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

Andy Dalton throws pass
Andy Dalton headlined the NFL free agency moves on Day Two. Photo from USA Today.

The Chicago Bears have a new quarterback, but it isn’t Russell Wilson. Andy Dalton is the consolation prize of sorts for a fanbase still waiting for a franchise-level player at football’s most important position.

Dalton’s move to the Windy City wasn’t the only headscratcher from the second day of the NFL‘s legal tampering period, otherwise known as negotiations ahead of the official opening of 2021 free agency.

One day after pass-rushers around the league cashed in, the New York Giants stumped up big bucks for an interior game-wrecker. There were smarter, more cost-effective moves involving defensive linemen, most of them done by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have built a mean-looking hybrid front during free agency.

There was even time for the New England Patriots to give Cam Newton yet another new weapon. Here are the best and worst signings from day two:

Headscratcher: Giants re-sign Leonard Williams

He was a beast during 2020, but one productive season is an outlier during Williams’ career. The other five were marked by modest production and inconsistent effort.

Apparently, the Giants are confident 99 wasn’t just playing up for a big contract. If they’re wrong, Big Blue will soon regret handing Williams $63 million over three years, with $45 million guaranteed.

If that’s the going rate for 11.5 sacks, it’s a great time to be playing defensive tackle. Consider how Williams’ one-off stellar campaign has vaulted him into a rarified bracket at his position:

Williams is good, but he’s not a Buckner or Donald. Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman has a strong record finding quality D-tackles in the mid-rounds of the draft. He could have selected Williams’ replacement or the next Dexter Lawrence this April.


You suspect Gettleman had his hand forced by nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson joining the Minnesota Vikings. That was a great move since the Vikes’ defense has deteriorated without Linval Joseph anchoring the middle. The Giants splashing the cash for Williams wasn’t nearly as smart.

Genius: Tyson Alualu returns to Jacksonville

The Jags haven’t been shy about spending, but Marvin Jones Jr. and Shaquill Griffin aren’t their best signings. Instead, GM Trent Baalke deserves props for the way he’s remade the team’s defensive line.

Landing Roy Robertson-Harris on day one was a stroke of genius. Bringing Alualu back to northern Florida isn’t as high-profile a move, but it’s no less of a good one.

Alualu was rarely more than solid during seven seasons in Jacksonville after being drafted 10th overall in 2010. It took joining the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 for Alualu to unlock his true potential.

He reinvented himself in the AFC North, becoming a disruptive two-gap interior lineman.

Alualu can hold double teams and let linebackers get the glory. That skill will be vital in Jacksonville, where new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is planning to call a hybrid defense.

Cullen wants to mix 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. Alualu and Robertson-Harris are perfect fits, as is another free-agent, Jihad Ward from the Baltimore Ravens. Trading for Malcom Brown, who played in a 3-4 for the Patriots and on a four-man line for the New Orleans Saints, completed a remarkable overhaul of a vital position group.

Headscratcher: Dalton joins the Bears

Any fan of the Washington Football Team can probably share the pain of Chicago Bears supporters. Washington ended the opening day of negotiations by giving a one-year deal to everybody’s favourite retread passer, Ryan Fitzpatrick.

He’s entertaining, but Fitzmagic is the man you sign when you’ve run out of ideas about how to fix your quarterback situation. The Bears appear to have been similarly lacking in inspiration if Dalton was the best general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy could come up with.

It’s not as though Dalton is terrible. After all, the ‘Red Rifle’ did lead the Cincinnati Bengals to five-straight playoff appearances back in the day. Okay, so he was one-and-done every time, but there’s no doubt Dalton is more than just competent.

The problem with this deal is viewing it through the prism of Chicago’s well-known interest in trading for Russell Wilson. Seen in this context, Dalton’s arrival is a sad anti-climax.

It’s also true the one-year contract hardly screams confidence about the Bears’ belief in Dalton’s ability to stabilise things under center. The only way I see this working out is if Nagy calls something like the offense Dalton directed in Cincy in 2015. It was a scheme full of motion, jet sweeps, screens, and unusual alignments.

Nagy likes to get creative. He’s going to have to think outside the box to sell this move to fans who hoped for so much more.

Genius: Malcolm Brown to Miami

It’s been an o’ so quiet market for running backs, but Malcolm Brown moving to Miami stood out as one of the more sensible signings.

Brown has been a tough and durable all-rounder for the Los Angeles Rams, but he has lead-back potential. The Dolphins don’t have a bell cow in the backfield, where Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed led the way for an unconvincing ground game in 2020.

Head coach Brian Flores can trust Brown to add some oomph to this rushing attack. Brown will be ready for more carries, but Flores is part of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. That usually means a committee approach in the running game. If Flores sticks to a crowded rotation, he’ll have a proven veteran used to splitting carries.

Brown’s greatest asset in Miami will be the offense he played in for the Rams. It’s a scheme based on a lot of play-action, misdirection, and stretch running. Those things make life easier for a quarterback, something the Dolphins need to do for Tua Tagovailoa in his second season.

Headscratcher: Janoris Jenkins to Tennessee

The Titans had to get better at cornerback even before they ditched Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler. It’s debatable though that Jenkins is a significant upgrade on either.

Few players have made the most of team-hopping for contracts like the well-travelled veteran. Tennessee will be his fourth stop and there’s a reason.

Jenkins has rarely lived up to his initial billing as a second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2012. He’s had his moments and made his share of big plays, but Jenkins has given up a few too many of those as well. It’s why the Saints released the cover man who is 32 and on the wrong side of his peak.

More than the player himself, this deal feels a bit meh because it doesn’t provide the infusion of marquee talent the Titans still need on the back end. That will have to wait for the draft.

Genius: Hunter Henry joins the Patriots

It’s appropriate to finish here by praising the deal that got day two started, Henry becoming a member of the Patriots. He’s going to get $25 million worth of guaranteed money to partner with fellow new arrival Jonnu Smith and make the two-tight end offense a thing again in New England.

There’s an obvious comparison here between the new boys and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Yet it doesn’t quite hold. The latter pair had clearly contrasting styles. Gronk was the in-line throwback tight end, while Hernandez was the roving, big-bodied fusion of tight end and wide receiver.

I see Henry and Smith as something more like the partnership between Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in 2016. Two tight ends similar in style alternating ways to attack defenses.

For all the talk about Henry being the designated blocker, his receiving stats actually outpace those of Smith:

Expect the Pats to move both of these guys around a lot. They can each play the ‘move’ role as well as the traditional ‘Y.’

What is clear is Cam Newton will have few excuses if he doesn’t take the Patriots back to the playoffs after the way Bill Belichick has loaded up on QB-friendly targets.

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