I was wrong about 2021 free agency when I wrote last week I thought teams wouldn’t have the same fervor out of the box. And many of the 32 teams were typically frenetic. In 2020, 30 deals of players changing teams got done on the first day of the free-agent tampering period; this year, 35 such deals got done early. Teams basically borrowed heavily against future years, and stars got paid. Trent Williams, at $23 million, matched David Bakhtiari atop the tackle market. Joe Thuney got the biggest package for a guard (five years, $80 million) in history. Kenny Golladay matched Tyreek Hill’s $18-million average. In a year when teams had a third the cap room they had in 2020, those are monstrous commitments.
Then, of course, came the Patriots, with their 22 moves in a week: trading for a left tackle; guaranteeing between $9 million and $32 million to seven different free agents; gorging themselves on tight ends; stealing back Kyle Van Noy; and confounding those who never thought Bill Belichick would go on one of the biggest spending sprees in the 28-year history of NFL free agency.
Why’d the Patriots do it? Because they could.
“We had the second or third-most cap room at the start of free agency,” owner Robert Kraft told me Friday. (It was third, at $69 million.) “This year, instead of having 10 or 12 teams competing for most of the top players, there were only two or three. And in my 27 years as owner, I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before.”
Kraft expended about $175 million in guarantees in two days—almost the same as he spent in 1994 to buy the franchise and a dilapidated stadium. But he didn’t sound like a man with buyers’ remorse. He sounded like a man who knew his former quarterback just won the Super Bowl in another city, and like a man who just experienced his first losing season in 20 years.
“It’s like investing in the stock market,” Kraft said. “You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market when you can, and that’s what we did here. We’ll see. Nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that. But we’re not in the business to be in business. We’re in this business to win.”
Make no mistake: New England had to make these very expensive course corrections because Bill Belichick the personnel man badly let down Bill Belichick the coach. In the last six drafts, the Patriots have used first, third, third, fourth, sixth, sixth, seventh and seventh-round picks on tight ends and wide receivers. In 2020, five of those players were gone, and the remaining three caught 38 balls. The Patriots, by virtually any measure, had the worst collection of offense skill players in football. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry immediately become TE1 and TE2, while Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, depending on the future of Julian Edelman (35 in May), are likely the top two wideouts.
With so many questions about the strength and efficiency of Cam Newton’s arm, the Patriots immediately become a tight end-dominant offense. Think back 10 years ago, when the Patriots were so tight end-centric. That’s the season Rob Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, and the season Hernandez played running back in the playoff rout of the Tim Tebow Broncos. Jonnu Smith got used in the backfield by Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith the same way Josh McDaniels used Hernandez in the 2011 postseason.
Smith, Henry and Bourne will play at age 26 this year; Agholor at 28. You’d think there’s quite a bit of tread left on all their tires. And we haven’t even got to the defense, where Judon and the re-acquired Van Noy should add juice to a pass-rush that’s had one player (Chase Winovich) show promise and a second (Josh Uche) slow to flash his edge speed.
In a boomerang way, this reminds me of 2001, when the Patriots were tight against the cap and signed 23 free agents—for collective bonuses of $2.5 million. Mike Vrabel and David Patten and Otis Smith became valued pieces on the Pats’ first Super Bowl team. But that was a different time and place. Now, Buffalo and Miami make the 2021 AFC East a beast of a division. What Belichick has done with this free-agent roundup is ensure the Patriots can be a factor in the division and the conference. “He went and improved his football team by leaps and bounds,” said the agent for three new Pats, Drew Rosenhaus, on my podcast this week. “I think everybody would agree this roster is incredibly improved from the one that they ended the season with.”
“We’ll see,” Kraft said with some caution. “I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason. So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”
Now let’s dive into the other 31 teams, starting with six deeper looks:
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS. This is one strange franchise, entering its fourth year of the Jon Gruden Experiment. Three years pre-Gruden: 25-24. Three years with Gruden: 19-29, with little evidence that year four will be the breakthrough season. Good Gruden perspective on the ESPN draft podcast the other day from Todd McShay: “I like Jon. Jon is a great coach. But he’s got personnel ADD . . . He’s always plugging in guys and moving guys around.”
In 2019, the Raiders spent $105 million guaranteed on tackle Trent Brown, safety Lamarcus Joyner and wide receiver Tyrell Williams and Antonio Brown; instead of being foundational players, they’re all gone. The Raiders got 16 games out of the oft-injured Trent Brown, paid him $32.7 million, and dumped him to New England last week. Three-fifths of a good offensive line (center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson and Brown) vanished last week, traded for third, fifth and fifth-round picks.
The Raiders made one solid signing (wideout John Brown, for one year and $3.75 million) and two curious ones. With a franchise back, Josh Jacobs, in house already, Vegas paid $14.5 million for two seasons of a good back, Kenyan Drake. Also imported: a very curious player, Yannick Ngakoue, who is now on his fourth team in seven months. He talked his way out of Jacksonville, got traded twice in two months (to Minnesota and then Baltimore) and didn’t produce in either place, and got rewarded in a stressed cap period with $13 million a year from the Raiders. With seven years left on Gruden’s deal, I can’t imagine owner Mark Davis thinking of pulling the plug yet. But another disappointing year and Davis has got to start thinking about it.
CHICAGO BEARS. The Bears knew chances were slim that they could get Russell Wilson. And so they could continue to hope and pray that the Seahawks would make a dumb trade and hand them Wilson, or they could be realistic and try to get the best quarterback possible to win 10 games in 2021. That man is Andy Dalton. For those hammering GM Ryan Pace, I get it, I suppose. But the hammering is for something that happened four years ago, when Pace valued Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson and made a pick that will haunt the Bears for a generation. The hammering should not be for signing Dalton, the best quarterback Pace could acquire on March 17, 2021. Tell me: Do the Bears have a better chance to win 10 games this year with Andy Dalton and Nick Foles at quarterback, or with Nick Foles and John Doe at quarterback?
ARIZONA CARDINALS. J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Matt Prater were chosen for the 2013 Pro Bowl. Cute bit of trivia, but in the case of the Cardinals, not sure how good it is that players who were in their collective prime eight years ago are the keys to Arizona’s 2021 free-agent class. Watt will be 32 on opening day, Green 33 and Prater 37, and teamed with the primo center, Rodney Hudson (32 this season), acquired in trade from Las Vegas, the Cardinals seem to be hoping that Watt and Green, in particular, can have one or two golden seasons before they leave the game. It’s certainly not impossible, but Watt and Green first need to prove they can stay on the field. Both played full seasons last year, but Watt’s missed 32 games due to injury in the last five years and Green 29 over the same span. Green needs to get some fire back in his game; when I think of him over the last three or four years, the word “indifferent” comes to mind, not “great.” Maybe that comes from playing in a place, Cincinnati, where you know you’re not going to win.
This class of acquisitions, along with DeAndre Hopkins last year, shows the Cardinals are going for broke right now in a division that’s somewhere between vulnerable and the best division in football. Watt teaming with Chandler Jones and Green with Hopkins could be effective, but with the recent history of both newcomers, nothing is guaranteed. The addition of Hudson, however, should be one of the best acquisitions this month.
CINCINNATI BENGALS. It was worrisome to me that a former Bengal guard still playing very well, Kevin Zeitler, escaped to division rival Baltimore (for the comparative bargain of $7.5 million a year) early in the week, eschewing the Bengals. Worrisome because Cincinnati entered this offseason with its highest priority improving an offensive line that had Joe Burrow running for his life as a rookie last fall, and Zeitler was a plug-and-play guy who, at 31, could steady the ship for the next two or three seasons. Then Burrow got into the act, helping recruit veteran tackle Riley Reiff over a steak Thursday night. “I went away from eating that steak and I was like, ‘I want to block for this guy,’ “ Reiff said after signing for one year and $7.5 million. “Seeing him on the film . . . He’s even better off the field.” Must have been some steak.
Reiff and Jonah Williams likely will man the tackle slots, but the interior line is exceedingly weak; Cincinnati’s line ranked 30th in composite offensive-line grades in 2020. The need is still acute if Burrow is going to have a cleaner pocket than the one that got him injured last season.
TENNESSEE TITANS. GM Jon Robinson needs something to go right, and that something had better be Bud Dupree. In 2020, Robinson tried to fix a dormant pass rush by spending $21 million on Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney. In 13 games between them, Beasley and Clowney combined for zero sacks; they’re gone. As disastrous: Tennessee’s first-round pick, Georgia tackle Isaiah Wilson, played three snaps in his rookie year, which featured a DUI, a positive COVID test and a terrible attitude. Tennessee traded him to Miami for a seventh-round pick last week and he lasted three days with the Dolphins before getting fired there. Still, Wilson’s awful impact echoes in Nashville: In a tight cap time, Wilson’s $4.48-million dead-cap number on the Titans’ salary cap is a reminder that lousy decisions can have enduring consequences.
Dupree, 28, was on his way to Shaq Barrett money territory when he tore his ACL on Dec. 2 for the Steelers. Confident that the knee will be fine, Robinson signed Dupree to a five-year, $82-million deal, and hopes he can pick up on his disruptive pace of the last two seasons (19.5 sacks in 27 games). “I’m going to go out there and play with my hair on fire,” Dupree said upon signing with Tennessee. If that leads to sacking the quarterback, get the matches ready.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS. Common question over the past six days: The Colts have $35 million in cap room, so why aren’t they spending it? It’s pretty simple. Before opening day 2022, the Colts will already have two big salaries—Carson Wentz and DeForest Buckner—taking up $38 million in cap room. And it’s likely by then that three more current Colts will join them: guard Quenton Nelson, tackle Braden Smith and linebacker Darius Leonard, at a combined average of about $47 million a year. The Colts, then, will have five players taking up about 45 percent of their cap, or 45 percent of their average-salary compensation. Because the Colts are a pretty consistent “cash to cap” team—they don’t dish out a bunch of huge signing bonuses in any particular year, but rather try to keep cash spending in line with the cap most years.
The Colts will have to trust GM Chris Ballard to find a productive receiver with some explosion—I would aim for a low-cost option like Demarcus Robinson, or draft one, or wait till the post-June 1 cuts disgorge a good player who could be had cheap for one year.
And quick hits on 25 teams:
• KANSAS CITY probably overpaid for Joe Thuney, but KC has a better line today with Thuney and Kyle Long than the team had at the Super Bowl this year. The player they wanted but didn’t get is center Rodney Hudson, who got traded by the Raiders to Arizona. Hudson wanted to be released, not traded. And if he’d been released, I’m pretty sure he’d have been snapping to Patrick Mahomes this year. KC was ready to pay Hudson more than Arizona did.
• If this is the way it falls . . . I don’t understand PITTSBURGH choosing JuJu Smith-Schuster, a good player at a plentiful position, over Steven Nelson, the steady cornerback who’d played more snaps than any corner on the roster over the past two years. Not sure if Nelson will be dealt, but if he is, the Steelers are weakening a position that’s traditionally a weak spot.
• WASHINGTON inking Ryan Fitzpatrick is a bridge to the future, of course. But WFT won a bad division last year with a cobbled-together QB situation, and the division doesn’t look markedly improved, except for the return of Dak Prescott. Almost as important: William Jackson III’s importing from Cincinnati to shore up a mediocre corner position.
• Keep the band together. That’s the mantra in TAMPA BAY, where so much money has been pushed into 2023 and ’24 to try to win now. Football is a game of momentum, and of surviving injuries, and you rarely stay the same from one year to the next. Shaq Barrett had five sacks after Columbus Day in 2020, then got hot in the playoffs. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m not sure the Bucs pick up where they left off, even with O.J. Howard added to that great receiving corps. History says we just don’t know.
• CLEVELAND and PHILADELPHIA got excellent safeties—John Johnson (the Rams’ defensive signal-caller, and still just 25) goes to Cleveland and ex-Viking Anthony Harris is manna from heaven for a needy Eagle secondary.
• THE NY GIANTS paid too much for Kenny Golladay, a receiver I like, but $18 million in this financial climate? For a receiver who didn’t find big money till day six of free-agency? The Giants will have three players not named Daniel Jones or Saquon Barkley account for about $60 million of their 2022 cap. Not good. But a player like Golladay is borderline essential to the development of Jones, so I understand the push to get him. He’s going to have to produce very big (something like 90 catches, 1,300 yards, 10 TDs) for the deal to be worth it.
• The reunion of ace cornerback Kyle Fuller and Vic Fangio, his former Bears defensive coordinator, was a no-brainer for DENVER.
• I don’t fault cap-crushed teams that didn’t spend borrow from the future in the first week—ATLANTA, NEW ORLEANS, DALLAS. I applaud the patient. History says patience is almost invariably the best policy in free agency.
• BALTIMORE getting Kevin Zeitler for 46 percent of the cost of Joe Thuney is a great signing.
• BUFFALO did what smart, good teams do in free agency: sign their own very productive players (tackle Darryl Williams, tackling machine Matt Milano) to reasonable deals. They’ll average $10 million over the next seven years, combined.
• I liked CAROLINA doing a one-year prove-it deal with Haason Reddick, a good rush bookend for Brian Burns. I didn’t like importing two subpar offensive linemen, Cam Erving and Pat Elflein, for a total of $14 million guaranteed. Just not worth it.
• HOUSTON didn’t get appreciably better in a flurry of about 93 (actually, 31) moves—one of which was signing Tyrod Taylor, who might actually have to play quarterback for the Texans this year.
• MIAMI mostly sat out the process, but I find it curious, paying Kyle Van Noy $1.07 million a game in 2020 ($15.025 million for 14 games played) and then whacking him—and sending him back to the Patriots for future torment.
• MINNESOTA made one of my favorite signings: defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson for $11 million a year.
• Man, $23 million a year in very tight cap times is a lot for any player, even a top left tackle like Trent Williams. SAN FRANCISCO had better get greatness out of Williams, PFF’s seventh-rated tackle in 2020, for the next five or six years.
• SEATTLE needs to get Carlos Dunlap back.
• Not sure JACKSONVILLE is a lot better either after its 17 moves (so far), though I loved what Urban Meyer said about this insane process that requires teams—if they want to be competitive in the market—to spend millions on players they’ve never met. “That was awful,” Meyer said, “and I don’t believe it should be that way. Not when you’re making organizational decisions. I’m not sure how that rule came about, but to me that’s not good business.”
• DETROIT cut a lot of people and signed a lot of people. No idea if the Lions are any better than the team that underachieved consistently under Matt Patricia.
• Hard to knock GREEN BAY’s lone foray into free agency. Aaron Jones is probably worth $9.5 million a year in this interchangeable world of running backs after 3,017 scrimmage yards and 30 touchdowns over the past two years.