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2024 NFL free agency: Four biggest surprises so far

The first phase of free agency is winding down, and we are starting to get a look at the bigger picture -- and what some of the big-picture developments mean.

Running backs are … back? (Kinda. But not as much as you might think.)

Wide receivers: wait and see. It's complicated.

But what will never go out of style is the NFL draft and its importance to the team-building process -- this element made itself abundantly clear through the opening days of free agency. That wasn't a surprise in and of itself. But the degree to which it matters can't be understated.

And it's not as if the early free agency movement didn't offer plenty of eye-opening moments. Here are four of the biggest surprises so far and what it all means.

Running backs getting paid -- but with a catch

Much has been made of the seemingly robust running back market in the early days of free agency, with Derrick Henry (Ravens), Josh Jacobs (Packers) and Saquon Barkley (Eagles) signing notable deals with contenders, followed closely behind by the signings of D’Andre Swift (Bears) and Tony Pollard (Titans).

Even Aaron Jones, dumped by Green Bay with Jacobs on board, found quick work with the Vikings. And Joe Mixon saved some money by being traded instead of released, landing with an up-and-coming Texans team.

A strong start for an undervalued position? Well, maybe not as strong as you might think.

Jacobs' $12 million average per year stands out, but that deal only places him sixth in that category among running backs, and his guaranteed money ($12.5 million) is lower than a dozen other backs, according to Over The Cap. Swift received $14 million guaranteed from the Bears, but that's less than what both 2023 first-round backs, Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs, received on their rookie deals a year ago.

Barkley's deal certainly stands out in terms of both guaranteed money ($26 million, second only to Christian McCaffrey's $30.06 million) and average per year ($12.58 million), which falls fourth at the position behind only CMC, Alvin Kamara and Jonathan Taylor.

Surely that's a win for the under-rewarded position, right? By running back standards, sure. But then you see tight end Dalton Schultz signing for three years, $36 million ($23.5 million guaranteed), and you realize the position still remains behind tight end, safety and linebacker -- and pretty much everything but the specialists and fullbacks.

So even with a running back class that offered star power, there were some good contracts -- and some impactful moves -- but they were still below the positional values at other spots. Plus, the 2024 NFL Draft class isn't as buzzy at the position as it was a year ago, so perhaps teams such as the Packers, Eagles and Ravens were willing to spend a tad more this offseason with the belief that they can compete for a Super Bowl. (And with Green Bay, Jordan Love remains on a rookie deal for now, making the Jacobs signing far more palatable.)

Running backs still matter. But it's clear they're still not valued at the level they probably deserve to be.

What's happening at wide receiver?

Wide receivers have cleaned up in recent years financially, with Tyreek Hill breaking the glass ceiling for the position at $30 million per year, a figure that's behind only about half the league's starting quarterbacks. Several more wideouts come in north of the $20 million threshold, including the very respectable new deals for Mike Evans and Michael Pittman Jr.

Even the contract Darnell Mooney received from Atlanta opened eyes -- $13 million per year -- coming off back-to-back sub-500-yard seasons. Gabe Davis received similar money despite his own inconsistencies.

But it was a slow burn until the Calvin Ridley deal came down Wednesday. And, wow, what a deal it is! We had heard that the Jaguars and Patriots were jousting for the enigmatic receiver's services. Then in swooped the Titans, who blew both out of the water with a four-year contract worth $92 million.

Coming off the up-and-down season Ridley had in Jacksonville, that feels rich, even with the salary cap bump this year. The Titans were smart to further insulate the offense around Will Levis, and the second-year QB's contract allows them to go top-heavy at receiver, along with DeAndre Hopkins and the sunk cost of former first-rounder Treylon Burks.

Yet other very good -- to borderline elite -- receivers remain in limbo.

Tee Higgins is in a standoff with the Bengals. Mike Williams and Michael Thomas are big-name wideouts who were recently dropped. A bunch more remain waiting for offers: Hollywood Brown, Curtis Samuel, Odell Beckham Jr. and others.

This doesn't even consider the extension-eligible Justin Jefferson and how he envisions his future in Minnesota after Kirk Cousins left for the Falcons. So, a handful of receivers landed in some nice spots, but there are more whose situations remain murky.

Like the running back situation, there appears to be a draft-related correlation to the free-agent market -- except it's the inverse. With what appears to be yet another wellspring of exciting wide receiver talent in the 2024 NFL Draft, it's had a cooling effect on the WR market, even if this wasn't the deepest collection of veteran talent this year.

So far, Ridley is the only receiver to switch teams with a contract above $13 million per year -- and it underscores the risk the Titans are taking. But he was the one true outlier. Four offensive guards who changed teams crossed that plateau in the first two days of free agency. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: After publishing on Thursday, the Bears acquired Keenan Allen from the Chargers in exchange for a 2024 fourth-round pick.)

It's a reminder again that the draft often has a significant influence on how the free-agent market will shake out. Keep that in mind when you're filling out your mock drafts.

Chicago's strange start to the offseason

The danger of overreacting to the actions (or inactions) of a team right now in the offseason, especially one as well-heeled as Chicago still is, is that it's painfully early. The Bears have plenty of time to use their trove of assets to bolster the roster.

That said, there are some big fish we know they just won't catch.

I thought the Bears would go headlong into adding another game-changer to their front, either with a defensive tackle such as Christian Wilkins (who landed with the Raiders) or an edge rusher on the level of Danielle Hunter (Texans). When they both signed elsewhere (and Chris Jones re-signed in Kansas City), it limited the Bears' options quite a bit.

Chicago probably can be patient and still nab a mid-level pass-rush option, such as Chase Young, and for the right money, it might make sense. There's also the draft, where the franchise holds two of the top nine overall picks. But is there a pass rusher they like in that range

It's far less obvious what route the Bears might take to land a game-changing interior presence. Gervon Dexter could be part of that solution, but the veteran market has dried up quickly. Arik Armstead sticks out a bit as a possible solution, but he'll have multiple suitors. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: After publishing on Thursday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Jacksonville Jaguars are signing Armstead.) There are some appealing draft options, too, but without a second-round pick (for the time being, anyway), the Bears might have to reach for one -- or dip deeper into the talent pool.

The Bears have made some nice moves, including signing D’Andre Swift, even if he was a touch pricey, and retaining CB Jaylon Johnson long term. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: After publishing on Thursday, the Bears acquired Keenan Allen from the Chargers in exchange for a 2024 fourth-round pick.)

Yet there's still the elephant in the room: Justin Fields. We won't beat this situation to death, as others have done a fine job outlining how tough a spot both he and the Bears are in currently. Perhaps there's a team that won't get the QB it wants in the draft, and Fields becomes an option then. Seattle and New England come to mind as possibilities, but there's no guarantee Chicago finds a suitor. The last thing the Bears want to do is head to minicamp with Fields still on the roster, assuming they do indeed use the first overall pick on a quarterback.

Add that to the lack of a major defensive additions to this point, and some Bears fans might be getting a bit edgy in what was expected to be a fireworks offseason.

Commanders making plenty of smart moves

It hasn't been shocking to see the Commanders in blitz mode early in free agency. They have the money. They need the talent -- and the buzz.

But the flurry of moves they've made so far -- more than a dozen signings at publishing -- haven't cost the team dearly. New GM Adam Peters is stockpiling mostly young talents, plus a few experienced leaders, to replenish a Washington roster that had a number of small-to-medium holes that needed fixing before the biggest ones can be addressed.

The Marcus Mariota acquisition didn't particularly move me, but for a team that's destined to draft a quarterback with the second overall pick, it made some sense. Even with signing 34-year-old Bobby Wagner, most of the additions were of the under-30 variety, and if you're going to give an aged veteran a contract, do it short term (one year) for manageable money ($8.5 million) and to a guy who never misses snaps. The Zach Ertz signing is in this same vein.

Frankie Luvu was my favorite upside addition, with Dorance Armstrong not terribly far behind. Tyler Biadasz, Nick Allegretti, Jeremy Chinn and Austin Ekeler -- these aren't sexy signings, but they're smart infrastructure pieces. Again, mostly one- and two-year deals. Mostly cheap, by league standards.

The Commanders are creating competition and depth, and it's not costing them a ton. Who can't sign off on that approach?

Free agency is one piece of the puzzle, and it's often overrated in some respects. But there's little doubt this roster needed a thicker layer of insulation, and Peters is off to a great start in that respect. Forgoing the splashy moves of the prior regime, Peters is showing in his first few months on the job that he might understand this roster-building thing pretty well.

This has the short-term effect of improving the talent and professionalism on the roster. Long term, it can set up the team to be more picky in free agency and improve its compensatory-pick equation, something Washington hasn't taken advantage of historically. There's plenty left to achieve for the Commanders, but the early phase of free agency has given them a promising start to their journey.

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