2021 NFL Free Agents Who Signed with the Wrong Teams

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2021

2021 NFL Free Agents Who Signed with the Wrong Teams

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Sometimes NFL free agents just don't fit with their new teams. 

    Look at veteran Kyle Van Noy. In March 2020, he signed a four-year deal worth $51 million with the Miami Dolphins. It was a top-six contract in total dollars and gave him the second-highest average annual value among linebackers on the market.

    Miami cut Van Noy last month, and he found his way back to the New England Patriots. 

    Every example isn't this extreme, but sometimes free agents just land in less-than-ideal spots. These players who signed with the wrong teams in 2021 had projected better fits elsewhere based on need and/or won't be put into a position to succeed with their new squads. 

Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Kenny Golladay turned a drawn-out free agency into a four-year deal worth $72 million with the New York Giants (fourth-most total dollars and second-highest AAV on the market). 

    That's not bad for a guy who only played in five games last season, even if he did score 16 touchdowns and recorded more than 2,000 receiving yards over the 2018 and '19 campaigns with the Detroit Lions. 

    While the money is nice, Golladay isn't landing in the best of spots. He's going from Matthew Stafford to Daniel Jones, a third-year quarterback who has completed just 62.2 percent of his career passes for 5,970 yards (6.6 per attempt) and 35 touchdowns to 22 interceptions.

    Holding the 11th pick in the 2021 draft, the Giants could think twice about sticking with Jones despite indicating he's still "the guy" under center.

    Golladay had plenty of teams interested in his services, including the Cincinnati Bengals, who extended an offer, according to ESPN's Dianna Russini. Playing alongside Tyler Boyd in head coach Zac Taylor's high-flying offense led by Joe Burrow would have been a better fit, even if it meant settling for a prove-it deal before maybe earning a bigger contract next offseason.       

Jonnu Smith, TE, New England Patriots

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Jonnu Smith felt like a player who just needed the right fit to potentially break out and live up to the huge expectations that came along with his physical profile and his ability to create mismatches. 

    Instead, the 6'3", 248-pound tight end landed with the New England Patriots. 

    In a run-happy Tennessee Titans offense, Smith hit career highs of 448 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2020. Prior to that, he had never scored more than three times in a season. 

    The Patriots, barring a trade up for a quarterback, appear to be all-in on Cam Newton for next season, but the 31-year-old signal-caller threw just eight touchdowns in 15 games last year along with 10 interceptions. The offense targeted tight ends just 33 times last year, and the team added Hunter Henry in free agency as well. 

    Clearly, the Patriots would like to use the position more, but Henry will likely be top dog. It would have made more sense for Smith to go to Henry's old team, the Los Angeles Chargers, or even seek a squad like the Minnesota Vikings after it lost Kyle Rudolph.       

Corey Davis, WR, New York Jets

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    This seemed like Corey Davis' chance to finally meet draft expectations. 

    Davis, after all, was the fifth overall pick in 2017 and just had a breakout season, though the word "breakout" is generous, as he recorded 984 yards and five touchdowns. But one could overlook that slightly because of the run-heavy Tennessee offense (second-most rushing attempts). 

    Still, Davis probably needed to go somewhere that would feature him as the unquestioned No. 1 wideout, preferably with great play from under center. Instead, he inked a three-year, $37.5 million pact with the New York Jets, a team that traded Sam Darnold so it could presumably draft another signal-caller and might already have a budding No. 1 with 2020 second-rounder Denzel Mims. 

    Davis' contract has an out after 2022, but by then he'll be going into his age-28 season. And while there is some validity in trying to let him develop alongside a rookie passer, it might have made more sense to go somewhere with an established passer like the Arizona Cardinals (Kyler Murray) or Las Vegas Raiders (Derek Carr).    

Kenyan Drake, RB, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It was easy to make a lot of projections for running back Kenyan Drake in free agency. 

    Joining a committee in Las Vegas wasn't one of them. 

    Drake looked like he was breaking out after eight games with Arizona in 2019, scoring eight times and averaging 5.2 yards per rushing attempt. Over 15 games in 2020, he scored 10 times while averaging 4.0 yards per carry.

    Instead of seeking a team in which he could tote the lion's share of the carries, he joined the Raiders on a two-year, $11 million deal. The organization used a first-round pick on Josh Jacobs in 2019 and have fed him 515 carries and targeted him 72 times over 28 games. Drake's arrival shouldn't change much. 

    The 27-year-old running back will hit free agency again before he's 30 years old, but the best move might have been to try to replace James Conner in Pittsburgh or find a similar situation in which he could better prove himself after underperforming expectations in 2020.       

Andy Dalton, QB, Chicago Bears

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    There are multiple concerns with Andy Dalton's free-agency destination. 

    First, it just doesn't feel right; it seems unlikely that the fans will truly embrace him after they hoped for a Russell Wilson-level acquisition from general manager Ryan Pace and the front office.

    Dalton isn't a bad player, but he isn't guaranteed to be much of an upgrade over Pace's prior failures: Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. He's a game manager who can get into a good rhythm and execute an offense.

    And Dalton's supporting cast is ho-hum. Running back David Montgomery needs to prove he can keep the momentum from 2020, wide receiver Anthony Miller could be on his way out of town and last year's leading receiver, Allen Robinson, was not happy the Bears used the franchise tag on him.

    It might have made more sense for Dalton to seek a starting gig on a team like Washington, which ultimately signed 38-year-old journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. That, or maybe even New Orleans, if he could convince the team there he's more stable than the team's other options given his wealth of experience and ability to take care of the football. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    JuJu Smith-Schuster is an interesting case. 

    He had a predictably soft market, which is what happens when a player at a ridiculously deep position is roughly three years removed from his breakout campaign and averaged just 8.6 yards per catch last year over 16 games, ranking well outside of the top 100 among all pass-catchers. 

    Rather than signing a deal in a better situation, Smith-Schuster settled for a one-year, $8 million reunion with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

    Yet Smith-Schuster told Michael Irvin on Irvin's podcast (h/t Ryan Wormeli of NBC Sports) that the Kansas City Chiefs used pictures of the Lombardi Trophy to try to recruit him. At the market price he got, signing with the Chiefs would have a made a whole lot more sense than a return to Pittsburgh. 

    Ben Roethlisberger, 39, isn't the player he was in his prime, and JuJu wasn't even the main target last year in an offense that also had Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. The Steelers should also be weaker in 2021 after losing players like linebacker Bud Dupree, cornerback Mike Hilton and starting offensive lineman Matt Feiler in free agency. 

    The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes under center and brought in Joe Thuney and Kyle Long on the offensive line. JuJu would fit brilliantly alongside wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. 

    The Chiefs' ability to contend along with the potential for JuJu to rebuild his market made the Chiefs a better landing spot, no matter how nice the loyalty storyline in Pittsburgh is.