As we've learned over the years, teams who "win" free agency don't always translate offseason gains into a jump in victories once the season begins. But a key free-agent piece or two can change a team's trajectory.
The 2021 offseason saw some franchises open the coffers to rebuild their starting lineups. New England, for example, spent lavishly and is reaping the rewards.
Now that the bulk of the regular season is behind us, I'm taking a look at some of the free agents that changed teams this past offseason and deciding who has given their new club the best bang for its buck. Here are my top 10.
Judon was a two-time Pro Bowl selectee in Baltimore but the Ravens allowed him to walk after franchise-tagging him in 2020. The Patriots gladly scooped him up to the tune of four years, $54 million in the offseason and have instantly seen their investment paid off. Judon ranks third in the NFL in sacks with 12.5. He also is second in sack rate (4.2%), fifth in quarterback pressure rate (14.6%) and is tied for fifth in total quarterback pressures (44) among players with at least 275 pass rush snaps. He's brought a new ferocity that was lacking in New England's defense and doesn't just show up in pass-rushing situations. Judon is among the league leaders in run stops by an edge defender with 41. He's helped the Patriots regain the stingy reputation they once rode to Super Bowl triumphs, and they're looking like a strong contender to return to the big game this season. Judon's arrival certainly has something to do with that.
Patterson's emergence as an every-down weapon in Atlanta is among the most surprising developments of 2021. Just take a look at the offseason's top 101 free agents list. Patterson ranked 68th "because he's one of the best special teams players in NFL history, not because of his efficiency as an offensive weapon," as written by my colleague Gregg Rosenthal. This was certainly true -- until the Falcons signed him, and Arthur Smith found a way to unlock Patterson's potential while using him as a do-everything playmaker in Atlanta's offense. After signing a one-year deal worth $3 million, Patterson is thriving, gaining 10-plus yards on rushes outside the tackles at a rate of 17.9 percent, the eighth-best mark in the NFL (min. 50 such carries). He's tied for fifth in touchdowns on targets down the seams (four), ranks fifth in yards per target when aligned wide (10.8) and ninth in yards per rush outside the tackles (4.9). He's doing everything and doing it all quite well -- and none of us saw it coming.
Ngakoue was once a game-wrecking force off the edge in Jacksonville, making the Pro Bowl in 2017, but his play and production dipped a bit last year during stops in Minnesota and Baltimore. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was still willing to invest in Ngakoue, though, and the decision has paid off handsomely. Ngakoue is tied with teammate Maxx Crosby for the second-most QB pressures this season (56), ranks sixth in the NFL with three turnovers caused by pressure and is flooring the throttle faster than anyone else in the league, averaging an NFL-best 0.77-second get-off this season (min. 150 pass rush snaps), per Next Gen Stats. Ngakoue isn't in the top 10 in sacks with eight, but he's consistently affecting the opposing quarterback, which was what the Raiders had in mind when they signed him to a two-year, $26 million deal.
Hendrickson burst onto the scene in 2020 with a career-high 13.5 sacks for the Saints after producing just 6.5 in his first three seasons combined. Many wondered if he could sustain that performance, especially when he wasn't playing opposite six-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan. Hendrickson has responded to the doubters by posting another double-digit sack year in his first campaign in Cincinnati, where he's the top threat off the edge. After signing a four-year, $60 million deal with the Bengals, Hendrickson leads the league in QB pressures (60), is tied for the most turnovers caused by pressure (five), owns one of the NFL's highest pressure rates at 19.2 percent and is fourth in sack rate (3.7 percent; min. 300 pass rush snaps). Hendrickson left Jordan behind in New Orleans and proved his performance wasn't just a product of an advantageous pairing.
With Justin Herbert coming off an Offensive rookie of the Year season, the Chargers entered 2021 well aware of the need to revamp their offensive line. They found a new anchor at the pivot in Linsley, who was coming off an All-Pro campaign himself. After signing a five-year, $62.5 million deal, he's maintained an elite level of play. Linsley has not allowed a sack and has given up just seven total pressures on 567 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Herbert's sack percentage is slightly lower than it was at the end of 2020, and his Chargers are in a much better spot in terms of overall record than they were a year ago. The investment in Linsley has proven to be a wise one.
Reddick's 12.5 sacks last season seemingly came out of nowhere. He had 7.5 total in the three seasons prior, which helps explain why he settled for a one-year deal worth $6 million with Carolina, where he reunited with his college head coach (Matt Rhule) and defensive coordinator (Phil Snow). He might end up getting a much more lucrative deal in 2022 after racking up 10.5 sacks in 12 games this season. Reddick has been effective shutting down off-tackle rushing attempts, recording 11 run stuffs this season, meaning he's not just a third-down pressure-producer. It took him a while, but the former first-round pick out of Temple is certainly continuing to blossom while playing opposite Brian Burns. Carolina cashed in at a bargain rate. His next team will likely have to spend more to acquire his services.
Bourne flew a bit under the radar upon his exit from San Francisco despite posting career-best numbers in 2020 in terms of receiving yards (667) and receptions (49). Receiver-needy New England brought him in at an affordable $5 million per year, and he's proven to be a cost-effective addition. Bourne has already matched a career high in receiving touchdowns, with three of his five scores coming in his last four games. He's been a trusty target for rookie quarterback Mac Jones and is also on pace to set career-high in receiving yards. Bourne's ability to catch short passes and pick up extra yards is really standing out in 2021, as he's averaging an NFL-best 11.8 yards per reception on targets of fewer than 10 air yards. He's also proving to be exceptionally reliable, posting the second-best catch rate over expected when aligned wide at +15.1 percent. Bourne is exceeding expectations in almost every regard and is thriving with the Patriots contending for the top seed in the AFC.
Conner has had to overcome tremendous adversity in his life, but a storybook beginning to NFL career wasn't enough to convince the Steelers to keep him in town. Arizona struck in free agency, signing Conner at a bargain basement rate of $1.75 million for 2021, and he's exceeded expectations as part of a loaded offense. Conner has scored 12 rushing touchdowns (tied for second most in the league) as the Cardinals' power back, gaining 630 yards on 166 carries. He's also proven to be a capable pass-catcher when needed, catching 20 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns. He's setting himself up to be an attractive option for teams looking for a power back in 2022, but for now, Arizona is happy it was able to land Conner, who has earned every dollar of his deal.
Awuzie was one of a collection of key defensive signings for the Bengals (Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, Larry Ogunjobi, Eli Apple) and is proving to be worthy of the three-year, $21.75 million investment. Awuzie has broken double digits in passes defensed, he has a career-high in interceptions with two and ranks as the ninth-best corner in the NFL according to PFF defensive grades. He's been a good defender when opposing teams try to attack him, posting the third-best ballhawk rate on deep targets in the NFL this season at 35.7 percent. After struggling defensively for the last handful of seasons, the Bengals spent to fix it, and the dollars have produced significant improvement.
New England dominated the headlines with its free-agent spending spree, which included scooping up not one but two of the top tight ends available. Henry joined Jonnu Smith in Foxborough but has outperformed his counterpart, catching 35 passes for 394 yards and seven touchdowns. He's become a top target for rookie quarterback Mac Jones and has allowed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to attack defensive weaknesses, scoring four touchdowns when aligned tight (most in the NFL). His 11.7 yards per reception when aligned tight have proven his value as a traditional tight end, and his involvement has helped Jones amaze those who expected much less from him in Year One. Like Bourne and Judon, Henry was another quality addition and is helping return the Patriots to prominence in a short amount of time.
ALSO CONSIDERED: De'Vondre Campbell, Green Bay Packers; Adoree' Jackson, New York Giants; Mike Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals; Denico Autry, Tennessee Titans; Jadeveon Clowney, Cleveland Browns; Riley Reiff, Cincinnati Bengals; Casey Hayward, Las Vegas Raiders; Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo Bills; Joe Thuney, Kansas City Chiefs