NFL Teams That Crushed It in 2021 Free Agency
NFL free agency seemed wilder than usual during the 2021 offseason.
Despite a reduced salary cap ($182.5 million), some big contracts were handed out (think: $138 million over six years for Trent Williams in San Francisco). There were also league-altering trades involving quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford) and draft picks.
The teams that crushed free agency made moves that boosted both their short- and long-term outlooks while upgrading or retaining players at premium spots. Cost and other losses were taken into account too.
These are the teams that had the best showings in free agency in the lead-up to the draft, which starts April 29 in Cleveland.
Los Angeles Chargers
Noteworthy Additions: C Corey Linsley, OT Matt Feiler, TE Jared Cook
The mission was simple: Get better around Justin Herbert.
Herbert, last year's sixth overall pick, looked great over 15 games in 2020, completing 66.6 percent of his passes for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
He also suffered 32 sacks behind a bad line and was the league's most pressured player.
This offseason, the Chargers signed the market's best center. Linsley, a 2020 first-team All-Pro with the Green Bay Packers, put up an 89.9 grade at Pro Football Focus. Los Angeles also added the criminally underrated Matt Feiler, a versatile guy who can play either tackle or guard and only allowed two sacks over 848 snaps last year.
It might seem silly to list L.A. as crushing it, but an elite center will stabilize the line in front of the sophomore passer, who—with the right protection—could develop into one of the league's best. The moves also leave the Chargers in a spot to pick the best lineman available at No. 13.
New England Patriots
Noteworthy Moves: QB Cam Newton, TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, DT Davon Godchaux, WR Nelson Agholor, DT Henry Anderson, Edge Matt Judon, WR Kendrick Bourne
Quantity doesn't equal quality, and the New England Patriots don't automatically get a good grade just because they were active in free agency.
But leave it to the Patriots to find superb fits for their schemes. One could argue that Agholor's two-year, $22 million deal was an overpay, but both he and Bourne are perfect for a Cam Newton passing attack after the wide receiver position has had more busts (2019 first-rounder N'Keal Harry) than production in Foxborough lately.
Speaking of scheme fits, the Smith-Henry double-dip is a solid bit of work for an offense that targeted its top tight end (Ryan Izzo) just 20 times last year but clearly needed to use the position more. Judon is a strong addition to the pass rush (averaged 33 pressures over the last three years), and Anderson is one of the more underrated signings because of his versatility and fit in the scheme.
With New England in on Newton, the free-agency moves leave the team in a good spot to take the best player available in the top 15 (barring a move up for a quarterback).
Noteworthy Moves: S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, DT Malik Jackson
The Cleveland Browns surged to the playoffs last year on the back of a Baker Mayfield-led offense that could only get better in 2021 if Odell Beckham Jr. is able to stay on the field.
That meant free agency was all about the defense.
And the Browns quietly hit it out of the park with two of the more underrated signings, bringing in Johnson at safety and Hill at cornerback.
Johnson didn't get a lot of attention with the Los Angeles Rams (a la Aaron Donald), but he was a key to their elite defenses, receiving a grade of 85.6 at PFF last year. Hill, who also came over from the Rams, is one of the league's best corners when lined up in the slot. He picked off three passes while earning a 74.2 PFF grade in 2021.
The Browns appear to have all the makings of an elite defense in 2021 after allowing the 21st-most points per game last year. That leaves the team in a good spot to get a quality veteran edge-rusher or prospect to put opposite Myles Garrett such as Justin Houston or Ryan Kerrigan.
Washington Football Team
Noteworthy Moves: CB William Jackson III, WR Curtis Samuel, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
The Washington Football Team isn't a stranger to appearing on free-agency loser lists (remember the Landon Collins signing?).
But this year feels different with head coach Ron Rivera at the controls.
Rivera added veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who could be an upgrade to what the team fielded last year under center. He's a solid fallback plan if Taylor Heinicke fails to win the job in training camp or if the team doesn't make a big trade or draft move for a QB.
Even better was the signing of Samuel, an incredible steal who went overlooked in a strong wideout market. He's only going to be 25 next season and is a versatile player who can line up all over the place, including at running back. Translated another way, he's the perfect complement to No. 1 Terry McLaurin.
On the other side of the ball, Washington signed Jackson to a secondary that ranked second in passing yards allowed in 2020 but lost starter Ronald Darby in free agency. Jackson allowed just 36 catches on 69 targets last year for a 71.4 PFF grade, and he should only improve now that he's in a defense that will use him more in man coverage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Noteworthy Moves: Edge Shaquil Barrett, DT Ndamukong Suh, TE Rob Gronkowski, RB Leonard Fournette, WR Chris Godwin (franchise tag), LB Lavonte David
It might be boring to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers here, but it's a marvel what the defending champions were able to do despite the reduced salary cap.
After winning the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers had roughly $13 million in cap space. The team franchise-tagged Godwin, retaining an elite wideout who's had seven or more scores in each of his last three seasons.
It also retained core pieces like Suh, Gronkowski and even Fournette, the 2017 top-five pick who showed out in the playoffs. David, a staple of the franchise since 2012, re-signed too.
Above all else, the Buccaneers managed to keep the market's best pass-rusher in town. The 28-year-old Barrett has recorded 27.5 sacks over the last two years.
Some cap wizardry made it possible, including a Tom Brady one-year extension with three voidable years to create $19.3 million in cap space. The Buccaneers are positioned to make a run at another title. Guys like Barrett, Godwin and Tampa Bay's eight draft picks provide insurance for the future too.