Every NFL Team's Best Buy of the 2021 Offseason
Every NFL roster features someone the organization is thankful for adding within the calendar year.
Offseason acquisitions tend to go one of two ways. They either turn into excellent additions that help improve the respective squad or become disappointments where overpaying to acquire their services hampers the organization's long-term goals.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the worst contracts on every roster. This week, we'll give thanks for recent acquisitions that worked out in each team's favor.
These additions could be free-agent signings, trades or even re-signings based on the situation. Whatever the case, none of these individuals were guaranteed to be with their current squad entering this past offseason, and they've thrived now that they are.
A cornucopia of moves throughout the league proved to be helpful and gave each franchise a reason to be grateful during the holiday season.
Arizona Cardinals: RB James Conner
The Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry and Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor being two of the top three in rushing touchdowns isn't surprising. The Arizona Cardinals' James Conner ranking second with 12 certainly is.
Conner looked slow and lumbering during his last two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He signed a meager one-year, $1.75 million free-agent contract to join the Cardinals' backfield, and he's thrived.
Initially, the 26-year-old served as a complementary back to Chase Edmonds. Edmonds is now on injured reserve with a balky ankle, while Conner leads the team with 555 rushing yards.
Yes, J.J. Watt would have been the best offseason addition had he remained healthy. Unfortunately, a season-ending shoulder surgery cut his first campaign in the desert short.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Cordarrelle Patterson
Amazingly, it took nine seasons before a team finally realized how to unlock Cordarelle Patterson's potential as an offensive weapon.
The Minnesota Vikings selected Patterson in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. His speed and open-field creativity immediately made him an elite kick returner. However, the Vikings, along with his subsequent stops with the then-Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears, never truly tapped into his full capabilities.
Patterson has been dynamic as a hybrid in the Atlanta Falcons offense. He leads the squad with 303 rushing yards and is also the team's second-leading receiver with 39 receptions for 473 yards. His seven combined touchdowns currently make him Atlanta's most dangerous offensive threat on a squad that also features tight end Kyle Pitts.
Baltimore Ravens: Edge Justin Houston
The Baltimore Ravens decided they couldn't retain their top pass-rusher from 2020, Matthew Judon, this offseason. They responded by signing veteran Justin Houston, extending Tyus Bowser and drafting Odafe Oweh in this year's first round.
Houston's addition has been crucial on two levels.
At 32, he's been the defense's most consistent edge-rusher. His four sacks are tied with Oweh for the second-most on the team behind Bowser. Secondly, he serves as a mentor to the young players in the room, particularly Oweh, who entered the league with so much potential yet little refinement.
"He's Yoda, man. He's like Yoda," the rookie told reporters in August. "He just knows everything, and I try to ask him questions about different sets, how to approach that, how to attack that, and he'll have the answer right away. ... So, he's really helped me with everything."
Buffalo Bills: CB Levi Wallace
The Buffalo Bills seemed to reluctantly re-sign Levi Wallace this offseason, and he's responded with arguably the best season of his career.
Wallace became a starter in his first season despite being an undrafted rookie and started 35 games during his first three campaigns.
Even so, the Bills didn't make his retention a priority and chose not to place a restricted free-agent tender on the 26-year-old defensive back. Eventually, he re-signed on a one-year, $1.75 million deal.
Now, Wallace has led the league's second-ranked pass defense with eight defended passes. He's also counted among the NFL's best outside cornerbacks in yards per coverage snap by Expected Points Added, per ESPN's Seth Walder. His performance falls in line with names like Trevon Diggs and J.C. Jackson.
Buffalo has certainly gotten an excellent return on a minimal investment.
Carolina Panthers: Edge Haason Reddick
Haason Reddick struggled to find a role in his first three seasons after the Arizona Cardinals made him their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Reddick bounced between positions and never seemed to establish a comfort level, recording a total of just 7.5 sacks in those first three years. However, he exploded in Year 4 with 12.5 sacks.
Everyone had to wonder if the light finally switched on or he simply produced during a contract year. The former appears to be true after he signed a one-year, $6 million deal to join the Carolina Panthers. Through 11 games, Reddick is tied for third in the league with 10.5 sacks. He should easily eclipse last season's career-high, and those around the NFL now rank him among the league's best pass-rushers.
"He's one of the best players on the field when you turn on the tape each and every week," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of his former player.
Chicago Bears: OT Jason Peters
The Chicago Bears were desperate to add a body to play offensive tackle after a myriad of preseason injuries wiped out the squad's positional depth.
The organization responded by signing 17-year veteran Jason Peters. All things considered, the 39-year-old has held up well.
Is he the same player he once was? Absolutely not. But he has helped stabilize the unit, even though it could still use plenty of work.
Despite a late start and an advanced age, Peters has started every game so far, holding down the fort for the team's eventual long-term left tackle, Teven Jenkins, as he recovers from his ongoing back problems.
Cincinnati Bengals: Edge Trey Hendrickson
The Cincinnati Bengals bet big on Trey Hendrickson despite the possibility of the defensive end being a one-year wonder before entering free agency.
After managing just 6.5 sacks during his first three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Hendrickson rocketed to near the top of the leaderboard in 2020 with 13.5 sacks.
The Bengals signed Hendrickson to a massive four-year, $60 million free-agent contract this offseason to provide more pass-rush punch, and he hasn't disappointed. His 9.5 sacks currently rank ninth overall in the league.
Furthermore, the 26-year-old defender has been consistent. He's 10th in overall win rate and third in win rate against true pass sets, per Pro Football Focus (h/t Locked on Bengals' Jake Liscow).
Cincinnati generated a league-low 17 sacks last season but is currently 11th with 25, and Hendrickson is a significant reason why their pass-rush has been far more potent.
Cleveland Browns: Edge Jadeveon Clowney
The Cleveland Browns courted Jadeveon Clowney a year ago before he chose to sign with the Tennessee Titans. The decision didn't work out in the player's favor.
Clowney played in eight games, didn't register a single sack and had his season cut short by a knee injury. In fact, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick managed only three sacks during the previous two campaigns.
He already has 3.5 for the Browns. While the number itself isn't overly impressive, Clowney has looked like his old self while playing opposite Myles Garrett. The 28-year-old is consistently disruptive, sets the edge and provides pressure.
The Browns' starting defensive ends must be accounted for at all times. The same couldn't be said a year ago, depending on who lined up opposite Garrett. The threat of Clowney has helped Garrett immensely since offenses can't always slide protection in his direction.
Dallas Cowboys: S Jayron Kearse
The Dallas Cowboys' signing of Jayron Kearse was nothing more than an afterthought.
After all, the Detroit Lions released the safety last December for a violation of team rules. He found his way onto the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before wading into free agency.
The 27-year-old defensive back signed a one-year, $1.13 million deal to join the Cowboys.
Since then, he's been a defensive leader and one of the unit's most versatile components. Kearse can play either safety spot, cover the slot and play in the box. He leads the team with 65 total tackles while contributing five defended passes and an interception.
Oh, the safety took over as the defensive play-caller as well, which allows Micah Parsons to thrive without overthinking everything.
Denver Broncos: RT Bobby Massie
The Denver Broncos' offseason investments haven't panned out for the most part.
The organization invested a combined $44.5 million for defensive backs Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller and Kareem Jackson. None of them have performed particularly well.
The same could not be said of Bobby Massie. The Broncos signed Massie after general manager George Paton made the difficult decision to cut right tackle Ja'Wuan James after he suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in June.
Massie has started nine games and helped settle an offensive line in flux, though the 32-year-old veteran is currently dealing with an ankle injury. When healthy, Massie's performance has gone relatively well, considering he signed in May and the organization didn't have many available options.
Detroit Lions: RB Jamaal Williams
Very little has gone right for the winless Detroit Lions. The idea of the organization making a great offseason move has become tainted as a result.
Obviously, Jared Goff's acquisition as part of the Matthew Stafford trade drew headlines, but the Lions' new starting quarterback hasn't swayed anyone from thinking the team will probably go in another direction at some point in the near future.
The majority of the franchise's free-agent signings were basically filler to stabilize a crumbling roster created by the previous regime.
Running back Jamaal Williams is a rare exception. He could very well be part of the Lions' core moving forward as the complementary back to D'Andre Swift. Williams is second on the team with 323 rushing yards and is a capable receiver, though he has just 99 yards on 16 receptions thus far. As such, the Lions' identity is built around their talented running back duo.
Green Bay Packers: LB De'Vondre Campbell
De'Vondre Campbell has always been a solid and productive linebacker. In four of his five seasons between the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons, he accumulated 92 or more total tackles.
So, the fact he leads the Packers with 95 tackles through 11 games doesn't come as a surprise. The fact he didn't sign until June to a one-year, $2 million deal does.
"It's a great pickup by our personnel folks," quarterback Aaron Rogers told reporters. "He can run, he's a great tackler, he's around the ball all the time, he's a great locker-room guy. I mean, it's baffling to me."
Campbell has stepped in as a defensive leader, as the 28-year-old calls the plays and sets the front. He's exactly what the team has needed after last year's poor play at the second level.
Houston Texans: QB Tyrod Taylor
The Houston Texans aren't good, but they're a better team when quarterback Tyrod Taylor is leading the way.
Both of the team's wins came when Taylor started under center. Aside from his three-interception performance against the Miami Dolphins after returning from the injured reserve, the 32-year-old quarterback has operated efficiently within the Texans' offense. His mobility adds another dimension as well.
Obviously, Taylor is a bridge to whoever becomes the Texans' starting quarterback. He's played the role well over his career with both the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers. The veteran brings competency to a unit that ranks dead last in total offense.
Again, there's not much to like regarding Houston's roster, so the bar is set very low. At least Taylor has been a pleasant surprise when healthy.
Indianapolis Colts: QB Carson Wentz
The Indianapolis Colts took a significant risk when the organization traded a third-round pick and what's sure turn into a 2022 first-round selection to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Carson Wentz.
Wentz's career fell apart in the City of Brotherly Love. His relationship with the previous coaching staff fractured, and his mechanics fell apart.
The Colts seemed to be a soft landing spot for him because of his familiarity with head coach Frank Reich, wide receivers coach Mike Groh and senior offensive assistant Press Taylor, all of whom previously coached the quarterback in Philadelphia.
So far, it's worked. Wentz may not be the MVP-caliber player he looked destined to become early in his career, but at the same time, he's not the same shell of a quarterback everyone saw last season. Wentz holds an impressive 18-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, helping lead the Colts to wins in five of their last six games.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Marvin Jones Jr.
The idea of placing Marvin Jones Jr. as the Jacksonville Jaguars' "best buy" when the team's wide receivers haven't played particularly well speaks to how poorly the organization's offseason acquisitions have gone.=
Cornerback Shaquill Griffin has been solid, but the Jaguars' pass defense ranks in the bottom half of the league. Still, no one would be blink if an argument were made in his favor.
With Jones, he provides a veteran option for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The 31-year-old struggles to create separation, but he still leads the team with 42 receptions for 486 yards.
Considering how poorly the skill positions have played around Lawrence, Jones gives this year's No. 1 overall pick someone reliable to count upon when that's enough. With a salary-cap charge of $4.8 million this season, he's worth the price.
Kansas City Chiefs: OG Joe Thuney
The Kansas City Chiefs knew they had to invest in their offensive line after the beating quarterback Patrick Mahomes took during Super Bowl LV.
The team traded for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and drafted center Creed Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith. But the biggest deal came at the onset of the new league year when Joe Thuney signed a five-year, $80 million free-agent contract to become the NFL's highest-paid guard in average annual salary (not including Washington's Brandon Scherff, who is playing under his second consecutive franchise tag).
Thuney has been a rock along the offensive interior. According to ESPN Analytics, the 29-year-old blocker is tied for first with a 97 percent pass-block win-rate. With two rookies starting at center and guard, as well as Brown making a full-time transition to left tackle, Thuney's performance has been absolutely necessary to hold the entire unit together.
Mahomes needed protection, and he has gotten it from Thuney.
Las Vegas Raiders: Edge Yannick Ngakoue
The Las Vegas Raiders struggled to generate a pass rush during the three seasons after trading Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. This year has been different.
Maxx Crosby has been one of the best at applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks. His development is only part of the equation, though. Yannick Ngakoue's addition has given the Raiders a dynamic edge-rushing duo.
The two ranked first and second in pressures going into this past weekend's contests with Ngakoue leading the way with 47, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He leads the Raiders with seven sacks.
"There's a lot of things that have to happen right for a defensive lineman to get a sack, but he's got some God-given ability," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told reporters. "He's very talented."
Los Angeles Chargers: C Corey Linsley
Much like their AFC West counterparts in the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angeles Chargers entered the offseason with the sole purpose of properly protecting their franchise quarterback.
Justin Herbert excelled in his first season by setting a rookie record with 31 touchdown passes despite playing behind one of the game's worst offensive lines.
The Chargers paid Corey Linsley $62.5 million—the most for a center—to be the critical piece to the rebuilt front, and he's been exactly that.
Linsley earned a first-team All-Pro nod last season. Now he's the anchor to a unit with four new starters and a backup playing most of the reps at right tackle due to injuries suffered by starter Bryan Bulaga.
Los Angeles Rams: QB Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford is the chosen one for the Los Angeles Rams.
The organization flipped a pair of first-round selections, a third-round pick and former starting quarterback Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions so Stafford could lead Sean McVay's offense this fall.
Immediate returns have been promising.
"He has been better than I thought, and I thought he was going to be really good," head coach Sean McVay told reporters last month. "... I think he's doing a great job. I think the best players elevate those around them. I think guys are playing better around him. I think he's seeing the field really well."
The shine has been worn off a little since the Rams have lost their last two games. Even so, Stafford ranks top four in passing yardage (3,014), yards per attempt (8.3), passing touchdowns (24), QBR (67.9) and quarterback rating (106.1).
Miami Dolphins: CB Justin Coleman
Even though nickel corner is now considered a starting position, the contributions of those who play the slot are often overlooked.
The Miami Dolphins spent exorbitant amounts of money to secure the services of outside cornerbacks Xavien Howard (contract extension) and Byron Jones (free-agent addition).
Justin Coleman doesn't receive nearly the same fanfare after he was released by the Detroit Lions and signed a one-year, $2.25 million free-agent contract with the Dolphins. Yet Coleman is an integral part of the improving squad.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 28-year-old veteran has allowed the third-lowest passer rating when targeted in the slot. During the Dolphins' three-game winning streak, the pass defense has permitted an average of just 229 yards.
Minnesota Vikings: DT Dalvin Tomlinson
The Minnesota Vikings' decision to sign defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to a two-year, $21 million free-agent contract turned some heads with Michael Pierce already on the roster and set to return after last season's opt-out.
Having both massive interior defenders seemed redundant. But Tomlinson is better against the pass than initially thought. As Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle noted, the 325-pound defender ranked second last season in pass-rush win rate when aligned as a nose tackle.
Pierce has registered half a sack more than Tomlinson so far, but the latter is better at creating pressure and collapsing the pocket.
Ironically, the massive duo hasn't fared quite as well against the run, but they remain average in that regard. Tomlinson, who is currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list, may have been a surprising investment, but he's been the best Minnesota made this past offseason.
New England Patriots: Edge Matthew Judon
Bill Belichick may be the greatest coach in professional football history, but he makes mistakes just like everyone else. For example, Belichick decided to trade Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals prior to the 2016 season. The New England Patriots hadn't had a player eclipse 7.5 sacks since until this year.
Through 11 games, Matthew Judon has 10.5 sacks, which is tied for the third-most in the league.
"I love watching the way he plays," Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule told reporters before his team's Week 9 meeting with the Patriots. "A premier pass-rusher and premier run defender on special teams—it signifies an elite football culture. And also a guy that is a real competitor."
New England now features an elite edge-rusher to elevate the performance of the entire defense. The team's 28 sacks this season have already eclipsed last year's 24-sack effort.
New Orleans Saints: QB Jameis Winston
The New Orleans Saints had little-to-no financial flexibility this offseason. But despite that, they re-signed Jameis Winston, which has worked out quite favorably.
Winston could legitimately be Drew Brees' successor. In seven games, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick had a 14-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But a torn ACL and MCL damage ended his season during the Saints' Week 8 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New Orleans' investment in Winston could still pay dividends down the road if he returns and remains the starting quarterback. If so, the Saints couldn't have made a more canny move.
New York Giants: CB Adoree' Jackson
In one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, the Tennessee Titans released cornerback Adoree' Jackson. The Titans wanted to avoid the fifth-year option on Jackon's rookie contract becoming guaranteed. The irony in doing so is the franchise waived a talented 26-year-old defender it already invested a lot into as a 2017 first-round draft pick.
Tennessee's loss became the New York Giants' gain. New York signed Jackson to a three-year, $39 million free-agent contract.
He's been the Giants' best defender in coverage. He's also been one of the most reliable. According to John Fennelly of USA Today's Giants Wire, the fifth-year veteran played 97 percent of New York's defensive snaps going into this past weekend's game. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jackson registered a tackle for loss, deflected a pass and snagged an interception.
New York Jets: WR Corey Davis
The New York Jets splurged this offseason with the signings of defensive end Carl Lawson, wide receiver Corey Davis and defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins.
Lawson never played a down this season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon during training camp. Rankins doesn't even start. Thus, Corey Davis is the last man standing among the team's big offseason additions.
To the receiver's credit, he has been the No. 1 target despite uneven performances from the Jets quarterback position. Whether Zach Wilson, Mike White, Josh Johnson or Joe Flacco has been in the lineup, Davis has been involved in the offense. He leads the squad with 447 receiving yards.
Right now, a three-year, $37.5 million investment in Davis may seem like an overpay. But more consistency from behind center will only increase his effectiveness.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Steven Nelson
The Philadelphia Eagles didn't make any major signings or trades this offseason.
Not a single Eagles free-agent addition is signed beyond this season. Not surprisingly, they've had a marginal impact.
Signing Steven Nelson has been beneficial because of the team's lack of corner depth and the fact that he's fared well playing opposite Darius Slay. He's had 35 tackles and five passes defensed.
The front office signed nickel corner Avonte Maddox to a three-year, $22.5 million contract extension last week, but that shouldn't preclude the Eagles from re-signing Nelson, which gives him the edge as this year's "best buy."
Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Joe Schobert
Head coach Mike Tomlin set the table shortly after the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired linebacker Joe Schobert from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 2022 sixth-round draft pick.
"He's a sideline-to-sideline tackler," Tomlin told reporters. "He's good in coverage. He has coverage production in terms of interceptions. He has sack production. He plays a well-rounded game and we're so excited about infusing him into what we do."
Schobert provided the type of reliability the Steelers needed among their linebacker corps. The 28-year-old veteran leads the team with 67 total tackles, and he's tied for fourth with four defended passes.
Because of how poorly Devin Bush has played this season, Schobert's competency in the middle has been even more valuable.
San Francisco 49ers: LT Trent Williams
Trent Williams was not a new addition to the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, but re-signing him clearly proved to be the best outcome for the organization.
Why? Williams is the best offensive lineman in professional football. Thus, he's well worth the six-year, $138.1 million contract he signed in March.
At this point, there's no one else on his level. According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive lineman is the highest-graded player in the entire league through 11 weeks of play. His 97.6 grade would be the highest ever by a blocker since the site started.
Williams routinely pancakes defenders thanks to his awesome power and upper-body torque.
Few offensive linemen are worthy of highlights. Williams is one of them because of his week-by-week dominance.
Seattle Seahawks: OG Gabe Jackson
The Las Vegas Raiders decided they needed an overhaul along their offensive line, choosing to move stalwart guard Gabe Jackson even after he started 99 games for them through his first seven seasons.
The Seattle Seahawks traded a fifth-round pick to acquire the 30-year-old blocker.
Unsurprisingly, Jackson has started every game so far. But he's always been a workhorse. Could he be better? Absolutely. Still, he's in there every week doing his job and helping create continuity throughout Seattle's offensive front.
That's more than anyone can say about an addition like tight end Gerald Everett, who was supposed to add another dimension to the Seahawks offense but hasn't. A 3-7 campaign doesn't usually have many bright spots.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Edge Shaquil Barrett
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't splurge on new free agents or make any massive trades to change the roster's complexion this offseason. General manager Jason Licht did yeoman's work by somehow retaining last year's entire starting lineup from the Super Bowl.
The organization re-signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Chris Godwin received the franchise tag. Lavonte David signed a contract extension. Most importantly, the team's best defensive player, Shaquil Barrett, agreed to a four-year, $68 million deal.
Keeping Barrett was vital because he plays a premium position and excels as one of the league's top pass-rushers. In his first two seasons with the Buccaneers, the edge defender registered 27.5 sacks. He has only 5.5 sacks this fall, but Barrett has consistently applied pressure and disrupted opposing offenses.
Tennessee Titans: DL Denico Autry
The Tennessee Titans have the game's best defensive front.
Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry III had already flashed earlier in their careers. Simmons is a consistent disruptive threat along the interior, while Landry had displayed a silky-smooth pass rush since his Boston College days.
Denico Autry—not outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract—proved to be the critical addition for the position group to coalesce and go from a simply talented to elite.
Prior to this past weekend's play, Autry tied for third with 34 total quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. The eight-year veteran isn't a typical edge-rusher, either. He's a base end who thrives when he reduces down over guards and takes advantage of his quickness against less athletic interior blockers.
The Titans got a favorable deal when Autry signed a three-year, $21.5 million contract.
Washington Football Team: OT Charles Leno Jr.
The start of free agency came and went, as did the NFL draft. The Washington Football Team still didn't have a concrete answer to what it would do at left tackle.
Second-round rookie Sam Cosmi was a candidate to slide into the spot with some seasoning. Unexpectedly, the Chicago Bears released longtime starter Charles Leno Jr. after the draft. The left tackle started all but three games during the previous six campaigns.
But the Bears thought their second-round draft pick, Teven Jenkins, would slide into that spot. Instead, he's dealt with back issues and has yet to play in a professional game.
Leno, meanwhile, has quietly put together one of his better seasons. Washington head coach Ron Rivera told reporters his left tackle has "progressed very well" and has a "real good rapport" with left guard Ereck Flowers.