The NFL has had a blockbuster first week of free agency. 

A couple of starting quarterbacks changed teams, including Super Bowl-winner Russell Wilson, who signed for a one-year deal at the veteran minimum with the Pittsburgh Steelers. A handful of the most talented running backs in recent history found new homes.

Free agent guards have had the most lucrative week in the history of their position, and one of the league’s best defensive tackles arrived in the same division as the best quarterback of all time ahead of the start of the new league year on Wednesday.

Using our advanced data, we’re breaking down the five moves that are poised to have a big impact in 2024 – either because they create a playoff contender where one didn’t exist before, change the future outlook for a recent No. 1 NFL Draft pick, or merely give a middle-of-the-pack team a fighting chance after its franchise quarterback walked out the door this offseason. 

QB Kirk Cousins to the Atlanta Falcons
Four years, $180 million ($100 million guaranteed) 

Above-average starting quarterbacks don’t change teams in free agency often. When they do, they get paid. Cousins proved it when he signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 for three years and $84 million, and he proved it again in finally leaving Minnesota for Atlanta this week. 

The Falcons made lots of sense as the team to toss a big bag of cash at Cousins. Their existing quarterback situation, headlined by third-year man Desmond Ridder, was hopeless. They’re in a weak NFC South, where Cousins for now becomes the best QB in the division over the likes of Baker Mayfield of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Derek Carr of the New Orleans Saints and Bryce Young of the Carolina Panthers.

And the Falcons were able to guarantee Cousins essentially just two years at a premium: If he plays well for Atlanta, his contract will start to look like a bargain in 2026 and 2027. Cousins will be 38 by then, but some QBs have stayed good for longer. 

There’s still a lot left in Cousins’ tank, too. Last fall, he led the league in well-thrown percentage (86.5) and came in fourth in expected completion rate (76.0) in an injury-shortened year. He’ll be extremely welcomed by the Falcons’ young skill position talents like running back Bijan Robinson, wide receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. 

Catchable throw percentage is how often a throw was deemed catchable, even if it was slightly off target, while well-thrown percentage is strictly based on whether it was deemed to be accurate, even if it wasn’t catchable (such as if a defender batted it away). And among QBs with 200 adjusted attempts (no spikes/throwaways) in 2023, Cousins was one of only four with a well-thrown and catchable ball percentage above 80.0.

well-thrown and catchable ball leaders

DT Christian Wilkins to the Las Vegas Raiders
Four years, $110 million ($82.75 million million guaranteed) 

Whether the Raiders find an upgrade on Aidan O’Connell in the draft or not, they’re a long way from having the kind of quarterback who will compete with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (or even Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers) in the AFC West.

That certainly didn’t change after they inked Gardner Minshew to a two-year, $25 million deal. So it makes sense to invest heavily in a nasty defense that will play hard for head coach and former linebacker Antonio Pierce.

Wilkins fits that bill; he’s an excellent run-stuffer who generates a lot of pass pressure from his interior line spot. He moves gracefully for a big man and should be a high-end producer for several seasons. He’ll be just 28 in his first year in Las Vegas after ranking fifth among all interior defensive linemen in pressures (56) and 11th in pressure rate (15.2%).

Players like Wilkins shouldn’t hit free agency. The only reason he did is that the Miami Dolphins, his former team, are in a salary cap crunch as they get set to start paying a premium to QB Tua Tagovailoa. 

G Robert Hunt to the Carolina Panthers,
Five years, $100 million ($63 million guaranteed) 

Did I mention that the Dolphins have salary cap problems? The Panthers are another beneficiary as they add Hunt, a former tackle who settled in at guard and was part of some very explosive Miami offenses the past few years.

2024 proved to be a good time to be a free-agent guard, as Hunt led a group of five players who signed contracts with eight-figure guarantees. It’s a pretty penny for the Panthers to spend at what hasn’t historically been treated like a premium position.

But if a team was going to spend this much money on a guard who’s about to turn 28, it follows logically that it would be the Panthers. Bryce Young is both very small and on a rookie contract for the next four seasons, so David Tepper has money to spend.

Young took a lot of physical thrashing in his terrible rookie season, and the Panthers’ future hopes hinge entirely on keeping him safe. And Hunt ranked fourth in the NFL in pressure-allowed rate among guards with at least 150 pass protection snaps.

pressure-allowed leaders

Between Hunt and left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, Carolina at least has some building blocks in front of the franchise QB. 

DE Jonathan Greenard to the Minnesota Vikings
Four years, $76 million ($42 million guaranteed) 

Greenard had a well-timed breakout for the Houston Texans, notching 14.0 sacks in 2023 after posting 11.0 in his first three NFL seasons. (And of those 11, 8.0 were in 2021 before a much quieter 2022.)

The Vikings believe his most recent season was representative, and they spent a lot of the money they didn’t spend on Cousins or edge Danielle Hunter (who essentially swapped places with Greenard). They’ll hope to get a bit more consistency than the Texans got from Greenard, who went sackless in seven games despite the big overall total. 

The appeal for the Vikings was obvious: Minnesota was roughly average at generating pressure last year (21.9%) but needed to blitz more than any other team to generate that pressure. Greenard had an above-average pressure rate (18.2%) and the sixth-best adjusted sack rate (5.5%) among edge rushers with 150+ pass rushes in 2023.

The Vikings were the only team in the NFL to send seven pass rushers on more than half their defensive downs, and adding Greenard should let Minnesota turn up the heat without leaving the secondary so exposed. 

RB Saquon Barkley to the Philadelphia Eagles
Three years, $37.75 million ($12.58 million guaranteed) 

Barkley didn’t get the biggest running back contract by total value, but functionally, he signed the richest deal at the position. (The Green Bay Packers guaranteed Josh Jacobs $12.5 million on a four-year deal that will be worth $48 million only if the team prefers.)

This was a shockingly good running back free-agent class that included Jacobs, Aaron Jones (to the Vikings), Derrick Henry (to the Baltimore Ravens), former Buffalo Bill Devin Singletary (to the New York Giants), former Lions and Eagles RB D’Andre Swift (to the Chicago Bears), ex-Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard (to the Tennessee Titans). But Barkley became the headliner when the Giants declined to put the franchise tag on him.

There’s still a lot to like about Barkley’s game as he turns 27. He’s a capable route runner out of the backfield, with a 53.3% burn rate that placed him among the best running backs in the league. And even in a bit of a down year in 2023, Barkley was just about average in his efficiency numbers despite playing behind one of the NFL’s worst lines and without a serious quarterback to help him.

He has a chance to be a good Eagle for several seasons. And even if he isn’t, the sight of him in green will make Giants fans sick while thrilling the many Philly fans who once cheered on Barkley at Penn State. 

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