The Riskiest NFL Free-Agent Signings of the 2021 Offseason
No free-agent signing is without risk. When teams commit millions to a player before even getting him in the building, the possibility of that decision backfiring is going to exist.
However, some moves carry more risks than others. Last year, for example, the Tennessee Titans took a $12.7 million flier on Jadeveon Clowney despite him coming off an injury-hampered, three-sack season. Tennessee got a mere eight games and zero sacks in return.
Injury history is just one example of a risk factor. Some signings are risky because of past production, supporting talent, potential upside and the sheer dollar amount of the deal.
Here, we'll examine nine 2021 signings who could be considered the riskiest. These aren't necessarily bad deals, but they're gambles.
Arizona Cardinals Sign J.J. Watt
The Arizona Cardinals signed veteran pass-rusher J.J. Watt to a two-year, $31 million deal before the start of free agency. His contract includes $23 million in guarantees. That would be a fair price if Watt were still a top-tier player, but he hasn't been that in a while.
Watt produced just nine sacks over the past two seasons and had just 29 quarterback pressures in 2020. The 32-year-old also has a noteworthy injury history, having missed eight or more games in three of the past five seasons.
By adding Watt, the Cardinals essentially gave up on re-signing 26-year-old pass-rusher Haason Reddick. While Reddick does carry his own risks, he has the potential to be a five- or six-year contributor.
Chicago Bears Sign Andy Dalton
By bringing in Andy Dalton, the Chicago Bears are again rolling the dice on a middling quarterback. While his one-year, $10 million deal isn't a big risk on the surface, his risk level is about more than the money.
Chicago needs to find its quarterback of the future. It decided that Mitchell Trubisky wasn't the answer, and Nick Foles' brief 2020 audition resulted in a nearly equal level of doubt. However, the Bears aren't necessarily getting an upgrade in Dalton.
His last Pro Bowl season came five years ago, and over the last two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys, he has compiled a 6-16 record as a starter.
Dalton could be just good enough to get Chicago to eight or nine wins and possibly into the postseason. That would also leave the Bears once again out of position to land one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft—Chicago currently owns the 20th pick this year.
Cincinnati Bengals Sign Trey Hendrickson
The Bengals are betting on a pass-rusher with just one year of high-end production. In their case, is Trey Hendrickson, who logged 13.5 sacks and 33 quarterback pressures with the New Orleans Saints last season. For that, he got a four-year, $60 million deal with $16 million guaranteed.
The obvious risk is that Hendrickson may be a one-year wonder, as he had just 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons. His 2020 numbers might also be misleading.
"In the Saints' Week 9 win against the Bucs last season, Hendrickson finished with two sacks," The Athletic's Robert Mays wrote. "That's a damn good day, according to the stat line. But take a look at those two plays. Both of those sacks are of the cleanup, late-in-the-down variety, and that was a consistent theme for Hendrickson last season."
Hendrickson benefited from a Saints secondary that ranked fifth in passing yards allowed last season. He isn't likely to get the same assistance from a Cincinnati defense that ranked 19th against the pass and 26th overall in 2020.
Jacksonville Jaguars Sign Shaquill Griffin
The Jacksonville Jaguars signed cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a three-year, $44.5 million deal that includes $29 million in guarantees. The hope is that he'll help improve a defense that ranked 27th against the pass and 31st overall in 2020.
The 25-year-old was a four-year starter with the Seattle Seahawks, but he hasn't ever been a lockdown defender.
In 2020, Griffin allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 93.3. That's not disastrous, but it's far from elite. He's allowed an opposing quarterback rating above 93 in each of the past three seasons and surrendered 15 touchdowns in that span.
Griffin has been a decidedly average starter, but in annual value, only 11 cornerbacks will earn more than him.
Los Angeles Rams Sign Leonard Floyd
The Los Angeles Rams' signing of pass-rusher Leonard Floyd is a bit of an outlier here. He was with the team in 2020 and had a relatively successful season, finishing with 10.5 sacks. However, locking him up with a four-year, $64 million deal is still a long-term financial risk.
While Floyd will only carry a cap hit of $5.5 million this season, that number jumps to $20 million in 2022. Parting with him won't be a viable option, either, as he'll still have $27 million in dead money on his contract after this season.
Partnered with a bad cap situation—the Rams are already projected to be over the 2022 cap—and some inconsistent prior production, Floyd's deal is a gamble.
He had just 18.5 sacks in four seasons before arriving in Los Angeles. Dante Fowler Jr. also had a 10-plus-sack season with L.A. before going on to have just three sacks with the Atlanta Falcons last season.
While Floyd will benefit from playing alongside Aaron Donald and in the Rams' No. 1-ranked defense, there's no guarantee that he'll continue producing at a high level. Seeing as how he logged just 30 quarterback pressures in 2020, one could argue that his most recent level of production wasn't even that high.
The Rams, though, are committing at least two years and $32.5 million in guarantees.
New England Patriots Sign Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry
The New England Patriots gambled on a pair of tight ends, and we'll examine both here.
While perhaps not an elite playmaker, Jonnu Smith was a reliable chain-mover for Tennessee last season. Eight of his 41 receptions went for touchdowns, and 25 went for first downs.
Hunter Henry, meanwhile, flashed more explosive potential with the Los Angeles Chargers, but he has a significant injury history and a lack of elite production. He never reached 700 receiving yards in a single season and has missed 25 games in five seasons.
While it's clear that New England wants to go back to utilizing two-tight end sets, it's unlikely that the duo of Smith and Henry will create the same mismatches the Patriots enjoyed with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Smith and Henry aren't elite tight ends, but New England is paying them like they are. Smith got a four-year, $50 million deal, while Henry landed a three-year, $37.5 million contract. In annual value, only Travis Kelce and George Kittle are making more than either Henry or Smith among tight ends.
New York Jets Sign Corey Davis
The New York Jets may or may not stick with Sam Darnold. Regardless of who is under center, they need to find a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and adding Corey Davis hasn't changed that.
Davis was a fine complementary piece with the Titans, but the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft has never emerged as a true top target. He did have 984 receiving yards in 14 games last season but has never reached the 1,000-yard mark.
In his first three seasons, Davis never even reached 900 yards, and he had 650 or fewer yards in two of his four seasons. He has also struggled to find the end zone and has just 11 career touchdowns.
Yet the Jets gave him a three-year deal worth $37.5 million with $27 million guaranteed. That's a lot of money for someone the Titans weren't even willing to invest the fifth-year option on.
Tennessee Titans Sign Bud Dupree
A year after gambling on Jadeveon Clowney, the Titans have bet on another pass-rusher with injury concerns, signing Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $35 million guaranteed. That's a ton of cash for a player who has never been a top-tier sack artist.
Dupree's best season came in 2019 when he logged 11.5 sacks playing opposite T.J. Watt. However, he was merely average the four previous years, producing 20 sacks in that span. He had just 4.5 sacks in 2016, the year before Watt arrived in Pittsburgh.
Dupree's 2019 numbers might also be misleading.
"On a per-play basis, Dupree was about as disruptive as rotational rushers like Uchenna Nwosu of the Chargers and Vince Biegel of the Dolphins—neither of whom is commanding $16.5 million a year," The Athletic's Robert Mays wrote.
Dupree is also coming off a torn ACL suffered in December. If he's even ready for Week 1, there's no guarantee he'll be 100 percent. He may also not be the same player away from Watt and Pittsburgh's talent-rich defense.