Many things go into free-agent signings, including team need, contract cost and player preference -- and all factors must be carefully considered by NFL franchises in order to determine the potential consequences an addition will have on the entire roster.
With the salary cap officially set at $224.8 million per team for the 2023 season, it's a good time to play matchmaker, right before the free agency frenzy kicks off on March 15. Where would some of the bigger names on the open market fit best -- as in, where could they add the most wins? That's what I set out to find.
My win-share model, as explained here, is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense. With that data in hand, I matched the free agents with all the teams carrying needs at their respective positions. Using each franchise's current roster (and what's missing from it), this model maximizes where each free agent would add the most victories in 2023, also taking into account scheme fit and cap space (per Over the Cap).
Like I said, there are a LOT of considerations in free-agent signings. This is just one lens to look through -- where some of the biggest free agents project to add the most wins in 2023, given what we know right now. While I purposefully kept this exercise simple, a team could use a model like this, in conjunction with other tools, to help evaluate the overall free agency landscape and create a strategy for targeting optimal players at a cost that works for its cap situation.
NOTE: Each player below is listed with the age he will be on Sept. 7, when the 2023 NFL season is set to kick off.
PROJECTED TO ADD: 4.2 wins
Computer vision shows that Garoppolo's average time to throw on downs where pressure was entering his field of vision was 2.32 seconds over the 2021 and '22 seasons, which was the eighth-fastest rate in the NFL in that span. Couple that with his 8.3 yards per attempt overall during that same time, and there’s a convincing case to be made that he's adept at creating opportunities for gains. I bring that up because the Texans' forecasted offensive line is not as strong as the one Garoppolo played behind with the 49ers. Pressure information is key to assessing Jimmy G's fit in Houston. Using a sample of QBs over the past five seasons, I found that time to throw on downs where pressure is coming is optimized when it’s close to 2.3 seconds. That's just enough time for a play to develop and for receivers to uncover, but not so much time that a non-elite QB could be tempted into making overly dangerous throws.
The math on free agents overall suggests that when players reunite with prior coaches, even with coaches from other side of the ball, their learning curve is reduced. Among the familiar faces in Houston: new head coach DeMeco Ryans, who was last the defensive coordinator in San Francisco, and new offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who served as a passing game coordinator for the Niners last season.
Garoppolo also has prior history with Jets' coach Robert Saleh (Ryans' predecessor in San Francisco) and Raiders coach Josh McDaniels (who worked with him in New England). Were he to sign in New York, Garoppolo would add slightly more wins (4.44) than he would in Houston. That's still far short of what Aaron Rodgers would bring to Gang Green (5.67), but should Rodgers' discussions with the Jets fall through, Garoppolo would be the next-best option. As for the Raiders, Garoppolo's win share (4.19) is slightly edged out by his projected mark in Houston. (I should note, too, that Garoppolo's win-share added in San Francisco, 4.21, tops the number above, but it seems unlikely that he would end up with the Niners again.)
Finally, there's the matter of Houston potentially adding a rookie quarterback (the Texans own the second and 12th overall choices in the 2023 NFL Draft) to the fold. Even if the team were to go that route, signing Garoppolo would help. When the projection is adjusted so that he splits snaps 50-50 with one of Daniel Jeremiah's top-three QBs in the draft, Garoppolo still averages 3.53 wins added.
PROJECTED TO ADD: 1.5 wins
Coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, Clark posted a sack rate of just 1.2 percent in 2022, his lowest since 2016, along with a 9.2 percent pressure rate, per Next Gen Stats (ranking 17th among edge defenders with at least 400 pass-rush snaps). But we need to consider the context around those numbers. Both Clark and Kansas City teammate Chris Jones commanded a lot of attention from opposing offenses in the form of double-teams and play-calling that mitigated the impact of their rushing abilities. Forcing opponents to change their schemes and calls is also extremely valuable. The Bears ranked dead last in sacks last season with 20, so there is definitely a significant need for a high-end rusher to help change their output.
PROJECTED TO ADD: 1.36 wins
Given that we just wrapped up the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, I am reminded that Meyers ran a ho-hum 4.63-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis four years ago. But the thing that matters is play speed, and the fact is, Meyers has the tools to have run what I call reliable routes (that is, he’s where he needs to be and creates at least an average amount of separation) on over 73 percent of routes over the past two seasons, according to computer vision. An average wide receiver reaches this mark on 61 percent of routes run. And Meyers is also a pretty sure bet to catch the ball when it arrives; Pro Football Focus counts his drop rate (2.5%) as the second-lowest in the NFL over the past two seasons (minimum 200 targets). Two more things that make him a fit for the Titans: Meyers' size (6-foot-2), which will help with contested catches, and his alignment versatility (he has lined up out wide on more than one third of his snaps, per PFF).
PROJECTED TO ADD: 1.13 wins
PFF counts Poyer's coverage grade as 92.1 since 2020, which ranks first among safeties in that span. My metrics show that last season, when Buffalo's secondary was hit hard by injuries, Poyer's win-share value increased to 1.09 (from 1.04 in 2021). Exceptional secondary play delivers more value in the AFC than the NFC, given the proliferation of potent passing offenses in the former conference -- and the position carries even more importance for teams in the QB-rich AFC West. Poyer’s four interceptions led the Bill last season. Computer vision shows that since 2020, Poyer has been able to shift his hips to face the ball when in coverage at the second-fastest rate among all safeties. (This metric indicates a player's ability to both track the ball and stop forward progress on pass plays.) Just so Bills fans have it, Poyer's win-share figure would be 1.08 if he were to stay with Buffalo in 2023.
PROJECTED TO ADD: 1.12 wins
If we examine the defenses that new Falcons coordinator Ryan Nielsen helped build as a member of the Saints' staff for the past six seasons (including a stint as co-defensive coordinator last season), we see a reliance on great safety play, with Malcolm Jenkins and Tyrann Mathieu coming to mind. Bates posted a top-five PFF run-stopping grade among safeties (84.8) in 2022; that ability would carry extra value in the NFC South, where the Panthers and Bucs will likely lean on the ground game while sorting out unsettled QB situations.
Two things stand out about Bates when it comes to computer vision. The first is that his speed does not diminish from the first quarter of games to the fourth, whether measuring straight-line speed or lateral speed. In other words, he is elite at resisting fatigue. The second is his scheme versatility, which means he can add top-tier safety value to any defense. For a team like Atlanta, which figures to feature the safety position, Bates could be worth even more wins than the number forecasted, depending on how the rest of free agency and the draft pans out. (Fear not, Bengals fans; my models do predict Cincinnati will be able to keep safety Vonn Bell.)
PROJECTED TO ADD: 1.02 wins
As my second-highest rated corner in this year's free-agent class, Bradberry should command a lot of attention, with very high projected win-share values when paired with the Cardinals, Lions, Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings and -- as you can see above -- the Patriots. In 2022, Bradberry allowed a completion percentage of 46.0 in coverage, per PFF, rated as the fourth-best mark among NFL corners; he also forced 19 incompletions, which was the second-most. And according to PFF, 2022 marked Bradberry's second consecutive season of playing at least 1,000 defensive snaps, and his fourth with 965-plus. Last offseason, the Pats allowed J.C. Jackson to leave via free agency, and their secondary play suffered. Bradberry’s consistency matches New England's game plan and forecasts to be a problem for opposing offenses, especially in the AFC East.