The 2021 NFL free agency deals are starting to pour in, with the New England Patriots spending big money to build up their roster and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doing their best to retain their Super Bowl champion core. Numerous top players on the market have agreed to terms for 2021 and beyond. Which contracts stand out so far, and what have we learned from three days of players headed to new teams?
The negotiating period began on Monday with huge deals for pass-rushers on the market, and free agency officially opened on Wednesday. New England has been the headline so far, agreeing to new contracts for the two top tight ends on the market — Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith — a pair of wide receivers in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, pass-rusher Matthew Judon and defensive back Jalen Mills, among others. Are they the early winners of the free-agency period?
Our expert crew weighs in on free agency, including the biggest surprises so far, the most curious team approaches, the Patriots’ busy week with their checkbook, the Bucs’ chances of repeating after returning Shaquil Barrett and others, what to make of the massive deals we’ve seen for pass-rushers so far and how some quarterbacks on new deals might fare in 2021. Check back all week for more reactions to this offseason’s free-agent frenzy.
Outside of the Patriots’ spending spree, what has surprised you the most about free agency so far?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: The length of the free-agent deals. We are seeing more two- and three-year contracts with players in their prime years, as opposed to four- or five-year deals. However, with the anticipation that the cap rises because of the new TV deal, these players will be in a position to hit free agency again with more prime earning years left.
Mike Clay, NFL analyst: A lack of action from the Indianapolis Colts, a 2020 playoff team and potential 2021 AFC contender that sits near the top of the league in cap space. So far, Indianapolis is at a net loss, having seen Denico Autry (division-rival Titans) and Jacoby Brissett (Dolphins) sign elsewhere. I know GM Chris Ballard isn’t known for irresponsible spending, but the Colts have a rare window to add star players with an already solid roster. I’m curious to see what they do in the coming days.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: I’m shocked at how almost no one seems to be blinking at the legitimately huge numbers in the contract the San Francisco 49ers gave left tackle Trent Williams. He is an undeniably great player, but he’s also turning 33 this summer and hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2013. We should at least consider the fact that this deal could cause the 49ers some long-term pain.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: The slow-moving receiver market. I get it: There’s a great class of rookies incoming. But we’re talking about what is likely the second-most valuable position in the sport, so it’s surprising to me that someone as talented as Kenny Golladay remains unemployed at midday on Wednesday.
Which team has had the most confusing approach to free agency so far?
Bowen: Las Vegas Raiders. Adding defensive end Yannick Ngakoue should be looked at as a “plus” move for Vegas. They need a difference-maker up front, and Ngakoue has disruptive traits as a pass-rusher. But I’m still trying to figure out why the Raiders dismantled the offensive line. With Trent Brown being traded to New England, and the Raiders looking to move on from both Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson, Vegas now has vital spots to fill for an offense that wants to run downhill power under coach Jon Gruden.
Clay: Las Vegas Raiders. One of the strengths of the 2020 Raiders — a near-playoff team — was their offensive line. They’ve almost completely torn it down in recent days, including the bizarre trade of Hudson. They’ve also yet to replace any of Hudson, Jackson, Richie Incognito or Brown. Ngakoue and wide receiver John Brown were solid adds, but holes remain throughout this roster, including defensive tackle, corner, safety, offensive skill position depth and, of course, along the offensive line. GM Mike Mayock has a ton of work to do.
Seifert: New England Patriots. They are in part capitalizing on a depressed market in a year where they had excess cap space. But were it anyone but Bill Belichick at the controls, the condemnation would be nearly universal. Loading up on high-priced free agents like this rarely works. The Patriots have successfully identified specific targets in their past, most recently cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but they’ve never tried it in such volume — for good reason.
Adam Schefter reports on the Seahawks’ reluctance to trade Russell Wilson right now, adding that the Bears made several inquiries about the QB.
Walder: Chicago Bears. The moves not made — plus burning $10 million on Andy Dalton — display a lack of awareness about how far away this team is from contending. Checking in on Russell Wilson was worthwhile, but Plan B should have been blowing it all up (I’d start by dealing Khalil Mack) to set themselves up for 2022 and beyond. Instead, they’re showing a remarkable commitment to subpar football.
What is your gut reaction to the Patriots’ spending spree?
Bowen: It is completely out of character for the Patriots to spend big at the start of free agency. However, they are addressing critical needs here on both sides of the ball. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith give New England the opportunity to create stress for opposing defenses out of 12 personnel, while wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne will allow the Pats to stretch the field vertically. And on defense, Matthew Judon has the traits to be a productive pass-rusher in Bill Belichick’s schemed multiple fronts, while defensive back Jalen Mills can play multiple spots in the New England secondary.
Clay: I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed, but it does remind me of what Buffalo has done the past few offseasons, building a winning roster by adding solid role players. Sure, the Henry and Smith duo is intriguing. But the likes of Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Bourne and Agholor have primarily worked as rotational/depth players throughout their careers. Mills’ play has been inconsistent, and Judon has been a solid but unspectacular edge rusher. The Patriots are better on paper, but I’m not sure they’re a playoff team. That will likely depend on how well Cam Newton plays.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: It had to be done. This is New England’s way of getting right, acknowledging the draft alone won’t fix this roster. And some of these contracts will be obsolete in two years when the gambling money kicks in. I’m not sure about all the signings, but getting two premier tight ends forces defenses to play the run and pass without substituting.
Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter: It’s a balance between “Are they smarter than the rest of the NFL?” and “Will they regret straying so far from the draft/develop/re-sign philosophy that has proved to be the best approach for sustainable success?” I understand their strategy: The cap goes down, better in-their-prime players hit the market because of it, there’s less competition to sign them, their cap space is abundant and the future cap is going to spike. So in the end, I give Belichick the benefit of the doubt. He has earned it.
Seifert: They recognized the unique buyer’s market caused by the (presumed) one-time drop in the salary cap. The Patriots knew their roster needed to improve, but this seemed to be an attempt to capitalize on market forces as much as anything.
Walder: Two good tight ends on a New England offense again? Yes, you bet I’m intrigued. Overall this was a needed revamp to a lacking roster. I don’t love every move — that’s a high average annual value for Agholor — but in general it makes sense to be a buyer when so many teams are cap-strapped. I especially like the Judon signing.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: They’re a decidedly more talented team than they were 24 hours ago. I’ll hold off on a full evaluation until seeing the full details of the deals, but the Patriots had no interest in waiting around to improve a roster that needed it where they addressed.
Are the Buccaneers the Super Bowl favorites after they brought back all of their core?
Bowen: We should view the Bucs as one of the favorites to make another run at the Super Bowl, especially after re-signing key defensive players Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David. However, after just one day of free-agent moves and still over a month until the NFL draft, we need to see how the rest of the offseason shakes out here before making picks for the 2021 season.
Clay: At this very moment? Yes, I think they’re the league’s best team on paper. They’ve re-signed their most important players, with the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Steven McLendon and Ryan Succop being their top remaining unsigned free agents. Even if none of them return, Tampa Bay’s roster is loaded and will have them in contention for a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
Fowler: Nah, let’s go AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs will be a favorite after they finish replenishing the offensive line, and the Buffalo Bills have made a major jump in each of the past two years. The next jump is an AFC Championship — maybe more. The Green Bay Packers have to break through at some point after two straight NFC Championship Game losses. Tampa is one of four or five teams in the mix.
Jenna Laine, Buccaneers reporter: I’m not ready to call them Super Bowl favorites again just yet, as we need to see how their running back, defensive line and kicking situations in free agency unfold. Specifically, what happens with Fournette, Suh and Succop? And while the Bucs are deep at receiver, Brown led the Bucs in targets over the final five weeks of the regular season before suffering a knee injury in the postseason. The Bucs are having conversations with all of them, but there’s only so much money that can go around.
Adam Schefter explains what’s to come for the Buccaneers after re-signing Shaquil Barrett.
Seifert: Eh. I can’t necessarily name a team at this moment I think has a better chance to win the Super Bowl, but getting the gang back together isn’t usually good enough in football. What can they do to make themselves better, and have they done it yet?
Walder: No. Just because they’re running back the same players doesn’t mean we should expect the same results, especially with Tom Brady one year older. One prediction we can be confident in is that Patrick Mahomes will be the best quarterback in the league in 2021, and that makes the Chiefs the Super Bowl favorites.
Yates: They sure are. This team hit its stride in the second half of the season and has a clear path to a division title, the gateway to a potential first-round bye and another deep run.
Which edge rusher signing will turn out to be the best in two years?
Bowen: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. Barrett’s pass-rush production is already on the tape in Todd Bowles’ system. With schemed fronts and twists/stunts, Bowles can create one-on-ones for Barrett to cause disruption in the pocket.
Clay: Carl Lawson, Jets. He may not be the best of the group, but he may be the biggest upgrade over what his new team had previously. It seems like we’ve been waiting for a decade for New York to add an impact edge rusher, and the Robert Saleh regime finally got the job done. Lawson — whose 32 QB hurries trailed only T.J. Watt last season — has a chance for a full-on breakout in 2021 and beyond.
Fowler: Bud Dupree, Titans. He might be the most gifted pass-rusher in the group, so if he puts it all together in Tennessee, he has a chance to dominate. Expect a slow start to the 2021 season due to his ACL tear in December, but the Titans are playing the long-term game with a massive five-year, $82.5-million deal. His unique blend of power and speed will age well.
Seifert: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. His wild 19.5-sack performance in 2019 was no fluke, as he demonstrated in 2020. Playing in Bowles’ scheme for at least one more season should ensure that Barrett continues to put up big numbers.
Walder: Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers. He ranked seventh among edge rushers in pass rush win rate over the past two seasons, so I think he’s the safest bet to be productive in the short term despite his drop-off in sacks last season. I’ll give an honorable mention to Detroit’s Romeo Okwara, though. I’m excited by his upside in a non-Matt Patricia defense.
Yates: Denico Autry, Titans. While he won’t play exclusively as an edge player, I love the Titans adding Autry. It’s rare that players see their first major contract after the age of 30, but Autry has aged well and is just a no-nonsense, rock-solid player. Tennessee got better.
Which newly signed QB will have a better 2021 season, Washington’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or New Orleans’ Jameis Winston?
Bowen: Winston. I do think Taysom Hill sees reps this year at quarterback in specific packages for the Saints. But I’m going with Winston based on his traits as a thrower and his second-reaction ability in Sean Payton’s heavily schemed pass game.
Clay: Fitzpatrick. As things stand right now, I’d give the edge to him. Winston will face real competition from Hill and may not even start for New Orleans, whereas Fitzpatrick is a heavy favorite over Taylor Heinicke in Washington. Fitzpatrick has also played much better than Winston in recent years, even replacing him as the starter in Tampa Bay only two seasons ago.
Fowler: Fitzpatrick. Winston has a chance to be prolific in Payton’s offense. But there’s no hard evidence he can shake the turnover problem, and the Hill factor can’t be ignored. Hill’s early-down packages might take away from Winston’s bottom line. Fitzpatrick played some of the best football of his career in spots last year and goes to an ascending team.
John Keim, Washington reporter: Winston. I think there’s more to learn about Washington’s situation — what else does it add on offense? — before saying Fitzpatrick will have a better year, though I do believe he’ll have a good one. Winston has a head start in an offense that players have been in together for a long time while playing for one of the NFL’s best offensive minds.
John Keim breaks down Washington’s decision to sign quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Seifert: Winston. That’s assuming he wins the starting job over Hill, which seems likely but not a lock. In this case, I’m projecting better numbers for the quarterback of a Payton offense over the quarterback of a Ron Rivera offense. I like my chances there.
Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: Winston. My only hesitation is that Winston needs to actually secure the job by beating out Hill in camp, and I think it will be a legitimate competition. But Winston is the frontrunner, and he would be in a fantastic situation surrounded by people like Payton, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, not to mention that offensive line.
Walder: Winston. He really wasn’t that bad in Tampa Bay. Even in his 30-interception 2019 season, Winston ranked 16th in QBR. I like his chances in Payton’s offense, and he gives Payton the luxury of being able to call downfield plays too.