NFL Free Agency 2021: Moves That Will Have the Biggest Impact on Division Races
One roster move can significantly impact the battle for a division title. Last offseason, quarterback Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and changed the competitive balance in the NFC South and the NFL.
Although quarterback Josh Allen garnered praise for an All-Pro 2020 season, wideout Stefon Diggs deserves some of the credit for his contribution to the Buffalo Bills' second-ranked scoring offense. Acquired via trade in March 2020, the former Minnesota Viking led the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535).
Typically, an upgrade at quarterback leads to more wins. Other clubs can address a specific weakness or position to contend with the best squad in the division.
Between trades and free-agent signings, we'll pinpoint roster moves that will have a major effect on division races for the 2021 campaign.
AFC East: Dolphins Sign WR Will Fuller V
The Miami Dolphins made a splashy free-agent signing, inking Will Fuller V to a one-year deal. He's going to fill a need for an aerial attack that doesn't have an explosive weapon and ranked 20th in yards this past season.
In 2020, Fuller missed five contests because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He'll sit out Week 1 of the upcoming season for the violation. Despite his extended absence last year, the big-play wideout recorded 53 receptions for 879 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs.
If Fuller can avoid injuries, which have plagued him throughout his career, he should continue to put up big numbers in a featured role. Between 2016 and 2019, the former Houston Texan missed 22 outings.
Fuller has put the PED violation behind him and doesn't foresee any issues with league rules in that regard, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe.
"It was a one-time thing, completely accidental, that's never going to happen again," Fuller said.
Fuller just needs to stay on the field. If he does, the Dolphins should have an offense that can at least compete with the Buffalo Bills, who beat Miami 56-26 in a Week 17 game that the latter needed to win for a playoff berth in 2020.
AFC North: Browns Sign S John Johnson III
Usually, safeties don't quite move the needle.
However, the Cleveland Browns signed arguably the best safety off the free-agent market in John Johnson III. Barring a defensive touchdown, he's not going to score any points, but the versatile defender has consistent ball production, which separates average and above-average players at the position.
This past season, the Browns fielded the 22nd-ranked pass defense with Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon logging a combined 21 sacks. Cleveland also had issues in coverage on the back end.
Johnson will complement cornerback Denzel Ward to shore up holes in the secondary. The former Ram has recorded 32 pass breakups and eight interceptions through four seasons. In each of the last three terms, quarterbacks have recorded a passer rating of 81.8 or worse when targeting him.
Johnson can neutralize a receiver in the Pittsburgh Steelers' loaded pass-catching group and play center field, where Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson frequently targets tight end Mark Andrews. He's also a strong run defender who's logged 105-plus tackles twice in a single season. That's an added plus in a physical division with teams that play in inclement weather at home.
AFC South: Colts Trade for QB Carson Wentz
The Indianapolis Colts acquired Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles in a noteworthy deal. They'll transition from the 39-year-old Philip Rivers to a signal-caller who's still in his prime with only one abysmal season in five terms.
Although Rivers threw for 4,169 yards, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year, he played with limited arm strength. In the pocket, the stationary quarterback could sidestep pass-rushers but never extended plays on his feet.
Wentz is far more athletic than Rivers with the ability to make off-script throws downfield. He's not a natural ball-carrier but keeps plays alive with his legs.
In 2020, the Colts lost a division-record tiebreaker to the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South title. If Wentz's reunion with head coach Frank Reich helps him rediscover his 2017 form when the two worked together with the Eagles for two seasons, Indianapolis would have a massive upgrade at the most important position.
We could see some intriguing battles between Wentz and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2021.
AFC West: Raiders Sign DE Yannick Ngakoue
In 2020, the Las Vegas Raiders became an exception as the only top-10 scoring team to miss the playoffs. They put together quality wins against the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, but their defense let them down far too many times.
The Silver and Black signed Yannick Ngakoue, arguably the best pure pass-rusher from the open market. He's recorded at least eight sacks in all five of his seasons.
Ngakoue isn't the most complete player. He doesn't set a hard edge against the run but addresses an issue that's plagued the Raiders since they traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears in 2018. Head coach Jon Gruden found a good pass-rusher who's not an All-Pro talent but still a difference-maker.
Ngakoue will make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. With consistent pressure up front, cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette shouldn't have to defend for as many extended periods on the back end.
Vegas disbanded its offensive line, trading center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown. As a result, the offense could go through rough patches early in the upcoming term, but Ngakoue's presence on the defensive side of the ball may allow the Raiders to win games without having to score 30-plus points.
NFC East: Giants Sign WR Kenny Golladay
The Dallas Cowboys made the expected smart move to re-sign Dak Prescott. He's the centerpiece of a potent aerial attack. But even without him for 11 contests because of ankle surgery, the team ranked eighth in passing yards for the 2020 campaign.
The New York Giants could make a strong push for the NFC East title with an offense that rivals the Cowboys and challenges the Washington Football Team's top-five defense.
Big Blue made a big investment in Kenny Golladay, who inked a four-year, $72 million deal. Giants owner John Mara made a concerted effort to sign to the Pro Bowl wideout, per Art Stapleton of NorthJersey.com.
"With all the recruiting that went down during Kenny Golladay's 48-hour visit with the Giants before he signed his deal, Mara revealed he was part of it," Stapleton wrote. "He made a call to Golladay to talk to him about what he'd mean to the team and how much he was valued not just as a player, but a man."
Mara probably took note of quarterback Josh Allen's third-year leap with his new go-to wideout Stefon Diggs in Buffalo. The Giants should want to see quarterback Daniel Jones show significant improvement in his third campaign after he threw for just 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions through 14 outings last season.
Golladay, a Pro Bowler who averages 16.8 yards per catch in his career, could help Jones post impressive numbers in 2021. At 6'4", 213 pounds, he'll force opposing teams to keep a safety over the top, which lightens the box for running back Saquon Barkley, who missed 14 games with a torn ACL last year. Together, they can help the Giants rack up points.
If Golladay provides a spark to an offense that accumulated the second-fewest yards and points this past season, Big Blue can steal the division as a sleeper team in 2021.
NFC North: Vikings Sign CB Patrick Peterson
The Minnesota Vikings' cornerback group will feature a mix of upstart talents and battle-tested veterans. Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander will join second-year pros Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney.
Peterson stands out because the Vikings will chase quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title.
Although Minnesota split the 2020 season series with Green Bay, Rodgers threw for seven touchdowns without an interception in those meetings. He connected with wideout Davante Adams for 21 completions, 209 yards and five touchdowns in the two games.
Minnesota needed some experience on the boundary to match up with Adams and other lead wideouts across the league. Peterson is slightly past his prime, but the 30-year-old still makes plays on the ball, logging eight pass breakups and three interceptions in 2020.
Cornerback Mike Hughes has missed 24 games in three seasons. Peterson hasn't sat out a game because of injury in his 10-year career. He's suited up for all but six contests because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension in 2019. His veteran savvy should strengthen an inexperienced secondary.
NFC South: Saints Re-Sign QB Jameis Winston
Jameis Winston isn't a fresh face with the New Orleans Saints, but he only played four games with the team this past season and threw just 11 passes.
With Drew Brees going into retirement, the Saints' decision to re-sign Winston could have a major impact on the team's 2020 outlook for better or worse. He has "the leg up" in a battle against Taysom Hill for the starting position, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Although Hill started four games under center during the last campaign, Winston has more experience leading an offense, and he's only 27 years old with a strong draft pedigree as the first overall pick from the 2015 class.
Hill fumbled 10 times this past season. His ball-security issues may put the offense in tough spots if he's the full-time starter.
Winston could rack up yards and points with wideout Michael Thomas on the perimeter and running back Alvin Kamara catching out of the backfield. If he makes better decisions in the pocket, the Saints can feature his strong arm in the vertical passing attack, which they didn't do with 41-year-old Brees last season. The latter ranked 39th in average intended air yards (6.3) in 2020, per Next Gen Stats.
On the other hand, if Winston struggles with turnovers, as he's done in the past, New Orleans would likely fall behind the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the standings and leave the door open for the Atlanta Falcons or Carolina Panthers to make a run in the NFC South.
NFC West: Rams Trade for QB Matthew Stafford
The Los Angeles Rams made the first blockbuster trade of the offseason, acquiring Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions. They'll move on from Jared Goff, who's a solid starting-caliber quarterback, to a more experienced signal-caller with a bigger arm and superior improvisational skills in the pocket.
In Detroit, Stafford rarely played with a complementary ground attack. During his time with the Lions, the club ranked 17th or worse in rushing yards, with 2013 being the watershed season. He won't have to carry a tremendous burden in Los Angeles. Head coach Sean McVay has fielded a top-10 ground attack in three out of four campaigns with the Rams.
Stafford's arm talent coupled with an effective ground game should push the Rams into the pole position in the NFC West to start the 2021 campaign. Keep in mind, the Seattle Seahawks offense will undergo a makeover with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron after struggling through the second half of the 2020 term.
The Arizona Cardinals made some intriguing moves, signing defensive end J.J. Watt, wideout A.J. Green and acquiring center Rodney Hudson from the Las Vegas Raiders, but the Rams' upgrade at the most important position gives them a more significant boost in the upcoming term.