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NFL execs unfiltered on free agency: The best and worst from all 32 teams


NFL free agency continues, but with the major signings and trades complete, it’s time to check in with executives around the league for thoughts on all 32 teams’ moves to this point.

There is so much to discuss, from Kirk Cousins’ Minnesota exit to the New York Jets’ desperation, the Green Bay Packers’ big additions and even what’s next for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys as potentially tricky contract situations percolate.

Let’s get started.

Tracker: Where the top 150 players have landed
Best available: Who’s still out there?
Grades: Assessing all of the major deals

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For each team, I’ve noted the average per-year salary (APY) of players who were added from other teams and left to sign with other teams, along with the differential between the two. Contract information was gathered from a variety of sources, including Over the Cap, Spotrac, media reports and league sources. Information for a few smaller contracts was not yet available.

APY added: $55.3M (12th) | APY lost: $12.5M (32nd) | APY differential: $42.8M (2nd)

The Cardinals prioritized both lines and added cornerback help, with execs singling out the $15 million APY for former Bengals tackle Jonah Williams as good value.

“The guys they got — Bilal Nichols, Justin Jones, Mack Wilson, Jonah Williams — are not stars, but they are 26 to 27 years old and have started a lot of games,” an exec said. “Even in Desmond Ridder, you can see the logic. They had success with Josh Dobbs, and now they add another version of Dobbs in Ridder.”

The 10 players Arizona added from other teams averaged 27.1 years old, sixth-youngest in the league and youngest among teams with more than five additions. Receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was the highest-valued free agent to sign elsewhere.

“They know they are not going to win the Super Bowl now, so let’s not pay someone we are going to miss the window with,” the exec added. “Let’s get some younger guys, pay them middle-tier money and then we will build with draft picks.”

APY added: $66.7M (6th) | APY lost: $18.9M (30th) | APY differential: $47.8M (1st)

The Falcons are one of four teams riding a streak of six consecutive losing seasons. The other three — Broncos, Jets and Panthers — have already taken desperate swings at quarterback. Atlanta signed Kirk Cousins in that context.

Can Cousins bridge the gap between the Falcons’ winning percentage over the past six seasons (.394) and the Vikings’ win rate with Cousins (.574)?

“Internally, when you are Minnesota and have a guy that is winning you games but not winning you Super Bowls, you want to get better,” an exec said. “Externally, when you have been with a team like Atlanta that has not tasted the playoffs in so long, you go, ‘F—, if I had a guy like that!’ You think any coach in Atlanta is sitting there saying, ‘This guy is not going to help us’? They could not pass the ball last year.”

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The Falcons entered free agency needing a quarterback, a speed receiver and a traditional tight end. They got all three in Cousins, Darnell Mooney and Charlie Woerner. Execs still cautioned against anointing Atlanta in the NFC South.

“I’d still go with Tampa right now,” one said. “I know the optics look good for Atlanta, but you have a new head coach, there will be a learning curve that comes along with that. The quarterback’s ability to get in the flow coming off an Achilles injury, we’ll see how that goes. It’s a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless.”

APY added: $14.8M (28th) | APY lost: $58.3M (8th) | APY differential: -$43.5M (32nd)

The Ravens have proven they can overcome personnel losses through smart signings later in the offseason, but they lost way more than usual this time.

“They are paying a quarterback now, so they are living with that and they have been converting base salaries to bonuses, so they are taking their medicine,” one exec said.

Patrick Queen, Jadeveon Clowney, Geno Stone, Kevin Zeitler, John Simpson, Ronald Darby, Devin Duvernay and Gus Edwards all signed elsewhere for deals worth at least $3 million per year.

Does keeping Justin Madubuike and signing Derrick Henry offset all that?

“I just love in two years what they have done on offense,” another exec said. “Last year, adding (offensive coordinator) Todd Monken, adding the weapons to help Lamar (Jackson), and now it’s like a correction. ‘Hey, we got away from the run against K.C. (in the playoffs), we ain’t ever doing that again. We are going to slam it on you with the ultimate finisher, the ultimate playoff guy.’”

Signing a 30-year-old running back generally doesn’t engender such excitement.

Tennessee’s offensive line was gawd-awful last season, and he still had over 1,000 yards with a rookie quarterback,” the second exec added. “Love Baltimore, love their chances, love them with a chip on their shoulder. The fact that Baltimore is tied with the two Super Bowl teams for the highest preseason win total speaks to the respect that Baltimore has.”

APY added: $23.5M (24th) | APY lost: $62M (7th) | APY differential: -$38.6M (29th)

The Bills moved on from Gabe Davis, Leonard Floyd, Tre’Davious White, Mitch Morse and Jordan Poyer, among others, in their largest roster reset since becoming a contender.

Thirteen Bills players signed elsewhere this offseason. Only Minnesota (15) had more players land elsewhere.

“I think they got old and now are backing out of some of those old guys,” an exec said. “The difference between Buffalo and Miami is Buffalo lost these old guys who have been hurt and they needed to move on from them. Miami lost guys that are at their peak right now.”

The 13 Bills players landing elsewhere averaged a full year younger than the eight players leaving the Dolphins to sign with other teams. Buffalo, unlike Miami, has already paid its quarterback.

While the Dolphins struggled to keep their own, the Bills rank third behind Tampa Bay and Indianapolis in APY allocated toward re-signings. Tackle Dion Dawkins, cornerback Taron Johnson, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and defensive end A.J. Epenesa accounted for most of the $54.6 million in re-signing APY.

“They are always going to be in it with their quarterback,” one exec said.

APY added: $96.9M (1st) | APY lost: $78.4M (3rd) | APY differential: $19.6M (7th)

Free agency seemed to reveal how hard it is for Carolina to lure and retain players following years of tumult. We saw that in how much the Panthers paid to land guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, and in how defensive mainstays Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu made clear their intentions to depart.

Through all the activity, the Panthers made clear their priority: salvaging quarterback Bryce Young before it’s too late, cost be damned.

Committing $33.25 million in combined APY to Hunt and Lewis, two guards with zero Pro Bowls, is the antithesis of hunting for value. But when your young quarterback is drowning, how much is too much to spend for an immediate lifeline?

“I guess you are hoping you recoup that value deficit in the play of the quarterback,” an exec said.

The 12 players Carolina added from other teams held a 58-39 edge in combined Approximate Value from Pro Football Reference in 2023 over the 10 players leaving the Panthers for rosters elsewhere. But it’s a stretch to say the team went into the offseason hoping to overpay two guards, trade its top pass rusher at a discount and lose its top linebacker, Luvu.

Acquiring receiver Diontae Johnson from Pittsburgh for cornerback Donte Jackson was the sort of high-upside, low-cost move that eluded Carolina in the open market.

“The quarterback was not the reason why they were so bad,” another exec said. “They struggled with protecting him and they did not have any receivers. Diontae Johnson is super talented, he is explosive. … He will be a playmaker for them.”

APY added: $57.9M (8th) | APY lost: $32.5M (24th) | APY differential: $25.4M (5th)

The Bears’ Justin Fields exit strategy isn’t going to matter long-term if their next quarterback succeeds, but trading Fields for only a 2025 sixth-round pick that can become a fourth is what we have to evaluate in the meantime.

“They almost got bullied or gave up,” an exec said. “Their asking price was probably too high initially, and then when they realized the seats got filled, they had to lower their ask. I don’t understand why you would make that trade because if somebody has an injury or doesn’t get the quarterback they thought they were going to get, the ask will be higher.”


The Bears got less than expected in return for Justin Fields. Could they have handled it differently? (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

Ending the Fields era before the (presumably) Caleb Williams era begins makes for a cleaner transition. Williams will be in a better position to succeed than Fields was, because of his skill set and because the Bears are in a better position to support him. Acquiring Keenan Allen was a statement on that last point.

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“For all the things he might not be in terms of speed and stretching the field, Keenan Allen is a super-smart player, very savvy,” an exec said. “He will be productive getting the ball. He helps become your Travis Kelce in the offense as a security blanket who makes plays. DJ Moore is a good player. They signed a tight end (Gerald Everett) who is a good scheme fit and complement for (Cole) Kmet. They do have some pieces in place.”

APY added: $36.5M (20th) | APY lost: $49.1M (11th) | APY differential: -$12.6M (21st)

All’s well in Cincinnati if Joe Burrow returns to health for a full season, but execs thought the Bengals would miss 335-pound defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who signed with Detroit for $11 million per year.

“Their whole identity changed defensively when D.J. Reader was hurt, which is why I think losing him was big,” one exec said. “What Reader was able to do might not have been on the stat sheet, but he allowed those linebackers to play free.”

Reader’s salary slot went toward former Texans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is about the same age but more of a pass rush threat. Execs liked the move to bring back safety Vonn Bell, a known scheme fit, while wondering whether the other safety Cincinnati signed, Geno Stone, would fare as well outside Baltimore.

“You keep your receiving corps together for the most part in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, with the quarterback getting healthy, and you add a good receiving tight end in Mike Gesicki to give them something they did not have last year,” another exec said. “Zack Moss is a good back. It is almost a wash if you say Mixon versus him, even if they are different styles.”

APY added: $38.9M (19th) | APY lost: $20.7M (28th) | APY differential: $18.2M (8th)

Jerry Jeudy? The Browns acquired him from Denver on the cheap, then signed him to the 19th-richest APY among wide receivers, albeit with a structure favorable to the Browns.

“I agree with their theory about getting ahead of the receiver market, which is going to take off, but I’m not sure Jeudy is the guy who makes the theory work,” an exec said. “They are thinking, ‘Shoot, (Justin) Jefferson is about to get paid, and Chase is waiting for him to get paid. But Jeudy is not in that class, so who cares about those comps? This is basically what the Giants did with Daniel Jones.”

Jameis Winston’s $4 million APY tied for the largest by any outside player Cleveland signed in free agency. He replaces Joe Flacco behind starter Deshaun Watson.

“You could have gotten a more game-manager type like Gardner Minshew and played to the strength of your defense,” an exec said, “or you can say, ‘Shoot, we’ve got good weapons outside. We have (David) Njoku and Jeudy and Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore. Let’s go ahead and sling it all over the yard with Jameis, the ultimate double agent.”

APY added: $3M (32nd) | APY lost: $42.6M (14th) | APY differential: -$39.6M (30th)

Linebacker Eric Kendricks, signed to a $3 million APY that ranks 48th among off-ball linebackers, per Over the Cap, is the Cowboys’ only outside free-agent addition.

“The quarterback contract has put the handcuffs on them,” an exec said. “I get that piece of it. They have a talented roster already. They are going to have some big extensions coming with CeeDee Lamb and others, so I can see why you might want to keep your hands in your pockets.”

With Dak Prescott’s contract counting $55.1 million against the cap, and with Dallas having waived its right to trade him or use the franchise tag to keep him, the quarterback could be a candidate for the first $60 million APY in league history.

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“If the guy wants $60 million a year, you know what we are going to do instead?” an exec from another team hypothesized. “We are going to have an average team, and you are going to play worse and we are going to get you at a better price.”

Owner Jerry Jones is known for paying his own players to a fault. Prescott signed his current deal only five months after suffering a season-ending broken ankle. It carried the No. 2 APY in league history at the time.

“There is a deal to be made,” another exec said. “It’s just a matter of whether they will want to do it. At that level, you need to win because of the quarterback, and they have not done that enough when it has mattered, in the playoffs.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer stands as the most intriguing addition.

“They lost guys that do not kill them to lose,” an exec said. “They have some guys coming back to health on the defensive side. They have good players. They have to play well. They have had a rushing-the-passer mindset. They need to play the run better and be more balanced defensively, which I think Zimmer will help them do.”

APY added: $17.2M (27th) | APY lost: $40.6M (17th) | APY differential: -$23.4M (24th)

This Broncos offseason was about escaping Russell Wilson’s contract and dealing with the salary-cap consequences. They would seem to be a prime candidate to trade up in the draft for a quarterback, but Minnesota could have greater urgency among teams outside the top 10.

“If Minnesota does not get a quarterback in the draft and they fall behind Caleb Williams, Jordan Love and Jared Goff in the division and are left with Sam Darnold, don’t you feel like they are in trouble?” an exec asked. “It almost behooves Sean Payton in Denver not to mortgage his future, and just see if one falls to him like happened with New England a few years ago. Is he able to get one he likes?”

Under this line of thinking, Payton wouldn’t face much urgency in Denver until Wilson’s contract comes off the books in 2025.

“They are trimming salary to handle the Russell Wilson divorce, and I think they lost a lot,” another exec said. “Lloyd Cushenberry is a good player. They cut the safety (Justin Simmons), and that is a big one for them. He is a leader. You lose some of those guys, and it is significant.”

APY added: $42.6M (16th) | APY lost: $33.4M (22nd) | APY differential: $9.2M (12th)

It’s easy to understand what the Lions are doing because their moves fit a well-established philosophy. They added to their defensive front with D.J. Reader and Marcus Davenport. They addressed a trouble spot at cornerback. And when guard Jonah Jackson left for a $17 million APY with the Rams, they found a short-term patch in 34-year-old Kevin Zeitler.

“Reader is a big, big win for them,” an exec said. “The quad injury is the only piece you worry about, but he has proven he can come back from that injury.”

The average age of the four outside additions in free agency — 29.3 years for Reader, Davenport, Zeitler and Amik Robertson — ranks No. 1 in the league for any team with more than two signings this offseason.

“Their team is a little more mature,” another exec said. “For them to take steps forward, it is about continuity across the team and it’s adding impact players in the draft, because they are a little topped out.”

Cornerback trade acquisition Carlton Davis is younger (27).

“They could still use another corner,” an exec said. “Carlton Davis is probably an upgrade over (Cameron) Sutton. The coach (Dan Campbell) is going to like Amik Robertson because he is a feisty, scrappy kid who plays extremely hard. He will fit right in to what they are doing.”

APY added: $30M (23rd) | APY lost: $31.9M (25th) | APY differential: -$1.9M (19th)

Adding safety Xavier McKinney and running back Josh Jacobs at the expense of Darnell Savage and Aaron Jones, respectively, marked a departure from form for Green Bay.

“Josh Jacobs isn’t as explosive as Aaron Jones, but Josh is available and Aaron has been hurt,” an exec said. “They get younger at the position and potentially better in the later part of the year with a guy who is rugged and still has it. Their moves made sense to me.”

The three outside free agents Green Bay signed — McKinney, Jacobs and kicker Greg Joseph — averaged 26.8 years old, the youngest for any team that signed more than two outside free agents (Kansas City, with two signings, was the only team with a younger average for its additions). The Athletic’s Randy Mueller ranked McKinney, who turns 25 in August, as the best safety available in free agency.

“I wasn’t a big Xavier McKinney fan — liked him, did not love him — because of the lack of speed,” an exec said. “Aaron Jones was a leader, smart, everything you want. Josh Jacobs is a good back, but I think they could miss the leadership and football IQ that Jones brought. They wanted to trade for Jonathan Taylor last year, so they’ve been looking.”

Jones missed six games last season and has played a full season twice in five chances since becoming a full-time starter.

“It is a straight replacement without committing to guaranteed money with a slightly younger player,” another exec said. “Jacobs will not bust a pass protection to put Love at risk, just like Aaron Jones did a good job of that.”

APY added: $79.1M (3rd) | APY lost: $71.4M (4th) | APY differential: $7.7M (14th)

The Texans ranked among the most active teams in terms of high-budget additions and subtractions. How much better did they get with Danielle Hunter instead of Jonathan Greenard, Azeez Al-Shaair instead of Blake Cashman or Joe Mixon instead of Devin Singletary? Those three additions cost $44.3 million in combined APY at the expense of players who commanded a combined $32 million elsewhere.

“I did like what Houston did with Denico Autry ($10 million APY) and Danielle Hunter ($24.5 million APY),” an exec said. “That is two really good, proven one-on-one winners at the rush position to go along with Will Anderson. I don’t agree with the Mixon extension ($8.5 million APY), but I do agree that he is going to help them in the red zone, help them be more balanced from an efficiency standpoint.”

Others would have preferred the Texans going younger than they did with Autry, 33, and Hunter, who turns 30 this season.

“Some of these moves are a little more lateral than you might think,” one exec said. “They got bigger names, but when you pay older payers more money than you pay your own players who produce at a similar level, that is where it gets scary sometimes.”

One exec questioned Houston signing a long list of players in the $2-5 million APY range, including $4.75 million for cornerback Jeff Okudah.

“It looks like they know that they have a young quarterback,” another exec said. “They are going to make big signings at premium positions, but they are also going to supplement the team with a lot of strong special teams players. That is going to help them.”

APY added: $11.5M (29th) | APY lost: $20.3M (29th) | APY differential: -$8.8M (20th)

The Colts’ three AFC South rivals ranked second (Tennessee), third (Houston) and ninth (Jacksonville) in combined APY added from outside free agents, committing a combined $225.8 million in APY toward those signings. The Colts ranked 30th with $11.5 million, and if all goes to plan, one of their two outside additions, Joe Flacco, will not play a snap.

“The biggest thing was being able to keep Grover (Stewart) and (Michael) Pittman,” an exec said. “Those are good players who are your players. They spent too much for Raekwon Davis. You are paying for height, weight, speed. It’s all good until they don’t play well.”

Per ESPN, the Colts offered more to Danielle Hunter than the former Vikings defensive end accepted from division-rival Houston, but with so many of its own players to re-sign, Indy did not wait for that process to play out. The Colts funneled nearly all their resources toward their own players, ranking second to Tampa Bay in combined APY allocated for re-signings ($73 million). That is what every team says it wants to do, but it can feel inadequate for teams that haven’t broken through.

“You have a team going into free agency needing a second receiver, a corner and a safety,” an exec said, “and those three things they can address with their first three picks. You can get a corner in the first, a No. 2 receiver in the second and a starting safety in the third.”

Addressing one or two of those needs in free agency or the trade market could have given the Colts greater flexibility. Instead, they signed Davis ($7 million APY) and the 39-year-old Flacco, while the Titans landed cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, the Jaguars signed receiver Gabe Davis and the Texans got the pass rusher Indy also wanted.

“Indy is not a destination team, so to have success re-signing guys who were not tagged and could have gone anywhere, I think they deserve some credit for that,” an exec said. “Fans are upset that L’Jarius Sneed got away to a division rival for only a third-round pick and a reasonable contract, but Indy has shown they’ll set a price and walk away.”

APY added: $57.1M (9th) | APY lost: $47.7M (13th) | APY differential: $9.3M (11th)

The AFC South led all divisions with $237 million in combined APY for players signed from other teams. The Jaguars were a big reason why.

After letting receiver Calvin Ridley leave for Tennessee on a deal worth $23 million annually, Jacksonville pivoted to sign former 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead for $14 million per year. It was a tradeoff that left the team without a true No. 1 wide receiver, despite Christian Kirk ranking second and the newly signed Gabe Davis ranking seventh among highest-paid Jaguars.

“The Gabe Davis contract was surprising: $13 million (per year) for probably a third receiver on a good team,” an exec said.

The offseason is not over.

“It’s a good receiver draft, so maybe they are getting an established player in Gabe Davis, still only 25 years old, and now they can add a receiver with a little more home run juice at some point in the first three rounds of the draft,” another exec said.

Armstead has missed 13 of 34 games over the past two seasons and will turn 31 during the season.

“I like Armstead if they can keep him healthy,” an exec said, “but the injury stuff is why we stayed away. Gabe Davis is solid. I like (Darnell) Savage if they can get him to tackle better, but he’s a better athlete than player. Mitch Morse is near the end.”

As for Mac Jones, the Jaguars hope he never has to play.

“Getting Mac Jones for a bag of peanuts makes sense with Trevor Lawrence’s playing style inviting injury, especially when you see the going rate for the (Gardner) Minshews of the world,” another exec said. “They should be right back in the hunt.”

APY added: $8.3M (31st) | APY lost: $34.5M (21st) | APY differential: -$26.2M (26th)

Super Bowl champs sometimes get raided in the offseason. That did not happen to the Chiefs. They re-signed defensive tackle Chris Jones to a massive deal, kept several defensive role players and added a badly needed explosive receiving option in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Trading franchise player L’Jarius Sneed to Tennessee for only a 2025 third-round pick and a late-round pick swap was the tradeoff.

“Kansas City basically is carrying two quarterback contracts with Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones, so they cannot keep everyone,” an exec said. “Those are win-because-of players on both sides of the ball. They have to fill in gaps with other guys and develop young players, which they’ve done a good job of.”

The 2025 third-round pick could help Kansas City maneuver in the upcoming draft. For now, fans might consider that small consolation for losing Sneed, who was scheduled to earn $19.8 million on the franchise tag.

“You can make Sneed play it out, but are you going to get the same performance from him if he’s not happy, doesn’t show up right away, stays out until Week 10 or whatever?” an exec asked. “If he gets banged up and decides he is not playing, are you going to be surprised in that situation? There are so many dynamics to consider.”

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APY added: $45.3M (15th) | APY lost: $40.8M (16th) | APY differential: $4.4M (18th)

It’s clear the Raiders have a plan for Christian Wilkins beyond handing him a contract worth $27.5 million per year, highest for any non-quarterback signed as a free agent. Still, it’s a lot of money.

“What helped make Wilkins so good in Miami was he had Jaelan Phillips on one side and Bradley Chubb on the other,” an exec said. “That left him and (Zach) Sieler working against three men inside, and those guys did a great job working off one another. Vegas is trying to replicate what Wilkins had with Sieler by bringing back John Jenkins and Adam Butler.”

Another exec wondered whether the Raiders had to pay Wilkins that much to get him, or whether they simply identified a player they had to have and paid him.

“Going into free agency, there were only three of them,” another exec said of the top defensive tackles. “There was Chris Jones, who was going back to K.C., there was Madubuike, who re-signed with Baltimore, and then Wilkins. And then from a cap casualty standpoint, Armstead was going to be available. All those guys got paid because everybody needs interior help, and there are only a few in the draft that you love. So, not a surprise.”


Christian Wilkins was one of a few defensive tackles to get paid major money this spring. (Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

APY added: $19.9M (26th) | APY lost: $62.3M (6th) | APY differential: -$42.5M (31th)

The Chargers solved their acute salary-cap predicament the way we would expect a Jim Harbaugh-coached team to solve it: by jettisoning wide receivers to save linemen. Cutting Mike Williams and trading Keenan Allen created flexibility to keep pass rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa at reduced rates.

Things could have worked out differently if Allen had accepted a pay cut.

“Would you want to take less money at your profession if you were told by HR you were coming off your best year?” an exec asked, noting that Allen had a career-high 108 catches (despite playing in only 13 games).

The Chargers recouped a 2024 fourth-round pick for Allen.

“They are going to be run game and power football and have defense, and they showed it with their moves,” another exec said. “What they have done reflects who Jim Harbaugh is as a coach. Harbaugh and their GM (Joe Hortiz) come from teams that build from the inside out. They are going to stick to their formula.”

APY added: $48.0M (14th) | APY lost: $40.6M (18th) | APY differential: $7.5M (15th)

Aaron Donald’s retirement overshadowed the $33 million in combined APY the Rams committed to re-signing one guard (Kevin Dotson) and adding another (Jonah Jackson). Those moves should improve life for the Rams’ own quarterback, and for the quarterbacks Los Angeles faces in 2024.

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“Offensively, they will be fine,” an exec said. “But on defense, when you lose a coordinator (Raheem Morris) and arguably the most disruptive player in the game that was really your identity defensively, it changes how you play.”

Donald helped change how NFL teams pay as well. The NFL’s three remaining highest-paid defensive tackles all signed their deals this offseason: Jones ($31.8 million APY), Wilkins ($27.5 million) and Madubuike ($24.5 million).

The difference in 2023 AV for the players the Rams signed (22) more than offsets the total for their players who signed elsewhere (20), but when the 15 AV for Donald is removed, the Rams drop to 28th in AV differential at minus-13. Only the Broncos (-19), Chargers (-28), Cowboys (-37) and Ravens (-40) rank lower.

The equation changes if newly signed former Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White returns to form following injury. What are the odds of that happening after White suffered a torn ACL and torn Achilles tendon in consecutive years?

APY added: $48.2M (13th) | APY lost: $84M (2nd) | APY differential: -$35.8M (27th)

Has the Dolphins’ roster peaked with a run of four consecutive winning seasons without even one playoff victory?

“You can make the case they have exhausted the model even before paying the quarterback,” an exec said.

The thought came to mind as Miami watched a league-high six players leave its roster for deals worth at least $6 million per year: Christian Wilkins, Robert Hunt, Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker, Raekwon Davis and Brandon Jones. The team also released four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard, who remains a free agent.

“I think they got in trouble just acquiring people thinking last year was going to be a bigger year for them than it wound up being,” another exec said.

The eight players leaving the Dolphins for other teams were younger on average (27.5, sixth-youngest) than the 13 players they signed from the outside (28.4, ninth-oldest).

“What is interesting about them is the players they lost were homegrown, drafted players, which is not how you want things to go,” another exec said. “You want to extend your own. But they are on their third defensive coordinator in three years, and that changes how players are viewed. Van Ginkel was probably the one that hurt the most (after Wilkins). And then think of all the surplus value Wilkins got from not being tagged.”

APY added: $67.7M (5th) | APY lost: $103.9M (1st) | APY differential: -$36.2M (28th)

Some of the best quarterback transitions have unfolded before the transitioning team moved on from its veteran starter.

Kansas City had Patrick Mahomes for a full year before trading Alex Smith. Dallas had Dak Prescott before moving on from Tony Romo. Same for Baltimore (Lamar Jackson from Joe Flacco), Philadelphia (Jalen Hurts from Carson Wentz), Green Bay (Jordan Love from Aaron Rodgers) and even Seattle (Geno Smith from Russell Wilson).

The Vikings initiated the transition from Kirk Cousins without having more than a bridge replacement (Sam Darnold) and without possessing a top-10 pick in the draft (yet).

“If you don’t feel like he’s a guy who can win you Super Bowls and he’s old and he’s injured, there is no better time to move on from him than right now,” an exec said. “If they paid Kirk, they can’t field the things you need to make a young guy successful. The issue with them is not that they are getting rid of Kirk, but that they did not do enough to plan ahead.”

Minnesota ranks among the top five in both APY added and lost, showing just how furious the pace was for the Vikings this offseason. They chose pass rusher Jonathan Greenard at $19 million per year over the older Danielle Hunter at $24.5 million. They chose linebacker Blake Cashman at $7.5 million over the older Jordan Hicks at $4 million.

“I would rather pay Greenard $19 million a year over 4-5 years than Danielle Hunter $24.5 million over two,” another exec said.

Whatever the case, the floor in Minnesota is lower without Cousins.

APY added: $31.5M (22nd) | APY lost: $24.7M (27th) | APY differential: $6.8M (16th)

The Patriots did not add or lose much in their first offseason in a quarter century without Bill Belichick at the controls.

“It just seemed like they missed out on everyone,” one exec said.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft indicated the team tried and failed to land Calvin Ridley. He suggested the Patriots’ unsettled quarterback situation might have played a role, which was interesting, given that Ridley signed with a team featuring Will Levis, Mason Rudolph and Malik Willis behind center.

“Kraft mentions the (state income) taxes, the quarterback, the player’s girlfriend and then he mentioned the money,” an exec said. “The reality is, if the dollar net taxes was higher in New England than in Tennessee, they would have gotten the player. It’s like Kraft can’t live in a world where he is looked at as the problem.”

Journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett was the highest-priced free agent ($8 million) the Patriots added.

“The head coach came out early in the offseason and said, ‘We have a lot of money to spend, and we are going to spend it,’” another exec said. “Then he had to walk the comment back. Then they lose out on the receiver after their GM says they have no speed on offense. So you have the two highest appointed people in the organization saying they are going to spend and they are going to prioritize speed, and then they do neither. What the hell?”

APY added: $22.1M (25th) | APY lost: $13M (31st) | APY differential: $9.1M (14th)

The Saints have used early draft choices on Payton Turner (2021 first round) and Isaiah Foskey (2023 second) to support eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. But as Jordan’s 35th birthday approaches in July, those efforts have not paid off, which explains why the Saints took a calculated chance on Chase Young in free agency.

“It is scary when you sign a guy and he gets a neck procedure right away and will not be ready until sometime in camp, and he is not necessarily known as an all-out effort guy anyway,” an exec said of Young. “But he will be incentivized by the one-year deal.”

Linebacker Willie Gay and receiver Cedrick Wilson were the other leading Saints additions during an offseason of restrained spending in the name of cap compliance.

“I think they are in one of the worst situations in the league because of what they have committed to the quarterback, and then between (right tackle) Ryan Ramczyk’s injury outlook and the disappointment of Trevor Penning, your bookend tackles and your quarterback have issues,” an exec said. “Your aging, declining defense with Cam Jordans of the world that have been mainstays — I think they are in a tough position.”

APY added: $63.6M (10th) | APY lost: $48.9M (23rd) | APY differential: $14.7M (6th)

Only the Falcons invested less than the Giants in re-signing their own players this offseason, with potential building blocks Xavier McKinney and Saquon Barkley among those leaving.

The Giants instead landed Brian Burns from Carolina for one relatively small price (second- and fifth-round picks) and one very large price ($28.2 million APY on an extension).

“I actually like the stuff that they did,” an exec said. “Saquon is a good back, but you are talking about a running back. (Devin) Singletary is going to produce as much as Saquon did for them at a fraction of the cost. They may get a better version of Brian Burns than Carolina was getting, because there is a human element to it. You don’t like where you are playing, you are not having success, it affects you.”

Whether Burns finds team success with the Giants could depend on what happens at quarterback.

“The narrative there can’t be that their defense took a step back without Wink (Martindale), because if that happens, the media is going to say, ‘See, the head coach is unable to do this, that and the other,’” an exec said. “I see Brian Burns giving the new coordinator a chance at having a better defense than Wink had, which I think matters there, given where they are at and all that has happened.”

APY added: $55.8M (10th) | APY lost: $32.8M (23rd) | APY differential: $23M (6th)

There is short-term planning, and then there is New York Jets short-term planning.

“Yes, it’s going to leave a large mess if it doesn’t work,” an exec said, “but it’ll be someone else’s job to clean it up.”

And so the Jets will ask new 33-year-old left tackle Tyron Smith to block so that new 29-year-old receiver Mike Williams can catch passes from 40-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Smith hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season since 2015. Williams suffered a torn ACL in Week 3 last season, two weeks after Rodgers suffered a torn Achilles tendon.


Tyron Smith is a star when on the field, but he’s played in just 30 of a possible 66 games since 2020. (Perry Knotts / Getty Images)

“It’s almost comical, but if the quarterback plays, he plays almost instantly at a top-tier level and they become a playoff threat immediately even without a plan,” another exec said.

The eight players the Jets added by trade or through signings averaged 29.1 years of age, the highest for any team with more than three additions, headlined by acquiring 29-year-old pass rusher Haason Reddick from the Eagles after the Jets’ own pass rusher, the 26-year-old Bryce Huff, signed with Philadelphia.

“If this is your last chance to get it right, don’t half-step,” the first exec said. “But to say they are incurring risk is beyond an understatement.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Jets make surprise trade for Eagles’ Reddick

APY added: $55.7M (11th) | APY lost: $42.3M (15th) | APY differential: $13.4M (10th)

The Eagles are in transition with Jason Kelce and Fletcher Cox retiring, Reddick leaving via trade and Barkley arriving from the Giants.

Barkley’s arrival, Kelce’s departure and a switch to an offensive coordinator (Kellen Moore) known for his passing schemes could change the way the Eagles operate. The Tush Push might not be dead, but it might not be the same, either.

“I just don’t know who they are,” an exec said. “I think they lost their identity and lost their confidence. Teams say they want to build from the inside out, but you lost your two staple inside players in Kelce and Cox. Not only that, but those two guys were the culture guys. You lose those guys in a year when the head coach already has his back against the wall, I don’t see it ending well.”

The Eagles weren’t necessarily the most likely team to set the bar for running back price tags in free agency, but that bar fell well below market leader Christian McCaffrey. Barkley’s deal averages $12.6 million per year, fourth-best in the league.

“I know it felt like running backs were back when the Eagles got Saquon and there was all that activity early, but if I’m Saquon Barkley, I’m like, ‘Dude, I had to fight my butt off, play on the franchise tag just to get Darnell Mooney money?’” an exec said.

APY added: $41.6M (17th) | APY lost: $34.9M (20th) | APY differential: $6.8M (17th)

Adding quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Justin Fields for less combined APY than the NFL’s highest-paid kickers earn seems like a good deal, especially when Fields cost only Day 3 draft considerations.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How the Justin Fields trade unfolded and what comes next for the Steelers and Bears

“They should be applauded for where they are at and what they have done,” an exec said.

Beyond the quarterback additions, the Steelers traded receiver Diontae Johnson to Carolina, traded quarterback Kenny Pickett to Philadelphia and signed 24-year-old former Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen.

“Their hallmark is defense and always has been,” the exec said. “They have been able to find receivers in the draft. They have successfully shopped receivers who have become disgruntled. They will now be running an offensive system that saw Ryan Tannehill have his best year, which you would think bodes well for Wilson and Fields.”

Age could be one concern. The Steelers’ 11 signings from other teams averaged 28.8 years old, right behind the Jets for the oldest average among teams adding more than three players. That average is inflated by Wilson (35), returner Cordarrelle Patterson (33) and punter Cameron Johnston (32), who are on team-friendly deals.

As for Fields, would you rather have him for $4.7 million or Gardner Minshew for $12.5 million? Would you rather have Fields or Mac Jones, Zach Wilson or Sam Darnold?

APY added: $40.6M (18th) | APY lost: $64.2M (5th) | APY differential: -$23.6M (25th)

The 49ers lost defensive lineman Arik Armstead, which could hurt, but much of the talk surrounding San Francisco focuses on what’s next with receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Will the Niners extend his contract? Could they trade him?

“Aiyuk is so integral to what they do, more so than Deebo Samuel is, that I’d try to get something done with him before Justin Jefferson and these other receivers get deals and the price goes up,” an exec said. “Because this is a deep receiver draft, they may try to do it in reverse. If there is something they can get done from a draft standpoint, then it could be moving Aiyuk or knowing their feet are to the fire and they have to extend him.”

The 49ers own three of the top 100 picks in the draft, plus three fourth-rounders. Acquiring defensive tackle Maliek Collins from Houston provided some protection for Armstead signing with Jacksonville.

“Of the other guys they got, Leonard Floyd and (Yetur) Gross-Matos will be better than Clelin Ferrell and Javon Kinlaw, and probably on par with what Chase Young gave them,” an exec said. “They have a ton of picks, so I think they are in a really good spot.”

APY added: $34.4M (21st) | APY lost: $55.3M (9th) | APY differential: -$22.1M (23rd)

The Seahawks needed guard help going into free agency. They really needed guard help coming out, after Carolina signed Seattle’s Damien Lewis to the 13th-highest APY in free agency ($13.3 million).

“They don’t need to panic because I think this is a good guard draft,” an exec said. “If they want to get one in the first two rounds, they can do that. The bigger question mark for me was paying a (soon-to-be) 30-year-old Leonard Williams. When you trade for someone, you feel like you have to justify it with the extension. Those can be the worst signings.”

The Seahawks’ experience with Jamal Adams is instructive, but not necessarily predictive.

“I am intrigued because they do have some pieces on that defense with Leonard Williams and (Devon) Witherspoon, who is a nice chess piece for the new head coach,” another exec said. “They will be faster at the linebacker position based on the guys they added, (Jerome) Baker and (Tyrel) Dodson. Those are two undersized but quick, sideline-to-sideline playmakers.”

Adding Sam Howell by trade from Washington stood out to execs as an intriguing move.

“He played his ass off in Washington, and then they just hung him out to dry (by passing too frequently),” an exec said. “He is a little bit like Minshew, but with more arm. He is a little reckless with the ball. You can fix that, but I don’t know that they will.”

APY added: $11.5M (29th) | APY lost: $29.8M (26th) | APY differential: -$18.3M (22nd)

The Buccaneers did a great job keeping together their 2023 NFC South-winning roster. Whether they did too good of a job is a subject for discussion.

“It is sticking with what you know, but it is also risky to say, ‘We are just going to run it back and the ball will bounce the same way it did in 2023,’” an exec said.

Beyond Baker Mayfield and Mike Evans, the Buccaneers re-signed 34-year-old linebacker Lavonte David, running back Chase Edmonds and defensive tackle Greg Gaines. They franchise-tagged Antoine Winfield Jr., traded cornerback Carlton Davis to Detroit and moved on from linebacker Shaquil Barrett, 31.

“Re-signing Baker Mayfield was good; re-signing Mike Evans was a must,” the exec said. “I wonder if they could have made some building-block improvements with guys who help now and, two years from now, you’re still happy they are there.”

APY added: $89.7M (2nd) | APY lost: $52.8M (10th) | APY differential: $37M (4th)

The Titans went on a spending spree for skill-position players that seemed to suggest they would address their offensive line in the draft, and that new line coach Bill Callahan can fix the No. 1 problem for Tennessee.

“Calvin Ridley is a baller and arguably the top receiver available,” an exec said. “L’Jarius Sneed was the best cornerback available. (Lloyd) Cushenberry gives them a (26-year-old) starting center. (Chidobe) Awuzie is average, but they needed someone there because their draft picks haven’t done it.”

There’s no denying the Titans became more talented. That doesn’t mean everyone thought they made smart signings.

“They went receiver, center, corner, linebacker and running back, all at $7 million a year or more,” another exec said. “Now look at Carolina. Both teams overpaid, but Carolina made all their moves up front, so you could see what the plan was. If you are going to overpay, overpay with intention.”

The $23 million APY for Ridley was the fourth-richest deal for a free agent who signed with a new team. Titans offensive coordinator Nick Holz was with Ridley in Jacksonville.

“There is a walk-away point on some of these deals, and paying high-dollar numbers to a 29-year-old receiver now on his third team in three years amounts to bad business,” another exec said.

Washington Commanders

APY added: $76.5M (4th) | APY lost: $37.8M (19th) | APY differential: $38.7M (3rd)

The Commanders got a little older with their NFL-high 17 signings from other teams, led by former Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (the 17 does not count the 33-year-old Zach Ertz, who was released during the 2023 postseason and therefore was not considered a free agent).

“I see what the plan was,” an exec said. “They went the culture route where we are going to add the Bobby Wagners, guys that are known commodities, to help jumpstart a culture that has lacked leadership and direction. You just have to hope these guys stay healthy, because they are older — sexy names without sexy production.”

Wagner heads that list, which also includes Dante Fowler Jr. (29), Michael Davis (29) and Austin Ekeler (29 in May), with the 30-year-old Marcus Mariota replacing Sam Howell, 23, as the presumed backup quarterback. One exec questioned whether Washington could have Wagner and fellow linebacker Frankie Luvu on the field at the same time on passing downs, for fear of becoming vulnerable in coverage.

“Wagner, Ekeler and Ertz are the only signings I would criticize, even though I understand what they are doing,” another exec said. “Jeremy Chinn will be interesting. He was out of position with Carolina. I don’t know if he has the instincts to play in the box the way Dan Quinn likes with those lighter safety bodies at linebacker.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos of, from left to right, Kirk Cousins, Saquon Barkley and Russell Wilson: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images, Chris Szagola, Rebecca Droke / Associated Press)

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The Football 100

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