Best and worst signings from 2021 free-agency period so far

The 2021 NFL season kicked off with a bang with the two-day legal tampering period. Now that those deals are official with the start of the new league year, who were the winners and losers in the opening wave of moves? Who made the best — and conversely the worst — free-agent signings so far?

During Wednesday’s Draft Insiders show, Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discussed their early winners and losers and who made the best and worst signings from the first free agency window. The New England Patriots have flashed the cash in unprecedented fashion. Did they make the right moves? Some teams have barely made any moves at all — is that necessarily a bad thing?

Best free-agent signings so far

The Buffalo Bills build in relative anonymity

Who is one of the teams that haven’t made many outlandish moves early in free agency? The Buffalo Bills. Despite their apparent lack of a flashy approach, Tony Pauline outlines them retaining one particular player as one of the best signings of free agency so far.

“I like what the Buffalo Bills haven’t done. They didn’t sign any big names in free agency, but basically, they bring back Matt Milano, their best linebacker.”

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It wasn’t just the ability to retain Milano that impressed both Pauline and Wingo but also the apparent value of the deal.

“It was a good deal for an inside linebacker,” Wingo mentions before adding: “He really wants to be in Buffalo, and it was also a really good deal that he thought he might not get somewhere else.”

Milano stays with the Bills

According to Pauline, “the market value for Matt Milano was $13 – $13.5 million. What Milano decided was, I’ll take a few less bucks and get the long-term security now. So, it was good for both player and team.”

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However, it wasn’t just the ability to retain Milano that impressed Pauline as one of the best signings of free agency. He pointed out several moves that the Bills made that should ensure they’re in a position to challenge in the AFC once again.

“They re-signed Daryl Williams, their starting right tackle for another year. In essence, what they did was trade John Brown for Emmanuel Sanders — so they get a savvy receiver in there for Josh Allen to throw to. They didn’t lose anybody. Sure, they still have needs at pass rusher, they still need another cornerback. We’ll see what’s left over and if they get a deal on a pass rusher or a cornerback in the remaining days or weeks of free agency.”

The Tennessee Titans make some moves on defense

Heading into free agency, the Tennessee Titans needed to make some moves on defense. With one of the least potent pass-rushing units in the NFL in 2020, there was an expectation they would add an edge rusher. They did just that, signing former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree to a three-year, $49.5 million contract.

However, it was another defensive addition that caught the eye of Pauline as one of the best signings of free agency so far.

“I loved the Tennessee Titans signing Denico Autry. Three years, $21.5 million. Autry is a terrific, three-technique inside pass rusher. He’ll do great in that system. You know what you’re getting with him. Listen, they gave Bud Dupree $16 million a year, well the contract averages out to that. Bud Dupree is not twice the player of Denico Autry. Denico Autry comes to play every single day. He’s a three-down defender. 20 sacks the past three years, 26 tackles for loss the past three years, more than 100 tackles. He’s a solid interior pass rusher, he can play the run. Everyone wants to talk about the high-priced deals and the bigger names, I think the Tennessee Titans got a steal with Denico Autry. This is one of my favorite signings of the free agency period so far.”

Haason Reddick reunites with Matt Rhule in Carolina

Former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick inked a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers worth up to $8 million. Free-agent signings have the potential to be only as good as their landing spots. Thankfully for Reddick, he is reunited with former college coach Matt Rhule. The pair were together at Temple where Reddick rose to prominence as a senior, ultimately earning a first-round selection.

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Although his NFL career to date hasn’t necessarily lived up to the hype, Pauline says there are reasons to believe that history could repeat itself for Reddick and Rhule at the Panthers.

“Here’s the thing with Haason Reddick. Hasson Reddick — sort of like his NFL career — was okay his first two years at Temple. Came on as a senior blockbuster as a defensive end. The Arizona Cardinals put him at inside linebacker, middle linebacker. Finally, last year, they used him more as a pass rusher, which is what he is. I like the deal by the Panthers. Low money, not a lot of risk. A one-year deal, do it or move on. If they use him correctly, over the tackle, standing up, rushing the passer, occasionally coming out of a three-point stance — which the Cardinals didn’t really do until last year — I think Reddick is going to do okay.”

Although we’ll file Reddick under the best free-agent signing category for now, Wingo alluded to the reasons why he may end up on the other side of the list.

“Haason is that classic example. We had one good year. You’re always wary of the guy who flashes in the final year of his contract.”

Worst free-agent signings so far

The New England Patriots have attracted attention for their free agency moves. Although they’ve moved to address some glaring offensive needs, their actions haven’t been met universally with acclaim. In an article for Pro Football Network, Mike Tanier labeled the Patriots’ moves as “a D- disguised as an A+.”

On the Draft Insiders show, Pauline pointed to one deal in particular that could rank as one of the worst signings in free agency so far.

“Jonnu Smith. Four years, $50 million, $12.5 million a year?! Most projections had him between $8 and $10 million. So they overpaid him compared to the projection. I just thought that was a ton of money to give a guy who’s been okay. He hasn’t been great. I thought the Jonnu Smith deal was a little bit over the top. I understand why they did it. But the fact is this: Julian Edelman’s getting towards the end of his role. N’Keal Harry has not lived up to expectation, and there’s talk they are trying to trade him. They brought in Nelson Agholor so now they have two new pairs of hands for the quarterback to throw to. I just think it’s a lot of money.”

The Las Vegas Raiders prove to be the antithesis of the Buffalo Bills

Although it may not specifically count as a “worst” signing of free agency, the Las Vegas Raiders have so far made some terrible moves to open the NFL league year. While the Buffalo Bills have excelled in retaining their talent, the Raiders have allowed some of their best to leave. They have decimated their offensive line by trading Rodney Hudson to the Arizona Cardinals and Gabe Jackson to the Seattle Seahawks.

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These free agency moves have left Wingo and Pauline flabbergasted.

“I’m trying to figure it out, I’m trying to understand the plan and I just don’t get it,” began Wingo.

“We’ve talked about how important protection is, and Derek Carr has shown he can be very serviceable as long as he has time. Then, you have the Raiders basically punting on almost all their starting offensive lineman from a year ago. What is the plan for the Las Vegas Raiders? Because they’re giving away too many players on that core position of offensive line.”

“They’re not just giving away a starting offensive lineman,” Pauline adds. “These guys are good. Rodney Hudson is a good center. Gabe Jackson is a good guardsman. These guys are going to be starting for these other teams.”

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Oliver Hodgkinson is a staff writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.

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