NFL free agency: Jets are winners, Raiders are losers. The Broncos? Who knows?

·10 min read
<span>Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP</span>
Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

Winners: Detroit Lions

With Aaron Rodgers ready to depart Green Bay, the Lions are in pole position to win the NFC North. They overhauled a shoddy secondary during the early days of free agency, adding CJ Gardner-Johnson, Cameron Sutton, and Emmanuel Moseley.

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They snatched Gardner-Johnson from the Eagles, reuniting him with Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, both of whom worked with the player in New Orleans. Gardner-Johnson is just 25. He plays the invaluable wherever-you-need-me, nickel/safety/corner/box defender spot on the defense. Last season, he was the league’s co-leader in interceptions. He entered the offseason looking for a mega-money, multi-year deal. Instead, the Lions were able to snag him for a one-year, $8m, prove-it deal.

They also retained a batch of underwhelming players who fit Campbell’s rah-rah culture. Could they have found upgrades? Sure. Is there value in retaining players you know, in trying to develop pieces that you know fit your scheme and culture? Absolutely.

The Lions have preached patience. It would have been easy to splurge early in free agency, given Rodgers’ impending announcement and how the team finished last season. But the Lions’ brain trust instead took the long view. They’re building to compete with a frisky-looking Chicago Bears side over the next 10 years, rather than chasing the next 10 months.

Questions remain over quarterback. Should they take a big swing in the draft? Should they sign Lamar Jackson to an offer sheet? Is there another disgruntled star quarterback they could acquire? How does Tom Brady feel about Detroit in the fall? All are interesting paths. The Lions should examine them. But don’t try telling that to general manager Brad Holmes, who ranks second behind only Mrs Goff in the Jared fanclub.

Losers: Las Vegas Raiders

Josh McDaniels struggled in his first season in Las Vegas
Josh McDaniels struggled in his first season in Las Vegas. Photograph: Matt York/AP

The Raiders made a bunch of moves that, on their own, make sense, but when taken together are head-scratching. What do the Raiders want to be in 2023? Do they have any idea of what they want to look like in 2025 or 2027? The answer appears to be the Bill Belichick-led Patriots 2.0 – again.

Head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, both graduates of the Patriots cult of no personality, spent the early part of free agency doing what they did when they first rocked up in Vegas a year ago: Chasing familiarity.

Adding Jimmy Garoppolo makes sense. The Raiders landed the quarterback on a contract that effectively functions as a two-year deal that they can eject on after a season without too much pain. In total, it’s a three-year, $72.5m deal with $34m guaranteed at signing.

Garoppolo knows the McDaniels system. He knows McDaniels’ personality. He can execute the particulars of a complex system that for much of last season was a mess. But in the AFC, in the conference of Mahomes, Burrow, Allen, and Herbert, that’s not going to be enough. You’re asking an awful lot of the rest of the roster to be able to go toe-to-toe with opponents in the best conference in the NFL with Garoppolo at quarterback.

The Raiders don’t have that roster – and the rest of the team’s moves raise questions if they ever will. They traded away the dynamic Darren Waller to the welcoming arms of Brian Daboll at the New York Giants. Waller and McDaniels reportedly fell out after the coach leaked details of the player’s wedding, which is the McDaniels-iest thing to happen since he moved to Vegas. As a pseudo-replacement, they signed former Patriot Jakobi Meyers to try to bring some pop to a stodgy offense.

Related: A grumpy and vengeful Aaron Rodgers will be in his happy place with the Jets

It feels like the things that sunk McDaniels in his first go-round in Denver have returned: inflexibility, arrogance, a reliance on players (and people) he’s worked with before, falling out with those he hasn’t. McDaniels is 17-28 as a head coach and 11-28 in his last 39 games. McDaniels, like all Belichick disciples, preaches culture. He preaches the collective over stars – this a year after trading for Davante Adams and Chandler Jones.

Do the Raiders want to win now? Do they want to rebuild? They are at best stuck between the two poles and at worst confused. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, that’s only leading in one direction.

Winners: New York Jets

It’s only a matter of time until Rodgers officially swaps Green Bay for New York. When Rodgers confirmed that he wanted to ditch one of the most consistent franchises in the NFL for the perennially hapless Jets, Robert Saleh’s team instantly became the winners of the offseason.

Whatever you think of Rodgers’ declining play. Whatever you think of his kooky antics – and the knock-on effect on the locker room – he instantly becomes, even at this stage of his career, the most talented quarterback to ever play for the Jets. Rodgers’ worst season, which was last season, was more statistically impressive than anything put together by a Jets quarterback in the past 50 years. Even if he torpedoes the locker room with talk of lizard people or enters into a presidential primary or opts to only play on Sundays, forgoing Thursdays and Mondays, due to a hiccup in the lunar cycle, he will represent a huge upgrade over Zach Wilson.

Rodgers immediately vaults the Jets from being a fringe playoff team into a true contender. No other quarterback move this offseason would have seen the Jets climb so many rungs up the championship ladder. If it’s a one-and-done season for Rodgers, it represents the Jets’ best shot at a championship game since Rex Ryan took an undercooked team to back-to-back AFC title games. Adding two solid receivers in Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman won’t hurt them either.

Losers … kind of: Philadelphia Eagles

Keeping Darius Slay is an important step for the Eagles
Keeping Darius Slay is an important step for the Eagles. Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

The Eagles were always going to struggle in free agency. They entered the offseason with somewhere between 10 and 12 of the Top 100 players in free agency. It was conceivable that they would lose all of their free-agent class, sans the lifers (Jason Kelce and Brandon Graham).

And they have lost a lot of talent. As mentioned above, Gardner-Johnson left for the Lions. But Javon Hargrave (DL, Niners), Marcus Epps (S, Raiders), TJ Edwards (LB, Bears), Isaac Seumalo (G, Steelers) and Miles Sanders (RB, Panthers) also walked out the door. Losing Hargrave, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, hurts most of all – and to lose him to a rival in the NFC is particularly painful.

But the Eagles did a good job of fending off the pain completely. They had a clear objective to let the non-premium positions walk, putting their money into retaining their two star cornerbacks, Darius Slay and James Bradberry. They will be banking on Jordan Davis, for whom they moved up to select 13th overall in last year’s draft, to step up with the loss of Hargrave. And they were able to retain Kelce and Graham, two stalwarts.

Winners … kind of: Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have been more passive through the early stages of free agency than their fans would like. The team is preparing itself for the costly extensions coming up for Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins. And the Bengals’ notoriously frugal owner, Mike Brown, is unlikely to sign off on a spending spree before he has to commit $300m to his star quarterback and one of the team’s best receivers.

Losing the league’s most dynamic safety tandem, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, stings. Bell and Bates allowed the Bengals to run one of the most flexible defenses in the league and freed up defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to be unusually creative. They were two of the pillars in Cincy’s success over the past two seasons.

But banking on a defense to hold serve over three years is risky. What’s not risky: Banking on your all-time quarterback to remain an all-timer throughout his prime. To stay in contention year after year, the Bengals need to keep Burrow upright. The rest will slot into place. Some years Burrow will have to carry a ropey defense. In other years, a good defense will help put the Bengals over the top.

After it became clear that Orlando Brown Jr had misjudged his market value, the Bengals jumped in to add the former Chiefs tackle. The two sides agreed to terms on a four-year, $64.09m deal, with $31m fully guaranteed. That makes Brown the NFL’s 10th-highest-paid left tackle. The deal looks even better for the Bengals after Laremy Tunsil reset the market on Monday with an extension from the Texans that will pay him $25m a year.

Protecting Burrow is the end-all be-all for the Bengals. After three seasons of disastrous line play, with the team taking big swings and misses, they’ve now added a sure, steady piece. Brown is not a top-five left tackle … but he’s certainly in the Top 10, when healthy. Adding a player of Brown’s calibre at a premium position usually requires a monstrous overpay. The Bengals were able to add Brown at value, and to pinch him from a conference rival.

Who knows? Denver Broncos

The effects of the Russell Wilson trade will be felt for years to come in Denver
The effects of the Russell Wilson trade will be felt for years to come in Denver. Photograph: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports

What do these signings tell you? Mike McGlinchey, OT; Ben Powers, OG; Chris Manhertz, TE; Samaje Perine, RB; Jarrett Stidham, QB. That’s right: Russell Wilson won’t be cooking any more.

Sean Payton tipped his hand with the Broncos’ work. The team grossly overpaid for Mike McGlinchey, who is a good-not-great player. It smacks of the Broncos still paying for the sins of the Wilson trade. Being stripped of draft picks cost the Broncos here. They didn’t have many other avenues to improve. They couldn’t look to a talented draft class to upgrade their porous right tackle spot. Nor could they do the sensible thing: handing a second-round pick to the Packers to pinch restricted free agent Yosh Nijman, a player with McGlinchey-like talent (with more upside) who would cost a fraction of the amount.

They then doubled down on o-line help by adding guard Powers and the blocking-centric tight end, Manhertz. Payton clearly wants to revert back to a Seattle-lite offense to see if he can squeeze any remaining juice out of Wilson.

We saw what happened when you try to put this version of Wilson in a timing-based, dropback offense that calls on him to operate from the pocket 40 times a game. It was a disaster. In a more run-centric, boot-action-based offense, though, maybe Wilson can be good enough for Payton to navigate through the it-would-bleep-our-cap-to-move-on years.

And if not, there, waiting in the wings, will be Stidham. Adding the quarterback on a two-year, $10m deal was no mistake. Stidham was fine in relief duty for the Raiders last season. If Wilson fails to execute the Payton offense, he will be yanked early and replaced by the team’s new backup.