NFL Free Agency: Devil in the Details

NFL Free Agency: Devil in the Details

This article is part of our NFL Free Agency series.

I'll spare you my annual rant on how the initial reports on free agent contract details often are deceptive (and sometimes flat-out inaccurate). The good thing is that it usually only takes a few days, or at most a few weeks, before websites like Spotrac and OverTheCap post accurate details.

A strong contract doesn't necessarily equate to big-time production, but it does suggest that's what the signing team expects, which helps us figure out a player's role and usage expectations for the season(s) ahead. Below we'll look at the four main positions for fantasy football, sorting players by the strength of their new contracts, accounting for guaranteed money, average annual value and payment schedules.

Quarterbacks

  1. Daniel Jones - Four Years, $160M - $82M guaranteed

Jones gets $82 million in his first two years, all guaranteed, with only injury guarantees thereafter. In other words, it's a two-year, $82 million deal for practical purposes, with team options for $30.5 million in 2025 and $47.5 million in 2026.

The catch there is that he also has a $23 million injury guarantee for 2025, including $12 million that becomes a full guarantee at the beginning of the 2025 league year. So, he's protected if he disappoints and then suffers a major injury in 2024. And he reportedly has up to $35 million available via incentives, though exact details on those haven't been reported. It's apparently tied to being a top-15, top-10 or top-5 QB... but nobody has reported exactly how that's defined.

Jones now ranks seventh among QBs in both average annual value and fully guaranteed money... that's awfully high even on the heels of a career-best season in which a ton of his passes went to journeymen. The fantasy situation is more promising, however, as he scores a lot of points with rushing and now has TE Darren Waller and WR Parris Campbell in his arsenal.

     

For practical purposes it's more like a $70 million guaranteed, as his 2024 base salary is assured ($30 million) and a $10 million roster bonus in 2025 becomes guaranteed if he's still on the team in March 2024. Carr would have to fail spectacularly to be cut next winter before that extra $10 million is locked in. Still, the Saints can get out after two years and $70 million if they release Carr in the winter of 2025... whereas the Giants are on the hook for at least $82 million with Jones over the same period.

Carr adds nothing on the ground, but he could have a potent receiving corps with Chris Olave, Michael Thomas (toe) and Rashid Shaheed. The Saints also have a talented O-line, albeit with four of the five starts finishing last season injured, including two (LT Trevor Penning, RG Cesar Ruiz) who landed on IR with Lisfranc injuries.

     

Smith faded down the stretch last year and started to look panicky, but his overall performance for the season was superior to Jones' or Carr's. The Seahawks thus look to have made out like bandits, as they can get out of the contract after one year and $27.3 million if Smith busts in 2023. 

The only saving grace for Smith and agent Chafie Fields is a nice series of contract escalators; $2 million apiece if he surpasses his 2022 numbers for team wins, completion percentage, passing yards, passing TDs and passer rating. If Smith somehow bests all five marks, he'll get another $5 million, making it a total of $15 million available in escalators. That's highly unlikely, of course, and his contract is much weaker than Carr's even if he hits some of those marks.

Seattle's roster on offense currently looks much the same as last season, minus RB Rashaad Penny (Eagles) and potentially without C Austin Blythe and RG Gabe Jackson (both free agents). Of course, the Seahawks have extra picks from Denver in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, and after adding some key pieces on defense (LB Bobby Wagner, DL Dre'Mont Jones) they can definitely afford to go BPA over needs, which probably means more help is incoming for the O-line and receiving corps. 

    

The guaranteed portion of Garoppolo's contract includes an $11.25 million roster bonus in 2024, which is equivalent to his signing bonus and his base salaries for both 2023 and 2024 (I appreciate the symmetry!). The Raiders would avoid only $11.25 million if they cut him next offseason, which means he's probably with the team for at least two years (or else will be traded rather than released next year).

The Raiders also signed Jakobi Meyers, replacing Mack Hollins for an upgrade, but that might be negated by trading Hunter Renfrow at some point. The offensive line doesn't look great, nor does the TE group minus Darren Waller, who has since been "replaced" by Austin Hooper and O.J. Howard. There's also the matter of Garoppolo offering nothing on the ground, but he'll at least have Davante Adams and Josh Jacobs to work with, potentially putting Jimmy GQ in mid-to-low QB2 range if things break right.

    

Brissett, Darnold and Mayfield may all be part of job battles for the Week 1 start, while Atlanta's Arthur Smith claims Desmond Ridder will get the nod over Heinicke. I'm not sure I buy that, considering Heinicke is definitely a top-40 QB and Ridder might or might not be. The others here — Dalton, Stidham, White — seemingly only have a shot to start Week 1 if the guy ahead of them is injured.

    

Running Backs

These three all got franchise tags and all will get much better contracts than the guys listed below if they end up signing long term.

     

The Panthers can get out of this contract after one year and $11 million or two years and $13.2 million, though they won't want to if Sanders maintains his 2022 form. Carolina is obviously a much lesser situation than Philadelphia, but a potential franchise QB is incoming and the offensive line is plenty talented (albeit with both starting guards coming back from severe injuries suffered Week 18). TBD if the Panthers add more backfield help, as Chuba Hubbard doesn't have the receiving/blocking skills you'd want to see from a Sanders complement.

    

The Lions can get out of the contract after one year and $8.75 million or two years and $12 million. The paymout may ultimately put him pretty close to Sanders, which makes sense given that Montgomery is an inferior runner but a superior receiver and blocker. The money suggests Montgomery is expected to get the ball a lot, which is bad news for D'Andre Swift investors.

    

Williams got full guarantees for 2023 and 2024, which essentially makes this a two-year, $8.15M deal with a 2025 team option for $3.85 million. There's a considerable gap in contract strength between Sanders/Montgomery and Williams, but there's also a decent gap between Williams/Mattison and the next group of guys (e.g. Perine, Mostert, Singletary).

    

The detailed version paints a much prettier picture for Mattison than initial reports, as nearly all of his two-year deal is guaranteed at signing. The Vikings appear to be keeping Dalvin Cook but that might only apply for 2023, not 2024.

     

While only the signing bonus is technically guaranteed, Perine's $1.5 million base salary for 2023 will be locked in if he makes the Week 1 roster. The Broncos are very likely paying him at least $4.5 million this year, with the option to keep him around in 2024 for $3M. 

     

Perine's deal has slightly more security, while Singletary's has more upside, allowing him to hit free agency again next year and potentially earn a larger contract if he's done good work for Houston. For fantasy purposes, he's less exciting, set up as the No. 2 RB in what figures to be one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Upside requires another injury to Dameon Pierce (ankle).

   

Penny and Harris look like bargains, with both perhaps taking discounts to land in good situations and then hit the market again next spring. It's also possible durability/receiving concerns simply kept interest down despite both having experience as successful lead runners. Looking at Jones' tiny contract, we further see that NFL teams aren't prioritizing running ability, especially when it comes to their backups (though Penny is a probable Week 1 starter, and has Scott/Gainwell around for passing-down relief... nice work by Howie Roseman, once again).

  

Wide Receivers

The Jets cut Braxton Berrios and traded Elijah Moore, leaving them with Lazard, Garrett Wilson, Corey Davis and Mecole Hardman as their top four wide receivers. They can still free up $10.5 million in cap space by releasing Davis, who would be right to be annoyed if he's cut late in the offseason when most teams are done spending big. The Ravens, Falcons and Packers would be good fits if that ends up happening.

As for Lazard... he's one of the biggest WRs in the league and a good blocker, plus he scored 14 TDs in 30 games the past two seasons. But he also struggles to separate, same as most WRs his size, and his efficiency dropped off last year with a big increase in volume (60 percent catch rate, 7.9 YPT on 100 targets, which was 40 more targets than his previous career high). Being on good terms with Aaron Rodgers seems to have helped Lazard at the negotiating table, though Rodgers technically isn't a Jet yet.

   

Between his signing bonus and base salary, Thielen gets $9.5M (all guaranteed) in Year 1 of his deal, then has $4.5M of his $5.5M base salary for 2024 guaranteed. This means he's highly likely to stay under the contract for at least two years and thus also figures to get his $2M roster bonus in 2024. Even if he disappoints, the Panthers probably won't get out of the deal until after two seasons and $17-18.5 million worth of payments. 

That puts Thielen in the same range as the next two guys listed below, with a degree of subjectivity as to which of the three got the best contract. A quick look at the numbers suggests Thielen should be ranked last, but a closer study of the payment schedule shows that the Panthers made a big commitment and must have really wanted him. 

       

It's hard to say whether Smith-Schuster or the guy he's replacing, Jakobi Meyers, made out with the superior contract. Smith-Schuster has more money guaranteed, larger per-game roster bonuses and some significant, achievable incentives, while Meyers is scheduled for better base pay in all three years. JuJu has full guarantees for his 2023 and 2024 base salaries, on top of the signing bonuses, which means he'll be under contract for at least two years and $16 million (plus whatever he earns via incentives and roster bonuses).

      

The cash payments here are scheduled for $11 million in each of the three seasons, except that Vegas can get out of the deal after one year and $11 million if Meyers disappoints and isn't injured (he does have injury guarantees for both his $5 million base salary and $5.5 million roster bonus in 2024).

For fantasy purposes, the question is how Meyers will fit in alongside Hunter Renfrow / whether or not the Raiders end up trading Renfrow. Both guys do their best work from the slot, and while Meyers has also been decent on the perimeter it'd be far from ideal to put him there full-time.

      

Woods was cut rather than having his contract expire, which means he won't factor into the formula for compensatory draft picks next year, theoretically increasing his value on the open market. The Texans, however, won't be getting any comp picks anyway, as they've signed a few pricey free agents and haven't lost anyone of note.

        

This is essentially a one-year, $6 million deal with a team option for $6 million in 2023. And about 18 percent of the money comes from per-game roster bonuses and offseason workout bonuses. The Titans also signed Parris Campbell and Jamison Crowder, both of whom primarily work the slot, as Wan'Dale Robinson and Sterling Shepard are coming back from ACL tears. As of now, Slayton and Isaiah Hodgins look like the team's top perimeter guys, though Campbell could also get a look out there given his 4.31 speed and decent size. New tight end Darren Waller should probably lead this team in targets if he stays healthy.

        

While it's hard to get excited about Carolina's receiving corps, the No. 1 overall pick will at least have some competent wideouts to throw to and a decent running back behind a promising offensive line.

      

Harty gets a surprisingly nice payday after playing only four games for the Saints last year, but keep in mind that his special teams value (he returns punts and kickoffs) has a lot to do with that. I'd still bet on second-year man Khalil Shakir getting most of the WR snaps alongside Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis. The Bills also signed Sherfield, who had a career-high 417 receiving yards for Miami last year and has played at least 183 snaps on special teams in four straight seasons.

Hardman, Campbell and Agholor are the guys on this list with the best odds of making a dent in fantasy. I like Berrios, but is he really gonna get many slot snaps when both Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are awesome working inside? That's another signing where a lot of the money is due to expectations for special teams (Berrios was excellent there for the Jets, averaging 24.9 yards on 67 kick returns and 11.4 yards on 67 punt returns over four seasons).

    

Tight Ends

The Panthers made sure their No. 1 pick won't be stuck playing with a bunch of scrubs, but I'm still not sure it's wise to be spending so much on mediocre veterans in a rebuilding year when the cap space could instead be rolled over to future seasons. The Chark signing makes more sense than Hurst and Thielen, both of whom got significant guarantees through Year 2 of their respective three-year deals. The Panthers do still have the second-most cap space in the league, but they'll need to stay aggressive in free agency the next few years after trading away so many picks to move up for Bryce Young / C.J. Stroud.

Hurst, btw, is set to make about $15.25 million through the first two years of his deal, putting him well ahead of the other free-agent TEs this year. I'm happy to see a guy with an odd career path finally hit a big payday — especially a former Raven — but this seems like an overpay by the Panthers.

     

The Vikings can get out of the deal after one year and $8.25 million if they aren't happy, but this still seems like an awful lot to pay for a guy who primarily blocks and has 230 career receiving yards in 35 games. Oliver played really well for the Ravens last year and ran a 4.63 40 coming out of college in 2019, so maybe the Vikings envision him catching 20 or 30 balls in addition to doing a lot of blocking out of two-TE packages. They clearly plan to use a lot of those, given the lack of WR talent behind Justin Jefferson and the amount they're spending on Oliver and T.J. Hockenson. Sticking to that plan will be easier if the defense doesn't stink.

      

Schultz's receiving stats suggest he should've been paid more, but NFL teams apparently noticed that a ton of his yardage came on dump offs against zone coverage rather than higher-difficulty routes that require beating defenders. Perhaps he's hoping for a chance to do more this season, which could lead to a bigger payday next spring.

       

The Pats swapped out Jonnu Smith (traded to ATL) for Gesicki, leaving them with a pair of tight ends that aren't particularly good at blocking. I'm not sure how the playing time split between Gesicki and Hunter Henry will work or how much time they'll spend on the field together.

     

Hooper and O.J. Howard will compete for snaps vacated by Waller and Foster Moreau. In other words, the Raiders would be wise to look at tight ends early in the upcoming draft.

   

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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