While there are always big names in the NFL free agency pool who will earn the big-money deals, some of the best signings are the guys who teams can sign at value. When I was an NFL executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, I always went into March with a few players I absolutely wanted to sign. And that was especially true when I felt a free agent would outperform the contract to which we were signing him. Those savvy moves can often be more impactful than the “splash” signings in a salary cap restricted league.
So for a second year in a row, I’m putting on my GM hat and breaking down five current free agents I’d be targeting to sign this week if I were running a team. These are players who I believe can help any roster — even if some of them come with risks. Here are five names I’d pursue, the deals I’d offer them and why I think each would be worth the money.
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The deal I’d offer: Four years, $72 million ($40 million guaranteed)
Dean is still 26 years old and has 57 games of experience over his four-year career. At 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds, the 2019 third-round pick out of Auburn has great size for a cornerback and has proved both durable and productive. Dean was solid yet again last season, hauling in two interceptions and breaking up eight passes. He has averaged more than 10 pass breakups per season over his career.
As for his potential contract, I’d look at Xavien Howard’s recent extension as a rough model, with an $18 million per-year breakdown. Playmaking cornerbacks are valuable, and there aren’t many on the market who are still young, can stay healthy and have a deep resume of on-ball production.
If I were the Houston Texans, I’d be taking a close look at Dean. They could use another physical corner — even after drafting Derek Stingley Jr. last year — in DeMeco Ryans’ new scheme, and Dean would be an ideal fit.
The deal I’d offer: Five years, $60 million ($28.5 million guaranteed)
Free agency and the upcoming draft are loaded with tight ends, but I think Gesicki brings rare value. In Miami’s new scheme under coach Mike McDaniel, Gesicki dipped from 73 receptions on 110 targets in 2021 to just 32 catches on 53 targets last season. He averaged a target on over 21% of his routes in both 2020 and 2021, but barely broke 15% in 2022. So he strikes me as someone who needs a change of scenery, especially since he is only 27 years old. Gesicki still scored five times last season, and he’s a clear mismatch for defenses at 6-6 and 247 pounds. That shows up in the red zone.
If I were running a team with a young developing quarterback — consider the Chicago Bears — this is a no-brainer. I expect he’d come in around $12 million per season, which is in line with Hunter Henry’s deal in New England. That could end up great value, given his upside, traits and age.
I’ll quickly toss out another tight end that I’d kick the tires on: Dalton Schultz. He’ll get more attention and ultimately earn more money, though, likely checking in around $14 million per season.
The deal I’d offer: Five years, $90 million ($40 million guaranteed)
Bates, 26, has 477 tackles, 14 interceptions and 43 pass breakups over five seasons — and four of those interceptions came in 2022. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, his minus-8.7% completion percentage above expectation on targeted throws last season ranked sixth-best among safeties with at least 400 coverage snaps. Bates can stop the run, too. He has at least 70 tackles in all five seasons, and he has three campaigns with 100-plus.
He is coming off the franchise tag, and given his age and production, I would expect Bates to make $18 million per year — similar to the deal I suggested for Dean. He should get paid in the same range of Derwin James Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Detroit Lions are a team that makes a lot of sense. Imagine what Bates could do there with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn moving him around the defense.
The deal I’d offer: Two years, $20 million ($12 million guaranteed)
The San Francisco 49ers acquired Omenihu from the Texans at the 2021 trade deadline for a sixth-round pick, and they got great value in the deal. Omenihu ranked just outside the top 25 in pass rush win rate last season (16.5%, 26th), and he was third on the team in sacks with 4.5.
He does not turn 26 until right before the 2023 season, so with veterans like Frank Clark, Robert Quinn and Marcus Davenport dominating the headlines, Omenihu could be a steal for a team this offseason. I’m looking at Sam Hubbard as a comp for a contract, which would be really good value. A team like the Atlanta Falcons would be an ideal landing spot for Omenihu, too. Any team considering him will of course have to do its homework. He was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence in January during the Niners’ playoff run.
I mentioned Davenport, and if you could sign him around $17 million per year, he’d be worth the look. But given that Davenport has struggled to stay healthy, Omenihu is the better value.
The deal I’d offer: One year, $1.165 million (fully guaranteed)
When you are running a team, you must look for economically efficient opportunities. Signing Wentz for the league minimum to serve as a No. 2 QB could be one of those.
Yes, I know Wentz finished 30th out of 31 qualified quarterbacks in Total QBR last season (33.0), throwing 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. And yes, I know he was benched and then ultimately cut after the season, ending his tenure with his third team in three seasons. But while we have no idea if Wentz could ever be a high-performance quarterback again, signing him for the minimum presents absolutely no downside. Give him a fresh start as a backup, and if he’s able to get his game even somewhat close to what it was in 2017-2019, then this is a steal. If not, the risk is inconsequential. You have to take a bunch of swings at QB in this league, but this is one that doesn’t impact the bottom line much if it misses.
Your best-case scenario is Wentz sitting for a year and potentially turning into the next turnaround story, similar to what Geno Smith did in Seattle. That is big-time upside on a miniscule deal. I love the fit of Wentz with a team like the Kansas City Chiefs; they need a backup after Chad Henne retired, and he’d get to work under coach Andy Reid to try to resurrect his career.