2023 NFL Free Agency Preview: Will Lamar Jackson leave the Ravens?
Matt Harmon breaks down the top free agents at every fantasy-football-relevant position along with expectations for their future in 2023.
The veteran quarterback market took a hit when Derek Carr signed with the Saints earlier this week. He was the lone, freely available player whom you can sell to a fanbase as an above-average starting quarterback over multiple seasons.
The guys that remain mostly fall somewhere in a wide range of the stopgap quarterback spectrum. There’s an abundance of first-round flameouts and potential placeholders.
The rookies in this year’s draft play a big role in this year’s FA market as well. We have four consensus top quarterback prospects in Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. Most evaluators believe it would be best for the latter two passers to sit for a good chunk, if not all, of their first season.
That means we could get a good amount of these free-agent quarterbacks starting in the early months of next season. Where these guys land will play a big role in how we project and rank receivers coming into the year, even if their additions don’t move the win/loss column for their teams.
1 - Lamar Jackson
Jackson is theoretically available since he got the “non-exclusive franchise tag” from the Ravens on Tuesday afternoon. If another team wants to pry him away, they’ll need to offer him a contract that the Ravens decline to match and then provide a Round 1 pick in both this year's and next year’s draft.
Jackson comes with some complications, as he’s failed to finish the last two seasons thanks to injury — I think that has more to do with his wiry frame than his rushing style — and his contract demands but he's still one of the best players at the most important position in sports. I don’t think he ends up changing teams but the Ravens have certainly left themselves vulnerable to losing him.
2 - Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo stands as a tier above the veterans below him. He can’t stay healthy but when he’s out there, he’s a viable, league-average starter. You can sell Garoppolo as, at worst, a true bridge quarterback over the course of an entire season.
3 - Jacoby Brissett
Brissett was shockingly good last year, ranking 12th in EPA per dropback as the Browns starter. For context, Deshaun Watson fell outside the top 40 quarterbacks when he returned to the team. Brissett brings a steady but low-ceiling presence to the position and is my favorite option if you’re signing a placeholder to keep a rookie’s seat warm.
4 - Sam Darnold
You have to hand it to Darnold; he was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football when he was the Panthers’ starter last year. You can probably convince yourself he still has some upside, that he’s more than just a game manager … if you have a good ecosystem and need him to start for a month. He just falls apart the longer he plays. He has reached the top-notch backup portion of his career.
5 - Andy Dalton
Dalton was a rockstar in a bunch of advanced passing metrics last year. I’d argue that was mostly because he was throwing to a player who was always open in Chris Olave. The Dalton train could go off the track at any given moment but his quality play for the Saints last year should at least make him a viable bridge quarterback.
Sleeper: Taylor Heinicke
I can’t shake the feeling that we haven’t seen the last of ODU’s finest. Heinicke doesn’t have the arm strength to be a viable NFL starter but he is a more than capable backup. Teammates like him and he plays with the type of aggressiveness that most backups lack. That style can actually win you some games you shouldn’t, as Washington can attest.
Tough to read: Carson Wentz
Greg Cosell recently shared that he had a conversation with a coach who believes that: “Wentz’s career may be over. The feeling is he doesn’t have the mindset of a backup because he does not enhance a QB room for whatever reason.”
I could not agree more.
No one can possibly fool themselves into being the fourth team that falls for Wentz as a starter. His play has eroded because he’s so skittish and he’s rubbed people the wrong way in locker rooms all along through his career. That’s tough to sell as a mere backup.
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The running back market absolutely took a hit when all three of Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard were hit with the franchise tag. The free-agent crop of backs suddenly lost a ton of sizzle.
There’s still a wide variety of quality backs available, though. The problem is there aren’t a ton of open seats available for starters across the league and teams would love to go cheap on this position via the NFL Draft. Running backs just seem to get screwed more and more with each passing year, and I now fear 2023 will be no exception.
1 - Miles Sanders
Sanders is coming off a great year and rockets to the top of the market with the Big Three getting tagged. Sanders is a Pennsylvania guy so perhaps he takes a discount to stay in Philly. However, he’s young and the best available player at running back so if anyone is getting a big payday, he’d be the one.
2 - Jamaal Williams
A return to Detroit just makes too much sense for all involved. The team isn’t sold on D’Andre Swift and Williams brings the power and leadership they covet.
3 - Damien Harris
Harris might get overlooked because he was hurt last year but he’s a younger player with, I think, an untapped three-down upside. If I’m sifting the sand for a diamond in the rough, Harris would be my first call.
4 - Kareem Hunt
Hunt’s best years are probably behind him. He’s been more of a rumor than reality in the role of Nick Chubb’s running mate for the last two years. On the other hand, time behind Chubb may have kept him fresh. I wouldn’t be too stunned if he resurfaced and offered a top-15 fantasy season if he lands with a team like Miami, for example.
5 - D’Onta Foreman
Foreman is one of the few backs to ever successfully come back from an Achilles tendon tear. It just took more than a few years to get here. Foreman was awesome as an early down banger for the Panthers last year. He’s a limited application role player but that's an assignment he can crush.
Sleeper: Alexander Mattison
Whenever the Vikings had to throw Mattison out there in favor of Dalvin Cook, they rarely skipped a beat. I’d like to see if Mattison can hang as a starter. I buy the idea that Minnesota wouldn’t mind moving on from Cook and re-signing Mattison at a cheaper rate if they’re able to pull it off.
Tough to read: Rashaad Penny
Penny is verifiably electric, a home-run hitter as a starting running back. He just can’t stay healthy. If I was a contending team that just wanted to add a little pop to my backfield, I’d make this call.
Last year's wild receiver market makes this free agent crop look like the third movie in a franchise you desperately try to tell yourself won’t be a snoozefest.
It’s just not a great group of wideouts.
These guys will get signed to solid deals because teams need to employ four wide receivers they’re comfortable with seeing the field on offense. However, there are only two guys who maybe change the trajectory of your receiver room from the moment they sign.
1- Jakobi Meyers
New England has brought in a ton of pass-catching talent since 2019. All Meyers has done is outplay every single one of them … by a lot. Meyers is a rock-solid slot receiver who can beat man and zone coverage. He’s a pristine route runner who can thrive underneath and at the intermediate levels. He can easily catch 80 balls for 1,000 yards as a No. 2 receiver for any team. My candidate to be “This year’s Christian Kirk" — aka, get your outrage ready when he signs a bigger-than-expected deal, and your apologies ready when he plays up to it.
2 - Odell Beckham Jr.
He could easily be my “tough-to-read” player for so many reasons. However, he’s the lone player on the market who can be a viable No. 1 receiver if he’s healthy and can play at the level he did in 2021. That’s a huge “if,” of course. During the entire course of the 2021 season (not just his time with the Rams) Beckham showed he can still beat man coverage, win contested catches and beat defenders deep.
Can he still be that guy after a second ACL tear in one knee? It’s worth it for a contending team to find out.
3 - JuJu Smith-Schuster
Probably one of the most convincing cases of wide receiver stats being fake news is that JuJu is fundamentally the same player now as he was when he went for 111-1,426 in his second season. He was wildly overrated based on those fake-news stats from 2018 but he’s not a bad player now. He’s just a solid slot receiver who doesn’t win downfield. A team can sign him as a passable No. 2.
4 - Allen Lazard
Lazard isn’t a big-time separator but can line up outside and in the slot. He also has good hands and — try not to get too excited, fantasy managers — is a dynamite blocker. If I was a run-heavy team that needed bodies in the receiver room, Lazard would be on my list of options.
5 - D.J. Chark
Another guy who doesn’t get open. Chark is a big ball-winner at this stage of his career but does bring tactical value because of his downfield contested-catch prowess. He’d have a Marquez Valdes-Scantling type of impact and role for his next team.
Sleeper: Parris Campbell
Campbell stayed healthy for the first time in his career but unfortunately, I think that also ended the argument that he has any high-quality starter upside. I think Campbell would actually fit best as a vertical flanker receiver who runs nine, post and corner routes, not the popgun slot receiver roles we’ve seen him play in with the Colts. He’s just not a good enough route runner to be that guy but there are plenty of receiver corps who could use him as a deep threat.
Tough to read: Robert Woods
My problem with Woods is that I think he had lost a step in 2021 with the Rams prior to tearing his ACL. Throw out the stats, that’s what you saw on film. His 2022 season with the Titans didn’t give him much of a shot to rebound. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t have much of a market, nor would I be stunned if he can be a viable WR3 for a team that loves his ability underneath and as a blocker.
The tight end market is a fun mix of players. There are guys near the top who may not have reached their full potential but could shine in the right home. There’s also a handful of younger, athletic players who could hit it big in a position that typically comes with a slow learning curve.
1 - Mike Gesicki
It was clear from the jump that Gesicki wasn’t going to work in Mike McDaniels’ offense. He was the subject of trade rumors last offseason and at the deadline. Gesicki carries the size and athleticism to be a move tight end who essentially just functions as a big slot player. If you’re looking for “This year’s Evan Engram,” as a tight end reclamation project, look no further.
2 - Dalton Schultz
Schultz has outplayed his draft position but was at best an average starter for the Cowboys. He doesn’t give you much downfield juice but is a reliable outlet receiver. If a team needs someone to help move the chains and catch 60 balls for 500 yards, he can be serviceable.
3 - Hayden Hurst
Hurst was a steal for the Bengals last year and gave them some good weeks when the receiver corps dealt with injuries. He’ll never be more than fourth in the target pecking order but I see no reason why both parties wouldn’t want this marriage to continue.
4 - Juwan Johnson
Johnson emerged for the Saints last year, catching seven touchdowns on just 42 receptions. He has a wide receiver body type and will only be 27 this year. Johnson doesn’t fit every offense but could be a rotational receiver.
5 - Robert Tonyan
Tonyan hasn't done too much for the Packers after his random double-digit touchdown season but he's dealt with a complicated ACL recovery. Tonyan probably doesn’t have starting upside but might try and piggyback with Aaron Rodgers on a new team.
Although the Jets have more than enough tight ends.
Sleeper: Foster Moreau
This is exactly the type of low-cost signing to make in this free-agent market. Moreau has popped up for decent stretches when Darren Waller has missed time and is big enough to play in the run-blocking game. He will turn 26 prior to the 2023 season and again, this is a slow-burn position.
Tough to read: Irv Smith
Smith has dealt with plenty of injuries during his NFL career and hasn’t quite played up to his college résumé when he’s been on the field. He’s young so there’s a chance he could be viewed as a reclamation move tight end for some team.