Sports

Our NFL free agency cheat sheet: Stars who will get paid, under-the-radar sleepers and top QBs

NFL free agency officially begins March 13 at 4 p.m. ET, and teams can start negotiating with players — and agreeing to terms on new deals — on March 11.

To get you ready for all the action, our NFL experts are here to break down everything you’d ever want to know for free agent frenzy. That includes a preview of what to expect, a recap of the franchise tag window, a look at the best players available, a roundup of the signal-callers who could sign in new places, a breakdown of ideal player-team fits and a peek at the deepest positions.

We also pick out free agents who could earn big contracts, sign at great value or have injury concerns, and then preview teams that are either ready to spend or likely to stay quiet amid salary cap concerns. Finally, we wrap it all up with an evaluation of how deals could impact April’s NFL draft and next season’s fantasy football landscape.

In all, a dozen of our experts weigh in on one of the wildest weeks of the offseason. It’s all here in a handy one-stop cheat sheet. (Salary cap figures are via OverTheCap as of March 7.)

Jump to:
Preview | Top names | Franchise tags
Quarterbacks to watch | Bank-breakers
Spender teams | Cap-concern teams
Best fits | Deepest position | Sleepers
Injury concerns | Draft outlook | Fantasy spin

What can we expect in free agency, and when does it start?

Ladies and gentleman, open your checkbooks. With the NFL salary cap increasing by an unprecedented $30.6 million, teams have more spending power than ever as this year’s free agency period officially opens Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET — following, of course, a two-day legal tampering period that begins Monday at noon ET.

Though several big-name offensive players such as Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley are set to hit free agency, this year’s group is headlined by defensive players. With the Chiefs using their franchise tag on cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, defensive lineman Chris Jones is scheduled to become a free agent. A handful of other top-tier defensive players are staying put thanks to the tag, but edge rushers Chase Young and Danielle Hunter, safety Xavier McKinney and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins are all looking for new landing spots.

Offensively, this year’s free agency will reveal a lot about running back valuation with Barkley, Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and Austin Ekeler, among others, set to become available. A year ago, running backs from across the league voiced their frustration with a depressed market, and several played on one-year deals after failing to come to agreements on more lucrative, long-term extensions. Now, running backs will have another opportunity to see how the league values their position.

And, of course, trades will have an impact on free agency and the upcoming draft. Look for Chicago quarterback Justin Fieldslanding spot to dictate the directions of several teams over the coming months, including the Bears and their No. 1 pick. — Brooke Pryor

Read more: NFL free agency live trackerGrading NFL free agency signings (ESPN+)


Who are the top free agents available?

It’s nearly time for free agency, and we’re stacking the best players in the class. These are Matt Bowen’s top 10 free agents available. Where will they land?

1. Chris Jones, DT
2. Kirk Cousins, QB
3. Christian Wilkins, DT
4. Danielle Hunter, EDGE
5. Baker Mayfield, QB
6. Robert Hunt, G
7. Chase Young, EDGE
8. Leonard Williams, DT
9. Bryce Huff, EDGE
10. Kendall Fuller, CB

Read more: Ranking the top 100 free agents (ESPN+)32 players who need a change of scenery


Who was franchise-tagged?

Over the past two weeks, eight teams used the franchise tag — and one exercised a transition tag. Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins was the first to receive the franchise tag. Then the Chiefs tagged Sneed with the objective of either signing the cornerback long term or trading him to receive compensation.

Elsewhere, three coveted sack artists received the tag — the Panthers’ Brian Burns, the Ravens’ Justin Madubuike and the Jaguars’ Josh Allen. Bears CB Jaylon Johnson (who has since signed an extension), Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr. and Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr. also received franchise tags.

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger was assigned a transition tag. The transition tag’s salary is the average of the top 10 salaries for the position, unlike a franchise tag, which pays the average of the top five salaries at a position. Only five other players have received the transition tag in the past 15 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with none of them being safeties.

Read more: Franchise tag tracker


Who are the top quarterbacks available?

Kirk Cousins: If the Vikings can’t keep Cousins from reaching free agency, the king of the quarterback contract may be about to hit another moon shot. Yeah, he’s coming off a torn right Achilles. Yeah, he turns 36 in August. But he was leading the league in touchdown passes and second in passing yards through Week 7 (was injured in Week 8) and is the surest thing among the free agent quarterbacks this offseason.

Baker Mayfield: Was it just one good year, or was it a sign of top-pick promise finally fulfilled? The 2023 season wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Mayfield play well and lead a team to the postseason. However, it was the best season of his career — he passed for over 4,000 yards for the first time, with 28 touchdown passes and a 64.3% completion rate. He turns 29 in April and could have his best football ahead of him. The question is: What’s the right deal? The Daniel Jones deal (four years, $160 million)? The Geno Smith deal (three years, $105 million)? Something in between?

Best of the rest: Ryan Tannehill‘s history of success is fairly recent, but he’ll be 36 when the season starts and Tennessee just replaced him with a rookie. Gardner Minshew may be best suited as a backup, but he’s a really good one, and you can say the same for Jacoby Brissett. Does either get a chance as a starter? After that, you’re taking chances on players looking to revive their careers such as Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold or — yeah, I’ll say it — Russell Wilson. — Dan Graziano

Read more: Best fits for Wilson (ESPN+)Predicting all 32 starting QBs for 2024 (ESPN+)


Free agents who will break the bank

Kirk Cousins, QB: No need to overthink this one, as Cousins is going to cash in once again, despite being just 4½ months removed from a torn right Achilles. He was playing outstanding football at the time of his injury last season and is the best free agent quarterback available in a thin market and in a league with a bunch of teams desperate for an upgrade. If you told me that Cousins winds up signing a two-year, $100 million fully guaranteed contract, I would not be stunned.

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McAfee and Pacman Jones discuss Kirk Cousins’ fit in Atlanta

Pat McAfee and Adam “Pacman” Jones react to the rumors linking free agent QB Kirk Cousins and the Atlanta Falcons.

Danielle Hunter, EDGE: Hunter’s renegotiated contract with the Vikings prior to last season prevented the team from using a tag on him and paved the way for a gargantuan payday. Hunter has six seasons to his name with 10-plus sacks, including a career-best 16.5 in 2023, as he remains one of the best and most active rushers in all of football. A pass-rusher of this caliber infrequently reaches free agency, setting Hunter up to be attractive to a ton of teams.

Christian Wilkins, DT: One of the more versatile interior defensive linemen in all of the NFL, Wilkins has a track record of producing in basically every area. He’s coming off a career-high nine sacks and has been a solo-tackle-making machine (146 over the past three seasons, ranking second, first and sixth among DTs in 2021-2023, respectively). His age — he turns 29 in December — is not a deterrent for teams, and the defensive tackle market exploded last offseason. I expect him to earn $22 million-plus per year.

Jonathan Greenard, EDGE: Timing is everything in life, and Greenard crushed it in his contract year, posting his second season with eight or more sacks with a career-best 12.5. Greenard has had intriguing upside but put it all together during a resurgent season for Houston that saw him wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Not yet 27 years old, Greenard still has prime physical years in front of him and should command a sizable contract. — Field Yates

Read more: EDGE/DT tiers (ESPN+)WR/DB tiers (ESPN+)RB/LB tiers (ESPN+)QB/OL/TE tiers (ESPN+)


Which teams could be active in free agency?

New England Patriots: They are flush with nearly $90 million in cap space and immediate needs all over the field, particularly on offense. Expect reinforcements at quarterback (possibly as a bridge option to the No. 3 pick), wide receiver, tight end and offensive line. With the right moves, New England can expedite the rebuild.

Houston Texans: Houston has the luxury of building around QB C.J. Stroud one year into his rookie contract. The flexibility to spend big now — knowing most contracts have escape hatches after two years — will be advantageous to general manager Nick Caserio, who could take big swings along the defensive front seven.

New York Giants: An already sluggish offense is set to lose its best player in Barkley. The offensive line has long been a mess. The Giants have a chance to fortify their running and passing attacks. On defense, replacing starting defensive backs Adoree’ Jackson and Xavier McKinney will be crucial. New York has around $38 million in cap space.

Carolina Panthers: Carolina needs just about everything, and without a first-round pick, it must replenish the roster with free agency. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers spend big on an interior offensive lineman (or two) and identify multiple pass-catchers for QB Bryce Young. Carolina has about $12 million in cap space but will create more after roster cuts.

Tennessee Titans: Now that second-year general manager Ran Carthon has his coach, former Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, the two can get to work crafting the offense in Callahan’s image. QB Will Levis needs help in multiple areas, particularly the offensive line and the playmaker spots. And a usually stout defense must replace plenty of firepower, too. Tennessee has just under $76 million in cap space. — Jeremy Fowler

Read more: Daring moves for all 32 teams (ESPN+)One free agent every team should sign (ESPN+)


Which teams could be quiet in free agency?

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs have three key free agents in Jones, OT Donovan Smith and LB Willie Gay, and they have Sneed on the tag. Almost all of their resources will go toward re-signing these players, and they probably can’t retain all four. So I expect them to be quiet in terms of acquiring new players and making splashes in free agency.

Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are at a significant inflection point, with a good amount of cap resources to extend their stars — QB Dak Prescott, WR CeeDee Lamb and LB Micah Parsons — over the next year. But it will leave them little external optionality to make moves in free agency. However, they do have to decide whether they should re-sign Tyron Smith — who is unlikely to returnTony Pollard and Stephon Gilmore.

Buffalo Bills: Similar to last year, the Bills have negative cap space and a number of key issues to address with their current players, which is why they cut a number of key players over the past week. For starters, WR Gabe Davis, who is young, fast and played 83% of the snaps, is a free agent. But Buffalo must also manage re-signing or replacing productive free agent veterans Micah Hyde, Leonard Floyd, DaQuan Jones and Jordan Phillips.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins’ focus this offseason is on how they’re going to handle extending QB Tua Tagovailoa, who’s going into the last year of his rookie deal. A market extension would be a minimum of $45 million per year, which would hinder Miami from being an active participant in free agency. — Mike Tannenbaum

Read more: What the salary cap increase means


What are some of the best potential free agent fits?

Here are a few partnerships that make sense, according to Matt Bowen:

QB Kirk Cousins to the Falcons

The Vikings should be in the mix to re-sign Cousins, but I think he fits really well with Atlanta under new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson (who worked under Sean McVay in Los Angeles). He would be an upgrade under center for an Atlanta offense that has plenty of young offensive skill talent in Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson.

EDGE Danielle Hunter to the Rams

The Rams have money to spend in free agency, and filling the edge rushing need should be a priority. Adding Hunter would give the Rams a productive veteran force opposite Byron Young — who had eight sacks as a rookie — with Aaron Donald on the interior.

EDGE Bryce Huff to the Giants

With new defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, the Giants would benefit from adding Huff to play opposite Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Giants had the fourth-lowest sack total (34) in 2023, and adding Huff could help improve that number.

G Jonah Jackson to the Commanders

Fitting into Kliff Kingsbury’s offense in Washington, Jackson would immediately upgrade the left guard position. He posted a 93.2% pass block win rate in Detroit last season. That’s needed in D.C., as the Commanders allowed 65 sacks in 2023, tied for second most in the NFL.

WR Marquise Brown to the Titans

Brown would add a different element to the Titans’ wide receiver room because of his vertical stretch ability and open-field speed after the catch on in-breakers. In Callahan’s offense, Brown would work with DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks to give QB Will Levis a versatile group of pass-catchers.

RB Derrick Henry to the Ravens

There’s an opening here, and Henry could star as the lead back in Todd Monken’s offense. Even if his overall play speed is starting to decline, he can still find the end zone. Henry had 12 rushing scores last season with the Titans, and he’d upgrade the Ravens’ run game when paired with QB Lamar Jackson. — Bowen

Read more: Best team fits for 50 free agents (ESPN+)


What is the deepest position?

Edge rusher

You can make a case here for interior defender, but it’s a bit top-heavy. Even after Burns and Allen were franchise-tagged, there is a ton of quality depth available at edge rusher. The list is led by 29-year-old Danielle Hunter (10.5-plus sacks in five of his past six healthy seasons).

Underrated Jonathan Greenard and Bryce Huff lead the next tier, along with Chase Young, who, at just 24 years old, is the youngest free agent at the position. The likes of Andrew Van Ginkel, Jadeveon Clowney, Za’Darius Smith, Brandon Graham and Leonard Floyd are among a long list of additional edge players available. — Mike Clay


Which free agents are going under the radar?

Bryce Huff, EDGE

OK, at this point, Huff has been discussed as a sleeper free agent so often that he may no longer be sleeping. Still, you’re talking about an edge rusher who hasn’t started a game in two years but had a 21.4% pass rush win rate off the edge last season (ranked eighth) and a 30.7% pass rush win rate off the edge two years ago. He’s not great against the run, but he’s going to get to the quarterback for you.

Andre James, C

James ranked second among centers in pass block win rate this season (96.5%), and he has experience blocking for both gap and zone runs. He also committed only two penalties all season in 2023.

Graham Glasgow, C/G

Glasgow is going to be 32 years old this upcoming season, but he started at three different offensive line positions last season and ranked 14th among all offensive linemen in run block win rate (76.8%). His pass block win rate was average (90.8%) but still higher than a lot of NFL starters, and he provides the offensive line with a lot of flexibility.

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Orlovsky, Tannenbaum disagree on Justin Fields’ trade value

Dan Orlovsky and Mike Tannenbaum debate whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers should trade for Justin Fields.

Kendrick Bourne, WR

In 2021, Bourne ranked No. 1 among all qualifying wide receivers in DVOA and was second in ESPN’s receiver tracking metrics. His performance has fallen off since, but he’s still tied for 16th in the RTM if you combine 2022 and 2023. He’s not the best at getting open, but he excels at the catch point and at gaining yards after the catch. — Aaron Schatz


Who are the injury concerns in free agency?

Cousins’ surgically repaired right Achilles doesn’t seem to have anyone concerned. The level of interest despite his injury represents a shocking evolution of perception, likely due to advances in sports medicine. While running has never been his strength, he still needs mobility to escape pressure and, more importantly, the power through his drive leg to accurately deliver the ball. Videos showing Cousins dropping back and throwing suggest he’s on track to return for training camp, but potential teams are still assuming some risk.

Other noteworthy names with injury concerns include:

  • RB Barkley, who proved he was fully past his ACL/MCL injury in 2022 when he posted over 1,600 yards from scrimmage, yet still carries the perception of injury risk with just two seasons with no games missed due to injury since being drafted in 2018.

  • OT Tyron Smith, who is widely considered one of the best friends a quarterback could have on his blind side … when he is available (has missed 33 games over the past four seasons).

  • DL DJ Reader, who tore his right quad in December but has already proved his ability to come back from this same injury when he tore his left quad four years ago.

  • C Connor Williams, who tore an ACL in December but played 16 games the season following his last torn ACL in 2019. — Stephania Bell

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Sam Acho: ‘Houston is the best landing spot for Saquon Barkley’

Sam Acho breaks down why teaming up with C.J. Stroud and Tank Dell makes Houston the perfect fit for Saquon Barkley.


What is the biggest draft implication for free agency?

Where Cousins signs could have major draft implications. If he’s re-signed in Minnesota, the Vikings could still be looking for an heir apparent at QB, but it gets really interesting if he opts to sign elsewhere. The Falcons, Raiders and Broncos — all teams inside the top 13 picks — are seen as potential suitors. Whoever misses out on Cousins could pivot to the draft and look to select a signal-caller early, or even on Day 2. — Jordan Reid

Read more: Reid’s two-round NFL mock draft (ESPN+)


What could free agency mean for fantasy football?

There are some excellent wide receivers and running backs available whose fantasy values could skyrocket depending on their landing spots. I’ll be keeping a close eye on four running backs: Barkley, Henry, Ekeler and Pollard. Additionally, at the wide receiver position, Calvin Ridley and Marquise Brown are definitely on my radar. These are all players who could command significant touches or targets, depending on where they land. — Eric Moody

Read more: Fantasy football free agency preview

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