NFL free agency 2023: Experts debate best signings, improved teams

ByNFL experts ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 22, 2023

After a busy first week to 2023 NFL free agency, the deals have started to slow down. Teams have added impact playmakers across their depth charts, though free agents like Odell Beckham Jr.and Bobby Wagner are still on the market. Notably,Orlando Brown Jr., Javon Hargrave,Jimmy GaroppoloandJessie Bates IIIhave found new homes. And theSan Francisco 49ers andCleveland Brownsare among the teams that have made a lot of noise to start free agency, both bolstering their defenses with major additions.

What are the best signings so far, and which teams have already gotten a lot better this offseason? Our NFL experts are weighing in on what we've seen in this offseason's free agency, starting with the top deals of 2023. (We will continue to update this file throughout the week, with insight on the most questionable signings and best bargain deals.)

Which was the best overall free agent signing?

Stephania Bell, fantasy football analyst:DT Javon Hargrave to the San Francisco 49ers. You have to give the 49ers credit for absorbing the punishment Hargrave dished out in the NFC Championship Gameand thensigning him in free agency. The defense was already a force to be reckoned with, given the talents of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, but Hargrave secures the Niners as the best defensive line in the NFL and guarantees more problems for opposing offenses up the middle.

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst:DT Dre'Mont Jones to the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks filled a need by adding Jones. At 25 years old, Jones is an ascending player and has edge positional versatility. And we can see his disruptive ability as a pass-rusher on tape, as he recorded 6.5 sacks and 28 pressures last season.

Mike Clay, fantasy football writer:DTDalvin Tomlinson to theCleveland Browns. He wasn't cheap to sign, but it seems like I've been picking on the Browns for their inability to solve defensive tackle for a decade and it was nice to see them prioritize the position this offseason. Tomlinson is one of the league's best interior defensive linemen and will take some pressure off superstar defensive endMyles Garrett and fellow newcomer Ogbonnia Okoronkwo on the edge.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer:Tomlinson to the Browns. Cleveland desperately needed ruggedness in the middle of its maligned defense. It had to overpay to secure that, but Tomlinson (four years, $57 million) is coming off an impressive season for Minnesota. He seems to be improving at age 29, too. Garrett gets help up front with Tomlinson and Okoronkwo.

Matt Miller, NFL draft analyst:Hargrave to the 49ers. The rich get richer, and the defensive line in San Francisco is the league's best with Hargrave joining Bosa and Armstead up front. With one of the league's most explosive offenses, the 49ers' defense is now poised to tee off on opposing quarterbacks when teams are forced to throw to win.

Eric Moody, fantasy football writer:OT Jawaan Taylor to the Kansas City Chiefs. The soon-to-be 25-year-old is entering his prime andexpected to play left tackle for Kansas City. The Chiefs will probably address the right side of their offensive line at next month's draft, but providing the top quarterback in the game blindside protection is never a bad idea. Taylor was one of the best tackles available on the market.

Jason Reid, senior Andscape writer:Hargrave to the 49ers. Talk about adding to an area of strength. It seems downright unfair that the 49ers were able to significantly bolster one of the league's best defensive fronts -- which already featured Bosa and Armstead -- but that's exactly what they did.

Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst:Hargrave to the 49ers. After struggles from Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco quickly pivoted to find another solution up the middle. Pairing Hargrave with Armstead and Bosa gives the 49ers one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, and he will provide an anchor up front and produce constant pressure from the interior.

Mike Tannenbaum, NFL front office insider:OT Orlando Brown Jr. to the Cincinnati Bengals. Jonah Williams struggled at left tackle, and quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked 41 times last season. While Brown isn't elite, he's a very good pass-blocker and will help. The Bengals absolutely improved Burrow's blind side with this move.

Seth Walder, sports analytics writer:WR Jakobi Meyers to the Las Vegas Raiders. Meyers is a good receiver who has shown an excellent ability to get open -- in a Josh McDaniels offense in New England, no less. To get him for a mere $11 million per year is an absolute bargain considering the way wide receivers have gotten paid over the past 12 months.

Seth Wickersham, NFL writer:Hargrave to the 49ers. San Francisco got even deeper and more talented at a key position. And not only can the Niners potentially make a Super Bowl run, they also hurt a main rival (Philadelphia, Hargrave's old team) with the signing in the process.

Field Yates, NFL analyst:QB Geno Smithto theSeattle Seahawks. While it's a re-signing and not a new addition, I thought Seattle did a wonderful job of finding a deal that provided Smith with a dramatic boost in salary but also one that was reflective of a player who had been an above-average starter for just one season. It was fair for both sides.

What is the most improved team after the past week of moves?

Bell:Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins said goodbye to cornerback Byron Jones (who missed all of 2022 while recovering from Achilles surgery) and added six-time Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey to play alongside Xavien Howard. Couple that upgrade with the very reasonably priced re-signings of running backsRaheem Mostert andJeff Wilson Jr.-- two Mike McDaniels disciples from their 49ers days who have proven adept at jointly executing his brand of offense -- and the Dolphins have fared nicely.

Bowen:Cleveland Browns. The Browns made some savvy moves to upgrade their defense. Edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson bolster the Cleveland front, and safety Juan Thornhill brings much-needed post range and ball skills to the Cleveland secondary.

Clay:Dolphins. They already had a pretty good core in place, but the Dolphins' additions of Ramsey, David Long Jr. and DeShon Elliott position defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with arguably the league's best unit on paper. The offense didn't require much work, so if quarterbackTua Tagovailoa is healthy and continues to play well -- he was third in QBR in 2022 -- Miami could emerge as a real threat next season.

Fowler:Carolina Panthers. Carolina committed $116.75 million in free agent contracts, with $70 million in guarantees, in Week 1 of free agency. It filled several defensive holes, from safety Vonn Bell to defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, while also adding firepower for whoever ends up being the new quarterback with tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Miles Sanders. Andy Dalton is the perfect backstop QB for a young draft pick, too. He can win games but is not threatening to a rookie.

Miller:New England Patriots. Going from Matt Patricia/Joe Judge to Bill O'Brien at offensive coordinator was by itself a big enough move to warrant inclusion. But pass-catchers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki are also huge additions to boost the play of third-year quarterback Mac Jones.

Moody:Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are much improved, especially on defense after trading for cornerbackStephon Gilmore, who will be paired with Trevon Diggs. In addition, Dallas brought back linebackerLeighton Vander Esch and safetyDonovan Wilson, keeping the defense intact for next year. It also releasedrunning back Ezekiel Elliott, so it can pair Tony Pollard with another back and lean more on Pollard. Wide receiverBrandin Cooks is Dallas' biggest offensive addition, giving the Cowboys another vertical threat and a great complement to CeeDee Lamb.

Jason Reid:Chicago Bears. General manager Ryan Poles entered the offseason with a whole lot of cap space, the No. 1 overall pick in next month's NFL draft and a plan to upgrade a roster with canyon-sized holes. Poles made many cost-efficient moves to sign veterans who should provide the Bears with a significant boost next season. And in theirtrade with the Panthers, the Bears acquired productive wide receiver DJ Moore(and a haul of picks). He is exactly the type of wideout that young quarterback Justin Fields needs to take the next step in his development.

Jordan Reid:Browns. The Browns had major holes along the defensive line and at safety. Tomlinson, one of the top defensive free agents on the open market, was the team's marquee signing. The former Vikings interior defender is exactly what the Browns needed, as the middle of their defense struggled mightily last season. Okoronkwo brings more pressure off of the edge and a lot of versatility. And signing Thornhill following the release of John Johnson III was a swap for a better player and one that better fits the free safety role in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme.

Tannenbaum:Denver Broncos. When you factor in the hiring of coach Sean Payton and the signings of guard Ben Powers and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, this sets up the best-case scenario for any hope of success for quarterback Russell Wilson. Having offensive tackle Garett Bolles and running back Javonte Williams return from injury will also go a long way.

Walder:Dolphins. I was already bullish on the Dolphins' defense once Vic Fangio came aboard to be the defensive coordinator. But after they added Ramsey to play opposite Howard at cornerback and Long to play linebacker up the middle, I think the defense could be a serious strength. That's remarkable because, when healthy, the Dolphins' offense also can be a serious strength.

Wickersham:New York Jets. Even though the Aaron Rodgers trade has yet to be worked out, they're going from a young struggling quarterback to one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all time -- and one with a major point to prove.

Yates:Bears. They entered the free agency period with more resources to use than any other team but still managed to thread an important needle: They added a ton of talent without spending above market value on said players. And when you factor in the trade down from pick No. 1, the Bears also added a top-20 wide receiver to their roster in Moore.

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