The storm that is the 2021 NFL free agency period has come and gone, with just a few headliners still on the market. It’s been a wild ride thus far, so let’s take a look back and focus in on a few of the winners and losers from this year’s open signing period.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
Notable Additions: S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, EDGE Takk McKinley, DT Malik Jackson
Subtractions: DT Larry Ogunjobi (CIN), CB Terrance Mitchell (HOU), OT Kendall Lamm (TEN)
Johnson could go down as one of the top signings from any team, at any position. It was a grand slam signing for Cleveland, who was in desperate need of a playmaking safety in the secondary behind one of the league’s top up-and-coming defensive units. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey garner the headlines in Los Angeles—rightly so—but Johnson served as the linchpin for the Rams’ secondary who was invaluable over his four seasons for Sean McVay. You can read more about why the Johnson signing was such a good fit here.
Hill slots in nicely opposite Denzel Ward and McKinley’s addition will help soften the blow of Olivier Vernon’s departure.
The Browns were contenders in 2020, headlined by a blowout victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round, but a strong free agency period and another offseason for Baker Mayfield has 2020 NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski in prime position to return the Browns back to AFC North royalty.
Winner: New England Patriots
Notable Additions: *takes deep breath* EDGE Matt Judon, TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, S Jalen Mills, WR Nelson Agholor, NT Davon Godchaux, WR Kendrick Bourne, OT Trent Brown (trade via LV)
Subtractions: G Joe Thuney (KC), DT Adam Butler (MIA)
The loss of Thuney was massive, but the team was able to re-sign David Andrews while adding veteran Ted Karras from the Dolphins to shore up the interior.
The 2021 free agency period was one of foreign affairs for the Patriots, who are typically quiet come springtime. Not this year. The team dished out $138M in guaranteed money, second-most in franchise history… within 24 hours.
As free agency kicked off, at one point, it seemed that everyone agreed to terms with New England. Smith and Henry represented the top two tight ends on the market, both landed in Foxborough. Was it an attempt to replicate the success of prior 12-personnel groupings with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Maybe, but having both of those talents at Belichick’s disposal definitely raises eyebrows.
No matter who is under center, whether it be Cam Newton or a signal-caller acquired via the draft, the receiver room needed a much-needed revamp of talent. With the additions of Agholor and Bourne, both of whom can work interchangeably with Julian Edelman, the Patriots don’t have a true WR1. Instead, the three wideouts, each with unique, intriguing specs laced into their game, will provide much-needed juice for the Patriots’ lackluster passing game.
Defensively, Judon will have every opportunity to return to Pro Bowl form within New England’s 3-4 front opposite Kyle Van Noy, who rejoins the Patriots after a quick detour with the Miami Dolphins. Mills adds pop on the backend with Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson on the outside, who will work everywhere for Belichick’s unit. As he did in Philadelphia, Mills will serve the role as the strong safety, but also have free rein to come into the box, blitz, and work in the underneath areas—a chess piece Belichick has lacked in his defense for the last couple of years.
Loser: Las Vegas Raiders
Notable additions: EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, WR John Brown, RB Kenyan Drake, C Nick Martin
Subtractions: OT Trent Brown (trade via NE), C Rodney Hudson (trade via ARI), G Gabe Jackson (trade via SEA), WR Nelson Agholor (NE), WR Tyrell Williams (DET), RB Devontae Booker (NYG)
The Raiders are in shambles; I’m not really sure what’s going on in Sin City. Jon Gruden has blown up what was rather a promising roster when he arrived in Oakland in 2018, and Derek Carr is now the recipient of the blame. Carr’s best receiver is gone, his center is gone, and two of his top linemen are also gone. Darren Waller serves as the saving grace for Las Vegas’ offense. Unrest has also been reported surrounding starting corner Damon Arnette, and with a defense lacking proven talent, 2021 could be one to forget in Vegas as Gruden enters his fourth season at the helm.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
Notable additions: WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Mitchell Trubisky, re-signed G Jon Feliciano, LB Matt Milano, extended S Micah Hyde
Subtractions: WR John Brown (LV), WR Andre Roberts (HOU)
This list won’t blow you away, and that’s exactly why Buffalo had an excellent free agency period. Milano and Hyde represent the anchors of the Bills’ defense, and general manager Brandon Beane didn’t waste much time keeping them in western New York for the foreseeable future. The release of Brown was minuscule considering the presence of Stefon Diggs, Sanders, Cole Beasley, and Gabriel Davis, who deserves a larger role within the Buffalo offense. But, there are only so many targets to go around. I loved what the Bills did this spring, including the signing of Trubisky, who enters a win-win situation behind Josh Allen as a capable QB2 option with starting experience to manage the load if there’s an injury.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Notable Additions: Re-signed EDGE Shaquill Barrett, RB Leonard Fournette, TE Rob Gronkowski, DT Ndamukong Suh; franchise-tagged WR Chris Godwin
Subtractions: OT Joe Haeg (PIT)
Tampa Bay focused on keeping their own this spring, and how could you not include them on the top pedestal of winners this offseason? The Buccaneers return all 22 starters this fall, including their most important piece, Tom Brady, who now embarks on his 22nd NFL campaign. Antonio Brown remains unsigned, but really, Tampa Bay will be OK regardless of whether No. 81 returns or not. The Buccaneers remain the favorites to repeat and will be in prime position to do so as long as Brady remains healthy.