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2024 NFL free agency deals: Three good fits and three head-scratchers in the frenzy's opening wave

Happy New League Year!

The first wave of free agency keeps getting more and more fun with each passing year. With the salary cap now surpassing $255 million, we've already seen big-money contracts across many positions, a run on running backs and a reshuffling of the safety deck. The top of the guard market has proven to be pricey, while wide receiver salaries continue to explode.

As for the game's most important position? Well, we still don't know what will happen with Justin Fields, but the quarterback carousel spun Kirk Cousins to Atlanta and Russell Wilson to Pittsburgh, while notably creating a number of opportunities for backups with starting potential (SEE: Sam Darnold to the Vikings, Gardner Minshew to the Raiders and Jacoby Brissett back to the Patriots). Coming off a season that saw a whopping 66 different starters under center, NFL teams are wise to value the entire QB room.

After the initial frenzy, I took a look at all of the early developments through the lens of contextual production data and forward-looking projections, factoring in 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.
Taking all of that into account, here are three moves with the highest potential return on investment -- and three that appear quite suspect at first blush.

NOTE: Positional contract rankings below are pulled from Over The Cap.


Bryce Huff
Edge · Age: 25
Philadelphia Eagles
2023 record: 11-6

CONTRACT: Three years, $51.1 million.

Last season, no player who rushed the quarterback at least 150 times had a higher pressure rate than Huff's 21.8 percent. (Micah Parsons finished second at 21.3 percent, per Next Gen Stats.) Huff also led the league in this category in 2022 at 25.6 percent. (With Parsons also finishing second at 19.6 percent.) Over a two-season sample, here are the top four defenders in this pursuit (min. 300 pass-rushing snaps): Huff (23.1 percent), Parsons (20.5 percent), Trey Hendrickson (18.4 percent) and Josh Allen (18.2 percent). Computer vision shows that Huff's burst (i.e., the speed he reaches in his first 10 feet traveled once the ball is snapped) accounted for six of the top 10 single-game marks among all pass rushers in 2023. New Eagles defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is going to have fun deploying this fresh addition to Philly's pass rush.

Saquon Barkley
RB · Age: 27
Philadelphia Eagles
2023 record: 11-6

CONTRACT: Three years, $37.75 million with $25.5 million fully guaranteed.

The Eagles have certainly made a splash, but the real win here is the value. Barkley's contract is comparable to both Gabe Davis' and Darnell Mooney's deals, yet the running back's win-share projection is about 30 percent higher than either of those receivers' marks. (Saquon's figure is around 1.3, while the WRs are close to 1.0.) This isn't meant to snub wideouts or the position's general value, but maybe to suggest that the running back market has overcorrected. For the purposes of this article, that means Philadelphia timed the market perfectly, buying at the right juncture. Last season, the Eagles ranked eighth in rushing (128.8 yard per game), but their running backs ranked 28th in rushing yards over expected (-116, per NGS). Despite a shaky offensive line and quarterback issues in New York, Barkley posted +93 rushing yards over expected (11th among running backs), which was in line with his effort in 2022, when he posted +115 RYOE (10th). Computer vision shows that Barkley ranks third over the past three seasons in yards after the contact among running backs when the contact comes via a defender with a parallel hip angle to his hip angle (this measures direct contact, as opposed to contact that is made on the side). Especially considering the offensive line he'll be running behind in Philly, Barkley drives value well above and beyond his price tag.

Aaron Jones
RB · Age: 29
Minnesota Vikings
2023 record: 7-10

CONTRACT: One-year, $7 million.

My return-on-investment calculation doesn't factor in revenge, but maybe it should! Two of Jones' 17 games (that's nearly 12 percent of the regular season) will come against the team that just released him. It's a safe bet that he'll be extra motived to put it on the Packers. Maybe I'll just say that the market conditions are favorable for Jones to further exceed his low-cost, one-year deal. The longtime Green Bay stalwart finished last season (including the playoffs) with five straight 100-yard games on the ground. Over that span, he led the NFL with 151 rushing yards over expected. For just $7 million, Jones will be a huge asset with the ball in his hands, as well as a steady threat to opposing defenses when he's on the field in general.


Robert Hunt
OG · Age: 27
Carolina Panthers
2023 record: 2-15

CONTRACT: Five years, $100 million with a $26.5 million signing bonus.

I told you in the intro that guards are getting PAID this offseason, and Hunt is Exhibit A. The 27-year-old's nine-figure contract includes $44 million in guaranteed money! As a rookie last season, Panthers quarterback Bryce Young was pressured on 39.3 percent of dropbacks -- the seventh-highest rate in the league among QBs with at least 200 dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. So it feels like sound logic to put a massive human being in front of the undersized signal-caller -- and Hunt is 6-foot-6, 330 pounds. Computer vision also shows that Hunt ranked fifth among guards in pressure rate allowed at 2.1 percent this past season in Miami. However, Tua Tagovailoa's fast time to throw skewed that ranking. Not to mention, defenses had to respect the Dolphins' zone-rushing scheme, which further assisted pass protection. While Carolina's new head coach, Dave Canales, runs an offense that's similar to Mike McDaniel's attack in Miami, the Panthers' skill-position talent pales in comparison to that of the Dolphins. And securing high-end weaponry only becomes harder when you're paying a guard such an enormous salary.

Xavier McKinney
S · Age: 24
Green Bay Packers
2023 record: 9-8

CONTRACT: Four years, $68 million.

This contract is in the same ballpark as those of top-paid safeties like Minkah Fitzpatrick (four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro selections) and Derwin James (three Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro nod). This isn't to say that McKinney's potential production isn't as smart bet, as NGS shows that the did not allow a TD in coverage last season. He also provides versatility, with the ability to play deep, in the box or in the slot. But the man has yet to make a Pro Bowl or earn any All-Pro honors (first- or second-team). And with a new contract that pays him an average of $17 million per year, McKinney is making 23 percent more next season than what he would have received if the Giants had applied the transition tag ($13.8 million). He ranks fourth at the position in average annual salary. In his introductory pressure, new Packers DC Jeff Hafley specifically described the kind of post safety he covets, underscoring the value he places on the position. This seemingly aligns with McKinney's skill set. Add in that McKinney will still be just 25 when the season kicks off, and I can understand Green Bay's thinking here. However, is the production relative to the premium paid for McKinney going to be enough to overcome financially hindering improvements at other, more expensive positions?

Darnell Mooney
WR · Age: 26
Atlanta Falcons
2023 record: 7-10

CONTRACT: Three-years, $39 million with $26 million fully guaranteed.

I understand targeting speed to complement Atlanta's other pass catchers and give new Falcons QB Kirk Cousins a number of options to choose from. Mooney, of course, ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, and he has showcased his wheels throughout his NFL tenure. However, last season, the wideout caught just 30.8 percent of his downfield targets (10-plus air yards), one of the lowest figures in the NFL. And over the past two seasons, computer vision shows that he ranked in the bottom 18th percentile when it came to having a defender within at least 3 feet of him at the time the ball left the QB's hand (a measure of how much separation WRs create). He only logged 11 total touchdowns in four seasons with the Bears, including just three over the past two years. Not all of those negative stats are entirely his fault, of course, and I will never say a player can't exceed what we've seen him do in the past, especially with a guy who's just entering his fifth year in the league. What I am saying: With talented pass catchers like Drake London, Kyle Pitts and even Bijan Robinson already on the team, it's possible Mooney ends up as the third or maybe even fourth option in the passing game. If that's the case, the contract listed above is a hefty price to pay. Now, the market is where it is, and Gabe Davis getting a similar deal shows that. So the decision was probably more about adding at receiver in free agency or not, as opposed to being able to negotiate hard or choose between several options. However, it does make it more challenging to upgrade the defense outside of the 2024 NFL Draft. And pass rusher -- a premium position -- feels like a necessary area to address, given that Atlanta just ranked 25th in pressure rate last season.

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