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2023 NFL free agency: Four analytical fits and three head-scratchers

The first wave of free agency deals accompanying the start of the 2023 league year included many strong fits and was relatively light on overpays, considering positional value and market scarcity. While we've seen plenty of intriguing activity at -- or involving -- the quarterback position, the table is set for an interesting second wave of deals that basically resets the market for running backs, confirms the shallowness of the receiver pool and provides clues about the types of defenders teams are prioritizing.

On Wednesday night, I took a look at all of the early developments through the lens of contextual production data and forward-looking projections, along with reported contract values. In order to rate each acquisition, I considered the involved player's past on-field résumé and his new team's current roster/coaching philosophy, then compared these parameters and contract values to other players at the same position.

For this article this season, I'm focusing only on players who changed teams via free agency -- no trades were considered. I am, however, evaluating trades and player re-signings in our NFL+ reaction videos, so please check those out, and let me know what you think!

Taking all of that into account, here are four moves with strong potential return on investment -- and three that appear suspect.

NOTE: Players are listed with the ages they will be on Sept. 7, when the 2023 NFL season is set to kick off.


David Long
LB · Age: 26

The contract: Two years, $11 million.

Last season in Tennessee, Long registered the fifth-best run-stopping grade (89.0) among linebackers, per Pro Football Focus. The nature of the Titans' year -- they were hit with a slew of injuries and finished below .500 for the first time since 2015 -- only made Long's performance more valuable. The 2019 sixth-rounder's usage and responsibilities increased in each season of his tenure in Nashville.

New Miami defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has historically deployed gap-control fronts and is likely to blitz less than his predecessor in the role, Josh Boyer, who blitzed at the second-highest rate last season. That means Miami will be able to make the best use of Long’s run-stopping skills and lateral/sideline-to-sideline capabilities. The Dolphins will also be able to rely on him in zone coverage, where Long has been especially disruptive, recording eight of his 14 career pass breakups and one of his four interceptions, per Next Gen Stats. Between acquiring Long at this price, trading for Jalen Ramsey and re-signing running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson on very favorable terms, the Dolphins have been smartly addressing needs while preserving the flexibility to adapt as we get closer to the season.

The contract: Four years, $64.02 million.

When I was projecting free agency fits before the start of the new league year, Bates to Atlanta was the best match, according to my model, when looking at the highest win-shares relative to player position. According to NGS, Bates posted the fifth-best ballhawk rate (23.3%) and the fifth-best targeted EPA (-11.0) among safeties last season (minimum of 30 targets as the nearest defender).

In 2022, the Falcons allowed +112 yards after the catch over expected on passes of 10-plus air yards, seventh-most in the NFL. So in the big picture, they needed to address the safety position. New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen (who's taking over after Dean Pees' retirement) helped produce excellent safety play as a member of the Saints' staff. Considering these factors, it starts to become clearer how Atlanta will utilize Bates, whose defensive grade in 2020 (90.1) still stands as the second-best among safeties since that season, per PFF. He projects as extremely useful in the concepts the Falcons are most likely to deploy. 

The contract: Three years, $33 million.

Don’t let the splashier names in free agency overshadow this signing. There are two key Next Gen Stats categories in which Sutton ranked as the third-best outside corner in the NFL last season: receptions over expected allowed (-9.5) and ballhawk rate (20.8%). Though he was part of a Steelers secondary that had some challenges as a unit, Sutton allowed just 411 total yards in coverage, according to PFF, which ranked fifth-best among corners who logged at least 400 coverage snaps.

According to NGS, the Steelers and Lions played man at similar rates in 2022; that fact helps create a stronger projection of his value. Sutton is versatile enough to be used against slot receivers, running backs and tight ends, but he has the most experience as an outside corner.

The contract: Four-years, $64.092 million.

Brown allowed just four sacks in each of the last two seasons with Kansas City, though his PFF grade (75.8) ranked tied for 17th among tackles in 2022. What this signing tells me is that the Bengals are serious about trying to solve a real problem: Even after the team overhauled the offensive line last offseason, quarterback Joe Burrow was still under significant pressure. The contracts of Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase will have to be dealt with in the short term, so it will be interesting to see how these deals are structured. However, this fit creates a more attractive situation in Cincinnati overall.  


The contract: Two years, $14 million.

Peterson is coming off what was undoubtedly his best season since 2018: According to PFF, he allowed 43 receptions for 534 yards and three touchdowns, while racking up five interceptions and nine pass breakups in coverage.

My concern stems from how Peterson will mesh with the Steelers' approach. Computer vision shows that his strongest production results occurred in zone defense. That assessment is supported by how he fared when the Vikings used single-high coverage: Peterson allowed 2.4 yards of separation as the nearest defender in 2022, which ranked 40th among CBs, per NGS. The Steelers used single-high coverage on 64.7 percent of dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate last season -- and they will presumably stick to similar concepts again. 

The contract: Three years, $18 million.

Montgomery's numbers against light boxes (+15 rushing yards over expected, 36th among NFL running backs) and between the tackles (3.8 yards per rush, 32nd across the league) might not be dazzling, but the Lions' offensive line will be an upgrade over the Bears' front for Montgomery in all phases of the game. (This is supported by Lions ball-carriers averaging 6.3 yards per rush against light boxes, third-best in the NFL last season.) Montgomery has versatility as a pass catcher, and he's generated a pass-blocking grade of 71.7 from PFF since 2019, which ranks in the top 10 at the position.

This signing is listed as a head-scratcher because of the price tag, which stands out especially next to the deal Jamaal Williams landed from the Saints (three years, $12 million) after serving as a red-zone dynamo for Detroit last season (17 total touchdowns). The running back market was flooded in early free agency, and perhaps the Lions could have gotten more for their investment (or had to invest less) had they waited to sign one. 

The contract: Three years, $33 million.

This signing is listed here because of tradeoffs and fit, not price relative to potential production. In fact, there's reason to be encouraged by Meyers' past performance. NGS shows Meyers earned 210 yards on crossing routes with the Patriots last season, fifth-most in the NFL. Meanwhile, his new QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, has recorded a passer rating of 121.4 on such routes since 2019, which is seventh-best in the NFL in that span.

Here’s where things get muddier for me. Both Meyers and his new teammate, Hunter Renfrow, have lined up in the slot on over 64 percent of their career snaps. Further, Meyers' burst (acceleration on first 3 yards traveled, as measured by computer vision) ranks in the bottom quartile of NFL starters. His route-running reliability is strong, meaning he gets where he’s supposed to at a consistent rate -- this helps forecast separation and a QB's confidence that the player will be at the proper location, especially on shorter passes that unfold quickly. The problem is the surplus value (from the redundant use) generated on a receiving corps that also includes Renfrow. We’ll have to see how Renfrow and Meyers are used together.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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