Winners and Losers of NFL's 1st Week of 2021 Free Agency

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2021

Winners and Losers of NFL's 1st Week of 2021 Free Agency

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    We're nearly one week into NFL free agency, and we knew that this offseason would be stranger than most. COVID-19 (and the lost revenue that can be attributed to it) wreaked havoc on the league's salary cap, which dropped from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million. 

    Not only did that mean teams would have less to spend this offseason, but many teams also entered free agency over the cap, needing to restructure deals and shed their own players ahead of signing new ones. When the legal tampering window opened noon Monday, 12 NFL teams were either over the cap or had less than $10 million to work with, per Over the Cap

    The concept of the hometown discount is more romantic than realistic, but we also saw that shorter deals were attractive to players this offseason as the league waits to see if the cap will rise again (and bring with it longer-term, higher-paying contracts). 

    So when we evaluate free-agency winners and losers, what are we looking at? Well, one obvious way to win is to become the highest-paid player at your position, which is what one player on this list did. Another is to bring back nearly your entire starting core coming off a Super Bowl win. (Any guesses?) 

    As for the losers, some moves were so questionable that the media, former players and others can't make sense of them. And one team has caused a lot of head-scratching this offseason. There are also situations in which a team and a player aren't seeing eye-to-eye, and that can make for a losing free agency. 

    Let's take a look at the teams and players who fit the bill one week into free agency.       

Winner: Trent Williams, LT, San Francisco 49ers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    First, we must state the obvious: It would be impossible to consider left tackle Trent Williams anything but a free-agency winner after he signed a six-year, $138.06 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers that will make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.

    Williams will earn $55.1 million guaranteed, per his agency, and is due a $30.1 million signing bonus, according to ESPN's Dianna Russini, who noted that amount at signing is a record among offensive lineman, per the NFLPA. 

    But the deal is particularly sweet for Williams even beyond the numbers. There's no question he is one of the league's best on the blind side. His eight Pro Bowl appearances are the most among offensive linemen since 2012. But he's about to turn 33, and the last time he played a full season was in 2013 with Washington. 

    None of this is to say, of course, that the 49ers made a bad decision. These commitments are rarely as massive as they seem when contract terms are first announced. The final three seasons of the six-year deal, which would see Williams through his 38th birthday, are option years, giving the 49ers a potential out, Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Williams has no guaranteed money after 2023, and he will count just $8.2 million against the cap in 2021.

    The contract appears to have been structured that way to allow Williams to claim the title of the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman, which surely helped to keep him from straying in free agency, though he was one of the best options on the market this year. The 49ers know they have an open window now—and Williams only helps their quest to return to the Super Bowl—but they're not going to mortgage their future. 

Loser: Chicago Bears

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    Whether it's during free agency or the draft, when we evaluate NFL teams, sometimes we have to take into account what their vision seems to be and then judge whether they appear to be achieving that vision. On the surface, we can think certain moves are very bad...but if teams are following their own blueprints, well, all the power to them. 

    Based on the Chicago Bears' free-agency moves so far, we can assume they think they are closer to contending than perhaps the rest of us do. They stumbled into the postseason on the strength of a .500 record in 2020 and got bounced by the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card Round 21-9.

    Before that, they benched starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for Nick Foles late in a Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons they were losing 26-10. Then, they un-benched him in Week 12 after a four-game losing streak with Foles at the helm. 

    Needless to say, the Bears were a 2020 playoff squad in name only. Their quarterback woes, which disrupted any chance they had of building a team identity, pointed to only one solution: Bring in a quarterback in free agency who could win the starting job over Trubisky and Foles and hopefully bring some stability.

    To be fair to the Bears, they tried. According to The Dan Patrick Show, Chicago offered three first-round picks, a third-round pick and two starters to the Seattle Seahawks for Russell Wilson and were turned down. So the Bears took the logical next step, signing...Andy Dalton to a one-year contract.

    General manager Ryan Pace may be planning on acquiring his (next) quarterback of the future in next month's draft, but Bears fans would be forgiven for harboring doubts about his decision-making process there.     

Winner: New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Even without Tom Brady, even after failing to reach the postseason for the first time in 12 years, the New England Patriots are still winning. Apparently, it's just the natural order of things. 

    More specifically, the Patriots appear to be winning free agency. After re-signing Cam Newton to a one-year deal worth $13.6 million, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, head coach Bill Belichick made sure the offense around him was in tiptop shape.

    New England signed a pair of tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as well as wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Henry was the best tight end available on the market, and we all know how well Belichick can deploy two-tight end sets.

    The offensive line was not neglected, as New England signed center Ted Karras to a one-year deal. And then the team re-signed starting center David Andrews to a four-year deal on Thursday, per ESPN's Field Yates

    The Patriots also added or re-signed players along the front seven and in the secondary (OLB Matthew Judon, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Davon Godchaux, DE/DT Henry Anderson, S Jalen Mills, DB Justin Bethel).

    Now, big spending in free agency doesn't guarantee a playoff berth, and Belichick's spending spree may not age well, given the uncertainty around the future of the salary cap.

    But if there's anyone you should trust to get the best bang for his buck while somehow finding the free agents who may do their best work in his system, it's Belichick.        

Loser: Wide Receivers

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Though things picked up steam somewhat later in the week, the beginning of NFL free agency had this year's crop of wide receivers checking their phones and wondering if their Wi-Fi had gone out.

    It was an uncharacteristically quiet start to a time of year that usually sees wide receivers inking huge deals; one free-agent wideout reportedly told ESPN's Dianna Russini "the WR market is really bad right now."

    Sure, Nelson Agholor got two years, $26 million from the New England Patriots, Washington signed Curtis Samuel for three years, $34.5 million and the New York Jets gave Corey Davis $37.5 million over three years with $27 million guaranteed.

    But Kenny Golladay, T.Y. Hilton, Sammy Watkins and Antonio Brown are among those still on the market. According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, JuJu Smith-Schuster agreed to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a one-year deal on Friday. 

    Golladay seems to be holding out for a deal that will set the market for the position group. (Think: Adam Thielen's four-year, $64.2 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings or Robert Woods' four-year, $65 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams).

    It's hard to believe we'll see even something like Keenan Allen's four-year, $80.1 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. It's been a strange free-agency period overall but especially for wideouts.

Winner: Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It's uncouth to talk about the good fortunes of a backup quarterback who gets the nod when the starter goes down with an injury, but what about when that starter, a legend, retires? 

    It's the end of an era for the New Orleans Saints after Drew Brees hung up his cleats, but who is next under center? Jameis Winston is returning after the team re-signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $12 million. Then there's Taysom Hill, who got the nod for the Saints last season when Brees went down with an injury and went 3-1. Or are the Saints not done looking at free-agent arms?

    Many assume that the plan is for Winston and Hill to duke it out in training camp, but head coach Sean Payton may have already made up his mind. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, in a recent interview on Great Dane Nation with Morten Andersen, said, "Jameis Winston up next, I believe, is what Sean Payton said."

    Winston has come a long way since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opted not to re-sign him last season. (Incidentally, so too have the Bucs.) And now he may have the opportunity to take an NFL franchise loaded with talent all the way.

    Not a bad turn of events.      

Loser: Las Vegas Raiders

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders, the question on seemingly everyone's mind has been, "What is Jon Gruden doing?"

    Through one week of free agency, the Raiders have traded three starters from their offensive line: Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson. 

    And though 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs had 273 carries for 1,065 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, Las Vegas signed running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year deal worth up to $14.5 million, per ESPN's Adam Schefter

    The Raiders were this close to making the playoffs in 2020, and adding some help in the secondary through free agency or the draft may have been the thing that pushed them over the hump in 2021. That is not what Gruden has elected to do so far. 

    Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz may have summed the Raiders' questionable free agency this year best, tweeting, "Jon Gruden has no idea what he's doing."    

Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Fans

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    In NFL free agency, oftentimes, the rich get richer. And it doesn't get much richer than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' signing of Tom Brady and his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, before going 11-5, clinching a playoff berth and becoming the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

    And now the Bucs are getting the gang back together. 

    To start, Tampa Bay agreed to a four-year extension with Tom Brady that voids to a one-year extension and reduces the Buccaneers' cap hit this year by $19 million, per ESPN's Jenna Laine

    Before the extension, Tampa Bay was $7.76 million over the $182.5 million cap. When free agency began, the team worked on bringing back Brady's battalion, including re-signing Gronkowski (one year, $8 million), kicker Ryan Succop (three years, $12 million), linebacker Lavonte David (two years, $25 million) and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (four years, $68 million) and franchise-tagging wideout Chris Godwin. 

    It's still unclear whether the team will be able to retain running back Leonard Fournette, but otherwise, the Bucs have locked up their key returning free agents from their Super Bowl team. Congratulations, Bucs fans; there's a good chance your team is heading to SoFi Stadium in February.          

Loser: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks...and Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The situation between the Seattle Seahawks and franchise quarterback Russell Wilson is one of your classic no-win scenarios. 

    Let’s review. Back in February, Wilson told the Seahawks that he wanted to remain in Seattle, but if the team were to consider trading him, he would only approve the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Wilson also told reporters he was "frustrated [about] getting hit too much." He also told The Dan Patrick Show that he wanted to be more involved in personnel decisions.

    "I want to be able to be involved, because at the end of the day, it's your legacy, it's your team's legacy,” he said, via Mike Jones of USA Today

    The Bears offered the farm for Wilson at the beginning of free agency: three first-round picks, a third-round pick and two players. When Seattle held fast, Chicago went and signed Andy Dalton to a one-year deal. 

    But Schefter doesn't think that necessarily means Wilson is guaranteed to don a Seahawks jersey come September.

    "I don't think I'm ready to say, 'Russell Wilson is a Seahawk, will be a Seahawk,'" he said. "... I want to see the draft come and go before I'm ready to say that Russell Wilson will be a Seahawk this year."

    It's all quite messy.    

    And according to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News, head coach Pete Carroll "has a high opinion of Sam Darnold and could end up trading for the Jets quarterback if Seattle deals Russell Wilson."

    Wilson could end up staying in Seattle with a beefed-up offensive line and more high-level input, with everyone happily celebrating a playoff berth in nine months. But as things stand, these kinds of public spats are never healthy for a team that wants to contend.