NFL Free Agency Recap: Winners and Losers After the First Wave of Moves

NFL Free Agency Recap: Winners and Losers After the First Wave of Moves article feature image

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – DECEMBER 25: Saquon Barkley #26 of the New York Giants warms up before taking on the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 25, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

NFL free agency is now in full swing, and some significant moves have been made to alter the landscape of the league. In this article, I’ll recap three of the biggest winners and losers after the first wave of moves.

Remember that free agency will continue throughout the summer, so we’re far from the finished product regarding these rosters. However, with rosters beginning to take shape, let’s break down some of the early results.

Biggest Winners

Atlanta Falcons

Key Acquisitions:

  • QB Kirk Cousins – 4 years, $180 million
  • WR Darnell Mooney – 3 years, $39 million

Key Departures:

  • TE Jonnu Smith
  • CB Jeff Okudah

The Falcons took a quality-over-quantity approach to free agency this year, bringing in two players who will transform their passing offense. As my colleague Brandon Anderson expertly broke down, Cousins is a seismic addition for a Falcons offense that had some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL last year.

At 36 years old and coming off a torn Achilles, Atlanta has some risk here. However, the contract is structured such that the Falcons can cut Cousins ahead of the 2026 season with “just” a $25 million dead cap hit, notably less than half of the $53 million the Broncos still owe Russell Wilson this year (more on that later).

Before suffering the injury last year, Cousins was playing some of the best football of his career. He ranked fifth in EPA + CPOE, first in adjusted completion rate, and seventh in PFF passing grade.

Compare that to Desmond Ridder, who ranked 24th in EPA + CPOE, 32nd in adjusted completion rate, and 38th in PFF passing grade.

Kirk Cousins had over a 20-point higher passer rating in 2023 than the Falcons had as a team
– ATL starting QBs: Desmond Ridder (13 starts), Taylor Heinicke (4 starts)

— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) March 11, 2024

Most importantly, Cousins can help the Falcons realize the potential of their first-round selections of Bijan Robinson, Drake London, and Kyle Pitts. Don’t be shocked if Robinson pushes for Offensive Player of the Year honors while London pushes for All-Pro consideration – they have a ton of talent, and Cousins can optimize that talent.

Darnell Mooney adds a vertical element to this offense that was previously missing. His 2023 season was not his best, but like the other pass-catchers in Atlanta, his talent should turn into production with one of the most accurate passers in the NFL. Mooney ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and is a tremendous fit as a WR2 next to London.

The Falcons are set on offense, with their franchise quarterback joined by an elite group of skill position players. They don’t need to force the issue in the draft to land a quarterback or receiver and can go with the best player available. That’s precisely where you want to be entering April.

Houston Texans

Key Acquisitions:

    • ED Danielle Hunter – 2 years, $49 million
    • DL Denico Autry – 2 years, $20 million
    • LB Azeez Al-Shaair – 3 years, $34 million
      • TE Dalton Schultz – 3 years, $36 million
      • RB Joe Mixon (trade) – 3 years, $27 million

Key Departures:

      • RB Devin Singletary
      • LB Blake Cashman
      • ED Jonathan Greenard

With Jonathan Greenard's departure, the Texans had a clear need at the edge, and general manager Nick Caseiro made a splash with former Vikings pass-rusher Danielle Hunter.

Coming off a career-high 16.5 sacks, the four-time Pro Bowler forms a fearsome tandem with ascending second-year star Will Anderson Jr. Expect Hunter’s elite production to continue with the benefit of far fewer double teams in Houston.

The Texans have prioritized replacing the strengths of their outgoing free agents.

Danielle Hunter replaces Jonathan Greenard opposite Will Anderson. Hunter generated the 4th-most pressures in the NFL last season (86).#WeAreTexans

— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 14, 2024

The Texans signing Denico Autry and Azeez Al-Shaair were also savvy moves. A veteran who can provide depth in the front seven, Al-Shaair has experience with DeMeco Ryans’ defensive scheme dating back to San Francisco. After a solid season, Dalton Schultz was also brought back as a reliable tight end option with strong chemistry with C.J. Stroud.

Cornerback Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was brought in on a one-year, $4.75 million deal. He’ll compete for a starting position at cornerback, and while injuries have derailed his career to this point, there’s clear untapped potential with his pedigree. DL Folorunso Fatukasi was added for depth while WR Noah Brown and CB Desmond King re-signed on team-friendly deals.

My lone complaint is the trade for Joe Mixon and the ensuing extension, which makes him the seventh-highest-paid running back in the league. Mixon clearly lost a step last year, ranking 50th out of 59 qualified backs with 2.51 yards after contact per attempt. Despite being a much more efficient passing offense than rushing, Houston ranked seventh in neutral rushing rate last year. The move to acquire Mixon is an indication that isn’t changing anytime soon.

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Philadelphia Eagles

Key Acquisitions:

      • ED Bryce Huff – 3 years, $51 million
      • RB Saquon Barkley – 3 years, $37.75 million
      • S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – 3 years, $27 million
      • LB Devin White – 1 year, $7.5 million

Key Departures:

      • RB D’Andre Swift
      • C Jason Kelce (retired)
      • DT Fletcher Cox (retired)

Myles Garrett. Micah Parsons. Bryce Huff? According to PFF, that’s last season’s three leaders in pass rush win rate. Huff has never been a full-time starter for the Jets, but the 25-year-old edge finished with 67 pressures and 10 sacks on 334 pass-rushing snaps last season, which ranked 59th at the position. He was one of the best pass-rushers in the league on a per-snap basis.

The question for Huff becomes whether or not he can maintain the same productivity on a higher snap count, but the Eagles will utilize a pass-rushing rotation. Trade rumors have circulated regarding Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat, but I assume at least one will stay alongside veteran Brandon Graham, who just signed an extension. Second-year edge Nolan Smith should also be ready for a more significant role.

With all of the attention that Saquon has gotten, the Bryce Huff signing hasn’t been talked about enough.

2023 Stats –
– 17 games played
– 10 sacks
– 67 pressures
– 21 QB hits
– 86.8 pass-rush grade
– 22.9 pass-rush win % (best in NFL)

Oh, and he is only 25 years old 💚🦅

— Sidelines – Eagles 🦅🏈 (@SSN_Eagles) March 12, 2024

The Eagles also signed Saquon Barkley in a surprising move not typical of the Howie Roseman era and prioritizing premier positions. However, I loved the acquisition and broke it down in further detail here. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson also returned to a Philadelphia secondary that clearly missed his presence last season.

Devin White is a low-cost option for a linebacking unit desperately needing reinforcements. White is an elite athlete with sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability. While his missed tackles and inconsistencies in run defense have been problematic, new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will let him loose – he’ll be a true playmaker in this defense.

Losing Kelce and Cox to retirement hurts – they’ve been two of the most prevalent members of this team for over a decade. However, Roseman has retooled in brilliant fashion, and the Eagles should be on track to get right back into Super Bowl contention.

Biggest Losers

New York Giants

Key Acquisitions

      • ED Brian Burns (trade) – 5 years, $150 million
      • RB Devin Singletary – 3 years, $16.5 million
      • OG Jon Runyan – 3 years, $30 million
      • OT Jermaine Eluemunor – 2 years, $14 million
      • QB Drew Lock – 1 year, $5 million

Key Departures:

      • QB Tyrod Taylor
      • RB Saquon Barkley
      • DL A’Shawn Robinson
      • S Xavier McKinney

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I wasn’t a fan of the Brian Burns trade and subsequent extension for the Giants. Burns has never showcased elite pass-rushing capabilities, peaking as the 36th-ranked edge in pass-rush win rate. His career-high of 68 pressures would have ranked just 17th last season. He’s a middling run defender, ranking 57th out of 122 qualified edges per PFF in that department last year.

Yet Burns is now being paid the second-highest contract at the edge position, at $30 million per year. Alongside Kayvon Thibodeaux and Dexter Lawrence, the Giants have a potent defensive line group. However, it’s difficult for me to justify the contract Burns received, given his body of work to this point.

Check out where he lands on the chart below, with middling pass rush production despite one of the lower double-team rates.

You might be wondering – is Burns's pass-rush win rate lower because he doesn't have help next to him on the defensive line? Here's a graph showing pass-rushers' double-team rates (Next Gen Stats) and pass-rush win rate (ESPN).

Burns was actually double-teamed at one of the…

— Jacob Wayne (@wayne_sports_) March 11, 2024

The loss of Xavier McKinney is even more challenging to justify. McKinney was a homegrown talent and former second-round pick who, according to PFF, was the fourth-best safety in the NFL last year. McKinney had top-three grades at the position in coverage and tackling while playing every snap on defense for the Giants. He’s a superstar talent who the Giants are in no position to lose for nothing.

The Giants also watched Saquon Barkley leave in free agency, and while they were never in a position to pay top market value for a running back, replacing him with the middling Devin Singletary is a difficult pill to swallow.

That’s especially true with Barkley going to the Eagles, which is a nightmare scenario for Giants fans.

Jon Runyan and Jermaine Eluemunor were acceptable signings on the offensive line on commensurate contracts, but the Burns acquisition and McKinney loss left me scratching my head.

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Miami Dolphins

Key Acquisitions:

      • TE Jonnu Smith – 2 years, $8 million
      • C Aaron Brewer – 3 years, $21 million
      • LB Jordyn Brooks – 3 years, $26 million
      • CB Kendall Fuller – 2 years, $16 million
      • S Jordan Poyer – 1 year, $2 million

Key Departures:

      • OG Robert Hunt
      • DL Christian Wilkins
      • DL Raekwon Davis
      • ED Andrew Van Ginkel
      • S Deshon Elliott

The Dolphins have to be at the top of the list for the sheer number of snaps leaving the building this offseason. Miami entered free agency with the least amount of cap space in the NFL, listed at $5 million over the cap on Spotrac. They watched several key starters walk away in free agency as a result.

There are also several Dolphins free agents who have yet to sign with a new team but are unlikely to return due to Miami’s cap constraints. Those players include C Connor Williams, ED Emmanuel Ogbah, LB Jerome Baker, and CB Xavien Howard.

Christian Wilkins got a four-year, $85 million contract from the Raiders, and while the Dolphins were likely never going to be able to afford that, that’s still a considerable loss. Miami has fielded a top-ten run defense by early down success rate each of the past three years, and Wilkins has been a huge reason why. He also ranked ninth among interior defensive linemen with 61 pressures last season per PFF.

Christian Wilkins finished with 61 pressures last season, including 18 double team pressures, 5th-most among defensive tackles.

Raiders defensive tackles combined for 15 double team pressures last season, 4th-fewest in the NFL.#RaiderNation

— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 11, 2024

Robert Hunt was a significant loss on an offensive line that dealt with injuries at the end of last season, especially if Williams doesn’t return. Andrew Van Ginkel also had a quietly excellent season, ranking seventh among edges in PFF pass-rush grade.

The Dolphins should be significant players in the post-June 1 free agency market.

Xavien Howard’s post-June 1 release designation will clear $18.5 million, while Tua Tagovailoa’s contract extension will afford them additional cap space. For now, they have significant holes to fill without much flexibility to do so.

Denver Broncos

Key Acquisitions:

      • DT Malcolm Roach – 2 years, $8 million
      • S Brandon Jones – 3 years, $22.5 million

Key Departures:

      • QB Russell Wilson
      • WR Jerry Jeudy (trade)
      • TE Chris Manhertz
      • C Lloyd Cushenberry
      • LB Josey Jewell
      • S Justin Simmons

Welcome to the black parade. After the disastrous Russell Wilson trade, the Broncos were always going to face a day of reckoning, and that day has arrived. Denver has no choice but to rebuild at this point in time – Wilson has yet to play a single snap on a five-year, $245 million extension that he signed before taking the field for the organization.

The Broncos are eating $85 million in dead cap with the Wilson contract, including $53 million this season. That’s the largest single-season cap hit in NFL history, and it accounts for 20.5% of the team’s adjusted salary cap for the upcoming season.

At the very least, Denver made lemons out of lemonade by clearing enough space to take the larger cap hit this season. That will allow them to clear their books of the Wilson contract sooner than later, and they could have as much as $100 million in cap room next year.

For now, it means moving on from key players. Defensive captain and four-time All-Pro safety Justin Simmons was released, saving the Broncos $14.5 million in cap space. Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, the 15th overall pick in the 2020 draft, was traded to the Browns for two late-round picks.

Key starters Lloyd Cushenberry and Josey Jewell also walked out the door, signing with other teams.

It’s a tough time to be a Broncos fan, and the light at the end of the tunnel won’t come this season. Next summer, Denver should have plenty of cap space to work with – they have just 27 players under contract in 2025.

For now, expect a trying year in Denver, punctuated by a very drab free agency. Broncos Country, let’s cry.

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