NFL free agency: Moves that caught our attention so far, from the Patriots (good) to some running backs (odd)

The initial strikes and shockwaves of NFL free agency have been sent out. Dollar amounts were splashed on social media and on television, whether those numbers were fully guaranteed or up-to/somewhere-in-between depended on what was being shared, but the numbers were flying nonetheless.

Now that the initial dust has settled on Tamperpalooza, I wanted to take a deep breath and look at a few of the moves that stuck out to me, including a perusal at the transactions for an entire position.

But first, a team that has new faces, but decided to keep playing the hits. And those hits had me bobbing my head a little bit.

Patriots keep on keepin’ on

The Patriots' offense hasn’t had a ton of star power the past few years, but it did have some workable and solid players who are well above the baseline of “quality starter.” During last week's free agency preview, I highlighted Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Josh Uche as three knockoff brand-type players that teams could target in free agency if they wanted to avoid paying the premium price of other candidates.

The Patriots were apparently one of these teams looking to pay Costco-like prices, bringing back Bourne, Henry and Uche along with offensive lineman Mike Onwenu and the rest of the funky bunch. They ran back the quality players they already have, rather than falling victim to the “different is better” siren songs of agent text messages about their clients on the open market.

The Patriots retaining their talent early in NFL free agency may not be flashy, but it's solid business. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
The Patriots retaining their talent early in NFL free agency may not be flashy, but it's solid business. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Bourne is a solid secondary playmaker in an offense, Henry a quality tight end who can play on all three downs, Uche one of the best pound-for-pound pass rushers in the NFL (as long as you don’t ask him to do anything else), and Onwenu a good starter with actual guard and tackle versatility, allowing the Patriots to fill out the rest of their line with talent, rather than just specific fits for specific holes. They are the players to supplement and support the high pedigree you hope to inject onto your roster down the road under a more speed-tilted decision-maker at the top of the organization.

Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was another player I highlighted last week, fitting on the Patriots as either a caretaker starter or high-end backup and sounding board for a young quarterback, either role being one where I think he would excel. A player with Brissett’s résumé in different offenses is a valued type of presence in meeting rooms across the league, doubly so if there were another quarterback added from this year’s draft.

Even Antonio Gibson is an interesting type of player who can carve out a role in strong offenses if given the chance. New England has a ways to go to be considered among one of the NFL’s better units, but Gibson is a fun buy-lowish candidate for a team needing any semblance of explosive talent.

Whether it’s Brissett, a fresh face, or something in between at quarterback, the Patriots are at least attempting to not overthink the respectability they did have on this roster and setting themselves up to stick the revamp landing.

Jaguars signing Gabriel Davis

At first blush, I was not a fan of this move. I got off my “Trent Baalke only signs wide receivers who torched his team” jokes and started to play the hits about BaalkeBall. As I have looked more at the makeup of the Jaguars, I have softened my stance slightly about Davis heading down to Jacksonville.

If the Jaguars retain Calvin Ridley, the theoretical (and expensive) Jaguars pass-catching group of Ridley, Davis, Christian Kirk and tight end Evan Engram is at least solid, with Davis sliding in and firmly upgrading on the (likely departing) Zay Jones as a zone-beating secondary pass catcher with a defined role in intermediate areas, red zone and as a blocker willing to get his hands dirty in the run game. Ridley can do his isolated work when needed, or work interesting two-man games with any of the other players. Engram can keep cranking out yards against the defensive underbelly. Davis can also fill in for more snaps when the Jaguars are deploying only two wide receivers, keeping Kirk into a more optimal role working exclusively from the slot when the Jaguars trot out lighter bodies.

Davis never reached the highs expected out of him in Buffalo when his role was asked to expand, but he is still a positive player when used in a proper role. In Jacksonville, there actually might be one.

The Jaguars' team-building under Baalke has been frustrating at times as they try to assemble a strong roster while Trevor Lawrence remains cheap, often committing to contributors with specific strengths but also needing specific roles to achieve those strengths. When a roster is built to be specific — Kirk has to be in the slot; Engram has to be away from the run play; Ridley has to be off the ball; etc. — the plays become specific and any injury can send the whole thing spiraling (see: the last two months of the 2023 season). Like a specialty car with particular parts (hey, like a Jaguar!), one screw comes loose and the whole thing can be rendered useless.

Davis may have never reached those highs some thought he would, but he’s steady, and he has a defined role that he’s good at. And, honestly, the Jaguars need some steadiness.

Running back Rorschach

The seats swapped so much at the running back position, oozing and flowing like Rorschach’s mask, that I am going to give a simple (or hopefully simple) couple of notes for the notable transactions at the position over the past 48 hours. Otherwise, my editor might start playing me off like the band at the Oscars.

D’Andre Swift signing a 3-year, $24 million contract with the Bears

Didn’t really get this one! It’s not going to hinder the Bears from doing much given their salary-cap situation and future foray in the rookie quarterback contract experience, but it’s more of a why? And why D’Andre Swift?

Khalil Herbert, Roschon Johnson and a spin-the-wheel-type of veteran RB would make sense. This is more like a commitment to a talented but often frustrating player in Swift. His zig-zagging paths to the hole and iffy pass protection excursions have left previous coaches frustrated with his play. He’ll be productive and all will be fine, but I still didn’t love it.

Tony Pollard signing a 3-year, $24 million contract with the Titans

Wow, weird déjà vu when writing those contract terms. I am not anti-paying running backs, in fact far from it, but this was another signing that I’m kind of tilting my head at.

Pollard was coming off injury in 2023 but also thrust into a more featured role in post-Zeke Dallas. He showed his limitations when having to be a featured player instead of just a character actor like before. He struggles to work consistently between the tackles, especially in short-yardage situations — which actually ended up costing the Cowboys points in huge moments, like against the Dolphins in December.

Pairing Pollard, a back who struggles to stay on track, with a work-in-progress Titans offensive line and another boom-or-bust running back in Tyjae Spears is just not my favorite player-team fit. Again, it’s not going to hinder much, and Pollard has some juice, but the timeline of the team and player didn’t align right for me.

Josh Jacobs signing a 4-year, $48 million contract with the Packers

Packers releasing Aaron Jones, who's signing a 1-year, $7 million contract with the Vikings

There’s plenty of funny money with the Jacobs deal, but the Packers essentially swapped out the explosive but oft-injured Jones for the younger Jacobs. The Packers' coaches love their running backs to have three-down versatility, which Jacobs provides. Now they just have to hope the early-season sluggishness of Jacobs was a Josh McDaniels blip and not the new norm for Jacobs after his touch-heavy 2022 season. If he’s even 90% of that 2022 peak, I like this fit in the explosive Packers offense.

Jones got the boot in Green Bay and took his talents to the waters of Lake Minnetonka. I like this! Jones still has plenty of big-play ability on the ground and through the air and provides the Vikings their most talented player at the position in quite some time, even with Jones' age and injury history.

Gus Edwards signing a 2-year, $6.5 million contract with the Chargers

Derrick Henry signing a 2-year, $16 million contract with the Ravens

I like to call Edwards the little Little Tractor, so it’s fitting that the Ravens went for the proper upgrade. Henry is going to bring a rumbling thunder to the Ravens and the lightning of Lamar Jackson and (whenever he’s healthy) Keaton Mitchell. Henry's skills align like a Venn diagram with Edwards', so his fit and role is easy to envision when working with Jackson.

Quick, you’re an outside linebacker and Jackson is reading you as he hands the ball off to Henry. Do you build up steam to tackle King Henry from the side? Or do you make sure you get a head start to corral Lamar frickin’ Jackson in open space?

That should be fun.

For Edwards, he gets back with former offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Love the fit. The Chargers need a simple, downhill running back with size and short-yardage ability. Edwards provides that on a nice, manageable deal.

Saquon Barkley signs with the Eagles for a 3 year, $37.75 million contract

Sure? Barkley is the ultimate boom-or-bust running back, but he can take any play or situation the distance. He's a powerful contributing commodity, especially in an Eagles offense that has so much firepower at other skill positions.

The Eagles' offensive line will take a step back after losing legendary center Jason Kelce. Cam Jurgens might be fine in the role long-term, but it’s not unreasonable to expect drop-off from perhaps the best player ever at the position. I actually like Tyler Steen and think he has a chance to be a fine starter at guard, but he is another question mark along this 2024 Eagles offensive line that might make their run game more mortal, even if it is still a good component of the offense.

Does Barkley offset some of that? Does he make more defenders miss in the hole, and that’s the tradeoff for less pristine blocking as the Eagles work through their new starting five?

I don’t hate the Barkley addition. He is still unbelievably talented and can contribute as a runner and receiver. (Jalen Hurts also doesn’t use his running backs as often as other quarterbacks, but we will see if that changes under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.) It’s remains a curious move for a team that typically invests in the blockers instead of the runners behind them.

Joe Mixon traded to the Texans

This makes sense for the Texans, who need warm bodies in their backfield. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik is going to run the ball, and Mixon can eat some carries, is best in a zone running game, and a fine receiver, too. The Texans can use one of their middle-round selections, right when this year’s crop of running backs will start going in the draft. Now the Texans' run game doesn’t have to take a deep breath to watch.

Rams adding beef

Moving your standout rookie left guard to center? Rewarding your starting guard and splurging on a different talented guard with medical history? Shelling out for a block-first tight end?

Sign. Me. Up.

The Rams are embracing their identity shift of the past year and fully leaning into the newer, beefier them. I wrote about the Rams' shift into a more duo-based run game, which highlights stronger, downhill double-teams and blocking from the offensive line, and it seems they're embracing those curves even further. Signing Jonah Jackson, a mauling guard who brings highlight-worthy pops with his double-teams, and moving Steve Avila to center creates over a thousand pounds of human in the middle of their offense.

This wall of humanity, oh the humanity, will provide the Rams size and talent to handle the game-wrecking defensive tackles and lines that NFL offensive lines have to face on a weekly basis. (The guard markets at all tiers is getting a boost for a reason; somebody has to block these banshees, so why not pay all your linemen instead of just the tackle spots so the offense can stay afloat?) There is also a meta element to having this mass in the middle, as defenses use lighter bodies and also shift their players more and more after the snap. So simply plowing forward with all-answer runs is an effective way to blast through moving-picture looks.

Colby Parkinson, a tight end with legitimate in-line blocking ability, gives the Rams more personnel groupings it can get to outside of their preferred three-wide receiver attack. Putting Parkinson and tight end Tyler Higbee on the field (or even Davis Allen, who flashed as a rookie) could open up parts of Sean McVay’s brain that we haven’t seen since Washington. I’m even excited to see a Parkinson-Puka Nacua two-man game in the Rams' attack.

Anyways, with a first-round draft pick and other picks still in hand, I’m excited to see how the Rams continue to embrace the beef (or mutton, or what have you).

Other moves I liked, at least a little bit

Andrew Van Ginkel signs with the Vikings

Get the versatile Van Ginkel back with Brian Flores and let him patrol and blitz every single part of the field in Flores’ amoeba-like attack. This one made sense and Van Ginkel gets to keep adding to his upper Midwest Infinity Gauntlet.

Azeez Al-Shaair signs with the Texans

The Texans desperately needed linebackers. Al-Shaair is a run-first tackling machine with experience with head coach DeMeco Ryans. This makes all the sense in the world and should have happened last offseason (I bet the Texans wish it did).

John Simpson signs with the Jets

Never again will the Jets go into the season without a tangible offensive line. They need, at the very least, warm bodies at the offensive line. It doesn’t have to be the opening scene from "Blade," but at least five will do. Simpson is more than that, a solid starter who can deliver tone-setting blocks and, most importantly, played over a thousand snaps last year.