NFL Free Agency Isn’t Dead. But It Certainly Has Nothing on the Trade Market.

NFL Free Agency Isn’t Dead. But It Certainly Has Nothing on the Trade Market.

Based on name recognition alone, this year’s class of free agent receivers seemed as deep as any in recent memory. Odell Beckham Jr.! Julio Jones! Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, and JuJu Smith-Schuster! Show that list to a football fan in 2018, and they’d lose their mind. But NFL execs in 2023 haven’t appeared all that enthusiastic. After the first wave of free agency, only one of those receivers (Smith-Schuster) has signed a new deal, and that was a modest three-year, $25.5 million contract with the Patriots.

Instead, receiver-needy teams like the Cowboys explored those options—they reportedly met with Beckham last week—and decided to tap into the trade market to find their guys. On Sunday, Dallas agreed to send a couple of late-round draft picks to Houston for receiver Brandin Cooks, with the Texans paying $6 million of the 29-year-old’s $18 million cap hit in 2023. It’s a good bit of business for a cap-strapped team that was looking to add a difference maker at a premium position. And the Cowboys found one without having to dip into the open market.

The Giants were in a similar spot, needing more playmakers on offense, and they also chose to make a trade to land one: New York wisely sent a third-round pick to Las Vegas for Darren Waller instead of getting into a bidding war over Dalton Schultz and Mike Gesicki.

Free agency is an inefficient market for teams. With no franchise tags or fixed salaries, it’s one of the few instances where an NFL player has the majority of the leverage in negotiations. On top of that, the top players are rarely the ones who make it to free agency. Teams don’t let those guys leave the building without a fight, so the ones who do are usually there for a reason—whether it’s a limited skill set, health concerns, or age. Combine the inflated prices and flawed products, and you understand why many teams are increasingly leaning toward trades to improve their rosters rather than splurging on free agents.

This 2023 group of free agents was aggressively underwhelming from top to bottom. The biggest signings thus far include Derek Carr (Saints), Javon Hargrave (49ers), Jessie Bates III (Falcons), Jawaan Taylor (Chiefs), Mike McGlinchey (Broncos), Orlando Brown Jr. (Bengals), and Tremaine Edmunds (Bears). There are some talented players in that bunch—and guys like Hargrave and Brown could be missing pieces for contending teams—but none can be viewed as foundational. The teams that let them walk out of their buildings certainly did not see them in that way.

There was a time when football fans looking for something to hold their attention during the offseason would get excited about those types of signings, but that has changed over the last few years, due in large part to a more active trade market. You can’t give us trades for Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, and eventually Aaron Rodgers and expect us to get excited about a middling right tackle signing with a noncontender.

Maybe this is a flawed way to make the comparison, but here’s a list of the biggest free agent signings since 2020:

Tom Brady, Von Miller, Javon Hargrave, Jessie Bates III, Mike McGlinchey, Christian Kirk, Orlando Brown Jr., Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Tremaine Edmunds, Jawaan Taylor, Jimmy Garoppolo, J.C. Jackson, Terron Armstead, Marcus Williams, Chandler Jones, Brandon Scherff, Allen Robinson, Robert Quinn, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Schobert, Kyle Van Noy, and Trae Waynes.

Now compare that to the list of the biggest trades over that time, which includes:

Jalen Ramsey, DeAndre Hopkins, DeForest Buckner, Trent Williams, Matthew Stafford, Orlando Brown Jr., Stephon Gilmore, Von Miller, Russell Wilson, Khalil Mack, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Christian McCaffrey, Calvin Ridley, T.J. Hockenson, D.J. Moore, Darren Waller, and likely Aaron Rodgers once the Packers and Jets settle on compensation.

If a team is looking to add a true star to its roster, it better be willing to make a trade. And that’s due, in part, to a new era of player movement.

Star players around the league are recognizing the power—and value—they have, and we’re seeing more and more of them use that power to gain better contracts (if they are being paid below market value) or to move to more competitive teams. Cooks spent the entire 2022 season telling everyone he wanted out of Houston and finally got his wish on Sunday. Stafford, Hill, Adams, Ramsey, and Matt Ryan all put in trade requests, and it didn’t take long before those requests were honored. If a star is looking to move, they rarely have to bide their time anymore. You just send out a few tweets, strip your social media profiles of any mention of your current team, and a few days later, boom, you’re on a new team.

This shift hasn’t just been caused by the players though. Cash-strapped teams are more willing to swap disgruntled stars for draft capital. And smart, competitive teams have recognized this and acted accordingly. If you put together a list of the best team builders in the sport, it would be littered with wheeler-dealer types. More conservative front offices that were once celebrated for their restraint are now feeling the heat for not going for it. I’m looking at you, Chris Ballard.

The trade market is booming, and free agency has seemingly been diminished as a result. What was once the most exciting part of the offseason that had us all refreshing ProFootballTalk every few minutes now almost feels like a nonevent. The draft surpassed it as the centerpiece of the spring years ago, and the NFL schedule release is closing ground rapidly. I’m not ready to say that free agency is “washed,” but I’ll put it like this: If free agency were a player, it would be begging for a trade to the Jets right now.

But even if free agency has lost its juice, it remains useful for teams looking to fill out their rosters. The franchises that have had the most success on the open market generally prefer quantity over quality. They view free agent signings much like teams view draft picks: as cheap lottery tickets. The more lottery tickets you have, the better chances you have of striking it rich. The Bills and Bengals are two teams that remade their rosters through free agency, but it wasn’t their biggest signings that made the difference. It was the midrange deals for players like Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Cole Beasley, Mitch Morse, Vonn Bell, and Chidobe Awuzie that added depth around their star-studded cores. The Patriots also did this throughout their dynastic run, signing Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich, Junior Seau, and Patrick Chung, among others. And the Chiefs are doing it at the beginning of theirs.

Those mid-level deals have made the difference for successful teams, but those aren’t the moves that command the sports world’s attention. If the NFL is intent on strengthening its grip on the sports calendar and getting free agency back into the spotlight, it has avenues to make a change. The trade market has been invigorated by player-requested movement, and giving players more sway could have a similar effect on free agency. Eliminating the franchise tag would be a good start—seeing more stars hitting the open market and having fewer disgruntled players demanding trades.

That’s never going to happen, of course: In that instance, NFL owners would have to spend more money, and protecting their bottom lines seems to be their biggest priority, as evidenced by the lack of interest in a certain 26-year-old, MVP-winning quarterback. Giving up negotiating power in exchange for a more exciting free agency is one trade franchises have been unwilling to make. As long as that’s the case, these blockbuster trades will continue to be a team’s most efficient source for star talent—and our main source for offseason entertainment.

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