News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agency: The best and worst deals so far

Jan 4, 2020; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Joe Thuney (62) walks off of the field after a loss to the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL league year has only just begun, yet many big-name free agents have already agreed to contracts with their new teams. The New England Patriots have emerged as the surprise big spender, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are seemingly doing everything in their power to keep a Super Bowl-winning roster intact for 2021.

More and more details about these contracts will become public over the coming days, and several of the NFL's top remaining free agentsKenny Golladay, Anthony Harris and Will Fuller V, to name but a few — are still available. Still, there has been more than enough movement for me to identify the free-agency moves I like and don't like so far.

My colleagues Brad Spielberger and Ben Linsey have already graded every deal, so this article will provide my view as well as more details on a handful of deals.

More from PFF's live free-agency coverage: 

2021 NFL Free Agency LIVE Deal Grader | The 100 best available NFL free agents remaining2021 NFL Free Agency Tracker | PFF Improvement Index for all 32 teams | Fantasy Football Free Agency Tracker

Deals I like

Cleveland Browns sign S John Johnson III to a three-year, $33.8 million deal with $24 million guaranteed

Safety isn’t a highly valued position, as evidenced by the low amount of draft capital spent on them as well as the reasonably low contract numbers they land in free agency. The latter is perfectly illustrated by the franchise tag numbers for each position, as only running backs and tight ends receive lower top contracts.

We at PFF think safeties are more valuable than their standings in the league imply, so it’s no surprise that we like the deal that pays a safety who received a 90.9 coverage grade over the last three years. He wasn’t too bad against the run, either, as his 76.2 grade in run defense ranks 18th among safeties over the same period.

Granted, safety play is less stable than play in the trenches — and that should be especially true when players switch teams — but the price of the deal is moderate enough that the legit upside of top-10 safety play overweighs the risk. The worst case is that the Browns cut ties after two seasons after paying him $24 million over that time.

Los Angeles Chargers sign G Matt Feiler to a three-year, $21 million deal with $13 million guaranteed

Feiler signing a moderate contract with the Chargers didn't garner much attention, but it’s the perfect free-agency signing. It fills an obvious hole in the roster with a solid player at a position where going from bad to solid is more valuable than going from solid to elite — it isn’t expensive, and it helps the young promising franchise quarterback succeed. To put it simply, there are very few ways to better spend $7 million per year.

Buffalo Bills sign WR Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year, $6 million deal

Unsurprisingly, the Bills didn’t make any splash moves in free agency this year, but they did what smart teams do — they took advantage of the Saints’ cap issues and signed a very good receiver for little money.

Sanders is certainly not a No. 1 receiver anymore, and he probably isn't even a good No. 2 anymore — but the Bills don't need him to be. These roles have already been cast in Buffalo, and Sanders is still good enough to be a good No. 3 receiver. And how important are secondary and tertiary receivers for an offense? Very important, as my colleague Eric Eager pointed out recently.

Granted, when you already have a good roster, free agency is much easier to handle because it’s all about being opportunistic and taking advantage of other teams’ cap casualties. Playing an easier game doesn’t mean one can’t play it wrong. The Bills certainly played it right on this occasion.

Deals I don't like

Kansas City Chiefs sign G Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal with $47 million guaranteed

This looks like a good deal on the surface, as the Chiefs fill a need with a very good player who has graded out as the ninth-best offensive guard over the last three years. But after taking a second look, the deal turns out to be a luxury the Chiefs shouldn’t have coughed up for.

As mentioned above in the discussion of Matt Feiler’s deal, average-to-good offensive line play is plenty enough to field a successful offense, and every investment that strives for more yields diminishing returns. That’s especially true on the inside, and no team embodied this principle better than the Chiefs in recent years.

Since Patrick Mahomes became the starter, the Chiefs' interior offensive line has graded out as the 20th-best unit in the league, yet the Chiefs lap the rest of the league by more than a standard deviation in passing efficiency.

The reason the Chiefs lost the Super Bowl in disappointing fashion wasn’t the lack of elite play on the offensive line; it was the lack of depth when their starters weren’t available. Given how much the Chiefs pay to their core players, the Thuney signing will, in fact, increase the risk of encountering a similar situation in the future because it makes it harder to sign important depth players.

Additionally, I’d always be cautious when signing offensive linemen from New England to huge guarantees (Thuney will receive more total guarantees than any other interior offensive lineman in the game's history, and only four offensive tackles in the league received more in guaranteed money).

Dante Scarnecchia is widely acknowledged as one of the best offensive line coaches ever to grace the game, and Tom Brady is known to help his offensive linemen better than most — maybe all — quarterbacks in the NFL. Thuney played with these two men for 80% of his NFL career.

It fits the narrative almost too well that his 2020 pass-blocking grade of 73.1 was his worst single-season pass-blocking grade since his rookie season. This might be a coincidence, and maybe I’m foolishly chasing the noise here, but it could also mean something and work as an additional reason not to be overly excited about the deal.

Whether the absence of Scarnecchia and Brady made him worse or not, the best case for the Chiefs is that the signing turns out to be a luxury they can’t afford, whereas the worst case is they flat-out regret it two years from now — the first way out of the contract comes after three years.

New England Patriots sign WR Nelson Agholor to a two-year, $22 million deal

During their dynasty of the past (yes, it definitely lies in the past now), the Patriots would have done exactly what the Raiders did with Nelson Agholor. After signing the player to a small prove-it deal and helping him have a career year, they would have then let someone else buy high on him just to often watch his production foreseeably plummet. This kind of move has been a classic Belichick staple for years.

Now, the Patriots find themselves on the opposite side of the story and are the ones who have to bank on Agholor carrying the momentum into 2021. The problem with this signing is that, given Agholor’s career, the best case seems to be that he is a good No. 2 option, in which case he would be adequately paid. However, the much more likely scenario is that his 2020 production is not sustainable, and the Patriots will be lucky if he doesn’t disappoint as a No. 3 option in 2021. There is an abundance of evidence pointing in this direction:

  • In general, career performance is more predictive for the next season than previous-year performance. Looking at Agholor’s career, we see a player who averaged 1.17 yards per route run, the number of an underwhelming third option. Even in his other good season, 2017, he generated only 1.57 yards per route run and an 18% target rate, the numbers of a third option, albeit a very good one.
  • Players who switch teams tend to regress more than players who stay on the same team, and that’s especially true for players who had an uncharacteristically good year.
  • Agholor’s production was fueled by ranking sixth in yards per target (10.9). However, we already established that a high yards per target figure is much harder to sustain than a high target rate. He will likely generate fewer yards per target in 2021 and thus generate less value overall. In fact, Cam Newton has never helped a receiver catch more than 10 yards per target since his rookie season when Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith both eclipsed this mark. I would be legitimately surprised if it happens in 2021.

Tennessee Titans sign edge defender Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $35 million guaranteed & Los Angeles Rams re-sign Leonard Floyd to a four-year, $64 million deal with $32.5 million guaranteed

On the surface, these deals look like they would make sense, as Dupree combined for 23 sacks over the last two seasons (using our way of counting where every sack counts as a full sack), a number that ranks seventh in the NFL. Floyd sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times in 2020 alone.

However, we’ve now known for a long time that sacks tell us very little about production going forward and all the predictive power from sacks actually comes from the pressure or “winning the rep” that precedes most sacks.

This is where the issues with these deals become apparent. My colleague Eric Eager has looked at so-called true pass sets and found that the best way of evaluating pass-rushers might be to look at their production after removing RPOs, play-action plays and screen passes from the sample. Among 60 players who rushed the passer from the edge at least 600 times after filtering out these situations over the last three seasons, here is how this week’s prominent free agent signings rank in pass-rush win rate:

Player Win rate Rank qualifying pass-rushers
Carl Lawson 22.0% 4th
Trey Hendrickson 17.2% 23rd
Shaquil Barrett 16.9% 25th
Matthew Judon 15.0% 33rd
Yannick Ngakoue 14.8% 37th
Leonard Floyd 12.1% 54th
Bud Dupree 11.9% 56th

Note that the average pass-rush win rate in these situations is 14.5%. Thus, Floyd and Dupree have actually been below average at consistently winning their rep but incredibly lucky at turning pressures into sacks, as roughly 25% of their pressures ended in a sack, more than 10% higher than the league-average rate. Our data has shown that being lucky can result in a career year and therefore in a huge contract when the timing is right, but the sack production is, unfortunately, unsustainable.

These are the types of deals that teams tend to regret two years from now.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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