Now that the first week of the 2021 NFL Free Agency has passed, the majority of all high-profile names have found their new teams. Although there are still some big players left to be picked up, the signing period has been as eventful as always. And, while the action is likely to continue at a similar pace, the time is suitable for a breakdown of which clubs were able to get the best deal on this year’s market.
As always, some within the 32 front offices around the National Football League were, yet again, unable to figure out what makes a winning team. Instead of prioritizing balance and efficient spending, they opted to capitalize on their deep pockets and made deals that resulted in a shift away from the concept of quality over star reputation. That will make it extremely hard for these teams to keep up the upgrades during the 2021 NFL Free Agency, making for a lack of balance and inconsistency in the upcoming NFL season.
Similarly, other teams made the best of these “market inefficiencies”. That way, not only did they get good players that perfectly serve their needs but also did that at a tremendously team-friendly price. Therefore, the 2021 NFL Free Agency saw some of the best free-agent signings we’ve seen recently.
Here are the five best:
2021 NFL Free Agency: Best Signings
Corey Davis | New York Jets
Last year, the New York Jets had one of the worst passing units in all of professional football. The team finished with the third-worst collective passer rating at 75.9. Moreover, New York was third-worst in completion percentage and second-worst in total yards through the air. These struggles were in large part due to their abysmal receiving corps, which lacked both quality and depth.
In particular, the downfield passing game was the source of the Jets’ most severe woes. Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims, who settled as the club’s primary long-threat weapons, both ended up with a catch percentage south of 55.0%. With the unit needing quick help, the group was thought to be amongst Joe Douglas’s top priorities ahead of the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
Perriman, an avid downfield pass-catcher throughout the entirety of his NFL tenure, hit the market, subsequently signing with Detroit, perhaps prompting Douglas to seek a replacement from within the ranks of fellow deep-threats. However, his move in that department sends slightly different signals.
Last week, shortly after the official start of the 2021 NFL Free Agency, the Jets were fast to answer, landing Corey Davis on a three-year, $12.5-million-a-year deal. Davis is coming off his best season and a trend of constant improvement over the past three campaigns. Seeing a workload of 92 targets, he caught a career-best 70%. Over the course of the 2018-2020 cycle, Davis’s catch success figure initiated a growth from 58% to 70%. All of that while slightly increasing the average gain distance per reception by nearly two yards. However, Davis had 15.1 yards per reception, managing to remain in the intermediate-distance territory.
That raises interesting questions regarding his role with New York in 2021 and beyond. Furthermore, it hints that the team could alter its game plan as regards its woeful air raid. If the team’s next WR addition in the 2021 NFL Free Agency isn’t a hard long-threat, Davis and Jamison Crowder could potentially split a decreased set of long downfield plays. Cutting the average length of a target on a passing play could pay dividends for Sam Darnold‘s group when it comes to efficiency. No tool is better for that than two leading receivers who have made the most of their increasing opportunities in the past few years.
Yannick Ngakoue | Las Vegas Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders felt confident heading into its second offseason as a Nevada-based franchise. The team had the needed financial cap space to address what certainly was a plethora of needs. The Raiders have spent about $70 million in totals so far in the 2021 NFL Free Agency, $45 million of which are allocated to cap hits on 2021 alone.
Nevertheless, their moves all seem low-risk and quality-for-value. Moreover, that more than surely applies to the team’s most lucrative addition yet. That was edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who put his signature on a two-year, $26-million contract last week. That amounts to $13 million a year.
During the 2020 NFL season, Vegas struggled mightily trying to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Its defensive line’s end-of-year production of 21 sacks was the fourth-worst achievement in the NFL.
This move gave the Raiders a dramatic boost in that field at the best possible price given the goal to add upgrades at other positions. The contract value of $13 million per campaign is favorable for LV considering Ngkaoue has posted more than eight sacks in each of his five pro seasons. Moreover, his career-best was 12 in 2017. Meanwhile, with him being just 25 years old, Ngakoue’s consistency has been impressive knowing an increase at his (upcoming) peak is coming.
Yannick Ngakoue could be amongst the best pass-rushers in the NFL in the next five years, if not the best. The Raiders will have the privilege of almost half of his prime, possessing first-row exclusivity in further negotiations.
Furthermore, to put into perspective how beneficial these $13 million a year are for Las Vegas – six pass-rushers have signed more expensive contracts in the 2021 NFL Free Agency. Shaquil Barrett is the only one with more than Ngakoue’s 25.5 sacks across the last three NFL campaigns. However, unlike Ngakoue, none of the six have more than eight sacks in each of the three seasons.
Yannick Ngakoue’s consistency and high ceiling make him one of the most promising pass-rushers in the NFL. The Las Vegas Raiders could experience nearly half of his prime after perhaps the best deal in the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
John Johnson | Cleveland Browns
John Johnson, formerly a sensational safety with the Los Angeles Rams, entered the offseason as one of the most underpriced players on the market. Per Spotrac, Johnson was estimated to get just $8 million per year on his next deal. His performance with the Rams far outmatched that supposed market value. Fortunately for him, teams began to realize that as the signing period approached.
During his past three seasons in Southern California, John Johnson allowed a passer rating south of 85.0 in each of these campaigns. Moreover, he started all 16 games twice, including the 2020 season, and had at least 58 targets in both years. It was precisely clear Johnson was one of the most solid safeties in the league long before the Cleveland Browns inquired for him shortly after the start of the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
Johnson ended up capitalizing on his increasing demand. However, Cleveland was still able to get a far better deal than they would have with the other high-profile safeties within this year’s class. The two sides agreed upon a three-year contract worth approximately $11.25 million per season.
That average “per year” value of his new deal with the AFC North team is still the stiffest price any team has paid for the services of a safety during the 2021 NFL Free Agency. However, the majority of star assets at the position have yet to come to terms with potential candidates. The most prominent example is, obviously, Justin Simmons. When it’s all set and done as regards free agency, John Johnson is likely to provide more stability at a lower price as compared to Simmons. In addition, he is much better than any safety on the market apart from the former Broncos defensive back.
An addition of Johnson’s caliber is an impactful move for a woeful secondary unit. In 2020, the Browns had the 14th-worst passing defense. Furthermore, he fills a noticeable hole, with Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph not only posting a rating over 110.0 but also both departing.
The Cleveland Browns managed to get one of the best safeties on the market at a great price, and yet, they now stand at $13 million in salary-cap space. That means more upgrades, namely at cornerback or linebacker, could be due even after the acquisition of John Johnson.
Kevin Zeitler | Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens‘ offense might be neither the most perfect nor the most balanced in the league. However, the group’s offensive line was as satisfying as needed last year. In addition, it might be even more untouchable over the course of the 2021 NFL season.
In 2020, the Ravens’ O-Line conceded 32 sacks. That was the 14th-fewest in the National Football League. As the team has settled on its depth chart in many departments, upgrading the offensive line to another level was a top priority for general manager Eric DeCosta.
Ahead of the start of the 2021 NFL Free Agency, the discussions around that solid unit focused on two big departures. Matt Skura, who started 12 games at center and guard, and D.J. Fluker, who has split his career between right guard and right tackle, have hit the free-agent market. While latter is still unemployed, Skura put his signature on a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. These exiting assets opened up at least one hole in the unit, which DeCosta addressed well.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Kevin Zeitler has participated in more than 90 percent of his team’s offensive snaps every year. During that tenure, with the Browns and, after 2018, the Giants, he also posted a rating (per Pro Football Focus) of over 70.0 in every campaign except 2020. His performance in that season amounted to a 65.9 rating, with the 18th-heaviest workload, just two allowed sacks, and far better numbers than both Fluker and Skura.
All of that comes at the price of just $7.5 million per season on a three-year deal. The efficiency represented by the Zeitler move leaves Baltimore with $17 million available. Therefore, the future for the Ravens offense could be getting brighter by the day.
Marlon Mack | Indianapolis Colts
After breaking out for Indy in 2018 and keeping his steady production in 2019, Marlon Mack was thought to be the Colts’ leader as regards the running stable. However, an early injury quickly overturned that positivity in 2020.
As Indianapolis thrived under the control of the Jonathan Taylor–Nyheim Hines duo, Marlon Mack entered the market in the 2021 NFL Free Agency with a value on a sharp downward trend. However, there are more and more reasons to believe Mack can return to his previous success.
In 2019, there were fourteen NFL running backs across the league with more than 240 rushing attempts. The fourteen backs combined for an average production of 4.4 yards a carry, while Mack himself placed near the middle of that pack.
That by itself shows he compares very well to the other top running backs in the NFL. However, even that would only be justified depending on what resources the Colts spend on bringing him back. This is exactly what causes the shock in this 2021 NFL Free Agency deal – the Colts only needed to pay him $2 million for him to return for the 2021 season.
This is a mind-blowing price for a running back of Marlon Mack’s caliber and figures. It’s difficult to comprehend how front offices around the league could succumb so badly to an injury-ridden 2020 campaign for his demand to drop so drastically. Nonetheless, even that level of market inefficiency shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indy ended up not taking any kind of risk to get back an almost-dominant running back in the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
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