Ranking the NFL's Best Bang-for-the-Buck Free-Agent Signings of 2021

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Best Bang-for-the-Buck Free-Agent Signings of 2021

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The NFL's free-agency process can be tricky to manage. It's easy for teams that have money to start throwing serious cash around. 

    But they don't hand out Lombardis for spending the most money. The real key to "winning" free agency is to find value while other teams overspend.

    From a team perspective, the goal is simple: Sign players to contracts they have the potential to outperform.

    The biggest names in free agency typically want to be paid at the top end of the market and generally have enough bargaining power to find that kind of contract. But some slip through the cracks.

    For various reasons, these players were signed to deals they should be able to outperform. Based on the talent the team is getting and the price it is paying, these are the signings with the most value so far.

10. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington Football Team

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    The ContractOne year, $9.9 million ($6 million guaranteed)

    Last season, the Miami Dolphins were 4-3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter, and he posted the league's fifth-best QBR and was 17th in passer rating.

    That was with the Dolphins' less-than-inspiring array of weapons and run game. It's safe to say with those numbers that Fitzpatrick was at least a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback. At a position where overpaying is the norm, getting average play for just under $10 million is a steal.

    Fitzpatrick is 38, so this is by no means a long-term solution. It isn't supposed to be, though. This is a move that establishes a higher floor for the Washington Football Team's offense. We saw what he can still do in Miami, and now he'll have Curtis Samuel, Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson at his disposal.

    Washington will likely turn to the draft to find its quarterback of the future. Much like the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick gives it a great bridge to the future.

    That puts the veteran quarterback in a good position to outperform his contract.

9. Edge Tarell Basham, Dallas Cowboys

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The ContractTwo years, $6.5 million (guaranteed numbers unavailable)

    While the Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals were throwing big money at Bud Dupree, Matthew Judon and Trey Hendrickson, the Dallas Cowboys had to find pass-rush help for a discount.

    They did a good job netting Tarell Basham on a relatively cheap deal for two years. The details of the contract haven't completely emerged, but the Cowboys will get their money's worth even if the reported $6.5 million is completely guaranteed.

    Basham spent the first two years of his career as a reserve, but he's been a bigger part of the Jets' rotation lately. He played 54 and 64 percent of the snaps over the last two seasons, respectively, and responded with 5.5 sacks and 37 total pressures.

    For reference, his 23 pressures in 2020 were more than any Cowboy other than DeMarcus Lawrence last season. Perhaps even more importantly for Dallas, Basham was an 81st percentile run defender by PFF's numbers.

8. T/G Matt Feiler, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The ContractThree years, $21 million ($14.5 million guaranteed)

    Good offensive line help is hard to find in free agency and rarely comes at a discount. Unless we're talking one-year deals for a veteran who may not still have it, you usually have to pony up the dough to find a starter in his prime.

    The Los Angeles Chargers had to find better protection for Justin Herbert. They paid big money (and rightfully so) for Corey Linsley, but the value signing was drawing Matt Feiler away from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    At 6'6", 330 pounds with experience at both guard and tackle, Feiler will add flexibility to the Chargers offensive line and provide solid pass protection. Last season, he surrendered just two sacks while logging 848 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.

    Feiler's contract is a team-friendly one. He will carry a cap hit of $5 million in 2021 and $7.5 million in 2022. In 2023, the Chargers can either walk away from the contract for $2 million or pay him $8.5 million. He's only 28 years old, so there's a good chance he'll still be playing well when they have to make that decision.

7. CB Mike Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Justin Berl/Associated Press

    The ContractFour years, $24 million ($6 million guaranteed)

    The market for slot corners finally seems to be catching up with the actual value of a nickelback, but there's still a lot of value in this signing.

    Mike Hilton was projected to earn a three-year, $23.5 million deal, according to his market value from Spotrac. Essentially, the Cincinnati Bengals have the ability to pay him roughly the same price for the next four years rather than three.

    But the best part of the contract is the flexibility. It's a team-friendly deal with an out after one season, and the cap hit doesn't rise above $5.5 million until the fourth year. At that point, the Bengals can release him with a negligible cap charge.

    Hilton locked down the slot this season, giving up a 60.2 passer rating when targeted. In a division where he will see JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jarvis Landry in the slot, he will be a crucial part of the secondary.

    And if he doesn't pan out, there is that void year in 2022.

6. S Anthony Harris, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    The ContractOne year, $4 million

    The combination of team need and player situation created a perfect storm and a bargain free-agent signing.

    Anthony Harris was one of the league's best safeties in 2019, but his production fell in 2020. Surrounded by a young secondary, he went from six interceptions and 11 passes defended to no interceptions and seven breakups despite playing two more games.

    That's just looking at the counting stats, though. Pro Football Focus has Harris tied for the top grade in the league among safeties since 2018.

    After his breakout 2019 campaign, the Vikings tagged Harris, paying $11.4 million to retain his services. Now the Eagles are spending less than half of that to add him to their secondary just one year later.

    Harris is 29 years old, so he's far from his last legs. The one-year deal means Philadelphia will be getting a motivated player looking to earn one more big contract just as he hits his 30s.

5. CB Troy Hill, Cleveland Browns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The ContractTwo years, $9 million ($4.5 million guaranteed)

    Slot cornerbacks are typically available at cheaper prices, but Troy Hill is more than a simple slot corner.

    Hill was employed in multiple ways by the Los Angeles Rams defense to great effect, and yet the Cleveland Browns still signed him to a team-friendly deal.

    Mike Hilton, who played in the slot for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, got a four-year, $24 million contract, and he has only ever played 62 percent of his team's snaps in any year. By comparison, Hill played 95 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season.

    He was an incredibly active member of the defense. In the Rams' vaunted secondary, he saw the 10th-most targets in the league but was 16th in passer rating allowed, per Pro Football Focus.

    The Browns getting Hill for 2021 with an affordable void year in 2022 is an incredible value.

4. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The ContractOne year, $8 million ($7 million guaranteed)

    The length would usually be a drawback, but it actually works for the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool on the roster, it isn't necessary to guarantee Smith-Schuster's presence beyond 2021.

    Still, he should be welcome in Pittsburgh next season. With Ben Roethlisberger back for what should be his last season, Smith-Schuster is a receiver who, at 24, is still in his prime and already has a defined role in the offense.

    Spotrac's projected market value for Smith-Schuster was estimated to be $16.1 million per year or a five-year, $80.7 million deal. This contract doesn't even come close to that.

    The Steelers' goal this offseason has to be to maximize one more year with Roethlisberger at the helm. This contract will give them a fighting chance in a competitive AFC North.

3. OT Daryl Williams, Buffalo Bills

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The ContractThree years, $24 million ($13.8 million guaranteed)

    You don't let players at two positions walk when they're playing well and in their prime: quarterbacks and offensive tackles.

    The Bills have two good tackles on the roster in Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams. It was crucial for the future success of Josh Allen to maintain good protection on the perimeter, and they got it done on a cost-conscious deal.

    Williams' new contract pays him an average annual value of $8 million, which makes him the 10th-highest-paid right tackle in the league, per Spotrac. It's less than Jack Conklin and Halapoulivaati Vaitai both signed for in 2020.

    The 28-year-old has been one of the most consistent right tackles in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, only four right tackles have graded above 78.0 in both run- and pass-blocking. Williams is one of the four, yet he is barely being paid like a top-10 player at his position.

2. S John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    The ContractThree years, $33.8 million ($24 million guaranteed)

    General manager Andrew Berry is attempting to get a statue built in Cleveland with his handling of free agency to this point. Last season, he brought in Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin (even if he had to overpay). This year, he addressed the secondary with a pair of former Los Angeles Rams, and he did so while being frugal.

    Johnson was one of the top safeties in the league last year. He ranked third among all safeties by Pro Football Focus's metrics. He was a strong player in the run game with over 100 tackles but was also a consistent presence in coverage, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 71.9 passer rating.

    In the last three seasons, opposing quarterbacks have not posted a better passer rating than 81.8 when throwing into his coverage.

    The deal is even better when you get to the specifics. Johnson will only cost the Browns $5.3 million this season before his cap hit jumps up to $11.4 million in 2022. The third year has a potential out as he is only guaranteed $4 million of his $17.1 million cap hit.

    The salary cap could rise by that point, and this deal will still hold value even in its final season.

1. Edge Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The ContractFour years, $68 million ($34.3 million guaranteed)

    This is one of the few high-dollar signings that also doubles as an incredible value. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers definitely got a hometown discount.

    Barrett's projected market value on Spotrac saw him getting a four-year, $78.8 million deal. Such a contract would have made him the 34th-highest-paid player in the league and the second-richest outside linebacker.

    Instead, Barrett agreed to come back to the defending Super Bowl champions as the 50th-highest-paid player overall and the third-highest-paid outside linebacker.

    His deal is similar to the five-year, $82.5 million deal the Tennessee Titans gave Bud Dupree. The difference is the Bucs already know Barrett fits in with the organization, and he isn't coming off a major knee injury.

    That's a win-win for the Bucs, who are in prime position to defend their crown.