Five Ways Free Agency Will Impact the Draft

Prior to free agency, mock draft exercises are tricky to do. During the opening days of free agency, teams with major holes in their starting lineup shell out big contracts to solve those problems and new weaknesses emerge as teams cut and trade players to navigate the cap.

Once the dust settles, however, we can take stock of the new NFL landscape and come to some conclusions about the draft. Questions have been answered and new questions asked. What teams dramatically changed their expected draft strategies? What teams took themselves out of the quarterback market — or firmly entered their names into it? Let’s examine five important ways free agency has impacted the draft.

Minnesota making moves for a QB?

Perhaps no team has a clearer path forward in the draft after free agency than the Minnesota Vikings. Since HC Kevin O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah were hired in 2022, it’s been widely believed they wanted to upgrade from longtime starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins entered 2023 in a contract year and this offseason seemed the natural spot for the two sides to part ways.

That is, until Cousins started playing the best ball of his career, tore his Achilles to end his season, and the Vikings ended up with a pick outside the top ten. These factors complicated what could have been a simple situation.

Entering the offseason, Minnesota seemed interested in re-signing Cousins, though less willing to commit to him long-term than in the past. All of Cousins’ previous contracts with the Vikings were fully guaranteed deals. That was seemingly a non-starter for Minnesota this time. When Cousins signed a massive deal with Atlanta, they appeared to pivot toward the draft.

The Vikings are picking No. 11 overall, which is usually out of range of the top quarterback prospects. With how many quarterback-needy teams are picking ahead of them, that is all but sure to hold true this year. There’s been a consensus top three for evaluators this draft season, with USC’s Caleb Williams separating himself at the top. North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels are battling for position behind him — all three seem to be locks for the top five in the draft if not the top three.

The interesting wild card here is Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding McCarthy lately, with some reports indicating he could go as high as No. 2 to Washington. It’s tough to sort through what’s real and what’s smoke with McCarthy’s stock right now, but it does seem clear the NFL is overall high on him as a fourth first-round lock. This benefits Minnesota, as they no longer necessarily need to trade into the top three to get a top quarterback prospect.

To trade up into the top ten, you need draft ammo, and the Vikings went about securing just that. The first week free agency opened, the Vikings traded with the Texans for a second first-round pick, sending two second-round picks (one in 2025) and a sixth for the Texans’ first at No. 23 and a seventh.

Making this trade this far in advance of the draft indicates it’s the first step in a larger trade-up strategy. In recent years, the going rate for a trade up into the top five for a quarterback has been three first-round picks. By adding an additional first in 2024, Minnesota has ensured it won’t have to completely mortgage its future to get there.

Minnesota’s other free agency moves helped them prepare for a young quarterback as well. They signed QB Sam Darnold to be a bridge starter or quality backup and spent money on the defense. Jonathan Greenard comes in to replace the departed Danielle Hunter, Andrew Van Ginkel adds a secondary pass rusher and LB Blake Cashman provides reinforcements in the middle of the defense.

The Vikings have also been regulars at the pro days for the top quarterback prospects, along with private workouts and almost assuredly official visits. Minnesota is clearly aiming to secure a future franchise starter, though there will be competition. The Broncos and Raiders, among others, could try and outmaneuver the Vikings for a quarterback. But Minnesota has been the most proactive to secure that extra first-round pick and put itself in the best position to move up the board for their guy.

The NFL doesn’t seem high on this running back class

In the early days of free agency, we saw significant multi-year contracts handed out to some of the top running backs on the market. Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Joe Mixon, D’Andre Swift, Devin Singletary and others all made out quite well for themselves. Compared to last year, it’s a good sign for the position. This was an impressive free agent class of backs, but these contracts might have more to do with the upcoming draft class than the names available in free agency.

The 2023 class was seen as potentially an all-timer, with Texas’ Bijan Robinson and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs seen as elite options, plus a host of quality depth choices behind them. This year’s class is widely viewed by analysts as much weaker at the running back position. There’s no consensus top prospect and the first running back might not go until the third round.

Texas’ Jonathon Brooks might have been the exception, though he’s coming off a late-season ACL injury that’s lowered his draft stock. Brooks has excellent vision and contact balance, with receiving chops and elusiveness in the open field. There are some questions surrounding his top-end speed, but it’s no worse than adequate for the NFL game. He profiles as a true three-down back in the NFL, though he might be the only one in this class.

Other top prospects include Michigan’s Blake Corum and Florida State’s Trey Benson. Corum is a slower, smaller back, who did most of his damage at Michigan between the tackles. He may struggle to replicate that success at the pro level. Benson has NFL size, speed, and athleticism — but his lateral agility is limited and he lacks the patience to set up blocks and find rushing lanes consistently.

Scarcity often drives the market, and if the NFL views these prospects similarly, teams would be more motivated to sign proven commodities in free agency than take a chance on a poor class in the draft.

The Jets gave themselves flexibility

One of the common themes you’ll hear every offseason is that free agency is for filling roster needs, while the draft is for adding talent. Essentially, by going into the draft without major holes on the roster, you can focus on taking the best players available and not reaching for lesser talent. The Jets followed this plan perfectly so far and have set themselves up extremely well heading into April.

With the departures of OTs Duane Brown and Mekhi Becton in free agency and the release of G Laken Tomlinson, the Jets needed three new starters on the offensive line. They signed LT Tyron Smith from the Cowboys and traded what amounts to a sixth-round pick to the Ravens for RT Morgan Moses. They also brought G John Simpson over from Baltimore to fill their open starting spot on the interior. To upgrade their WR2 spot, they signed former Chargers WR Mike Williams.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it does provide a sense of comfort heading into the draft. Smith is one of the best left tackles in football, but he has injury concerns, as does Williams. Moses and Simpson are probably closer to league-average starters than true stars, but they’re still a significant upgrade over the players playing those positions last season.

Looking forward to the draft, the Jets can capitalize on this newfound freedom to add someone like TE Brock Bowers or WR Rome Odunze, depending on who’s available. Additional weapons for Rodgers could fuel a Super Bowl run, or they could take a tackle and build for the future.

Whatever they choose, their hands will no longer be forced by the state of the roster, and that’s a win. The Jets aren’t done yet; this season is all about maximizing their window with QB Aaron Rodgers. Things couldn’t have gone much worse for them last season, but they have the opportunity to run it back — a rare NFL second chance.

The Chargers need a wide receiver — right?

The Chargers have needed a receiver for a while now as the longtime starting duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams grew older. Last year they used their first-round pick on TCU WR Quentin Johnston. He was considered a raw prospect coming out and did little to shake that moniker his rookie year. Now that Los Angeles has released Williams and traded Allen, their need for a receiver is seemingly stronger than ever.

Prior to free agency, new Chargers HC Jim Harbaugh kept emphasizing the importance of building through the trenches and supporting star QB Justin Herbert with a strong run game. He struck a similar note at the owners meetings at the end of March. Perhaps Harbaugh would prefer to invest in a tackle with a top pick and lean on the depth of this class at receiver, especially if it involves a trade down to amass more picks in the process. 

But with Los Angeles’ dearth of receiving talent, priorities may have shifted. Johnston did little to instill confidence in his ability to be the focal point of an NFL passing attack, struggling with drops and a lack of separation. He’ll have every opportunity to grow and improve from here, but the Chargers need more besides veteran WR Josh Palmer

With the Chargers picking at No. 5, they should be in prime position to snare one out of the elite trio of Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU’s Malik Nabers or Washington’s Rome Odunze. They’ve been a popular trade-down candidate — especially with teams that would be moving up to grab a quarterback — but even if they do, they may still be in range of the top prospects depending on how far down they move.

One option for the Chargers that could satisfy both philosophies is Georgia TE Brock Bowers. Bowers is undersized but elite both as a blocker and playmaker at the tight end position. He has the potential to go as high as the top ten and with a modest trade down, the Chargers would be in the perfect range to draft him. He could boost the run game and add a versatile weapon for Herbert, while also injecting some desperately needed young talent to the Chargers’ offense.

The Falcons are ready to load up on defense

Minnesota’s loss is Atlanta’s gain. The Falcons signed QB Kirk Cousins to a monumental four-year, $180 million deal to finally bring an end to their quarterback carousel, at least for now. Cousins is coming off an Achilles injury, but is expected to be ready for the season, and before his injury was playing the best ball of his career.

Atlanta’s hope is for Cousins to regain his pre-injury form and immediately make the Falcons serious playoff contenders in an NFC South division ripe for the taking. The Falcons already had an elite trio of young offensive weapons in WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts and RB Bijan Robinson. They added to that core in free agency, signing WR Darnell Mooney to a three-year, $39 million contract and trading for WR Rondale Moore from the Cardinals.

Mooney has battled inconsistent play over the last two seasons and Moore has struggled with injuries since entering the league, but both can be quality secondary options in this offense. Thanks to quick work in free agency, the Falcons’ offense looks to be potent.

That will allow Atlanta to turn its attention to bolstering the defense through the draft. Given the elite offensive talent available in the class, the Falcons will likely have a chance to take the first defensive player off the board at No. 8.

They could add a premier pass rusher, such as Florida State’s Jared Verse or Alabama’s Dallas Turner, or maybe look to add to their secondary. Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell and Clemson’s Nate Wiggins are good options at corner if Atlanta chooses to prioritize their coverage unit. There are a number of ways the Falcons can go, and thanks to their free agency activity on offense, they’re free to prioritize the defense in the draft.

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