NFL free agency 2023: Top players, best fits, teams to watch

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Sunday, March 12, 2023

NFL free agency is just a few days away, and the 2023 class is loaded.Who are the top free agents, and where will they sign? Which teams should be watched closely over the next few weeks? And which quarterbacks could find a new home? The legal negotiation period opens Monday, and we'll see plenty of agreed-upon deals by the time free agency officially opens Wednesday.

To get you ready for all the action, our NFL team is here to break down everything you'd ever want to know for free agent frenzy. That includes a preview of what to expect, a recap of the franchise tag window, a look at the best players available, a roundup of the signal-callers who could sign in new places, a breakdown of ideal player-team fits and a peek at the deepest position. We also pick out free agents who couldearn big contracts, sign at great value or have injury concerns, and then preview teams that are either ready to spend or likely to stay quiet amid salary-cap concerns. Finally, we wrap it all up with an evaluation of how deals could impact April's NFL draftandnext season's fantasy football landscape.

In all, a dozen of our NFL experts weigh in on one of the wildest weeks of the offseason. It's all here in a handy one-stop cheat sheet. (Salary cap figures are via Over the Cap as of March 8.)

Jump to:

Preview| Top names| Franchise tags

Quarterbacks to watch | Bank-breakers

Spender teams | Cap-concern teams

Best fits| Deepest position| Sleepers

Injury concerns | Draft outlook | Fantasy spin

What can we expect in free agency, and when does it start?

The NFL's free agent negotiating period officially opens Monday at noon ET, giving teams two days to legally speak with free agents and agree to deals before officially signing them when the new league year opens at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

The 2023 class doesn't feel as deep as last year's class, which saw massive deals go to offensive tackle Terron Armstead and pass-rusher Von Miller. The biggest names to watch this time around include offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, and there are several top-shelf defensive backs available. Remember the late-season Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes that wasn't? That has the potential to kick into high gear again with Beckham further removed from his second ACL surgery and still on the open market, right at the top of a lackluster receiver group. And though they're not free agents, flirtations with other organizations for quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers should shape free agency, too.

With a $16 million-plus increase over last year's salary cap, NFL teams will now have $224.8 million to work with in the 2023 season. The Chicago Bearspossess the No. 1 overall draft pick and also have the most cap space with $94.7 million. They could be active when the action kicks off.-- Brooke Pryor

Read more:Tracking every deal, trade and cut ...Grading the biggest deals ...Best, worst signings of past five years... Inside player-to-player recruitment

Who are the top free agents available?

Our NFL free agent ranking focused on premium positional value -- that's where the money goes. That means defensive lineman with pass-rushing traits, playmaking defensive backs and powerful offensive tackles. The quarterback group took a bit of a hit after Daniel Jones and Geno Smith re-signed with their clubs and Lamar Jackson received the nonexclusive franchise tag, but there is still star power at the top here. Age and projected future production carry a lot of weight in our grades. -- Matt Bowen

1. Orlando Brown Jr., OT

2. Javon Hargrave, DT

3. Mike McGlinchey, OT

4. Jamel Dean, CB

5. Jessie Bates III, S

6. Dalton Schultz, TE

7. James Bradberry, CB

8. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, S

9. Jawaan Taylor, OT

10. Dre'Mont Jones, DT

Read more:Ranking the top 100 free agents ... Players who need a change of scenery

Who got franchise-tagged?

It's never fun to be a free agent running back. Three of this year's six franchise tag recipients are running backs (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard), who will have to play on one-year, $10.091 million tags if they can't get long-term deals by July 15. Will the franchising of three of last year's 1,000-yard rushers be good news for players such asMiles Sanders and David Montgomery once free agency opens? Doubtful. It's a fungible position that nobody wants to pay for -- and just wait until players such asEzekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon potentially show up on the market to flood it even more.

The Washington Commanders franchising Daron Payne makes sense, as defensive tackle is one position with prominent free agents and extension candidates who could push the top of the market. And the Jacksonville Jaguars were right to make tight end Evan Engram prove he can do it again.

As for the Baltimore Ravens giving the nonexclusive tag to Lamar Jackson, we'll see how things play out. The scramble by teams to tell everyone they won't pursue him in the hours after he was franchised doesn't bode well for his chances of getting the fully guaranteed offer he seeks from someone other than the Ravens, but it takes only one team. Someone who ends the game of musical chairs without Aaron Rodgers or Jimmy Garoppolo might decide it's worth making Jackson's dreams come true -- even if it does cost them two first-round picks.-- Dan Graziano

Read more:Franchise tag tracker ... Big questions for Jackson ...Ranking trade fits for Jackson

Who are the top quarterbacks on the market?

Jimmy Garoppolo: During a three-season stretch beginning in 2019, the San Francisco 49ers appeared in two NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl while Garoppolo was their QB1. He has proven he can help a good team go deep into the postseason, and that sets him far apart from almost every other passer still in this market. The rest of the story, however, is that Garoppolo hasn't proved he can get a team across the finish line. His career QBR drops from 60.2 in the regular season to 52.8 in the postseason.

Baker Mayfield: It's hard to remember now, but Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Obviously, his career has not developed as he had hoped. But during the 2020 season, Mayfield led the Cleveland Browns to an 11-5 record and a wild-card victory. He's still young enough -- Mayfield turns 28 in April -- to get it turned around and revive his career. For the right team, he could provide value.

Best of the rest: There simply aren't enough top-notch signal-callers to go around in a QB-centric, 32-team league, which is why clubs move quickly to secure better-than-average options. The New Orleans Saints already agreed to a four-year deal with Derek Carr, whom the Las Vegas Raiders released Feb. 14. For many teams, Geno Smith or Daniel Jones would have been attractive options, but their teams apparently believed that, too. The Seattle Seahawks and Smith agreed to a three-year deala day before the New York Giants decided to bring back Daniel Jones on a big four-year deal.

Who's left? Other names to know include Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton, Taylor Heinicke, Drew Lock, Gardner Minshew, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Jarrett Stidham and Cooper Rush.-- Jason Reid

Read more:Predicting every team's 2023 starting QB

Which free agents will break the bank?

Orlando Brown Jr., OT: It's not often a 26-year-old left tackle who has been to the Pro Bowl in four straight seasons hits the open market, but Brown has a pathway to a massive payday. He plays a premium position and had a pass block win rate of 91.8% in 2022 (18th among tackles).

Jamel Dean, CB: The best cover cornerback available, Dean checks plenty of boxes. He will be a coveted player thanks to high-level traits, on-ball production and 6-foot-1 size. He's just 26 years old and had 54 tackles, 2 interceptions and 8 pass breakups last season.

Javon Hargrave, DT: While some of the NFL's best pass-rushers are edge players, Hargrave is elite from his interior alignment. He uses unique power and leverage to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and is coming off of a career-best 11 sacks in 2022. He might be the best defensive free agent available.

Mike McGlinchey, OT: In a league starved for solid offensive linemen, McGlinchey has had stretches of excellence with the 49ers during five seasons with San Francisco. At 6-8, McGlinchey's length and reach are useful traits as a pass protector on the right side. And his 81.2% run block win rate was 11th among tackles last season.

Dalvin Tomlinson, DT: The Minnesota Vikings want to keep Tomlinson, but a tight cap makes that a challenge. He epitomizes a player whose value extends far beyond the box score. While he has just 13 sacks in six seasons, he disrupts the interior of the pocket consistently and is hard to move in the run game.

Jakobi Meyers, WR: A route-running fiend, Meyers has a credible case to be the best wide receiver available in an admittedly weaker overall class. His footwork is pristine, and he's a reliable pass-catcher. Meyers might be best suited as a WR2 or WR3 on a roster, but he could see a massive payday this year after catching 67 passes for 804 yards and six TDs in 2022.

Jessie Bates III, S: Free agency is inherently risky for teams, but Bates is one of the safer bets. He's a pillar of reliability as a center fielder -- he hauled in four picks last year -- and you can count on him being available for almost every snap of every game. He played some his best football during the Cincinnati Bengals' run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, showing rise-to-the-occasion mettle.-- Field Yates

Which teams could be active in free agency?

Chicago Bears: Armed with nearly $100 million in cap space -- most in the NFL -- the Bears are expected to address several positions, from offensive line to the defensive front seven.

Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta has a chance to bolster its defensive talent pool with a series of free agent moves. The Falcons are projected to have nearly $70 million in cap space and alreadyre-signedLorenzo Carter on the edge.

New York Giants: The focus has been on Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, but the Giants want to improve the roster in other areas, too -- particularly along both lines and linebacker. They are projected to have shy of $20 million to work with.

Denver Broncos: Offensive line will be a focal point for Denver general manager George Paton and coach Sean Payton, who must first decide whether to re-sign Dre'Mont Jones. The Broncos are middle-of-the-pack with roughly $10 million in cap space.

Minnesota Vikings: Every year, we see a team with no cap space find a way to spend. I get the sense Minnesota -- currently in the hole by about $15 million -- will be up to something once it clears space with restructures and roster cuts. And I wouldn't be surprised if it adds receiver help for Kirk Cousins.-- Jeremy Fowler

Read more:Bold moves for all 32 teams ...Offseason questions ... Predicting offseason moves

Which teams could be quiet in free agency?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay has Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards all set to hit the open market. And it also has to pay the Tom Brady bill, which results in a $35 million dead money charge. Almost $50 million over the cap -- highest in the league -- the Bucs likely won't be very active this month.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens put the nonexclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson, which will prohibit doing much else. That would change if they can get a long-term deal done and lower his cap number -- or end up trading him. Baltimore is currently about $10 million over the cap.

Los Angeles Rams:Until they trade Jalen Ramsey ($25.2 million against the cap), this top-heavy team should not be active early in free agency. The Rams check in around $15 million over the cap.

San Francisco 49ers: The Niners need to sign Nick Bosa before they do anything else. And since they've already signed Dre Greenlaw, Fred Warner and Deebo Samuel -- and traded for Christian McCaffrey -- they don't have a lot of room for maneuvering. They are sitting at around $6 million in cap room.

Buffalo Bills: After being aggressive in the past few offseasons, the Bills are top-heavy when it comes to the cap. Their most important priority will be finding a way to keepTremaine Edmundsand Jordan Poyer despite being nearly $20 million over the cap.-- Mike Tannenbaum

What are some of the best potential free-agent fits?

Javon Hargrave, DT to the Seattle Seahawks:Coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks can upgrade the defensive front with Hargrave, adding a disruptive tackle with pass-rush juice. This past season, Hargrave's 17.2% pass rush win rate on the interior ranked third in the NFL, while Seattle's 33.5% pass rush win rate ranked No. 28.

Mike McGlinchey, OT to the Chicago Bears:McGlinchey didn't produce his best tape in pass protection last season, but he has the blocking traits at a premier position to upgrade a Bears offensive front that must do a better job of protecting quarterback Justin Fields. It could be a big deal for McGlinchey, as Bears general manager Ryan Poles looks to address the subpar play of the Chicago offensive line (58 sacks allowed).

Tremaine Edmunds, ILB to the Detroit Lions: Detroit needs to add more difference-makers on defense, and I see Edmunds as a prime fit at the second level of the Lions' system. Edmunds registered 7 pass breakups, 102 tackles, 1 interception and a sack in 2022, and he would be a strong addition to one of the league's worst defenses last season.-- Bowen

Read more:Best fits for 50 free agents ...One player every team must sign... Tannenbaum picks five players to sign

What is the deepest position?

The 2019 draft delivered a long list of impact running backs, so fast-forward four years and it's no surprise that this free agency class is both talented and deep there -- even with Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley and Tony Pollard off the board. Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Devin Singletary and Jamaal Williams -- who led the NFL in touchdowns last season with 17 -- are just a few of the names still up for grabs.-- Mike Clay

Read more: Stacking available running backs

Which free agents are flying under the radar?

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, OLB:Okoronkwo recorded five sacks with the Houston Texans in 2022 despite limited playing time (44% of snaps) and being on a bad team (fewer sack opportunities). On a play-by-play basis, he caused disruption, with a 19% pass rush win rate that ranked 13th on the edge. I think Okoronkwo will receive more money than most are expecting.

Cameron Fleming, OT: Looking for a solid but inexpensive tackle who can play on both sides of the line? Fleming is your guy. Last season with the Broncos, Fleming's 89% pass block win rate and 76.1% run block win rate ranked 36th and 27th, respectively, out of 64 qualifiers at the position.

Arden Key, DE: The Jaguars moved Key around on the line of scrimmage last season, but when he was on the edge, he flashed some real promise. If he had played enough as an edge rusher to qualify, his 23.5% pass rush win rate would have ranked in the top 10.

Bryce Callahan, CB: He's on the older side at 31 and has battled injuries throughout his career, which may scare off some teams. But Callahan is a solid slot corner, which is important in the modern NFL. He allowed an average of 1.1 yards per coverage snap last season with the Los Angeles Chargers, fifth-best among slot corners with at least 250 coverage snaps (NFL Next Gen Stats).-- Seth Walder

Read more: Overrated, underrated free agents

Who are the injury concerns in free agency?

Among remaining free agents, perhaps the biggest injury questions surround quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose most recent season ended with a foot fracture. It marked the fourth time in Garoppolo's five years with the Niners that injuries compromised his playing time, including two times he missed more than half a season (ACL tear in 2018, high ankle sprain in 2020). His ability to return to pre-injury form each time works in his favor, but the sum total of his injuries may give some teams pause when it comes to making an offer.

Running back Damien Harris managed just three scores in 2022 while missing six games because of a soft tissue injury, and injury recency is unfavorable for an already devalued position. Receiver Sterling Shepard went down with a torn ACL in Week 3 of last season after returning from an Achilles tear suffered the prior December. A 30-year-old coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries could have a challenge finding a suitor in the free agent market.-- Stephania Bell

What are the biggest draft implications in free agency?

The 2023 free agency class isn't loaded with stars, which normally would suggest that it won't affect the draft in major ways. That might not be true on defense this year, though, where the free agent class is stronger than the incoming rookie group -- especially at defensive tackle. The DT draft class lacks both top-end talent after Georgia'sJalen Carter (Georgia) and depth. So teams needing to fill the interior of their lines will eyeball free agents such as Javon Hargrave, Dre'Mont Jones and Zach Allen. Pitt's Calijah Kancey is the only other defensive tackle beyond Carter in my top 32 prospects.-- Matt Miller

Read more: Draft rankings ... Todd McShay's pre-free agency mock draft

What could free agency mean for fantasy football?

It's not the most impressive wide receiver free agency pool this year, as good teams keep their best receivers. But I'm keeping an eye on Odell Beckham Jr., Jakobi Meyers, JuJu Smith-Schusterand DJ Chark. Good landing spots could mean their fantasy values will skyrocket. Think about the targets Beckham or Meyers would accumulate with a team like the Bears orKansas City Chiefs. Receivers such as them could be great values in the middle-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts. -- Eric Moody

Read more:Ideal fantasy football landing spots...Top free agents at key fantasy positions

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