Bleacher Report Expert Consensus Free-Agency Grades
We're a couple of weeks into the 2021 edition of free agency, and while quite a few players remain unsigned, we have a good idea of how each team fared.
For some teams, "winning" at free agency was a matter of keeping the band together. The defending Super Bowl champions did just that—so well, in fact, that all 22 starters will be the same in Week 1 as they were on the field at Raymond James Stadium last February.
Other teams took a chainsaw to the roster. The New England Patriots went on a full-on signing binge, bringing in multiple starters on both sides of the ball. The Las Vegas Raiders blew up the offensive line; although an argument can be made that the team fixed what wasn't broken.
The Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts all have a new starter at quarterback. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree and wide receiver Kenny Golladay have new teams and much beefier bank accounts.
Some franchises improved markedly. Others simply tried to tread water. And a couple of teams—well, we're not sure what they were doing.
As the dust settles on the first few waves of free agency, Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered to offer their takes on who dominated and who desperately desires a do-over.
NOTE: Trades were considered in grades, provided that those trades involved players. The Matthew Stafford deal counts. The pick swap(s) between Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco do not. Latter was all about the 2021 draft.
The Arizona Cardinals are all-in.
After his team narrowly missed the playoffs in 2020, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was aggressive in adding veteran talent. J.J. Watt was brought in to bolster the pass rush opposite Chandler Jones. Wide receiver A.J. Green was signed to complement DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk.
Keim also addressed the team's biggest departure, replacing long-time starting cornerback Patrick Peterson with Super Bowl XLIX star Malcolm Butler.
By most any objective measure, the Cardinals will exit free agency in better shape than they entered it, leading Gagnon to give the team a gold star of sorts.
"I love that they're loading up to go for it all with a veteran roster, and I've got no problem with replacing Peterson with Butler," he said. "They get particular kudos for acquiring center Rodney Hudson at a discounted rate of three years and $33.75 million."
Add a (hopefully) solid draft class, and the Cardinals could be in position to make the NFC West a three-team race.
Consensus Grade: A-
The Atlanta Falcons weren't in financial position to be major players in free agency—and it shows.
The team's biggest outside acquisition was running back Mike Davis, who averaged 3.9 yards per carry as the injury replacement for Christian McCaffrey with the Carolina Panthers.
Outside that move, it was mostly fliers—one-year deals for edge-rushers Brandon Copeland and Barkevious Mingo meant to goose a pass rush that managed just 29 sacks.
There were losses, as well. Young safety Keanu Neal, 25, is in Dallas. Veteran center Alex Mack and guard Justin McCray are in San Francisco and Houston, respectively.
All told, it's hard to view the free-agency period as a net positive for a team in need of good news. And Sobleski believes that sets the stage for a long season in Georgia.
"Atlanta is no longer a team on the come," he said. "Instead, the roster is aging and deteriorating in spots without the financial flexibility to make significant moves. As such, the Falcons did little to nothing to make their team better in free agency."
Consensus Grade: D+
The Baltimore Ravens entered free agency with a couple of pressing needs—and the risk that another would develop.
The Ravens addressed the retirement of veteran guard Marshal Yanda by signing Kevin Zeitler. And Baltimore finally added receiver help by inking Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal, but only after missing out on other wideouts like Golladay and T.Y. Hilton.
But bringing back youngster Tyus Bowser, 25, and veteran Pernell McPhee isn't likely to offset the loss of the team's top two edge-rushers, Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon.
All in all, the moves didn't impress Gagnon even a little.
"It's pretty tough to justify letting your top two pass-rushers walk, and they didn't do enough to bolster support for franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson," he said.
There will be quite a bit of pressure on Ravens general manager Eric Decosta to nail the 2021 draft.
The alternative is falling off the pace in an AFC North where there isn't much margin for error.
Consensus Grade: C-
Coming off a 13-win season and trip to the AFC Championship Game, the Buffalo Bills had different priorities in free agency than the other teams in the AFC East. Where the Patriots and Jets were looking to fill holes, Buffalo's focus was more on preventing those holes from appearing.
In Sobleski's opinion, the Bills accomplished that goal.
"They did a solid job maintaining their roster," he said. "The Bills didn't necessarily get any better, but they offset a potential major loss at wide receiver when John Brown left by signing Emmanuel Sanders. Plus, Buffalo retained cornerback Levi Wallace."
Wallace wasn't the only defensive starter Buffalo held on to—weak-side linebacker Matt Milano will be back in Western New York in 2021, as will right tackle Daryl Williams.
Given the hits that the cap-strapped Kansas City Chiefs took in free agency, it can be argued that the Bills have the best roster in the AFC from top to bottom.
But that loaded roster brings with it lofty expectations. Anything less than a trip to Los Angeles and Super Bowl LVI will be viewed as a failure.
Consensus Grade: B
Most of the Carolina Panthers' offseason has focused on a potential change under center. That change hasn't happened yet, but the team has been active nonetheless.
The Panthers aggressively tried to improve the offensive line, franchise-tagging offensive tackle Taylor Moton and bringing in fellow tackle Cameron Erving and guard Pat Elflein. The defense got an overhaul as well—defensive end Morgan Fox, edge-rusher Haason Reddick and linebacker Denzel Perryman were signed to bolster the front seven.
Sobleski was much more impressed by the latter moves than the former.
"When free agency starts with the signings of Elflein and Erving, things aren't going well," he said. "However, the Panthers turned it around somewhat by adding Reddick and Perryman to the defense. Still, whoever starts behind center should be very afraid."
"The defensive signings aren't sure things," Davenport added, "and the 'improvements' on the offensive front don't inspire a ton of confidence. The loss of wide receiver Curtis Samuel was a blow too—it hasn't been a disastrous offseason in Charlotte, but it hasn't been an especially good one either.
Consensus Grade: C-
"This almost feels like a joke. Andy Dalton? That's your solution? And you give up two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller? The defense is worse, and the offense is no better."
That was Gagnon's unflinching take on what the Chicago Bears have done this offseason. And he has a point.
After whiffing with a massive offer for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Chicago's Plan B under center was to settle for Dalton, who is somehow supposed to be an upgrade over Trubisky despite posting fewer passing yards per game and a lower passer rating in 2020.
To clear cap space, the Bears then released No. 1 cornerback Kyle Fuller, who signed in Denver. The team inked veteran Desmond Trufant as a replacement, but Trufant struggled in his lone season with the Detroit Lions in 2020.
"Dalton's last winning season was in 2015," Davenport said. "He last played in all 16 games in a season in 2017. And he was mediocre at best playing on a Dallas offense last year that was loaded with skill-position talent. Fans can tell themselves that a Wilson trade may still magically materialize until they turn Bears blue, but the fact is Ryan Pace botched free agency in a big way. Both he and Matt Nagy are on borrowed time. And the Bears have no chance of challenging Green Bay in the NFC North."
Consensus Grade: F
"The Cincinnati Bengals entered free agency with one item looming above all others on the 'to-do' list. And with one exception, the team blew it."
That's Davenport's less than rosy assessment of another aggressive free-agent period for the Bengals. For the second year in a row, Cincy spent quite a bit, although this year's focus was as much on filling newly sprung leaks as improving the roster.
After watching Carl Lawson depart for New York, the Bengals gave $60 million over four years to edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson. The departure of cornerback William Jackson III spurred the team to sign a replacement in Chidobe Awuzie. And Cincy did make a move to fortify one of the leakiest O-lines in the league, agreeing to a one-year deal with veteran tackle Riley Reiff.
"I know there's a lot of disappointment surrounding the fact that they arguably downgraded from Lawson to Hendrickson and from Jackson to Awuzie, but they basically got the younger Awuzie (25) at half the price, and Hendrickson's ceiling is high," Gagnon said. "I also think the Mike Hilton addition could be huge, and while the offensive line still needs work, Reiff should help."
But Reiff's arrival won't single-handedly turn around a line that was among the league's worst last year.
There's more pressure than ever on the team to address that line early in the 2021 draft.
Consensus Grade: C+
Fresh off their most successful season in over two decades, the Cleveland Browns had a clear free-agent edict.
And as Sobleski wrote in giving Browns GM Andrew Berry high marks, the team successfully addressed it.
"Cleveland had one goal this offseason: Improve the defense," he said. "In response, Berry signed one of the game's best-all around safeties (John Johnson III), an elite nickel corner (Troy Hill), a top tackler (Anthony Walker Jr.), a 2017 first-round defensive end (Takkarist McKinley) and a proven veteran defensive lineman (Malik Jackson) without grossly overspending. Yeah, the Browns are significantly better on that side of the ball."
The team also didn't lose anyone of note, and it brought back wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who played a significant role while Odell Beckham Jr. was sidelined in 2020 with a torn ACL.
Cleveland's defensive additions leave it without a glaring hole on that side of the ball—especially if it can sign a No. 2 defensive end to pair with Myles Garrett.
That sets up Berry to take a "best player available" approach to the 2021 draft.
And it sets the Browns up as potentially the team to beat in the AFC North.
Consensus Grade: A-
The grades for the Dallas Cowboys are all over the place. And those grades are largely based on one signing.
Sure, the Cowboys made other moves this offseason, adding rotational talents like Tarell Basham along the defensive front and fortifying the defensive backfield with safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal. But the Dallas offseason has been all about the four-year, $160 million extension given to quarterback Dak Prescott.
It's an extension that Sobleski lauded.
"The fact that Jerry and Stephen Jones finally signed Prescott to a long-term deal automatically makes this a passing grade," he said. "Yes, the numbers are exorbitant, but a team can't consistently win without quality quarterback play. Everything else is secondary."
Gagnon wasn't nearly as kind in his assessment of the team's performance, while Davenport came in somewhere in between.
"Dallas misplayed the Prescott saga—and paid the price," Davenport said. "But it was still a signing that had to be made. Now the issue is yet another big contract on the books, which means that Dallas has to hit on low-cost signings like Neal to stay competitive in the NFC. An offensive line that struggled in 2020 is also essentially untouched—there's work to do in the draft."
Consensus Grade: C+
The question of who will be the quarterback for the Denver Broncos in 2021 continues to loom over the team. Per Chad Jensen of Mile High Huddle, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com told KOA's Big Al & JoJo that Sam Darnold of the Jets could still be an option:
"I think Darnold's kind of the last domino to fall. We were waiting on the [Deshaun] Watson thing and it looks like with everything going on there right now that that's not going to happen, so I think the only domino left to fall would be Darnold. You poke around, and it seems like Denver and Carolina would be two teams kind of in that conversation."
Denver hasn't made a move in the QB market—or done much at all on offense. But the defense has been another story. The team brought back safety Justin Simmons, edge-rusher Von Miller and defensive end Shelby Harris and retooled the defensive backfield by signing cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Fuller.
The defensive overhaul met with approval from Gagnon.
"I love their upgrades at cornerback, and I give them credit for avoiding the Daltons and Ryan Fitzpatricks of the market," he said.
Davenport, on the other hand, had one beef.
"Love the Fuller signing," he said, "and I can live with making Simmons the NFL's highest-paid safety. But not even tendering running back Phillip Lindsay after two 1,000-yard seasons in three years was short-sighted and cheap."
Consensus Grade: B+
The Detroit Lions had one of the more eventful free-agency periods in the NFL—for better or worse.
The centerpiece of the offseason in Motown is the trade that sent Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles and brought Jared Goff, his abomination of a contract and two first-round picks (in 2022 and 2023) to Detroit.
If Goff can get his career back on track, the deal will be quite the coup. But that won't be easy—after Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay both left in free agency, Detroit's top two receivers in 2021 will be Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams.
It wasn't all doom and gloom in Detroit—after a career year in 2020, edge-rusher Romeo Okwara reupped for a reasonable $12.3 million per season. But as Gagnon wrote, it's hard to see one of the NFL's worst teams a year ago being markedly better this year.
"Outside re-signing Romeo Okwara to a slightly below-market deal, the Lions didn't do much to improve what was already one of the league's worst rosters," he said. "Wide receiver is particularly scary with Perriman and Williams being Detroit's top targets. Yikes."
New head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes have their work cut out for them.
Consensus Grade: D+
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have fallen one game short of the Super Bowl each of the past two years. And as the team heads to the 2021 draft, the Pack aren't markedly worse than they were in 2020.
They also aren't any better.
Green Bay lost some players in free agency, chief among them center Corey Linsley, who signed a five-year, $62.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers. There weren't any major additions, although the Packers did retain star running back Aaron Jones (four years, $48 million) and cornerback Kevin King.
In other words, Green Bay's problem areas are still just that. There's still no reliable No. 2 receiver opposite Davante Adams. The inside linebackers are average at best.
"The Packers are a good team and easily the favorite in the NFC North," Davenport said. "And the team didn't have the resources to be big spenders. But Green Bay's stubborn refusal to upgrade opposite Adams at wide receiver is baffling, and the Jones contract is a puzzler given that Green Bay could have tagged him at just over $8 million. Heading to Cleveland and the draft, this feels like a team that will win the division, make the playoffs—and then come up short of the Super Bowl."
Consensus Grade: D+
That the criticism that is about to be levied at the Texans can be offered without even mentioning Deshaun Watson says all you need to know about free agency in Houston.
It was a mess.
If grades were based on quantity, Houston would get an A-plus. The team added offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (via trade), edge-rusher Shaq Lawson, running back Mark Ingram, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back Phillip Lindsay, linebackers Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill, edge-rusher Jordan Jenkins and cornerbacks Desmond King and Terrance Mitchell.
But Lawson has never come close to fulfilling his status as a 2016 first-round pick. Ingram, 31, is on the tail end of his career. After inking Ingram, the team signed Lindsay, despite the presence of David Johnson in Houston. Kirksey can't stay healthy. King is on his third team in the last two years. Houston also released defensive end JJ Watt and watched wide receiver Will Fuller V sign with the Dolphins.
"The Texans made a lot of moves seemingly for the sake of making moves," Gagnon wrote. "The chairs on the Titanic have been rearranged and Fuller is on a lifeboat. Horribly played."
"If I didn't know better," Davenport said, "I'd say that general manager Nick Caserio just randomly called free agents and offered contracts to whoever wanted one. In fact, I don't know for sure he didn't. Houston's offensive line might be marginally better in 2021, but outside that, Gagnon's seafaring analogy is spot on. The Texans were bad last season. They may well be worse in 2021."
Consensus Grade: D-
Under general manager Chris Ballard, the Indianapolis Colts haven't been overly active in free agency. This year was no different—except for one thing.
The retirement of Philip Rivers left the Colts with a massive problem at the game's most important position—a problem Ballard attacked by dealing a package of draft picks (that could include a first-rounder if conditions are met) to the Philadelphia Eagles for Carson Wentz.
That move looks better than the one Ballard made to protect that new investment. After losing tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement, the Colts replaced him with Sam Tevi, who was a massive liability for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. Julie'n Davenport was also brought in at tackle, but he barely played last year in Miami.
Outside the Tevi signing, free agency essentially came down to attempts to keep their own players. Indy was successful in that regard with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but the team lost linebacker Anthony Walker and defensive lineman Denico Autry. The jury's still out on edge-rusher Justin Houston.
The analysts here at Bleacher Report aren't especially pumped about how things went.
"If Tevi is seriously their best attempt to replace Castonzo, the Colts are overdoing this 'don't pay a premium for free agents' mantra," Gagnon said. "They also failed to upgrade the receiving corps, leaving Wentz in a far-from-ideal spot."
Consensus Grade: D+
That isn't to say the Jaguars haven't been busy—the team entered free agency with more cap space than any other franchise. And the Jags spent a chunk of that cash, franchise-tagging left tackle Cam Robinson, handing cornerback Shaquill Griffin $13.3 million per season and inking wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. to a two-year, $12.5 million deal.
To be fair, the Jones signing is reasonable. But Robinson is a below-average tackle making elite money and Griffin allowed a passer rating against of 97 or above in two of the past three years. It's the continuation of a cycle that often plagues bad teams—they overpay for free agents who don't live up to contracts that wind up anchors around the franchise's neck.
"Meyer basically admitted he doesn't like or understand how free agency works, and it showed during the team's signing spree," Sobleski said. "The sheer volume of the incoming crop doesn't make up for the fact that none of the additions, besides possibly Griffin, move the needle.
Consensus Grade: C
Kansas City Chiefs
As we watched Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes run for his life in Super Bowl LV, it became apparent that the two-time defending AFC champions needed to upgrade the offensive line.
Whether that goal has been accomplished remains in doubt.
Just before the start of free agency, the Chiefs stunned the NFL by releasing both starting tackles from last year's team. Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher could still return. There's no doubt that Joe Thuney's signing is a major upgrade inside, and if veteran guard Kyle Long can recapture past form, he'll bring valuable experience all over the line.
But the Chiefs lost wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Damien Williams—largely because the Thuney signing wiped out the cap space created by releasing Schwartz and Fisher.
In Sobleski's opinion, the Chiefs neither lost ground nor gained any.
"Kansas City's offseason decisions are interesting because the franchise made a splash in free agency by signing guards Thuney and Long," he said. "But the Chiefs are merely treading water after releasing both of their starting offensive tackles, Fisher and Schwartz."
Based on their grades, it appears Gagnon and Davenport agree.
Consensus Grade: C
Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders' free-agency period was perplexing.
On one hand, there's no question that a Vegas pass rush that ranked 29th in sacks needed an influx of talent. It got one with the addition of edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue and interior linemen Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas.
What is confusing is the Raiders rebuild of an offensive line that has been a strength in recent years. Tackle Trent Brown, guard Gabe Jackson and center Rodney Hudson are all quality NFL starters. Brown and Hudson have been named to the Pro Bowl.
All three were traded for a subpar haul of picks, and while the Raiders brought back veteran guard Richie Incognito and signed center Nick Martin, there's no way to say with a straight face the Raiders are better (or even as good) in front of Derek Carr than they were a year ago.
The Raiders also turned heads when they signed running back Kenyan Drake to a contract that averages $5.5 million per season despite the presence of Josh Jacobs.
Still, Gagnon noted things could be worse.
"I know they're deservedly taking a lot of heat for what happened with the offensive line, and that Drake contract is comedy," he said. "That said, Ngakoue can still become an All-Pro-caliber pass-rusher, and they got good value with (wide receiver) John Brown. That bumps them up to a C."
Well, almost a C, anyway.
Consensus Grade: C-
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers entered free agency with a clear goal: improve one of the worst offensive lines in the league to help Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert continue to progress in his second season.
There's still work to be done in that regard. But bringing in All-Pro center Corey Linsley (who was arguably the top free-agent offensive lineman of 2021) was an excellent start. The Bolts also added Matt Feiler, a six-year veteran who started 29 games at guard and tackle over the past two years in Pittsburgh.
The Chargers also watched turnstile tackle Sam Tevi join the Colts. If ever there was a case of addition by subtraction, that is it.
L.A.'s biggest loss was tight end Hunter Henry, but the Chargers filled that void (at least partly) by bringing in veteran Jared Cook. And while the team lost a couple of defenders (including linebackers Denzel Perryman and Nick Vigil) Gagnon believes Chargers GM Tom Telesco acquitted himself well in 2021.
"The defense took some minor hits, but they rightly bolstered the offensive line for Herbert while smartly moving on from declining veterans elsewhere," he said. "This run through free agency will age well."
Sobleski and Davenport agree.
Consensus Grade: B
Los Angeles Rams
There's quite a bit of disparity in the free-agency grades for the Los Angeles Rams.
Two of our analysts are skeptical of GM Les Snead's approach.
The trade that sent Jared Goff to Detroit and brought in Matthew Stafford under center cost the Rams first-round picks in 2022 and 2023. Thanks in part to that trade, a salary-cap crunch led to the departure of two starters in the secondary in safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill.
It can also be argued that the defensive starter the team did bring back (edge-rusher Leonard Floyd) was an overpay—$64 million over four years for a player who has had one big year in five seasons.
However, Davenport views the Rams' offseason more favorably…for one reason.
"The Rams don't have a ton of depth. And the team won't pick in Round 1 again until approximately 2071," he said. "But L.A.'s front-line starters are as good as any team's in the NFC, and Stafford is a marked upgrade at the game's most important position. If the Rams make the Super Bowl in the next year or two, Snead's aggressive approach will have been a success. Anything less than that, and my cohorts will be proved correct."
Consensus Grade: C-
In 2020, the Miami Dolphins shelled out big money to the likes of linebacker Kyle Van Noy, edge-rusher Shaq Lawson and cornerback Byron Jones.
That only Jones is still on the team one year later doesn't speak especially well to the quality of that spending spree.
The Dolphins took a much more measured approach to free agency in 2021. Miami's biggest addition was wide receiver Will Fuller V, who came in on a one-year deal. Miami also swung a trade for inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney and added veteran running back Malcolm Brown. There wasn't much in the way of major losses, although Ryan Fitzpatrick will be throwing passes in Washington in 2021 and center Ted Karras bolted for New England.
As Sobleski wrote, what Miami did in free agency isn't as important as what comes next.
"Miami is trying to keep pace with the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. However, the strength of the Dolphins' offseason approach revolves around their draft assets," he said. "Still, the inclusion of Fuller creates more opportunity for chunk plays and provides quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with an excellent weapon."
Miami has already become the tone-setter for the 2021 draft after trades with the Eagles and 49ers.
General manager Chris Grier just needs to make good use of all the team's draft capital.
Consensus Grade: B-
The Minnesota Vikings are attempting to rebound from a disappointing 7-9 season.
If free agency is any indication, that won't be especially easy to do.
There were additions of note. The Vikings badly needed to upgrade on the back end, and while cornerback Patrick Peterson might not be the player he once was, he's still an improvement. Dalvin Tomlinson provides a lane-clogging presence in the middle of the defensive line, and Nick Vigil could offer improvement at linebacker on the cheap (one year, $1.75 million).
But there were losses as well. Offensive tackle Riley Reiff departed for Cincinnati. Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph left for New York. And safety Anthony Harris signed a free-agent deal to join the Philadelphia Eagles.
For Davenport, that's the issue: For every hole that was filled, another opened.
"Peterson will help on the back end, but there's a big hole opposite Harrison Smith at safety. The Vikings O-line was the seventh-worst in the league last year, per Pro Football Focus, before Reiff left. The third receiver spot and No. 2 edge-rusher are question marks. It's going to take an excellent draft for me to even consider Minnesota as a challenger to the Packers in the NFC North.
Consensus Grade: C-
New England Patriots
Apparently, the first losing season in two decades in New England lit a fire under Bill Belichick. Because no team in the NFL was more active in free agency than the Patriots.
On offense, the Pats signed the top two tight ends on the open market in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Via a trade with the Raiders for tackle Trent Brown, re-signing guard David Andrews and bringing in center Ted Karras, the offensive line has been improved. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne should add pop to one of the league's weaker wide receiver rooms.
There were defensive additions too. Jalen Mills adds experience and versatility in the secondary. Matthew Judon was signed to bolster New England's pass rush.
It was a whirlwind of activity—one that impressed Gagnon. But there's one area he thinks the team still needs to address.
"They overpaid in some cases, and they still need to address quarterback, but there's little doubt the offensive line is jacked, and those tight ends should make life a lot easier on whoever starts under center," he wrote. "They'll be back in the playoff picture in 2021, especially if they can upgrade on Cam Newton."
If there's a problem in Beantown, it's that said upgrade under center won't be easy to pull off.
The Pats may be stuck with Newton—at least in 2021.
Consensus Grade: A-
New Orleans Saints
In some respects, the free-agency period for the New Orleans Saints has to be graded on a curve.
The Saints entered the new league year in one of the worst positions relative to the salary cap in the NFL—almost $24 million in the red, according to Vic Tafur of The Athletic. As a result, the team's biggest goal in free agency was just getting in compliance with the cap.
Sobleski gives the team some credit just for doing that (and landing a quarterback to ostensibly replace the retired Drew Brees).
"What could the Saints do? Kudos for whittling down what looked like an insurmountable salary-cap overage," he wrote, "but it prevented the team from doing anything of note in free agency. Although, Jameis Winston's retention on another short-term, prove-it deal could have long-lasting repercussions."
Still, outside the Winston signing, the Saints did little, and the team's salary situation led to several veteran departures, including edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins.
With Brees joining that parade of players who left the Big Easy in 2021, big changes are coming for the Saints.
And most of them aren't good.
Consensus Grade: C
New York Giants
New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman approached free agency in 2021 like a man who knows that if Big Blue falls flat again this season, he won't get a chance to manage free agency in 2022.
Gettleman was aggressive on both sides of the ball. The Giants landed perhaps the biggest skill-position prize in signing 27-year-old wide receiver Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million contract. The Giants spent big on defense as well, re-upping Leonard Williams at $21 million per season and handing cornerback Adoree' Jackson a three-year, $39 million pact.
The sizes of some of those deals are a tad jaw-dropping. But Gagnon wrote that sometimes bad teams just have to pony up a little more cheese.
"I'm down with them gunning for it by adding as much support as possible for Daniel Jones in a make-or-break season," he said. "They overpaid in several spots, but sometimes that's necessary."
Davenport is on board with that assessment—with an exception.
"For the most part, I like the talent the Giants added this year," he said. "But PFF graded New York's offensive line as the NFC's worst in 2020, and that line could be even worse with Kevin Zeitler gone. Yes, Nate Solder will be back at tackle, but given how he played in 2019, that may not be a good thing."
Consensus Grade: B
New York Jets
The New York Jets entered free agency with more cap space than most NFL teams.
They made an effort to put that money to use.
The addition of edge-rusher Carl Lawson should give new head coach Robert Saleh an outside presence to complement ascending tackle Quinnen Williams. New York bolstered the wide receiver room with the signing of Keelan Cole and Corey Davis and made a couple of potentially sneaky-good acquisitions in linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner.
The Jets still have major questions looming at quarterback and running back, but the team appears to have established some momentum heading into the draft.
"The success of New York's 2021 free-agency period will hinge largely on Davis and Lawson's ability to live up to their new salaries," Davenport said. "But if Gang Green is intent on moving on from Sam Darnold this offseason in favor of BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, then GM Joe Douglas should have already flipped the 2018 No. 3 overall pick. The closer we get to the draft, the less New York is likely to receive in compensation."
Consensus Grade: B
Free agency for the Philadelphia Eagles has to be graded a curve. It's hard to sign players when a team has no money. And after eating a record $33.8 million dead-cap hit as part of the Carson Wentz trade, the Eagles are broke—at least where 2021 is concerned.
The reality in Philly is that the 2021 season is a wash. If there was any doubt the team was punting on the campaign, it evaporated when the Eagles traded down in Round 1—adding a 2022 first-rounder from Miami.
The Eagles did make one of the better value signings of this season in luring Anthony Harris from Minnesota for one year and $4 million, but a number of position groups took a hit. The defensive line lost depth. The secondary lost a key contributor in Jalen Mills. And the wide receivers are still a mess.
"If Wentz continues to struggle in his new home, the moves GM Howie Roseman made in 2021 will look a lot better," Davenport said. "But the team that won Super Bowl LII is blowing up the roster just a few years later. That's not a good look for the front office."
Consensus Grade: C
Well, at least all three of our NFL analysts are in agreement regarding how Pittsburgh's free-agent period went.
Unfortunately, that agreement is that Pittsburgh's offseason has been terrible.
To be fair, the Steelers were in a bad position relative to the salary cap to open free agency. And Pittsburgh retained wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on an affordable one-year, $8 million deal.
But that's where the good news runs out.
Two of Pittsburgh's top three cornerbacks from a year ago (Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton) are gone. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired. Starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva remains unsigned. So does running back James Conner. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree departed. Holes have appeared on both sides of the ball, and the Steelers don't have the salary resources to do much about it.
"Even if the Steelers ace the 2021 draft," Davenport said, "the team that takes the field in Week 1 of the 2021 season isn't going to be as good on paper as the squad that fell apart down the stretch last year. Pittsburgh's championship window is closing—or already closed."
"They've taken so many hits elsewhere," Gagnon added, "that it's hard to understand why they bothered extending the Ben Roethlisberger era."
Consensus Grade: D
San Francisco 49ers
The discussion surrounding the San Francisco 49ers is all about the blockbuster trade that netted the team the third pick in the 2021 draft.
But we're concerned with the moves that came before that.
For the most part, those moves were solid. Bringing back left tackle Trent Williams is great news for whoever the Niners roll out under center in 2021. So is the signing of center Alex Mack—he may no longer be the perennial Pro Bowler he once was, but he remains an above-average player.
Losing the team's most effective edge-rusher from a year ago (Kerry Hyder Jr.) is a blow, but the addition of Samson Ebukam and the return of a healthy Nick Bosa should more than offset that. Veteran corner Richard Sherman all but certainly won't be back in 2021, but the 49ers retained cornerback K'Waun Williams and safety Jaquiski Tartt.
"The 49ers needed to get healthy and avoid major losses more than the team needed to fill roster holes, and it was mission accomplished," Davenport said. "Now the focus turns to navigating the quarterback quandary that seemingly has San Francisco ready to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo two years after a Super Bowl trip."
Consensus Grade: B-
The Seattle Seahawks entered free agency at the center of a maelstrom of speculation regarding the future of quarterback Russell Wilson.
That speculation hasn't slowed much. But Wilson is still Seattle's quarterback. And the Seahawks' best move of free agency was improving the protection in front of him.
The addition of guard Gabe Jackson for a Day 3 pick was a coup for Seahawks GM John Schneider. He also brought in help for Seattle's pass rush in the form of veteran Kerry Hyder Jr., while re-upping fellow edge-rusher Carlos Dunlap and running back Chris Carson.
There were departures—the Seahawks lost their No. 1 cornerback in Shaquill Griffin, replacing him with free-agent Ahkello Witherspoon. Veteran linebacker K.J. Wright remains unsigned as well. But as a whole, Gagnon felt Seattle made the best of a tough situation.
"I really don't blame them for not overpaying Griffin," he said. "I like that they added Jackson to the offensive line, and at least Gerald Everett gives Wilson another proven target."
Sobleski's assessment isn't as rosy—likely because the team didn't do more to bolster an offensive line that PFF ranked in the middle of the pack in 2020.
Consensus Grade: B-
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may well have had the NFL's best free-agency period—and they did so without making any outside signings of note.
Sometimes keeping the talent you have is more important than bringing in more. In that respect, the Buccaneers hit it out of the park. Despite a less than robust war chest of available cap space, the Bucs retained edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett. And inside linebacker Lavonte David. And wide receiver Chris Godwin. And defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. And tight end Rob Gronkowski. And running back Leonard Fournette.
It was quite the balancing act.
"Tampa Bay won the offseason again," Sobleski said. "This time, the organization did so by retaining all of its talent after that looked like an impossibility. I guess this is where I'm supposed to make some joke about keeping the band together."
"Per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire, Tampa will return all 22 of the starters from the team that just throttled the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV," Davenport added. "Retaining talent like that is unheard of in the 21st-century NFL—and it establishes the Buccaneers as the clear favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles."
Consensus Grade: A
The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs for the second straight season in 2020, but the franchise's most pressing need is the same as it was at this time a year ago.
The addition of Jadeveon Clowney in 2020 didn't address the Titans' lack of a pass rush. But there's renewed optimism that Tennessee will be better in that regard after the addition of edge-rusher Bud Dupree.
He tallied 19.5 sacks the past two seasons, but there's more than a little risk involved in giving the 28-year-old $16.5 million per season after he tore his ACL last December.
The Titans brought in help in defensive lineman Denico Autry and veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was a replacement for Malcolm Butler. Slot receiver Josh Reynolds joined the Titans in an effort to soften the blow of Corey Davis' departure. But the team also lost cornerback Desmond King and tight end Jonnu Smith, with the latter combining with Davis to create a sizable hole in Ryan Tannehill's passing arsenal.
"If there's a silver lining for the Titans," Davenport said, "it's that no team in the AFC South received a good grade. And if Dupree and Autry pan out, it will be big for the Tennessee defense. But if they don't, a Titans secondary that was 29th in the league last year will be exposed. And the corners in Nashville aren't as good on paper as they were in 2020."
Consensus Grade: C-
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team made an effort to defend its NFC East "title" in free agency. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed to run the offense. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel offers Fitzpatrick another weapon in the passing game. And Washington added cornerback William Jackson III, 28, to offset the loss of Ronald Darby, 27.
Whether those moves will work is a matter of debate among our analysts. Gagnon's low grade reflects a healthy skepticism that a 38-year-old quarterback with a career record 27 games under .500 will get Washington back to the playoffs.
"Swapping out Darby for Jackson III was a mistake considering the price and age differences," he said, "and I'm far from excited about Fitzpatrick at $10 million."
Sobleski wasn't blown away by the Fitzpatrick signing, but he said the WFT did well overall.
"Fitzpatrick's signing isn't exciting," he said. "At the same time, he'll give Washington a legit chance to win the NFC East. Furthermore, the signings of Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries add much-needed weaponry to the offense."
Davenport took things another step.
"Washington has a top-10 (if not top-five) defense. A top-10 offensive line. And a solid cadre of skill-position talent. Fitzpatrick may not be Aaron Rodgers, but he's a substantial upgrade over what the team had under center in 2020. If Fitz can avoid the turnovers that have plagued him at times, Washington can do more than just win the league's weakest division. They can be a legit threat in the postseason tournament."
Consensus Grade: B-