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NFL Free Agency Takeaways 2021
March 17th (in this case, St. Patrick's Day) is the official start to the 2021-22 NFL Season, bringing with it both hope and optimism for each franchise and their fans. Now several months removed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominating win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, NFL teams look to bolster their existing rosters with free agents, plugging holes prior to the Draft next month.
Normally, NFL teams are afforded additional cap space to work with each season to extend contracts, re-sign veterans and set aside money for the upcoming rookie class. Yet in this COVID-era nothing is normal, and for the first time in recent memory, the salary cap was actually decreased, forcing teams to cut veterans with bulky contracts and redesign their financial outlook. With the understanding that (hopefully) fans will be able to attend games in some fashion during the 2021-22 season coupled with upcoming TV deals on the horizon, general managers have been forced to rework free agent contracts, focusing on signing bonuses and minimal "Year 1" impacts, back-loading deals instead.
The legal tampering window (a fancy way of saying that teams can make handshake agreements with players prior to the March 17th deadline) began on March 15th at noon EST, and as expected a bevy of deals was announced shortly thereafter on social media. As free agency marks the beginning of preparation for the next Fantasy season, it is important to understand the impact that players shifting from one team to another will both create and fill opportunities. Focusing on the Fantasy-relevant positions (QB/WR/RB/TE), below is a quick rundown of moves that will have an impact on Fantasy Football drafts next season.
Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys) - Technically speaking, Prescott never became a free agent, as a new deal was finalized on March 8th, re-signing the signal caller to a four-year, $160 million contract. That said, the Prescott vs. Jerry Jones standoff dominated quarterback news for much of the offseason, and he is by far and away the most Fantasy-relevant option we will discuss at this position. Still 27 years old, Prescott is in the midst of his prime, and hopes to be fully recovered from the brutal ankle/leg injury he sustained in 2020. Prescott's full complement of pass-catching weapons (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz) remained in Dallas and will be available at his disposal, further complimented by Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield. Even more importantly, the Dallas offensive line will be finally be at full strength next year, with RG Zack Martin and RT La'el Collings returning from injury. Prescott is a lock to be drafted as a QB1 in all formats, and should be viewed as a top-5 option at the position.
Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill (New Orleans Saints) - Drew Brees announced his retirement last week, and with the future Hall of Fame quarterback riding off into the sunset, there will be an open competition between Winston and Hill for starting duties in the Big Easy. Winston was re-signed by the team to a one-year, $12 million contract (a base salary of $5.5 million with escalating bonuses) and is more of the traditional pocket-passer than Hill, who is a dual-threat option. We would caution Fantasy players to not assume that just because Hill was given the first crack at the job in 2020 when Brees was injured that he would automatically have a leg-up in this battle. There is a reason that the Saints decided to bring back Winston rather than hand the reigns directly to Hill - they feel strongly in his talent. To make matters even more complicated, even if Winston were to win the job outright, beat reporters have already commented that Hill would continue to siphon away snaps as a gadget player, similar to the role that he had when Brees started. Frustrating to be sure. In a perfect world, Hill would win the job with Winston holding the clipboard on the sidelines, and New Orleans would trade Winston to a team in need of help at the position (either due to COVID woes or injury issues). Will that happen? Doubtful. Monitor this situation, as there are few places that produce more Fantasy points at the quarterback position on a yearly basis than New Orleans.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington) - With Dwayne Haskins solidly in the rear-view mirror and only Taylor Heinicke left at the position, the "Football Team" was in dire straits for someone to anchor this offense - in steps Fitzmagic. Fantasy owners are well acquainted with his topsy-turvy production, but few can deny that there is a reason that he has lasted in the NFL for 16 seasons - his fearless nature. Sure, you can refer to him as a journeyman, but Fitzpatrick still has enough strength left in his arm to fit the ball into tight windows when called upon to do so. Washington has continued to add talent on the offensive side of the ball, and now has a legitimate 1-2 punch at wideout with Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel. Logan Thomas was a breakout star at tight end in 2020, and Antonio Gibson offers a three-down option for Fitzpatrick to work with. He won't initially be ranked as a QB1, but as an upside QB2 or bye-week streaming candidate, look for Fitz to pull another rabbit out of his Harvard hat.
Andy Dalton (Chicago) - Want a laugh? Scroll back on social media to when Dalton was announced as a free-agent pickup and proverbial starter for the year. The words "outrage", "lament" and "hatred" don't begin to describe how Bears fans initially felt, after it was the Red Rifle and NOT Russell Wilson under center for 2021 - this despite Chicago offering everything AND the kitchen sink to goad him from Seattle. Taking a step back, Chicago fans should actually be happy that the team didn't mortgage their own future to acquire Wilson - the team has many holes to fill, and parting with multiple first-round selections over the next few seasons and multiple starters wasn't the way to solve their issue. Similar to Fitzpatrick above, Dalton represents a band-aid solution to a much larger issue with the team (hence why his contract was only for one year). A more accurate passer with a track record of getting his teams into the playoffs isn't anything to thumb one's nose at, and it will dramatically boost the production of all three starting receivers. Allen Robinson stands to benefit the most, though I'd doubt Darnell Mooney and Anthony Miller would complain either. Dalton represents a massive upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles.
Deshaun Watson situation - We knew coming into the offseason that Watson had absolutely zero desire to play for Houston this year - he made little secret about that. The departure of talent both on the offensive side (Will Fuller, Darren Fells, Nick Martin) and defensive side (J.J. Watt, Bernardrick McKinney) coupled with the awful deals that the team has made of late did the team little favors. News broke that Watson (allegedly) engaged in inappropriate conduct with multiple women during massage sessions as trade talks began to heat up, and the story has dominated the news ever since. I initially questioned the fact that the lawyer who has brought these charges forward (Tony Buzbee) was a neighbor of Cal McNair (Houston's owner) and has a track record of questionable conduct. That said, the number of women who have signed onto this case is reaching staggering, hard to ignore amounts. Could this be a smear campaign in an effort to besmirch Watson's name and keep him in Houston? Sure. Is he innocent until proven guilty? Yep. Is this a situation to keep an eye on? Absolutely. Houston did ink veteran Tyrod Taylor to a one-year contract worth up to $12.5 million - a hefty price for an insurance policy.
Aaron Jones (Green Bay)/Chris Carson (Seattle) - Unfortunately for Fantasy owners, both top-tier free agent running backs opted to stay with their former teams rather than find greener pastures, which resulted in their overall value remaining the same. The hope was that with Jones and Carson moving on that their former backups Jamaal Williams and Rashaad Penny would be given additional opportunities, but we have ultimately found ourselves right back where we started. True, Williams did move on from Green Bay (more on that below), but Jones still has the gargantuan presence of A.J. Dillon behind him, while Seattle has retained the services of DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer and Penny. Jones will once again be a top-5 option at the position based upon overall workload and his knack for finding the end zone (30 total touchdowns the past two seasons). Carson has a lower ceiling, but will continue to see 15-20 touches when healthy each week. Carson's injury history places him as an upside RB2.
Kenyan Drake (Las Vegas) - To put it nicely, I have no clue what Las Vegas is doing this offseason. The team opted to release their best lineman in Rodney Hudson, signed Yannick Ngakoue to a massive, fully-guaranteed deal and then signed Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal when they already had Josh Jacobs. Drake's presence crushes Jacobs' value, as the latter was a volume-based back who only remained relevant through overall touches. Drake is the better pass-catching back of the two options, and hinted through interviews that the Raiders wanted to split him out wide as a receiver at times. We suppose that Jacobs will still get the short-yardage and between-the-tackles work, but truth be told this is a true mess. Both Las Vegas backs are unlikely to return more than low-end RB2 value due to the expected breakdown of touches.
Jamaal Williams (Detroit) - D'Andre Swift owners - I feel your pain. I've long been a proponent in Swift's skillset and screamed from the rooftops in my weekly columns that if Lions brass gave him the opportunity, he would reward the team handsomely. Mid-season they finally listened and Swift was a low-end RB1 until the conclusion of the year. With new ownership coming in and singing Swift's praises as a three-down option, it was heartbreaking to see Williams sign here. In a sense, Williams is a less-exciting version of Swift. He's an excellent pass-catcher with the ability to run either between or outside of the tackles, has decent speed and good wiggle. After speaking with several Detroit beat reporters, they agreed that Swift will still see at least 60 percent of the backfield touches, with Williams coming in on the occasional series to give him a breather. In essence, a copy of the breakdown that Swift played for Adrian Peterson in 2020. Swift is now pegged as an upside RB2, with Williams a PPR FLEX option.
Marlon Mack (Indianapolis) - Colts ownership stated that they were thrilled to re-sign Mack, as they were convinced entering 2020 that they had the best backfield in the NFL, between Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Mack. Hard to argue with that at this point. Mack's return siphons goal line work away from Taylor and receptions away from Hines, creating yet another muddied backfield where the presumptive "lead" back will be lucky to see 60 percent of the total touches. A year removed from a brutal Achilles tendon tear, Mack can be viewed as a handcuff option to Taylor, with Hines being a mid-tier PPR FLEX.
Devontae Booker (New York Giants) - I wanted to briefly mention Booker here, as all signs point to long-time backup option Wayne Gallman moving on to another team. For Fantasy owners who believe in the handcuff system, Booker will be a top-5 backup to roster. It is uncertain how Saquon Barkley has progressed during his rehab from a torn ACL injury, but Booker is a versatile, all-around back with massive upside should Barkley go down yet again.
Allen Robinson (Chicago)/Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay) - Arguably the top two free agent options at the position, both players were franchise-tagged by their respective teams and will remain in place for the 2021 season. Both players receive minor upgrade in value, albeit for different reasons. In the case of Robinson, as alluded to earlier, Andy Dalton starting under center over Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky is a huge upgrade - and that speaks volumes. Dalton will at minimum be more accurate than what Robinson is used to, presenting more catchable opportunities. For Godwin, his status as the second-fiddle to Mike Evans is unchanged, but a lack of Antonio Brown behind him does open up additional targets. Whether he or Tyler Johnson stands to benefit the most remains to be seen, but returning to play with Tom Brady and this dynamic offense was his best possible landing spot for Fantasy purposes. Both Robinson and Godwin are mid-tier WR1s.
Will Fuller (Miami) - To say that the wide receiver market has been slow and undervalued is an understatement - in a normal year where the salary cap would have a modest-sized increase, most of these top options would be inking multi-year deals that reach $16-18 million per year. Instead, Fuller (like many others) chose to sign a one-year deal for a modest amount, understanding that with fans returning to the stands and additional TV revenue coming in, they would return to a better free agent market at the end of 2021. In Miami, Fuller will start opposite DeVante Parker, and instantly gives Tua Tagovailoa a downfield speed threat that the team was lacking last year. Fuller will need to serve the final game of his PED-related suspension in Week 1, but appears locked and loaded for a much larger role in Miami. Fuller has to hope that a shift to Florida will rid him of the injury bug that has plagued him since entering the league in 2016.
Corey Davis (New York Jets) - Davis was largely considered the "pivot play" for teams that weren't able to sign Kenny Golladay or Will Fuller in free agency. A breakout 2020 where he set career-highs in receptions (65) yards (984) and touchdowns (5) propelled his overall value sky-high, and it was rumored that the Jets were in contention with several other teams to sign him. No longer the second-fiddle, Davis will top the New York depth chart with Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder representing chain-moving options. The major question with Davis and how to rank him is the quarterback play of Sam Darnold, and if he can manage to make any sort of improvement in 2021. If Darnold continues to plod along as a ho-hum Joe Flacco clone, Davis won't break out of WR3 territory.
Kenny Golladay (New York Giants) - After a multi-day courtship where Giants ownership put Golladay through a medical evaluation for his troublesome hip and multiple interviews with front office personnel, the two sides finally agreed to a four-year, $72 million contract. Signing Golladay shores up a major hole for New York, as Darius Slayton struggled against CB1 coverage during 2020. This additionally allows Sterling Shepard to move back to his natural slot position, and provides quarterback Daniel Jones with a downfield threat capable of winning contested catches. Defenses will need to be careful where they allow safety attention with the return of Saquon Barkley to the mix as well. Golladay's Fantasy value diminishes from a low-end WR1 to a mid-tier WR2 due to the number of receiving threats on the team and an expected drop in targets. Golladay is the most dangerous receiver the Giants have had since prime Odell Beckham Jr.
Juju Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh) - In a puzzling move to many, JJSS afforded Pittsburgh a hometown discount and rejected multiple larger monetary offers from Baltimore and Kansas City to remain with Pittsburgh. One would have imagined that either of the alternative options would have provided an easier road to the postseason, and few would argue that the quarterback play he will return to is mediocre at best. That said, JJSS has been outspoken about his desire to remain in the Steel City, and his decision to accept a one-year, $8 million contract proves such. He will remain the third passing option behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and JJSS should be viewed in Fantasy circles as a ho-hum possession receiver who will score the occasional touchdown. His decision to stay not only caps his own value, but hurts Johnson and Claypool's upside as well. Treat JJSS as a PPR FLEX.
Curtis Samuel (Washington) - Unable to reel in either Kenny Golladay or Will Fuller, Washington instead pivoted to the best gadget-weapon available in Samuel. Capable of bringing life to a lackluster offense with limited playmakers, Samuel will start opposite his college teammate from Ohio State - Terry McLaurin. Possessing the ability to line up both in the slot, out wide and in the backfield as well, Samuel's tremendous speed and elusiveness generate insane YAC - music to the ears of new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner has to be drooling at the notion of having so much speed on the field at once - expect plenty of creative calls designed to get Samuel in space. This three-year, $34.5 million marriage made a ton of sense from the outset, and it is exciting to see what the results will be. Samuel is a WR3 with enormous upside.
Marvin Jones (Jacksonville) - Considered to be one of the best "B-tier" options at wideout in free agency, Jones found a great place to land in Jacksonville. His veteran experience is a welcomed addition that will allow aid in the transition and learning curve of Trevor Lawrence, the team's expected number one selection. Jones' best attribute is his ability to get down-field and win 50/50 passes - a stark difference to a number of other Jaguars at the position. His addition primarily hurts D.J. Chark, and doesn't affect the overall target volume to either Laviska Shenault or Collin Johnson. Jones will continue to be an undervalued Fantasy option who will go several rounds late and several dollars short in drafts. Reuniting with former coordinator Darrell Bevell has a chance to rejuvenate this 31-year old.
John Brown (Las Vegas)/A.J. Green (Arizona) - I lumped these over-30 receivers together because they carry plenty of name recognition and have signed with new teams, but I expect both will be overdrafted in 2021. Green appeared to be completely fried during his last season in Cincinnati, even though he was peppered with targets. Considering how DeAndre Hopkins has such an overwhelming share of targets in Arizona, I don't expect Green to have enough opportunities to grade him as anything other than a FLEX. In the case of Brown, he is coming off of an injury plagued 2020 campaign and will sustain a significant downgrade at quarterback. The Raiders do have targets to dish out following the loss of Nelson Agholor, but figure to be a run-dominant squad that will look to get youngsters Henry Ruggs and Hunter Renfrow more involved. Once again, target share is a big enough question that is raises a major red flag.
Nelson Agholor (New England) - Have money, will spend. Yeesh. Desperate to improve their receiving core in any way possible, the Patriots made the puzzling move of bringing in Agholor, rather than a higher-caliber player with more talent. We suppose that they viewed his 2020 numbers (48/896/8) as repeatable - this begs the question if they actually watched the game tape. Agholor was definitely better in Las Vegas than at any point during his tenure with Philadelphia, but missed tackles and blown coverage played a major part in inflating his totals. With his signing, Agholor becomes the de-facto top option for New England, ahead of Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry. Even following the addition, New England has a bottom-five grade at the position and will rely upon a bounce-back campaign from Cam Newton to reach the playoffs. Good luck.
Hunter Henry/Jonnu Smith (New England) - No, that isn't a mistake - I listed BOTH players as free agent acquisitions by the Patriots. In an effort (we suppose) to return back to their two tight-end set heyday, the Patriots broke the bank on both Smith (four years, $50 million) and Henry (three years, $37.5 million). The decision to be big spenders at tight end rather than wideout makes sense, given Cam Newton's accuracy issues and downfield throws. Both Henry and Smith are adept-enough blockers to remain on the field at all times, and will be featured in plenty of "jumbo" sets in an effort to justify their contracts. Unfortunately for their Fantasy value, signing both obviously hurts their overall projections and touchdown upside - each will feed into the other's workload. Both Henry and Smith will fall in the TE9-12 range on a weekly basis.
Gerald Everett (Seattle) - Finally out of the shadow of Tyler Higbee and having Russell Wilson tossing him passes is a major boost for Everett, who vaults Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson on Seattle's depth chart. Inked to a one-year, $6 million "prove it" deal, it is curious to see how much he will be utilized on a run-first team that already has multiple established receivers in Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf. Fantasy owners who are banking on a breakout will need to hope that Seattle reverts back to "Let Russ Cook" mode, with 50 passing attempts each week.
Kyle Rudolph (New York Giants) - Rudolph signing with the Giants was a surprise, considering the vocal assurances that Joe Judge and his staff gave to Evan Engram in the offseason. Rudolph is a more sure-handed receiver who is an excellent blocker and runs some of the best "stick" routes over the middle of the field in the league. Before Fantasy players get too excited, Rudolph will need to contend with Engram, Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and Saquon Barkley for targets. That many mouths to feed hinders his upside tremendously. The best-case scenario for Rudolph would be the Giants trading Engram during the NFL draft, and at this point it is difficult to see that happening.