NFL free agency takeaways: Calvin Ridley throws a curve, Chargers make big decisions


Happy NFL New Year! With the start of the league’s 2024 comes time to make those early negotiations official and while there weren’t as many bombshells as the first two days, there were plenty of headlines. Most notably, Calvin Ridley found a new home with the Titans after it looked like a two-team race between the Patriots and Jaguars. The Raiders moved on from Hunter Renfrow and Jimmy Garoppolo, the Chargers parted ways with Mike Williams, Bobby Wagner is now a Commander, Morgan Moses returned to the Jets and signs point to Justin Jefferson staying put with the Vikings.

The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler, Mike Sando and Dan Pompei are back to give their thoughts on the latest in the league free-agency moves.

Live updates: Free-agent news from across the NFL
FA tracker: New teams and contract details for the top 150 free agents
Best available players: Who’s still on the market?
Grades: Best and worst of free-agent deals

What are your thoughts on the Calvin Ridley saga? All signs pointed to Jaguars and Patriots, then the Titans came out of nowhere. How surprised were you by that turn of events and did Tennessee overpay or get a good deal?

Pompei: In free agency, it isn’t unusual for a team to lay in the weeds until an opportune moment. The Titans had the financial wherewithal and the motivation to give new coach Brian Callahan the players he needs to make his offense work, so this isn’t stunning. Ridley should be an excellent fit in Tennessee. He has the potential to become an offensive centerpiece who helps lift Will Levis. Tough break for the Jaguars, though. He won’t be easy to replace.

Kahler: I expected Ridley to stay in Jacksonville, so this was surprising to me. Ridley is still building back to the player he was before being suspended for a season for gambling, and he’ll be a good veteran addition to help out Levis as he enters his first full season as Tennessee’s starting quarterback. The Titans’ new offense is legit. Picture Ridley and DeAndre Hopkins lined up wide with Tony Pollard and Tyjae Spears in the backfield.

Sando: Reports suggesting Ridley was weighing multiple offers and expected to sign for an expensive number appeared designed to leverage Jacksonville into offering more. Did Ridley really have a market elsewhere? He did. My initial read would be that the Jaguars weren’t willing to go as high as the Titans were willing to go.

The spotlight will be on Jim Harbaugh this season and his Chargers tenure has started with some big decisions, notably moving on from Mike Williams while keeping Khalil Mack. Austin Ekeler is out, Gus Edwards is in, among other moves. How are you feeling about the outlook for Harbaugh’s return season at this point?

Kahler: I think this will be a multi-year process, but I’m surprised at how active the Chargers were this week because they were in quite the cap crunch. And don’t forget they have the No. 5 pick to keep replenishing. Signing the 240-pound Gus Edwards and the blocking tight end Will Dissly makes it clear that Harbaugh is building a more physical team.

Pompei: Of course he will need some time to shape the roster in his image. But Harbaugh and the Chargers should be contenders in 2024. Even without Williams and Ekeler, Harbaugh has considerable talent. The Chargers were underachievers last season. And let’s not forget Harbaugh took a team that went 6-10 in San Francisco the year before he arrived and won 13 games. What will impact this team the most is the cultural shift and the development of Justin Herbert.

Sando: Harbaugh inherited a much more talented team in San Francisco when he took that job. He has a more talented quarterback this time, but the roster was going to require a reset this offseason no matter who coached the team. I see the Chargers improving in the standings and possibly reaching the playoffs, but probably not advancing once they get there.


Khalil Mack agreed to restructure his contract to stay with the Chargers after 17 sacks in 2023. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

What happens with the Jets if Aaron Rodgers is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s choice as vice-president running mate (and Rodgers accepts)? Can they hold down the fort with Tyrod Taylor as their starter until early November?

Kahler: I’m sorry, I’ve been too wrapped up in solving the disappearance of Kate Middleton to fully entertain this equally unbelievable storyline. But sure, if this takes Rodgers out, the Jets are finally built with a capable backup.

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Pompei: There is no way this is happening (right???!!!), but for the sake of conversation, we can safely say the Jets would be better prepared to handle a long-term absence of Rodgers in 2024 than they were in 2023. Part of that is Taylor is a better option than Zach Wilson and part of that is they would have a head start on preparing for a different quarterback. But it’s difficult to envision the Jets being one of the better teams in the AFC with Rodgers on the campaign trail.

Sando: I can’t answer this one with a straight face. And at this point, I’m not sure the Jets can hold down any forts even if Rodgers is playing.

Which team(s) do you think improved the most during the three-day negotiation period?

Sando: Very few moves in free agency really change a team’s outlook. The Falcons are the easy choice here simply because quarterbacks do change franchise trajectories. From a statistical standpoint, the way Kirk Cousins has played in his last 17 starts is worth about 2.5 more wins in a season than the way the Falcons’ quarterbacks played last season. That’s a pretty big shift.

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Pompei: The Buccaneers did as well as any team by retaining so many of their own big-ticket players — Baker Mayfield, Mike Evans, Antoine Winfield Jr., Lavonte David and Chase McLaughlin. But the Falcons made the most impactful additions, assuming Cousins can return to form after his Achilles injury. Quarterbacks of his pedigree rarely switch teams in free agency and can tilt the playing field. Signing Darnell Mooney should make Cousins and the Falcons’ offense even more effective.

Kahler: The Texans. We talk a lot about free-agency destinations, and which teams are attractive to sign with as free agents. Sometimes I think we make too much of that, because in the end, money talks louder than team culture, the ability to win or location. But Houston really caught my eye this week when they signed Danielle Hunter from Minnesota. He had 16.5 sacks last season, and pairing him with edge rusher Will Anderson will be dynamic. It seems like some of the attraction for Hunter to go to Houston would be the DeMeco Ryans appeal as a former defensive player and young head coach. Ryans also got his former linebacker in San Francisco, Azeez Al-Shaair, and defensive end Denico Autry. On the offensive side, Houston got running back Joe Mixon and retained tight end Dalton Schultz. I’m sure C.J. Stroud also has a little something to do with Houston being attractive. The H-town turnaround continues.

(Top photo of Calvin Ridley: David Rosenblum / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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