We’ll be grading and analyzing all (or at least most) moves during the 2021 free agency period. The space below is for moves that have been made before the official start of free agency and the legal tampering period. We’ve already seen a number of moves, both for re-signings and teams getting ahead of the curve by bringing in veterans who were released by other teams.
Kevin Zeitler Signs With The Baltimore Ravens
Reported deal: Three years/$22.5 million with $16 million guaranteed
As a 31-year-old, Zeitler was a luxury that couldn’t be afforded by the rebuilding New York Giants, but he’s a perfect fit for the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens still had a good offensive line in 2020 — eighth in Pass Block Win Rate and fourth in Run Block Win Rate, according to ESPN — but there are some changes on the horizon. Orlando Brown wants a trade to a team that will play him at left tackle, which will create a void on the right side for the Ravens.
Zeitler was able to hold down the right side at guard with the Giants working next to veterans like Cameron Flemins and rookies such as third-round pick Matt Peart. Zeitler was one of just two guards with at least 400 snaps to have an adjusted blown block rate under 1% in both pass blocking and run blocking, along with Ali Marpet of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Both Bradley Bozeman and Ben Powers finished in the top-10 of Run Block Win Rate as guards, but the addition of Zeitler gives the Ravens an upgrade pass blocking and opens up some flexibility to move other pieces around as the structure of the line gets worked out.
This is also an impact move for Baltimore that won’t impact their compensatory pick formula, since Zeitler was released. Few teams have done more work with comp picks and the Ravens recently got the equivalent of a late-third-round pick in this year’s draft.
Kyle Shanahan Loves Kyle Juszczyk
Reported deal: Five years/$27 million
Juszczyk and the 49ers are in a position where they are more valuable to each other than to anyone else. That could bump up the price for a position most teams don’t pay for but it’s also an argument that no other team would come close to offering Juszczyk what the 49ers have over his past two contracts.
By average value, Jusczyk will make over $5 million per year. No other fullback is over $4 million and only two others are over $2 million. With no guarantees reported in the deal, there could much less long-term investment than a five-year deal would indicate for a soon-to-be 30-year-old fullback but there is still going to be more money coming Juszczyk’s way than any other player at his position.
No team runs two-back sets more than the 49ers and Juszczyk has been a significant part of that, both on the ground and through the air. Last season, there was just as big of a dip in passing performance as there was in the run game when Juszczyk was off the field.
Kyle Juszczyk On/Off Splits, 2020
San Francisco also uses more motion (85% to 66%) and more play-action (63% to 22%) when Juszczyk is on the field. The fullback also serves as Kyle Shanahan’s muse for his most ridiculous designs.
The Kyle Shanahaniest play, opening up Kyle Juszczyk for 20 yards from the slot pic.twitter.com/BwASMU0Xw6
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) December 1, 2020
Still, on a team that is set to lose a number of defensive starters, it’s hard to imagine paying a premium for a fullback when no other team would have come close to doing the same.
Grade: C-, even on a curve
Aaron Jones Re-Signs With Green Bay Packers
Reported deal: Four years/$48 million with $13 million signing bonus
We’re going to do our best to avoid a full dissertation on running back value. That’s not fun for anyone involved. In a vacuum, the Jones extension isn’t that bad for the Packers. Jones is still only 26 years old and hasn’t been worked like a bell-cow back with loads of carries into the middle of the line of scrimmage. The Packers also don’t typically guarantee more than the signing bonus, so it’s likely there isn’t much more than the $13 million guaranteed on the deal, which would allow the Packers to cut bait should Jones fall off the second-contract cliff.
If a team were to identify the type of back to offer a second contract to, Jones would fit the description. He’s a young back who has the ability to impact the passing game. He was also relatively efficient on the ground, ranked seventh in EPA per carry among 47 running backs with at least 100 carries on the season. Part of that could be the run scheme, which was based on the successful wide-zone concepts of the Shanahan-McVay tree. Center Corey Linsley finished as the best run-blocking center by Run Block Win Rate and he is all but guaranteed to move on in free agency.
It’s also hard to grade the Jones deal without the context of last offseason for the Packers, especially in regards to the NFL Draft. Jordan Love and AJ Dillon were Green Bay’s first two draft picks, taken to set up the future. As recently as last week, the Dillon pick was viewed as confirmation that Jones would not be back with the Packers after the 2020 season. Now with Green Bay keeping the offensive core together, the high investment cost will already take another hit with Dillon being no more than a rotational back on the second year of a four-year rookie deal.
Again, in a vacuum each pick is defensible. But given the finite nature of picks and resources, it’s harder to justify using those assets in the way the Packers have over the past year. Obviously, it can still work out just fine for Green Bay, but other paths could have led to a better destination.
The Patriots Bring Back Cam Newton
Reported deal: One-year/$5 million base with $9 million worth of incentives
Just like last year’s initial signing of Newton in New England, this deal comes with little to no risk. After initial reports of a $14 million deal, it was revealed that was the potential total worth of the contract is all incentives, such as Pro Bowls and Super Bowl wins, were hit. With just a $5 million base salary, Newton will be paid as more of a high-level backup and his 2021 cap hit is currently below the likes of Chase Daniel and Nick Foles.
This leaves the Patriots with options should they bring in another quarterback, likely a rookie, for competition. It’s hard to see the value of bringing in a Ryan Fitzpatrick or trading back for Jimmy Garoppolo would add.
Newton’s 2020 was a unique season within a unique season. He started out looking like a potential top-10 quarterback as the offense was structured around the quarterback run game. Then Newton got COVID, missed a game, and was never the same upon his return. But, to understand what Newton could potentially bring in 2021 is to properly understand his 2020 season.
There is a false perception that Newton’s arm strength and accuracy diminished last season, likely due to his shoulder injury from 2019. But that was not the case. The deep arm was fine. Per Sports Info Solutions, Newton ranked fourth in both completion percentage and on-target percentage on throws that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. But without a legitimate deep threat — Newton’s top-two targets in that area of the field were Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers — only 27% of his throws were at least at that depth, below the league average of 29%. Just 16.5% of his passes traveled more than 15 yards down the field, well below the 19% league average.
The biggest problem was the short game, where the volume, Newton’s accuracy, and the lack of quick separation failed the passing game. Newton ranked 36th of 36 quarterbacks in on-target percentage and 30th in completion percentage on throws between 1-10 air yards. Separation didn’t come quickly from Patriots receivers, even though separation and depth of target are negatively correlated (it’s easier to get open on shorter routes).
With a full offseason to work (Newton didn’t sign with the Patriots until late-June last season) and cap space to add offensive weapons, there’s is a much better starting point for the 2021 season.
It should also be noted that Newton won’t turn 32 years old until May, which is a younger age than Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, and Matthew Stafford.
Bills Re-Sign Trio Of Matt Milano, Daryl Williams, and Jon Feliciano
Milano: Four years/$41.5 million with $23.5 million guaranteed
Williams: Three years/$28.2 million with $14 million guaranteed
Feliciano: Three years/$17 million
The Bills did a lot of work before free agency officially started by brining back a number of their key contributors. The biggest, of course, was Milano, who was expected to be out of Buffalo’s price range as the top player set to hit the market as his position. But it was reported Milano wanted to get a deal done to stay in Buffalo — at a price that was below what he could have gotten had he tested free agency.
Milano has been a great modern off-ball linebacker, one with the speed and instincts to both get downhill and stay in coverage. Over the past two seasons, Buffalo has been among the league leaders in the use of nickel personnel on defense because of how much they trust Milano and Tremaine Edmunds in the middle of the field.
Buffalo stayed in nickel on 91% of its defensive snaps in 2020 and it was a massive difference when Milano was on the field. On/off splits can be noisy in football, but when it’s hard to ignore when they’re stark for an every-down player over a number of games. Without Milano, the Bills were about the same in run defense by EPA per play, but were a much worse pass defense (negative is better for defense).
Matt Milano On/Off Spilts, 2020
The deal will average just over $10 million, which doesn’t rest the market or even get to where the Buccaneers re-signed Lavonte David. Milano also only got $3.5 million more guaranteed.
For the offensive lineman, both Feliciano and Williams were buy-low options that worked out tremendously. Felicano was a two-year deal from 2019 and Williams was a one-year deal this past offseason. Together they helped play as one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines in the league for one of the pass-heaviest offenses. Buffalo ranked fourth in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate.
But, those same offensive linemen paired for one of the worst run-blocking lines in the league — 29th in Run Block Win Rate. That led general manager Brandon Beane to say after the season that the Bills needed to run the ball better. There’s a huge difference between running the ball better and running the ball more and Buffalo clearly needs to do the former. The hope now is with all five starting offensive linemen returning for 2021, that investment will help in all areas.
Grade: B’s all around.
Lavonte David Re-Signs With Bucs
Reported deal: Two years/$25 million
David’s deal is as much about the Buccaneers wanting to keep the band together as much as how they’re trying to keep the band together. David’s two-year deal comes with three voidable years that will stretch the signing bonus out over more years than the contract to create immediate cap space, with just a $3.5 million hit for David in 2021. While teams like the New Orleans Saints have been on the forefront of voidable years to create space now, the Buccaneers have long been one of the cleanest teams in terms of keeping future dead money off the books.
Now with Tom Brady (he also signed a pseudo-extension with added void years), a veteran roster in win-now mode, and a unique cap year expected to boom again starting in 2022, the Buccaneers are willing to push some money into the future for more immediate help.
On the field, David has been one of the league’s most underrated players and his ability to handle all responsibilities in the middle of the field has been a huge asset to a defense that has ranked sixth and fifth in DVOA over the past two seasons as more pieces have been put around him.
David’s signing will also give the Buccaneers more freedom with the development of Devin White. White is one of the league’s most athltheic linebackers, who can tackle from sideline to sideline and is one of the best blizting linebackers in the league. However, he can still be a liability in coverage. With David next to him, that will be less of a concern.
J.J. Watt Shocks In Arizona
Reported deal: Two years/$31 million with $23 guaranteed
Watt was the first big surprise of the offseason. With a non-guaranteed $17 million cap hit for 2021, he didn’t make sense for a rebuilding Houston Texans team. With Watt on the market as a nearly 32-year-old (he’ll turn 32 on March 22), it seemed likely Watt would take a short, below-market deal to play for a contender. Neither of those things happened, depending on how you view the outlook of the 2021 Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona quietly finished 10th in defensive DVOA in 2020. An argument could certainly be made that the Cardinals’ ranking would mean it’s more pressing to fill holes in an offense that was just 19th in offensive DVOA, but Arziona would need to replace free agent losses along the defensive line regardless. Both Haason Reddick and Markus Golden are slated to be free agents and both had impressive performances off the edge.
Last year in Houston, Watt was the most double-teamed edge rusher but still finished eighth in Pass Rush Win Rate, according to ESPN. Watt shouldn’t be double-teamed nearly as often with a returning Chandler Jones across from him. Watt could also move inside more often to help create pressure against interior linemen, with him and Jones on the same side of the line.
The deal likely puts Arizona out of the market to re-sign Reddick, but Golden, who had a better pressure rate after his midseason trade, could still come back at a more affordable price. It’s also likely the effort given to bring in Watt is just the first of a few major moves the Cardinals plan on taking to improve the team and take advantage of Kyler Murray on his rookie contract. More offensive line help or a true No. 2 receiver with speed could be on the way.