Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of the spending free-for-all that is NFL free agency. I think the best business is typically done in the second wave when the marquee names are gone and teams move in on more bargain-basement signings that have a far greater impact on a team’s fortunes relative to the cost outlay.
That said, free agency is where teams address roster needs. It allows organizations to enter the NFL draft with the starting lineup set so that they can maximize value by selecting the best players available.
Given the varying degrees of salary-cap space and the differing stages of the team-building process, there are sides out there that should be actively looking to spend — and even overspend — in free agency. While these teams will know that they likely won't be getting the best value for money, they will also understand that the alternative is an even greater problem and should be willing to trade some of that value for assurance.
Let’s take a look at the best candidates for that particular strategy.
The biggest issue facing the Colts this offseason was the same one from a year ago — who would their starting quarterback be? Philip Rivers provided the answer last season, but his retirement created the same issue. They elected to take a swing at fixing Carson Wentz, acquiring him in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Colts still have holes on the roster. They have a lot of money to spend for the second season in a row, but this year they have an even bigger motivation to spend it, even with upcoming contract extensions looming for players already on the roster.
Given the investment in Wentz, the Colts can’t risk starting a liability at left tackle, which is always a possibility even with a first-round tackle from the draft.
They have the kind of resources that could tempt Trent Williams into signing, which would provide a massive boost to the Colts' line. Williams was the best left tackle in the league in 2020, and the side could easily absorb a market-leading contract for him over the next three years. Williams allowed just 19 total pressures last year and was the best run-blocker in the league at his position. He would form the best double-team in football alongside Quenton Nelson and, more importantly, guarantee high-level play on Wentz's blindside. It would also reserve that first-round pick for a receiver, a position with a superb strike rate in recent seasons and where you already have some built-in contingency.
The assumption from everybody is that the Jaguars will make Trevor Lawrence the first draft pick of the Urban Meyer era and the presumptive franchise savior at quarterback.
Lawrence has been widely viewed as the best prospect to come into the league in years — though that particular timeframe is up for debate — and could completely transform a franchise that has been nosediving since its AFC championship appearance of 2017.
Most teams keep their powder dry until they are sure they have a quarterback capable of high-level play, and then they deploy their resources to quickly build around that player. Lawrence is viewed as such a sure thing that Jacksonville could look to bypass the wait-and-see phase of that plan and put a team around him now, potentially overspending to lure players to a team that would not be an attractive free agency destination otherwise.
The decision to use the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson, a player who has led the league in total pressures surrendered since the start of 2019, hints at this approach. The Jaguars evidently didn’t want to be left out in the cold without a left tackle in free agency and were prepared to overpay for a player who hasn’t justified that kind of contract to ensure that didn’t happen.
Robinson was a start, but Jacksonville should be a major player in the wide receiver market, especially now that Kenny Golladay is available after avoiding Detroit’s franchise tag. A season ago, 10 of Golladay's 20 receptions were of the contested variety — he would provide Lawrence with a reliable, high-level receiver right out of the gate.
New England Patriots
I know what you’re thinking — this is not the “New England Way.”
The only trouble with that is it turns out that the “New England Way” might just be a 43-year-old quarterback who currently resides in Tampa Bay. The Patriots survived for two decades as the best team in football by owning the middle class of free agency and attracting a wealth of talented players to play, knowing that they were going to go chasing a ring. They didn’t need to attack superstar players or high-priced free agents most of the time because they had a draw that few other teams could match.
That luster is gone now. The main attraction is now in a different state, leaving the Patriots facing a major offseason in which they need to show they can piece this thing back together and still contend without Brady working the controls.
The Patriots still don’t have an answer at quarterback, but even if they did, they still don’t have anybody for him to throw to. At this point, they need to start adding weaponry at all costs and trust whatever process they have in mind for solving the quarterback problem.
The very best receivers in the league generate more than 3.0 yards per route run, but only Jakobi Meyers was able to clear 2.0 in 2020. At tight end, no player saw more than 19 targets all season, so a dynamic playmaker like Jonnu Smith would be a huge upgrade. Smith has been trapped in a run-first offense in Tennessee and could easily have his best football in front of him. The organization should prioritize a combination of Smith and some wide receiver help in free agency while it tries to find a solution at quarterback.
The Bengals have identified their franchise quarterback and now need to quickly build around him before they ruin him. They are already well on their way to the latter, as the devastating knee injury was the inevitable conclusion of Joe Burrow’s rookie year, given the offensive line that was put in front of him.
Five different Bengals linemen played 200 or more snaps and earned a PFF pass-blocking grade in the 40s or below. The Bengals' best lineman was Jonah Williams, who was effectively playing his rookie season, having lost his real rookie year to injury.
The Bengals are not known for spending big in free agency, and they will likely address the offensive line in the draft. Still, they have so much repair work to do up front that they need to spend some of the cap space they have — $50.0 million at the time of writing — to guarantee some upgrades.
Joe Thuney is the prize at guard that many people expect the Bengals to pursue. He is from the area and has allowed just three sacks in three years, earning PFF pass-blocking grades above 85.0 in two of those three seasons.
The Bengals shouldn’t stop there. They could also target less spectacular upgrades in players such as Austin Reiter at center or Matt Feiler, who has guard and tackle flexibility. Cincinnati needs to throw a lot of bodies at their offensive line to ensure that Burrow has better protection in Year 2 than he did as a rookie.
The talk in the Pacific Northwest is about trading away Russell Wilson, who has apparently become so disillusioned with how things are going that he was prepared to speak out publicly. The crux of Wilson’s dissatisfaction seems to be that he is being hit too much, and leaving aside for a moment that he probably controls the biggest percentage of that dynamic, it seems like a straightforward fix.
The Seahawks have been reluctant to dedicate resources to the offensive line during Wilson’s career — at least in terms of positional spending — and whether that was an accident or a conscious strategy, it likely needs to change.
They have typically ranked between 26th and 30th in terms of dollars allocated to the offensive line during Wilson’s career. It wouldn’t take much to push that spending up into the middle of the pack, signing a free agent or two who would move the needle in terms of pass blocking and make Wilson’s life a little easier and his disposition towards the team a little rosier.
Seattle’s centers in 2020 — primarily Ethan Pocic — combined to surrender 23 total pressures. Meanwhile, free-agent center Corey Linsley allowed just four total pressures across 13 games. Linsley would be a very substantive and symbolic indication that the team has heard Wilson’s concerns and wants to improve the situation rather than just throw away the best quarterback in the franchise’s history because tensions have started to mount.