Grading the Best & Worst NFL Free Agency Signings of 2021
Getty Images. Pictured: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree
The 2021 edition of NFL free agency wasn’t the splashiest period, but plenty of the movement should impact teams and the landscape of the league as it heads into its first 17-game season — for better or for worse.
A quartet of our NFL analysts break down which signings are among the most positively or negatively impactful below. Let’s dive right in.
Best NFL Free Agency Signings
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Washington
Matthew Freedman: The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so I’ll talk about Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Last year, while giving starts to the quarterback quartet of Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, the Football Team still managed to win the NFC East and make the playoffs.
With the addition of Fitzpatrick — as well as wide receiver Curtis Samuel — and the continued development of wide receiver Terry McLaurin, running back Antonio Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas, the Football Team has a real chance to make the postseason once again.
Of any player to sign with a new team this offseason, Fitzpatrick is likely to have the biggest impact on wins and losses, and I expect Washington to be competitive in almost every game it plays this year.
Chris Raybon: At one year, $10 million, it’s a short-term fix, but it’s a potentially needle-moving one for a team that lost by one score in the postseason to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Washington had the No. 3 overall defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and emerging stars on offense such as wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson, but was hindered by its quarterback play. Washington passers combined to throw only 16 touchdowns against 16 interceptions at 6.3 yards per attempt. Over the past three seasons and across a variety of situations, Fitzpatrick has thrown 50 touchdowns against 33 interceptions while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.
He gives this team some dangerous upside in a one-and-done playoff format.
Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Samantha Previte: In my opinion, the Cowboys finally extending quarterback Dak Prescott with a long-term deal is the most impactful move of free agency.
Prescott has been a highly impactful piece of the Dallas offense since joining the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Mississippi State product quickly supplanted an injured Tony Romo and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. He has earned two Pro Bowl nominations and finished second in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns in 2019.
Prescott’s 2020 season was cut short in Week 5 against the Giants after suffering a gruesome injury to his right ankle. The Cowboys were forced to rely on an underwhelming cast of quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci and finished the season 6-10.
Dallas has amassed numerous top-tier offensive weapons led by Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Elliott, 25, is under contract until 2027, Cooper, 26, is under contract until 2025, and Lamb, 21, is under contract until 2024 (with a potential fifth-year option). Their values would be significantly capped with an average quarterback under center.
The Cowboys still have a number of holes to fill before making a leap into Super Bowl contention, but quarterback — especially one of Prescott’s caliber — is undoubtedly the most important roster spot.
Will Fuller, WR, Dolphins
Sean Koerner: I thought Fuller was an excellent signing for the Dolphins. They’re getting him on a one-year, $10 million contract and will give them a much needed deep threat as the perfect complement to DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki.
The Dolphins will need Tua Tagovailoa to improve after a shaky rookie season if they want to make the playoffs. Adding a weapon in Fuller could unlock a second-year leap from Tagovailoa and help the Dolphins end a five-year playoff drought.
Worst NFL Free Agency Signings
Bud Dupree, OLB, Titans
Raybon: Entering his age-28 season and coming off a torn ACL, Dupree may have already peaked. Not only that, but he’s had only 1.5 good seasons, and 2020 was not one of them.
Here are his Pro Football Focus grades and ranks among qualified edge rushers by season:
- 2020: 60.2 (81 of 125)
- 2019: 77.7 (24 of 121)
- 2018: 60.4 (82 of 113)
- 2017: 56.1 (111 of 124)
- 2016: 71.6 (42 of 123)
- 2015: 41.1 (113 of 113)
Five years and $82.5 million with $35 million guaranteed is the type of money you spend to fix a bottom-three pass rush. I’m just not sure Dupree is the type of player you spend it on. This could be Jadeveon Clowney Part 2.
Mark Ingram, RB, Texans
Freedman: The Texans signed Mark Ingram to a one-year deal. He turns 32 this December and finished last season as a gameday inactive. As if that’s not bad enough, after signing Ingram the Texans also added Philip Lindsay via free agency, which begs the question as to why they brought Ingram in at all.
Coming off a career-worst year in which he was just 72-299-2 rushing despite being on one of the league’s most run-heavy teams, Ingram looks done. If he has any impact on the Texans, it’s almost certain to be negative.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Raiders
Koerner: The Drake signing was a real head-scratcher. I’m not sure why the Raiders gave him a two-year, $11 million contract to backup Josh Jacobs. Other free-agent RBs such as Mike Boone, Phillip Lindsay and Marlon Mack would have been more practical options.
I’m also unsure why the Raiders decided to gut their offensive line to free up cap space for a signing like this one. What good is having the RB combo of Jacobs and Drake if you don’t have anyone to block for them?
Nelson Agholor & Kendrick Bourne, WRs, Patriots
Previte: Two of the most head-scratching signings of free agency have been Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
It’s very unlike Bill Belichick — the Patriots de facto general manager — to get the sour end of a deal, but it certainly feels like New England overpaid for these two receivers.
Agholor, 27, is a former first-round pick who spent five underwhelming seasons with the Eagles. He is coming off of his best season to date as a member of the Raiders in which he caught 48 passes for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. He agreed to a two-year, $26 million deal with the Patriots on the first day of the legal tampering period.
Bourne, 25, is a former undrafted free agent from Eastern Washington. He spent four years in San Francisco and had most recently signed a one-year, $3.26 million deal with the 49ers in 2020. He’s coming off his best year to date as well in which he reeled in 49 catches for 667 yards and two touchdowns. He agreed to a three-year, $15 million contract with the Patriots, also on the first day of the legal tampering period.
Entering free agency, pass-catchers were an area of need for New England, which also inked tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
While signing Agholor and Bourne helps the Patriots, their contract values seem odd in light of the relatively soft wide receiver market. Curtis Samuel signed a three-year contract for $34.5 million, Corey Davis signed a three-year contract for $37.5 million contract and JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a one-year, deal for $8 million — all of whom have had arguably better careers than Agholor and received more money per annum.
Free agency signings aren’t exactly zero sum since the salary cap is quite nuanced and malleable. However, there is — at the very least — a negative correlation between the amount spent and capital available for the future. This means overspending on mediocre receivers limits the Patriots’ abilities to fill other roster voids, which makes these moves bad for the team as a whole.