Bleacher Report 2021 NFL Free-Agency Awards

NFL StaffContributor IApril 2, 2021

Bleacher Report 2021 NFL Free-Agency Awards

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Goodbye, free-agent frenzy. Hello, draft circus.

    Before we say goodbye to a wild half-month stretch on the NFL open market and shift our focus to this month's highly anticipated draft, credit should be handed out to those who fared the best in one of the most unpredictable and interesting Marches in league history.

    Who made the best use of their money with a depressed salary cap? Who swung the best deal on the trade market? And who were the biggest winners overall? Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have takes galore.

Best Signing

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    They say free-agent signings are overrated, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't win Super Bowl LV without inking Tom Brady and tagging Shaquil Barrett last offseason. Here are three moves that could turn out to be legendary.


    Davenport: Baltimore Ravens sign G Kevin Zeitler to a three-year, $22.5 million contract ($16 million guaranteed)

    Free agency hasn't been especially kind to the Ravens. The team whiffed on adding one of this year's top wide receivers, and partly because of a lack of cap space, edge-rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue both departed in free agency.

    But landing the veteran Zeitler as a replacement for the retired Marshal Yanda was a coup. Zeitler is a great fit for the run-heavy Ravens. While the 31-year-old may not be the player he was in his heyday in Cincinnati and Cleveland, he remains a punishing run-blocker and capable pass protector who allowed two sacks in 1,003 snaps in 2020. At $7.5 million a season, this deal is a bargain and then some.


    Gagnon: Carolina Panthers sign edge Haason Reddick to one-year, $6 million contract

    Am I missing something? Reddick is a 26-year-old first-round pick coming off a 12.5-sack season in which he forced six fumbles, and 7.5 of those sacks, six of those forced fumbles and seven quarterback hits came in the final four games of the 2020 campaign.

    Yes, it's possible that was a flash in the pan for a player who failed to live up to expectations during his first three-and-a-half seasons in the NFL. But there's a good chance it was a sign he's breaking out as a late bloomer, which is why it's wild that he's only getting $6 million (and up to $8 million with incentives) on a prove-it deal with Carolina. Considering the way he concluded his walk year, there's no way he should be the 59th-highest-paid edge defender in the league.


    Sobleski: New England Patriots sign TE Jonnu Smith and TE Hunter Henry to long-term contracts worth $12.5 million per season apiece

    Not only did the Patriots get significantly better by signing Smith at the onset of free agency, but the organization also doubled down on the position with Henry's acquisition. Considering last year's tight ends managed a woeful 18 catches for 254 yards, Bill Belichick and Co. went from fielding one of the worst units in football to one of the best.

    The Patriots have an identity on offense and weapons for whoever starts behind center. If it's Cam Newton, the former league MVP loves targeting his tight end. With Newton as his quarterback, Greg Olsen averaged 71 receptions for 897 yards from 2011 to 2016 before injuries slowed the tight end's career.

Best Trade

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Fifteen trades were consummated in March. According to our experts, these dealers made out the best.


    Davenport: Arizona Cardinals acquire C Rodney Hudson from Las Vegas Raiders

    If anyone understands what the heck the Raiders were doing when the team traded three starters on the offensive line for pennies on the dollar, please fill me in—because danged if I can figure it out.

    However, one team's foolishness is another team's gain, and the biggest beneficiary of the Raiders' boneheaded moves was the Cardinals. For the price of a pick on the second half of Day 2 in the 2021 draft, the Redbirds landed an excellent center in Hudson, who was a Pro Bowl performer as recently as 2019. In 2020, the 31-year-old gave up one sack in 1,082 snaps and committed one penalty. Oh, and the Raiders threw in a seventh-round pick, because why not?


    Gagnon: Indianapolis Colts acquire QB Carson Wentz from Philadelphia Eagles

    The Colts are in win-now mode, they lacked the draft capital to chase down one of this year's blue-chip rookies, and Wentz had the best year of his career under at least the partial tutelage of Indy head coach Frank Reich.

    I'm down with Indianapolis' gamble that the former standout's disastrous 2020 campaign in Philly was an aberration and that he can bounce back. It's worth giving up a pair of Day 2 draft picks, one of which is a year away and can only become a first-rounder if Wentz hits playing-time incentives. And what amounts to a two-year, $47.4 million deal with two team option years on the end isn't backbreaking for an Indy team that is smart with its money.


    Sobleski: Seattle Seahawks acquire G Gabe Jackson from Raiders

    Whenever a star quarterback comes out publicly and speaks about his displeasure regarding improper protection, as the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson did, the team's front office must react accordingly.

    The Seahawks traded a fifth-round pick to acquire Jackson from the Raiders. The 29-year-old can slot into either guard spot and has started 99 games in his seven-year career. His addition adds much-needed stability to the offensive interior. If he plays on the left side alongside tackle Duane Brown, Seattle will become a left-handed offense.

Best Bargain

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    It hasn't been a record-setting offseason in terms of dollar figures, but 53 players have signed new deals worth at least $10 million total. Some of those contracts and many below that threshold will wind up going down as extreme bargains. Here are the top candidates.


    Davenport: Buffalo Bills re-sign CB Levi Wallace to a one-year, $1.75 million contract

    I was more than a little surprised when the Bills elected not to tender Wallace as a restricted free agent, but I was even more surprised when they circled back and signed the 25-year-old for a paltry $1.75 million.

    For less money than some NFL teams are spending for sub-package corners, the Bills brought back a capable starter who allowed 57.7 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed in 2020 with a passer rating against of 85.3. It wasn't a signing that led SportsCenter, but it's the kind of bargain that keeps good teams good.


    Gagnon: Cincinnati Bengals sign CB Chidobe Awuzie to three-year, $21.75 million contract ($7.5 million guaranteed)

    Awuzie is not a star, and this isn't as large a discount as the deals given to the other two corners who sandwich this pick, but the Bengals essentially swapped 28-year-old William Jackson III for the 25-year-old Awuzie at half the cost.

    The Washington Football Team handed the good-not-great Jackson a three-year, $40.5 million deal, but he isn't a much better player than Awuzie, who has plenty of room to grow and the ability to turn into an All-Pro corner. If it doesn't pan out, the Bengals can move on next offseason at a total cost of just $9.1 million. That's fantastic for a No. 1 outside cover man.


    Sobleski: Cleveland Browns sign CB Troy Hill to a two-year, $9 million contract ($4.5 million guaranteed)

    The Browns coaching staff had to piece together last year's secondary with a couple of starting-caliber talents flanked by deep bench projects and special teams performers. Injuries ravaged the lot. Even before those issues arose, Cleveland was never settled at nickel corner. The position was a glaring need once the offseason opened for business.

    Once the Browns lured safety John Johnson III from the Rams to their side, Hill followed. According to Pro Football Focus, Hill is the highest-graded cornerback when aligned over the slot for the last two seasons. In his first season with the Browns, he has a salary-cap hit of $1.9 million. Cleveland can then get out of the deal a year later if it wants. Otherwise, the cap charge still reaches only $5.4 million. Cleveland acquired an elite cover corner at a starting position for chump change.

Best Extension or Re-Signing

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Of course, a lot of key players stayed home before hitting the market, and many returned to their teams after getting a taste of free agency. These were our analysts' favorite re-signings.


    Davenport: Indianapolis Colts re-sign CB Xavier Rhodes to a one-year, $4.8 million contract

    Last year, the Colts took a one-year flier on Rhodes, a three-time Pro Bowler who fell out of favor in Minnesota. Rhodes rewarded the team's faith in him and then some. His completion percentage against dropped almost 30 percent relative to his last season with the Vikings, and his passer rating against free-fell nearly 40 points.

    Given that resurgence, one would think the market for Rhodes' services would have been robust. But with so many NFL teams tight against the salary cap, that market never materialized. The Colts were able to circle back and re-up Rhodes on another one-year deal for a larcenous $4.8 million.


    Gagnon: Buccaneers re-sign everybody who matters, but particularly Shaquil Barrett

    The 28-year-old edge defender was the hero down the stretch for the Bucs in 2020, and it would have been difficult for them to defend their title had he gotten away in free agency.

    Barrett didn't come cheap at $68 million over four years, but that doesn't even make him one of the 10 highest-paid edges in the league. He's recorded an NFC-high 27.5 sacks the last two seasons and should only be entering his prime considering how gently he was used in Denver.


    Sobleski: Detroit Lions re-sign edge Romeo Okwara to a three-year, $37 million contract ($25 million guaranteed)

    The idea that Okwara is an outstanding re-signing is relative based on what became the hottest position market in free agency. Young, talented edge-rushers received a premium even in a depressed market. Shaquil Barrett, Carl Lawson, Bud Dupree and Trey Hendrickson all garnered contracts with an average annual salary of $15 million or more.

    Okwara's new deal with the Lions comes in at $12.3 million on average. Consider that Okwara's pass-rush productivity percentage was nearly equal to Lawson's and exceeded Hendrickson's even though the latter tied for second in the NFL last season with 13.5 sacks.

Best Offseason So Far

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Moving macro, which teams should feel best about themselves after their experiences on the open market? Our guys weigh in...


    Davenport: Cleveland Browns

    Since I'll give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers some run for their incredible offseason in a bit, we'll go in a different direction here. The Browns entered free agency with a clear edict—improve a defense that ranked 21st in points allowed in 2020. Cleveland did just that, and without overpaying.

    Safety John Johnson III was one of the league's best signings in the secondary, Cleveland addressed its glaring need at linebacker by adding a capable starter in Anthony Walker, Troy Hill is an upgrade at cornerback and the arrival of defensive tackle Malik Jackson more than offsets the loss of Larry Ogunjobi. Cleveland also still has the cap space ($12.7 million) to add an edge-rusher to complement Myles Garrett. As odd as it sounds to say it, the Browns have become one of the better-run franchises in the NFL.


    Gagnon: New England Patriots

    I'm reluctant to go in this direction because the Patriots overspent in some spots and haven't solved their quarterback problem by re-signing Cam Newton. But they do have a fantastic tight end duo, the offensive line should be better with the return of Trent Brown and Ted Karras, and Matt Judon spruces up the defensive front.

    They were smart not to commit huge dough to non-elite guard Joe Thuney ahead of his age-29 season, and their big spends elsewhere shouldn't look too bad when the cap bounces back in the years to come. I respect that they're going for it one more time, and this is the right approach.


    Sobleski: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Lavonte David. Shaquil Barrett. Chris Godwin. Rob Gronkowski. Leonard Fournette. Ndamukong Suh. Those six reasons are why the Buccaneers "won the offseason" for the second straight year.

    Prior to the start of free agency, the idea that they'd all return after the team's Super Bowl LV victory appeared to be a pipe dream. Yet general manager Jason Licht made it work. Tampa Bay is ready for a run at back-to-back titles.

Biggest Winner (Player, Team, Coach, Etc.)

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Who benefited the most from the free-agency period? Our correspondents pinpoint one victor each.


    Davenport: Buccaneers

    This one isn't close. Leading into free agency, much of the conversation around the Buccaneers centered on the tough decisions the franchise faced. Would Tampa re-up David and let Barrett walk? How many of the starters from last year's Super Bowl run would Tampa be forced to watch depart because of a lack of cap space?

    As it turns out, the answer to that last question was zero—David and Barrett were both re-signed. So were Suh, Fournette and Gronkowski. When the Buccaneers take the field in Week 1 of the 2021 season to defend their title, all 22 starters from the squad that won Super Bowl LV will be out there. That's ridiculous.


    Gagnon: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert

    The Bolts went out of their way to help the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year avoid a sophomore slump by bolstering his offensive line. Not only did they reunite All-Pro center Corey Linsley with former Green Bay Packers teammate Bryan Bulaga, but they also added promising, versatile former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Matt Feiler.

    They could use another starting-caliber player on the left side of the line, and I'd expect that to happen in a draft in which they possess four Day 1/Day 2 picks, including the No. 13 overall selection. Regardless, it's been a rosy offseason for the most pressured quarterback of the 2020 NFL season.


    Sobleski: Colts QB Carson Wentz

    The Eagles' relationship with Wentz became toxic. Meanwhile, the roster began to crumble. Wentz was losing confidence while trying to shoulder the offense. The 28-year-old former face of the Eagles franchise gets to start fresh with the Colts after general manager Chris Ballard sent a 2021 third-round and 2022 conditional second-round draft pick to Philadelphia.

    Wentz enters the best situation for him to reach a higher standard of performance. The quarterback has a previous working relationship with Colts head coach Frank Reich, wide receivers coach Mike Groh and offensive assistant Press Taylor. Plus, Wentz will get to play behind one of the league's better offensive lines and hand the ball to last year's breakout star, Jonathan Taylor.


    Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.