Nelson Agholor

NFL Free Agency 2021: Genius moves and headscratchers from day one

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Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were big spenders when 2021 free agency unofficially kicked off on Monday. The NFL’s legal tampering period prompted a slew of signings, seven of them by the cap-rich Pats.

Some of the deals around the league were worthy of being called acts of genius, others led to widespread scratching of heads. Here are the best and worst moves from the first day of movement on the veteran market, including how the Patriots finally replaced Rob Gronkowski

Genius: Jonnu Smith to New England

The numbers are gaudy enough to make eyes water. Belichick doled out $50 million over four years to bring Smith over from the Tennessee Titans. Up to $31.25 million of that is guaranteed cash. Quite the investment in a guy who hasn’t tallied 450 receiving yards in a single season.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the Patriots knocked this one out of the park. There’s been a crater-sized hole at tight end since Gronkowski walked away, albeit briefly, in 2018. Smith will fill the void and also offer offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels a versatile playmaker.

He’s 248 pounds, but Smith can be moved into a variety of spots. Expect the 25-year-old to be a joker-style tight end who spends time in the slot or splits out as a flanker, while 2020 third-round pick Devin Asiasi matures into a more traditional, in-line blocker.

The best thing about this move is how it gives Cam Newton the reliable target he’s missed since linking up with Greg Olsen for the Carolina Panthers.


Genius: Joe Thuney to Chiefs

Andy Reid never wants to see a repeat of Super Bowl LV. He’s going to make sure Patrick Mahomes won’t take another beating like the one dished out by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in February.

Protecting the franchise makes the enormous investment the Kansas City Chiefs made in Thuney a genius move. The money, and there’s a lot of it, has earned the Chiefs one of the best pass-protecting interior linemen in the NFL.

Spending so much to keep Mahomes safe implies the Chiefs think the rest of the roster is strong enough for another Super Bowl push. I’m not entirely convinced. There’s still room for a bookend pass-rusher to complement Frank Clark and a more consistent receiver alongside Tyreek Hill.

Yet I can still understand the Chiefs going big to fix their most obvious flaw. Mahomes is a generational talent, and the blueprint for building around him doesn’t follow conventional rules. By signing Thuney, Reid not only improved pass protection. He also acquired a rugged run blocker who will improve a ground game that must do more to take the heat off Mahomes in 2021.

Headscratcher: Leonard Floyd re-ups with the Rams

Floyd managed to parlay one good season into $16 million per year. Lord, give me strength. The Los Angeles Rams weren’t going to let the former Chicago Bears draft flop leave town. Their determination led to a contract that ought to come with a hazard warning.

There’s no denying Floyd was good in 2020. He finished second on the team with 10.5 sacks and also made 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and recovered a pair of fumbles. Good numbers but not worth breaking the bank over, especially since last season was Floyd’s first with double-digit sacks.


The Rams forgot a few important mitigating about Floyd’s success in 2020. He was thriving in coordinator Brandon Staley’s defense. Staley is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

There was also the not-so-small matter of Aaron Donald drawing a crowd inside. His disruptive talents make it easier on the guys on the edges to make splash plays.

Donald’s ability to make those around him better means the Rams could have chased more cost-effective alternatives to Floyd. Like taking a chance on a mid-round edge-rusher from this year’s draft class, such as UAB’s Jordan Smith or Pitt’s Rashad Weaver.

Headscratcher: Yannick Ngakoue to the Raiders

It’s been a while since Nagakoue terrorised quarterbacks on a consistent basis. The Las Vegas Raiders should have paid more attention to his decline before paying Ngakoue $26 million over two years.

Ngakoue’s peak was some time ago as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Right around 2017, the high point of “Sacksonville.” That’s no coincidence. Nagakoue benefited from playing alongside Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson. They took blockers away from the edge, so Ngakoue could record 21.5 sacks in two seasons. He hasn’t registered more than eight in a single season since.

His fall from grace was completed in 2020, when Ngakoue bombed out after being traded to the Minnesota Vikings, then dealt again to the Baltimore Ravens.

Moving to Vegas means Ngakoue reunites with new Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, his first head coach in Jacksonville. Yet the impact of their relationship is overplayed since they only worked together for 14 games.

The Raiders don’t have anything like Campbell or Jackson at defensive tackle. Maurice Hurst Jr. hasn’t quite made the grade, while Maliek Collins signed with the Houston Texans. It’s going to be tough sledding for Ngakoue trying to revive a dormant Raiders pass rush that mustered only 21 sacks a year ago.

Genius: Ronald Darby moves to Denver

Ronald Darby used one season with the Washington Football Team to prove he could stay healthy and boost his market value. The scrappy cornerback started all 16 games for the first time in his career and showcased his flair for getting to the football.

Darby’s playmaking streak makes him a brilliant get for the Denver Broncos. The AFC West outfit had already scored big in free agency by putting the franchise tag on safety Justin Simmons. While a long-term deal with Simmons still seems like a long way off, surrounding him with better talent on the back end might accelerate those negotiations.

Keeping the secondary strong is a smart play from defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio. It’s the only way the Broncos will compete in a division featuring Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

Genius: Jalen Mills to the Patriots

Darby’s wasn’t the only smart deal involving a defensive back. The Patriots struck gold when they signed Jalen Mills. He only snatched a mere five interceptions during as many seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, but Mills’ value went beyond the numbers.

His appeal comes from the variety of spots he can play on the back end:

That level of versatility will be a huge asset for Belichick, who tailors his coverage schemes to take away an opponent’s primary weapons. One week that might mean playing a corner like Mills over a dynamic tight end. The next it might mean putting some more speed at safety in a two-deep shell or to disguise the looks.

Mills will be able to carry out whatever schemes Belichick’s fiendish mind can devise. Such flexibility makes him a bargain at $6 million per year over four years, with only $9 million guaranteed.

Genius: Jaguars signing Roy Robertson-Harris

The Jags made a decent splash by handing a three-year contract and $14 million worth of guaranteed money to Roy Robertson-Harris. He hasn’t been a regular starter in Chicago, but Robertson-Harris has showcased transferrable skills and a talent for creating pressure in sub-package situations:

It helps to have played alongside Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, but there are reasons to believe Robertson-Harris will flourish with more snaps and in a starring role. His towering frame means he can play five-technique defensive end on a 3-4 front like the one the Jaguars may run in 2021.

Urban Meyer faces a tall order rebuilding a team that went 1-15 a year ago. Drafting Trevor Lawrence won’t be enough. Meyer needs his defense to make some big plays. Robertson-Harris forming a partnership with underrated Abry Jones will add some oomph to a changing unit.

Headscratcher: Nelson Agholor getting paid in New England

One good season does not an elite wide receiver make. Somebody tell that to the Patriots, who handed Agholor $26 million over two years. That’s quite the reward for a receiver who is coming off the first even semi-good season of his career.

Agholor made 48 catches and gained 896 yards with the Raiders in 2020. He averaged 18.7 yards per grab and proved himself adept at taking the top off of a defense.

The Patriots needed some speed at the wideout position, and Agholor answers that need. What he doesn’t do is offer the reliability of a Julian Edelman. Nor is the 6’0″, 198-pounder the kind of physical specimen who will go up and win contested catches the way towering pair Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess did during Newton’s peak years with the Panthers.

Agholor has never enjoyed a 1,000-yard season, but the Patriots are paying him like a proven commodity. It’s a risk for a team with a far from stellar recent record drafting and signing receivers.

Headscratcher: Carl Lawson cashing in with the Jets

One obvious takeaway from the early round of free agency is not many teams think much of the pass-rushers in this year’s draft class. There’s no other way to explain Lawson earning a contract that could pay him as much as $47.4 million during three years with the New York Jets.

Lawson has just 20 career sacks in four seasons, with 5.5 of them notched in 2020. The production doesn’t even come close to matching the money.

Playing for Jets head coach Robert Saleh should boost Lawson’s production but by how much? Saleh calls a defense based on a relentless four-man rush. It worked wonders in San Francisco, but the situation with the Jets is a little different.

Adding Lawson alongside incumbents Quinnen Williams and Nathan Shepherd isn’t the same as inheriting Arik Armstead and drafting Nick Bosa.

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