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2021 NFL free agency: Biggest moves/non-moves

Have we evolved?

Don't bank on it.

Free agency does something funny to the Football Industrial Complex. We can't help but equate hyperactive teams handing out satchels of money to players other clubs didn't want as a sign of competence and future success.

Two years ago, flowery words were draped on the Jaguars after they dropped $50.125 million guaranteed on Nick Foles. The ex-Philly hero broke his collarbone in the opener and ultimately lost his job to Gardner Minshew II, a sixth-round rookie whose $685,884 price tag amounted to 1.4 percent of the guarantees promised to Foles.

That same open-market bum-rush saw the Raiders acquire Antonio Brown from the Steelers for a third- and fifth-rounder. Arriving in Oakland as an off-field super-nuisance, Brown sat at the epicenter of an exhausting, six-month anti-drama that ended with his September release. On his way out of town, Brown waved farewell to the Raiders with a tweet that declared: "The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth."

That same March frenzy saw Brown's teammate, Le'Veon Bell, land with Gang Green. My words on the much-ballyhooed signing were the opposite of a prophecy:

The Jets have doubled as a raging snooze fest for ages, so who can argue with the $35 million guaranteed Venmo'd to Le'Veon Bell? He's a sensational talent who gives second-year passer Sam Darnold a top-shelf weapon at less than what Todd Gurley costs.

Nailed it.

Anyway, we're back here all over again, with me sitting down at my little keyboard to tap out the free agency happenings -- and non-happenings -- that matter most. This time around, though, let's remember that most of this business is destined to wind up a gory disaster.


The Super Bowl-winning Bucs remain the Super Bowl-winning Bucs: I prefaced this piece with a rash of cynical jabs at the hot-and-cold nature of free agency. None of that applies to Tampa's maneuverings.

Tagging the team's top wideout in Chris Godwin was wise. Bringing back beloved linebacker Lavonte David and pass-rushing wonder Shaquil Barrett (with 27.5 sacks over the past two years) illustrates to every human inside the building how deadly serious general manager Jason Licht is about going back-to-back. The kicker's staying around, too, as Ryan Succop agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal. The cherry on top is Rob Gronkowski returning for another campaign after he surged down the stretch and sizzled against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. It's not over, either, with the club engaged in chats to bring back wideout Antonio Brown, behemoth Ndamukong Suh and good ol' Leonard Fournette.

Extending Tom Brady through 2022 opened up a prairie land of cap space and helped pull plenty of these levers. The decision to run it back with this clique of Lombardi-winning stars was about as difficult as NBC executives wondering if it made sense to green light a second season of Friends.

Belichick goes bonkers: I'm completely convinced the Patriots will either a) organize an aggressive trade up for a quarterback in the top 10 of the coming draft or b) acquire Deshaun Watson. Their actions are nothing short of a table-setting operation. I simply don't buy Cam Newton as the lead chef.

Even if Cam plays, though, the offense is reborn on paper after adding the market's top two tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Fantasy Heads might hate seeing two breakout candidates eating off each other's plates, but the real-world implications are juicy. Instead of hoping Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene and/or Ryan Izzo become operable, the Patriots now roll with the most intriguing tight end grouping in the NFL. A combined $56 million in guarantees puts Smith and Henry under the radar, but they'll have help from the wideout position.

Nelson Agholor's two-year, $22 million deal looks fine if New England is paying for the productive deep threat who thrived with Derek Carr in Vegas -- and not the drop-prone character who fizzled out in Philly. Kendrick Bourne is a player who improved over four seasons with the Niners and offers much-needed depth.

On defense, the team grew bulkier up front, with Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson beside a proven quarterback-annoyer in Matt Judon. Is it lazy of me to simply assume Bill Belichick will milk the most out of any piece he adds on that side of the ball?

Belichick deserves credit for winning seven games last season with a hollow, impotent offense. He sees an AFC East around him that grows mightier by the month, no longer housing a trio of trash bags for the Pats to pummel. He turns 69 next month. No matter what he feels about Brady in Tampa, no way does the greatest coach on Earth accept the concept of another tough-on-the-eyes 7-9 breakdown.

New England's biggest move, I do believe, is yet to come.

Jets complete Phase 1 of a monstrous offseason: Slinging arrows at Gang Green has doubled as a cottage industry for plenty of hobby-horse chucklers on Twitter. The jokes cease with Robert Saleh taking over as coach. Players adore him. He demands accountability. His results last season with a hyper-banged-up Niners defense served as an acid test. Saleh passed with flying colors. I trust him to maximize newly added pass rusher Carl Lawson, who arrives via a three-year, $45 million pact with $30 million in guarantees.

Corey Davis rounds out a wideout room featuring Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder. The Jets might lack a genuine No. 1, but the hope is that Mims can become that brand of gem. Davis hasn't equaled his draft pedigree (fifth overall in 2017), but he's a big-bodied, 6-foot-3 target coming off his best season (65/984/5) in Tennessee.

Here's the thing: New York's offense will operate as a spinoff of the Kyle Shanahan playbook used to pound enemies on the ground and scheme wideouts open. It's unclear who'll be under center for coordinator Mike LaFleur, but the Jets have the draft picks and position (No. 2 overall) to lure away Deshaun Watson from Houston while giving the Texans a pathway to a fresh start under center. Or you stay home, grab Zach Wilson and fly into new horizons.

Aaron Jones stays home: I harbor no issues with the four-year, $48 million payday. The $13 million in guaranteed loot is manageable. Jones is a force of nature, with 30 touchdowns over the past two campaigns and a career yards-per-carry mark (5.2) that sits fifth among all runners since 1960. There's no reason AJ Dillon can't play a bigger role, too, with Jamaal Williams landing in Detroit. Besides, that departure only means more work through the air for Jones on a Packers teams itching to bring Aaron Rodgers back to the Super Bowl threshold.

Ryan Fitzpatrick positioned as WFT's starter: My first job out of college was inserting metal strips into books in the basement of New York City's Columbia University Library. I easily topped nine jobs over the following 16 years -- many of them deeply absurd arrangements -- but Ryan Fitzpatrick joining his ninth squad in that same length of time? What a delightful nomad! He grows friskier with each new autumn and was simply too effective to sit behind Tua Tagovailoa without Dolphins fans asking pointed questions. I adore Fitzy. I don't trust anyone who doesn't. I do wonder, though, if Ron Rivera is too comfortable with these aging veteran types. The Football Team should aggressively seek a quarterback in the draft who can sit behind the most alluring bridge passer of the 21st century.

Curtis Samuel also zooming to D.C.: What's not to like? Samuel could land anywhere in 2021 and turn heads. Brainy Carolina play-caller Joe Brady unleashed the versatile asset last season with dazzling moments on terra firma and through the air. He wound up as the league's only player with 200-plus rushing yards and 800-plus receiving. Samuel reunites with coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Scott Turner. Can they get as much out of him as Brady did? The presence of a premier wideout in Terry McLaurin helps, as does spicy tight end Logan Thomas. Fitzpatrick adores winging the ball to and fro, so Samuel should see plenty of looks while adding jet-sweep intrigue on the ground.

Jameis + Taysom = True Love Forever?: I wouldn't rule out the Saints pulling a first-round shocker in the draft. Likely? No. But plugged-in beat reporter Jeff Duncan suggested on the Around the NFL Podcast that New Orleans could grab a rookie passer despite the presence of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in a post-Drew Brees universe.

Still, Sean Payton seems genuinely jazzed up to unleash Winston and Hill in a camp competition for all the marbles. Or most of the marbles. Hill and his half-baked $140 million deal will certainly be sprinkled into drives even if Winston wins the gig. Jameis has genuine arm talent and finished his Bucs career throwing for 277 yards per tilt, the third-best average in the Super Bowl era. He also leads the league in interceptions since 2015 and unfurled an insane seven pick-sixes two seasons ago.

That said, Jameis underwent LASIK surgery a year ago and realized he could, at long last, read street signs. This feels like a positive development.

Trent Williams cashes in: Currently, Williams is a filthy-rich human who finished last season as the game's top bookend, per Pro Football Focus. His $55 million in guarantees from the 49ers suggests Williams won't be pounding the pavement for low-grade temp jobs. Neither will any of his relatives for the next 27 generations, but Williams gives the Niners something special in return: A technically unique, powerful left tackle who fits like a glove in Shanahan's zone-run scheme.


All quiet on the Watson front: Football fans have spent the past two months bathed in speculation over the destiny of Deshaun Watson. It's a messy situation with no easy exit for David Culley or Nick Caserio, the Texans coach and general manager who were airdropped into this sinister carnival. So what happens next? Here's my (unshakably reliable) list of potential scenarios in their order of likelihood:

  1. Panthers owner David Tepper outbids all suitors for Watson, offering a mega package headlined by a trio of first-round picks, including this year's No. 8 overall.
  2. Watson winds up in San Francisco in a deal that sends Jimmy Garoppolo to Houston, where he reunites with Caserio. As with Carolina's pitch or any potential deal, this requires a trio of first-rounders plus a handful of proven players.
  3. The Jets come calling and offer a massive bundle of selections, including No. 2 overall. This allows the Texans to immediately rebrand with someone like Zach Wilson or Justin Fields under center.
  4. Belichick twists the arm of his old pal Caserio (to the point of pain) and winds up with Watson running New England's juiced-up offense.
  5. The Texans refuse to move Watson ... and he refuses to play. Instead of watching a generational wonder on Sundays, Texans fans -- and all of us poor souls -- are stuck eyeing Tyrod Taylor.

On a more serious note, Watson has been accused of indecent conduct in two civil lawsuits. After news of the first complaint initially broke Tuesday night, Watson strongly denied wrongdoing in a social media statement.

(UPDATE: As of Friday, four more women have filed civil suits against Watson, bringing the total number of lawsuits to seven.)

Bears whiff on Wilson: We get it. Ryan Pace tried. The Bears general manager offered the world to Seattle for Russell Wilson. The Seahawks weren't into it.

Seattle reportedly turned down a monster giftbag of three firsts, a third and two starters. Additional whispers suggest those two players could have included defensive stalwarts Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks.

Dark times for Bears fans, a badgered group that has gone eons without a bona fide elite presence at quarterback. I'm not sure why Chicago's brass still believe in Pace to end the drought. You wouldn't expect him to earn multiple chances after massively misevaluating the 2017 NFL Draft, which saw the Bears trade up for the dangerously frustrating Mitchell Trubisky while ignoring a pair of superbeings in Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

Making matters worse, Pace sent a fourth-rounder to the Jaguars a year ago to acquire Nick Foles and pay him $21 million guaranteed. This was after Foles utterly flatlined in Jacksonville. And he couldn't even win the Bears job over Mitchell.

At age 69, Pete Carroll wanted little to do with Pace's offer. Who can blame him? Why agree to a proposal that essentially turns the Seahawks ... into the Bears? Why pull the trigger on a swap that would leave Seattle with $39 million in dead money?

It's strangely poetic that Chicago's fumbling and bumbling now has the team selling Andy Dalton as its starter. Ill poetry, though, for the legion of loyal Bears fans who put their trust in a front office that can't figure out the most important job in the NFL: finding that quarterback who changes everything forever.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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