NFL free agency has delivered big names to new teams across the land in 2023, but the open market isn’t the only pool to pick from. The new league year has produced a flurry of trades both big and small.
Here’s my report card on the most notable deals thus far.
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NO. 1 PICK TRADE
- 2023 1st-rounder (No. 1 overall)
- WR D.J. Moore
- 2023 1st-rounder (No. 9 overall)
- 2023 2nd-rounder (No. 61)
- 2024 1st-rounder
- 2025 2nd-rounder
Imagine a parallel universe where Carolina — armed with the No. 8 pick back in 2021 — chose Justin Fields over a cornerback (actual selection Jaycee Horn) who would go on to log 18 missed starts over his first two seasons.
In that reality, perhaps it’s the Bears of today selling the farm to finally land a quarterback. Instead, Chicago’s front office under Ryan Poles has laid the bricks for a rapid rebuild around Fields, selected three spots after Horn.
The cost for Carolina is no crime, considering what previous teams have given up to reach the heights of the first round. The Bears earn points, though, for pulling away D.J. Moore in an offseason featuring an unremarkable cast of free-agent and draft-able wideouts.
“It hurt but we had to do what we had to do to get in this position,” general manager Scott Fitterer said of parting with Moore, who boasts three 1,000-yard campaigns in his first five seasons despite playing with 10 different signal-callers.
Mixing Moore with Darnell Mooney, 2022 mid-season addition Chase Claypool and ascending tight end Cole Kmet gives Fields a more appropriate cast of weapons after a year in which no Bears wideout crossed 500 yards. Simply lining up to stop Fields on terra firma won’t cut it. He’s under pressure to make a leap through the air, but Chicago’s starter improved more than some might want to acknowledge down the stretch.
I’m giving the Panthers a B+ based on the aggressiveness to hopscotch Houston, Indianapolis, Seattle, Detroit, Las Vegas and Atlanta in the draft order — all could be targeting a passer — to grab the apple of their eye. Whether the Panthers end up liking Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud more, they have time to build consensus.
As for Carolina’s true grade? Ask the teams who sold it all to land Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Robert Griffin III about the concept of hazy tomorrows.
BRANDIN COOKS TRADE
- WR Brandin Cooks
- 2023 5th-rounder (No. 161 overall)
- 2024 6th-rounder
Flamed last March for sending Amari Cooper to Cleveland for a bag of spoons, Dallas now sits in the fleecer’s seat.
No longer held hostage by Zeke Elliott’s unwieldy pact, the Cowboys landed a player in Cooks who arrives as another alpha beside wideout CeeDee Lamb.
It was Lamb who begged the front office to “surround” Dak Prescott with weapons, telling the Around The NFL podcast during Super Bowl week: “You go look at the Eagles, and they’ve got three receivers, a great tight end group, they run the ball well, the O-line is very phenomenal. You look at San Fran, they surrounded their quarterback and you get success ultimately. I mean we’ve got just as many weapons, but that extra player, all it takes is one. You can be so close to the Super Bowl and it can be a deciding factor.”
Cooks thrives in the slot and outside and allows Dallas to go elsewhere at No. 26 overall. The 29-year-old receiver has been traded a record-tying four times, but Bill Belichick, Sean McVay and Bill O’Brien all pined for his services after Sean Payton drafted Cooks in New Orleans back in 2014.
Houston reportedly agreed to pay $6 million of Cooks’ 2023 salary, with the receiver counting just $6 million against the cap for Dallas, and another $8 million in base salary due in ’24. A win for Jerry Jones and a premier landing spot for Cooks, who somehow piled up two of his six career 1,000-yard campaigns on a Texans squad mired in the abyss.
I can understand why rebuilding Houston moved on from a player who spent last season asking for a trade. They earned so little in return, though, while reportedly agreeing to absorb a sizable chunk of future money.
With just Robert Woods and Nico Collins at the position, the Texans must hurry to acquire new faces with which to surround their eventual rookie quarterback.
STEPHON GILMORE TRADE
- CB Stephon Gilmore
- 2023 5th-round compensatory pick (No. 176 overall)
The only reason the Colts escaped an F: I’m vibing with the conspiracy theory that GM Chris Ballard is carving out cap room to swing a deal for Lamar Jackson. Outside of that fantastical scenario, the move looms as potentially confusing and frustrating for a fan base that would be forgiven for questioning Indy’s compass.
The deal for Gilmore is nothing short of a coup for the Cowboys. Set to line up across from Trevon Diggs, the veteran defender arrives as a heady, battle-tested corner poised to thrive under coordinator Dan Quinn. He’s 32, but Gilmore is coming off another solid campaign and boasts Pro Football Focus’ highest coverage grades among corners since 2018. He promises to fit right in on a Dallas unit that sees itself as one of the NFC’s finest.
It’s hard to imagine what newly minted Colts coach Shane Steichen felt watching Gilmore — arguably the team’s best defender — vanish into nothingness for just a few million dollars in cap space. If this is not setting up a Lamar acquisition, what are we doing here? (And if it is indeed priming the pump for a blockbuster, I’ll acknowledge I jumped the gun on this grade.)
JALEN RAMSEY TRADE
- CB Jalen Ramsey
- TE Hunter Long
- 2023 3rd-rounder (No. 77 overall)
A tale of two teams heading for different ports.
Miami sees itself as a bona fide Super Bowl contender, flipping a third-rounder for a star cover man who can put a defense over the top.
That’s how the Rams saw themselves when they handed Jacksonville two firsts and a fourth for Ramsey four seasons ago. Netting a third-rounder plus a tight end with one career catch is tough to love, but Los Angeles is caught in the underbrush of a thorny rebuild. Still top-heavy with expensive names in Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford, the Rams surely hope spending this year in absentia will help steer the vessel back to sunny waters.
For the Fins, Ramsey immediately fills the space left by Byron Jones across from Xavien Howard. Ramsey’s coming off a down year, but Jalen — still just 28 — gives the team a rainmaker inside an AFC crucible housing Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen.
At this cost, the move stands out as a no-brainer. Fingers crossed that Ramsey’s still a superhero come Sunday.
DARREN WALLER TRADE
- TE Darren Waller
- 2023 3rd-rounder (No. 100 overall)
Waller’s injury history emits buyer-beware vibes, but the G-Men come off as a gaggle of geniuses if he stays upright.
Shelved for 14 games over the past two seasons, Waller’s 280 receptions and 3,394 receiving yards since 2019 trail only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews. It pegs a need for an attack that finished in the bottom 10 in tight end grabs and yards in 2022, while upping the chances for further growth from Daniel Jones.
New York also reportedly restructured Waller’s contract to count just $4 million against the cap this season, with no future guaranteed cash on the docket. Big Blue ultimately turned the third-rounder they netted for Kadarius Toney into Waller.
Raiders fans aren’t required to approve, but this newish regime sought cap space and draft picks. A third-round pick — and the room to ink Jakobi Meyers — is no disgrace, but it will be a struggle to discern this club’s master plan until after the draft.
Finding a rookie with Waller’s upside won’t be easy.
JONNU SMITH TRADE
- TE Jonnu Smith
- 2023 7th-rounder (No. 245 overall)
Can Falcons head coach Arthur Smith revive his ex-pupil? Jonnu vanished under the watch of Bill Belichick, squeezing out a 55/539/1 line over two flavorless campaigns. I’m willing to excuse any Patriots weapon from last year’s disaster under Matt Patricia, but Smith — outshined by fellow 2021 addition Hunter Henry — never lived up to his four-year, $50 million pact.
It doubles as a case study in player-coach fit. Jonnu notched 16 touchdowns over his first four years in the NFL, with Smith as his position coach and then offensive coordinator in Tennessee. Smith isn’t likely to use him that way in Atlanta behind monstrous-but-elusive tight end Kyle Pitts, but the veteran’s vicious blocking style fits right in.
I lifted both grades from B to B+ after Smith agreed to a reworked pact that chopped his 2023 salary from $11 million to $8.5 million and his ’24 fee from $12 million to $6.5 million, per Over The Cap. New England traded Smith’s entire contract to Atlanta, saved $4 million in cap space and landed red-zone performer Mike Gesicki days later. Under new coordinator Bill O’Brien, the ex-Dolphins tight end has a chance to topple anything Smith produced with the Pats.
SHAQ MASON TRADE
- OG Shaq Mason
- 2023 7th-rounder (No. 230 overall)
- 2023 6th-rounder (No. 179 overall)
Mason was shipped away as part of Tampa’s efforts to escape the red. His exodus shaved $5.27 million off the books; the sixth-round fee is a bonus, considering the Bucs were prepared to release the 29-year-old road-grader.
Mason started all 17 games last season and finished as PFF’s 21st-ranked guard after grading fourth overall in 2021 (min. 500 snaps) with the Patriots. Houston needed a boost along the interior front five, and rebuilding GM Nick Caserio knows the 6-foot-1, 310-pound blocker well from their shared days in New England.
Sandwiching Mason between the proven tackle duo of Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard gives Houston the makings of a promising line in front of whichever rookie passer the Texans snag with April’s No. 2 overall selection.
CHUCK CLARK TRADE
- S Chuck Clark
- 2024 7th-rounder
A low-drama swap, considering Clark was in the final year of his deal for a club angling to roll with Marcus Williams and 2022 first-rounder Kyle Hamilton come September. Moving Clark opened up $4.1 million in cap room ahead of Baltimore tagging Lamar Jackson to the tune of $32.4 million.
What’s not to like for the Jets? They added a veteran backstop who hasn’t missed a play in three seasons and bagged a career-high 101 tackles in 2022. Clark toiled away last autumn after asking for a trade. His request finally met, the soon-to-be 28-year-old now slots in as a Gang Green starter alongside Jordan Whitehead.
When Aaron Rodgers finally joins the fray, he’ll be propped up by one of the AFC’s nastiest gangs of defenders. Clark is the brand of player Robert Saleh will maximize with a flourish.
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