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Five Free Agency storylines to look out for

The confetti has only just stopped falling to the ground in Las Vegas and yet here we are, the 32 teams of the NFL are about to begin their roster building for the 2024 campaign.

NFL free agency offers out-of-contract veterans the opportunity to move teams and there are some massive names about to hit the open market when the new league year officially kicks off on Wednesday March 13. In reality, the transaction drama will begin from 4pm UK time on Monday March 11 when teams can begin negotiating and announcing deals with players. Those agreements then get ratified on the Wednesday.

Ahead of the free agency signing period, nine players have been franchise-tagged. Those protected players have until July to come to a long-term agreement with their team. If that cannot be achieved, they are bound to their club for another season under the tag. The player will then be paid the average of the top five at his position across the NFL.

Here are the teams who have applied the franchise tag heading into the new league year…

  • Baltimore Ravens… DT Justin Madubuike
  • Carolina Panthers… OLB Brian Burns
  • Chicago Bears… CB Jaylon Johnson
  • Cincinnati Bengals… WR Tee Higgins
  • Indianapolis Colts… WR Michael Pittman Jr.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars… OLB Josh Allen
  • Kansas City Chiefs… CB L'Jarius Sneed
  • New England Patriots… S Kyle Dugger (transition tag so New England have to match other offers)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers… S Antoine Winfield Jr.

Here are five headlines to look out for in the early days of NFL Free Agency…

  1. The Quarterback Carousel

Let's start with the game's most important position because there is going to be some activity here, for sure. In fact, we have already seen the Denver Broncos announce that Russell Wilson – long considered one of the best in the game - is done after two sub-par years in Colorado.

Kirk Cousins will be the first domino to fall. The 36-year-old may be coming off a serious Achilles injury, but there is going to be a strong market for the four-time Pro Bowl all-star. His current team, the Minnesota Vikings, have expressed an interest in getting him back in the fold to work with Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison, but they would likely be hoping for a hometown discount that is not going to be forthcoming.

Cousins to Atlanta is a move that is growing in strength and credibility. The Falcons are a talented team, but their quarterback play was poor in 2023 as both Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke struggled. If Cousins comes on board, I think the Falcons are an instant playoff contender.

Staying in the NFC, the Chicago Bears have a decision to make at quarterback. As holders of the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, they need to decide on rolling the dice on a young passer at the end of April or sticking with Justin Fields. I think they move on, which means Fields is going to be available in a trade in the coming weeks.

Box office when at his best but with definite room to grow, Fields will have a lot of suitors such as the aforementioned Falcons, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos to name a few.

There are others on the market. I would expect Baker Mayfield to return to Tampa Bay after his successful 2023 campaign, where he would be teamed with the recently-re-signed Mike Evans. Then there are the likes of Wilson, Gardner Minshew, Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor and Jameis Winston looking for new homes. Those veterans – along with the man himself – could be called upon to deliver a Joe Flacco-like rescue job in 2024.

  1. Big men on the move?

A couple of elite defensive tackles could be testing the open market in the coming days, starting with Kansas City's difference-making man mountain Chris Jones. He proved too expensive to be franchise-tagged by the Chiefs (it would have been more than $30 million) but could still come to a long-term agreement with the back-to-back Super Bowl champions. He has expressed a desire to be back at Arrowhead Stadium in 2024.

Jones is one of the greatest defensive players of his generation and would see a strong market for his services. In fact, he could become the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. Seeing him in a Detroit Lions' uniform would be spicy indeed or how about San Francisco making a bold and shocking move? I think the Chiefs find a way to keep their star man in house.

I think staying put is less likely for our Sky Sports NFL friend Christian Wilkins, who is coming off a career-year with the Miami Dolphins. Wilkins has been one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL over the past few years and then he added a career-high nine sacks in 2023. Miami are struggling to get their salary cap finances in order and won't be able to offer Wilkins the money he will be able to command as a free agent.

Cleveland have some defensive tackle holes on their elite defense, so that is one potential landing spot for an ascending player of high character. Detroit would be another and the Houston Texans could further bolster their ranks by signing Wilkins. Wherever he plays in 2024, I doubt Wilkins will be a Miami Dolphin.

  1. A raft of running backs

A host of running backs got locked down via the franchise tag in 2023. In 2024, none of them were slapped with that restriction and are about to hit the market in big numbers. And there are some seriously-good options up for grabs.

Leading the way is Saquon Barkley, who has been eyeing a move away from the New York Giants for a couple of seasons. He will have a host of suitors but would look great in Dallas (team owner Jerry Jones said his Cowboys would be "all in" in 2024 and signing Barkley would be a great start). Houston, Philadelphia or Minnesota would be other intriguing options. Even the Green Bay Packers might have an interest as they seem set to move on from A.J. Dillon and are asking Aaron Jones to take a pay cut.

There are plenty more up for grabs. Derrick Henry would be a good fit for the Baltimore Ravens and I believe the 29-year-old still has plenty to offer – we saw that time and again in a difficult final campaign in Nashville. His physical style would be ideal for the Ravens. Then there are others, including former NFL rushing champion Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas), Tony Pollard (Dallas), D'Andre Swift (Philadelphia), Austin Ekeler (LA Chargers), J.K. Dobbins (Baltimore) and Devin Singletary (Houston).

  1. Impact off the edge

While Josh Allen is unlikely to be playing elsewhere in 2024 after being tagged by the Jacksonville Jaguars, there are some difference-making edge rushers who will be available. Danielle Hunter played on a one-year deal in Minnesota and recorded 16 ½ sacks. No matter the scheme, the 29-year-old Pro Bowler can get to the quarterback.

A couple of relative unknowns heading into 2023 are about to get rich in 2024. Jonathan Greenard is 27 years old and coming off a 12 ½-sack season with the Houston Texans. Bryce Huff is a year younger and while he was not an every-down defender for the New York Jets, he was a pass-rushing specialist who racked up 10 sacks. That's valuable in today's NFL.

There are some longer-in-the-tooth veterans who are still very capable indeed, including Za'Darius Smith (Cleveland Browns), Andrew Van Ginkel (Miami Dolphins) and Jadeveon Clowney (Baltimore Ravens). Clowney, in particular, was a regular producer of quarterback pressure and recorded 9 ½ sacks. And he leads me on nicely to my next story to watch during NFL Free Agency.

  1. You can't keep them all

Even though the NFL salary cap has risen by more than $30 million to more than $255 million per roster in 2024, it is still not easy to keep all of your star players. The Baltimore Ravens – who came within 60 minutes of reaching last season's Super Bowl – are about to learn that lesson with 23 players set to become free agents.

Baltimore could only protect one of those players and chose to keep breakout defensive tackle Justin Madubuike after his 13-sack season. But that means the likes of Clowney are going to test the open market or could be tempted away by other clubs.

Clowney is not the only one. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is out of contract and while he was not a superstar in Baltimore, he was a very effective second or third receiving target and adds great value to their attack. A couple of defensive stars could also be on the move. Linebacker Patrick Queen ranked second on the team with 133 tackles in the regular season and added 3 ½ sacks. And safety Geno Stone proved to be a revelation with seven interceptions. Stone entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick in 2020 and given his lowly starting point, a huge pile of cash offered by another team may be too good to turn down.

This is going to be a significant offseason for the Ravens if they are to stay among the leading Super Bowl contenders in the AFC. Will they stay in the mix or is their Super Bowl window already about to slam shut? I trust this team. They make a lot of good personnel decisions and I think they very much stay afloat.

Bonus story… Will teams find that key piece of the jigsaw?

Super Bowl windows open and close quickly in the NFL. Signing a key free agent or two can make all the difference in the world to a club's chances of winning it all or of showing massive improvements from lowly starting points. If that is to happen, here are five additional moves I would love to see happen.

WR Calvin Ridley… Jacksonville Jaguars to Buffalo Bills (a new reliable weapon for Josh Allen).

OT Tyron Smith… Dallas Cowboys to Carolina Panthers (start to offer Bryce Young some protection).

WR Gabe Davis… Buffalo Bills to Chicago Bears (more weaponry to upgrade a 27th-ranked pass attack).

S Xavier McKinney… NY Giants to Green Bay Packers (the 26-year-old is a versatile star at an area of need).

TE Hunter Henry… New England Patriots to LA Chargers (a return home after failed seasons at Foxboro).