It’s an exciting time of year for all 32 NFL teams, as they have a chance to get better and bring in impact players across their rosters. An offseason plan is truly a continuum, and it all starts next week with free agency.
While there are always headliners in the free-agent pool, the strategic opportunities can often be more impactful than the “splash” signings. As a former NFL executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, I’ve navigated the frenzy a few times, and I always had a few guys I absolutely wanted to try to sign each March. That was especially true when I felt a player would outperform the deal to which we were signing him.
So I’m going to put my trusty GM hat back on and suggest five current free agents I’d try to sign next week — players who I believe can help any roster. Sometimes that contribution goes beyond statistical impact, and I always look for players who can benefit the team on and off the field. There are always risks in free agency, and teams will look at how a player learns, his injury history and how he deals with adversity. Here are five names I’d pursue, the deals I’d offer them and why each would make a team better.
The deal I’d offer: Two years, $15 million ($9 million guaranteed)
After Nelson’s contract was terminated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in March 2021, the Philadelphia Eagles signed him for one year at $2.5 million, though Nelson ended up earning $4 million on the prove-it deal through incentives. Now he is back on the market. I’ve always been a fan of Nelson’s game because of his productivity and durability.
Since 2016, he has played at least 488 or more snaps every year, has at least seven passes defensed in five of those seasons and can line up both inside and outside. He’s only 29 years old, and depth at corner is at a premium because teams are in nickel packages at least 65% of the time.
This deal — an average of $7.5 million annually — is a bit of a raise, but I’d be getting a reliable cornerback with versatility. And since Nelson has played more than 90% of his teams’ defensive snaps in five of the past six seasons, I expect him to get closer to the $8.5 million per year that he received from Pittsburgh before the one-year deal in Philly.
One team to watch for Nelson: Since he is better in zone coverage, look for the Indianapolis Colts and new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to make a strong push, but I also think the Seattle Seahawks or re-signing with the Eagles make sense.
The deal I’d offer: One year, $16 million ($10 million guaranteed)
Trubisky hit the open market in 2021 after the Chicago Bears declined the 2017 second-overall pick’s fifth-year option. He ended signing a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Buffalo Bills to back up Josh Allen and learn under former Bills offensive coordinator and now New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll. This could prove to have been a wise choice for Trubisky. Teams like the Steelers, Seahawks, Colts and Carolina Panthers all need quarterbacks and should be firmly in the mix for Trubisky’s services.
For teams seeking a QB this season, consider this: If Trubisky was in this year’s draft class, I think he would clearly be the top signal-caller. Why not bring him in for a year, see what you have and then reassess next offseason? The 2023 offseason will offer the likes of Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins in free agency, and possibly Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud in the draft. Best case, you win big with Trubisky. Worst case, you try again with a much better crop to passers to pick from. (I think Young could be the real deal, and if I were a team that is in need of a long-term quarterback and that could be near the top of the draft order in 2023, I’d be pretty excited.)
Trubisky has already started 50 games and is only 27 years old. He has led his team to the playoffs in two seasons. Yes, he needs to continue to improve his accuracy, but because of his character, work ethic and age, he might end up the best available quarterback out there. And you can sign him to a reasonable contract.
The deal I’d offer: Five years, $117.5 million ($55 million guaranteed)
OK, this one is a bit of a change of pace. This isn’t a value deal on paper, as it pays out $23.5 million each year. But I believe Armstead is worth every penny. He has been a front-line starting left tackle for the past five years, and his pass block win rate hasn’t been lower than 85.9% during that time.
Teams look for foundational left tackles for years, and those players rarely hit free agency. Especially ones with Armstead’s ability and durability. And when they do, they get paid. We could see two or three tackles off the board in the first five picks in April’s draft, further illustrating the incredible value a star at that position can provide. My very first draft pick as a GM was D’Brickashaw Ferguson (fourth overall in 2006), and he was an absolute bedrock for the Jets for years. It’s important.
I think Armstead could make something in the neighborhood of $22 million per year. That’s a lot of money, but he would immediately impact any team he signed with.
The deal I’d offer: Three years, $39 million ($22.5 million guaranteed)
Jensen is simply one of my favorite players in the NFL. Some players play to the whistle. Jensen plays through it. He’s a real tempo-setter.
Jensen is a fit for any offensive line because of the toughness and tenacity he brings to the unit. Players set to sign their third contract typically scare me, but because of Jensen’s compelling intangibles I’m going to make an exception. On account of his age (turning 31 this spring), I would try to minimize my risk and guaranteed money, but if I come in slightly below Jason Kelce‘s reported $14 million (on a yearly basis) I would be signing a really good player at appropriate value.
While Tampa Bay is clearly in a transition, it should try to re-sign him; he will help maintain the championship standard that has been established there.
The deal I’d offer: Four years, $53 million ($30 million guaranteed)
At only 26 years old, Oluokun is an ascending player who continues to improve. I love his play speed and his ability to be a three-down player.
Having a young linebacker who can run sideline to sideline is essential to playing effective defense in the modern pass-happy NFL. Oluokun’s eventual deal should exceed the contract terms of older linebackers such as Demario Davis ($9 million per year) and Eric Kendricks ($10 million per year). In fact, the most relevant comp for Oluokun is probably Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker, who signed a three-year extension last offseason for $37.5 million ($12.5 million per year).
Just consider how much he is on the field. Oluokun had six passes defensed while playing 1,093 snaps last season. He played 896 snaps in 15 games the previous year. And over those two seasons, Oluokun combined for 309 tackles, 5 forced fumbles and 5 sacks. Given his age, his effectiveness on the field, the number of snaps he can play each week and the lack of similar players on the market, Oluokun could get big money.