Wednesday, March 22, 2023

NFL free agency grades 2021: Live analysis of every free agent signing and trade

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The NFL free agency and trading period is here for 2021 with the new league year set to go into effect on Wednesday, Although several players are staying off the market, either re-signed or franchise-tagged by their teams, many others are set to change teams, by either signing with or being traded to another team.

As the news happens, Sporting News will provide the latest analysis of the most significant moves around the NFL right here.

Ranking the top 50 players overall, best by position, tracking signings

NFL free agency 2021: Grading the latest signings, trades

Chiefs sign G/T Joe Thuney for 5 years, $80 million

Grade: A+

In a surprise move because of some cap issues that caused the Chiefs to cut former starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, they restructured enough contracts to make one big free-agency splurge for the former Patriots rock of a blocker. Thuney can either play left guard, his most frequent spot in New England, or right tackle, where he filled in well last season. Either way, the Chiefs get a powerful force in his prime to help both protect Patrick Mahomes and open holes for Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Buccaneers re-sign TE Rob Gronkowski for 1 year, $10 million

Grade: A

Gronk is still playing at a high level and is coming back for another dance with Tom Brady as expected after the team cleared cap space and took care of its top three free-agent priorities (Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David)

Jets sign WR Corey Davis for 3 years, $37.5 million

Grade: B

The Jets made heir first notable strike in free agency (other than signing former Lions LB Jarrad Davis) by landing a much-needed potential No. 1 wideout for whoever their 2021 starting QB will be, replacing Breshad Perriman, who replaced Robby Anderson. Davis, the Titans’ first-rounder, broke out a bit with 65 catches, 984 yards and 5 TDs in 2020, showing off his speed and size (6-3, 209 pounds). Davis and Denzel Mims can create a dangerous field-stretching combination outside.

Jets sign DE Carl Lawson for 3 years, $45 million

Grade: B

And here is the Jets’ big defensive splash to match Davis, taking away the Bengals pass rusher to anchor their new 4-3 scheme for Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh. Lawson is a strong all-around end and can blossom more as a pass rusher after posting 5.5 last season, his most since 8.5 during his rookie year. This just might a slight overpay, much like Davis.

Bengals sign DE Trey Hendrickson for 4 years, $60 million

Grade: B

The Bengals spent the same annually to replace Hendrickson for Lawson. He did break out with the Saints in 2020, leading them with 13.5 sacks. But the 26-year-old didn’t do much his first three seasons, so there’s a potential for equal boom or bust, a la Lawson. He needs to parlay his play from New Orleans and then some to be worth it in the end, but good for him to cashing in during a contract year.

Saints sign QB Jameis Winston for 1 year, $12 million

Grade: B

The Saints are serious about making it a real competiton between Winston and Taysom Hill, who is making about the same for a year with his restructured deal. Roughly, the investment in both QBs was around what Drew Brees was paid. Hill is the slight favorite, but Winston wouldn’t have signed unless a) he was in line for more money than other teams could pay him and b) he felt he had a fair chance to beat Hill. It should be fun to watch all summer.

Patriots sign WR Kendrick Bourne for 3 years, $22.5 milion and sign WR Nelson Agholor

Grade: C

The former 49er and the former Raider go to New England to replenish the position for Cam Newton with N’Keal Harry disappointing and Julian Edelman getting older coming off an injury-riddled season. They add to new tight end Jonnu Smith in trying to change the face of the passing game. Bourne will try to expand from being a valuable role player while Agholor will keep trying to prove he can be a deep threat after his one-year spike in Las Vegas.

Raiders sign DE Yannick Ngakoue

Grade: B

Ngakoue, once a bigger prize as a pass rusher, has been with the Jaguars, Vikings and Ravens over the past couple of seasons. The Raiders get him hoping to boost their pressure with Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, trying to give new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley a scheme-familiar weapon.

Titans sign OLB Bud Dupree 

Grade: B

The Steelers managed his injury loss well down the stretch thanks to the play of Alex Highsmith to support T.J. Watt so they were comfortable not bringing him back. The Titans will try again to upgrade their edge pass rush with a veteran after Jadeveon Clowney didn’t pan out for Mike Vrabel. Dupree will be a cornerstone for new coordinator Shane Bowen.

Rams re-sign OLB Leonard Floyd for 4 years, $64 million

Grade: A-

Floyd didn’t pan out with the Bears but flourished in the Rams’ 3-4 with 10.5 sacks last season. He is a great complement to the work Aaron Donald does vs. being the primary focus of attention rushing the passer. He’s a good keep after several suitors wanted to add his services.

Chargers sign C Corey Linsley for 5 years, $62.5 million

Grade: A

Make that two premier free-agent inteior linemen to the AFC West. Linsley leaves the Packers and Aaron Rodgers to be the highest-paid every-down snapper in the game for rising second-year QB Justin Herbert. Now Los Angeles can focus on shoring up offensive tackle as they continue to improve their overall blocking. The Chargers also added former Steelers G/T Matt Feiler to fill another starting spot later on the first night.

Patriots sign DE/OLB Matthew Judon for 4 years, $56 million

Grade: A

The Patriots are trying to rebuild their pass defense with a mix of versatile youngsters (now including former Eagles cornerback/safety Jalen Mills for 4 years, $24 million) but they needed a bona fide productive rusher. Here they pluck Judon from the Ravens with a hearty deal to be a multiple position fit for Bill Belichick.

Browns sign S John Johnson III for 3 years, $33 million

Grade: A+

Cleveland had some of the weakest safety play in the NFL in 2020. Now they get a player who had a huge impact cleaning up for the elite Rams’ defense last season. Johnson covers a lot of ground vs. run and pass. He’s great coming up in support like an extra linebacker (105 tackles). He can make plays on the ball like a corner.

Patriots sign TE Jonnu Smith for 4 years, $50 million

Grade: A-

The Patriots finally splurge for capable experienced starter to help replace Rob Gronkowski with this strong former Titans blocker who also has high receiving upside. Smith is going into his only age 26 season and should use his athleticism to be a key pass-catcher all the way through the red zone for Cam Newton and/or a rookie QB. Smith’s also versatility fits well with Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick. The only concern is durability for such a high price.

Buccaneers re-sign EDGE Shaquil Barrett for 4 years, $72 million

Grade: A

The Buccaneers continue their mastery of the cap in making sure all the key pieces and top priorities in free agency stay from their Super Bowl 55 time. Barrett took a mild “hometown discount” to stay, too, and will continue to wreak havoc opposite Jason Pierre-Paul.

Jaguars sign DT Roy Robertson-Harris for 3 years, $24.4 million

Grade: C

This is the first big outside move by the coaching/GM combination of Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke. It’s not bad to add a solid defensive tackle to the rotation for Joe Cullen’s hybrid front, but it’s about your typical, average signing.

Lions re-sign DE Romeo Okwara for 3 years, $39 million

Grade: B

He was a bright spot in a disappointing season for the end of Matt Patricia’s defense with a breakout 10-sack season. The Lions may have overpaid a bit for limited sample size, but they are desperate to have a youn gfoundation up front for the Dan Campbell era.

Broncos re-sign DE Shelby Harris for 3 years, $27 million

Grade: B

Denver needs to make some key defensive changes at every level, but it had to keep Harris and safety Justin Simmons on the front and back ends at reasonable prices for Vic Fangio.

Titans sign DT Denico Autry for 3 years, $21.5 million

Grade: C

This is a small piece of the puzzle for the Titans to get better in their front seven. He’s a solid starter but nothing spectacular coming from the rival Colts.

Broncos sign CB Ronald Darby for 3 years, $30 million

Grade: B

Denver fills a glaring secondary need by grabbing the former Washington player, who had a solid rebound in coverage behind a stronger pass rush in 2020. The Broncos are hoping for the same results in their scheme, to the point of being trusted in one-on-one situations at times.

Jaguars sign RB Carlos Hyde for 2 years, $6 million and WR Phllip Dorsett

Grade: D

So Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke both liked Hyde from their past, but it seems like a lame additon for the present behind young workhorse James Robinson. Dorsett is a flyer addition and doesn’t feel like he helps in any way.

Texans sign LB Joe Thomas, DT Vincent Taylor, S Terrence Brooks, LG Justin McCray, DT Maliek Collins, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, WR/KR Andre Roberts, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis and WR Chris Moore; trade for OT Marcus Cannon and EDGE Shaq Lawson

Grade: C

Add them all to LB Christian Kirksey and RB Mark Ingram and what do you get? No one is exactly sure except 13 guys who don’t help to form a reliable starting group on either side of the ball. Is Deshaun Watson getting traded or not? Seriously, these are a random collection of roational players and flyers to fill out a roster.

Dolphins trade for LB Bernardrick McKinney

Grade: B

Miami gets a plug-and-play active starter when healthy in exchange for Lawson. When healthy, the former Pro Bowl really gets after it well against the run and is a good supplement to Brian Flores’ scheme.

49ers re-sign FB Kyle Juszczyk for 5 years, $27 million

Grade: A

His name is hard to spell and his role is hard to define, but with his blocking and pass-catching, he’s an invaluable versatile cog in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

49ers re-sign CB Jason Verrett for 1 year, $5.5 million

Grade: A

This is also is underrated move by John Lynch given all the free-agency issues elsewhere in the secondary. Verrett was very good at times in 2020, much like his prime younger Chargers self. He will start for a nice price.

Ravens sign G Kevin Zeitler for 3 years, $22 million

Grade: B

The Giants had to say goodbye to his services but the Ravens, hurting in the interior without Marshal Yanda, find their solid replacement right guard.

Packers re-sign RB Aaron Jones for 4 years, $48 million

Grade: A

The Packers avoided using the franchise tag on him and gave him a reasonable deal tied with his prime as a strong all-around back. He will form a nice punch with A.J. Dillon going forward to keep supporting Aaron Rodgers.

Colts trade for Eagles QB Carson Wentz

Grade: A-

The Colts made a calculated move for a young QB with a lessened contract for them, hoping Wentz will get his grove back with Frank Reich and a better support system overall.

MORE: Full Carson Wentz trade analysis

Rams trade for QB Matthew Stafford

Grade: B-

The Rams gave up a lot hoping they got a big upgrade at the position, but Stafford isn’t exactly that and he’s a older QB with recent major durability issues and a notable history of not winning (or getting to) playoff games.

Lions trade for QB Jared Goff

Grade: A

Goff is a pretty decent bridge QB for a promising new offense with Anthony Lynn with some talented young skill players. Plus, the Lions also are in great shape with two extra first-rounders out of the deal and maybe didn’t downgrade all that much with a chance for Goff to rebound with a change of scene.

MORE: Full Stafford for Goff trade analysis

Cardinals sign DE J.J. Watt for 2 years, $28 million

Grade: A

The Cardinals got the Texans legend for pretty good market value coming off another strong all-around season. He’s a perfect fit for a 3-4 front that needed a player like him badly.

Cowboys re-sign Dak Prescott for 4 years, $160 million

Grade: A

Prescott got his needed big money now and a chance to break the bank in relation the market in not too much later. The Cowboys also won by getting big cap relief and locked up their young, elite long-term QB.

Buccaneers re-sign LB Lavonte David for 2 years, $25 million

Grade: A

The Buccaneers not only kept their top disruptive pass rusher, but they also made sure their defensive leader and second-level glue didn’t go anywhere.

Franchise-tagged players

Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers (tendered at 1 year, $15.9 million)

Grade: A

The Buccaneers weren’t about to let a key Tom Brady target — arguably his true new go-to guy — walk in their quest to repeat.

Allen Robinson, WR, Bears (tendered at 1 year, $18 million)

Grade: B

The Bears need to keep Robinson badly, but it doesn’t look like he’s thrilled to stay unless the QB situation improves. They’re also extended themselves cap-wise without a real QB solution.

Taylor Moton, RT, Panthers (tendered at 1 year, $13.75 million, re-signed)

Grade: A

This rebuilding team with a promising offense needed to keep a sturdy, young, all-around blocker for whoever the next starting QB is. This was a no-brainer at the price.

Justin Simmons, S, Broncos (tendered at 1 year, $13.7 million)

Grade: A 

Safety still has a favorable value to tag Simmons again, much needed for Denver because of other major secondary issues.

Cam Robinson, LT, Jaguars (tendered at 1 year, $13.75 million)

Grade: B

Robinson isn’t considered an elite blindside pass protector, but the Jaguars had plenty under the cap and needed to keep the edges intact for Trevor Lawrence.

Leonard Williams, DE, Giants (tendered at 1 year, $19.35 million)

Grade: B

The Giants got a big interior pass-rushing season from Williams, the former Jet, and needed him for the foundation of an improving defense. The price may be a little high, however.

Brandon Scherff, G, Washington (tendered at 1 year, $18 million)

Grade: A

Washington needed to keep some offensive line pieces as it tries to upgrade tackle for its next starting QB.

Marcus Maye, S, Jets (tendered at 1 year, $10.6 million)

Grade: C

Maye is about an average player at this point but the Jets showed some desperation here, still feeling the void of Jamal Adams.

Marcus Williams, S, Saints (tendered at 1 year, $10.6 million)

Grade: A

Williams was a big part of the Saints’ secondary — which is now in transition at cornerback — so working the cap to keep a key playmaker was huge.


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