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NFL Free Agency: Reactions and Grades from Tampering Period Day One

Jonnu Smith

The NFL offseason has just started and already it has not disappointed! Even though teams could not officially sign free agents on March 15th, they could agree to contracts with free agents that would be signed later this week. NFL Free agency officially started March 17th at 4 pm EST. At that time free agents could officially sign with teams and prior trades can be made official.

Now that some time has passed since these signings have happened it the right time to evaluate and react to them. Some of the biggest factors to consider when reacting and grading a free agent signing are the player-team fit, whether that player fills a need for the team, and how large of a contract that team offers that player. All of those factors were considered when grading the free-agent signings listed below. Here are the grades of the signings from the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period.

[Signings made prior to 12:00 am EST on March 16th be mentioned below]

Blockbuster Signings

Kevin Zeitler signs a 3 year $22.5 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens

Before the window for teams to talk to free agents opened up at 12:00 pm (EST) recently cut Kevin Zeitler signed with the Baltimore Ravens. One of the largest weaknesses on the Ravens roster was the interior of their offensive line. After Marshall Yanda retired last season the Ravens did not do much to fill that void. Zeitler is a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber interior offensive lineman who is great in run blocking and pass protection. The Ravens filled one of their largest needs with one of the best talents available at the position. On top of that Zeitler will now play for the third AFC North team in his career.

Grade: A

Shaquil Barrett signs a 4 year $72 million deal to remain with Tampa Bay

Shaquil Barrett

Early in free agency the Tampa Bay Buccaneers retained one of their most important players Shaquil Barrett. (Steve Luciano/Associated Press)

In outstanding fashion, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to retain most of the major free agents and ‘keep the band together. After Chris Godwin was franchise tagged, there was a possibility Barrett would sign elsewhere. However, the Buccaneers got a deal done with Barrett and paid him market value. He is such an important piece to Todd Bowles‘s defense they couldn’t let him walk out and he didn’t. The Super Bowl Champions hold onto their best pass rusher.

Grade: A

Romeo Okwara stays in Detroit after signing a 3 year $39 million deal with the Lions

Even though Detroit has brought in a new coaching staff they felt it was important to hold onto their sack leader from a season ago. Romeo Okwara led the Lions in sacks with ten this past season. The next highest sack total on the team was 3.5 by Everson Griffen. Detroit needs a lot of help on defense, but it was very important for them to retain one of their best players on that side of the ball. Hopefully for Detroit Okwara’s success from this next season could be the new norm for him versus a flash in the pan.

Grade: B+

The New England Patriots sign Jonnu Smith to a 4 year $50 million deal

Jonnu Smith joins the team that his former head coach Mike Vrabel spent the majority of his career the New England Patriots. It is unlikely that Smith becomes the new Gronk in New England, but he is a huge upgrade over what the team had at the position this past season. Matt Lacosse was nothing special and third-round draft picks rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene weren’t great either this season. It is extremely likely that the Patriot’s offense flows through Smith this season. He could easily lead the team in receptions in 2021. The only concerning part about this signing is that New England gave $12.5 Million a year to a tight end who has never reached 500 receiving yards in a single season.

Grade: A-

Matthew Judon joins the New England Patriots after signing a 4 year $66 million deal

If there is one coach in the NFL that can unlock the potential of Matthew Judon it is the greatest defensive coach in NFL History Bill Belichick. After lacking a consistent pass rush last season New England paid for one of the best edge rushers on the market in Judon. After racking up 9.5 sacks for the Ravens in 2019, Judon had only 6 this past season. However, Judon will no longer have to rotate as frequently as he did in Baltimore in New England. For the Patriots, Judon will be their feature pass rusher. Belichick is likely creating plays to take advantage of Judons skill set at this moment.

Grade: A

Jason Verrett signs a 1-year prove-it deal to remain in San Fransisco

It was shocking to hear that Jason Verrett turned down a long-term deal to take a $5.5 Million contract to stay with the 49ers. But Verrett’s decision does make sense. In Richard Sherman‘s absence, Verrett played outstanding. The only red flag on Verrett has been his health. If Verrett can show teams in 2021 that he can stay healthy and play like one of the best cornerbacks in football he should earn a huge contract in 2022. This is also huge for the 49ers whose top three cornerbacks on their depth chart were all free agents this offseason.

Grade: A-

Joe Thuney signs a 5 year $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs

Joe Thuney
The Kansas City Chiefs started their offensive line rebuild by signing former All-Pro Joe Thuney. (Courtesy of Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Many were confused when the Kansas City Cheifs cut both starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. However, after making some more moves to obtain cap space Kansas City made a major splash and added one of the best offensive linemen in football. Kansas City signed former All-Pro guard Joe Thuney to join their outstanding offense and protect Patrick Mahomes. Between Thuney and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif Mahomes should feel very comfortable from the middle of the pocket for next year and beyond.

Grade: A

John Johnson III joins the Cleveland Browns after signing a 3 year $33.78 million deal

This past season the Los Angeles Rams had four starting-caliber safeties on their roster between John Johnson III, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller, and Terrell Burgess. Since Johnson was a free agent this offseason he was the odd man out and hit the market. The Cleveland Browns are an interesting destination for Johnson to land because even though they shouldn’t be entirely comfortable with their starting safeties, they did not need to invest this much money into the position with other larger needs on their roster. Cleveland already has Ronnie Harrison who played well last season after being acquired from Jacksonville and 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. This does not take away from Johnson who is an outstanding player. The Browns possibly should have invested that money into a pass rusher to play opposite Myles Garrett or a field general at linebacker over Johnson.

Grade: B

The Los Angeles Chargers signs Corey Linsley a 5 year $62.5 million deal

The Chargers offensive line already needed a lot of help before Mike Pouncey retired this offseason. It was apparent that the Charger’s first priority this offseason was to replace Pouncey. They did so with Linsley who was named First-Team All-Pro this past season. Linsley was by far the best center in football this past season only allowing four pressures and one sack all year. Even though the Chargers reset the center market with this signing it was a great value from a team that needs to add a lot of protection for the offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert.

Grade: A

Samson Ebukam remains in the NFC West after signing a 2 year $12 million deal with the San Fransisco 49ers

What comes to mind when evaluating this signing are the questions where and why. Where will the 49ers play Samson Ebukam and why did they sign him with other major needs across their roster. Ebukam is very versatile he is a hybrid edge-rushing linebacker that could rush the passer and be trusted in coverage. The 49ers could line up Ebukam with his hand in the dirt at defensive end on passing downs and stand him up at linebacker with Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw on early downs. In either instance, he is a threat to either drop back in coverage or rush the quarterback. However, this signing doesn’t make much sense because the 49ers already have so much talent up front in Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, and Dee Ford and two capable starting linebackers in a league that requires only two linebackers on the field in a nickel set a majority of the time on defense.

Grade: B-

Yannick Ngakoue signs with the Las Vegas Raiders for 2 years $26 Million

Yannick Ngakoue
The Las Vegas Raiders hope Yannick Ngakoue gives them the pass rush they have lacked for a number of years. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

The Las Vegas Raiders hope they found their answer at edge rusher. Since trading Khalil Mack in 2018 the Raiders have been one of the worst teams in the NFL at getting after the quarterback. Maxx Crosby led the team in sacks for the second year in a row with seven, but linebacker Nicholas Morrow had the second highest with three, and defensive ends Carl Nassib and Clelin Ferrell had under three sacks as well. Yannick Ngakoue immediately becomes the Raiders best pass rusher and puts pressure on Clelin Ferrell to perform next season. Since getting taken fourth overall in 2019, Ferrell has been extremely disappointing and the Raiders must decide on his fifth-year option following next season. Returning to a 4-3 defensive scheme bodes well for Ngakoue who struggled in a 3-4 last season in Baltimore. He could have the opportunity to return to double-digit sacks for the first time since 2017 in Las Vegas. It was shocking to see Ngakoue take a short deal considering all the movement he has had around the league in the past calendar year.

Grade: A-

The New England Patriots add Nelson Agholor after signing him to a 2 year $26 Million

Just about one year ago the Las Vegas Raiders took a chance on Nelson Agholor and signed him to a one-year veteran minimum deal ($1.047 Million). After becoming the Raider’s number one (wide) receiver last season Agholor had a career year and showed the promise he had when the Eagles selected him in the first round in 2015. This contract is enough to put Agholor at the top of the Patriots depth chart at wide receiver. New England desperately needs to add speed to their offense and just found it in Agholor who is considered one of the league’s better deep threats. The biggest part of this deal that stands out is that they paid Agholor $13 million per year. To put into perspective Agholor will be making $1.4 Million less than the NFL’s leading receiver from a season ago Stefon Diggs. This might have been an overpay considering the talented players that were still available as well despite the need.

Grade: B

 Leonard Floyd stays in Los Angeles after signing a 4 year $64 million deal with the Rams

Somehow the Los Angeles Rams managed to retain Leonard Floyd. For the second time in his career the New York Giants were interested in adding Floyd but then was scooped from them right before they could get him. Floyd had a career-high 10.5 sacks playing on Los Angeles’ elite defense. Their defense plays a lot better when they have a reliable edge rusher that could take enough attention away from Aaron Donald. Maybe being a part of a team like the Rams long term is exactly what Floyd needs to get his career back on track.

Grade: A-

The Denver Broncos sign Ronald Darby to a 3 year $30 million deal

Ronald Darby
Ronald Darby fills a need for the Denver Broncos for a starting-caliber cornerback. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)

After taking a chance on Ronald Darby a season ago the Washington Football team was ready to resign him long term. Then the Denver Broncos swept Darby away leaving a void at cornerback in Washington. The Broncos have been inconsistent at cornerback for a few seasons now. Last offseason Chris Harris Jr. left for Los Angeles and Denver traded a fifth-round pick for A.J. Bouye who only played seven games for them last season before getting cut this offseason. Darby is reaching his peak at 27 years old and is coming off one of his best seasons as a Pro. Adding Darby doesn’t take cornerback off their list of needs, but does allow them to be more flexible with their first-round pick this year.

Grade: B+

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers retain Rob Gronkowski on a 1 year $10 million deal

The most shocking signing in free agency! Just kidding, this was likely the surest thing to happen this offseason. Back in his Patriots days, Rob Gronkowski threatened to retire if he was traded to a team that didn’t feature Tom Brady (Detroit Lions). Even though, according to Michael Silver of NFL Network, Gronkowski did consider a similar offer from his hometown Buffalo Bills before staying in Tampa. Gronkowski returning to Tampa Bay means that the Buccaneer’s offense should look similar to last season. Even though he was not the player he was earlier in New England he is still an important piece of their offense and dangerous red-zone threat. The part of this signing that is the most shocking is how much he signed for. It seemed more likely that Gronkowski would sign a cheaper deal to remain in Tampa Bay in order to keep all their major free agents.

Grade: A-

Corey Davis signs a 3 year $37.5 million deal with the New York Jets

There was a lot of speculation the last couple of weeks on which free-agent wide receiver the Jets were going to add. After a couple of hours of free agency, the Jets have their answer. The Jets signed 2017 fifth overall pick Corey Davis. Despite having the tools and traits to make it as a premier receiver in the NFL, Davis had struggled in Tennesee until this past season. During 2020-21, Davis fell just short of 1,000 receiving yards but had career highs in receptions and touchdowns. If there is one thing Kyle Shanahan and his offensive staff has done well in San Fransisco the last couple of years its turn pass catchers with outstanding traits into stars. So there is the potential that former 49ers passing game coordinator and current Jets offensive coordinator can give Davis the opportunity to assert himself as a true number one receiver in New York. This was a risky signing with a lot of better options left on the board. But this has the potential to be one of the best.

Grade: B+

Bud Dupree joins the Tennesee Titans after signing a 5 year $85 Million deal

Bud Dupree
After lacking a pass rush in 2020-21 the Tennessee Titans have brought in Bud Dupree to resolve that issue. (Courtesy of Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

After the first day of free agency, it is fair to say that the Tennesee Titans appear to have the necessary pieces to generate a lot better of a pass rush than they did this past season. One of (if not the) largest reasons why Tennesee should be a lot better at getting after the quarterback next season is because they added Bud Dupree. During the eleven games, Dupree played last season he had eight sacks. The season prior Dupree had 11.5 sacks in a full season. Dupree is fully capable of being a team’s number one pass rusher, he has just been spoiled playing opposite T.J. Watt for the past four seasons. The Titans pass rush will feature Dupree, Harold Landry, and newly signed Denico Autry. That trio should keep quarterbacks of the AFC South uncomfortable for a long period of time.

Grade: A

The New York Jets sign Carl Lawson to a 3 year $45 million deal

The Jets made another huge move by signing Carl Lawson to a huge contract. Lawson hasn’t put up the sack numbers that many of the other top free-agent edge rushers have. But some of that is because he was a rotational player until this season. It is also because Lawson’s value primarily comes from pressuring the quarterback and defending against the run. Lawson will now be a starter next season in New York and could have a career year. He is joining a defensive line with a few talented interior defensive tackles. Robert Saleh has had a lot of success with defensive lineman over the years. The Jets are banking on the fact that Saleh can make Lawson worth this contract.

Grade: B+

Jameis Winston returns to the New Orleans Saints on a 1 year $12 million deal

Jameis Winston finally has his chance at redemption. New Orleans has resigned Winston to be their starter next season. While Taysom Hill is expected to have a similar role as he had last season when Drew Brees was healthy. This falls on Sean Payton to unlock the best elements of the former first overall picks game and limit his turnovers. In his last full season as a starter, Winston threw 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns. However, he did also throw 30 interceptions. This prove it deal is beneficial for both sides. Winston can prove that he is still a starting NFL caliber quarterback and if he does he will likely become the Saints full-time starter. But if Winston doesn’t play well in the role they could easily move on from him and look towards the future.

Grade: A-

Trey Hendrickson signs a 4 year $60 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals

Shortly after losing Carl Lawson the Cincinnati Bengals replaced him with the player who tied Aaron Donald for the second-most sacks in the league with 13.5. In his first season as a full-time starter not only led the talented New Orleans Saints in sacks but almost led the entire league. Hendrickson brings the sack production that the Bengals defensive lineman (including Lawson) has struggled to produce in recent years. A defensive line made up of Hendrickson, Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader, and Sam Hubbard sounds like they have the potential to make offensive coordinators and quarterbacks sweat in 2021.

Grade: A

The Minnesota Vikings sign Dalvin Tomlinson to a 2 year $22 million deal

For the second season in a row, the Minnesota Vikings are adding one of the best free-agent defensive tackles. The Vikings were a mess at defending the run last season but that was because they let go of Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen. On top of that the bug run-stuffing defensive tackle they signed Michael Pierce opted out of the 2020 season. Now the Vikings have two of the best run defenders in the league at the middle of their defensive line eating space helping Danielle Hunter get into the backfield. Slowly but surely the Vikings defense is in the process of returning to prominence.

Grade: A-

Ryan Fitzpatrick continues his career with the Washington Football Team

Ryan Fitzpatrick
Washington appears to be a playoff contender again after signing Ryan Fitzpatrick. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

Rumors started to emerge about potential retirement, but Ryan Fitzpatrick will play in the NFL for at least one more season for the Washington Football team. In Washington Fitzpatrick is expected to compete for the starting job with Taylor Heinicke. But it is very unlikely that Fitzpatrick is not the week one starter. For starters, Washington gave him $10 million to play for them this season. This is a perfect fit for Fitzpatrick because Washington was a playoff team that needed a spark at quarterback to potentially repeat as NFC East champions and maybe more. Fitzpatrick is exactly the type of player Washington needs at quarterback next season.

Grade: A

Other Signings From that Day

Markus Golden resigns with the Arizona Cardinals for 2 years $9 million: B+
Pat Eflien signs a 3 year $13.5 million deal with the Carolina Panthers: C+
Cam Erving signs a 2 year $10 million deal with the Carolina Panthers: C
Davon Godchaux signs a 2 year $16 million deal with the New England Patriots: A-
Andre Roberts signs a 2 year $5.95 million deal with the Houston Texans: B-
Kamu Grugier-Hill signs a 1 year $3.25 million deal with the Houston Texans: B
Roy Robertson-Harris signs a 3 year $24.4 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars: C
Jamal Agnew signs a 3 year $21 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars: B+
Rudy Ford signs a 2 year $4.2 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars: B
Chris Board resigns with the Baltimore Ravens for 1 year $2.683 million: B
Jarrad Davis signs a 1 year $7 million deal with the New York Jets: B+
Jalen Reeves-Maybin resigns with the Detroit Lions for 1 year $2.239 million: B
Deatrich Wise resigns with the New England Patriots for 4 years $30: A-
Maliek Collins signs a 1 year $6 million deal with the Houston Texans: B+
Shelby Harris resigns with the Denver Broncos for 3 years $27 million: A
Cameron Sutton resigns with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 2 years $9 million: B+
Michael Davis resigns with the Los Angeles Chargers for 3 years $15 million: A-
James Hurst signs a 3 year $9 million deal with the New Orleans Saints: B-
Austin Johnson resigns with the New York Giants for 1 year $3 million: B
Terrance Brooks signs with the Houston Texans for 1 year $2 million: B
Justin McCray signs with the Houston Texans for 2 years $4 million: B
Dawaune Smoot resigns with the Jacksonville Jaguars for 2 years $14 million: B+
Joe Thomas signs a 1 year $2 million deal with the Houston Texans: B
Vincent Taylor signs a 1 year $2 million deal with the Houston Texans: B
Kendrick Bourne signs a 3 year $22.5 million deal with the New England Patriots: B+
Phillip Dorsett signs with the Jacksonville Jaguars: B+
Rayshawn Jenkins signs a 4 year $35 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars: B-
Carlos Hyde signs a 2 year $6 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars: B+
Denico Autry signs a 3 years $21.5 million deal with the Tennesee Titans: A
Henry Anderson signs a 2 year $7 million deal with the New England Patriots: B+
Devontae Booker signs a 2 year $7 million deal with the New York Giants: A-
Matt Feiler signs a 3 year $21 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers: A-
Kendall Lamm signs a 2 year $8.5 million deal with the Tennesee Titans: B-
Kevin Pierre-Louis signs a 2 year $8 million deal with the Houston Texans: B+
Nick Vigil signs a 1 year $1.75 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings: B+

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