2021 NFL Free Agency Grades: Analyzing Every Major Move

Breaking down the major free-agent signings as they happen. Trent Williams, Andy Dalton, Hunter Henry, Trey Hendrickson, John Johnson, Joe Thuney, Matt Judon, Shaq Barrett, Jonnu Smith, Kevin Zeitler and more.
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This will be an unusual NFL offseason, given the declining salary cap and fewer opportunities to scout draft prospects. The full ramifications of these changes are not quite known just yet, but here's our early guess with the legal tampering window now open: This will be the free agency of dream teams. Whether it be a team aspiring to become the Buccaneers, the Buccaneers trying to remain the Buccaneers or a dormant superpower rising from a long slumber to reclaim its role as a championship mainstay.

Not all of this will be accomplished via free agency. Unlike other major professional sports leagues, you cannot build a team that way, but you can punctuate your excitement surrounding the roster with free agent acquisitions. And we’ve already seen quite a splash.

Here is what we’ve seen so far, as well as our grades on each signing.


Kenny Golladay to the Giants

This is probably the most sensible marriage of need and player that we’ve seen so far in free agency. The Giants were developing a good enough receiving corps around Daniel Jones, but Golladay pushes them into a unit that now dictates opposing coverage, instead of the other way around. Golladay is wonderfully well-rounded and can attack the defense comfortably on the sideline or over the middle. Pairing him with Sterling Shepherd and Darius Slayton gives Jones a no-excuses 2021 to earn his keep in New York.

GRADE: A —

JuJu Smith-Schuster warms up before a game

Juju Smith-Schuster re-signs with the Steelers

Kudos to Smith-Schuster for taking the option he felt most comfortable. While there are plenty of us sitting on the sidelines believing that the chance to make more money and play with Lamar Jackson is more attractive than taking less money and playing with a declining Ben Roethlisberger, he must know something we do not; something worth noting as we head into the offseason. Once again, Baltimore gets shut out of the running for a top receiver target. This is a big win for the Steelers on two fronts. 

GRADE: B+ 

Chris Carson re-signs with the Seahawks

Finishing last year with a 0.37 yards over expectation, Carson was not the same dominant back he was during his 2018 and 2019 seasons, but he was still very effective and caught the ball well out of the backfield. There is no doubt a comfort zone here with the Seahakws and Carson, as they’ve tried endlessly to replace the energy and yards after first contact provided by Marshawn Lynch. 

GRADE: B

Will Fuller to the Dolphins

The Dolphins managed to diversify their wide receiver room, adding a deep ball-tracking ace who also became a more complete receiver in 2020. Taking a quick look at his route charts, Fuller seems to have had some of his best games when he was utilized outside of the typical home run/burner role that he was drafted in. The price tag, reportedly $10 million for a one-year tryout with Tua Tagovailoa, is a wonderful bargain all things considered.

GRADE B+

49ers OT Trent Williams moves to deliver a block

Trent Williams re-signs with the 49ers

Players this good don’t often make it to free agency—if a receiver of this caliber was available, there would have been wall to wall coverage. Alas, offensive line play doesn’t get the headlines. But it does protect whomever the 49ers are going to have under center next season. Paying Williams the richest contract ever for an offensive lineman is simply the cost of doing business.

GRADE: A

A.J. Green to the Cardinals

This is perhaps an indication of the team's plans for Larry Fitzgerald, however, it’s unclear if Green would be as versatile as Fitzgerald was in this offense, or as involved in the blocking scheme. Last season, no qualifying receiver or tight end had less average separation on routes run than Green. While this was also a reflection of the offense he was playing in and the weapon set around him, the Cardinals have to be betting big that Green’s lack of separation, as well as a career-low catch percentage, was a product of simply wanting out of Cincinnati (which, after almost a decade, can you blame him?)

GRADE: C+

Alex Mack to the 49ers

An incredibly sensible move for the 49ers to bring in a center who may know Kyle Shanahan’s offense more intimately than Shanahan himself. The 49ers are in an excellent position of strength with this veteran offensive line—it's good enough to buoy a rookie quarterback if the 49ers opt to go in that direction. While there is always an inherent risk in gambling a lot of snaps on a 35-year-old, Mack has missed only two games since 2015.

GRADE: B

Andy Dalton as a runner with the Cowboys.

Andy Dalton to the Bears

At this point we have a large enough sample size on Dalton to know what the projection is here. The Bears are stuck between the lesser of two evils; two hold-the-fort quarterbacks, one of whom probably turns the ball over a little less but has a slightly lower aggressive upside and another quarterback who is streakier but not in the fun Jameis Winston–type way. It seems the Bears did all they could to lure Russell Wilson, but this, for now, looks to be the plan.

How did the plan get here, when the team was unsure enough about Mitchell Trubisky to bring in competition last year? Who knows?

GRADE: D

Tyrod Taylor to the Texans

God bless Tyrod Taylor, one of the NFL’s good soldiers. He went to Cleveland promised a chance to start and then was injured and replaced by Baker Mayfield. He went to Los Angeles, was injured by a team doctor and supplanted by Justin Herbert. Now, in Houston, he is likely forced to be the awkward bridge between Deshaun Watson and whatever their last-ditch exit strategy is.

That said, Taylor is a fine exit strategy. He’s a good quarterback who has never really had a chance to prove as much to the rest of the NFL. Here’s hoping that he is the lone bright spot of this Texans season.

GRADE: C+

Marvin Jones to the Jaguars

Now in his 30s, Jones can be a veteran receiver who can aid in Trevor Lawrence’s developmental process. The heavily targeted wideout has had two straight seasons of a 100-plus QB rating when targeted and still managed to create a decent amount of separation (2.5 yards per route run). The plan for Lawrence will need to be more robust over time, but having a savvy receiver with experience shouldn’t hurt.

GRADE: C

Jacoby Brissett to the Dolphins

With Ryan Fitzpatrick in Washington, Jacoby Brissett makes all the sense in the world. In fact, he’s Fitzpatrick-plus on the field and off the field, is a legitimately helpful presence for Tua Tagovailoa on a good day, and on a bad day, legitimate competition to push the rookie after an up-and-down campaign. Brissett likely had some other offers, which is a nice nod to Flores and the team he is building down in Miami.

GRADE: B

Shaquill Griffin to the Jaguars

This is a pro-Griffin free agency hub, so take this with a grain of salt. As we noted in our rankings, Griffin has gotten better almost every year in the league and still managed to hold his own against elite talent on a bad defense with no pass rush a year ago. Jacksonville now pairs him with the ascending CJ Henderson for a formidable duo.

GRADE: B+

John Ross to the Giants

While Giants fans breathlessly await the results of the Kenny Golladay sweepstakes, they make a move at wide receiver. Dave Gettleman has fetishized the idea of scoring on a high draft pick that didn’t pan out elsewhere (see: Corey Coleman), and while Ross’s presence potentially makes the Giants a more vertical offense, it’s hard to imagine life is drastically different in East Rutherford with him on the roster.

GRADE: C-

Hunter Henry to the Patriots

This is not going to be peak Patriots, like back when they had an unstoppable tight end duo, but it’s going to be somewhat close. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry together is a fascinating pair and provides whoever is quarterbacking the New England Patriots with two dependable targets who drop incredibly few passes (Henry’s drop rate in 2020 was under 3%). We’ve seen more stable offenses, like the ones in Baltimore, Cleveland and Tennessee, adopt a more frequent usage of the dual tight end set. Maybe Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick have it in mind to inch toward that direction.

GRADE: B

Trey Hendrickson to the Bengals

I think it’s fair to wonder if Cincinnati already had a good enough pass rusher in Carl Lawson but chose not to keep him. If you look at Hendrickson’s stellar 2020 season, the sack totals are a bit misleading. Can he rush with speed and power? No doubt, and that goes for isolation rushes against some really good offensive tackles. Was he aided by Cam Jordan pushing the pocket until it was almost inside out? Yes. Did he benefit from several looping stunts that are probably not going to be possible to run in Cincinnati without the same firepower? Yes. Perhaps Lawson wanted to play for a better defensive coordinator and with better defensive talent, which left Cincinnati no choice but to grab the next best thing.

GRADE: C

john-johnson

John Johnson to the Browns

One of the best safeties of 2020, Johnson heads to a Cleveland defense that needs help arranging their secondary. With other teams, one might wonder if Johnson is a luxury the acquiring team wouldn’t know how to use. With the Browns, who seem to be developing a keen eye for talent, Johnson can be the same complete package in Cleveland.

GRADE: A

Bud Dupree to the Titans

Mike Vrabel gets a hard-edged linebacker who can crash on the outside and create some chaos in the backfield; something the Titans have sorely lacked during their recent resurgence. Dupree functioned seamlessly in a beautiful, chaotic Pittsburgh defense last year, but will he stand out on his own? A player with such a high pressure rate and low missed tackle percentage is worth the risk.

GRADE: B-

Jarrad Davis to the Jets

Davis may not be a coverage ace, but he’s going to fly around the defense, present a dual threat to quarterbacks (will he blitz?) and be Robert Saleh’s on-field energy. Despite allowing a perfect 15 of 15 on passes targeted in his direction, he has been less of a liability in the past and under the right defensive mind, could turn into the complete package at linebacker.

GRADE: B-

Corey Davis to the Jets

The Jets are inching toward respectability at wide receiver, assuming that Denzel Mims turns into a player. Corey Davis was second fiddle to A.J. Brown in Tennessee, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of upside there, including a catch rate that has climbed steadily every year and a drop percentage that has, well, dropped with each season.

GRADE: B-

Jameis Winston re-signs with the Saints

I think it's easier to stomach a Saints offense that includes both Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill together. In fact, it’s probably bordering on intimidating. Winston, even with Sean Payton’s watchful eye, may never be able to limit the errant nature of his game. That said, he can put a lot of points on the board, and with the right constraints, he can be made less damaging.

GRADE: C+

Carl Lawson to the Jets

Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas got to work on Monday and did what previous regimes often refused to do; sign high upside talent that has yet to reach their athletic prime, or is in their athletic prime. Lawson is the perfect example of a player who thrived on bad defenses and can soar with some imagination.

GRADE: B+

Leonard Floyd re-signs with Rams

The Rams went into this free agency period well over the salary cap, which apparently does not matter anymore. It’s just a fact we can disregard. However, they paid Floyd $16 million per season after his first double-digit sack year, reportedly because of intense competition elsewhere. Is this the move after losing your wunderkind defensive coordinator? Can they maximize Floyd without Brandon Staley, or did they blink in a stare down and overpay out of fear?

GRADE: C

Joe Thuney with the Patriots.

Joe Thuney to the Chiefs

The Chiefs are reportedly in the mix for Trent Williams as well, which would be one heck of an offseason if they managed to secure two top-flight offensive linemen to bolster their front. Everyone saw the Super Bowl and understands the limitations that Patrick Mahomes will have if he’s not allowed the time to be Superman. Thuney cost a lot of money, but when you find yourself in a similar window as the Chiefs are in now, it’s worth the premium price tag. One encouraging sign: Thuney allowed just two sacks this past season, despite blocking for a recovering Cam Newton and a nonexistent wide receiver corps that sometimes forced plays to elongate unnecessarily.

GRADE: B+

Matt Judon to the Patriots

This felt like a series of wins for Bill Belichick. Not only does he pay well below market value for a great pass rusher who helped a similarly amoebic defense in Baltimore, but he also takes a key piece away from a conference rival, which may have loved to have Judon back at that price tag (or around that price tag). Belichick was able to shop in the top tier at an upper-middle-tier price, which could quickly help rebuild his defense.

GRADE: A

Rob Gronkowski re-signs with the Buccaneers

It’s an odd thing to say that Jonnu Smith is worth every penny at $12 million per season, but Rob Gronkowski is a luxury at $10 million. He’s evolved into a different player for Tampa Bay, but then again, we don’t know what Gronkowski will look like in 2021 with a full offseason of weight training and a better idea of his place in the Bruce Arians/Tom Brady system. It could be vintage Gronkowski. It could be a bit of hubris as well.

Grade: B- 

Corey Linsley to the Chargers

There is no greater gift for a developing star quarterback than a center who has controlled and called the protection schemes for one of the most sophisticated and maniacal quarterbacks in the NFL. Linsley can be a lifeline for the Chargers, and all of a sudden, a Packers offensive line presence doubles out west. This is never a bad thing to have more Ted Thompson offensive linemen.

GRADE: B+

Yannick Ngakoue to the Raiders

Jon Gruden takes another stab at replacing the pass-rushing talent he gave away a few years back. This isn’t a linear comparison, of course, and there’s no way Ngakoue can create the same kind of havoc on the field as Khalil Mack. That said, he is a good pass rusher who, despite some odd ping-ponging around Minnesota and Baltimore, is worth more than $13 million.

GRADE: B-

Kendrick Bourne to the Patriots

Jimmy Garoppolo had a passer rating over 120 when targeting Bourne back in 2019, which is something worth tucking away for another day. Bourne seems like the best of what Belichick covets in a wide receiver; the kind of player who can dominate the middle of the field and create space. A trio of Bourne, Julian Edelman and Nelson Agholor feels somewhat formidable, which is the first time in a long time we can say that in New England.

GRADE: B

Nelson Agholor with the Raiders.

Nelson Agholor to the Patriots

Agholor is a phenomenal athlete with explosive speed who has been streaky at times, but made the most out of a contract season in Las Vegas last year, catching 48 balls for nearly 900 yards and eight touchdowns. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Belichick and Josh McDaniels get the most out of Agholor, though these kind of situations are always a big bet, especially for a receiver with a career catch percentage in the 50s and an uncertain situation under center at QB (to be fair, Agholor’s drop rate is quite low, so the catch percentage is a bit misleading). 

GRADE: C+

Jalen Mills to the Patriots

Mills is an ideal player for Belichick, who comes from the Eagles, a team that played a very similar man/zone coverage split in 2020. Mills works in this defense because of his versatility. Last year alone, he played a high percentage of snaps as a box safety, but was also a slot corner, wide corner and free safety on a formidable number of downs.

GRADE: B

Shaq Barrett re-signs with the Buccaneers

The Buccaneers are in that glorious, post–Super Bowl YOLO stage where an untouchable GM can tap his cash reserves and a horde of talented players all want to come play there. Keeping Barrett, though, was always going to be more complicated. Coming off a franchise tag, negotiations could have gotten contentious, especially after the pass rush handed Tampa Bay a Super Bowl. But instead, the Buccaneers get him at a relative steal—$18 million per season. That alone makes the signing a good one for Tampa.

GRADE: A

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Jonnu Smith to the Patriots

The Cam Newton re-sign was a tepid start to free agency, which is why the Jonnu Smith signing was so fascinating. New England spends big money ($12.5 million) on a pass-catching tight end who is demonic in space. Smith’s market was always going to be surprisingly high to the layperson (the Titans are working to re-sign Anthony Firkser), which is why Tennessee had to let him go. The Patriots’ pronounced arrival onto the free-agent market signals no time for a rebuild in New England. Smith will be a gift to Newton, or whomever is throwing passes.

GRADE: A-

Jason Verrett re-signs with the 49ers

Unfortunately for Verrett, a series of injuries has forced him to accept these short-term prove-it deals. Fortunately for the 49ers, he’s a great cornerback who comes back and helps them repair a secondary that will lose a lot of heart and soul this offseason. Verrett can be that crafty veteran presence, especially after a season in which he played more than three-quarters of the team’s defensive snaps with an opposing QB rating of 76.2

GRADE: B+

Aaron Jones re-signs with the Packers

Green Bay is a smart team that understands the importance of layering a position like running back, especially in this particular offense. Maybe Jones isn’t around forever and maybe he affects AJ Dillon’s development, but they ensure that the position is well-stocked and that they are as versatile in the red zone as possible.

GRADE: A

Kevin Zeitler to the Ravens

Zeitler is one of the more prolific inside blockers in football, which makes complete sense that he’d roll down 95 to Baltimore and help anchor the spot once held by the great Marshall Yanda. Zeitler has missed one game since 2015 and, despite a collective offensive line struggle in 2020 with the Giants, should be in a place to maximize Baltimore’s downhill running game. A bonus for Baltimore: Zeitler does not ding their compensatory pick formula because the Giants let him go. So they salvage a major cap casualty and don’t lose much in return.

GRADE: A-

Tyrell Williams to the Lions

The Lions are soft-tanking, which is an absolute necessity after Matt Patricia came in and covered a brick house in dilapidated vinyl siding. They let Kenny Golladay go and essentially inherited a bare cupboard at wide receiver. Williams comes in as Jared Goff’s only dependable receiving target aside from tight end T.J. Hockenson, after missing the entire 2020 season with a labrum tear.

GRADE: D+

Mark Ingram to the Texans

The Texans are showing the kind of market they’ll be operating in. At best, they’ll be a lifeline for several veterans with soft markets elsewhere. At worst … well … Houston might be living its worst-case scenario right now. The bonus here? Ingram is a valuable veteran and cornerstone player who could help develop other talent at the position.

GRADE: C

Cam Newton celebrates a touchdown for the Patriots in the final game of the 2020 season.

Cam Newton re-signs with the Patriots

I think most everyone realizes how valuable it is to have Newton on a paltry contract, loaded with incentives, like this one. It’s an interesting pairing in Foxboro; he seems to be legitimately in love with the idea of playing for Bill Belichick and the Patriots, which, as we all know, can be an acquired taste for some. Having Newton on a backup QB salary gives New England the flexibility to go upgrade the rest of the offense while also ensuring that they have a good-enough QB should other options (via draft or via trade for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo) fall through.

GRADE: B

J.J. Watt to the Cardinals

I wrote at length about Watt’s signing on the day he first announced it, but in short: It will be interesting to see what the Cardinals do with the rest of their free agency. For example, I think re-signing Haason Reddick would make the Watt signing even better, but did signing Watt automatically mean Reddick isn’t coming back? Arizona’s aggressiveness on Watt shows that they have something in the works for this offseason. If the long and short of it is allowing the future Hall of Famer to crash the opposite side of Chandler Jones, then the Cardinals still have it pretty good.

GRADE: B