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The Winners and Losers of NFL Free Agency

While contending teams like the Buccaneers focused on retaining their cores in free agency, other franchises (like the Patriots!) shelled out a good bit of cash last week. Which GMs will come out of this looking smart—and which will regret their decisions immediately?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL free agency is a lot like thrift shopping: If you spend a lot of money, you’re probably doing it wrong. That will be our guiding principle as we look back at the last week and determine which teams are spending wisely versus which teams are just spending.

One note before we begin: The deals below will be listed by the real value of the contracts, not the numbers as widely reported. For example, Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith was reported as signing a four-year deal for $50 million. But when factoring in his guaranteed money and how contracts are often terminated when the non-guaranteed money runs out, his deal is closer to a three-year contract for $38 million. So be aware the numbers here may not be the figures you’ve seen elsewhere. Now let’s dive in.

Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Significant Moves:
  • Extended quarterback Tom Brady (two years, $50 million)
  • Re-signed tight end Rob Gronkowski (one year, $8 million)
  • Re-signed pass rusher Shaq Barrett (three years, $51 million)
  • Re-signed linebacker Lavonte David (two years, $25 million)
  • Franchise-tagged receiver Chris Godwin (one year, $16 million)

The best way to win free agency is to prevent your best players from reaching free agency. The Bucs did that with almost all of their important players this offseason.

Tampa Bay deployed some sexy accounting tricks for the first time in a decade in order to retain some of their top guys, and it worked. Most of the players who were eligible to hit free agency had the opportunity to play elsewhere for more money but chose to return instead. Once you’ve won a Super Bowl with Tom Brady, it’s hard to leave. And it’s hard not to give the Bucs a W when they’ve kept their Super Bowl core together.

Loser: New England Patriots

Significant Moves:

[Takes a deep breath.]

  • Re-signed quarterback Cam Newton (one year, $5 million plus incentives)
  • Signed receiver Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million)
  • Signed receiver Kendrick Bourne (one year, $6 million)
  • Signed tight end Jonnu Smith (three years, $38 million)
  • Signed tight end Hunter Henry (three years, $38 million—yes, it’s basically the same contract)
  • Signed outside linebacker Matt Judon (three years, $44 million)
  • Signed defensive back Jalen Mills (two years, $12 million)
  • Signed inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (one year, $7 million)
  • Traded for Raiders right tackle Trent Brown
  • Traded right tackle Marcus Cannon to Houston in a late-round pick swap
  • Re-signed defensive end Deatrich Wise (two years, $12 million)
  • Re-signed center David Andrews (two years, $8 million)

[Exhales.]

The Patriots have made so many moves over the past week that we can almost skip the analysis of individual deals and get into the strategy as a whole. Does New England actually have a plan, or are all these signings like when someone gets dumped and starts posting a bunch of pictures on Instagram?

For a decade, the Patriots rarely spent big in free agency (aside from paying star cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis or Stephon Gilmore). Just two years ago, Bill Belichick was photographed on vacation in Barbados days before free agency began.

“I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft told NBC’s Peter King on Friday. “So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”

So much for that! The Patriots gave out their second-most guaranteed money ever in free agency ($138 million), and they did that in the period’s first 24 hours. In total, they’ve given out almost $175 million in guarantees, or nearly as much as Kraft spent to buy the team and the stadium back in 1994. Yes, inflation makes that sound crazier than it is—but still.

If the Houston Texans had done this, we’d be memeing them into oblivion. Instead, the Patriots did it, so we have to figure out whether this is part of some genius plan or whether they are just jealous that Brady won the Super Bowl without them. Kraft told King it was the former (obviously), and said he saw free agency like investing in the stock market—and exploiting a market inefficiency.

“We had the second- or third-most cap room at the start of free agency,” Kraft said. “This year, instead of having 10 or 12 teams competing for most of the top players, there were only two or three.”

Perhaps that explanation would make sense if the Patriots had gotten players at or below market value. But they didn’t. The only tight ends making more money than Henry and Smith this season are Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle, who are far and away the best players at the position. Agholor signed with the Raiders last year for one year and $1 million. The Patriots are paying him $11 million annually. The old Patriots would have gone out and found the next Nelson Agholor, i.e., a wideout who will outperform his next contract. Instead they are paying for the receiver’s previous breakout performance. Ironically, the Raiders replaced Agholor with John Brown, a potentially better receiver, at almost a third of the cost.

But let’s not get lost in the details. Some of these signings will work. Some will not. The Patriots will be a more competitive team this year than they were last season. But the question we need to ask is about process. Did New England disrupt its entire ethos to pay these players? Or is it that exploiting market inefficiencies is the process, and we are all missing the forest for the trees? It won’t take too long to find out.


Winner: Buffalo Bills

Significant Moves:
  • Re-signed right tackle Daryl Williams (two years, $17 million)
  • Re-signed guard Jon Feliciano (one year, $5 million)
  • Re-signed linebacker Matt Milano (two years, $22 million)
  • Extended safety Micah Hyde (two years, $17 million)
  • Released receiver John Brown
  • Signed receiver Emmanuel Sanders (one year, $6 million)
  • Signed quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (one year, $2.5 million)

This is a boring list, but that’s why it works. The Bills kept their solid offensive line together; they also kept Milano, who seemed like the only defender who could consistently cover tight ends last year. Buffalo was one round from the Super Bowl just two months ago, and the team has prevented its key guys from hitting free agency.

Loser: Las Vegas Raiders

Significant Moves:
  • Traded right tackle Trent Brown to Patriots for a fifth-rounder
  • Traded right guard Gabe Jackson to Seattle for a fifth-rounder
  • Traded center Rodney Hudson to Arizona for a third-rounder
  • Signed defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (two years, $26 million)
  • Signed receiver John Brown (one year, $4 million)
  • Signed running back Kenyan Drake (two years, $11 million)
  • Released safety Lamarcus Joyner

Since Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay after the 2002 season, he’s gone 64-80 as a head coach. That’s a .444 winning percentage. Winning that Super Bowl was impressive, but it came with a team Gruden inherited (he was traded from the Raiders to the Bucs and won it all the very next season). Since inheriting a roster littered with future Hall of Famers, though, Gruden has not shown any ability to make the whole of a roster greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, his most notable achievement has been blowing up the star-laden Raiders roster he got when he signed a 10-year, $100 million deal with the team in 2018.

When Gruden showed up three years ago, the Raiders had Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, and a solid offensive line. Soon after his arrival, he traded away Mack. Then the team dealt Cooper. This month, they’ve traded away the entire right side of the offensive line—tackle, guard, and center. Sure, those trades might make sense individually. But for a team with so many holes on the defensive side of the ball, ripping open the offensive line is nothing short of bizarre.

And Gruden has essentially zero history to suggest he’s capable of filling holes on the roster. Consider what he and GM Mike Mayock have done to try to help this team make a leap—and the amount of money they’ve shelled out to do it:

  • Paid right tackle Trent Brown $37 million to play 16 games, then traded him back to New England
  • Paid defensive back Lamarcus Joyner $27 million over two years to help the secondary, only for Joyner to rank as the worst slot defender in the NFL during that span
  • Used the no. 4 pick in the 2019 draft on Clemson pass rusher Clelin Ferrell, which stunned draft analysts at the time. Ferrell has 18 quarterback hits in the past two years, which ranks tied for 98th in the NFL over that time period.
  • Drafted receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. in the third round of 2020 then traded him to Miami before Week 1. The Raiders gave up on him before his rookie season began.

Those are all premium prices (in terms of dollars or draft picks) for moves that did not work.

One of the best draft picks of Gruden’s tenure has been running back Josh Jacobs, who has 2,215 rushing yards in two seasons. But last week the Raiders signed Kenyan Drake to a two-year deal that’s guaranteed for $8.5 million at signing. That isn’t backup money—it’s a sign the Raiders don’t trust their former first-round pick to handle a full workload. It’s also a complete misunderstanding of modern football. Smart teams pay their offensive linemen a lot of money and pay their running backs very little. The Raiders traded away the majority of their starting linemen and spent the money at running back. The tail is wagging the dog.

Gruden has made a couple of good decisions this offseason. He signed receiver John Brown to a one-year deal worth $3.8 million—a great gamble on a good player who has had health issues. The team also signed defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to a two-year deal for $26 million, which might turn out to be smart if he stays with Las Vegas through the deal—Ngakoue has been traded twice in the past year. But even with the risk, the Raiders needed help in the pass rush. They rank dead last in the NFL in sacks since Gruden traded Mack to the Bears. There’s a theme here.

Winner: Los Angeles Chargers

Significant Moves:
  • Signed center Corey Linsley (two years, $26 million)
  • Signed guard Matt Feiler (two years, $15 million)
  • Signed tight end Jared Cook (one year, $4.5 million)

Russell Wilson was the most pressured quarterback in the NFL last year, and in February he went on television and asked for better offensive linemen. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was the second-most pressured quarterback last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Chargers actually went out and got him some offensive linemen.

Linsley is one of the NFL’s best centers. His knowledge of the game will help Herbert with protections and make the rest of the line better. Feiler is a solid former Steeler who will be an upgrade for L.A. at guard. Again, these moves are not sexy (offensive line moves rarely are). But protecting the franchise quarterback is about the best way the Chargers could spend money. And signing Jared Cook to replace Hunter Henry for half the price isn’t bad either.

Winner: Baltimore Ravens

Significant Move:
  • Signed guard Kevin Zeitler (two years, $16 million)

The Ravens desperately needed a guard. But rather than signing Joe Thuney to a deal that’ll pay him $48 million over the next three seasons (like the Chiefs did), Baltimore is paying Zeitler half as much annually. And—for convoluted NFL rules reasons—it was a smart decision. There are a lot of annoying details involved, but basically the Ravens are getting Zeitler, and they’ll probably also get third- and fourth-round draft picks in 2022, because they lost pass rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency (the NFL treats free agency like a friend who got dumped—they buy them a beer, but it’s a late third-round pick). If the Ravens had made a signing of roughly equal or greater value to the deals those two got in free agency, they wouldn’t have been eligible for both picks. But a loophole here is that Zeitler’s contract didn’t expire—the Giants released him—so it didn’t count toward this draft pick system. Ultimately, while compensatory formulas are complicated, Baltimore’s options were simple:

  • Door 1: Pay Joe Thuney $16 million annually, likely lose a fourth-round pick in 2022.
  • Door 2: Pay Kevin Zeitler $8 million annually, keep a fourth-round pick in 2022.

The Ravens choose some version of Door no. 2 every year, and it usually works for them.

Loser: New York Giants

Significant Moves:
  • Signed receiver Kenny Golladay (three years, $54 million)
  • Signed tight end Kyle Rudolph (two years, $12 million)
  • Signed receiver John Ross (one year, $2 million)
  • Signed defensive end Leonard Williams (two years, $45 million)
  • Signed cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (three years, $39 million)

Full disclosure here: I am a Giants fan, and a self-loathing one at that, so I see most of their moves through a glass-half-empty lens. Still, everything the team does these days comes back to getting help for quarterback Daniel Jones. That includes the first three moves here—Golladay, Rudolph, and Ross. These signings are about building an offense in which Jones can succeed (or at least not fail), and that will go a long way toward determining whether Jones can be a serious starter in the NFL.

One of the problems with attempting to evaluate Jones over the past two years is he’s been surrounded by a lot of no. 2 options (Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram). Adding a clear no. 1 option in Golladay changes that.

There are two recent NFL deals that could be apt comparisons for the Giants’ Golladay signing. The first is the Bears signing Allen Robinson II in 2018. At the time, Chicago needed a true no. 1 receiver for its offense, but also so the team could soberly evaluate Mitchell Trubisky. It turns out Robinson was great. Trubisky was not.

The second comparison is the Bills trading for receiver Stefon Diggs last spring. While that deal didn’t happen in free agency, the logic was similar. Josh Allen was about to enter his third season. He had flashed promise, but also had a lot of bad habits. The Bills needed to decide whether he was their long-term answer under center. So Buffalo traded for Diggs, and the rest is history. Diggs led the NFL in catches and receiving yards last year. Allen went from the league’s worst deep-ball passer to among its best, and he had the largest year-over-year rise in completion percentage in NFL history.

Golladay and Diggs are very different receivers: Golladay is about 4 inches and 25 pounds heavier than Diggs, and they don’t play in a similar way. But the Giants are hoping there is a similarity between them thematically: Star receiver unlocks full potential of struggling young quarterback.

Still, hope is not a plan. And that’s why the Giants are losers here. It’s not that these moves are bad. It’s that these moves seem desperate. General manager David Gettleman’s future with the team may be tied to Jones succeeding, and that seems to be the organization’s guiding light (or perhaps Jones is a blinding light). More than a third of the NFL’s teams are changing their starting quarterbacks this offseason. Somehow, the Giants are not in that group.

To be fair, the Giants offense is more talented now than it was a week ago. Rudolph has great hands and is a solid blocker (unlike Evan Engram). Ross is a good value signing as a former first-round pick. And a receiver of Golladay’s quality is something New York has been lacking since Odell Beckham Jr. was healthy and wearing blue. The defense will benefit from signing Jackson at cornerback. Jones is in a better position to succeed now, and that is a good thing. But making big moves to justify a previous mistake is a bad thing. And keeping Jones as the team’s starting quarterback seems like a mistake—especially when Jason Garrett is the offensive coordinator charged with making all of this work.

Perhaps this Golladay signing will be like the Bills bringing Diggs in, and Jones will be unlocked as an All-Pro. But my money is that the deal ends up more like Allen Robinson’s: a talented receiver who highlights how limited his quarterback is. The best-case scenario of these signings seems to be the Giants further convincing themselves that Daniel Jones is their long-term quarterback. But is that a good thing? Even if the Giants win with this free-agent class, they still might lose.