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2021 NFL free agency grades: Browns, Buccaneers, Jets, Vikings among smart deal-makers

2021 NFL free agency grades: Browns, Buccaneers, Jets, Vikings among smart deal-makers

Free agency is far from over (the second and third waves can drift well into the summer), but the first 24-48 hours of action in the NFL’s legal tampering period was enough to provide all kinds of juicy headlines: The Patriots going on a spending spree of epic and uncharacteristic proportions? The Raiders bidding adieu to … their entire offensive line? The Saints confirming their 2021 quarterback competition? As handfuls of big names agree to terms and spring rosters are molded, we’ve already got plenty of moves to review.

Keep in mind all 32 teams are still in the thick of early-offseason activity, but here’s how we’d grade each club’s moves — or non-moves — now that free agency is officially underway:

Note: These grades do not include moves that occurred before the start of legal tampering on March 15, except for franchise tags. Signings are not official until Wednesday at 4 p.m. when the new league year begins.

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed OLB Markus Golden (2 years, $9M)
  • Re-signed OT Kelvin Beachum (2 years, $M)
  • Agreed to terms with Bengals WR A.J. Green (1 year)
  • Traded for Raiders C Rodney Hudson
  • Signed Lions K Matt Prater (2 years, $7M)

Adding J.J. Watt before free agency was a splashy move, if not a bit of an overpay. And Golden is a fine rotational pass rusher to keep around. But Green is a low-floor gamble out wide at this point in his career. The Hudson addition helps offset that, giving Arizona a more formidable front.

Grade: B-

Notable moves:

  • Traded for Bills TE Lee Smith
  • Signed Patriots DE Brandon Copeland

This is what a tight salary cap will do to you. Draft day is more important to this franchise anyway.

Grade: C-

Notable moves:

Losing Matt Judon hurts the pass rush, but bringing back Bowser, McPhee and Wolfe certainly softens the blow, especially at such reasonable prices. Zeitler, meanwhile, could prove to be a steal as better interior protection for Lamar Jackson. 

Grade: B+

Notable moves:

They paid a premium for Milano and, to a lesser extent, Williams. But both vets have played integral roles when healthy. Retaining Feliciano also ensures that Josh Allen’s supporting cast is of the utmost importance. And Trubisky is a perfect fit as the No. 2 QB.

Grade: A-

Notable moves:

  • Franchise tagged OT Taylor Moton
  • Signed Jets OG Pat Elflein (3 years, $11.5M)
  • Signed Chargers LB Denzel Perryman (2 years)
  • Signed Cardinals OLB Haason Reddick (1 year)
  • Signed Seahawks WR David Moore (2 year, $4.75M)

Retaining Moton was priority No. 1, and they accomplished it. But who in the world convinced the front office to sign Elflein for three years? They could still use more help up front, as well as pass-catching help with Curtis Samuel gone.

Grade: B

Notable moves:

Is Andy Dalton really the answer at QB? Also, it’s good they want to patch things up with A-Rob, but unless they’re going to pony up serious dough (and give him a good QB, too), they may end up taking trade calls for him anyway.

Grade: D

Notable moves:

Hilton and Hendrickson have lots of upside, but it’s hard to praise them for essentially swapping out their own top internal free agents (Carl Lawson, William Jackson III) for comparable or inferior starters at the same spots. Reiff will help protect Joe Burrow but isn’t more than a mid-tier, short-term fix.

Grade: C+

Notable moves:

  • Signed Rams S John Johnson III (3 years, $33.75M)
  • Signed Raiders DE Takkarist McKinley (1 year)
  • Signed Rams CB Troy Hill (4 years, $24M)
  • Signed DT Malik Jackson (1 year)
  • Re-signed Rashard Higgins (1 year, $2.38M)

Somehow, they got Johnson — one of the top young safeties on the market — at great value. Finally, Cleveland has itself a play-making leader for the back end of its secondary. McKinley is just fine as a high-upside flyer, too. Hill helps solidify the secondary as well.

Grade: A

Dallas Cowboys

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed CB C.J. Goodwin (2 years, $3.5M)
  • Re-signed CB Jourdan Lewis (3 years)
  • Signed Falcons S Keanu Neal (1 year, $5M)
  • Signed Bills OT Ty Nsekhe (1 year)

They were never going to be splashy here, so it’s hard to fault them too much for banking on lower-tier depth moves. Unless they strike gold in the draft, though, they’re going to need more help on “D.” Re-upping on familiar faces and banking on the oft-injured Neal doesn’t guarantee much improvement.

Grade: C

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed S Justin Simmons (4 years, $61M)
  • Exercised 2021 option for OLB Von Miller
  • Signed Washington CB Ronald Darby (3 years, $30M)
  • Signed CB Kyle Fuller (1 year, $9.5M)
  • Re-signed DE Shelby Harris (3 years, $27M)
  • Signed Vikings RB Mike Boone (2 years)

Keeping Simmons and Harris is smart, and no one’s going to yell at them for retaining Miller, but at his price tag? You might’ve been better off letting him cash in elsewhere and collecting a nice compensatory pick in 2022. Darby is fine, but again, what a steep cost. Fuller’s addition will help at corner.

Grade: B

Notable moves:

Nothing wrong with locking up a young pass rusher at a decent number. The Lions just have so many other holes to fill, from wide receiver on down, that it’s impossible to lavish them with free agency praise.

Grade: C+

Notable moves:

Technically, they re-signed Aaron Jones (4 years, $48M) before tampering began. We like the commitment, even if the price is a touch steep, although now they may have to bargain-bin shop at wide receiver and elsewhere.

Grade: Incomplete

Notable moves:

Lots of moves, but not a whole lot of substance. Lawson could prove to be a quality edge rusher, Lindsay is an exciting potential No. 1 RB alongside Ingram, and Grugier-Hill and Cannon offer a fair amount of upside as starters, but not even the whole bunch collectively equals a premium addition.

Grade: C

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed RB Marlon Mack (1 year, $2M)
  • Re-signed CB Xavier Rhodes (1 year, $6.5M)

Despite all kinds of money, the Colts have stayed quiet so far. We’re waiting for them to give new QB Carson Wentz some additional offensive weaponry, or replace Denico Autry up front.

Grade: B-

Notable moves:

Like the Texans, they’ve done quite a bit, but quantity doesn’t mean quality. Griffin and Jenkins will undoubtedly improve their secondary, but how much do you want to bet they’ll be itching to get out of one or both their deals by the end of 2022? Meanwhile, if Robinson and Hyde are the only offensive pieces they add for presumptive No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence … yikes.

Grade: C

Notable moves:

The Chiefs knocked it out of the park as soon as they agreed to terms with Thuney, who isn’t necessarily a world-beater up front but can play literally every spot and do it well. Protecting Patrick Mahomes is key, and he will do that.

Grade: A-

Las Vegas Raiders

Notable moves:

  • Signed Ravens DE Yannick Ngakoue (2 years, $26M)
  • Traded C Rodney Hudson (to Arizona)
  • Signed Bills WR John Brown (1 year, $3.75M)
  • Re-signed WR Zay Jones
  • Signed Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake (2 years, $11M)
  • Re-signed DT Johnathan Hankins (1 year, $3.5M)
  • Signed 49ers DT Solomon Thomas (1 year)
  • Re-signed LB Nicholas Morrow (1 year, $5M)

Ngakoue enters as great value here and offers an instant upgrade off the edge. But what are they doing up front? Trading Hudson creates another hole for a group that’s already down another starter. Drake, John Brown and Thomas all offer nice upside.

Grade: B-

Los Angeles Chargers

Notable moves:

  • Signed Packers C Corey Linsley (5 years, $62.5M)
  • Re-signed CB Michael Davis (3 years)
  • Re-signed K Michael Badgley (1 year)
  • Signed Saints TE Jared Cook (1 year, $6M)
  • Signed Steelers OL Matt Feiler

Much like the Chiefs, their top priority was adding protection for their young QB. Linsley offers just that. Davis, meanwhile, is an underrated re-signing to start at corner following Casey Hayward’s departure.

Grade: A-

Los Angeles Rams

Notable moves:

Is Floyd really worth $16 million per year? Probably not. But they learned their lesson from letting Dante Fowler Jr. walk after his renaissance in Los Angeles. If Floyd can be just a solid edge rusher alongside Aaron Donald, that’s a win.

Grade: B

Miami Dolphins

Notable moves:

  • Acquired Titans OT Isaiah Wilson (since released)
  • Acquired Texans LB Benardrick McKinney for DE Shaq Lawson
  • Signed Lions CB Justin Coleman (1 year, up to $2.75M)
  • Signed Texans WR Will Fuller (1 year, $10.625M)
  • Signed Patriots DT Adam Butler (2 years)

McKinney is a fine replacement for Kyle Van Noy. They could still stand to make another splash out wide, although that might come in the draft now that Fuller is in tow to take it deep.

Grade: C+

Notable moves:

Tomlinson is exactly their kind of addition: A big, gap-plugging body for Mike Zimmer’s defense. His presence should help their edge rushing situation, so long as Danielle Hunter actually returns to it. Peterson, meanwhile, is a solid short-term bet.

Grade: A-

New England Patriots

Notable moves:

  • Signed Titans TE Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50M)
  • Signed Chargers TE Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5M)
  • Signed Ravens OLB Matt Judon (4 years, $56M)
  • Signed Eagles S Jalen Mills (4 years, $24M)
  • Signed Raiders WR Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26M)
  • Signed 49ers WR Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5M)
  • Signed Dolphins DT Davon Godchaux (2 years)
  • Acquired Raiders OT Trent Brown
  • Re-signed DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (4 years)
  • Signed DE Henry Anderson
  • Re-signed CB Justin Bethel (3 years, $6M)
  • Signed Dolphins C Ted Karras (1 year, up to $4M)
  • Signed Dolphins LB Kyle Van Noy (2 years, $13.2M)
  • Re-signed C David Andrews (4 years, $19M)

The opinions on the Pats’ unexpected splurge will be varied, but we fall right in the middle. Are they overpaying for a bunch of guys? Obviously. Do free agent extravaganzas pan out? Rarely. Still, Smith and Henry will immediately improve their offense, Judon is still a Pro Bowl-caliber rusher, and guys like Agholor and Mills offer enough versatility to carve out steady roles. Next up: A real QB.

Grade: B

New Orleans Saints

Notable moves:

Keeping Williams on the tag was the first step in the right direction. As for Winston and the all-important QB spot, look, it’s not ideal, but with their cap situation, it was always going to be tough to waltz into a mighty Drew Brees successor … until the draft?

Grade: C

New York Giants

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed DE Leonard Williams (3 years, $63M)
  • Signed Lions WR Kenny Golladay (4 years, $72M)
  • Signed TE Kyle Rudolph (2 years, $12M)
  • Signed Raiders RB Devontae Booker (2 years, $6M)
  • Signed Bengals WR John Ross (1 year, $2.5M)
  • Signed Jaguars QB Mike Glennon
  • Signed Vikings DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (1 year, $2.5M)

Keeping Williams is smart, especially after what they gave up for him and even though his $21M-per-year average wrongly suggests he’s Aaron Donald-esque. Golladay and Rudolph are even better, giving Daniel Jones a pair of proven, legitimate play-makers.

Grade: B+

New York Jets

Notable moves:

  • Franchise tagged S Marcus Maye
  • Signed Titans WR Corey Davis (3 years, $37.5M)
  • Signed Bengals DE Carl Lawson (3 years, $45M)
  • Signed Lions LB Jarrad Davis (1 year, $7M)
  • Signed Jaguars WR Keelan Cole (1 year, $5.5M)
  • Signed Raiders S Lamarcus Joyner (1 year, $4.5M)

Here’s what it looks like for a New York team to spend smartly. Corey Davis and Carl Lawson can be top-15 players at premium positions, and both instantly improve the Jets’ chances. Jarrad Davis’ deal is a little rich, but he’s a high-upside plug-in, too.

Grade: A

Philadelphia Eagles

Notable moves:

  • Signed Vikings S Anthony Harris (1 year, $5M)

They were reportedly in on John Johnson, but the reality is the focal point of their offseason is the draft. Harris isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team, but if he plays up to his potential, he’ll help anchor a defense in transition.

Grade: B-

Pittsburgh Steelers

Notable moves:

This was always going to be a bit of a rough stretch for the Steelers, who are hard-pressed for room while trying to build a win-now team for Ben Roethlisberger. Keeping Banner and Sutton helps, and JuJu at a bargain rate is fine, even if he’s not No. 1 material.

Grade: C+

San Francisco 49ers

Notable moves:

The Niners value their fullback more than any other team, but they have reason to do so in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Not sure paying Moseley and Verrett a combined $16M fixes the corner spot, but they’ve done well with what they have. The 49ers were also able to re-sign their star left tackle, who is still one of the best in the game.

Grade: B-

Seattle Seahawks

Notable moves:

  • Re-signed RB Chris Carson (2 years, $14.6M)
  • Signed Rams TE Gerald Everett (1 year, $6M)
  • Traded for Raiders OL Gabe Jackson
  • Signed 49ers CB Akhello Witherspoon (1 year, $4M)

Carson will be nice to have back as the workhorse ball-carrier. Jackson’s addition should give the O-line more depth. They just better hope Everett breaks out if they think this group will appease Russell Wilson.

Grade: C+

Notable moves:

Like their Super Bowl opponent, they’ve knocked it out of the park. To retain all their key free agents, save for maybe Leonard Fournette, is a minor miracle. It’s not as if they’re only running it back with old guys, either; Godwin and Barrett are the future.

Grade: A

Tennessee Titans

Notable moves:

In splurging for a real pass rusher and D-line counterpart in Dupree and Autry, the Titans chipped away at other spots, cutting Jackson and Kelly despite their own flashes. Their bigger issue: Without Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, they could use offensive help.

Grade: C+

Washington Football Team

Notable moves:

Their grade gets a boost because of Fitzpatrick, who alone offers a rather sizable upgrade over Alex Smith. But they’ve got plenty of holes left to address, such as out wide and, frankly, in the QB room, where they still need a long-term option.

Grade: A

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