2023 NFL free agency winners, losers: Justin Fields gets clarity, weapon

·7 min read

Fields among winners of free agency despite Bears' odd moves originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The big spending of NFL free agency is all but over.

Besides Lamar Jackson and Ezekiel Elliott, the big names have all found homes for the upcoming season.

The Bears were the talk of the NFL in the lead-up to free agency. Flush with cash and holding the No. 1 pick, the Bears controlled the flow of the offseason. Finally, the opening bell sounded, and general manager Ryan Poles made his moves. They just weren’t the ones we expected.

Meanwhile, the 49ers added to a strength, and a new favorite in the NFC North emerged as Aaron Rodgers booked a one-way ticket out of Green Bay.

But the free-agency flurry wasn’t all good vibes.

RELATED: Schrock's Mock Draft 5.0: Back to the trenches

With the NFL turning its full attention to the NFL draft, here’s a free agency version of winners and losers to close the book on the opening tentpole of the new league year.

WINNER

JUSTIN FIELDS

An offseason that started with questions about Fields’ long-term future in Chicago changed in a heartbeat when the Bears traded the No. 1 pick to the Carolina Panthers.

In trading the No. 1 pick, Poles got Fields a true No. 1 receiver in DJ Moore and signaled his belief that the young signal-caller is the right quarterback for the Bears to rebuild around.

The acquisition of Moore should help Fields take a much-needed step forward as a passer in 2023. However, the Bears didn’t do nearly enough to fix what was a catastrophic situation around their young quarterback in 2022.

The Bears made a run at right tackle Mike McGlinchey in free agency but eventually lost the auction to the Denver Broncos. Poles elected not to chase Orlando Brown Jr., who went to Cincinnati on an affordable contract and didn’t seem interested in Jawaan Taylor or Kaleb McGary.

As a result, the Bears’ only offensive line addition is guard Nate Davis. Davis is a good run-blocker who has improved in pass protection. He’ll help bolster the interior, but the Bears still have a massive question mark at tackle.

While Fields didn’t get everything this offseason, he got the most important thing: Reassurance that he’s the guy the Bears plan to build around going forward.

LOSER

AARON RODGERS’ PERCEPTION OF REALITY

The Green Bay Packers legendary quarterback told Pat McAfee that he entered his darkness retreat “90 percent” sure he would retire.

But when he exited his meditation vacation in The Shire Southern Oregon, he found out the Packers had been “shopping him” around and decided he wanted to continue playing for at least one more season – but not in Green Bay.

There are a few problems with Rodgers’ line of thinking.

First, there was almost a zero percent chance Rodgers was going to retire. Even if he doesn’t have the desire to prepare and play anymore, retiring this offseason would mean sharing a Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Tom Brady. There’s no way Rodgers wants to share his induction day with Brady.

Second of all, Rodgers’ irritation with the Packers shows he fundamentally misunderstands that the NFL is a billion-dollar business. Rodgers has held the Packers hostage for the last two offseasons, and there is no way general manager Brian Gutenkunst was going to let Rodgers yank him around again.

Rodgers lives in a world of his making. One that doesn’t seem to abide by the same rules of reality as the rest of us. That should play well in the media capital of the world.

WINNER

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

The 49ers watched the Philadelphia Eagles run through everyone on their defensive line not named Arik Armstead in the NFC Championship Game.

So general manager John Lynch added the best defensive tackle on the market in Javon Hargrave. With Hargrave joining a defensive line that includes Armstead and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, the 49ers are primed for another deep playoff run in a relatively weak NFC.

As long as Brock Purdy (or Trey Lance) can play above-average football, the 49ers will be right there come January.

LOSER

VIKINGS

I think general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s “competitive rebuild” might be coming to an end.

The Vikings released wide receiver Adam Thielen before free agency and watched defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson exit to Cleveland.

Minnesota then turned around and gave top-20 tight end money to Josh Oliver, who has all of 26 career catches with the Ravens. That’s a baffling move considering the Vikings traded for T.J. Hockenson last season.

The Vikings also gave Marcus Davenport a one-year, $13 million contract after an underwhelming season. Although, they haven’t officially announced that deal yet.

I did like the signing of Byron Murphy Jr., but overall, it has been a disappointing offseason for the reigning NFC North champs.

WINNER

LIONS

Speaking of the NFC North, there appears to be a new top dog in the division.

With Rodgers planning to move to New Jersey and the Vikings taking on water, there’s a void atop the division the Lions are primed to fill.

In three moves, the Lions quickly remade their secondary and announced themselves as the new favorites in the NFC North.

Detroit signed cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The Lions also added former Bears running back David Montgomery and own two first-round picks.

The Lions have restored the roar in Detroit and appear ready to make a leap and become a legitimate threat. The quarterback position is The Motor City's final puzzle piece. Jared Goff was good in 2022, but an upgrade is needed to remove the ceiling on a Lions team that has rebuilt the roster the right way.

The Lions have those two first-round picks, and Lamar Jackson is available after being given the non-exclusive tag by the Ravens. Go for it, Detroit.

LOSER

BEARS

Wait, Justin Fields is a winner, but the Bears lost? Let me explain.

The Bears entered the offseason with almost $100 million in salary cap space and needs across the roster. The offensive and defensive lines figured to be the focal point of Poles’ free-agency attack plan.

That never materialized.

The Bears missed out on McGlinchey, didn’t appear to be in the running for Hargrave or Dre’Mont Jones, and instead gave linebacker Tremaine Edmunds a four-year, $72 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. That deal comes after the Bears traded Roquan Smith because they felt he couldn’t generate enough takeaways to be the WILL linebacker in head coach Matt Eberflus’ system. In five seasons, Edmunds only has five interceptions, two forced fumbles, and 6.5 sacks.

Poles is confident that Eberflus’ system can elevate Edmunds and improve the linebacker’s ball production. Given the contract they gave the 24-year-old, that has to be the case.

The Bears’ signing of Davis also raised some eyebrows. Davis has only played right guard in his career, which means he’ll almost certainly open OTAs and training camp as the presumed starter at right guard. So, what does that mean for Teven Jenkins’ future in Chicago? Will the Bears move the third-year offensive lineman to left guard? Back to right tackle?

Jerking around your best offensive lineman is probably not the savviest move.

Speaking of the offensive line, Poles’ decision not to chase Orlando Brown Jr. due to scheme fit deserves some scrutiny. As a general rule, scheme fit should significantly influence free agency decisions. But when it comes to Brown, who would instantly improve the Bears’ pass protection in front of Fields, I think Poles should have been flexible.

Will Brown be the best at getting out to run block in the wide-zone scheme? No. But will his ability to stone pass-rushers help Fields feel more comfortable in the pocket and give the quarterback a good chance of elevating himself as a passer? Yes.

The Bears got better in free agency. Given the state of the 2022 roster, it would have been hard to get worse.

But the Bears didn’t address their two biggest weaknesses. They must now be nearly perfect in the early rounds of the NFL draft to fill some of those critical needs.

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