We're off and running in free agency's two-day negotiating window that precedes the official start of the NFL's new league year, and it's about what we've expected. There's already been a trade for an All-Pro cornerback (former Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey is heading to Miami), a reunion for a couple ex-Pats in Las Vegas (quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Josh McDaniels worked together in New England), and plenty of defensive players and offensive linemen in heavy demand. There might not be as many big names in the market as there were last offseason, but that doesn't matter. There's already been some notable players finding new homes, with more surely doing the same in the coming days.
The entire league is still waiting to see what happens with Aaron Rodgers and a possible trade from Green Bay to the New York Jets. The Baltimore Ravens are wondering if their decision to give quarterback Lamar Jackson the non-exclusive franchise tag -- which gives them the right to match any offer another team puts on Jackson or accept two first-round picks as compensation in the event of his departure -- will end up helping those contract negotiations. Derek Carr already is settling into life with the New Orleans Saints after signing last week. Now we'll see what the market has to bear for less accomplished signal-callers looking for fresh starts, a group that includes Baker Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett.
The NFL news cycle will be humming for a good bit, that much we do know. This is also a great time to make sense of what's happened over the past couple days. That is where this edition of The First Read kicks off, with the five biggest takeaways from the 2023 NFL free agency period thus far:
1) Sean Payton is trying to make a power move in the AFC West. The Denver Broncos surprised everyone at this time last year when they executed a huge trade to acquire former Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. The excitement about that deal also lasted right up to the day that Wilson started leading what ended up being one of the worst offenses in recent memory. The lesson learned from all that ugliness is that Wilson needs more help around him, and the Broncos acquired plenty on Monday by agreeing to terms with right tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Ben Powers. Both players thrived in run-heavy schemes last season in San Francisco and Baltimore, respectively. They will set the tone for what should be an inevitable transition in offensive philosophy for this team. Payton needed to put a better running game around Drew Brees during their time in New Orleans for the Saints to blossom into championship contenders in their final years together. The same can be said about how the first-year Broncos coach needs to work with Wilson in Denver. As much as Wilson wanted "to cook" in Seattle and in his first season in Denver, the truth is that he's at his best in an offense with a dominant running game. The Broncos will return some key pieces to that unit this coming season -- Pro Bowl left tackle Garett Bolles, running back Javonte Williams and wide receiver Tim Patrick all went down with injuries -- but attitude will mean everything with this bunch. The Broncos thought they were becoming a playoff team when Wilson arrived last year. Their chances of accomplishing that look a lot better with the players they added up front.
2) The Raiders made the right call. For all the early talk about the Raiders being interested in pursuing a trade for Aaron Rodgers, signing a player like Jimmy Garoppolo always made more sense. Las Vegas needs to make more moves to fortify its depth chart -- especially on defense -- and the price tag on Rodgers was always way too high to facilitate that type of cost-effective roster-building. Garoppolo was a bargain, signing a three-year, $72.75 million deal with $34 million guaranteed. He also gives the Raiders a ton of flexibility in the 2023 NFL Draft, as they can now look for another defensive playmaker with the seventh overall pick or think about selecting a quarterback of the future. Garoppolo already has shown he's a team player when it comes to being a bridge quarterback -- he was willing to do it in San Francisco when the 49ers drafted Trey Lance two years ago -- and he's won a lot of games in his career. The key, of course, is whether Garoppolo can stay healthy. He's played only one full season in the last five years, with his 2022 campaign ending prematurely due to a foot injury sustained in Week 12. The Raiders obviously understand all that, but they also know this: McDaniels was the offensive coordinator in New England during Garoppolo's first three seasons in the league. That history will be invaluable for a team that made a bold move in letting longtime starter Derek Carr walk last month.
3) The Dolphins still need more than Jalen Ramsey. It's a sexy trade for all the obvious reasons. Ramsey, 28, is in the prime of his career and the best cornerback in football. You add a player of his caliber to a secondary that already has another stud cornerback (Xavien Howard) and a talented young safety (Jevon Holland) and it's going to look great on paper. The real question is whether Miami can generate a consistent enough pass rush to help the back end perform even better. The Dolphins acquired edge rusher Bradley Chubb in a midseason trade in 2022 -- and Jaelan Phillips showed some promise as a rookie -- but this unit ranked tied for 14th in the league in sacks (40) and 24th in scoring (23.5 points per game). The good news is that new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is one of the most creative minds in the game. He should be able to do a lot more with that talent than his predecessor, Josh Boyer. Ramsey's arrival also will help the Dolphins get over the disappointment that was former cornerback Byron Jones, who never lived up to the huge contract he received in free agency in 2020. Right now, you can't argue against the star power in Miami. The offense has Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle while the defense has improved with the trades for Chubb and Ramsey. You can make these kind of moves when you have a quarterback playing on a rookie deal. Of course, we all know that this team's future rests heavily on whether that quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, can stay healthy for a full season.
4) Lou Anarumo can't be a happy man. The Cincinnati Bengals had little chance of holding onto safety Jessie Bates III after failing to work out a long-term deal with him over the past two years (as well as Bates playing on the franchise tag last season). Now the Bengals just watched him and fellow safety Vonn Bell walk out the door. Bates landed in Atlanta, Bell chose Carolina and Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is likely hitting up Aaron Rodgers for some recommendations for his own darkness retreat. As much as we talk about all the offensive firepower Cincinnati has unleashed over the last two years -- when it won the AFC in 2021 and lost in the AFC Championship Game in 2022 -- the fact is that Bates and Bell were the heart of a vastly underrated defense that ranked sixth in the league in points allowed last season. That duo allowed Anarumo to do a ton of shapeshifting with his schemes, both because of their versatility and intelligence. It was going to be hard to replace one. Losing both in the same offseason is brutal, especially because the Bengals had hopes of holding onto Bell. Now the Bengals have to deal with that as well as the reality that cornerback Eli Apple, another starter in the secondary, is a free agent. Yes, the Bengals still have Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and a lot of reasons to feel good about their team. They'd feel even better, though, if they hadn't taken these hits.
5) Every quarterback on the 49ers' schedule should be concerned. The 49ers have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa, a defense that allowed a league-low 16.3 points per game and they just got better. The signing of former Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave gives San Francisco another dynamic interior pass rusher to aide Bosa. As great as the 49ers were on defense in 2022 -- and you're talking about a front seven that included defensive tackle Arik Armstead and linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw -- Bosa accounted for 18.5 of the team's 44 sacks. Hargrave had 11 sacks on his own for a Philadelphia squad that led the NFL with 70 quarterback takedowns last season. He's 30 years old but that's the type of production the 49ers are hoping to get out of him this coming fall. The trio of Armstead, Bosa and Hargrave should be enough to give opposing passers fits, and the reality is the NFC is going to be wide open once again. The 49ers certainly will miss former defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The addition of Hargrave will make that transition a little bit easier.