10 ways the 2023 NFL draft came into focus after free agency
The NFL's two major avenues for roster improvement are inextricably linked yet quite different from each other.
Free agency, of course, is rooted in teams' desires to keep or acquire veterans who have had ample time to prove themselves as pros. Naturally, top talent can spark bidding wars and exorbitant costs, even with the market thinned out by franchise tags and players signing extensions beforehand. Even in this year's tamer landscape, rife with one-year deals, it was again evident that many active spenders' primary focus was on short-term improvement.
The draft, on the other hand, typically takes on a much different meaning.
While individual team outlooks vary greatly based on draft capital, the annual seven-round event affords every franchise the opportunity to build the foundation for their future – and for cheap. Given the rookie wage scale, front offices can extract tremendous value for four to five years from players who might be immediate starters.
Given teams' differing philosophies toward roster construction, it can be difficult to tell exactly what effect free agency has in shaping the draft, even after both are complete. But here are 10 ways in which the now-complete first wave of free agency has helped put the draft into focus so far.
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1. Lions get flexibility after secondary overhaul
There's little point in addressing the teams set to select in the top five slots of the draft, as all remain either squarely in the hunt for a top quarterback (Panthers, Texans and Colts) or in dire need of a top-tier talent in the defensive front (Cardinals and Seahawks).
Detroit, however, has a firmly different outlook at Nos. 6 and 18 after retooling the back end of its defense by adding cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Mosley and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Those signings patch up the most pressing problem for the Lions, who ranked 30th against the pass and last in total defense in 2022.
While GM Brad Holmes could still consider a cornerback at No. 6 – likely Oregon's Christian Gonzalez – he could easily look to Texas Tech edge rusher Tyree Wilson or, if he's available, Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter as his next defensive cornerstone. Pitt's Calijah Kancey and Clemson's Bryan Bresee could also be considerations at No. 18, as the interior of the defensive line now looks to be the sore spot for a team on the rise.
2. Raiders keep options open at QB
Jimmy Garoppolo signed a three-year, $72.75 deal to give Las Vegas some short-term security. Really, though, there's not much in the way of a commitment, as the deal essentially provides an escape hatch for the Raiders after one year, much like the one they took as they jettisoned Derek Carr just one season after his three-year extension.
What does that mean for Josh McDaniels and Co. at the No. 7 slot in the draft? The coach said at the combine he wants a quarterback who will "be a Raider for a long time," and the team still has been seen by many as a potential good partner for Kentucky's Will Levis. But bringing Garoppolo aboard eases the pressure for McDaniels and GM Dave Zeigler to pick a young passer in a year when the top three players at the position might be taken in the first four selections. If Las Vegas doesn't opt for a signal-caller, going with an offensive lineman or defensive player would boost a roster in disrepair.
3. Bears position themselves for help up front
The Bears entered free agency with the most cap space of any team and weren't afraid to make use of it, adding linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, offensive guard Nate Davis, running back D'Onta Foreman, tight end Robert Tonyan and defensive end DaMarcus Walker, among others. The weightiest move, however, was the decision to trade the No. 1 pick to the Carolina Panthers, moving back to No. 9 in exchange for WR DJ Moore and a package of draft selections.
With a top target for Justin Fields now in the fold, the Bears are in a promising spot to further their efforts to provide their quarterback sufficient support. The No. 9 slot should put them in the mix for offensive tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Peter Skoronski, with a good chance for at least one if not both to be available. But don't rule out a defensive end or cornerback, either.
4. Texans' problem at receiver grows bigger
For now, the bulk of the focus in Houston is on the presumed quarterback selection at No. 2, and rightfully so. But in the aftermath of Brandin Cooks being dealt to the Cowboys, the Texans' receiving corps looms as a group that could let down a young signal-caller. Robert Woods was signed earlier in March after a disappointing lone season run with the Titans, and no other player at the position currently on the team has eclipsed 600 yards in a single season.
Help could be on the way, however, if the Texans choose to double down on their passing attack by taking a wideout at No. 12. Ohio State's Jaxon Smth-Njigba, a smooth and surehanded slot target, would be a natural fit. Of course, the Texans are tied for the NFL-lead with 12 draft picks, and they could wait until Day 2 – when they have three picks, including No. 33 overall – to secure a pass catcher. But this is not a particularly deep class of wideouts.
5. Patriots have contingency plans ... and multiple glaring shortcomings
Good luck trying to determine what Bill Belichick will do in the draft simply based off his existing roster. The six-time Super Bowl-winning coach and architect of the Patriots has prioritized value above all, refusing to get boxed in merely by positional considerations. He's also the most aggressive draft-day trader of all the active decision-makers, so there's no guaranteeing New England stays put at No. 14.
Still, the Patriots' free agency plans were telling, as they sought to refurbish their receiving corps with wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Mike Gesicki while also boosting depth up front with offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson. With those moves and the re-signing of cornerback Jonathan Jones and defensive back Jalen Mills, New England has worked to keep its biggest weaknesses from becoming even more glaring. A cornerback – perhaps Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. or Illinois' Devon Witherspoon – or offensive tackle would bode well for both the short and long term. Still, Belichick could have another first-round surprise in store one year after he stunned many by selecting offensive guard Cole Strange.
6. Packers should be a player for a tight end
It's probably premature to talk about draft plans for Green Bay while the Aaron Rodgers trade saga lingers on. In the Packers' case, though, free agency inaction – safety Tarvarius Moore and long snapper Matt Orzech were the only players signed so far this year from outside the franchise – should have some bearing on what happens in April.
With Tonyan off to the rival Bears, the team has little at tight end beyond Josiah Deguara, who operates more as a fullback or H-back. Does that put Notre Dame's Michael Meyer or even Utah's Dalton Kincaid in play at No. 15? Maybe. At the very least, the Packers look like a strong candidate to use a selection from the first two days at the position – particularly if they get more ammunition via a Rodgers trade with the Jets.
7. Giants shore up receiving corps – but was it enough?
One week after signing Daniel Jones to a four-year, $160 million contract extension, Giants GM Joe Schoen provided his quarterback the first-rate pass catcher the Big Blue fanbase had long sought.
But it wasn't a wide receiver.
Instead, Schoen made a splash last Tuesday by acquiring former Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller from the Raiders. At receiver, however, he opted for a large volume of possible contributors rather than one go-to target, as New York added Parris Campbell and Jamison Crowder and re-signed Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Isaiah Hodgins.
That makes for quite the logjam of No. 2 or 3 receivers, especially with 2022 second-rounder Wan'Dale Robinson also figuring in. Given all those options, maybe Schoen won't force the issue with another pass catcher at and instead look to cornerback or the interior offensive line at No. 25. But even after all those moves, it would be understandable if Big Blue took another swing at a taller target who could thrive outside.
8. Cowboys in strong position with key needs addressed
Seldom one to get involved in a bidding war in free agency, Jerry Jones instead look to the trade market to solve the Cowboys' most urgent issues. Five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore figures to be the steady cover man suited to handle the role opposite risk-taking turnover machine Trevon Diggs. Meanwhile, Cooks' arrival changes the complexion of a receiving corps that sorely lacked his type of speed and downfield playmaking ability.
That leaves the Cowboys with a swath of options at No. 26. Defensive tackle might be the position now at the front of the line for an upgrade, with Bresee and Michigan's Mazi Smith both potential fits as the big-bodied, powerful force that the roster is missing. And if Texas running back Bijan Robinson lasts to the back quarter of Day 1, could this be his landing spot?
9. Bengals find long-term answer up front
For the third consecutive year, the Bengals entered the offseason with concerns about how to protect Joe Burrow. While Cincinnati's plan in 2022 involved upgrading their front five at multiple spots, the team's most seismic move came last week when it signed four-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr. to protect Burrow's blind side.
With offensive tackle settled, taking a tight end early might be a necessity rather than a luxury, as the only three players at the position currently on the team have combined for 19 career catches. Mayer, Kincaid, Oregon State's Luke Musgrave and Georgia's Darnell Washington could all be in the picture for the No. 28 pick.
10. Time for Chiefs to take a first-round receiver?
The defending champions' decision not to franchise tag Brown was a harbinger of a reshuffling along the offensive front. Sure enough, the Chiefs reeled in the Jaguars' Jawaan Taylor on a four-year, $80 million deal, and Brown and right tackle Andrew Wylie walked. While many have projected the Chiefs to close out the first round with a right tackle to replace Wylie, backup Lucas Niang started nine games in 2021 and could take back the role.
Smith-Schuster's defection to the Patriots and Mecole Hardman's signing with the Jets, meanwhile, has left a murky outlook at receiver. Marquez Valdes-Scantling returns, and Kadarius Toney and 2022 second-round pick Skyy Moore appear poised for more opportunities. There should be several speedy fringe first-rounders who could spark interest from GM Brett Veach with the No. 31 choice, including TCU's Quentin Johnston, Boston College's Zay Flowers, USC's Jordan Addison and North Carolina's Josh Downs.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft 2023: Free agency helps put first round into focus