It has now been one full week since the NFL's new league year – and unrestricted free agency – officially commenced. Even before March 17, notable players like J.J. Watt and Kevin Zeitler had switched teams. But since then, the market has produced significant turnover – quite a few teams promising to look markedly different in 2021.
A few prominent players (Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Fournette, Alex Smith and Melvin Ingram among them) remain available. But with the majority of those eligible for new contracts having already signed, this seems like an appropriate point to distinguish the winners and losers from this year's free agent period:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:QB Tom Brady signaled what would happen in a tweet earlier this month, saying "we’re keeping the band together" as he signed a cap-relieving extension. The Super Bowl champs' frontman doing his part, the band has pretty much fallen in line, starting with the franchise tag's application to WR Chris Godwin. GM Jason Licht ensured OLB Shaq Barrett was back under contract just minutes after the league's legal tampering period began March 15, and it wasn't long before LB Lavonte David, TE Rob Gronkowski, DL Ndamukong Suh and even K Ryan Succop had re-signed. Changes on the keyboards and bass are still possible with Fournette and WR Antonio Brown still unsigned, but a team that peaked late last season seems poised to make a strong run at a Lombardi Trophy repeat.
In pursuit of 8…LFG @Buccaneers we’re keeping the band together pic.twitter.com/49zUwS5l3D
Trent Williams: His expiring contract precluded a franchise tag, and boy did that provision pay off handsomely for the eight-time Pro Bowler. Williams re-upped with the San Francisco 49ers for six years and $138 million, the richest contract ever for an offensive lineman – the average annual payout ($23.01 million) nudging him past the Packers' David Bakhtiari ($23 million). Yet Williams left enough on the table for the Niners to keep FB Kyle Juszczyk and add C Alex Mack, a pair of exceptional players who could also help pave the way for a bounce-back season in 2021.
Pass rushers: No sooner could teams begin negotiating with the QB hunters than they seemingly began flying off the board – this at a time when the salary cap regressed by nearly $16 million after COVID-19 depressed league revenues in 2020. Watt (2 years, $28 million) opened the floodgates earlier this month, joining the Arizona Cardinals. Barrett (4 years, $68 million) did even better, quickly followed by the Titans' Bud Dupree (5 years, $82.5 million), Bengals' Trey Hendrickson (4 years, $60 million), Jets' Carl Lawson (3 years, $45 million), Patriots' Matt Judon (4 years, $54.5 million) and Raiders' Yannick Ngakoue (2 years, $26 million). For good measure, the Giants stripped Leonard Williams' second franchise tag and locked him up with a three-year, $63 million extension. Even journeyman Kerry Hyder pulled down a three-year, $16.5 million bounty from Seattle on Tuesday. Lesson? If you can't be the quarterback, then learn to beat up the quarterback.
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Dak Prescott: Four years … $160 million … no more contract questions in Dallas (until at least 2023) … enough said.
Franchised players: Prescott and Leonard Williams weren't the only pending free agents to get tagged before quickly finding common ground on long-term extensions. Denver's Justin Simmons has also already raked in a new deal – for four years and $61 million, resetting the league's safety market in the process – somewhat unusual given franchise players are often negotiating well into July.
Patrick Mahomes: Ever since the Chiefs' Super Bowl 54 win to cap the 2019 season, the 2018 MVP's offensive line has been incrementally dismantled by injuries (OTs Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz), free agency (G Stefen Wisniewski, C Austin Reiter) and a COVID-19 opt-out (G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who doubles as a doctor). However GM Brett Veach signed the top interior O-lineman in free agency, Joe Thuney and added former Pro Bowler Kyle Long, amid expectations that Duvernay-Tardif will return for the 2021 season. (Veach also re-signed veteran Mike Remmers, while Lucas Niang is also expected back after opting out.) There are still issues to sort through – Thuney, Long and Duvernay-Tardif can't all play guard – most notably the void at left tackle, though Fisher could be an option if his Achilles rehab goes well and he and the team are open to a reunion. Still, overall, things seem to be looking up for Mahomes, who was last seen running for his life in Kansas City's Super Bowl 55 faceplant.
First-round castoffs from 2017: Four of the first five players (and six of the top 13) drafted in Round 1 four years ago had their fifth-year options declined last year. But QB Mitchell Trubisky (Bills), DT Solomon Thomas (Raiders), WR Corey Davis (Jets), WR John Ross (Giants), OLB Haason Reddick (Panthers) and LB Jarrad Davis (Jets) were all quickly granted fresh starts with new teams. Corey Davis (3 years, $37.5 million) and new Giants CB Adoree' Jackson (3 years, $39 million) – Jackson's option was activated last year, but then the Titans wound up cutting him after the season – both did especially well. Only unsigned Fournette is currently out in the cold, though it seems likely "Playoff Lenny's" market will develop following another strong postseason showing.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: Washington becomes the itinerant quarterback's ninth NFL team – though first stop in the NFC East – and provides the 38-year-old another chance to start … perhaps for a playoff team, something he's never experienced in 16 NFL seasons.
Cleveland Browns: Second-year GM Andrew Berry continues to bolster this roster with quality, under-the-radar additions. DBs John Johnson and Troy Hill were quietly plucked from the Rams' top-ranked defense and should quickly bolster the secondary of the Browns' 22nd-ranked pass defense.
Jameis Winston: With QB Drew Brees finally deciding to retire after 20 seasons, there's a clear path for Winston, the top pick of the 2015 draft by Tampa Bay, to resurrect his career in New Orleans after a one-year apprenticeship under Brees and coach Sean Payton … assuming Winston can beat out jack-of-all-trades Taysom Hill. Fortunately for everyone involved, despite what seemed like massive cap issues heading into free agency, the Saints didn't lose all that much off a roster that's won the past four NFC South crowns.
Kenny Golladay: For a minute, it appeared as if this year's wide receiver class was essentially in line for a collective, if relative, haircut. But Golladay's slow play of suitors that included (according to reports) the Bears, Bengals, Dolphins and Ravens ultimately brought him a four-year, $72 million deal from the Giants. So he'll be paid as one of the league's top-10 receivers even though he's reached one Pro Bowl and missed most of 2020 with a hip injury.
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