Starting March 15, NFL players on expiring contracts were free to sign with new teams. Now that we’re a few weeks removed from the madness, it’s becoming clearer how the reshuffling of NFL free agents will affect next season.
This offseason has been bizarre. Aside from the usual ramifications of operating through the pandemic, the financial fallout from the 2020 season has been brutal—last summer, the league estimated it would lose between $2 billion and $4 billion because of the loss of fan attendance. The NFL’s salary cap (the amount teams can spend on players) is tied to league revenue. And with revenue down, the salary cap for the 2021 season wasn’t clear until just days before free agency began. The final number was $182.5 million, an eight percent drop from the season before.
Despite the financial belt-tightening, some of the most important players in the league changed teams (a few clubs managed to retain their stars, too). Here are seven free agent signings that could have a big impact this season and beyond.
Outside linebacker Bud Dupree to the Titans for five years and $82.5 million
NFL contracts are a bit hard to parse because the full amounts are almost never guaranteed on long-term deals. Dupree’s deal only includes $35 million guaranteed, according to the contract tracking website Spotrac, and the Titans could get out of it after just two years. But it’s still a significant deal, and Dupree, a former Steeler, should be a key player in Tennessee.
The 28-year-old Dupree is a former first-round draft pick who took a few years to come into his own. The last two years, he was paired with the Steelers’ TJ Watt to form arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the league. The Titans had one of the league’s worst defenses against the pass in 2020, in part because they couldn’t generate much pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Dupree should help with that.
Left tackle Trent Williams staying with the 49ers for six years and $138.06 million
Williams likely won’t play out this entire contract, which has “just” $55.1 million guaranteed. Instead, it’ll function like a three-year deal that pays a little more than $20 million a year until Williams turns 36. But he’s definitely worth it. Williams has been one of the best offensive tackles in football for the better part of the last decade.
After contract negotiations stalled between Williams and Washington, his old team, the WFT (as they’re now known) traded him to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick in last year’s draft. Williams then made his eighth Pro Bowl in his first year in the Bay. The Niners might keep Jimmy Garoppolo at QB or draft a rookie to replace him, but either way, Williams will be the key protector for whoever’s throwing the ball.
Cornerback Mike Hilton to the Bengals for four years and $24 million
The former Steeler has been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL for the last four years. Teams didn’t always invest heavily in slot cornerbacks, but they have seen more playing time as NFL offenses have spread out and deployed more formations with three wide receivers. In those situations, slot corners have increasingly replaced a linebacker in the defense.
Hilton breaks quickly on the ball and even joins the pass rush from time to time. In his four years in Pittsburgh, he had 9.5 sacks, seven interceptions, 32 pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. Despite his 5’9” stature, he’s a game-changer, and as a bonus, the Bengals get to take him away from a division rival. Hilton is likely to play out most or all of this contract in Cincinnati.
Receiver Kenny Golladay to the Giants for four years and $72 million
Golladay has $40 million guaranteed, one of the largest sums in the league, and the game-breaking wideout will very likely play at least three of the four contracted years. A former third-round pick from Northern Illinois University, Golladay made just under $4.6 million in four seasons with the Lions—this deal with the Giants is a big raise.
He’s worth it. The Giants have lacked game-breaking talent at the offensive skill positions since trading Odell Beckham Jr. before the 2019 season. (Injuries to running back Saquon Barkley have not helped.) The team’s leading receiver in 2020, Darius Slayton, had just 751 yards and three touchdowns, and he caught just over half the balls thrown to him. Golladay gives the Giants a truly elite receiver at a time when QB Daniel Jones needs one.
Running back Kenyan Drake to the Raiders for two years and $11 million
In the modern NFL, running backs do not command big contracts. Teams have shifted to viewing rushing success as a byproduct of offensive line play and how the defense chooses to defend near the line of scrimmage. Even so, you should be excited to see how Drake fares in Vegas. The Alabama alum has been a useful runner for both the Dolphins and the Cardinals in the first five years of his career, and he ran for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. He has also been valuable in the pass game, with 1,244 receiving yards in his five seasons.
The Raiders needed a shifty back to complement the bulldozing Josh Jacobs, and Drake is a good fit. Interestingly, Jacobs is also a Bama product, and the addition of Drake gives the Raiders an all-Crimson Tide backfield.
Tight end Jonnu Smith to the Patriots for four years and $50 million
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2020 for the first time since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first year as head coach. The most glaring problems for the Patriots: Tom Brady was suddenly in Tampa Bay, and the defense declined after a strong season the year before. But one of the reasons Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton, struggled at QB is that the Patriots just didn’t have the same kind of talented pass-catchers they’ve put on the field in recent years.
Smith, a former Titan, should be a big boost. He hasn’t posted huge numbers in his four-year career, but that’s partly because he never received more than 44 targets in a year until 2020, when the Titans threw to him 65 times. Last year, he caught 41 for 448 yards and eight touchdowns, emerging as one of the best threats in the NFL when the Titans were near the opponent’s end zone.
Tight end Hunter Henry to the Patriots for three years and $37.5 million
The Patriots also signed former Chargers TE Hunter Henry (that means New England landed the two most expensive tight ends in free agency). With these acquisitions, Belichick is trying to give Cam Newton the kind of tools Brady used to have in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (before Hernandez’s career and life collapsed with his conviction for murder).
Belichick doesn’t seem content with his record six Super Bowl wins, and it’ll be fun to watch the Patriots try to make a run in 2021.
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