Ranking the 25 Best Moves of the 2021 NFL Offseason
Several monumental moves might still occur this NFL offseason, including one involving the reigning league MVP. But the vast majority of the significant movement is in the books, and we're here to collect the best from the trade market, free agency and the draft.
A good move brings value to the team that made it, addresses an area of need or shows that a team has its priorities straight. A truly great move contains all three of those aspects, and all of these moves meet that criteria to various degrees, with more weight given to moves that should make an immediate impact.
With that in mind, here are 11 signings, eight draft decisions and six trades that stand out as particularly brilliant thus far in 2021.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars Draft QB Trevor Lawrence 1st Overall
I know: It feels like we're giving the Jacksonville Jaguars a participation trophy. But honestly, it felt like there was a real chance they'd overthink this thing and wind up drafting someone other than the awesome Trevor Lawrence first overall.
Zach Wilson is intriguing but could be a one-year wonder coming out of college. Same with Trey Lance, but at the FCS level and in 2019. Justin Fields has a high ceiling, but he fell out of the top 10 and his resume doesn't compare to Lawrence's.
The Clemson product is a tailor-made franchise quarterback with superb vision, tremendous pocket presence, a strong and accurate arm, great decision-making skills, solid athleticism and mobility, and a knack for coming through in big moments. He threw 90 touchdown passes and just 17 interceptions while establishing himself as a winner in college, and he has the star power to become the face of the franchise in both Florida and England.
So yes, we're giving the Jags a shoutout for considering what happened with Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert and simply taking the simple and obvious route at the top of the draft.
24. Cleveland Browns Re-Sign WR Rashard Higgins
Rashard Higgins doesn't get as much love and attention as stars Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in the Cleveland Browns receiving corps, but the team quietly brought the veteran wideout back on a cheap one-year deal that will cost them just $2.4 million.
Don't be surprised if that pays off quickly, regardless of what the offense gets from Beckham and Landry in 2021.
Higgins averaged 11.5 yards per target in 2020, ranking second among all qualified receivers behind only Will Fuller V. He put up 294 yards and scored twice in his final four regular-season games and was the team's leading receiver in its divisional playoff matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He also didn't drop a single pass on 52 targets.
It's not the sexiest deal of the 2021 offseason, but it's smart and inexpensive and could pay off significantly.
23. Los Angeles Chargers Sign G Matt Feiler
A lot of big-name offensive linemen hit the open market this offseason, which might explain why the Los Angeles Chargers got a sweet deal for a potential long-term pillar in guard Matt Feiler.
The versatile 28-year-old isn't a star, but he was a strong pass-blocker as both a tackle and a guard the last three years as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And because he got a late start as an NFL regular, he should have plenty of tread on his tires as he joins the revamped Bolts offensive line.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year despite the fact he was the most pressured signal-caller in the NFL. But now the Chargers are serious about supporting Herbert as best they can. We could have just as easily dedicated this spot on the list to their decision to sign All-Pro center Corey Linsley, but he's making nearly twice as much ($12.5 million a year) as the under-the-radar but extremely reliable Feiler ($7 million a year).
Both moves were smart, though, and that wasn't even the highlight of the makeover. Spoiler alert: The Chargers offensive line will get more attention later in this exercise.
22. Los Angeles Chargers Sign TE Jared Cook
Meanwhile, the Chargers lost productive but injury-prone tight end Hunter Henry, who signed a lucrative deal worth $12.5 million a year with the New England Patriots. But that could be a blessing in disguise because they saved a ton of cash by replacing Henry with the extremely accomplished and reliable Jared Cook at a rate of just $4.5 million on a one-year deal.
Cook may be 34, but he's gone over 500 yards in each of the last four seasons and was a Pro Bowler in two of those campaigns. He scored 16 touchdowns the last two years as a member of the New Orleans Saints, and he's played in at least 13 games in nine of the last 10 seasons.
He also dropped just two passes last season in New Orleans, and his experience and stability should be beneficial to young quarterback Justin Herbert in his sophomore season.
Throw in the potential bang for L.A.'s buck and the fact that no long-term commitment was required and this looks like a golden, under-the-radar move.
21. Arizona Cardinals Acquire C Rodney Hudson from Las Vegas Raiders
Mason Cole didn't get the job done as Kyler Murray's center for the 2020 Arizona Cardinals. The 2018 third-round pick took eight penalties and earned a horrendous PFF grade, and now the Cardinals have replaced him with an established veteran at a wildly discounted rate.
The incoming Rodney Hudson's PFF pass-blocking grade since 2015 ranks first among all qualified centers, and he remained quite effective as a 31-year-old in Las Vegas in 2020. But the Cards landed him for a third-round pick (with a seventh-rounder coming back from the Raiders), and he'll cost Arizona just $2.9 million this year as the Raiders foot the bill for most of his salary via dead-cap charges.
Hudson will get more expensive in 2022, but the Cardinals can also pay $8 million and move on if he begins to decline.
For now, the line looks stronger and more experienced with a three-time Pro Bowler joining the fray at a comically low price.
20. Seattle Seahawks Acquire G Gabe Jackson from Las Vegas Raiders
Early in the offseason, star Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson revealed he was "frustrated at getting hit too much," which led to trade speculation and put a lot of pressure on the team to address the 32-year-old's supporting cast.
Whether they did enough to both protect and satisfy Wilson is up for debate, but there's no doubt the acquisition of solid veteran guard Gabe Jackson in exchange for a mere fifth-round pick was a good deal for Seattle.
The 29-year-old is not a star, but he's been a steady starter since coming into the league as a third-round pick in 2014. He should fit in perfectly alongside emerging 2020 rookie standout Damien Lewis at the guard position in Seattle.
Best of all? Jackson's cap hit for 2021 is just $4.1 million.
19. Kansas City Chiefs Acquire CB Mike Hughes from Minnesota Vikings
Mike Hughes is a fast, strong, athletic cornerback who dominated in his final year in college, was a first-round pick three years ago and only just turned 24. And yet the Kansas City Chiefs basically just landed him free of charge ahead of a $1.8 million walk year.
They merely handed the Minnesota Vikings a 2022 sixth-round pick, with a seventh-rounder coming back from Minnesota.
Hughes has been limited to six or fewer games in two of his first three seasons, and he gave up a 126.3 passer rating when targeted during minimal action in 2020. It just didn't pan out for him there. But now he'll have strong support as a slot cover man in a fresh environment. If he can stay healthy, he'll have a chance to finally live up to expectations in Kansas City.
If not, he'll cost the Chiefs practically nothing.
18. Detroit Lions Acquire QB Jared Goff from Rams for QB Matthew Stafford
Both the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions will be paying huge sums to Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff in 2021. That's what happens when you swap highly paid quarterbacks with oodles of dead money on their contracts.
But the Lions owe their current and former quarterbacks a heck of a lot less ($29.7 million compared to $44.7 million), and they collected two first-round picks and a third-round selection without surrendering any draft capital in the process.
Is Goff better than Stafford? Meh, it's a tough call. He's younger and he's experienced more playoff success, while Stafford's numbers have been much better than Goff's the past couple of seasons.
But the key is that after 12 years without a single playoff win with Stafford under center, the Lions needed a change. In this case, they made that change while bringing in a talented young quarterback (who absolutely could excel in a new setting) along with three primo draft picks.
The move could backfire if Stafford takes off in L.A. and Goff regresses as he has since bombing in Super Bowl LIII, but it makes a hell of a lot of sense for Detroit right now.
17. Indianapolis Colts Acquire QB Carson Wentz from Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz might have been an expensive mess for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020, but Philadelphia's decision to cut bait on the veteran quarterback after one horrendous season makes Wentz a rather inexpensive mess in the worst-case scenario for the Indianapolis Colts.
He'll cost Indianapolis just $20.4 million in 2021 and $27 million in 2022, and the Colts will owe him nothing beyond that. That's an extremely reasonable deal for a quarterback who was an MVP candidate during Philly's 2017 Super Bowl season and is now reuniting with his offensive coordinator from that memorable campaign.
Can Frank Reich get Wentz back on track? We know he has the talent, and Reich got plenty of it out of him in 2017. He was also a strong starter when healthy in 2018 and 2019, so it's worth seeing if that 2020 implosion (he completed just 57.4 percent of his passes and threw 15 interceptions compared to just 16 touchdowns) was an aberration.
Considering Philip Rivers retired and the Jacoby Brissett experiment didn't work, the Colts had little to lose and a lot to gain with this move. They're a deep team with a solid offensive line, and if it all goes right, they could contend with strong quarterback play.
Gambling on Wentz at a relatively low rate makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that, from a draft capital standpoint, he'll only cost them a pair of Day 2 picks (one of which becomes a first-rounder only if Wentz is healthy and/or the team is successful in 2021).
16. New England Patriots Trade Up to Draft DL Christian Barmore in Round 2
At Alabama in 2020, first-team All-SEC defensive lineman and National Championship Defensive MVP Christian Barmore put up 8.0 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 forced fumbles as a sophomore in the toughest conference in college football.
How does a guy like that slide into Round 2 of the draft?
The New England Patriots likely wondered that when they pulled the trigger on a trade that cost them two fourth-round picks in order to move up from No. 46 to the No. 38 spot in order to add Barmore to their deep and talented defense.
The Pats often prefer quantity over perceived quality in the draft, but they appear to be all-in for a Super Bowl run in 2021. This move gives them a potential immediate impact player to help achieve that goal. In New England, Barmore won't be asked to do too much right away, but you know Bill Belichick will get the most out of an aggressive and polished big-game performer.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Re-Sign Edge Shaquil Barrett
Consider this to be somewhat representative of the fact that the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers deserve kudos here for bringing back all of their offensive and defensive starters in an attempt to run it back.
The key, though, was the long-term deal they handed to edge defender Shaquil Barrett, who was a game-wrecker on Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run. No way this team wins the Vince Lombardi Trophy without Barrett's heroics (he had a combined four sacks and eight quarterback hits in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl).
Now he's locked up for four more years at a reasonable $17 million per season, and he'll count just $5 million against the salary cap in his upcoming age-29 campaign.
Dude has a combined 31.5 sacks the last two years but still isn't one of the 10 highest-paid edges in the sport? That's wild, and a coup for the Bucs, even if he could become tough to carry beyond 2022 or 2023. But that shouldn't concern Tampa Bay because it's all or nothing right now with Bruce Arians, Tom Brady and Co.
14. Las Vegas Raiders Sign Edge Yannick Ngakoue
The Las Vegas Raiders took a lot of heat this offseason for somewhat inexplicably gutting their solid offensive line and arguably reaching for Alex Leatherwood in the first round of the draft, but I really liked their decision to take a shot at bolstering their pass rush with veteran playmaker Yannick Ngakoue.
Ngakoue has oddly now been on four rosters in less than a year, but that doesn't change the fact he's recorded 45.5 sacks and 18 forced fumbles in five NFL campaigns. Only the legendary Khalil Mack has forced more fumbles during that span, and he, Mack and Aaron Donald are the only players with at least eight sacks in each of the past five seasons.
The Raiders need that kind of productivity on the edge, and they landed him for just $13 million in each of the next two seasons, with no commitment beyond that. He's just the 27th-highest-paid edge defender in the league, which could make him a hell of a steal for Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden.
13. Baltimore Ravens Draft WR Rashod Bateman 27th Overall
The ideal draft scenario is to get great value for a player who also fills a need, and that's exactly what happened to the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 27 overall pick on April 29.
No receiver on the Ravens roster had 800 yards in 2020, and only Marquise Brown had more than 500. Willie Snead IV was the only other wideout with more than 300, and he's now a member of the Raiders. They did bring in the talented but injury-prone Sammy Watkins, but they needed to give quarterback Lamar Jackson another weapon this offseason.
Rashod Bateman does the job.
The smooth Minnesota product runs extremely crisp and reliable routes. And while his 2020 campaign was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he averaged a ridiculous 20.3 yards per reception in 2019.
The final big board from the B/R NFL Scouting Department ranked Bateman ninth overall, above both Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle (who were selected fifth and sixth overall, respectively). It's hard not to love the selection.
12. Chicago Bears Trade Up to Draft QB Justin Fields 11th Overall
Lee Sharpe of Pro Football Focus notes that the Chicago Bears' decision to move up nine spots in Round 1 to select quarterback Justin Fields cost the team significant value based on Jimmy Johnson's trade value chart as well as the one utilized by Over The Cap. That's also the case at Pro Football Reference.
Doesn't matter. It was a tremendous move for a team that sees the window closing and desperately needs a difference-making quarterback as soon as possible.
Fields was once widely considered a potential No. 2 overall pick. He possesses all of the tools you want in a potential franchise quarterback, and it's silly that he fell out of the top 10. Good on the Bears to spot the value and pounce, even if it meant putting even more eggs in one basket with a 2022 first-round pick moving to the New York Giants in the deal.
The 2021 Bears are a lot better off with Fields than whoever they might have taken 20th overall or whoever they might have selected with the fifth-round pick also included in the trade. It's only a matter of time before he steps in and proves to be an upgrade over Andy Dalton or Nick Foles.
11. Cleveland Browns Sign S John Johnson III
The Cleveland Browns needed to add more defensive talent across the board this offseason, and they did exactly that. But the headlining addition was safety John Johnson III.
The 25-year-old is coming off a 105-tackle, 16-start season with the Los Angeles Rams. He was the third-highest-graded player at his position at Pro Football Focus in 2020, and that wasn't a fluke because he also had four interceptions and 119 tackles in 2018.
But the Browns landed him with a reasonable three-year, $33.8 million deal. Seven NFL safeties still have higher average annual salaries, and 29 will carry larger cap hits than his $3.7 million price tag in 2021.
It sure sounds like Johnson had other options but decided Cleveland was where he wanted to be. He called his decision to sign with the Browns "a no-brainer." And at that price under the current circumstances, that's also the best way to describe the move from Cleveland's standpoint.
10. Cleveland Browns Sign CB Troy Hill
Yet that wasn't even our favorite deal the Browns made for a former Rams defensive back.
New Cleveland cornerback Troy Hill isn't as accomplished as Johnson, but the slot specialist intercepted three passes and scored twice during a breakout 2020 campaign.
It also likely wasn't a fluke. The 29-year-old might be a late bloomer, but only four cornerbacks who started the majority of their team's games in 2019 surrendered lower passing ratings on throws into their coverage than Hill did (61.3).
He should provide a clear upgrade over the departed Kevin Johnson in the slot for Cleveland, yet he enters the fray on a simple two-year, $9 million deal that will cost the Browns just $1.9 million in 2021.
No wonder PFF called the Browns' secondary the most improved defensive backfield this offseason.
9. Cincinnati Bengals Sign CB Mike Hilton
It has to feel extra good to steal a quality player from a division rival, especially at a team-friendly rate.
That's how the Cincinnati Bengals must have felt when they signed excellent, underrated former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton to a four-year, $24 million deal.
The 27-year-old has surrendered fewer than 6.5 yards per target in each of his last three seasons. He's also got 9.5 career sacks, three of which came in a standout 2020 campaign in which he added three interceptions and ranked fifth among qualified corners with a 60.2 opponent passer rating on throws into his coverage (he surrendered just one touchdown in 12 games).
It's silly that 31 cornerbacks earn more per year than Hilton will in Cincinnati, but the notoriously frugal Bengals will take it.
8. Cincinnati Bengals Sign CB Chidobe Awuzie
Speaking of the Bengals finding value, they lost top corner William Jackson III (who signed a deal with the Washington Football Team worth $13.5 million a year) but replaced him with a younger player with shutdown potential at basically half the price ($7.3 million per year).
Jackson will turn 29 this year, while Chidobe Awuzie turns 26 Monday. Neither has been an All-Pro or a Pro Bowler, and in the last two years, the former has surrendered 7.8 yards per target versus 8.2 for the latter.
Considering Awuzie's talent and growth potential and the fact Jackson seems to have peaked during a promising sophomore season, it's easy to view Awuzie as an upgrade at a substantially lower price. He's not a star and may never turn into one, but the possibility is there and he's just the 29th-highest-paid corner in the sport.
7. Los Angeles Chargers Draft OT Rashawn Slater 13th Overall
The Chargers' offensive line rebuild is one of the most promising trends from the 2021 offseason, and the cherry on top for a team that invested in Feiler and Linsley in March came when Rashawn Slater fell into their lap in the No. 13 slot on draft night.
The Northwestern product has supreme quickness and athleticism and his polished technique should allow him to compensate for a lack of length and make an immediate impact in Los Angeles. He could have easily been a top-10 pick with slightly different draft-night circumstances, but instead he represented a steal for a Bolts team that entered the draft with a glaring void at left tackle.
Nothing's guaranteed in the draft and there isn't a lot of recent tape on Slater because he opted out in 2020, but offensive linemen frequently get acclimated quickly and a three-year starter from Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern program has a good chance at paying off early in his NFL career.
The moment this pick was made, you got the feeling the Chargers were going to be very happy with it for years to come.
6. Miami Dolphins Sign WR Will Fuller V
Top-10 pick Jaylen Waddle is stealing most of the spotlight in the revamped Miami Dolphins receiving corps, but don't overlook the value they got in signing speedy veteran Will Fuller V to a one-year, $10.6 million prove-it contract in March.
The 2016 first-round pick averaged a league-high 11.7 yards per target and ranked in the top 10 among qualifiers with 79.9 yards per game during a breakout season for the Houston Texans in 2020.
A late-season suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances likely factored into why the Dolphins didn't have to make a long-term commitment. But for what it's worth, he has said that stemmed from a prescription medication he was using that he thought was permitted. It's possible that means the 27-year-old won't be any less effective and could continue to take off moving forward.
He's a great fit in Miami, where he should work with Waddle to stretch the field for young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
5. Dallas Cowboys Trade Down and Draft LB Micah Parsons
With the draft's top two cornerbacks off the board, you get the feeling the Dallas Cowboys would have taken linebacker Micah Parsons had they stood pat when they were on the clock with the No. 10 overall selection.
Instead, they gained a third-round pick from the rival Philadelphia Eagles (used to add pass-rusher Chauncey Golston) before selecting Parsons anyway in the No. 12 slot.
It would have been a great selection regardless because the Cowboys defense needs a huge boost and Parsons is one of the best pure defensive players in this draft class, but taking an extra Day 2 pick from a foe made it even sweeter for Dallas.
At some stages during the predraft process, the ferocious and athletic Penn State product was considered a potential top-five pick. He was a consensus All-American in 2019 (he opted out in 2020), and he and Leighton Vander Esch could become a phenomenal duo in the middle for Dallas.
4. Carolina Panthers Sign Edge Haason Reddick
It's possible 2017 No. 13 overall pick Haason Reddick is about to take off after recording a ridiculous 7.5 sacks and forced six fumbles in the final four games of his fourth NFL season. Of course, it's also possible he's a bust who went on a fluke hot streak after generally struggling to live up to expectations for much of his time with the Cardinals.
Regardless, the Carolina Panthers are taking a low-risk chance on the talented edge defender at a cost of just $6 million (or up to $8 million with incentives) on a one-year deal with several void years for salary-cap purposes.
If Reddick can even remotely pick up where he left off, the talented pass-rusher could provide incredible value to a Panthers team that desperately needed a strong presence to complement 2019 first-round selection Brian Burns on the edge. And if he doesn't, Carolina can move on at no cost next offseason.
He has the ability to become a special player, so it's surprising the Panthers didn't have to give up a lot more.
3. Cleveland Browns Trade Up to Draft LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in Round 2
The B/R Scouting Department ranked linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as the second-best defensive player in the entire 2020 draft class, and the consensus at NFL Mock Draft Database had him in the top 20 overall. To boot, per 247Sports, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. called Owusu-Koramoah one of the "best pure football players in this draft" earlier this year.
Props to the Browns for jumping on the plummeting reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner in the middle of the second round of the draft, even if doing so cost them some draft capital (they sent the Panthers a third-round pick in exchange for a fourth-round pick of Carolina's in order to move up seven spots).
JOK has a superstar ceiling, and he immediately fills a hole for a Browns defense that already got better up front and on the back end via several strong moves in free agency, a pair of which have already been covered here.
A heart issue that Owusu-Koramoah says isn't an issue at all might explain his draft drop, but the Browns deserve a lot of credit for maneuvering the draft board to land a potential star at a position of need.
2. Minnesota Vikings Trade Down and Draft OT Christian Darrisaw 23rd Overall
Had the Minnesota Vikings stood pat and selected offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw 14th overall on draft night, that would have been a solid value move to address a critical need. It might have even made this list.
But instead, the Vikings traded down nine spots, collected two third-round picks from the New York Jets, and then selected Darrisaw anyway in the No. 23 spot.
It was brilliant, and it couldn't have panned out any better for a team that gets a physical marvel with an extremely high NFL ceiling but also added intriguing quarterback Kellen Mond and potential interior starter Wyatt Davis with the two Day 2 selections it landed from Gang Green.
A consensus big board from NFL Mock Draft Database had Darrisaw two spots ahead of Alijah Vera-Tucker, whom the Jets took with Minnesota's original selection. Watch for the large and athletic Darrisaw to make an immediate impact in Minnesota, and for the Vikings front office to quietly chuckle over the gravy it gets from Mond and/or Davis.
1. Kansas City Chiefs Acquire OT Orlando Brown Jr. from Baltimore Ravens
Based on the draft pick value chart at Pro Football Reference, when the Kansas City Chiefs traded a first-round pick and additional draft capital to the Baltimore Ravens for offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and additional draft capital from Baltimore, the Chiefs surrendered the equivalent of a second-round pick for Brown.
For a physically dominant 25-year-old with two Pro Bowls on his resume, that's robbery. Throw in that the offensive line was a tremendous area of need for a team that might have won Super Bowl LV if not for the fact said line was in disarray and this move is splendid for the Chiefs.
That the victim of the theft was one of Kansas City's top rivals in the AFC is icing on the cake. The Chiefs got a lot better, while the Ravens got worse in the short term.
Include Brown's mere $3.4 million salary in the analysis and this is the best move of the 2021 offseason.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac.