Five NFL free agents who might either succeed or fail in 2023

Not every NFL free-agent signing is created equal. Some additions are merely to add depth, others are safer moves on high-floor starters without an expectation of continued growth and the most intriguing are bets on up-and-coming talents taking their game to the next level.

We identified five of the biggest boom-or-bust free agent signings of the 2023 NFL offseason and what could make or break their time with a new club.

LB Tremaine Edmunds, Chicago Bears

Perhaps no big free agency move will be under more of a microscope than Edmunds’ arrival in Chicago. He will be compared to former Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith every step of the way. Edmunds was selected No. 16 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, eight picks after Smith was taken by the Bears. Now, Smith is a Baltimore Raven following a deadline trade, and Edmunds signs on to replace him.

Edmunds’ 86.9 coverage grade in 2022 was the third-best mark among off-ball linebackers, and he forced an incompletion on 10.3% of targets into his coverage while allowing just four explosive receptions the entire season (0.9% of targets into his coverage, ninth among linebackers). Edmunds also missed just 6.5% of potential tackles, the lowest rate of his career and another huge sign of continued growth from a football intelligence and play recognition standpoint.

With Edmunds now confirmed to be playing the middle linebacker spot in Chicago, it makes sense that he is viewed as more of a fit given his 6-foot-5 frame and 34.5-inch arms — which rank in the 99th percentile among off-ball linebackers. He will be expected to run the seam in Cover 2 and use his 4.54-second 40-yard dash speed to cover ground over the middle. However, fans will ultimately not care much about his perceived scheme fit if the production we saw in 2022 doesn’t follow, with Roquan Smith a favorite in the city over his rookie contract.

Chicago may have just pulled off a very sharp swap by acquiring extra second- and fifth-round picks while still signing their middle linebacker of the future long term, but the downside risk is also there.

EDGE Marcus Davenport, Minnesota Vikings

Whichever team ended up signing Davenport to a one-year flier was taking a worthwhile gamble on a tremendous talent finally staying healthy after years of dealing with various injuries.

Since Davenport entered the league in 2018, his 17.8% pass-rush win rate and 13.9% pressure percentage are both top-20 marks among edge defenders, and he’s also earned a very respectable 82.1 run-defense grade for his career, which ranks 16th over the span. Davenport has five straight campaigns grading above 70.0. The New Orleans Saints traded a future first-round pick to move up for Davenport in the draft, and while things didn’t work out well enough for him to get extended by the team, they did identify a very talented player. The issue is that Davenport has yet to log 600 snaps in a single season.

While there still has not been any movement on a new contract for Vikings edge defender Za’Darius Smith, who expressed displeasure with the current terms of his deal, it’s probably not a coincidence that Minnesota went out and added arguably the top young edge defender available in free agency. The boom-or-bust nature of this deal will also coincide with what ultimately happens with Smith. If the Vikings do move on from him, Davenport will look to replace 78 quarterback pressures and 10 sacks off the edge from 2022.

LB Kaden Elliss, Atlanta Falcons

Elliss made the first start of his NFL career in Week 10 with the New Orleans Saints after getting drafted 244th overall in 2019, with his 464 snaps played over the final eight games of 2022 more than he had played in his entire career up to that point. From Week 10 through the end of the season, Elliss’ 89.8 overall grade led all linebackers, his 90.5 run-defense grade ranked fourth, his 78.0 pass-rush grade ranked 11th and his 70.2 coverage grade ranked 24th.

At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, Elliss profiles in the modern game as a strongside backer who may rush the passer even more going forward, with his 80 pass-rush snaps over this stretch the third most among predominantly off-ball linebackers. His 15 quarterback pressures and five sacks over the stretch also led all linebackers, with his pass-rush win rate and pressure rate both top-10 marks. This element of his game carries extra value and would elevate his compensation beyond your typical linebacker, but there’s still a ton of projection required on a small sample here to arrive at the three-year, $21.5 million contract he signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

New Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen was the Saints’ defensive line coach for Elliss’ entire career, so he has seen a lot of his practice reps and work that didn’t show up on Sundays. That said, this epitomizes a boom-or-bust signing. Free-agent signings are about trying to pay for expected future production and not past performance, but it’s not every day in the NFL that a player with 835 career snaps gets more than $10 million fully guaranteed at signing.

OT Andre Dillard, Tennessee Titans

Tennessee’s tackle unit ranked dead last in pass-blocking grade by five grading points and pressure percentage allowed by 2.5 percentage points in 2022, so something had to be done to address the position group in free agency. And that was the case before the team released longtime stalwart Taylor Lewan. They may have found a multi-year solution at left tackle with a promising young player on a three-year, $29 million contract that does not pay much cash up front, or they may have run the risk of putting their quarterback in further danger in 2023.

A first-round pick back in 2019, Dillard failed to nail down a starting spot on the Eagles’ offensive line, which is far less concerning in Philadelphia than it might have been anywhere else. He played 677 snaps between 2019 and 2021 but saw just 37 snaps this past season.

His 340 total snaps at left tackle in 2021 is really what we’re working off here in terms of NFL game film, and the results were promising if not perfect. Dillard earned a 71.7 pass-blocking grade and allowed just one quarterback hit over 250 pass-block reps. However, his 8.8% pressure percentage allowed ranked 63rd out of 73 tackles with at least 100 pass-blocking snaps over the same weeks he played. Working in his favor could be the ball getting out quicker in Tennessee as compared to a 2021 version of Jalen Hurts that had a high average time to throw, with Dillard allowing mostly later pressure, which is less the fault of the offensive lineman.

It’s hard to know what the market was like for Dillard, who carried first-round pedigree and found himself stuck behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL over his rookie contract, but this is a major payday for a player with 714 career snaps despite his first-round status.

TE Irv Smith Jr., Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati will continue to run as much 11 personnel (three-wide receiver sets) as any team in the NFL with their three-headed monster of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but it’s always good to have quality tight ends to mix things up. The Bengals did very well in adding Hayden Hurst last season on a one-year, $3.5 million flier, with his productive season culminating in a three-year, $21.75 million deal from the Carolina Panthers. Here, Cincinnati is hoping for the same luck with another highly drafted tight end in Smith.

Smith looked very promising early in his career, often the top “training camp buzz” name in Minnesota, but injuries began to stunt his growth. From Week 5 through Week 17 during his second season in 2020, Smith’s 82.6 receiving grade ranked fourth among tight ends, and his 12.5 yards per reception ranked 13th. Over the same span, he had eight explosive receptions on just 28 total catches and was charged with just one drop on 35 targets. He went on to miss the entire 2021 campaign, and after he suffered another injury midway through the 2022 season, the Vikings made a blockbuster trade for T.J. Hockenson.

If the former second-rounder out of Alabama can regain some confidence and stay healthy, he still demonstrates explosive playmaking ability and plus athleticism at the tight end spot. He’s a solid run blocker, even if not stellar at it, and could be another great value one-year flier if things finally break his way. If injuries creep up again, however, Cincinnati’s depth chart at tight end is a concern.

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