Ranking the Best Moves of 2021 NFL Free Agency so Far

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Ranking the Best Moves of 2021 NFL Free Agency so Far

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    It didn't take long for NFL teams to start throwing around massive amounts of money when the legal tampering period opened ahead of the official start of free agency. 

    Once they were able to start negotiating with free agents at noon ET on Monday, teams have helped some of the biggest dominoes start to fall. Top offensive linemen, defenders and more have nailed down reported deals with teams. 

    The best reported moves so far will have the biggest impact leaguewide, not just on their own teams. A strong tandem of production, projection and contract value define the rankings. Since some players might have opted for shorter deals in the hopes the salary cap skyrockets again in the near future, contract length isn't as big of a deal as it would be in a normal year. 

    These are the best moves of 2021 free agency so far.

8. Ravens Agree to Terms with G Kevin Zeitler

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens didn't waste any time, opting to sign guard Kevin Zeitler hours before the legal tampering window opened. Since Zeitler was cut by the New York Giants last week, he was free to officially sign with any team. 

    One team's major loss is another team's major gain, too. The Ravens will give Zeitler $22 million with $16 million in guarantees, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. Lamar Jackson's offense will get a 31-year-old star who finished with a 65.9 Pro Football Focus grade last season with just two sacks permitted. 

    The Ravens badly needed an upgrade on the interior over guys like Ben Powers, who graded out at 59.4 over 513 snaps. They also have the Orlando Brown Jr. trade speculation to fret over, so improvement was necessary to keep one of the NFL's best rushing attacks and franchise quarterbacks consistent. 

7. Buccaneers Re-Sign Shaquil Barrett

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    It turns out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't have a serious hole in the pass rush going into next year's attempt at a repeat as Super Bowl champions. 

    Star edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett contacted NFL reporter Josina Anderson after the legal tampering period began and told her he's re-signing with the Bucs. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, it's a four-year deal worth up to $72 million. 

    Barrett arrived in Tampa Bay in 2019 on a humble one-year pact worth $4 million, put up a league-leading 19.5 sacks, earned a franchise tag and then added another eight sacks and a Lombardi Trophy to his resume before seeking a big payday on the open market. 

    The Buccaneers made it happen, along with putting the franchise tag on wideout Chris Godwin and re-signing star linebacker Lavonte David, too, assuring another title push around Tom Brady. But Barrett was arguably the most important piece, and making it all work was not only impressive, but also one of the best moves so far. 

6. Lions Re-Sign Romeo Okwara

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    Leon Halip/Associated Press

    It looked like the Detroit Lions might enter free agency gambling on another team paying big for edge-rusher Romeo Okwara. 

    Okwara, after all, has been as inconsistent as it gets, with little happening between bursts of major productivity. An undrafted player on his second team, Okwara had 7.5 sacks in 2018, just 1.5 in 2019 and then 10.0 this past season. 

    But the Lions shunned expectations and re-upped with Okwara on a three-year, $39 million contract, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

    It's clear the Lions and a new coaching staff headed up by Dan Campbell want to build around Okwara, not try to replace his production. Okwara only played 67 percent of the defensive snaps last year, so there's a possibility he's looking at even more playing time now that the re-signing suggests the Lions are all in on his developmental curve—and he brings important tools to the table in a division boasting reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers

5. Patriots Agree to Terms with Edge Matthew Judon

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    A spending spree by the New England Patriots wasn't limited to the offensive side of the ball around Cam Newton

    Defensively, the Patriots went all out for edge defender Matthew Judon, with Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reporting the two sides agreed on a deal worth $56 million over four years. 

    Judon was one of the market's most sought-after defenders after spending last season on the franchise tag in Baltimore. There, he put up six more sacks, giving him 34.5 over 76 games. His PFF grade was a ho-hum 59.4, but the 70.5 from 2019 is more indicative of his usual play. 

    Part of the brilliance here is Judon's sheer fit in the Patriots defense, as he'll add yet another strong pass-rushing element alongside Josh Uche and Chase Winovich (37 pressures last season). It's a completely obvious fit in hindsight and one of the better early moves on the market. 

4. Patriots Agree to Terms with TE Jonnu Smith

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    As soon as the New England Patriots secured Cam Newton with a re-up, the focus of free agency became obvious: improve the surrounding pieces. 

    Bill Belichick and Co. did that in the most dramatic way possible by throwing a four-year deal worth $50 million at former Tennessee tight end Jonnu Smith, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Smith was one of free agency's most explosive weapons after scoring eight times last year on 65 targets in a run-happy Titans attack. He's only 25 years old, a mismatch nightmare all over the field and the perfect high-volume guy for Newton. 

    With wideout still a problem area, the Patriots now have a top player at tight end a year removed from the passing attack targeting no player at the position more than 20 times. Smith should be an easy pick as a breakout candidate now that he's in better surroundings. 

3. Jets Agree to Terms with DE Carl Lawson

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The New York Jets waited until the sun went down to make one of the biggest splashes on the first day of legal tampering, landing former Cincinnati Bengals star Carl Lawson. 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, it's a three-year deal worth $45 million, which makes sense for a 25-year-old elite pass-rusher who is one of the NFL's best at creating pressure opportunities for those around him, ranking alongside names like Khalil Mack.

    After a two-win season, the Jets need as much help as they can get, and landing one of the NFL's best at coming off the edge for new head coach Robert Saleh's defense is a huge step in the right direction. New York generated just 31 sacks last year, with Quinnen Williams leading the way with seven. 

    Now Williams gets Lawson coming off the edge for a front seven that looks markedly better, which should make life easier on the secondary, too. This is an especially good move considering the Jets figure to have the second pick earmarked for one of the draft's top passers. 

2. Chargers Agree to Terms with C Corey Linsley

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers are sparing no expense in the pursuit of protecting Justin Herbert. 

    Throwing a five-year, $62.5 million deal at veteran center Corey Linsley is the proof. 

    Mike Garafolo and Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported the move, which comes in response to Mike Pouncey retiring and the entirety of the line struggling so much last year it wound up ranked dead last at PFF

    It's hard to understate just how important this move could be in stabilizing the entire line in front of Herbert, who suffered 32 sacks last year. Linsley is nothing short of elite as a 2020 first-team All-Pro complete with an 89.9 PFF grade. 

1. Chiefs Agree to Terms with G Joe Thuney

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Leave it to the Kansas City Chiefs to produce a major shocker. 

    After cutting offensive tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, the Chiefs then went after free agency's best lineman by inking Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Thuney, recipient of the franchise tag in New England last year, posted another elite season with a 74.2 Pro Football Focus grade and just two sacks allowed over 980 snaps. The Chiefs' willingness to reset the guard market completely says it all. 

    This move comes as a direct response to Patrick Mahomes consistently running for his life in the Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay. Thuney is better as a pass-blocker than in the running game, so he'll go a long way toward beefing up the line next to whoever ends up starting on the left edge. 

    Given the importance of quality offensive line play and what this means for Mahomes and the Chiefs, this is a no-brainer as one of the best moves. 

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