Stock Up, Stock Down for Top NFL Draft Prospects After 1st Week of Free AgencyMarch 18, 2023
Stock Up, Stock Down for Top NFL Draft Prospects After 1st Week of Free Agency
The NFL offseason is like a big puzzle. Each team needs at least several pieces to fit together to create the final picture. Free agency and the draft are the corner pieces organizations start with to get an idea how everything else will fall in place.
But free agency always comes first and can alter how a team approaches the draft. As a squad re-signs and brings in new veterans, its need for rookies to fill roster voids increases or decreases.
With the free-agency market having opened Wednesday, there's been quite a bit of movement.
A few soon-to-be rookies, such as Texas running back Bijan Robinson, Georgia tight end Darnell Washington and Tennessee offensive tackle Darnell Wright, have benefited. Others such as Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis and Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. weren't so lucky.
Here we'll examine how the first days of the league year have impacted the draft stocks of those players.
Stock Up: Bijan Robinson
It's no secret that analytics haven't been kind to running backs. The position has been devalued to the point where it's difficult for backs to get large second contracts and there's a stigma around drafting a rusher in the first round.
Bijan Robinson is listed as the fourth-best prospect on the latest Bleacher Report big board and has been ranked that high for a while. He didn't come off the board, however, until he was picked at No. 27 by the Buffalo Bills in the B/R Scouting Department's most recent mock draft.
The good news for the Texas product is that a new team, the Los Angeles Chargers, might be looking for a lead back.
At the beginning of free agency, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler asked for a trade, and the team permitted him to seek one. While nothing further has happened, Ekeler's departure would leave the offense with a significant hole.
Last season, he accounted for 25.9 percent of the Chargers' yards from scrimmage and 43.9 percent of their rushing and receiving touchdowns. To put it in perspective, he had 1,637 total yards; no other player reached 900. His 18 touchdowns were 14 more than the three players who tied for second-most had.
Yes, Los Angeles needs speed at wide receiver, but losing its offensive MVP from a year ago would create an even bigger need—giving Robinson another potential suitor in the first round. One of the positives on Robinson's scouting report is that he's a good pass-catcher who can win on vertical and underneath routes.
While Robinson isn't in the same category as Ekeler in that regard—very few, if any, are—he's the Chargers' next-best option at this point.
Also, it doesn't hurt that the running back-needy Bills haven't signed a rusher in free agency, which should comfortably place the Longhorn as a rare first-round back.
Stock Down: Jalen Carter
Jalen Carter's draft stock has been taking a hit for a few weeks.
He recently reached a plea deal regarding the misdemeanor charges of racing and reckless driving in connection with a fatal crash, receiving 12 months probation, a fine, community service and an order to participate in a defensive driving course.
As far as his on-field performance, showing up out of shape for Georgia's pro day raised more concerns.
Free agency has also negatively impacted Carter's draft stock. The Seattle Seahawks, who hold the fifth pick, have been a popular landing spot for him. Seattle needed help on the defensive line heading into this week, and head coach Pete Carroll has a long history of working with players who have off-field concerns.
While the latter remains true, the Seahawks signed two defensive tackles in Jarran Reed and Dre'Mont Jones. Reed inked a two-year, $10.8 million deal, while Jones received a hefty three-year, $51.5 million contract.
That might mean Carter will slide on draft day.
With the third pick, the Arizona Cardinals will be the first non-quarterback-needy team on the board, but they could opt for what seems like the safer pick in Alabama's Will Anderson, or trade back with a team that's looking for someone under center. That would leave the Detroit Lions as the next team in line who need a defensive tackle.
While falling from the third overall pick to the sixth may not seem like such a big deal, last year those two draft slots accounted for a difference of over $7 million, as Derek Stingley signed a roughly $34.7 million contract and Ikem Ekwonu got about $27.6 million, per OverTheCap.com.
Also, there's no guarantee that Carter would fit into the culture that Dan Campbell has been working to build over the last couple of seasons, so there's a chance this past month has cost Carter even more money.
Stock Up: Darnell Washington
In the last five drafts, four tight ends have heard their names called on Day 1, but Darnell Washington has the unique skill set to be selected that highly.
At nearly 6'7" and 264 pounds, Washington has the size and strength to serve as a sixth offensive lineman in the ground game, and his 4.08-second shuttle time, which was the third-best of any player at the combine, makes him a threat as a receiver. That's a big reason he's in the mid-to-late-first-round category but, until this past week, the problem had been a lack of suitors.
In a bit of a surprise, the Las Vegas Raiders traded Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller to the New York Giants, creating a massive need for the Silver and Black. While the Raiders aren't likely to take Washington with the seventh pick, they also have a quarterback in place after signing Jimmy Garoppolo, so there's a good chance they will trade back.
With a need at the position and a middle-first-round pick after moving back, head coach Josh McDaniels could use Washington in a similar fashion to Rob Gronkowski when McDaniels was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
For comparison, Gronk was 6'6" and 264 pounds and ran a 4.47-second shuttle coming out of Arizona in 2010. So, he was slightly smaller and less agile than the Georgia product.
The Green Bay Packers, who hold the No. 15 pick, are also in the tight end market and have been linked to Washington in a few mock drafts, especially considering incumbent starter Robert Tonyan agreed to terms with the Chicago Bears.
Also, the Dallas Cowboys (No. 26) haven't re-signed Dalton Schultz and aren't expected to, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 19) released Cameron Brate, creating more tight end vacancies for teams picking in the mid- to late first round. That should put a big smile on Washington's face and might confirm his status as a first-rounder.
Stock Down: Will Levis
Will Levis is widely considered the fourth-best quarterback in this year's class, and that's where he lands on B/R's big board. So, heading into free agency, his two most likely destinations were Seattle at No. 5 and Las Vegas at No. 7.
However, the Seahawks re-signed Geno Smith to a three-year, $75 million contract and Drew Lock to a one-year deal as his backup. Jimmy Garoppolo will don the silver and black. While those moves don't preclude either team from drafting a developmental quarterback in the first round, they do reduce the likelihood.
Unless a club trades up with the Cardinals at No. 3, forcing the Indianapolis Colts to take Levis with the fourth pick, there's a good chance he'll fall out of the top 10 if the Seahawks or Raiders don't take him.
The Atlanta Falcons pick eighth but appear committed to Desmond Ridder, and the Chicago Bears (ninth) and Philadelphia Eagles (10th) certainly aren't in the market for a starting quarterback with Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts in tow, respectively.
That leaves the Tennessee Titans at No. 11 as an option for Levis. However, Titans general manager Ron Carthon gave incumbent starter Ryan Tannehill a vote of confidence recently, stating, "I am excited about moving forward with [Tannehill] and have a ton of respect for him."
Now, the Kentucky product could still end up crossing the state line as a one- to two-year project, but Tennessee is in a similar spot to Seattle and Las Vegas in which it doesn't need a quarterback immediately.
If the Titans pass on Levis, he could be looking at a steep slide, as the New York Jets are ironing out a trade for Aaron Rodgers and next in the draft market for a QB are the Washington Commanders with the 16th pick. However, Washington signed Jacoby Brissett in free agency, and it already has a young project in Sam Howell.
Stock Up: Darnell Wright
The Kansas City Chiefs let both offensive tackle starters from last season, Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie, walk in free agency. Brown inked a four-year, $64.1 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals and Wylie signed with the Commanders for three years and $24 million.
So, Kansas City brought in Jawaan Taylor from the Jacksonville Jaguars on a four-year, $80 million contract, which is widely considered "left tackle money." Taylor has primarily been a right tackle as a pro, but he does have some experience with protecting the blind side, having taken a few reps there last year and during his time in college at Florida. In other words, he can make the switch.
When the Bengals signed Brown Jr., the assumption was Jonah Williams would bump over to the right side. However, Williams asked for a trade after Brown's signing, as he likely wants to stay on the left. Also, Cincinnati's starting right tackle from last season, La'el Collins, has been speculated upon as a potential cap casualty.
Who benefits from all this movement? None other than the best right tackle in this draft class, Tennessee's Darnell Wright.
Wright is projected to be a late-first-round pick, and the Jaguars (24th overall), Bengals (28th) and Chiefs (31st) are selecting in that range and could use his services. The Volunteer landed in Jacksonville in B/R's most recent mock draft, and offensive line scout Brandon Thorn said Wright would be a great pairing with guard Brandon Scherff.
So, it feels like his status as a Day 1 pick has been solidified.
Stock Down: Joey Porter Jr.
There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to the top of this year's cornerback class, so this section could be applied almost universally to the position. For B/R, Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. is the top dog among corners.
Heading into free agency, there was a chance that Porter could have stayed in-state and been selected 10th by the Eagles. James Bradberry was set to hit the open market and, surprisingly, the team was reportedly going to release Darius Slay, meaning Philadelphia would lose its two starting corners from a year ago. However, that all went for naught.
Bradberry is returning to Philly on a three-year, $38 million contract, and Slay didn't end up hitting the market after agreeing to a contract extension that is also for three seasons and just $4 million more than Bradberry's new deal. For good measure, the Eagles filled out the depth chart by signing Greedy Williams.
While that might remove Philadelphia from the equation, staying in Pennsylvania was still an option for Porter as the team his father spent most of his career with, the Pittsburgh Steelers, also needed a corner. But, the Steelers signed veteran Patrick Peterson to a two-year, $14 million deal, reducing their need at the position, too.
The Lions also could improve their defensive backfield and might have included the Nittany Lion as part of their solution with either the sixth or 18th pick. However, Detroit inked Cameron Sutton to a three-year, $18.75 million contract and Emmanuel Moseley to a one-year, $6 million contract, making it less desperate for a corner.
So, the number of potential suitors in the first round for Porter and the other top cornerbacks got smaller after the first wave of free agency.