Re-Grading the NFL's Biggest Free-Agency Moves from the 2021 Offseason
We haven't seen the impact of 2021 NFL free agency play out on the field, though a team's offseason plan can make more sense after the draft.
In hindsight, analysts may have to rethink initial grades for early roster additions. Perhaps a team cut or traded a player with the intent to expand a veteran newcomer's role. In some cases, rookie acquisitions or the lack thereof could change our perspective of how the club addressed a position during free agency.
Let's reassess eight of the biggest free-agency moves with a more complete look at the rosters across the league. We've highlighted the marquee deals by considering a combination of contract value, total guaranteed money and a player's resume (i.e., Pro Bowlers and All-Pros).
Based on the player's fit, projected role and his contract, we've provided an up-to-date grade for each free-agent deal. This list doesn't include veterans who re-signed with their teams.
Tennessee Titans Sign Edge Bud Dupree
Contract: Five years, $82.5 million ($35 million guaranteed)
The Tennessee Titans' deal with Bud Dupree made sense months ago after the team dismantled the secondary, cutting Adoree' Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Kenny Vaccaro. As well, the defense ranked 28th in quarterback pressures and 30th in sacks last season.
At cornerback, free-agent addition Janoris Jenkins and rookie first-rounder Caleb Farley or Kristian Fulton could start on the boundary with rookie third-rounder Elijah Molden as an option in the slot. With Amani Hooker at safety, the Titans may have multiple first- and second-year players in their starting secondary.
Because of the question marks and inexperience on the back end, Tennessee needs a reliable pass-rusher. Harold Landry couldn't generate enough pocket pressure on the edge alone. Dupree can provide some help.
Through six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dupree had 39.5 sacks, but he saw a significant uptick in production over the last two seasons, logging 19.5 sacks.
Dupree won't line up opposite a player of two-time All-Pro T.J. Watt's caliber, but he can benefit from playing behind defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, the latter of whom the Titans also signed in free agency.
When you consider Dupree has to rebound from a torn ACL, the Titans made a risky investment.
He can't definitively say he'll suit up for Week 1, so that leaves some concerns for the start of the year, though the 28-year-old should help a weak pass rush once he's cleared to take the field.
New York Giants Sign WR Kenny Golladay
Contract: Four years, $72 million ($40 million guaranteed)
In his third term, quarterback Daniel Jones goes into a crucial prove-it year. The New York Giants will find out how he fares with a lead wideout in Kenny Golladay, whose contract lists 11th in total guarantees among players at his position, per Spotrac.
When healthy, Golladay has produced at the level of a No. 1 receiver. The Pro Bowl wideout eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons (2018 and 2019) and led the league in touchdown receptions (11) for the latter of those terms.
Last year, Golladay missed 11 contests with hamstring and hip injuries. Based on his contract numbers, Big Blue seems confident he'll bounce back to elevate the offense.
As a big-bodied target (6'4", 213 lbs), Golladay brings a different skill set to a wideout unit that includes Darius Slayton, slot receiver Sterling Shepard and speedy first-rounder Kadarius Toney. He's a possession receiver who wins with strong hands and physicality.
If Jones doesn't play up to expectations in 2021, Golladay can become a unique asset for the next quarterback to take over the offense.
New England Patriots Sign Edge Matt Judon
Contract: Four years, $54.5 million ($32 million guaranteed)
Judon's sack numbers don't jump off the screen, but he should lead New England in the category. Last season, Chase Winovich topped the club in sacks with 5.5 while playing 58 percent of the defensive snaps.
Judon is a complete edge defender, and his run-stopping ability will allow him to play a majority of the defensive snaps and strengthen the Patriots' 26th-ranked run defense from the previous campaign. He's recorded at least 10 tackles for loss in three out of five seasons.
With the addition of an every-down playmaker on the edge, the Patriots have addressed two weaknesses in their pass and run defense. While Judon shores up the front seven, New England can develop its top rookie defenders, Christian Barmore and Ronnie Perkins, without immense pressure to contribute right away.
Judon isn't a flashy pickup with eye-popping numbers, but the two-time Pro Bowler can plug the remaining holes in an otherwise stout defense.
New York Jets Sign Edge Carl Lawson
Contract: Three years, $45 million ($30 million guaranteed)
The New York Jets signed a top free-agent pass-rusher in Carl Lawson whose numbers look more impressive when you go beyond the surface box-score numbers.
On The Jim Rome Show, Lawson talked about quarterback pressures and sacks:
"You can't judge somebody based off of sacks as far as how productive they are, but if you want to get to that elite status where you're considered an elite defender, then you need to convert those pressures into sacks, if you get what I'm saying. And I'm confident that I'll be able to do that because I feel like I've been very…I've had tons of limiting factors to just go against me and still be highly productive."
Lawson has 20 sacks in four terms. Last year, he tied Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones for fourth in quarterback pressures (44). He also tied T.J. Watt for the most quarterback knockdowns (26).
Fair or not, Lawson knows he must rack up sacks to become a top-tier defender. The 26-year-old has a lot of room to grow. He played more than 43 percent of the defensive snaps in only one of his four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. In 2018, the Auburn product missed nine games with a torn ACL.
Among the top 25 edge-rushers in guaranteed money, Lawson will likely play a majority of the defensive snaps in New York. With the Jets' young cornerback unit, he has to make a push up front to disrupt opposing passing attacks.
As a rookie, Lawson flashed potential with 8.5 sacks, and he logged 10.5 sacks over the last two terms in a rotational role. Fully unleashed, he could look dominant next to defensive tackle Quinnen Williams on the front line.
Los Angeles Chargers Sign C Corey Linsley
Contract: Five years, $62.5 million ($26 million guaranteed)
The Los Angeles Chargers made a strong move in an attempt to strengthen their offensive line, signing Corey Linsley, who's coming off his first All-Pro season.
Though Linsley has earned recognition for only one campaign, he's been steady in the pivot for the Green Bay Packers over the last seven terms. Since 2017, the 29-year-old has missed just three outings. In 2020, he played 734 offensive snaps, committed zero penalties and allowed one sack, per Pro Football Focus.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga talked to Hayley Elwood of the Chargers' official website about what Linsley, his former Packers teammate, brings to the offensive line group:
"I think when you have a guy that is as intelligent as he is, that eases a lot of minds, not only from a coach's standpoint, but he's going to be extremely beneficial for Justin (Herbert.) He is one of the smartest guys I know, not only on the football field but also off it. To have a guy snapping the ball to you that has seen everything; scheme-wise there's stuff that he's used to with this new offense. To have a guy that can take control at the line of scrimmage making calls, making IDs, and helping Justin identify things, and taking that off of his plate is big time."
Based on Bulaga's assessment, Linsley's experience and football IQ will take pressure off quarterback Justin Herbert before the snap. The veteran center could also serve as a steady presence for a revamped offensive line. The Chargers signed versatile lineman Matt Feiler and selected Rashawn Slater in the first round of this year's draft.
Expect Linsley to leave his mark as a leader within his position group. He's worth $26 million in guarantees, which ranks fifth among centers.
Las Vegas Raiders Sign Edge Yannick Ngakoue
Contract: Two years, $26 million ($26 million guaranteed)
The Las Vegas Raiders defense could take a much-needed leap forward with a viable pass rush. In 2020, the unit ranked 29th in sacks and gave up the third-most points. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley may have an underrated duo in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Nagkoue.
On one side, Crosby has recorded 17 sacks in two seasons. Last season, he tied for 18th in quarterback pressures (32). Opposing offensive linemen must account for him before the snap, which may give Ngakoue one-on-one opportunities on the opposite side.
With 45.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl year on his resume, Ngakoue has established himself as one of the better pass-rushers in the league. He has a quick step off the line of scrimmage and brings a relentless pursuit off the edge.
Ngakoue has to work on his consistency against the run, though. His former college position coach at Maryland, Chad Wilt, talked with The Athletic's Vic Tafur about the defensive end's potential to become a complete player.
"The challenge for him in college was to grow into an every-down player," Wilt said. "And I think that's still one of the things he's progressing and improving on."
Ngakoue hasn't played more than 75 percent of the defensive snaps in a season. He may sub out for Clelin Ferrell, who could line up inside and outside, on early downs. Nonetheless, the 26-year-old will undoubtedly take the field in passing situations. Perhaps his bulked-up frame allows him to see an expanded role.
Though the Raiders signed Ngakoue to a fully guaranteed deal, his secured $26 million ranks 30th among edge-rushers. That's solid value for a rotational player with room for growth.
New England Patriots Sign TE Jonnu Smith
Contract: Four years, $50 million ($31.3 million guaranteed)
The New England Patriots restacked their pass-catching group, signing Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
On the surface, all those moves seem necessary. In 2020, third-string running back Rex Burkhead led the Patriots in touchdown receptions (three). Wideout Jakobi Meyers caught 59 passes for 729 yards as the team's lead pass-catcher.
However, Smith's contract seems steep for a player who hasn't logged 50 catches or 500 yards in a season. Looking ahead, he'll share targets with Henry at the position. The latter has a more accomplished track record in the passing game, logging at least 55 receptions and 613 yards for each of the last two terms.
The Patriots can use two-tight end sets to attack defenses, but Smith isn't likely to reach his potential alongside a more consistent pass-catcher in Henry. Yet the former has a contract with the third-highest amount in total guarantees among tight ends.
Smith should see a decent number of targets, but the Patriots signed him to a salary that compares to the top tight ends in the league. He could become the No. 2 option at the position on his own team.
Kansas City Chiefs Sign OG Joe Thuney
Contract: Five years, $80 million ($46.9 million guaranteed)
The Kansas City Chiefs went all-in on Joe Thuney. Among guards, he has the most guaranteed money on his contract—topping six-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro Zack Martin of the Dallas Cowboys ($40 million).
Thuney doesn't have distinguishable accolades on his five-year resume, but he hasn't missed a game and plays with clean technique from his hands to footwork in pass and run protection.
The Chiefs acquired a technician who can minimize interior pressure, which allows quarterback Patrick Mahomes to comfortably step into the pocket, and open lanes for the ball-carriers.
With rookie second-rounder Creed Humphrey in contention for the starting job at center and the right guard position up for grabs, Thuney projects as the stabilizing component on the interior of Kansas City's offensive line.
Player contracts and salary rankings courtesy of Spotrac.