The first wave of the 2023 NFL free agency period is behind us with a new tier of the highest-paid NFL players and plenty of shakeups to rosters around the league. While there are NFL free agency grades, we’re also looking at the best moves made thus far.
We’ve eliminated any re-signings before the free-agency window opened, so the Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants re-signing their quarterbacks are removed. We’re also not just focusing on the biggest spenders, because often it’s the best-value deals that offer the greatest reward.
Let’s dive into the five best moves in NFL free agency 2023 so far.
Philadelphia Eagles take a low-risk gamble on Rashaad Penny
Everyone knows that Rashaad Penny is oft-injured with several recent stints on injured reserve. The 27-year-old running back has played in a combined 18 games over the last three seasons and started only 11 games during that stretch. So yes, there is a massive risk here for the Philadelphia Eagles offense next season.
The upside exceeds everything this rushing attack had in 2022 with Miles Sanders. Signed by the Carolina Panthers to a huge contract, Sanders averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season across 259 attempts running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Penny has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over the last 252 rushing attempts in his NFL career behind a significantly worse offensive line in Seattle.
Penny averaged higher yards after contact per attempt than Sanders (4.23 vs 3.02), per Pro Football Focus, and had a higher rate of explosive runs (17.5% vs 13.1%) last season. While we won’t bank on him staying healthy, Penny is a better running back than Sanders and signed at a fraction of the cost for Philadelphia.
Cleveland Browns bolster defensive line with Dalvin Tomlinson
On the surface, signing a defensive tackle who never made the Pro Bowl nor earned an All-Pro selection to a $57 million contract seems ill-advised. However, evaluating these moves in NFL free agency requires important context. The Cleveland Browns had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last season and they were razor-thin at defensive tackle.
- Cleveland Browns run defense: 22 touchdowns allowed (4th-most in NFL), 135 rush ypg allowed (8th-most in NFL), 39.5 PFF grade (4th-worst in NFL), 28th in Rush DVOA
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Furthermore, defensive tackle is one of the most important position in play-caller Jim Schwartz’s scheme. As detailed by Barry Shuck of DawgsByNature.com, Schwartz has a type and the emphasis on the position made Dalvin Tomlinson a priority. While Tomlinson wasn’t a great run defender in 2022, he earned a 68.1 PFF grade in 2021 and has recorded 20-plus stops in three consecutive seasons. Effective both as a run defender and interior pass rusher, Tomlinson is what Cleveland needed and he should help its defense take a significant step forward.
San Francisco 49ers add best player in NFL free agency
Many viewed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave as the best player available in NFL free agency, but no one expected him to land with the San Francisco 49ers. Credit to general manager John Lynch for taking advantage of having two quarterbacks on rookie contracts and continuing to strengthen an already elite defense.
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Yes, Tomlinson was surrounded by great defensive talent in Philadelphia on a team that became just the fourth in NFL history to record 70-plus sacks in a season. With that said, he now joins a front seven with Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.
Hargrave posted the third-highest ESPN pass-rush win rate (17%) among defensive tackles last season. He also generated 57 pressures with a 90.8 PFF pass-rush grade that only trailed Dexter Lawrence and Chris Jones (92.2). The 49ers already had the best defense in football and it just got even better for the 2023 season.
Cincinnati Bengals land Orlando Brown Jr
It seems every other NFL team, including the Kansas City Chiefs, don’t truly believe Orlando Brown Jr. is a left tackle. Thanks to that shared evaluation, the Cincinnati Bengals were able to swoop in and find great value while improving their offensive line.
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Brown Jr. immediately upgrades Cincinnati’s run game. While Joe Burrow carries this offense, the Bengals are most dangerous when they can effectively move the ball on the ground. By adding the 6-foot-8 and 345-pound left tackle, a rushing attack that averaged the fourth-lowest yards per carry (3.8) last season will improve.
Keep in mind that Brown is also dependable in pass protection. He only allowed four sacks and seven hits across 769 pass-block snaps last season and he’s earned a PFF pass-blocking grade of 76-plus in each of the last two seasons. It’s an upgrade over Jonah Williams and Brown’s $16.023 million average annual salary ranks 17th amongst offensive tackles.
Pittsburgh Steelers make perfect use of limited cap space
The Pittsburgh Steelers went into NFL free agency tight on cap space with pressing needs on both sides of the ball. In most situations like this one, especially if the club isn’t viewed as a serious contender, the front office stays relatively quiet in free agency.
Pittsburgh’s first splash came with cornerback Patrick Peterson. While the Steelers’ pass rush helped mask how porous the secondary could be at times in 2022, that should no longer be necessary. Peterson earned the 10th-highest PFF coverage grade (79.7) last season, allowing just a 77.3 passer rating when a quarterback threw in his area. Now that Pittsburgh has its No. 1 cornerback, this could be a top-five defense.
The Steelers also found a way to upgrade their offensive line. Isaac Seumalo, the former Eagles’ offensive guard, is an excellent addition to the offensive line in Pittsburgh. Entering his age-30 season, Seumalo excelled in pass protection (3 hits allowed in 653 pass-block snaps) and is even a quality run blocker. He fills a huge void on the interior line and this signing will be a huge boost for Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris.