“Winning” NFL free agency can be defined in many ways in a given offseason. The 2021 edition that kicked off Monday afternoon is no different.
A team can have a lot of money under the salary cap with some key needs, and it can spend well to address them in some form. Another team can spend enough to keep its own key free agents for this year and beyond. Another team can make a few calculated moves, focusing on good value and quality vs. quantity. Yet another team can win by just not overspending on overrated players just to overspend.
Don’t forget the ones who are getting paid in all this — those players. Some are fortunate to be in positions of high demand, which help them maximize their new contract values.
On the flip side of all that is what defines who “loses” in free agency. Although the final grades and verdicts won’t be determined until assessing how the players ultimately perform, there is room for early rapid reaction. Here’s the best and worst of free agency so far:
NFL FREE AGENCY 2021: Ranking the top 50 players available
NFL free agency winners & losers 2021
Winners: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs took care of a Tom Brady extension and a Lavonte David new deal. They opened up some now and future cap space in the process. They also franchise-tagged Chris Godwin and got Shaquil Barrett to accept a bit of a discount to stay (thanks Florida tax laws). Then they brought back Rob Gronkowski and are working hard to make sure Antonio Brown and Ndamukong Suh stay, too. What losses? The Super Bowl 55 champions have stayed as strong as the day they dominated the Chiefs.
Now the veteran Bucs will have more winning experience together and their younger players will continue to improve Guess who the Super Bowl 56 clear favorites are with the GOAT again?
Winners: New England Patriots
The Patriots added tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith as their offensive headliners, but also landed right tackle Trent Brown (again) and wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Defensively, it wasn’t just former Ravens edge rusher Matthew Judon, but also nose tackle Davon Godchaux and versatile defensive back Jalen Mills. They also feel better about Cam Newton as a returning bridge QB solution with extra help and kept some other key defensive pieces. They chose not to keep guard Joe Thuney, reinvesting resources in more offensive skill.
Regardless, this offense looks a lot more diverse and dangerous and there’s no shortage of depth on every level of the defense between young and old players. Bill Belichick recognized the need for an aggressive overhaul to field a much more competitive AFC team than 7-9 post Brady. He got that, with the draft and the rest of the offseason still on deck.
Losers: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks haven’t traded Russell Wilson, but they haven’t patched things up, either. And now they’re sitting by as other teams upgrade offensive lines for their QBs and they lose some more of their own defensive punch. The Cardinals (J.J. Watt) made a big move and the 49ers are trying to keep whatever reasonable key guys they can. The Rams kept Leonard Floyd and got Matthew Stafford. Seattle, as division champions, have been quiet in relation to the rest of the NFC West.
Losers: Houston Texans
The Texans have added Mark Ingram, Chris Moore, Justin McCray and Marcus Cannon to the offense. They’ve added Shaq Lawson, Maliek Collins, Derek Rivers, Vincent Taylor, Christian Kirksey, Joe Thomas, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Terrance Mitchell and Terrence Brooks to their defense. Don’t forget about Andre Roberts on special teams. Somehow, only three of those players (McCray, Collins and Pierre-Louis) are positioned to start. Why does Deshaun Watson want out again?
Winners: New York Jets
There was some early bummer feelings when the Jets couldn’t land an elite offensive lineman, but they rebounded with the nice 1-2 offensive-defensive punch of wide receiver Corey Davis and defensive end Carl Lawson. Davis keeps them a potential No. 1 for whoever’s QB to complement speedy youngster Denzel Mims, while Lawson gives them a much-needed pass-rusher to anchor their new 4-3 with Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich.
Losers: Jacksonville Jaguars
Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke are an interesting new decision-making combination. Their best move so far wasn’t super-splashy ahead of drafting Trevor Lawrence, as Marvin Jones Jr. is a solid No. 2. They also did OK to address cornerback with former Seahawk Shaquill Griffin, but they overpaid a little to get him. The rest of the defensive haul was this: Roy Robertson-Harris, Jihad Ward and Tyson Alualu up front, Rayshawn Jenkins and Rudy Ford for safety. Running back Carlos Hyde, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, return man Jamal Agnew and tight end Chris Manhertz were the other offensive additions. There was some spending just to spend here, and it was weird, with all their cap space, that the Jags acted more like they were in the fourth or fifth wave of free agency rather than the first.
MORE: SN’s latest mock draft | Big board of top 50 prospects
Winners: New Orleans Saints
The Saints did some ol’ cap magic with their salaries to keep Marcus Williams for their defense. They also lined up Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston well for a strong competition in the race to replace retired Drew Brees. Somehow, they also might not be done with impact moves and it was good they let someone else overspend on Trey Hendrickson.
Losers: Tennessee Titans
Bud Dupree was a decent get for the pass rush and Denico Autry will boost the defensive line rotation. But they lost two key pieces on offense for Ryan Tannehill when the Patriots signed Smith and the Jets signed Davis. They also released Adam Humphries well before free agency. The Titans are now desperate for better complementary receiving pieces to No. 1 wideout A.J. Brown.
Winners: Top tight ends
Henry got $3 years and $37.5 million from the Patriots, while Smith also averaged $12.5 million per season with his 4 years at $50 million. Don’t forget about Gronkowski getting another cool $10 million to keep playing with Brady and chase another ring with his buddy.
Losers: Indianapolis Colts
While the rest of the AFC South has been making some signings, the Colts, despite some pursuits and having a good chunk of money under the salary cap, have been very quiet over the first two days-plus, both with in-house and outside free agents.
Losers: Cincinnati Bengals
Call them the anti-Browns when it comes to free agency. Bengals spent a combined $84 million over 8 years to get defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who spiked to a career-high 13.5 sacks with the Saints last season and former Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton, who replaces last year’s one-and-done free-agent addition Mackensie Alexander in the slot. At the same time, the Bengals saw Lawson leave for the Jets and chose not to sign their top corner, William Jackson II. The Bengals also missed out on offensive line target Thuney, who ended up with Patrick Mahomes instead of Joe Burrow.
Winners: Cleveland Browns
The Browns haven’t done much, but they hit a home run by adding former Rams safety John Johnson on a great contract at 3 years, $33-plus million. They also took a good flier on former Raiders and Falcons Takk McKinley disappointment for their pass rush. Cleveland is making sensible moves instead of sensational ones. One cannot argue with Andrew Berry’s results so far.
Losers: Top wide receivers
Davis got paid, but after Godwin and Allen Robinson got the franchise tag, it’s been a wait for Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Curtis Samuel and Marvin Jones Jr. Fading big names T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green will likely need to wait a long while. This is happening because of a very strong first-round wideout class plus teams focused on other positions where there’s less viable volume.
Winners: Offensive linemen
Thuney got 5 years for $80 million with the Chiefs, while former Packers center Corey Linsley will go to work snapping for the Chargers’ Justin Herbert at 5 years, $62.5 million. Don’t forget about Kevin Zeitler rebounding with the Ravens at 3 years, $22 million. Before free agency, Washington’s Brandon Scherff and Carolina’s Taylor Moton were franchise-tagged, while Buffalo took care of Darryl Williams. Trent Williams also got a record deal to return to the 49ers on Day 3 (6 years, $138 million) as a still-elite veteran left tackle, joining newly signed center Alex Mack.
Losers: Running backs
Insert re-signed Packers feature back Aaron Jones into “the Fresh Prince looks around an empty room” meme. No, 49ers re-signed fullback Kyle Juszczyk doesn’t count here. Neither do guys such as Hyde, Ingram, Devontae Booker. Chris Carson, Leonard Fournette, Kenyan Drake, James Conner, James White and Mike Davis were among those valuable guys trying to find new teams deep into Day 2.
Winners: Top edge rushers
Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney are still out there, partly tied to recent durability issues and age. But soon Haason Reddick and Justin Houston will join the fun, which already has rewarded Barrett, Watt, Judon, Dupree, Hendrickson, Lawson, Floyd, Yannick Ngakoue and Romeo Okwara for a combined total contract value of more than $400 million.
Losers: Top cornerbacks
Hilton (Bengals, Griffin (Jaguars), Jackson (Washington), Ronald Darby (Broncos) all got on the board, but top cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Troy Hill, Desmond King and Patrick Peterson were all waiting early in free agency. There’s also plenty of good subpackage depth still available.
Winner: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Look, he’s always a winner for his personality, intelligence and beard-growing skills. But now add a ninth NFL team to his punch card, the Washington Football Team. He’s sticking around the league at age 38, making another $10 million on a 1-year deal. If there’s such a thing as a bridge quarterbacking legend, Fitzpatrick is the very model of modern major field general.
Losers: Chicago Bears
Andy Dalton “won” by getting the same $10 million on a 1-year deal as a bridge quarterback Fitzpatrick did But this move suggests the Bears gave up on trying to sell the house to get either Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson. And accepting they needed someone who simply wasn’t Nick Foles or a re-signed Mitchell Trubisky. And realizing they won’t get a top QB in the first round of the draft. Some teams seem to get all the breaks with quarterbacks. Chicago isn’t one of them.
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