favorite Jamaal Williams, received a running-back upgrade with the signing of David Montgomery.
Some quick hitters …
Cowboys trade for Stephon Gilmore
The Cowboys have (finally) found a cornerback to pair with Trevon Diggs. Cornerbacks past the age of 30 are always tricky to project (another reason why the Eagles bringing back their veteran CBs is an interesting band of time to balance on), but Stephon Gilmore was a plus player in Indianapolis last season and has experience playing in single-high coverages. He can use his high football IQ to compensate for any declining athleticism.
The Cowboys’ defense has loved using Cover 1 under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, so it should be a smooth transition for Gilmore. But another low-key aspect of the 2022 Cowboys defense was their uptick in the use Cover 2, which is an easier physical ask on cornerbacks in coverage and can unlock more intelligent defenders. That sounds like a fit with Gilmore’s game at this point of his career.
For the draft, the Cowboys now don’t necessarily need a cornerback or, really, any defensive back after the re-signing of safety Donovan Wilson. They can take a best-player-available approach.
Seahawks re-sign Drew Lock
This could be a big ol’ nothingburger or could indicate the Seahawks aren’t looking to take a quarterback of the future at No. 5, even with Geno Smith (and his very friendly contract) as the bridge to whenever that quarterback is ready.
Drew Lock’s new contract is only one year and it isn’t a crazy investment. But it isn’t nothing. There are only so many practice reps to go around, and this could indicate the Seahawks aren’t ready to start a new rookie contract timer yet. Again, though, it isn’t a crazy investment, and it’s one the Seahawks could get out of. So, it could also be insurance for the Seahawks, in case a quarterback they like isn’t there in the draft.
It’s all interesting, but I’m going to end this portion of the article because I feel like Charlie Kelly trying to find Pepe Silvia.
Patriots sign JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Patriots decided to save a couple of million dollars per year by bringing in JuJu Smith-Schuster instead of retaining Jakobi Meyers. Smith-Schuster is a valuable power slot-type that brings a physical presence inside as a blocker and underneath zone beater. While he doesn’t inject a lot of speed to the Patriots’ offense, he does pair well with outside options DeVante Parker and 2022 second-round selection Tyquan Thornton, who brings a speed element to the offense. New England also still has Kendrick Bourne as its do-it-all player.
The Patriots had one of the best defenses in the league in 2022 and managed to return a large portion of their snaps for 2023. That opens up the Patriots to look to draft an offensive lineman in the first round. Their No. 14 selection matches well with where the top players up front are projected.
(Top photo of Orlando Brown Jr.: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)