Happy Friday! It’s a new league year and free agency is in full swing. There’s loads to get to in this week’s issue:
- Which teams made a big splash this week and which ones failed to impress?
- Moves that stand out — for good and bad reasons
- Cheat sheet for every major move so far
Winners & Losers
Plenty of NFL general managers and fans will trash free agency and take glee in pointing out how dollars spent in the spring don’t equal wins in the fall. There’s a popular NFL saying that goes something along the lines of “Super Bowls aren’t won in March.” Some GM’s are philosophically opposed to spending in the first few days of free agency when there’s a wild feeding frenzy, touting the wisdom of drafting and developing. But while hitting on cheap draft picks is undoubtedly important, there are multiple ways to build a team.
Top Free Agent Spender in Last 5 Offseasons⁰ Win Change⁰2020 Dolphins +5⁰2019 Jets +3⁰2018 Bears +7⁰2017 Jaguars +7⁰2016 Giants +5
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 17, 2021
The Patriots are in fact are nearing the NFL record the Dolphins set last year for most guarantees handed out in free agency. They’ll be one of our winners so far in free agency but nearly every team got better this week by adding to its roster. Some took advantage of free agency more than others, though, and we dive into that with our winners and losers of free agency so far.
Bill Belichick had to swallow his medicine in 2020, dealing with the loss of Tom Brady, a poor cap situation handicapping how they could build the team, a wave of opt-outs and ultimately a 7-9 season that ended with him watching Brady hoist another Lombardi trophy. It wasn’t the type of season they were accustomed to having in New England. Belichick entered this offseason with a ton of cap space and a clear need to get the Patriots back into the upper echelon of the league where they’re used to being.
The result was a normally budget-conscious Belichick went on a spending spree we’ve never seen from him before, getting not just one but both of the top two tight ends projected to be available in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. That duo should form a facsimile of what the Patriots used to have in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and be a huge boon for Cam Newton or whoever else is under center in 2021.
The makeover continued on defense. Belichick splurged on an edge rusher for the first time in a long time by signing Matt Judon for more than $13 million a year and also brought back Kyle Van Noy after the Dolphins released him. He further bolstered the front with nose tackle Davon Godchaux and DE Henry Anderson while adding versatile DB Jalen Mills to the back end.
Odds are not all of these signings will be hits or age well. Eyebrows were raised when New England’s deal for WR Nelson Agholor was announced at $13 million a year — it’s still $11 million a year in base value which is huge for a guy who signed for the veteran minimum in free agency’s third wave last year. The only other addition they made to a wideout group that needs a lot of help is former 49ers No. 3 WR Kendrick Bourne.
But the Patriots unequivocally got better and we haven’t even mentioned the trade for mauling right tackle Trent Brown or the coup to bring back C David Andrews. The defense got some much-needed reinforcements and the offense got what it needs to play the way they want to through the running game and tight ends. They’re set up well for the draft and in a good position to challenge the Bills to take back the AFC East.
Joe Douglas’ first free agency as a general manager last offseason was largely a whiff. He set a reputation as a hard bargainer but didn’t get much from deals he struck for OL Greg Van Roten, George Fant and Connor McGovern aside from flexibility to get out of them. He was more willing to spend this year and while it’s unclear how it will turn out, it’s not hard to be happy with the Jets’ haul so far.
New York had the second-most cap space in the league and after sitting out the first day for the most part except to nab LB Jarrad Davis, the Jets kicked into gear on Day 2. Carl Lawson doesn’t have gaudy sack totals but he’s a favorite in a lot of league circles for his ability to create pressure. He’s a perfect fit in the Jets’ new 4-3 defensive scheme. New York also addressed a barren receiving corps by adding Corey Davis. Both players will just be 26 this year, so there’s some potential upside for the Jets here.
Douglas landed some of his trademark bargains as well, continuing to bolster the receiving corps with Keelan Cole, adding versatile OL Dan Feeney and taking a small gamble on former Raiders DB Lamarcus Joyner. Cole was a sleeper of ours and has some interesting upside but if just Davis and Lawson play to the potential they showed on their former teams, this free agent class will be a success.
Under HC Ron Rivera, Washington is quickly becoming a team on the rise. The team made the playoffs despite having a losing record in 2020 but the arrow is pointing up given how the team’s young players are developing and how strong they are in key areas, like the defensive line. Few teams improved as demonstrably as Washington did this week.
First, Washington signed CB William Jackson to replace departed CB Ronald Darby who landed a payday of his own with the Broncos. Jackson flashed a lot of potential in Cincinnati and there’s a good chance he can take another stride in Washington, as cornerbacks under Rivera’s watch have typically developed well.
Then Washington added a big boost to its offense by bringing WR Curtis Samuel over to join the rest of the ex-Panthers on the team. He and Washington WR Terry McLaurin were teammates at Ohio State and are reunited again. Both have legit 4.3 speed and will be a headache for defenses to defend.
The only question is who would be throwing them the ball. Quarterback was arguably the biggest thing that held Washington back in 2020, as they started four different quarterbacks. Washington answered that question by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to come in and compete for a starting job, though his contract suggests he’s the heavy favorite. Fitzpatrick has only gotten better with age and his bombs away style meshes perfectly with the receiving corps the team is building. He might not be the long-term answer but the rest of Washington’s roster is coming along nicely and will be ready for whoever is.
The Chargers had one main goal this offseason: build around QB Justin Herbert, especially on the offensive line where they needed four new starters. So far, so good, as Los Angeles landed All-Pro C Corey Linsley and steady former Steelers OL Matt Feiler.
That still leaves the left side of their line up in the air but there are options remaining. The Chargers could look to the draft, especially at left tackle, as well as potentially explore a trade for Ravens OT Orlando Brown. Guard should also be relatively easy to fill with how teams are de-emphasizing that position this offseason.
Beyond that, the Chargers have also made two strong moves by fending off other teams to keep CB Michael Davis in the fold, which became even more critical following the release of Casey Hayward. Los Angeles also added Jared Cook to replace Hunter Henry, and while that’s a downgrade, it also doesn’t leave the tight end position barren. It’s also notable that the Chargers were basically willing to let Henry leave, especially given his injury history.
On one hand, it’s not fair to call the Jaguars’ free agency so far a disaster. They’ve come away with some solid players, like CB Shaquill Griffin who should form a strong tandem with 2020 first-rounder C.J. Henderson. The Jaguars had the most cap space in the entire NFL entering a year when cap space was more valuable than ever before, however. With most of the first week of free agency in the books and things projected to slow down dramatically from here, it’s hard not to see this as a letdown so far for the Jaguars.
Griffin can be an upper-tier starter and Jenkins is a solid, if not spectacular, option. Marvin Jones is also a solid receiver. But he was seen as a clear tier below guys like Samuel, Davis, Will Fuller and Kenny Golladay, guys the Jaguars had the money to make a run at.
New HC Urban Meyer has talked about building through the trenches and that showed with the signings of guys like Roy Robertson-Harris, Tyson Alualu and Jihad Ward plus the trade and new deal for DT Malcom Brown, all of whom are underrated. Again, though, Jacksonville had the room to make a bigger splash and add more established impact players and deferred.
What the Jaguars did with their cap space instead was splurge on mid to low-tier free agents, backups and role players. Special teamer Rudy Ford got $2.1 million. Backup RB Carlos Hyde got up to $6 million over two seasons. Rotational DE Dawuane Smoot got $5.5 million a year. Blocking-only TE Chris Manhertz got more than $3 million per on his multi-year deal. Return man Jamal Agnew got nearly $5 million per year on a three-year deal that could be worth a staggering $21 million in total. Even Brown, Ward and Robertson-Harris are arguably overpaid for what they’ve produced so far.
One by one, none of these deals are that glaring of a mistake — except for Agnew, that’s still a baffling amount for a return man. In totality though, that’s almost $20 million on the Jaguars’ books for not a lot of impact. It’s hard to argue that money couldn’t have been better spent.
There are moves the Raiders have made this offseason that I like. Getting DE Yannick Ngakoue for just $13 million a year has the potential to look good the next couple of seasons. Ngakoue may have been exposed as more of a specialist player the past season or so but he still is very good at getting sacks and that’s something the Raiders desperately need. The additions of WR John Brown, DL Quinton Jefferson and DL Solomon Thomas aren’t bad, either, though Jefferson and Thomas are arguably a bit overpaid.
What is really perplexing about the Raiders this offseason is how they decided to nuke the biggest strength of the team and dismantle their offensive line. They traded away three starters who may have been on the pricey side but were giving Las Vegas their money’s worth for the most part. Even RT Trent Brown’s injuries seemed to be largely flukish, as he was sidelined by COVID-19 and an IV accident last year.
Regardless, out go Brown, G Gabe Jackson and C Rodney Hudson. Richie Incognito, Denzelle Good, John Simpson and former Texans C Nick Martin are the four linemen currently penciled in to start to the right of LT Kolton Miller. That’s a big downgrade, and for a quarterback who’s thrived as much in a clean pocket as Derek Carr has, it’s a worrying sign.
Oh, and the Raiders just tossed two years and $11 million guaranteed at RB Kenyan Drake despite already having Josh Jacobs in the fold. Prioritizing running back over the offensive line seems to me like literally putting the cart before the horse.
No matter what, the Bears were going to be in a difficult position this offseason. They have a defense that’s been good to outstanding the past few seasons but is springing leaks faster than can be plugged, as tends to happen. They have a decades-long problem at quarterback, no high draft pick to fix it with, and other issues on the offensive line and receiving corps. To wrap it all up, they have a coach and general manager under intense pressure to win to save their jobs this season.
Bears GM Ryan Pace deserves some credit — just some — for trying, making a run at Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and others. But the NFL is a results-based league and the results are ugly for the Bears this offseason.
Their plan at quarterback right now looks like some combination of Nick Foles and Andy Dalton. They had to cut CB Kyle Fuller and DT Akiem Hicks looks like he’s next out the door, depriving them of two crucial defensive starters. Allen Robinson signed the franchise tag, saddling them with nearly $18 million on a depressed 2021 cap, and negotiations have not gone well to this point.
Frankly at this point, it’s difficult to see how Pace and potentially Nagy are going to be able to rescue themselves from this morass of their own making. The Bears are a team that’s desperately in need of a teardown and rebuild. That might be coming by this time next year.
Teams can’t maintain the status quo in the NFL. If they’re not looking for ways to get better and improve, they’re begging to be left behind. Using that lens to evaluate free agency, there are a couple teams that fall short and that have so far gotten worse. The Bengals are in that group.
Granted, there is still plenty of time and lots of quality free agents still remaining. But evaluating strictly off the moves that have happened so far, the Bengals have taken a half step backward if anything.
Both Lawson and Jackson walked out the door to more lucrative deals. Cincinnati essentially gave the same average salary with fewer guarantees to former Saints DE Trey Hendrickson to replace Lawson. Hendrickson had more sacks last season with 13.5, but that more than doubled his career total to that point and Lawson’s advanced stats like pressure rate were much better.
At corner, the Bengals replaced Jackson with slot corner Mike Hilton and former Cowboys second-rounder Chidobe Awuzie. Both are talented and have shown potential but again it’s hard to say they represent an upgrade over Jackson, who flashed star potential with the Bengals at times.
Getting Larry Ogunjobi from the Browns was a nice addition to the interior of their line but the Bengals still haven’t addressed the offensive line which was their top priority after losing No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow to a season-ending knee injury last year. There’s the draft but they could really use some veteran experience up front. They have time to find it but the pressure is on after they struck out on other top free-agent options.
Top Ten: Five Moves I Loved & Five I Didn’t
Time will tell on all of these, and the goal is to do a more comprehensive free agency grades write up at some point in the future. But these moves stuck out to me both positively and negatively this week.
Panthers sign Haason Reddick for one year, $6 million
The Temple connection strikes again, as Panthers HC Matt Rhule brings in another one of his former players. There should be no concerns about a scheme fit with Rhule and Reddick, who finally seems to have figured things out with 12.5 sacks in a breakout fourth season. The gravy on top of this is the contract, as Carolina is risking relatively little to bring in another high-potential pass rusher. Should they end up trading DE Brian Burns in any potential deal for Watson, Reddick would slide right into his role.
Ravens sign G Kevin Zeitler for three years, $22 million
Baltimore desperately missed future HOF G Marshal Yanda in 2020 and they take a stab at a replacement in Zeitler who’s not quite that good but is miles better than anyone they rolled out last season. Zeitler’s a hard-nosed player who’s perfect for the Ravens’ system and accustomed to slugging it out in the AFC North. The nice little cherry on top for the Ravens is that Zeitler doesn’t affect the compensatory pick formula due to being released by the Giants.
Cardinals trade a third-round pick for C Rodney Hudson
Arizona adds another impact lineman and takes advantage of whatever is going on with the Raiders to land one of the best centers in the league. Center has been a problem spot for Arizona recently and now becomes one of the strongest positions on the roster. The Cardinals weren’t quite as strong in the trenches as they needed to be last season to meet expectations and this is a step toward changing that this season.
Titans moves on defense
Tennessee put a lot of effort into its defense last season and got almost nothing to show for it. So in many ways, the Titans look like they’re starting over after cutting CB Malcolm Butler, S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Adoree’ Jackson. Tennessee used the savings to sign:
- OLB Bud Dupree ($16.5M/year)
- DL Denico Autry ($7M/year)
- CB Janoris Jenkins (unknown)
- CB Kevin Johnson (unknown)
Obviously there’s some risk there with injury (Dupree and Johnson) and age (Jenkins and Autry) but overall I really like the potential of those moves. The Titans clearly didn’t like their defense from last season and all four of these players have a history of at least some success. They fill needs and bring a tough, hard-nosed edge to fit the identity of HC Mike Vrabel.
Dolphins sign CB Justin Coleman to one-year, $2.75 million deal
Slot corner was a weak point for the Dolphins last season. 2020 first-round CB Noah Igbinoghene struggled with the move inside and Nik Needham is someone who can be upgraded from. Coleman played like one of the best nickels in the league at one point and was paid like it by the Lions.
Last year wasn’t a healthy environment for any secondary player in Detroit, however, and Coleman struggled. If he can recapture his previous form in Miami, this deal will represent a huge steal and could help take the Dolphins’ ferocious defense to an even higher level.
Viking sign DT Dalvin Tomlinson for two years, $22 million
Tomlinson is a good player, but he’s a nose tackle and the Vikings already have a nose tackle they paid good money to in free agency last year in Michael Pierce even though he was a high-risk opt out of this past season. Pierce had the same thought when the signing came through and called the coaching staff to check his standing.
What he was told, and what the Vikings have made clear publicly and privately, is that though Tomlinson has the body and skillset of a nose tackle, the plan is to play him at three-technique. The Athletic’s Arif Hasan has a piece that dives into tremendous details of the pros and cons of this plan, but the summary is that while it might help the Vikings against the run, it will hurt against the pass and defending that is more important.
It’s a weird year to need a defensive tackle with a weak draft class projected to be coming in April but there’s still an argument the Vikings would have been better served going after a variety of other options like Kawann Short, Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson or Jurrell Casey rather than spending a huge chunk of their precious cap space on Tomlinson.
Panthers’ first-wave OL signings
The Panthers rushed out of the gate on Monday and made two signings to bolster their offensive line. Good thought process, questionable execution, as their targets were former Jets and Vikings OL Pat Elflein (three years, $13.5 million) and Cowboys reserve OL Cameron Erving (two years $10 million). Both deals included $6 million guaranteed, which is a lot to pay potential reserve offensive linemen in a year where the cap is $16 million lower than last year.
And if Elflein and Erving were brought in to be starters at guard and left tackle potentially, that’s even worse, as neither have been good players at nearly any point in their careers. The best thing both bring to the table is flexibility. Elflein can play all three interior positions and Erving is a legitimate five-tool offensive lineman. Flexibility is only really useful if you can play, though…
Cardinals sign WR A.J. Green for one year, $8 million
Perhaps I’m scarred by the experience of having Green on my fantasy team the past two seasons. But I can’t shake these two numbers: 104 and 47. The former is the number of targets Green had, the latter is the number he was actually able to haul in.
Maybe it was just an inability to get on the same page as a rookie quarterback and shaking off a lot of rust, but Green also just looked plain done last year. His separation metrics were among the worst in the league and relying on him to be anything more than a possession receiver seems foolish. Arizona is giving him $8 million, suggesting a role as a potential No. 2 in their offense, though. We’ll see, but I’ve been burned by Green too many times to expect anything different.
Rams re-sign OLB Leonard Floyd to four-year, $64 million extension
Bringing Floyd back as their main edge rusher was the top priority for the Rams this offseason after his breakout 10.5 sack season in 2020. They were able to accomplish that goal but at a steep cost, giving him a deal worth $16 million a year for the next four years.
There are a couple of reasons this deal stands out negatively for me. The edge rusher market was loaded this offseason and the only player to sign for more than Floyd was Dupree. Judon, Ngakoue, Hendrickson, Lawson all got between $13-$15 million a year and it’s not clear that Floyd is a better player than all of them. Not to mention there are a number of talented pass rushers who remain unsigned like Carlos Dunlap, Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan, Melvin Ingram, Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith.
While the Rams were familiar with Floyd and his fit in their defense, 2020 was only the second of his five seasons that he finished with more than five sacks. It was also a career-high in total pressures as calculated by PFF, including sacks, hits and hurries, and his previous four seasons all hovered in the 36-39 range for pressures. The potential for Floyd to turn into a lemon plus the wealth of other options make me feel like this wasn’t a great deal for the Rams.
Cowboys re-sign CB Jourdan Lewis for $5.5 million a year
Dallas hasn’t done a lot of spending this offseason aside from locking up their quarterback. They made Lewis the other exception, re-signing him to a three-year, $16.5 million deal and guaranteeing about half of that figure.
It’s a bit of a curious decision given that Lewis was Pro Football Focus’ 107th-ranked corner out of 121 qualifying players in 2020 and was part of a Cowboys defense that was shredded almost weekly. He was better in previous seasons but only as a part-time player. Even if he gets back to that level, this still feels like an overpay.
Big Picture: Free Agency Tracker
Taking inspiration from ESPN reporter Mike Clay’s offseason cheat sheet, here’s a big picture look at all the action that’s taken place in free agency so far:
This Week In Football
- Free agency dominated the news cycle but there were still some other happenings this past week. Most notably, after keeping everyone on edge, Saints QB Drew Brees finally officially put a pin in what’s been a legendary career, 15 years to the day from when he signed with the Saints as a free agent. As someone who personally roots for the Panthers, I’ve considered the Saints one of their fiercest rivals over the past several years. But I could never muster much of anything besides begrudging respect for Brees. He was too good.
- With Brees gone, the job of replacing him will now fall to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. Winston re-signed with the team to a deal that can be worth as much as $12 million but has a base value of closer to $5 million. Hill meanwhile restructured his contract to add void years and help create space to sign Winston. In a classic troll move, the Saints gave Hill base salaries of $35 million in those void years, which he’ll of course never see. Winston and Hill will compete for the starting job in training camp.
- As Brees retires at the age of 42, Buccaneers QB Tom Brady signed another extension to take him through his age 45 season in 2022. The deal technically includes void years to spread out the cap hit but Brady has started hinting that he would be open to playing even longer than the age of 45, which is already unprecedented. At this point, it’s impossible to bet against him.
- Continuing our trip around the NFC South, the Panthers continue to be linked to a serious pursuit of Texans QB Deshaun Watson via trade. In fact the Athletic’s Joe Person calls Watson “plan A, B and C” for the Panthers. The recent news about an investigation into Watson over allegations of sexual assault raise the question, though, what is plan D? It probably involves Teddy Bridgewater, who remains under contract. It’s a good bet that Carolina would look hard at trading up in the draft for whichever quarterback is the apple of their eye this year should the situation with Watson escalate or the Texans continue to rebuff a trade.
- Finally, the Falcons raised some eyebrows with their decision to restructure QB Matt Ryan’s contract to get under the salary cap for 2021. The move freed up a huge chunk of cap space, $14 million to be precise, but it also makes it harder to move on from Ryan in future seasons by increasing his dead cap hit those years. Atlanta had some other levers to pull to create cap space so it’s interesting that this is the path they chose. It’s something to think about when evaluating if they’ll take a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick.
- In a similar vein, the Eagles reportedly decided to restructure G Brandon Brooks‘ salary to create cap space. Brooks’ name had come up in trade numbers but a restructure makes it more unlikely Philadelphia pulls the trigger, as it decreases the amount of cap space they’d save by making a move.
- As teams across the league make tough cuts to shed salary, the Broncos surprised some people and exercised their team option to keep OLB Von Miller. The option guaranteed $7 million of Miller’s $18 million that he’s due in 2021 and makes it more likely Denver keeps their star pass rusher. The Broncos had approached him about doing something to lower his salary but without any real threat of a release, Miller had no incentive to do that.
- It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Vikings DE Danielle Hunter. His agent hinted last season they were unhappy with the contract Hunter signed just a couple of years ago that has since been nearly doubled by the edge rusher market. Hunter’s camp once again made it clear he’s willing to stir the pot unless things are addressed. He still has three years left on his deal and doesn’t have the best leverage coming off a year in which he didn’t play due to a neck injury, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
- The trade block got a couple of new names this week. The biggest was Jets LB C.J. Mosley, who was one of the jewels of New York’s free-agent class two years ago but has barely played since then due to a groin injury and opting out of this past year. Other teams have called the Jets about Mosley and you’d have to think they’d jump at the chance to unload his salary and further wash their hands of the Mike Maccagnan era.
- A pair of young receivers from recent draft classes who haven’t been good fits with their current teams have also hit the block. The Patriots have taken calls on former first-round WR N’Keal Harry and they could continue their receiver makeover by dealing him. The Bears are also shopping former second-round WR Anthony Miller and at this point he seems likely to be traded as Chicago continues to search for answers at that position.
- Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew has been lost among all of the quarterback drama this offseason. But he’s looked good in spurts as a starter and is set to lose his job to incoming No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. As a former sixth-round pick, his contract is nothing prohibitive to keep around as a backup. But if the Jaguars wanted to get a more veteran voice in the room with Lawrence, they could look to flip Minshew and by the sounds of it they would have a market. The Bears were one of the teams linked to Minshew.