If you want a reminder of how the NFL free agent market can help teams win a Super Bowl, just look at the champs. The Chiefs started four free agent acquisitions on offense, including both tackles (Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor) and two of their three top wideouts (Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson). Guard Joe Thuney, who played at an All-Pro level during the season, would have been a fifth if not for a pectoral injury.
On defense, the standout was safety Justin Reid, who ably replaced another former Chiefs free agent addition in Tyrann Mathieu. Mike Edwards lined up next to him and played virtually every snap. Down the lineup, players such as Mike Pennel and Drue Tranquill made a difference in the front seven. No, Kansas City couldn't have done it without Patrick Mahomes, but the star quarterback got a lot of help from the players general manager Brett Veach & Co. added in free agency.
Free agency can be a double-edged sword. When I used to grade individual signings, my average report came in somewhere in the C to C-plus range because most free agent signings don't live up to expectations. Competing with other teams on the open market can lead organizations to make mistakes. Not grasping the market and being thoughtful about what's available can lead to decisions that look foolish a year later.
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Take the Panthers signing running back Miles Sanders to a four-year, $25.4 million deal in mid-March a year ago. We couldn't have known his performance would entirely crater outside of Philadelphia, but it was inevitable that he would lose efficiency without Jalen Hurts and a top-three offensive line. Looking at contracts across the league also made it clear there were going to be running backs hitting the market as cap casualties over the spring and summer. Those backs weren't great, either, but at least they didn't tie up $11 million in guarantees over two years. Smart organizations read the market. Foolish ones react.
What does the 2024 market actually look like, though? Over the next two weeks, I'm going position by position and establishing what free agency might look like around the league on a tier-by-tier basis. For each spot in the lineup, you'll get to see how many players at each level are actually going to come available this offseason, both as unrestricted free agents and potential cap-related releases. I'll also hit on which teams should expect to be in the market from spot to spot and how much those players should expect to land on their next deals. What teams pay, after all, can almost matter as much as who they sign.
Let's start with three positions: offensive linemen, tight ends and quarterbacks. These aren't positions likely to deliver superstars to the open market, but we can get a sense of how squeezed the top players available might be given the number of teams looking to make changes.
Tier 1: Franchise players
Free agents: None
It's rare to see a quarterback of this caliber hit unrestricted free agency. The exceptions are often players coming off injuries (Drew Brees in 2006), in their late-30s or older (Tom Brady in 2020) or both (Peyton Manning in 2012). Kurt Warner might be the lone exception here, as his performance had declined with the Rams and Giants before surging again after joining the Cardinals in 2005.
Tier 2: Pro Bowl-caliber starters
Free agents: Kirk Cousins, Vikings