March 22, 2021

2021 NFL Free Agency Grades: Who Got the Best Deal?

The NFL’s free-agency period is off to a rollicking start.

With nearly all of our top free agents signed and off the board, we can take a step back to analyze all of the big-money deals that were thrown around during the legal tampering period and beyond.

We've graded every notable contract from the franchise's standpoint below. 

Let's start with the biggest deal in free agency. 

Dak Prescott

Deal: Four-years, $160M ($126M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

Despite coming off a brutal season-ending leg injury, Dak Prescott had all the leverage in the world — and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knew it. 

But no matter how much the 'Boys ponied up for Prescott it was bound to be a good deal for both sides. 

Prescott got the most guaranteed money in NFL history, and he deserved it. The Cowboys truly realized his value after suffering his gruesome leg injury. Dallas crumbled without their franchise passer as the team struggled with a poor defense and Andy Dalton under center. 

That's all the Jones family needed to see to realize life without Prescott would be a potential hellscape for America's Team. 

If Prescott can get back to his pre-injury form, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He recorded an 85.2 PFF grade last season before getting injured and has displayed the rushing ability and big-time passing plays to thrive as a dual-threat quarterback.

While the deal is pricey, especially from the Cowboys' point of view, it'll look like a bargain in a year or two. 

The Cowboys don't receive a better grade than an A- because they could've gotten a long-term deal done with Prescott years ago for a fraction of the price. 

Aaron Jones

Deal: Four-years, $48M ($13M guaranteed)

Grade: C+

On the surface, it looks like the Packers might've overpaid for a 26-year-old running back. But if you dive a little deeper, this is really a two-year, $20 million contract, which is a bargain compared to other running back deals. (We're looking at you, Cowboys.) 

With the increased pay, Jones will be expected to contribute more this season. The Packers lost Jamaal Williams to the Lions in free agency, but they already have his replacement in second-rounder A.J. Dillon. But Dillon doesn't quite offer the pass-catching prowess of Williams so, theoretically, Jones' workload — especially in the passing game — should increase. 

It'll be tougher sledding in Green Bay without top-tier center Corey Linsley, but Jones should still be able to sign in a less-crowded backfield.

He appears to be a sure-fire first-rounder in fantasy football drafts this season. 

Kenny Golladay

Deal: Four-years, $72M ($40M guaranteed)

Grade: B-

From Kenny Golladay's perspective, this deal is an A+. But, for the Giants, it's a bit of a headscratcher, at least value-wise. 

With a depressed salary cap and a strong incoming rookie receiver class, the wide receiver market was bound to have some frustrated pass catchers. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller couldn't find a market so they decided to take one-year deals. But Golladay was able to secure $18 million per year from the Giants, but was anybody willing to come close to that? 

Smith-Schuster and Fuller both took prove-it deals, so why would the Giants offer the oft-injured Golladay a multi-year deal that pays him top-eight receiver money?

The only conclusion is it's another Dave Gettleman special. 

Daniel Jones will have plenty of offensive weapons, including Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard. But the G-Men still need to upgrade their offensive line. 

Jonnu Smith

Deal: Four-years, $50M ($31.25M guaranteed)

Grade: B+

The Patriots needed to upgrade their offensive weapons and that's exactly what they did in their offseason spending spree. With two signings, the Pats went from having the worst tight end corps in the league to one of the best.

Jonnu Smith should go from an underutilized weapon with the Titans to a featured pass-catcher in the Pats' offense. Smith, one of the most athletic tight ends in the league, should flourish in New England if they can get him the ball. 

Smith is a yard-after-catch monster who has eye-popping speed for someone his size. He could take a pass over the middle on one snap and then take a hand off the next. That's the kind of versatility the Patriots love from their pass catchers. 

Hunter Henry

Deal: Three-years, $37.5M ($25M guaranteed)

Grade: B

When he’s not dealing with a litany of injuries, Hunter Henry is one of the most effective pass catchers at the position. At 6-foot-5, Henry is such a physical presence that there are very few defenders who can match his strength and speed. 

It's a big price to pay for a No. 2 tight end, though. 

Corey Davis

Deal: Three-years, $37.5M ($27M guaranteed)

Grade: B

Corey Davis comes to the Jets after a career-year with the Titans. While he finally lived up to his draft status last year — No. 5 overall in 2017 — the worry is that Davis could be a one-year wonder. 

But Davis' familiarity with the Jets' offense — it's nearly identical to the Arthur Smith offense in Tennessee — should make the former Central Michigan receiver's transition to New York seamless. 

But if Davis does turn out to be a one-hit-wonder, the Jets can get out of the deal in 2022. 

Carl Lawson

Deal: Three-years, $45M ($30M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

The Jets might finally have an edge rusher that teams will have to respect. 

Carl Lawson, just 25, started his career off with a bang when he recorded 8.5 sacks in his rookie season. While his sack numbers fell off since then, he continued to generate impressive pressure toward opposing QB’s.

Over the past two seasons, Lawson ranks 15th among edge rushers in total pressures. 

He should slide right into the Nick Bosa role in Robert Saleh's new defense. And while he's not as talented as the former No. 2 pick, the Jets are hoping he'll offer similar production. 

Curtis Samuel

Deal: Three-years, $34.5M

Grade: B

The Washington Football Team has had a solid offseason. Ryan Fitzpatrick provides a much more stable and potentially game-breaking option than Alex Smith or Dwayne Haskins could have.

But the lack of big plays wasn't just the quarterback's fault in the nation's capital. They desperately needed dynamic pass catchers. 

Enter Curtis Samuel. 

Washington had trouble moving the chains thanks to a subpar pass-catching corps outside of Terry McLaurin, who has blossomed into a star. Samuel is basically a fully realized version of what people think Tavon Austin can be.

He’s a blur with the ball, lethal on jet sweeps and is comfortable taking snaps at running back. He’s also McLaurin’s former Ohio State teammate, and if used correctly, he can add a highlight-reel wrinkle to this offense.

Patrick Peterson

Grade: B+

Patrick Peterson had an amazing run with the Cardinals, but Arizona was ready to move on.

While it’s always a precarious decision to sign a player older than 30, this is a one-year flyer for the Vikes. Peterson has lost a step, sure, but there isn't a better place for him to potentially regain his form than under Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who loves a good reclamation project.

Even though Peterson is coming off a down season, it’s obvious are willing to take a shot on a potential Hall of Famer.

Shaquil Barrett

Deal: Four-years, $68M ($34.25M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

Since joining the Buccaneers last year, Shaquil Barrett put up back-to-back seasons as an elite pass rusher, racking up a ridiculous 27.5 sacks.

In his last two postseason games, he recorded four sacks and eight quarterback hits. This is a big-time pass rusher in the prime of his career, and the Bucs did a great job of not letting him leave town. 

Lavonte David

Deal: Two-years, $25M ($20M guaranteed)

Grade: B

Lavonte David has always been one of the most underrated linebackers in the league, but not to the Bucs.

David has been an iron man who has an incredible ability to sniff out the run game while patrolling the center of the field.

He was phenomenal last season, and re-signing for just two years is a smart bet on the Bucs’ behalf since David is already 31. 

J.J. Watt

Deal: Two-years, $28M ($23M guaranteed)

Grade: B

A future Hall of Famer, J.J. Watt showed last season that he still has plenty in the tank. 

Coming off a respectable season with five sacks and an 85.4 PFF grade, Watt will have a chip on his shoulder and a much better team around him. That could mean a big season is coming for the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Cardinals are paying him like he's still in the prime of his career, though, at $14 million per season. 

Thankfully for Arizona, the deal is only for two years, but Watt will have a lot of pressure on him to carry to pressure the passer in arguably the best division in football. 

A.J. Green

Deal: One-year, $6M ($6M guaranteed)

Grade: C

Watt wasn't the only former superstar that the Cardinals added this offseason. 

Arizona also acquired A.J. Green on a low-risk, fully-guaranteed one-year deal. 

If last year was any indication, the Green is well past his prime thanks to injuries and his advanced age. The Cardinals are hoping that their spread offense can help revitalize seven-time Pro Bowl receiver.

If he can return to his glory days, Green would be a phenomenal fit opposite of DeAndre Hopkins, but we're not expecting that to happen. 

Trent Williams

Deal: Six-years, $138.06M ($55.1M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

According to multiple reports, Trent Williams' six-year extension with the 49ers is technically two separate three-year deals. We know it's very confusing but just roll with it.

Williams was simply the best left tackle in the league last season. He’s a rock in pass protection and in the run game. Just look at this savage hit on a poor unsuspecting defender:

While it's a risk to sign Williams, 33, to a huge deal, the 49ers protected themselves by backloading the deal and separating the extension into two parts. The first three-year deal looks like a bargain at $60.7 million. 

Will Fuller

Deal: One-year, $10.6M ($10M guaranteed)

Grade: B+

Will Fuller inked a one-year, prove-it deal with the Miami Dolphins in the offseason. Due to one game remaining on his PED suspension, he'll make an even $10 million with the 'Fins, which could be the biggest bargain of free agency. 

Fuller is one of the fastest and most explosive receivers in the league. In 11 games last season, he recorded 879 yards and eight touchdowns. 

He might not be in the best landing spot for his talents as Tua Tagovailoa isn't exactly known for his deep passes, but the speedy receiver should help open up the middle of the field and take the top off a defense, at the very least.  

Bud Dupree

Deal: Five-years, $82.5M ($35M guaranteed)

Grade: C+

Despite suffering a season-ending knee injury, Bud Dupree still got the bag.

He’s a physical specimen who has posted incredible sack totals over his career, but the worry is how many of his sacks were because the offense was already worried about T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward?

If Dupree fully recovers from the torn ACL, then he's a huge addition to a Titans defense that is starving for pass rushers. 

Joe Thuney

Deal: Five-years, $80M ($46.9M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

Do you think the Chiefs realized they need to do whatever they have to to protect all-world QB Patrick Mahomes?

After getting beaten to a pulp by the Bucs' fierce pass rushers in the Super Bowl, Mahomes now has some much-needed upgrades on the offensive line. The biggest addition is former Patriots guard Joe Thuney. 

Thuney has been an iron man at the guard position, where he started every single game for the Patriots since being drafted in 2016. While the contract is probably an overpay, it’s worth it if it means Mahomes is more protected.

They also signed guard Kyle Long out of retirement to beef up the interior. 

Trey Hendrickson

Deal: Four-years, $60M ($16M guaranteed)

Grade: C+

The Bengals swapped one pass rusher in for another this offseason. And unfortunately, they downgraded. 

Trey Hendrickson certainly racked up some jaw-dropping stats last season with 13.5 sacks, but his total pressures and pass rush win rate were far more average. According to PFF, almost 80% of Hendrickson’s sacks last year were essentially unblocked and clean-up plays. That doesn’t mean Hendrickson is a bad player, it just means there's no guarantee he can replicate those numbers as defenses key in on him even more.

If Hendrickson is a bust, the Bengals can get out of the deal after only one year. 

John Johnson

Deal: Three-years, $33.75M ($24M guaranteed)

Grade: B+

John Johnson has quietly been one of the best safeties in the league over the past few seasons. He’s excelled as both a run and pass defender and is still just 25.

While eight interceptions over four seasons is nothing crazy, Johnson’s value is in his consistency at a position that is harder to play than ever before. And the Browns were able to sign him to a bargain at just over $11 million per season. 

John Brown

Deal: One-year, $3.75M ($3.24M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

The Raiders make a lot of mistakes, such as decimating their offensive line this offseason, but signing John Brown is one of the savviest moves of the free-agency period.

While Brown is on the wrong side of 30, he still displayed game-breaking speed last season in Buffalo. 

He should be an upgrade — and cheaper replacement — to Nelson Agholor while the Raiders continue to develop lackluster rookies Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards. 

Corey Linsley

Deal: Five-years, $62.5M ($26M guaranteed)

Grade: A-

The Packers brought back Aaron Jones, but they'll dearly miss their elite center, Corey Linsley, who departed for the Chargers this offseason.

Linsley was the top-rated center in the NFL, according to PFF. He allowed only one sack last season and has continued to improve throughout his career.

At 29, it’s fair to wonder how many more effective years left he has, and that’s why the grade is an A-.

William Jackson


Grade: B

Sure, William Jackson has had some uneven play over his last few seasons, he’s still been a solid corner who has shown periodic flashes of dominance.

At 28, Jackson still has a few quality years left in him, and he’s only played four seasons thus far. He should be a huge addition to Washington, who boast arguably the best defense in the NFL. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration