NFL Analysis


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2024 NFL Free Agents Who Carry The Most Risk

Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith
Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith (77) after the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Free agency is one of the most exciting milestones of the NFL calendar. The 2024 NFL salary cap will jump by $30 million, so there is an abundance of cash available for veterans about to hit the open market. 

Despite Patrick Mahomes' presence and third Super Bowl title since 2019, the NFL feels as wide open as ever. Teams can quickly reverse their fortunes by hitting on the right signings and draft picks. That means free agency spending should be aggressive as several familiar faces are available.

But who are the riskiest 2024 NFL free agents?

Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

After star left tackle Tyron Smith missed 38 games over the past four seasons, the Dallas Cowboys are ready to move on to a more reliable option. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported it's "unlikely" the 33-year-old returns to Jerry Jones' franchise. Smith earned more than $115 million in 13 years with the team.

When Smith has been on the field he's routinely earned high grades and limited the pressure Dallas' quarterbacks have faced. But how can a team trust and invest heavily in an aging left tackle who hasn't played more than 13 games in a season since 2015?

Smith's availability in free agency is reminiscent of when the New Orleans Saints watched Terron Armstead land a $75 million deal from the Miami Dolphins in 2022. Armstead, who was 31 then, had similar durability issues but offered an All-Pro peak on the field. He missed 11 games over the last two years since signing with Miami.

Would Smith provide a major upgrade for Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Trevor Lawrence, or Kyler Murray? Absolutely. But every team must be wary of the value lost and risk that comes with signing a player who will be hampered or miss a chunk of the season.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Leonard Williams
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Leonard Williams (99) before a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Leonard Williams, DT, Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks boldly traded a 2024 second-round pick and a 2025 fifth-round pick for defensive tackle Leonard Williams at the 2023 NFL trade deadline. Williams is slated to hit the open market after the final year of a three-year, $63 million deal he signed with the New York Giants. But, turning 30 this June, the 6-foot-5, 302-pounder might no longer be the player Seattle hoped it was getting.

Instead of beefing up a defense that needed an impact addition to reach the playoffs, Seattle's defense cratered after acquiring Williams. He added four sacks, 11 QB hits and 41 tackles in 10 games. However, the unit allowed at least 26 points in six games, and the team finished 25th in points allowed.

Williams wasn't solely responsible for the unit's lackluster play, but he also didn't solve the most glaring issue for which he was acquired. A solid player who is stout against the run and one of the better pass-rushing interior linemen in the league, the concern with Williams is how he'll fare as he ages. 

After playing at least 77 percent of snaps in his first four seasons, he's been short of that mark in the past five years. His QB hits decreased since his breakout 2020 season, so the flash plays are declining. Any interested team needs to limit the money it guarantees Williams beyond the 2024 season in case he sees a sudden drop in production.

>>READ: Top 100 NFL Free Agents of 2024

Devin White, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

​​A popular player since entering the NFL due to his excellent athleticism and ability to make impact plays as a pass-rusher, Devin White struggled to make an impact beyond that role for much of 2023. Despite gaudy tackling numbers from 2019-22, White has been far from a reliable gap-filler and instead relies on his speed to make empty tackles. His tackle total dropped to a career-low 83 in 14 games played this past season.

At 26, White still has time left on his clock to be a productive player before his athleticism is gone. His best football might be in front of him. But he often leaves the impression there's more he could do to help the team win.

White isn't consistently contributing impact plays, with only three career interceptions, an average of four pass breakups per season, and three seasons with 3.5 or fewer sacks. In his incredible 2020 season, which landed him an All-Pro nod, he had 140 tackles, nine sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Since then, he changed roles and his production dipped across the board.

He'll need a clear role that asks him to shoot gaps and rush the passer as often as possible. However, asking the 6-foot, 237-pounder to be an edge rusher may not lead to a Haason Reddick-esque explosion. Anything more than a short-term, incentive-laden deal for White might look especially bad this time next year.

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley (0) looks on before the snap during the third quarter of a regular season NFL football matchup in Jacksonville, Fla. (Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union)

Calvin Ridley, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

If the Jacksonville Jaguars re-sign Calvin Ridley, they'll forfeit their 2024 second-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons as a condition of their trade for the receiver. If Ridley walks, Jacksonville will only surrender their 2024 third-round pick. After catching 76 passes for 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns, it seems more likely Jacksonville will want Ridley to return.

Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said he's "not real concerned" about giving up a second-round pick to retain Ridley. That makes some sense, given their in-house options are lacking, and this roster is ready to win now. However, the 2024 wide receiver class is loaded, so replacing Ridley with a younger, cheaper option in the second round is possible.

Ridley's total numbers were solid but needed to be more consistent for any team to break the bank for a 29-year-old. He was 53rd in yards after the catch, 48th in yards per route run, and generated only the 84th-best target separation. It's hard to imagine any of those numbers improving as he enters his thirties.

After producing 10 games under 55 receiving yards in 2023, the Jaguars have to get more efficiency and explosiveness out of Ridley if he returns. And other teams must take note that he's more of a WR2 than someone who can alter the offense's identity.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wisely gambled on Baker Mayfield a year ago. He was almost out of the league after injuries and a defensive attitude ended his Cleveland run. Then poor play in Carolina squashed that opportunity. Giving Mayfield a superstar receiver in Mike Evans and a vertical passing game that mitigated the need for complex reads proved enough for Mayfield to earn a starting gig in 2024.

Turning 29 this April, Mayfield is still a boom-or-bust player. His raw stats were tremendous in 2023, completing 64.3 percent for 4,044 yards, 28 touchdowns and a 1.8 percent interception rate. Only his interception rate wasn't a career-best mark. 

The explosive plays were redefining for Mayfield in a way, but it's hard to imagine he'd produce as well without Evans on the other end of his passes. Mayfield ranked first in deep ball attempts, third in air yards and ninth in EPA. He also had the eighth-most interceptable passes, 22nd-best completion rate under pressure, 21st-best clean pocket completion rate and 25th-best accuracy in the red zone. 

Mayfield can execute a basic offense and provide occasional explosive play. However, the inconsistent nature of his game is still present beyond the raw stats. He'll need another very good supporting cast to be successful in Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, or Atlanta.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) scores a rushing touchdown during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Saquon Barkley has the most concerning profile of the four big-named running backs to hit free agency this spring — Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard and Barkley. Now 27 and with only one 1,000-yard season over his last four years, his remarkable 2022 breakout might be the last big season he had in the tank. Teams can't overpay Barkley for that campaign because they feel he can replicate his 1,650 total yards in a better situation. 

The advanced numbers on Barkley's 2023 season are concerning. Even taking into account the Giants' lousy quarterback play and limited offensive line talent, a back who ranked 48th in juke rate, 21st in evaded tackles, 15th in breakaway runs, and 46th in yards created per touch should raise red flags. The best value Barkley brings is as a pass-catcher, where he averaged 7.3 yards per reception throughout his career. 

Otherwise, he's a relatively inefficient back who no longer has the special burst and explosiveness that made him a phenom out of Penn State. He's good but not great. And therefore, the price has to be right for teams like the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles to chase Barkley over his peers.