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Emilee Chinn/Associated Press
The first week of NFL free agency is complete, and some players cashed in massive paydays they may not have deserved.
The shrinking of the salary cap—$182.5 million in 2021 after nearly reaching $200 million in 2020—forced many organizations to be frugal with their finances, but that didn’t stop some from flashing cash in an attempt to improve their rosters. Some of these clubs signed veteran talents to large deals with huge guarantees that won’t pay off in the long run.
Here’s a player at each position who signed a new contract this offseason that likely won’t be remembered fondly by the franchise and its fans.
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Quarterbacks weren’t the strength of the 2021 free-agent class, but teams seemed to panic once Dak Prescott re-signed with the Dallas Cowboys, leaving aging veterans and prospects who never fulfilled their promise on the open market.
Andy Dalton was one of the main beneficiaries as the veteran signal-caller cashed a one-year deal worth $10 million guaranteed from the Chicago Bears. Incentives could raise the value to $13 million.
Dalton played in 11 games for the Cowboys last year after Prescott went down with an injury. He connected on 14 touchdown passes but threw eight interceptions and didn’t do anything exceptional.
Some might attribute Dalton’s so-so season—his first with another club after serving nine years as the starter for the Cincinnati Bengals—to a banged-up Cowboys offensive line that struggled to protect him. Ultimately, though, he earned more money than any quarterback not named Dak Prescott this offseason and will struggle to return on that investment for the Bears.
Cam Newton nearly made this list after the New England Patriots retained him on a $13.6 million, one-year deal, but the Pats only guaranteed Newton $3.5 million, and the contract has a base value of $5.1 million. The 33-year-old Dalton will be paid nearly double Newton’s base value in guarantees alone and likely won’t perform that much better in 2021 to warrant that type of cash.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
There weren’t many running backs to get excited about this offseason, and only one earned a big payday (Aaron Jones re-upped with the Green Bay Packers for $48 million over four years). That didn’t stop the Las Vegas Raiders from overpaying to get a marginal upgrade.
The Raiders came to terms on a two-year, $11 million deal with Kenyan Drake last week, making him the second-highest-paid free agent at his position.
It’s a lot of cash for a player who has yet to top the 1,000-yard mark in five seasons and struggled with injuries and inconsistency with both the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals.
While Drake punched in 10 touchdowns last year, he benefited from being Arizona’s best goal-line option. He split touches with Chase Edmonds—who seemed to be a more natural fit in the Cards offense—and averaged a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry.
Although acquiring him didn’t break Las Vegas’ bank, the team wasn’t flush with cash either. It could have signed a back with higher upside or waited to utilize a middle-to-late-round draft selection to plug a hole at running back.
Either choice would have likely resulted in similar production to what the Raiders will get from Drake over the life of his deal at a cheaper cost.
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Tony Ding/Associated Press
The wide receiver market was one of the most intriguing stories in free agency as teams were slow to come to terms with the top players. Many wideouts signed for less than initially expected, and only one truly got paid.
Kenny Golladay has to be feeling good about his decision to wait until the weekend to get a deal hammered out. The 27-year-old came out of free agency with a four-year, $72 million contract from the New York Giants.
Golladay reportedly was holding out until a team met his asking price of $18.5 million per season, but it appeared unlikely as contemporaries like Corey Davis, Curtis Samuel and Will Fuller V signed deals worth $10 million to $12.5 million annually.
The market seemed as cool as it could get when JuJu Smith-Schuster re-upped with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a team-friendly $8 million in 2021, but Golladay cashed in as the last notable playmaker available.
One reason it took so long for him to sign a contract is that clubs may have been wary about the hip injury that cost the wideout playing time last season. The Giants brought Golladay in for a physical before signing him. After leading the league in touchdown receptions in 2019, the receiver suffered through an injury-plagued year and only played in five games.
The G-Men committed a ton to a player who may not be 100 percent and could be feeling the lingering effects from the ailments that saw him produce on a limited basis last year. Golladay caught 20 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns and never looked right, culminating in a zero-catch outing against the Colts in his final appearance of 2020 in November.
If Golladay doesn’t return to full health—always a risk with a free agent who is coming off a serious injury—it will be tough for him to live up to Big Blue’s lofty expectations. This organization is desperate for a legitimate weapon in its receiving corps, and this could become one of the worst signings of the offseason if Golladay can’t shake the injuries that derailed his 2020 campaign.
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David Becker/Associated Press
The New England Patriots came into the offseason ready to spend money after suffering through only their second losing campaign since head coach Bill Belichick took the reins two decades ago. The team spared no expense in improving and reshaping the roster after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Tight end was arguably the biggest need, and the Pats secured the player many felt was the best option, coming to terms on a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Hunter Henry. The team also picked up Jonnu Smith, inking the former Tennessee Titans tight end for $50 million over four years.
The Pats were desperate for a player of Henry’s caliber after playing out the 2020 campaign with guys like Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse, who put up mediocre numbers. Izzo was the team’s top-performing TE, but the veteran caught a meager 13 passes for 199 yards and no touchdowns in 12 games.
It’s unclear if Henry can evolve into the next great Patriots tight end. Belichick has a history of being innovative and getting a ton of mileage out of his TEs, but they have to stay healthy for that to happen.
Injuries have followed Henry throughout his five-year pro career. He has yet to participate in a full 16-game season since the Chargers drafted him in the second round in 2016. The low point was missing the 2018 campaign with a torn ACL, a significant injury that may have set Henry’s development back and may limit his ceiling.
While the most serious issues seem to be behind Henry—he’s played in 26 of 32 regular-season games in the two years following his lost campaign—a lot is riding on his health with this new contract.
Patriots fans may hope Henry can become the club’s next Rob Gronkowski, but they need to temper those expectations. He has never racked up more than 652 receiving yards and hasn’t caught more than five touchdowns in a season since his rookie year.
This contract could be a decent value or even a steal, but the more likely outcome is Henry continues to produce at a similar level to what he did during his time with the Bolts and misses a chunk of action because of injury.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Chargers were one of the bigger forces during free agency, making several moves to upgrade their offensive line. Getting better protection for quarterback Justin Herbert was a massive need, and the club spared no expense in signing guard Matt Feiler and center Corey Linsley.
The Bolts may have gotten arguably the best center in football in Linsley, but they had to pay him as such even though the former Green Bay Packer only reached that level recently in his seven-year career.
Linsley and the Chargers agreed to a massive five-year, $62.5 million contract, making him the highest-paid free-agent center by far this offseason. In comparison, David Andrews—the New England Patriots stalwart—re-upped with his incumbent club for $19 million over four years.
It makes sense the Los Angeles brass would want Linsley to snap the ball to their young franchise quarterback, especially given the center worked with last year’s MVP in Aaron Rodgers and can pass along advice on how to reach that level. However, it’s uncertain if he can maintain the high level of play he achieved in 2020.
Linsley has been a steady center for the Packers since he came into the league in 2014 but only earned first-team All-Pro accolades for his performance last year. Prior to that, he had never made a Pro Bowl and dealt with a handful of injuries, including spending a few weeks on injured reserve last year with a knee issue.
Given Linsley allowed an average of 22 pressures per season between 2017 and 2019 before improving to seven pressures in 2020, the Bolts may not get the All-Pro version for the duration of this deal. If he reverts to those previous numbers, L.A. will have overpaid for an offensive lineman who is above average instead of the class of his position.
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Butch Dill/Associated Press
The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the most puzzling teams in free agency, failing to address key areas of need and making some head-scratching signings. One controversial decision was allowing edge-rusher Carl Lawson to walk before signing a potential replacement in Trey Hendrickson, who is older and less regarded as a pass-rusher, for the same amount annually.
Hendrickson inked a four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals, getting the same annual pay the New York Jets gave Lawson on a three-year, $45 million deal.
The Bengals gave Hendrickson serious dough despite the fact that he has just one above-average season. The former New Orleans Saints edge-rusher made a splash in 2020, racking up 25 quarterback hits and 13.5 sacks, tied for second-most in the league. But he hasn’t proved he can be a consistent contributor.
Lawson made the same amount as Hendrickson despite ranking better in several key departments. According to Andrew Russell of Pro Football Focus, Lawson graded higher in pass-rush grade, pass-rush win rate, pressure rate and other notable categories.
The Bengals should have issued this money to their homegrown star instead of rolling the dice on a player who has much to prove. It is unlikely he will live up to the money he received, and the Bengals will regret not shelling out for Lawson.
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Bryan Woolston/Associated Press
The New England Patriots were flush with cap space and weren’t afraid to flash that cash by overpaying for some players. The team had a dire hole to address in its defense and plugged it by paying pass-rusher Matt Judon a whopping $54.5 million over the next four years.
Judon has signed the third-biggest deal of any outside linebacker this spring. His $13.6 million annual salary ranks behind Bud Dupree and Shaquil Barrett, who have been forces during their careers. Judon hasn’t had that same impact during his half-decade with the Baltimore Ravens, recording a respectable but unspectacular 34.5 sacks since 2016 and never evolving his versatile skill set to specialize in any department.
That type of versatility can make money on the open market, especially considering the Patriots roster only had one player who recorded more than 2.5 sacks last year. However, tying up that cash in someone who doesn’t do anything at a high level could hinder the club’s ability to make bigger signings in the near future.
New England was wise to front-load Judon’s contract, which will pay him $32 million over the next two years. They have an out ahead of the 2023 campaign when his dead-cap hit drops to $9 million, which could effectively make this a two-year deal for the Pats. Regardless, they will need Judon to deliver in a big manner to make good on his massive payday.
It is improbable that he develops into one of the game’s better pass-rushing talents, and it would be a shock if he ranks near the league leaders in sacks. Head coach Bill Belichick should get plenty of mileage out of Judon’s versatility and can deploy him all over the field, but he will not be the pass-rushing force the Pats need to improve their pressure rate in 2021.
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Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press
William Jackson III is a 2016 first-round pick who never developed into a top cornerback despite flashing plenty of promise during his five years with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’ll get another chance to take that leap with the Washington Football Team, which gave him a significant payday based on that potential.
Jackson signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal with Washington that made him the highest-paid cornerback on the open market this offseason.
Jackson had his best season in his second year after being selected No. 24 overall in 2016. The defensive back missed that campaign with a torn pectoral but bounced back to have a stellar 2017 outing. PFF gave Jackson a 90.2 defensive grade for his performance that year, a figure he hasn’t come close to reaching again.
Washington is banking on Jackson’s upside, but with the corner set to turn 29 years old in October, it’s improbable that he elevates his game beyond what he’s shown. Because of this high-risk, low-reward gamble, Washington won’t get a decent return on its investment, which should end up as one of the biggest overpays of the 2021 free-agency class.
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David Becker/Associated Press
The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t a marquee franchise, and it’s been tough for the club to court free agents. Despite having more cap room than most organizations this offseason, the Jags didn’t make many notable signings and doled out questionable deals to players who haven’t done enough to deserve big payouts.
One of these signings was the four-year, $35 million deal with Rayshawn Jenkins, the 27-year-old safety who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Chargers.
Jenkins has been an average safety, excelling more in coverage than against the run. He’s been consistent, however, appearing in 61 games with 32 starts and recording 174 tackles, five interceptions, nine passes defensed, four quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks.
While those aren’t bad numbers, they are hardly above replacement level and don’t warrant nearly $9 million per year. Jenkins does offer versatility—he swapped from free safety to strong safety, where he has played most of the last two seasons—but he didn’t get a big offer from the Bolts to remain for the 2021 campaign and beyond.
It’s hard to fault the Jags for acquiring a reliable defensive back they had targeted given how much cap space they had, but Jenkins will be hard-pressed to produce at a level worthy of the contract he signed.
Contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.