It’s been one week since the legal tampering period unofficially began the 2021 NFL free agency period. The first wave is always action-packed. That’s because there is already a week’s worth of speculation and fans worked into a lather. By the time free agency officially opens, we have a pretty good idea on a number of deals and the frenzy only grows from there.
It must be said, no team wins the Super Bowl in March (or April or any month that isn’t February really). Still, there were clear winners and losers of this first run on the open market. Some earned their designation through shrewd activity while others watched the world pass them by.
Winners and Losers of the First Wave of 2021 NFL Free Agency
We’re about six weeks out from the NFL Draft but free agency in the NFL is in full effect. By the time the new crop of NFL players gets set to hear their name called, we should have a better picture of who’s landing where and why. Please note, “better” does not mean we’ll know for sure, but it’ll be a heck of a lot easier both in predictions and in the aftermath when explaining picks.
New England Patriots
Let’s just get this out of the way, there is definitely some bias implicit in this ranking. Cam Newton is a personal favorite and the thought of the Patriots actually trying this season with him at the helm is intriguing. Now, this isn’t to say New England won’t be drafting a quarterback early on. But Cam will get a crack with the new pieces Bill Belichick has put around him.
Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne received deals worth a combined $48.5 million which had everyone up in arms. So much so that the additions of tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith (combined $87.5 million, $56.25 guaranteed). Did they pay a premium? Yes. But how soon we forget what Belichick can do with two dynamic pass-catchers running up the seams.
This isn’t just about outside additions, either. New England lost nine of 11 defensive starters to opt-outs last season. Many of those players are returning including one Dont’a Hightower. His presence alone in the middle of that unit should uplift a defense that still ranked seventh in points and 15th in yards. Add in Matthew Judon and the return of Kyle Van Noy and there might be something cooking up in Foxboro.
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team has undergone a major facelift, even if it remains to be seen if the inner-workings have taken to the changes. Still, on the field, the Football Team (which they will be called for the foreseeable future) should be much improved after winning the NFC East last season at 7-9. They’ll certainly have a little magic.
Ryan Fitzpatrick joins his ninth team in his 17th season on a one-year $10 million deal that could be worth up to $12 million. Fitzmagic will have a new weapon joining stud wide receiver Terry McLaurin in former Carolina Panthers receiver, Curtis Samuel (3yr/$34.5 million). He’s coming off a season in which he set career-highs in catches and yards. Retaining Brandon Scherff might be the best move of all.
They didn’t ignore their stellar defense either, signing cornerback William Jackson away from the Bengals on a three-year $40.5 million deal with $26 million in guarantees. He’ll join Kendall Fuller and should allow a little more flexibility in coverage than his predecessor Ronald Darby. And with their stellar defensive front, they could once again be the team to beat in the division.
Los Angeles Rams
This is more about quality than quantity, as the Rams only made two outside additions, and one was via trade. But when that trade brings back a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford it’s worth noting. Jared Goff got paid a couple of years ago but, ultimately, he was a limiting factor for an offense that ranked 11th in yards and 22nd in points.
Stafford has spent the entirety of his 12-year career toiling away in Detroit. This has to be like hitting the lottery. The Rams offense is just a year removed from ranking second in both points and yards and two years from being the highest-scoring act in the league. His Lions offenses never ranked higher than third in yards or fourth in points and were incredibly imbalanced.
L.A. brought DeSean Jackson home as their other outside addition. He’ll theoretically help to stretch the field but he’s only appeared in eight games total over the past two seasons. Leonard Floyd re-signing is the more impactful decision after his career-high 10.5 sacks for the league’s top-ranked defense.
Not all free agency activity is created equal. Some have criticized the amount of the deals given to Kenny Golladay or Bud Dupree. But both of those moves at least have a shot at paying off big in areas of need for the Giants and Titans, respectively. The Bears big move was signing Andy Dalton to a one-year, $10 million deal that could get up to $13 million.
Some are calling Dalton a competent starter but his interception rate has been over 2.4 in all but two of his 10 seasons. His penchant for turning the ball over (he threw eight interceptions in 11 games with nine starts for the Cowboys last season) and lack of mobility would seem to be the antithesis of what Chicago needs at the position. They franchised Allen Robinson though.
The defense didn’t miss out on the fun as it saw Kyle Fuller released, not traded, and replaced by the oft-injured Desmond Trufant. Mario Edwards returns and they add Jeremiah Attaochu as nice depth pieces. But, after all the build-up over a Russell Wilson trade, this was a big letdown.
Baltimore had one job. One. That was to get Lamar Jackson a number one wide receiver. They can be excused for not retaining Matt Judon and all of his six sacks. The money paid to Kevin Zeitler is fine; they missed Marshal Yanda last season. But not addressing the wide receiver room in free agency is borderline criminal.
They went after JuJu Smith-Schuster but he took less to stay put. Yes, this draft class is deep at receiver but the position usually takes time to develop. Golladay would have been perfect fits for this group with Marquise Brown on the outside and Mark Andrews down the seams. But even some of the lesser names like Marvin Jones or Corey Davis would have been nice additions.
Baltimore is also in danger of losing Orlando Brown due to a contract dispute. This is shaping up as a regressive offseason for the Ravens. Maybe they add T.Y. Hilton, who would be nice in this offense, but they’d still need a big body on the outside. And this says nothing of their waning pass-rush.
Best and Worst of 2021 NFL Free Agency
This is just the first wave of free agency and we still have the 2021 NFL Draft yet to come. So we’ll check back in to see where things stand then. But these are the teams that have had the best and worst free agency periods.