It has now been one full week since the NFL’s new league year – and unrestricted free agency – officially commenced. Even before March 17, notable players like J.J. Watt and Kevin Zeitler had switched teams. But since then, the market has produced significant turnover – quite a few teams promising to look markedly different in 2021.
A few prominent players (Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Fournette, Alex Smith and Melvin Ingram among them) remain available. But with the majority of those eligible for new contracts having already signed, this seems like an appropriate point to distinguish the winners and losers from this year’s free agent period:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Tom Brady signaled what would happen in a tweet earlier this month, saying “we’re keeping the band together” as he signed a cap-relieving extension. The Super Bowl champs’ frontman doing his part, the band has pretty much fallen in line, starting with the franchise tag’s application to WR Chris Godwin. GM Jason Licht ensured OLB Shaq Barrett was back under contract just minutes after the league’s legal tampering period began March 15, and it wasn’t long before LB Lavonte David, TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Ndamukong Suh and even K Ryan Succop had re-signed. Changes on the keyboards and bass are still possible with Fournette and WR Antonio Brown still unsigned, but a team that peaked late last season seems poised to make a strong run at a Lombardi Trophy repeat.
Trent Williams: His expiring contract precluded a franchise tag, and boy did that provision pay off handsomely for the eight-time Pro Bowler. Williams re-upped with the San Francisco 49ers for six years and $138 million, the richest contract ever for an offensive lineman – the average annual payout ($23.01 million) nudging him past the Packers’ David Bakhtiari ($23 million). Yet Williams left enough on the table for the Niners to keep FB Kyle Juszczyk and add C Alex Mack, a pair of exceptional players who could also help pave the way for a bounce-back season in 2021.
Pass rushers: No sooner could teams begin negotiating with the QB hunters than they seemingly began flying off the board – this at a time when the salary cap regressed by nearly $16 million after COVID-19 depressed league revenues in 2020. Watt (2 years, $28 million) opened the floodgates earlier this month, joining the Arizona Cardinals. Barrett (4 years, $68 million) did even better, quickly followed by the Titans’ Bud Dupree (5 years, $82.5 million), Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson (4 years, $60 million), Jets’ Carl Lawson (3 years, $45 million), Patriots’ Matt Judon (4 years, $54.5 million) and Raiders’ Yannick Ngakoue (2 years, $26 million). For good measure, the Giants stripped Leonard Williams’ second franchise tag and locked him up with a three-year, $63 million extension. Even journeyman Kerry Hyder pulled down a three-year, $16.5 million bounty from Seattle on Tuesday. Lesson? If you can’t be the quarterback, then learn to beat up the quarterback.
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Dak Prescott: Four years … $160 million … no more contract questions in Dallas (until at least 2023) … enough said.
Franchised players: Prescott and Leonard Williams weren’t the only pending free agents to get tagged before quickly finding common ground on long-term extensions. Denver’s Justin Simmons has also already raked in a new deal – for four years and $61 million, resetting the league’s safety market in the process – somewhat unusual given franchise players are often negotiating well into July.
Patrick Mahomes: Ever since the Chiefs’ Super Bowl 54 win to cap the 2019 season, the 2018 MVP’s offensive line has been incrementally dismantled by injuries (OTs Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz), free agency (G Stefen Wisniewski, C Austin Reiter) and a COVID-19 opt-out (G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who doubles as a doctor). However GM Brett Veach signed the top interior O-lineman in free agency, Joe Thuney and added former Pro Bowler Kyle Long, amid expectations that Duvernay-Tardif will return for the 2021 season. (Veach also re-signed veteran Mike Remmers, while Lucas Niang is also expected back after opting out.) There are still issues to sort through – Thuney, Long and Duvernay-Tardif can’t all play guard – most notably the void at left tackle, though Fisher could be an option if his Achilles rehab goes well and he and the team are open to a reunion. Still, overall, things seem to be looking up for Mahomes, who was last seen running for his life in Kansas City’s Super Bowl 55 faceplant.
First-round castoffs from 2017: Four of the first five players (and six of the top 13) drafted in Round 1 four years ago had their fifth-year options declined last year. But QB Mitchell Trubisky (Bills), DT Solomon Thomas (Raiders), WR Corey Davis (Jets), WR John Ross (Giants), OLB Haason Reddick (Panthers) and LB Jarrad Davis (Jets) were all quickly granted fresh starts with new teams. Corey Davis (3 years, $37.5 million) and new Giants CB Adoree’ Jackson (3 years, $39 million) – Jackson’s option was activated last year, but then the Titans wound up cutting him after the season – both did especially well. Only unsigned Fournette is currently out in the cold, though it seems likely “Playoff Lenny’s” market will develop following another strong postseason showing.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: Washington becomes the itinerant quarterback’s ninth NFL team – though first stop in the NFC East – and provides the 38-year-old another chance to start … perhaps for a playoff team, something he’s never experienced in 16 NFL seasons.
Cleveland Browns: Second-year GM Andrew Berry continues to bolster this roster with quality, under-the-radar additions. DBs John Johnson and Troy Hill were quietly plucked from the Rams’ top-ranked defense and should quickly bolster the secondary of the Browns’ 22nd-ranked pass defense.
Jameis Winston: With QB Drew Brees finally deciding to retire after 20 seasons, there’s a clear path for Winston, the top pick of the 2015 draft by Tampa Bay, to resurrect his career in New Orleans after a one-year apprenticeship under Brees and coach Sean Payton … assuming Winston can beat out jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill. Fortunately for everyone involved, despite what seemed like massive cap issues heading into free agency, the Saints didn’t lose all that much off a roster that’s won the past four NFC South crowns.
Kenny Golladay: For a minute, it appeared as if this year’s wide receiver class was essentially in line for a collective, if relative, haircut. But Golladay’s slow play of suitors that included (according to reports) the Bears, Bengals, Dolphins and Ravens ultimately brought him a four-year, $72 million deal from the Giants. So he’ll be paid as one of the league’s top-10 receivers even though he’s reached one Pro Bowl and missed most of 2020 with a hip injury.
Cam Newton: Despite an erratic first season in Foxborough, the former league MVP gets a second chance with the New England Patriots – and the sequel’s supporting cast already projects as more impressive. Bill Belichick made ample additions to the passing game, signing WRs Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne plus TEs Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith – this after the Pats had a league-low 12 TD passes in 2020. C David Andrews (re-signed) and OT Trent Brown (trade) also return to fortify the blocking in front of Newton. Throw in some nice defensive additions, too – Judon, DB Jalen Mills, OLB Kyle Van Noy, LB Dont’a Hightower (opt-in) – and Belichick, Newton and Co. appear good bets to return to playoff contention.
Cam Newton: Man … how’s a guy supposed to eat? Newton’s a little more than a year out from completing a five-year, $103.8 million deal with the Panthers that covered his 2015 MVP effort. This year, he’s playing on what’s essentially a $5.1 million deal that can balloon to around $14 million if the Patriots win the Super Bowl and he garners a slew of individual awards. It’s better than the incentive-laden deal with the $1 million base salary Newton settled for a year ago while coming off his injury-abbreviated 2019 campaign, but it’s also on par with what new Dolphins backup QB Jacoby Brissett received. And the arrangement looks awfully team friendly considering Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton both essentially got $10 million to play for new teams in 2021 – and it certainly wouldn’t deter Belichick from pursuing, say, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft before ultimately deciding Newton is his backup … which is pretty much how he’s being compensated.
Chicago Bears: To their credit, they cut the cord with Trubisky after the ill-fated decision to draft him second overall in 2017. But unable to pry disgruntled Russell Wilson out of Seattle, GM Ryan Pace and Co. were forced to settle on Dalton. A veteran of 10 seasons, he may be a more consistent passer than Trubisky … but he also has the same number of career playoff wins – zero – in twice as many postseason starts (4). Accommodating Dalton’s salary also essentially forced Pace to part with his best cornerback, Kyle Fuller, who was effectively replaced by fading Desmond Trufant.
2011 draft class: Kinda sad to see the leading lights from this legendary draft – Watt, Patrick Peterson (Vikings) and A.J. Green (Cardinals) – join Newton, Dalton and (still unsigned) Richard Sherman in uniforms different from the ones in which they became superstars, but such is life in the NFL.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Despite going into free agency with more than $70 million in available cap space – tops in the league – Urban Meyer’s first round of personnel moves haven’t been all that inspiring. Maybe the decisions to pay CB Shaquill Griffin (3 years, $40 million) and tag LT Cam Robinson ($13.8 million) will prove prudent, along with several past-prime players headed to Duval County. Then again … maybe not.
Derek Carr: The Raiders quarterback is coming off one of his best seasons, when he was also sacked 26 times – fewest he’s taken since 2017. But Las Vegas GM Mike Mayock opted to trade 60% of Carr’s offensive line (OT Trent Brown, C Rodney Hudson and G Gabe Jackson), so let’s see how this all works out.
Baltimore Ravens: Zeitler was a nice, if unexpected, pickup. But the defense took a significant hit up front, and no first-rate receiver was forthcoming to assist in QB Lamar Jackson’s development as a passer.
Running backs: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be tailbacks. In a years-old trend, the majority of the guys who run the rock continue to be treated like spare parts. The Raiders’ Kenyan Drake and Seahawks’ Chris Carson landed the best deals, both averaging north of $5 million over two years – Carson with an opportunity to collect more than $14 million with incentives. But those figures are far cries from what this year’s best available receivers and tight ends were making, to say nothing of the players paid to stop running backs. Good runners like Phillip Lindsay, Jamaal Williams and Mike Davis will play for roughly $3 million per season on their new deals, while veterans like Mark Ingram and Carlos Hyde settled for even less.
Aaron Rodgers: The Green Bay Packers managed to retain RB Aaron Jones (4 years, $48 million) but lost All-Pro C Corey Linsley to the Chargers and didn’t bring in any additional help. Pretty hard to say matters have improved around Rodgers, last year’s league MVP, in the wake of consecutive NFC championship game defeats.
Russell Wilson: He’s still a Seahawk, and he better be OK with that. Good luck returning to a locker room that’s been allowing you to get hit too often, Russ … though hopefully Gabe Jackson’s arrival helps in that department.
Houston Texans: New GM Nick Caserio has been unrelentingly busy, literally acquiring dozens of players – most of whom the average NFL fan has never heard of. But the headlines in Space City have been dominated by the mounting allegations against QB Deshaun Watson, Watt’s departure and the ongoing turmoil that seems to surround this organization.
Theater: It was certainly lacking in a year when Brady wasn’t available, or Kirk Cousins wasn’t striking a landmark deal, or when there just didn’t seem to be as many big-name players available – despite the league-wide cap crunch. Watt’s premature departure from Houston in February, followed by internet sleuths trying to divine everything he posted on social media, was more entertaining than anything that actually happened in free agency.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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