Winners and Losers of the NFL's Early Tampering PeriodMarch 16, 2021
Winners and Losers of the NFL's Early Tampering Period
NFL free agency doesn't start until 4 p.m. ET Wednesday. That, however, hasn't stopped teams from all but officially taking some of the top free agents off the market. The legal tampering window opened at noon ET Monday, and reports of pending deals soon followed.
While players or teams could conceivably back out of these pacts, the vast majority if not all of them will stick. Therefore, it's fair for some parties to come away from the opening day of free agency feeling like winners and losers.
We examined the biggest winners and losers of the early tampering period, considering team needs, contract terms and positional player pools. These evaluations could change as more details emerge and other players come off the market.
Teams aren't waiting to add players, though, so we're not waiting to judge them.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, and they're winning early free agency. Before the start of the contact period, they extended Tom Brady, franchise-tagged Chris Godwin and signed Lavonte David to a new two-year contract.
Extending Brady—which saved $19 million in 2021 cap space, according to ESPN's Jenna Laine—played a huge role in Tampa Bay's early-offseason success.
The Bucs also agreed to deals with Shaquil Barrett and Rob Gronkowski. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Barrett's pact is worth up to $72 million over four years. Also per Schefter, Gronkowski is returning on a one-year, $10 million contract.
The Buccaneers, with $4.2 million in cap space, will have to make everything work. But they're bringing back the nucleolus of last year's championship team.
Super Bowl squads can struggle to keep their cores intact because championships rarely come on a budget, so Tampa Bay deserve to be considered a big winner.
Loser: New England Patriots
While Tom Brady is helping his team financially fit pieces into place, his old squad has been busy overpaying in early free agency. The New England Patriots have agreed to deals with Jonnu Smith, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, Matthew Judon, Nelson Agholor and Hunter Henry. They re-signed Cam Newton before the start of the contact period.
Smith will earn $50 million over four years with $31.3 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Mills will earn $24 million over four years, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Godchaux will get two years and up to $16 million, per Schefter.
According to Schefter, Judon's deal is for four years and $56 million with $32 million guaranteed, while Agholor's deal is for $26 million over two years. Henry will get $37.5 million over three years with $25 million guaranteed, per Schefter.
While the group will provide a huge influx of talent, the moves also go against the idea of building through the draft.
"The Patriots are paying top-of-market prices for players coming off their best seasons to play major roles. That's the opposite of how it's done. Today is a disaster for them that's being reported as a triumph," Mike Tanier of Pro Football Network tweeted Monday.
New England no longer has the core needed to consistently contend by adding budget pieces in free agency, so it overpaid, seemingly in a bid to return to relevance. With the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins having won 13 and 10 games in 2020, though, there's no guarantee the Patriots' spending spree will even put them in contention in the AFC East.
Editor's note: A previously written slide about Henry was removed from this piece because of his reported agreement with the Patriots. This slide has been updated accordingly.
Loser: Teams in Need of Offensive Line Help
Teams searching for offensive line help cannot be happy with how things have unfolded. Tackle Taylor Moton and guard Brandon Scherff were franchise-tagged, leaving a relatively underwhelming class available.
The Baltimore Ravens scooped up guard Kevin Zeitler with a three-year, $22 million deal before the contact period, per Rapoport (via NFL.com's Kevin Patra). According to Garafolo and colleague Tom Pelissero (via the NFL), the Chargers and center Corey Linsley agreed to a five-year, $62.5 million deal. Guard Joe Thuney signed a massive five-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
TheMMQB's Albert Breer reported Thuney will earn $80 million over five years with $48 million guaranteed over the first three seasons.
So, some of the best options are already off the board. And those who remain, such as Trent Williams and Russell Okung, will be costly. That's bad news for teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals (48 sacks allowed in 2020) and Seattle Seahawks (also 48), who may have been hoping to address their lines in free agency.
The price of offensive linemen is on the rise, which means the teams in need could be scrambling right now—and also might overpay for the players still available.
Winner: Brandon Scherff
Joe Thuney's market-setting deal should result in a big win for Washington Football Team right guard Brandon Scherff. The four-time Pro Bowler is one of the best interior linemen in the game and just signed on the franchise tag for the second straight season.
Washington has until July 15 to do a long-term deal with Scherff, but it will be costly.
Scherff is the only guard making more annually than Thuney will. That's because he is on a second franchise tag, but Scherff would presumably like to remain the league's top-paid player at his position. Washington is adding quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on a one-year, $10 million deal—according to Schefter—but has $24.5 million in cap space with that contract unofficial.
He will make $18 million on the franchise tag, but he would surely earn north of $16 million annually on a long-term contract. Either way, he has to be thrilled with the leverage Thuney just handed him.
Loser: Teams in Need of Safety Help
According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, the Cleveland Browns have agreed to a three-year, $33.8 million deal with safety John Johnson III. That's a good development for safeties who remain on the market—including Anthony Harris—but it's bad news for teams that need safety help.
The safety pool was already shallow after Marcus Maye, Marcus Williams and Justin Simmons were franchise-tagged. Cleveland's signing of Johnson took another quality player off the market. The remaining safeties will come at a premium.
Adding to the problem for teams is the fact that the draft isn't particularly talent-rich at the position. According to NBC Sports' Peter King, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah has only one safety with a first-round grade.
With three safeties getting franchise-tagged, it's clear the teams with good ones value them. The squads that have to keep up are going to have a hard time.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
In recent weeks, the New Orleans Saints have parted with players such as Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook. On Sunday, Drew Brees retired. On Monday, they gave longtime utility man and backup quarterback Taysom Hill a four-year, $140 million contract extension.
So, how are the Saints winners? Simply put, they went from having the worst cap situation in the league to one that is manageable. New Orleans is still $4.6 million in the red, and Jameis Winston is getting a new one-year deal worth $12 million, according to Schefter. Still, the Saints are in a far better cap situation than they were and have options at quarterback.
The creative Hill extension played a big role in the Saints' getting back in order. According to Schefter, all years of the deal are voidable, and the contract will save New Orleans $7.5 million this year.
The Saints also avoided making a long-term commitment to Hill—who may or may not be the starter.
They still have financial work to do. But after clearing nearly $100 million in cap dollars (h/t Brenden Ertle of Canal Street Chronicles), the Saints are winners of the early offseason.
Loser: Philadelphia Eagles
While the Saints have improved their cap situation, the Philadelphia Eagles could be looking to do the same. Just a day before the start of the new league year, Philadelphia is $8.6 million over the salary cap.
One player the Eagles would like to move, in part to generate cap space, is tight end Zach Ertz. However, they are also hoping to get something of value in return.
According to Pelissero, the Eagles are seeking a third- or fourth-round pick. The problem is that Gerald Everett and Jared Cook are still available; the Patriots, who entered free agency as one of the most cap-rich teams, are surely out of the tight end mix; and Browns tight end David Njoku is reportedly also available via trade.
According to Breer, Njoku can be had for roughly the same price as Ertz.
"Cleveland wanted a third-round pick for Njoku at the trade deadline last year, and with the team having invested in Austin Hooper and carrying a promising young player, Harrison Bryant, at Njoku's position, the  first-round pick is available again," Breer wrote.
Philadelphia has zero leverage when it comes to trading Ertz, so it may have to cut him. While that would save the Eagles $4.7 million, they would have to eat $7.8 million in dead money and get nothing in return.
Philly may have hoped the tight end pool would dry up quickly, leaving Ertz as an enticing option. It hasn't.
Salary-cap and contract information via Spotrac.