Ranking the NFL's Worst Early 2021 Free-Agency Moves

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Worst Early 2021 Free-Agency Moves

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    NFL free agency is a wild time, especially in its early stages. Teams wheel and deal and hand out massive sums to land the best players before other squads can do the same. In some cases, clubs actually hurt themselves by "winning" in early free agency.

    Whether it's because of a player's lack of production, a poor fit, an unnecessary move or though overpayment, some contracts end up becoming bad deals.

    Last offseason, for example, the Cleveland Browns jumped on tight end Austin Hooper, signing him to a four-year, $42 million deal—despite already having 2017 first-round pick David Njoku at the position. Hooper had just 435 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2020.

    With the first day of 2021 free agency now in the rearview, we have a prime opportunity to examine the early deals. We'll count down the 10 worst decisions thus far.

10. Patriots Sign Matthew Judon to 4-Year, $56 Million Deal

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the New England Patriots are giving pass-rusher Matt Judon a four-year, $56 million contract. In a vacuum, that's not terrible, as the price of pass-rushers is rising. Judon, however, is a solid player and not necessarily a great one.

    He made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, but his best campaign came in his contract year of 2019, when he produced 9.5 sacks. He had just six sacks in 2020 with 32 quarterback pressures.

    The Patriots will pay $14 million per year for a 29-year-old who has been above average.

    The other problem is that defense wasn't a major problem for New England. While the Patriots logged only 24 sacks in 2020—Judon should help in that area—they still ranked eighth in passing yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.

    The money they gave to Judon would have been better spent shoring up a run defense that ranked 26th last season.

9. Chicago Bears Sign Andy Dalton to 1-Year, $10 Million Deal

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears' signing of Andy Dalton made this list because of what it likely represents—another season with an average quarterback.

    The Bears made a play for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but they were turned down.

    "The Bears certainly made a big, big offer—multiple first-round picks," NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said on Good Morning Football. "The Seahawks slept on it. They discussed it. [Tuesday], they decided—specifically coach Pete Carroll, [69] years old, does not want to rebuild—decided, 'We are not trading Russell Wilson to the Bears.'"

    Unable to land Wilson, Chicago signed Dalton to a one-year deal worth $10 million, according to Rapoport (via NFL.com's Nick Shook). That's not necessarily a bad contract, but it puts the Bears in an awkward spot. Presumably, they would like to find a long-term answer at quarterback. Dalton, 6-16 over the last two seasons, is not that.

    Chicago now has two middling quarterbacks in Dalton and Nick Foles. That's one too many—and it's the same problem the Bears had with Foles and Mitchell Trubisky last season. The Bears stuck with the status quo, and that's a bad thing.

8. Packers Sign Aaron Jones to 4-Year, $48 Million Deal

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Bringing back Aaron Jones was a good move for the Green Bay Packers. Jones is a quality running back who tied for the NFL lead with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and who has topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons. He is also a strong pass-catcher and a great fit for the offense.

    It's the details of Jones' contract that make this a bad move.

    Jones' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told Schefter the deal is for four years and $48 million with a $13 million signing bonus. That's a lot of money for a player who may not be a workhorse.

    Last year, the Packers used a second-round pick on AJ Dillon, who will take over for Jamaal Williams as the No. 2 back. He could also very well replace Jones as the starter in the near future.

    Second contracts are always dicey for running backs—players including Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley have made them look like poor investments. Giving a big one to a player whose replacement may already be on the roster was not a sound long-term investment.

7. Lions Sign Romeo Okwara to 3-Year, $39 Million Deal

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    Leon Halip/Associated Press

    Pass-rushers are always going to cost top dollar on the open market. This doesn't mean, however, that paying top dollar is always wise.

    The Detroit Lions' Romeo Okwara had a breakout campaign in 2020, finishing with 10 sacks and 31 quarterback pressures. They rewarded him with a three-year, $39 million deal, according to Schefter. That's a lot of money for a player with exactly one standout year on his resume.

    In the four seasons prior to 2020, Okwara had just 10 sacks. Of those, 7.5 came in his first contract year in 2018. Okwara disappeared the following season, recording just 1.5 sacks and 15 pressures in 14 games.

    It's probably unfair to suggest Okwara has only given maximum effort in contract years, but he has only produced in those seasons. It would have been smarter to give Okwara a shorter contract and an opportunity to prove he isn't a one-year wonder.

6. Vikings Sign Dalvin Tomlinson to 2-Year, $22 Million Deal

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    Larry Maurer/Associated Press

    On the surface, the Minnesota Vikings' signing of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson doesn't look bad. Sure, he's largely a run-stuffing space-eater, but he's a good one—he had 49 tackles in each of the past two years—and will fill a need.

    Minnesota ranked 27th against the run in 2020.

    Tomlinson, however, isn't coming on the cheap. According to Rapoport, he's getting a two-year deal worth $22 million with $20 million guaranteed. This is where it looks bad.

    The Vikings are not cap-rich. They're just $4.8 million under the salary cap and still have to navigate the rest of free agency and the draft. An inability to stop the run also wasn't the only problem for the defense, which ranked 25th against the pass, 27th overall and 29th in points allowed.

    Minnesota also secured a run-stuffing defensive tackle just last season, inking Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million deal. (Pierce opted out of the 2020 season.)

    There's nothing wrong with having two solid defensive tackles, but given the Vikings' cap situation, doubling down on the position was a mistake.

5. Bengals Sign Trey Hendrickson to 4-Year, $60 Million Deal

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    There are two issues with the Cincinnati Bengals' signing of pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson. The first is the price tag. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the deal is for four years and $60 million with $32 million coming in the first two seasons.

    That's a ton of cash for a player who might be a one-year wonder. Hendrickson had an impressive 13.5 sacks in 2020 but only produced 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons.

    The other—and perhaps bigger—problem is the fact that Cincinnati let Carl Lawson get away for essentially the same price. Lawson is joining the New York Jets on a three-year, $45 million deal, according to ESPN.

    Lawson had only 5.5 sacks in 2020, but he also logged an impressive 44 quarterback pressures—tied for fourth in the league. Hendrickson had a similar pressure rate with 33 pressures in 165 fewer snaps. Each has produced 20 sacks in four seasons, and Lawson has experience with Cincinnati's system and locker room.

    Of course, there's no guarantee Lawson wanted to re-sign with the Bengals, but considering he landed with the two-win New York Jets, money may have been a factor. Cincinnati could also have locked in Lawson with the franchise tag to avoid the situation entirely.

    The Bengals' decision to let Lawson get away only to replace him with a similar player at the same yearly price point was a curious one.

4. Patriots Sign Hunter Henry to 3-Year, $37.5 Million Deal

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    There are a couple of issues with New England's signing of tight end Hunter Henry. The first is that the Patriots are set to pay him like an elite tight end—three years and $37.5 million, according to Schefter—which he isn't.

    Henry has been a fine pass-catcher, but he's never reached 700 receiving yards in a single season. He's also injury-prone, having missed 25 games in five years, including the entire 2018 season. The contract in and of itself represents an overpayment.

    The other issue is that New England did the deal after signing tight end Jonnu Smith to a lucrative contract. He'll get a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed, according to Rapoport.

    Clearly, the Patriots are set to return to a two-tight-end offense. Whether it works with an underwhelming passer in Cam Newton remains to be seen. The biggest problem, though, is that the Patriots overpaid for two tight ends in the same offseason—one of them being a massive injury risk.

    Henry was always likely to get overpaid on the open market, though he was expected to be paid to be a No. 1 tight end. There's no guarantee he'll be that with Smith also on the roster, and New England cannot bank on his staying healthy.

3. Titans Sign Bud Dupree to 5-Year, $82.5 Million Deal

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Apparently, the Tennessee Titans didn't learn from signing injury-prone pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney last offseason. Despite only having Clowney for eight games in 2020—and getting zero sacks from him—Tennessee signed another edge-rusher with injury concerns.

    According to ESPN's Turron Davenport, the Titans and Bud Dupree agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal. Dupree is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered in December.

    There's a very real chance that Dupree won't be available to start the 2021 season or close to 100 percent at any point during it. There's also the possibility that Dupree is ineffective away from the Steelers defense and pass-rushing partner T.J. Watt.

    Dupree produced 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons while playing opposite Watt. He was merely average the four previous years, though, producing 20 sacks in that span. He had just 4.5 sacks in 2016, the year before Watt arrived.

    This deal was a massive risk and a bad gamble by the Titans, who are looking to win now.

2. Los Angeles Rams Sign Leonard Floyd to 4-Year, $64 Million Deal

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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams are bringing back edge-rusher Leonard Floyd on a four-year, $64 million deal, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. The silver lining of the deal is that Floyd is expected to carry a cap hit of just $2 million in 2021. That's great for a team that's $24.2 million over the salary cap.

    Given Los Angeles' cap situation, though, bringing back Floyd at any price is problematic. It's also potentially a gross overpayment for a player who has just one strong season on his resume.

    Floyd had 10.5 sacks in his first season with the Rams and just 18.5 sacks in four seasons with the Bears. Dante Fowler Jr. also had a 10-sack season with L.A. before going on to have just three sacks with the Atlanta Falcons last season.

    Was Floyd's double-digit-sack production simply a product of playing in the Rams system and alongside Aaron Donald? Given the surrounding talent in L.A., the Rams likely could have signed a cheaper free agent or looked to the draft and still landed a double-digit-sack player.

    For a team with long-term cap issues—the Rams are projected to have just $18.5 million in space next offseason—locking up Floyd was not the wisest decision.

1. Patriots Sign Nelson Agholor to 2-Year, $26 Million Deal

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Patriots are overpaying several free agents this offseason. Their most baffling decision, however, is bringing in Nelson Agholor at $13 million per year. According to Schefter, the Patriots have agreed to a two-year, $26 million deal. That's a ton of money for a complementary receiver who has been wildly inconsistent for most of his career.

    Agholor played well last season. In his lone campaign with the Las Vegas Raiders, he produced 896 yards and eight touchdowns. However, he was painfully underwhelming during his five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He never reached the 800-yard mark and had fewer than 400 yards in three of his five campaigns.

    Agholor has also been credited with nine drops over the past two years.

    The Patriots needed to upgrade their receiving corps—Jakobi Meyers led the position group with just 729 receiving yards in 2020—but shelling out this kind of money for Agholor isn't a smart move. Other receivers were available for less—Corey Davis agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Jets, according to ESPN—and the draft is expected to be loaded with receiver talent.

    New England seems to be trying to buy its way back into relevance, but buying Agholor at this price point was a bad move.


    Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference. Salary-cap information via Spotrac.


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