What Types of Players Actually Hit Free Agency

by Tej Seth|March 11, 2024

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Halfway through the last NFL season, teams that needed a receiver were excited about the thought of what was to come in the free agent wide receiver class. Mike Evans, in the midst of his 10th straight 1,000+ yard season, was likely to become a free agent. So were Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr., both potential WR1’s that were under 27 years old. 

However, once the NFL offseason was underway, Mike Evans had an extension worked out with the Buccaneers while both Higgins and Pittman had the franchise tag coming their way. This continues the trend that we’ve been seeing in the NFL where the top paid players at certain positions like receiver almost never see free agency.  

In fact, the top 15 paid players at receiver have either been extended on the team they were drafted on or traded to a team where they received their well-deserved extension. 

The message is clear to NFL teams: If you want a top-tier receiver, you need to draft them or trade for them and give them an extension. This makes how teams treat the remaining pool of free agent wide receivers interesting. In 2022, the Jaguars were questioned for signing Christian Kirk to $18 million a year but based on the fluidity of the wide receiver market, that could now be justified based on performance and how the contract no longer ranks in the top 15 at the position. 

For this study’s purpose, free agents were defined as players who signed a non-rookie contract with a team that was not the team that drafted them. Even if they were a free agent at one point, a player signing with the team they played with their entire career is considered an in-house signing and not a free agency signing. Only second contracts and beyond are included when we look at the top players at each position. 

When looking at every position’s top 15 players, there is a clear trend of teams being more open to letting players at certain positions hit free agency. It is rare that a team will be able to sign one of the premium positions in free agency as those players will mostly have to be acquired through the draft. However, there are certain positions available in free agency that teams can use to fill holes in their roster. For one, multiple starting level interior offensive linemen can be found every year. 

Of the top 15 contracts at Left Guard, Center, and Right Guard (45 in total), 64.4% of them have been signed in free agency. Only 31.1% of them have been drafted. This is particularly relevant to this year’s free agency as well as guards like Robert Hunt, Kevin Dotson, Jonah Jackson, and Mike Onwenu were all listed as free agents and are all quality starters at their position. 

Linebacker is another position that teams can pick up in free agency and end up paying out higher end deals. Last year we saw the Bears use this strategy paying Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards top 20 linebacker money.  

The safety number is going to be particularly interesting to watch as this year as we have seen an influx of safeties enter free agency. Considering that 40% of the highest paid safeties in the league were signed as free agents, this is what the league has been trending toward.  

The next tier of APY is where we usually see the mid-tier quarterback contracts come into play. This applies to situations like Derek Carr signing with the Saints, Jimmy Garoppolo signing with the Raiders, etc. While the track record for some of these signings probably hasn’t been what the teams have wanted them to be, this can be a way for teams to get starting level quarterback play while they are figuring out other areas of their rosters. 

This is also where many running backs will move teams in free agency. Some examples of this are David Montgomery signing with the Lions, Miles Sanders signing with the Panthers, etc. These types of contracts are usually right around where teams would pay a running back drafted in the 1st round. 

While the league sees more movement among wide receiver, cornerback, and edge rusher in the second tier of contracts, it is still relatively low compared to other positions. When teams find a great player at a premium position, they will do everything they can to keep them or get draft compensation for them. When they find a good player at those same positions, there is a coin flip chance that they will try to get a compensatory pick for them in free agency.  

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