When discussing team building, any General Manager, Head Coach, or personnel executive in the NFL would say that to build a sustainable winning team, you’ve got to prioritize the draft over any other mechanism to acquire players, including free agency, trades, and waiver claims.
Free agency for most teams is used to address specific needs at targeted positions. However, throughout NFL history since unrestricted free agency was negotiated as part of the 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement, there have been players available who did much more than fill a need, they changed their new team in a material way and became a core part of the organization.
Players such as Reggie White, Deion Sanders, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady were available for any team in the NFL to sign at the time they became unrestricted free agents, and each of these players went on to become critical pieces in leading their respective new teams to Super Bowl Championships.
For every White, Sanders, Brees, and Brady success story, there seems to have been more high-priced free agent failures.
What Goes Into Signing a Free Agent?
While there are many lessons learned from high-priced free agents gone wrong, each new year hope springs eternal in the NFL and teams offer top of the market contracts to players in the first hours and days of the new League year in their never-ending race to improve their teams. A great deal of time, energy, and thought goes into planning to sign a potential free agent.
Scouting departments and coaching staffs watch hours upon hours of film on their potential targets and then those departments meet to discuss how that player would be used on their team and how this player potentially upgrades his particular position group or the team overall. Additional factors are discussed beyond his skills shown on tape such as age, injury history, projected longevity playing at a high level, football intelligence, and how this player might fit in with the culture of the team.
Football intelligence or analytics departments are commissioned to create studies to perhaps look at this player from a production standpoint compared to others at his position in the League. Team security or the director of player programs will look into the players past to see if he had any off the field issues with the law.
Scouting reports written by college scouts when the player was originally drafted are reviewed to see if there were any red flags in this player’s background when he was coming out of college. The GM or head of football operations will cross reference players coming out in the next draft at the particular position of the free agent target to determine the availability of players with a similar skillset who would cost significantly less under their rookie contracts.
Finally, the GM and/or team negotiator/salary cap department create contract models projecting how signing a targeted player will impact the team’s salary cap and cash budgets for the next three to four years. They must take into account planning for current player contract extensions in the future, potential restricted and exclusive rights free agent tenders, and budgeting for potential injury replacements each year. The GM and head coach also need to discuss how signing a free agent player from outside the current team to a high-priced contract will impact the locker room.
With all of this preparation, there are still some high-priced free agents every year who succeed with their new teams, and some who fail. While I believe it is still too early to grade a signing as a failure halfway through their 1st year with a new team, I do believe that there are those signings who immediately create a positive instant impact on their new teams and make a difference in terms of winning and losing.
For purposes of my review, I’ve looked at the top 15 highest paid free agent contracts for 2021 (only for those players who switched teams this season). This group includes contracts that average between $18 million per year (Kenny Golladay), and $11.5 million per year (Curtis Samuel). These are all players who were signed at the start of the free agency signing period in March of 2021 (with the exception of JJ Watt, who was released several weeks prior).
Based on performances to date, I’ve put these players into three different categories: 1) Difference-Maker, 2) Not Yet, and 3) Injured.
Due to the size of these contracts, all of these players were signed to be instant difference makers for their teams, and at this point I believe 7 of the 15 have performed at that level. Some have not made the instant impact due to injury, or perhaps they are still adjusting to a new scheme, teammates, and coaches. Others are just on teams that don’t have enough talent around them yet.
1) Trey Hendrickson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals (4-year deal; $15 million APY; $19.8 million guarantee):
While Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have garnered the most attention in leading the Bengals turnaround this season, it is the dramatic improvement of their defense that has largely flown under the radar.
In 2020, the Bengals finished 4-11-1, ranking 23rd in the NFL in points allowed and 26th for yards against. After week 7 this season, the Bengals rank 6th best in the NFL in points allowed (20.2 points/game), and 17th best in yards against (361.2 yds/game) with a 5-3 overall record. Hendrickson has helped to lead the revamped defense with 46 quarterback pressures (ranked 3rd in the NFL) including 7.5 sacks. He and Sam Hubbard have formed a great duo as bookends combining to help the Bengals rank 4th in the NFL with 21 sacks through 8 games.
Hendrickson started his career in New Orleans with only 6.5 sacks over his 1st 3 seasons, before having a breakout campaign in 2020 with 13.5 sacks. The Bengals clearly believed that 2020 wasn’t a fluke, paid Hendrickson, and are now reaping the benefits. If he can keep up this pace, Hendrickson’s contract APY of $15 million (ranked 18th for edge defenders in the NFL) might even be viewed as a value signing with the highest paid pass rushers now earning over $25 million per year.
2) Matthew Judon, OLB, New England Patriots (4-year deal; $13.625 million APY; $32 million guarantee):
Judon is a classic overachieving successful pass rusher drafted by Baltimore who came into the league in 2016 as a 5th round pick and developed into a player worthy of the big deal he signed this off-season.
In 5 seasons with the Ravens, Judon accumulated 34.5 sacks with his highest yearly total of 9.5 coming in the 2019 regular season. So far in 2021, Judon has notched 8 sacks and is 7th in the League with 42 total pressures through the first 8 games. At 29 years old, he’s on his way to his best season in the NFL.
Judon has led the Patriots 5th ranked defense (in points allowed) to a 4-4 record including a big win this past weekend in Los Angeles over the Chargers contributing 1.5 sacks on the day. Halfway through the season, he has proven to be a worthwhile free agent signing as the 21st highest paid edge defender ranked by his $13.625 million average per year.
Next season (2022), Judon will be 30 years old and has his paragraph 5 salary of $11 million guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap. After the 1st 2 years of the deal, Judon will have earned $32 million (assuming he earns the $1 million worth of per game roster bonuses available each season). The last 2 years of his deal total $22.5 million, and if his production continues at the same pace he achieved over the 1st 8 games of 2021, it will be a contract that the Patriots will be happy to pay out.
3) Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Las Vegas Raiders (2-year deal; $13 million APY; $26 million guarantee):
Ngakoue totaled 37.5 sacks in his 1st 4 seasons in the NFL after Jacksonville drafted him in the 3rd round in 2016. The 37.5 sacks total ranked 12th in the NFL over the 2016-2019 regular seasons. After the Jaguars placed the franchise tag on Ngakoue at the start of 2020 after failing to reach a long-term contract extension, he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, and later in the year to the Baltimore Ravens.
When Ngakoue became an unrestricted free agent at the start of 2021, the Raiders pounced and agreed on a 2-year deal. Through 7 games, Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby have formed a great duo as pass rushing bookends for the 5-2 Raiders. Ngakoue is ranked 16th in the NFL in total pressures, including 4 sacks. He has helped turn a defense that was 30th in the NFL in points allowed in 2020, to a team ranked 16th in 2021. At this point with only a 7-game sample size, Ngakoue is justifying his contract average value of $13 million (ranked 23rd by average per year for edge defenders).
The 2-year deal gives him a great carrot that will perhaps allow him to sign a longer-term deal in 2022 or when his current contract expires prior to the start of the 2023 season, at which point Ngakoue will still only be 28 years old.
4) Joe Thuney, OG, Kansas City Chiefs (5-year deal; $16 million APY; $46.189 million guarantee):
The Kansas City Chiefs identified their offensive line as an area that needed major upgrades after last season capped off by a Super Bowl defeat in which Patrick Mahomes was hit 8 times including 3 sacks.
Thuney was arguably the top available interior free agent offensive lineman on the 2021 free agent market. He had the talent (2019 AP All-Pro), the championship pedigree (winning 2 Super Bowls with the Patriots), and the durability (starting every game over 5 years of his career- 80 games) that all teams covet.
After 8 games in 2021 the Chiefs sit at 4-4, with an up and down first half of the season. The defense has absolutely struggled, ranking 29th in the NFL, while the offense still ranks near the top of the NFL in yards from scrimmage (4th overall). Thuney seems to have brought the stability and presence the Chiefs were looking for in their offensive line, having started all 8 games while ranking as the 2nd highest graded guard in terms of pass blocking in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and the 27th highest graded guard in terms of run blocking.
Despite Thuney’s strong pass blocking (2.6% pressure percentage allowed-ranking 5th in the NFL among guards), the Chiefs young offensive line as a unit has still allowed the 4th most QB pressures in the NFL (134 pressures). Even with two rookie starters on the line, the Chiefs rank 6th in the NFL in yards per rush. The line as a whole has had an uneven performance, but with a completely new group, it is understandable that they will only improve once they have more time together as a unit and the promising rookies- center (Creed Humphrey) and right guard (Trey Smith) gain more NFL experience.
5) Corey Linsley, OC, Los Angeles Chargers (5-year deal; $12.5 million APY; $26 million guarantee):
Linsley was a highly sought-after free agent in 2021, having completed 7 years as the starting center for the Green Bay Packers and being named AP All-Pro 1st team following the 2020 season. Linsley’s contract made him the NFL’s highest paid center upon signing, and it looked like a home run signing to pair the veteran center with the Chargers’ budding 2nd year superstar quarterback, Justin Herbert.
First year head coach Brandon Staley said, “When you sign who we feel like is the best center in football in Corey Linsley — a commander — and who’s a guy that has all of the leadership intangibles that that position acquires, then you have him and [QB] Justin Herbert running the show in the middle of your offense, we feel like that’s going to be a winning edge for us.”
Linsley’s leadership was recognized instantly as he was voted a team captain and the Chargers started the year off hot. They were 4-1 after 5 games, including 3 straight wins over the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns before dropping the past two games. Pro Football Focus has Linsley as their 4th graded center in the NFL at this point and the Chargers offensive line as a whole ranks 5th overall in terms of their pressures allowed per drop back. Overall, through 7 games, this has certainly proven to be an impact signing for the Chargers that should pay off for years to come.
6) Jonnu Smith, TE, New England Patriots (4-year deal; $12.5 million APY; $31.25 million guarantee)
7) Hunter Henry, TE, New England Patriots (3-year deal; $12.5 million APY; $25 million guarantee):
These players are linked together because the Patriots signed both of these players, arguably the top two tight ends available on the 2021 free agent market, to contracts paying them both $12.5 million on an average per year basis.
At the time, both of these contracts were behind only the most recent contracts signed by George Kittle and Travis Kelce as the highest paid tight ends in the NFL. While paying two tight ends in the top 5 of the league may not be ideal from a roster management standpoint, over the next four years the Patriots will be benefiting from their quarterback playing on a scaled rookie deal, and they have been the lowest spending team in the NFL for the previous five seasons combined, so they should have no problem fitting in these contracts.
Clearly the Patriots favor a two tight-end personnel group, or at least thought this was a unique opportunity to acquire two players at the same time who have both the skill sets as productive blockers and receivers to create favorable matchups for the Patriots offense.
Back in 2011, the Patriots got more production out of their two tight-ends than any team in NFL history on their way to another Super Bowl appearance (a loss to the New York Giants). That season, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 receptions, 2237 yards receiving, and 24 touchdowns.
After 8 games, the Patriots are 4-4 and are seeing steady performance from their rookie quarterback, Mac Jones. Certainly, the presence of these two veteran tight ends has helped to ease his transition to the NFL. Jones has been more consistent and productive than any of the other 3 QBs drafted in front of him in the first round this season.
For example, Jones has a 68.1% completion percentage, 1997 passing yards, and 9 TDs vs 6 interceptions with an ESPN QBR rating of 52.9. One can compare that directly to the 1st pick of the draft, Trevor Lawrence, who has completed 59.6% of his passes for 1703 yards, 8 TDs and 9 interceptions with an ESPN QBR rating of 34.7.
Individually, Henry has amassed 25 receptions, 297 yards receiving, and 4 TDs while Smith has 20 receptions, 189 yards receiving, and 1 TD. Henry has participated in 71% of the Patriots offensive snaps, while Smith has participated in 54% of the offensive snaps. Henry ranks 13th in the NFL among tight ends for receptions (63.5% of his receptions are when lined up in the slot), and Smith ranks 20th in the NFL among tight ends for receptions (37.3% of his receptions are when lined up in the slot). Overall, these players are making a difference on the Patriots offense (ranked 10th in scoring).
1) William Jackson III, CB, Washington Football Team (3-year deal; $13.5 million APY; $21 million guarantee):
When Ronald Darby (a 2020 unrestricted free agent signing of Washington) agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos on a 3-year deal as an unrestricted free agent with an APY of $10 million, the Washington Football Team set their sights on Jackson, viewed as an upgrade over Darby.
Thus far, Jackson has failed to deliver on the expectations of a cornerback paid in the top 10 of his position in the league. To be fair, Jackson has been dealing with a knee injury that has kept him out the past two weeks, and the entire defense has failed to live up to expectations, ranking 27th in the League after 8 weeks in total yards against, and 30th in the NFL against the pass.
It has been a significant decline for a relatively healthy defense who ranked 2nd best in the NFL against the pass and in overall yards given up in 2020. In fact, Washington is last in the NFL in 3rd down defense, with teams converting 56.5% of the time. Pro Football Focus grades Jackson as the 42nd ranked cornerback in terms of his coverage grade (with at least 250 defensive snaps and 25 targets) in the NFL.
For 2022, Jackson has a $5 million roster bonus that is fully guaranteed and a $5 million paragraph 5 salary that is guaranteed for injury currently, and converts to a full guarantee (skill, injury, and cap) if he is on the team’s roster on the 5th day of the 2022 League Year.
2) Shaquill Griffin, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (3-year deal; $13.33 million APY; $29 million guarantee):
Shaq Griffin was the highest paid member of the Jaguars 2021 free agent haul that included defensive additions safety Rayshawn Jenkins and defensive lineman Roy Robinson-Harris. After 7 games, the Jags sit with a record of 1-6 and are the 26th ranked defense in the NFL.
Last season, the Jags ranked 31st in the NFL in defense. Griffin’s Pro Football Focus grade in coverage is 15th in the NFL among cornerbacks (with at least 250 defensive snaps and 25 targets). Griffin has played every snap for the team through 7 games. He was voted a captain and the Jags are hoping his leadership and experience gained in the Seahawks franchise can help to elevate this team out of the basement in the AFC South.
If the Jags start to find their stride in the second half of the season, Griffin could be someone who absolutely can help that team get on a winning track and become a difference maker in a Jags turnaround. With next year’s paragraph 5 salary of $11.5 million fully guaranteed, the Jags are most likely locked in with Griffin through at least next season.
3) Adoree’ Jackson, CB, New York Giants (3-year deal; $13 million APY; $24.5 million guarantee):
A 2017 1st round pick of the Tennessee Titans, Adoree’ Jackson was released in March, 2021 when the Titans decided to sign the cheaper Janoris Jenkins instead of paying Jackson the 5th year option of more than $10 million. Over the past two seasons, Jackson missed a combined 18 games with the Titans.
So far in 2021 for the Giants, he’s played in all 8 games and Pro Football Focus grades ranks him 12th in the NFL among CBs. Jackson is paired with last seasons’ free agent signing of James Bradberry (who was paid a 3-year contract with a $14.5 million APY) to bolster a defense that ended up ranked 12th in the NFL in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. To date, in 2021, the Giants rank 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed, and 24th in the NFL in points allowed. The team is 2-6 through their first 8 games. Jackson has been healthy and has played 97% of the Giants defensive snaps to this point.
If the Giants can muster a 2nd half turn around as they did last season, Jackson will likely be one of the defenders leading the way. In terms of his future contract, it is structured similar to Shaq Griffin’s deal, with $9.5 million in 2022 fully guaranteed.
4) Corey Davis, WR, New York Jets (3-year deal; $12.5 million APY; $27 million guarantee):
Corey Davis came into the league in 2017 as the 5th overall pick of the Tennessee Titans out of Western Michigan. After an up and down first 3 seasons, the Titans decided not to pick up Davis’ 5th year option. In his final season with the Titans, Davis caught 65 passes for 984 yards and 5 TDs.
The Jets pounced at the start of free agency this past offseason and envisioned that he would be the top target for their young QB. Through their first 6 games, the Jets struggled on offense averaging 13.3 points per game and 272 yards per game, placing them at the bottom of the NFL in both categories. In those games, Davis was leading the Jets in receptions (24), receiving yards (349), and receiving TDs (4).
This past week, the Jets’ offensive explosion led by QB Mike White did not include Davis, who was inactive due to a hip injury. Even with a 34-point output and 511-yard offensive showing against the Bengals, the Jets currently rank 30th in the NFL in points scored per game, and 28th in yards per game.
While Davis has been one of the bright spots for the offense amidst their overall struggles, his full impact won’t fully take shape until the youth surrounding him on offense including the rookie quarterback show improvement as they gain NFL experience. Davis was described this week by head coach Robert Saleh as “obviously a stud,” and has shown enough at this point that he can be a key contributor and their top receiving threat moving forward.
With Davis being a part of only 1 win so far, it’s hard to put him in the difference-maker category just yet for the Jets, but he has all of the ability to consistently produce like he did last year in Tennessee for his new team.
1) Kenny Golladay, WR, New York Giants (4-year deal; $18 million APY; $40 million guarantee):
Golladay was signed to a big-time contract, making him tied for the 8th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL by average per year and the highest paid wide receiver in free agency by a long shot. The Giants made this move with Golladay coming off a season in which he played in only 5 games for the Detroit Lions.
Through 8 games in 2021, Golladay has 17 receptions for 282 yards and 0 touchdowns. He has missed the past 3 games with a knee injury. By signing Golladay, the Giants were looking to add another weapon for their offense with Saquan Barkley coming back from an ACL to help quarterback Daniel Jones take the offense to another level. Golladay produced back-to-back 1000 yard receiving seasons for Detroit and if healthy, could be an ideal complement to Sterling Shepard.
At this point, the Giants rank 24th in the NFL in scoring and 20th in the NFL in net yards per game. Golladay’s injuries have kept him from having the instant impact the team was looking for when he was signed.
Moving forward, $10 million of Golladay’s 2022 $13 million paragraph 5 salary is guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap, and the other $3 million (currently guaranteed for injury only) becomes guaranteed for skill and cap on the 3rd day of the 2022 League Year. In addition, Golladay has a $4.5 million roster bonus on the 3rd day of the 2022 NFL League Year (currently guaranteed for injury) that becomes guaranteed for skill and injury on the 1st day of the NFL League Year. Finally, a $4.5 million 2023 roster bonus (currently guaranteed for injury), becomes guaranteed for skill and cap on the 3rd day of the 2022 NFL League Year.
So, if the Giants do not improve on their 2-6 start to the season, and if Golladay does not become the difference maker the Giants expected him to be, a one year and done deal is possible though unlikely.
If Golladay were released prior to the start of the 2022 League Year, the Giants would be on the hook for $10 million of his 2022 paragraph 5 salary (subject to offset by what another team would pay him), and take on $13.6 million in dead money from signing bonus acceleration (for a salary cap impact of $23.6 million for a player no longer on the roster).
While releasing Golladay prior to the start of the 2022 League Year would be burdensome from a cap standpoint, the Giants would still be relieved of an additional $12 million that becomes fully guaranteed at the start of 2022.
If instead the Giants found a trade partner, they would be charged the $13.6 million in signing bonus acceleration on their cap, but would not be responsible for his $13 million paragraph 5 salary, or the $9 million worth of roster bonuses that become fully guaranteed at the start of the 2022 League Year. If a trade was consummated prior to the 3rd day of the 2022 League Year, the Giants cap charge for Golladay would be $13.6 million, instead of $21.15 million (a cap savings of $7.55 million in 2022).
2) Carl Lawson, DE, New York Jets (3-year deal; $15 million APY; $30 million guarantee):
Lawson played the first four seasons of his career in Cincinnati with the Bengals, Lawson totaled 20 sacks. The Bengals could have kept Lawson by applying the Franchise tag at just over $16 million, but instead let him hit the market.
Lawson instead agreed to terms on day 1 of free agency this past March with the New York Jets and the Bengals quickly signed Trey Hendrickson. Unfortunately, Lawson won’t be able to play for the Jets in 2021, as he tore his Achilles tendon in training camp and is on the Reserve/Injured list for the season.
We won’t be able to determine if this was a successful signing until next season. Since Lawson’s salary of $15 million for 2022 is fully guaranteed, the Jets are tied to the injured pass rusher through at least next season, unless the team decides to eat $15.66 million in dead money assuming another team would not be willing to take on the salary amount in a trade coming off an Achilles injury.
3) JJ Watt, DE, Arizona Cardinals (2-year deal; $14 million APY; $23 million guarantee):
At 32 years old and with his former team, the Houston Texans, in transition with new leadership, Houston agreed to release Watt prior to the start of the unrestricted free agent signing period rather than keep him on the team and pay him his $17.5 million salary.
Watt seemed to attract attention from multiple teams and he decided to sign with Arizona on a 2-year deal. Signing Watt was going to be a calculated risk for any team to take given his age and injury history (he missed 32 games in the previous 5 seasons). However, Watt’s leadership and character are off the charts and the Cardinals were willing to take the risk despite the injury risk and his decreased sack production in 2020 (5 sacks) while playing in all 16 games.
This signing seemed to be well worth it for Arizona, as they started out 7-0 on the season. In the 7th game, Watt injured his shoulder, and is now lost for the season. During those 7 games, Watt had 30 pressures (tied for 16th in the NFL) including just 1 sack, but his leadership appeared to be making a difference. Perhaps not coincidentally, in Week 8, without Watt, the Cardinals lost their first game of the season.
For next season, Watt has $5.5 million of his $13.5 million 2022 salary fully guaranteed ($3.25 million paragraph 5 salary guaranteed plus $2.25 million 5th day of the League Year roster bonus guaranteed for skill and cap). An additional $3 million is guaranteed for injury and becomes fully guaranteed on the 5th day of the 2022 League year.
It appears that Watt should be able to pass a physical by mid-March 2022, on the 5th day of the 2022 League Year, but if he is not fully recovered by that point, the Cardinals cannot avoid the additional $3 million guarantee by releasing him prior to the 5th day of the League Year.
If Watt is healthy and the Cardinals decide they want to release him prior to the 5th day of the League Year, they will owe him $5.5 million in guaranteed salary, and $7.2 million of prorated signing bonus from 2023-2025 voidable years will accelerate into 2022. In this scenario, the Cardinals will count $15.1 million of dead money on their 2022 season salary cap ($2.4 million signing bonus proration for each of 2022-2025 seasons plus $5.5 million guaranteed salary).
4) Curtis Samuel, WR, Washington Football Team (3-year deal; $11.5 million APY; $23 million guarantee):
Samuel was coming off a career year in 2020 with Carolina, contributing 77 receptions for 851 yards along with 41 carries for 200 yards on the ground, all career-highs under the Joe Brady-led offense.
Samuel clearly signed with a team where he felt comfortable, having been drafted to Carolina by Coach Rivera and Marty Hurney now both in Washington. In addition, Samuel was reuniting with his former head athletic trainer, position coach, and numerous other coaches he worked with in Carolina including Scott Turner, not to mention that his friend and former Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin was already there.
After 8 games, Washington sits at 2-6 going into the bye week with Tampa Bay on-deck and Samuel has spent the season dealing with a lingering hamstring injury. He’s only appeared in 2 games managing 4 receptions for 19 yards.
Hopefully for Washington, Samuel can make the impact the team envisioned when they signed him and add some juice to an offense in the second half of the season to improve on their performance currently ranking 24th in points scored, and 18th in yards gained. Samuel could help take some heat off of the spectacular Terry McLaurin, who leads Washington with 43 receptions, 573 yards, and 4 TDs. The other 5 wide receivers who have played for Washington thus far besides Samuel and McLaurin have combined for 44 receptions, 538 yards, and 1 TD.
In terms of his contract, Samuel will earn at least $13.05 million in 2021 and in 2022, his entire paragraph 5 salary of $8.5 million is fully guaranteed, and a $1.5 million roster bonus due on the 3rd day of the 2022 League year is guaranteed for injury only. The team is pretty locked in for next year with this contract.
In the unlikely event that the team traded him at the start of the 2022 League year, Washington would be relieved of $10 million in paragraph 5 salary and the 3rd day of the League year roster bonus. However, $7.2 million of signing bonus proration would accelerate from the 2023-2025 contract years (last 2 years are voidable) into the 2022 League Year, leaving the team with a dead money charge of $9.6 million in 2022.