Ryan Fitzpatrick

2021 NFL Free Agency: Teams to love, loathe or be on the fence about

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Analysis of NFL free agency 2021, featuring the Patriots, Giants and Niners…

No team ever wins or loses free agency until the games are played and those signings either make the grade or flop entirely. There’s still enough evidence though to love, loathe or be on the fence about the major moves during any year’s veteran market.

The 2021 version has seen a flurry of activity led by cap-rich AFC East rivals the New England Patriots and New York Jets. They haven’t been the only big spenders though, with the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants also splashing the cash.

Some of the smarter-looking decisions involved teams retaining their own talent. Other franchises shrewdly played the market by recruiting to solve problems within their own divisions.

Here are the best, worst, and downright uncertain performances during free agency:


Love: 49ers

No team reaped the best of both worlds as well as the San Francisco 49ers. The NFC West outfit retained core players and smartly added tough newcomers.

General manager John Lynch got the ball rolling by re-signing Kyle Juszczyk. He’s a skilled fullback who has become a versatile weapon and source of big plays in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

The Shanahan formula has always relied on a powerful and mobile offensive line. Lynch obliged when he re-upped Trent Williams on a huge deal that will pay $60.75 million over three years with an option for three more. I hesitate to rank Williams alongside Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, and other great left tackles of the past, but he remains a force in today’s game.

It will help Williams and the rest of the Niners’ O-line to have Alex Mack anchor the middle. He played for Shanahan in Cleveland and Atlanta and knows every nuance of this offense.

Keeping cornerback Jason Verrett and nose tackle D.J. Jones were smart moves. Once Nick Bosa and the rest of the front-line rushers who were injured last season return to full health this defense will be scary again. You should back Samson Ebukam to be a factor as well. The former Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker is never going to be a 15-sack guy, but he’s strong, flexible, and plays well in space.


Loathe: Bengals

The one main gripe with what the Cincinnati Bengals did concerns Trey Hendrickson. He left the New Orleans Saints to sign a $60 million contract set to pay him $32 million over the next two seasons. That’s ridiculous money for a one-season wonder.

Hendrickson cashed in thanks to his 13.5-sack 2020 season. He logged just 6.5 quarterback takedowns in the previous three seasons combined. Hendrickson won’t have the luxury of Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins taking blockers away from him in Cincinnati.

The Bengals felt obliged to act after edge-rusher Carl Lawson took a hefty contract from the Jets. Yet swapping a potentially expensive deal for an actual one made little sense. Especially since pass-rushing is a transferrable skill. If you’ve got some speed and a couple of moves you ought to be able to get to the passer at both the collegiate and pro levels. Cincy could’ve replaced Lawson and his 5.5 sacks from 2020 with a mid-round draft pick or an ageing QB hunter who still loves the chase.

There’s also a question mark about not adequately replacing Geno Atkins. Former Browns starter Larry Ogunjobi won’t make the same impact Atkins provided at his best. Cincinnati’s defense needs a game-wrecker inside to compete in an AFC North division bossed by the Baltimore Ravens’ muscular O-line and Cleveland’s one-two rushing punch, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Head coach Zac Taylor is pinning his hopes on young gunslinger Joe Burrow, but 32-year-old left tackle Riley Reiff won’t fix an offensive line that surrendered 48 sacks last season.

On the Fence: Patriots

Not mentioning the Patriots on a list of this type would be a dereliction of duty after the way Bill Belichick spent like crazy. On the surface, the Hoodie answered every problem his 7-9 team had last season. Yet there’s always a reason to be cautious whenever a franchise invests the amount of cash the Pats did.

Most of the reason for the caution stems from Belichick overloading on players who may well be on the rise, but as yet, haven’t reached NFL stardom. Jonnu Smith is an intriguing “move” tight end, but one who never posted 450 yards receiving in a single season during four years with the Tennessee Titans.

Nelson Agholor had a tidy season with the Las Vegas Raiders a year ago, but he’s still waiting on his first 1,000-yard campaign. Matt Judon is being paid like a double-digit sack artist, even though he’s never been one. The ex-Raven is at least the kind of all-rounder Belichick loves on the edge of his defenses.

What you should love about the Patriots’ moves is how they will make this team a bully on both sides of the ball again. Smith and Hunter Henry will mean more two-tight end looks for a run-heavy offense now perfectly suited to Cam Newton‘s skills.

Judon, play-anywhere defensive back Jalen Mills and active nose tackle Davon Godchaux will let Belichick mix his fronts and coverages as often as he did during New England’s glory years.

Love: Broncos

Nobody geared their signings to the strength of their divisional opponents as well as the Denver Broncos. Playing in the AFC West means trying to defend Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr.

Stopping those three quarterbacks requires a formidable secondary, something the Broncos have constructed by signing corners Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. Head coach Vic Fangio now has the weapons he needs to match up with the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, and Los Angeles Chargers.

Fangio loves to use single-high coverage with some robber looks underneath. He needs cerebral, all-action safeties to make those schemes work. There aren’t many better than Justin Simmons, who was wisely rewarded with a four-year contract worth $61 million.

Denver’s secondary is more than equipped for the division, but don’t sleep on the decision to bring back defensive tackle Shelby Harris. He’s one of the best interior pass-rushers in the game and somebody opponents have to account for on every play.

Fangio is building a defense to rival those fearsome units he ran in San Francisco and Chicago.

Loathe: Giants

The Giants couldn’t stop overpaying free agents. Reckless spending began with handing Leonard Williams a contract worth $63 million to stick around. A king’s ransom for a defensive tackle with one good season to his credit.

Williams’ banner year came in 2020 when he was playing for his next deal. Those 11.5 sacks were exceptions, not part of the norm for a player with inconsistent effort.

The Giants only needed to remember their recent draft history to avoid a deal like this one. Big Blue has selected excellent D-linemen in recent years, including nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. He joined the Minnesota Vikings in free agency, but 2019 first-rounder Dexter Lawrence is still on the team, along with B.J. Hill. New York could’ve drafted Williams’ replacement and used the money to add a feared edge-rusher and some secondary help.

General manager Dave Gettleman handed a similar over-the-odds deal to wide receiver Kenny Golladay.

Quarterback Daniel Jones needs a primary target, but Golladay has completed a 16-game season just once in four years. A player with this many gaps in his record is too big an injury risk to be paid on this level.

On the Fence: Washington Football Team

Most of the reason to be lukewarm about Washington’s performance in free agency concerns Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s a character we love, but he’s also an interception machine who doesn’t take teams to the playoffs. You give Fitzmagic a chance when you want to distract people from the fact you lack a coherent strategy at football’s most important position.

Fitzpatrick is a boom-or-bust passer whose go-for-broke tendencies don’t suit a team built to play super-efficient small ball. That means good defense, dominating the clock, and not committing turnovers.

Having a playmaker like Curtis Samuel in the lineup may curb some of Fitz’s enthusiasm. Samuel can gash defenses from the slot, on screens, and as a running back.

It’ll be interesting how often Fitzpatrick passes up the chance to go deep in order to look Samuel’s way underneath.

The saving grace of Washington’s free-agent class may be William Jackson III. Losing Darby was a blow after his fine season in 2020, but Jackson is an upgrade. He’s a shutdown cornerback who can be trusted to play one-on-one in Jack Del Rio and Ron Rivera‘s defense.

Relentless pressure and sticky man-to-man coverage is the formula for a league-leading unit that could take the Burgundy and Gold back to the playoffs, provided the quarterback doesn’t get in the way.

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