NFL Free Agency: Belichick Strikes Back

NFL Free Agency: Belichick Strikes Back

This article is part of our NFL Free Agency series.

The legal tampering period opened at 12 pm ET on Monday, giving teams a 52-hour window to discuss contracts with agents before the beginning of the league year. Players on expiring deals can't actually sign with new teams until Wednesday afternoon, but the reality is that many of the biggest names already know where they're going (mostly to New England).

We also saw a few important re-signings before the tampering period, including Packers RB Aaron Jones and 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk. The first was especially interesting, as it suggests Jamaal Williams will leave Green Bay and AJ Dillon won't have a lead role. I would've gone with the cheaper Dillon-Williams backfield, but the Packers can at least say they signed Jones for Joe Mixon money rather than Ezekiel Elliott money. 

Before we get to all the big news from Monday, here are some of RotoWire's top resources for monitoring the 2021 NFL offseason:

Free Agent Grid

Coach/Coordinator Changes

Franchise Tags

Pro Day Tracker

2021 Player Projections

Now, here's the recap of Monday's biggest news....

Signing With New Teams

Skill Positions (Offense)

Jonnu the YAC monster was arguably the biggest news of the day for both fantasy football and real-life football. Smith's $31.25 million guarantee sets a record for tight ends, which is pretty wild considering he's never reached 500 receiving yards in a season. The Patriots presumably wouldn't give Smith this huge contract if they merely planned to use him the way Tennessee did, drawing 3-4 targets per game. 

Then again, the 2020 Patriots offense was a total abyss for target volume and receiving production. Smith should be one of the featured receiving options, but that might just mean 65 targets again if Cam Newton is the starting QB and the Patriots continue to run a lot. We should probably note that Smith is also a solid blocker, so he could conceivably live up to his contract even if the receiving stats are something boring like 600 and 5 per season.

Speaking of which.... Bourne's career highs are 667 yards (in 2020) and five TDs (in 2019). But he's another guy with a reputation for toughness and versatility, and his career mark of 8.1 YPT is good for a guy who has largely played the slot. Bourne got more work outside last season and stood tall to the task, though he'll never be the type of guys who gets enough separation to demand big-time volume. 

Agholor is kind of the opposite... he gets open and makes big plays, but he's best known in Philadelphia for untimely drops and gaffes. He was great for the Raiders last year, but you could argue it was a handful of big plays rather than the snap-to-snap consistency that's eluded him for his whole career.

If nothing else, the Patriots have ensured their 2021 offense won't give nearly as many snaps to replacement-level players. Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers, N'Keal Harry, Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi all face a more difficult path to targets, though it won't come as any surprise if one or two of them is traded/released.

     

  • Washington Football Team signs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick — 1Y, $10 million (per Schefter)

    

The contract reportedly includes $27 million guaranteed, making it a bit more player-friendly than the AAV alone would seem to suggest. Davis shouldn't lack for targets in New York, where he'll likely be catching passes from Zach Wilson or Deshaun Watson (or Justin Fields or Trey Lance). That sounds pretty fantasy-friendly, but the rest of the team could still be a mess. As of right now, the top three at WR would be Davis, Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims — potentially a really solid group if Mims isn't a bust.

Back in Tennessee, TE Anthony Firkser figures to get more receiving chances, though his lack of blocking experience could make snaps an issue in a run-first offense. Derrick Henry and AJ Brown accounted for nearly half the Titans' scrimmage yards last season, and they might need that to bump up to 55 percent if they can keep the big dogs healthy. This is the kind of situation where a rookie WR could step in as the No. 2 guy right away, even if he isn't a first-round pick.

   

There's nothing exciting about Booker. But he's solid on passing downs, and big and strong enough to handle early downs. He did good work off the Raiders bench last season and should have pole position for the No. 2 RB spot in New Jersey. Wayne Gallman and Devonta Freeman are scheduled for free agency.

    

James Robinson was pretty darn good as a pass catcher last year, despite being a small-school rookie. The Jags may decide to sub him out on early downs rather than passing downs, but it's also possible he'll handle massive workloads again and Hyde will merely be an insurance plan. A low-to-mid level veteran signing isn't the worst news for Robinson... we knew they weren't going to roll with Chris Thompson and Devine Ozigbo again, right?

    

Nothing says rebuilding project like shopping at the top of the return-specialist market. Joke's on me if Roberts and Mark Ingram can #ChangeTheCulture and pave the way for the NFL's next great dynasty. 

   

Is there some kind of hidden incentive I'm missing for rebuilding teams to sign premium return specialists? Sure, bad teams field more kickoffs, but those are largely touchbacks now, and it's the good teams that tend to get more punt return chances.

The "$21 million" will probably be half or two-thirds of that in reality, and Agnew did get some snaps on offense for Detroit last year, taking 13 catches for 89 yards and six carries for 33 yards. Perhaps the Jags think he can do more than special teams?

   

Offensive Linemen

 Thuney was arguably the top O-lineman available, and the Chiefs are in the process of revamping their line. The tackle spots look shaky after the team released both LT Eric Fisher (Achilles) and RT Mitchell Schwartz (back) earlier this month, but KC could have the NFL's best guard duo in Thuney and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (expected to return from a COVID-19 opt out).

    

Linsley is the guy who could challenge Thuney for the title of Best O-linemen in 2021 Free Agency. Feiler isn't of the same caliber, but he did start 39 games for Pittsburgh the past three years, playing right tackle and left guard. The Chargers still have some work to do here, with RT Bryan Bulaga (a pricey signing last offseason) being the only other locked-in starter alongside the two Monday signings.

    

This sounds cheap for a guy with his reputation, but Zeitler makes up for the modest AAV by getting an unusually large share of his money guaranteed ($16 million, 71.1 percent). I still like the signing as a Ravens fan, but I'm not sure it's the A+, slam-dunk some make it out to be. 

Zeitler has 134 NFL starts, a strong reputation and a history of impressive PFF grades, but the latter actually declined in 2020, and he turned 31 last week. I'll give the signing an A- grade, upgrading from a B/B+ because Zeet won't hurt Baltimore in the 2022 compensatory pick formula (he was released, rather than having his contract expire).

   

Elflein and Erving are probably solid backups more so than starters, but they've at least been competent enough to log over 3,000 NFL snaps apiece. Carolina's best blocker is RT Taylor Moton, who signed a franchise tag last week. He and C Matt Paradis are locked in, but the other line spots appear less certain.

    

Defensive Players

A run-stuffing nose tackle, Godchaux has only three sacks in 52 games for the Dolphins but did make 75 tackles in 2019. Seems like a reasonable signing for a team that allowed 2,103 rushing yards (26th) and 4.5 YPC (20th).

Judon should also help against the run, but he's nothing special as a pass rusher. I still don't understand why $14 million is the going rate for a solid-but-not-great starter off the edge. You can find solid starters at the other premium positions (WR, LT) for less than $12 million per year, right?

Mills was an oversized and overmatched cornerback who enjoyed a breakout 2020 after switching to safety. The Patriots don't really have a need in the secondary, but with Stephon Gilmore trade rumors flying around and the team spending a ton of money Monday, it's possible we're about to see a reshuffling of the secondary. Mills figures to start at safety alongside Devin McCourty, replacing (or at least competing with) Adrian Phillips and Patrick Chung.

Anderson might just be backup, but he does have 43 NFL starts to his name, and at one point had a reputation as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends against the run. He gives Belichick another solid body up front, though is probably the least important of Monday's seven signings.

It's pretty wild to see a team add this many experienced starters on a single day, and you might even criticize Belichick for choosing quantity over quality. He's betting these contract numbers will look favorable for the Patriots relative to what guys sign for the next couple offseasons after the salary cap rises again. 

    

Tennessee definitely needs help on defense, especially rushing the passer. This should help, but the Titans still figure to end up in plenty of shootouts. Dupree had 19.5 sacks in 27 games for Pittsburgh over the past two seasons, while Autry tallied 20 sacks in 40 games during his three-year stint in Indianapolis (2018-20).

          

 Lawson has just 20 sacks but 83 QB hits in 51 career games. His struggles converting pressures into sacks may be a source of frustration, but the Jets apparently expect him to take that next step. Lawson will turn 26 in June, and he's coming off a 2020 campaign with a career-high 32 QB hits (but only 5.5 sacks!) for the Bengals.

      

 This is a huge upgrade for a Browns defense that might've had the league's worst safety play last year. If the Browns can keep Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward healthy, they just need the rest of the defense to be competent. Johnson, as it just so happens, is quite a bit more than competent.

      

  • Broncos sign CB Ronald Darby for 3Y, $30 million (per Rapoport)

The Broncos get a huge upgrade in Darby, who enjoyed a big rebound year in 2020 for Washington, notching 16 pass defenses in 16 starts. He has 72 NFL starts to his name and will still be just 27 in 2021.

    

Ngakoue doesn't offer much against the run and seems to be trending in the wrong direction, and yet he's recorded eight or more sacks in each of five NFL campaigns (ok, he had exactly eight three times, so it's not thaaat impressive). Anyway, I thought he stunk for the Ravens last year, but the overall track record as a pass rusher is good. This is a decent price for the Raiders, rather than their usual overpay.

      

Robertson-Harris started only 13 of 52 games in his four seasons with Chicago, recording 30 QB hits and 7.5 sacks. I'm surprised he's getting this much money with $14 million guaranteed, but the Jags have a ton of cap space and don't need to use it on a QB. This still feels like a bit of an overpay, but you can at least argue the 27-year-old has some untapped upside.

   

Ebukam had 14 sacks and 28 QB hits across 1,972 defensive snaps in his four seasons with the Rams. The price makes it a decent enough signing, but the Rams probably had it right last season when they demoted Ebukam to around 20 snaps per game. Given their pass-rushing talent, the Niners likely have a similar role in mind.

   

Re-Signing With Same Team

Skill Positions (Offense)

All signs point to Winston and Taysom Hill duking it out for the starting job this summer. Winston's contract likely contains a lot of incentives, in part to shift some of the cap charge to 2022.

     

Gronk made it clear from the jump he was going to stay in Tampa Bay. He gets a raise compared to last season, unless the initial numbers include a bunch of funny money.

      

Offensive Linemen

   

Defensive Players

Barrett restored his value with four sacks and eight QB hits in the playoffs, but I still wonder how much more he could've made as a free agent last offseason, coming off a league-high 19.5 sacks and entering a more favorable market for players. 

Actually, he probably could've made more as a free agent this offseason, if he'd been willing to leave Tom Brady (and likely pay more in state income taxes). Barrett is now quite wealthy, and the Bucs are still absolutely stacked. Should Brady start measuring one of his toes for ring size???

   

Floyd was disappointing as a first-round pick in Chicago, but he came through with a huge breakout for the Rams in 2020, giving them 10.5 sacks on a one-year, $10 million contract. He gets a much bigger payday this time around, re-upping with the talented Rams.

   

This is much cheaper than I expected. Golden is sitting on only 33.5 career sacks at age 30, but he recorded 27 and 20 QB hits the past two seasons. Players typically convert at least 40 percent of QB hits into sacks in the long run, while Golden managed just 14.5 of 47 (31 percent) the past two years. He, J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones (biceps) could give the Cards a strong pass rush even if they let OLB Haason Reddick walk, which now appears more likely. Counter-point:

   

Coming off last year's career-high 10 sacks, Okwara moves on to his age-26 season surrounded by a new coaching staff and front office. The Lions will give up a lot of points in 2021, but Okwara and Trey Flowers should at least be a solid duo at defensive end. Even better if Okwara's younger brother, Julian, is able to rebound from a silent rookie year. 

     

Verrett's story is impressive, and with Richard Sherman expected to leave this offseason, the 49ers understandably will roll the dice on Verrett staying healthy again. The 2014 first-round pick has played only 39 NFL games, but he was darn good for the Niners in 13 starts last year. Pretty wild that he's been around for this long and yet last season alone accounted for 38.9 percent of his defensive snaps in the league. PFF graded Verrett eighth out of 121 qualified CBs, allowing only 382 yards on 63 targets (6.1 YPT) in the process.

    

Hunter Henry is still up for grabs, but the Chargers will keep at least one of their top free agents, and they'ved filled a huge need with the addition of Linsley at center. Davis started 26 of his 28 games over the past two seasons, recording 23 PDs and five INTs. With 31-year-old Casey Hayward a free agent, the Chargers figure to start Davis and Chris Harris at cornerback this season.

      

Harris is a capable 3-4 DE, with 15.5 sacks and 154 tackles over the past four years (27 starts in 59 games). PFF has given him a grade of 76.3 or higher four years in a row, but he's reached 500 snaps just twice in six seasons and hasn't ever played more than 638. A repeat of that 638-snap campaign (2019, with 49 tackles, nine PDs and six sacks) would make this contract a good one for the team.

    

Rumors & Minor Moves

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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