The Cleveland Browns and New York Giants crushed free agency. The Chicago Bears were crushed by it. But what NFL free-agency grades should teams like the New England Patriots receive for their tampering-period spending spree? Or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for keeping Tom Brady’s Howling Commandos together? Or the Green Bay Packers for doing a whole lotta nothing?
There are still plenty of big-name players on the board and a few teams with money to spend as of press time, so these 2021 free-agency grades are more like “2021 free-agency progress reports.” But we still have plenty to base them on — major signings, re-signings, extensions, releases, trades, and a few anticipated trades.
And if you don’t like your team’s free-agency grade, don’t despair — the 2021 NFL Draft grades are just a little over a month away!
NFL Free-Agency Grades 2021: The big winners
Some of these teams made splashy moves. A few mostly took care of their in-house business. But all of these “winners” did precisely what they had to do at the start of free agency.
New York Giants
Key Additions: WR Kenny Golladay, QB Mike Glennon, LB Reggie Ragland, WR John Ross, TE Kyle Rudolph
Key Departures: LB David Mayo, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, G Kevin Zeitler
The rest of the NFL started the week like, “OMG, Bill Belichick is grabbing all the tight ends. Quick, spend MOAR MONEY!!!!!” Meanwhile, old fuddy-duddy Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was like, “Hey, let’s sit and talk about an extension, Leonard Williams! Why don’t you come have dinner with us, Kenny Golladay! No rush!”
The slow-and-steady approach paid off. Gettleman got Williams and tackle Nate Solder to re-sign, nabbed the biggest prize in free agency in Golladay, and didn’t absorb significant losses. The Giants may not win a Super Bowl with their current lineup, but they could win the NFC East. At the very least, they now have enough offensive firepower to evaluate Daniel Jones accurately during his critical smash-or-trash year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: None
When you are the defending Super Bowl champions, no news is good news in free agency.
The Buccaneers managed to fit Tom Brady (who agreed to a cap-friendly extension), Rob Gronkowski, Shaquil Barrett, Chris Godwin, and Lavonte David under the salary cap again. It was a master’s class in cap management, and it keeps their Super Bowl window open for at least one more year, hence the lofty NFL free-agency grade.
Key Additions: CB Troy Hill, DT Malik Jackson, S John Johnson
Key Departures: CB Terrance Mitchell, DT Larry Ogunjobi
Ladies and gentlemen: The Cleveland Rams! (Which were an actual thing until 1946). Rams cap casualties Johnson and Hill provide instant upgrades in the secondary, which was arguably the Browns’ weakest unit in 2020. Jackson, an Eagles cap casualty, is an upgrade over Ogunjobi.
The Browns also re-signed LB Malcolm Smith and WR Rashard Higgins, role players who performed well last season. There’s still some unfinished business — edge rusher Olivier Vernon is unlikely to return — but this is the proper way for a team that managed its finances well to siphon talent away from franchises in decline.
New York Jets
Key Additions: EDGE Carl Lawson, WR Keelan Cole, WR Corey Davis, LB Jarrad Davis, G Dan Feeney, DB Lamarcus Joyner
Key Departures: EDGE Henry Anderson, LB Tarell Basham, C-G Pat Elflein, LB Jordan Jenkins, WR Breshad Perriman
Lawson is the key to this class, as a nasty pure pass rusher who may turn out to have a more significant impact than more prominent names like Bud Dupree and Yannick Ngakoue. Davis and Cole are better receivers than the guys the Patriots signed to much fanfare. Joyner and Feeney solidify trouble spots.
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The Jets would earn an A if they didn’t let so many serviceable defenders leave. New head coach Robert Saleh may want “his guys,” but young veterans like Basham and Jenkins deserved a second look by the incoming staff. Overall, however, both the Jets and Giants looked pretty smart in free agency. And frankly, that’s a little terrifying.
Key Additions: TE Jacob Hollister, WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Mitch Trubisky
Key Departures: WR John Brown, DT Quinton Jefferson, TE Tyler Kroft, WR/KR Andre Roberts
The Bills’ best moves didn’t make big headlines. Extending in-house starters like linebacker Matt Milano and offensive linemen Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano should help the Bills remain atop the AFC East standings. Sanders brings more to the table than the oft-injured Brown. And Trubisky instantly goes from one of the NFL’s worst starters to one of its best backups.
NFL Free-Agency Grades 2021: Pretty, pretty, pretty good
The following teams got some big things right and a few little things wrong. Or, they had little money to spend and did all they could to keep their roster from falling apart. Or, they had plenty of money but chose not to spend it. At the very least, they didn’t hurt themselves. Sometimes, that’s all NFL fans can ask for in March.
Key Additions: DE Denico Autry, EDGE Bud Dupree, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Kevin Johnson
Key Departures: CB Malcolm Butler, WR Corey Davis, CB Adoree Jackson, TE Jonnu Smith, S Kenny Vaccaro
The Titans upgraded their pass rush significantly with Autry and Dupree without losing much in the secondary. Davis and Smith should be replaceable through succession and the draft, so their offense should not take much of a hit.
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The Titans’ NFL free-agency grade could go down if they lose DT DaQuan Jones or too many other useful role players on either side of the ball. For now, they fixed their biggest problem without causing many others.
Kansas City Chiefs
Key Additions: OT Kyle Long, G Joe Thuney
Key Departures: OT Eric Fisher, C Austin Reiter, OT Mitchell Schwartz
The Chiefs staved off an offensive-line emergency with the arrivals of Thuney and Long. They’re now in a position to draft one more lineman from a deep class in the first round and spend the rest of the draft spackling the cracks in their Super Bowl-caliber roster. That’s all they could have hoped to do this offseason.
Key Additions: EDGE Tarell Basham, OT Cameron Erving, S Keanu Neal, DE Brent Urban
Key Departures: CB Chidobe Awuzie, QB Andy Dalton, OT Ty Nsekhe
Jerry Jones stopped fiddling around and signed Dak Prescott to a (reasonable, by quarterback contract standards) long-term deal. The rest is window dressing, though Basham and Neal represent an influx of affordable talent for a defense that really needed it.
Here’s a deeper dive into why the new Prescott deal elevates the Cowboys into the Super Bowl conversation.
Key Additions: DT Adam Butler, CB Justin Coleman, WR Will Fuller, LB Benardrick McKinney, C Matt Skura, P Michael Palardy
Key Departures: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, DT Davon Godchaux, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, C Ted Karras, EDGE Kyle Van Noy
Fuller is an outstanding player until the moment you start counting on him, then he either gets injured or suspended. In other words, the Dolphins now have two of DeVante Parker!
Many of the Dolphins’ moves were part of their ongoing threesome with the Texans and Patriots. In the old days, that meant Bill Belichick was snookering his former associates. Now, it’s hard to tell who is getting the better of whom. The reshuffling of linebackers and defensive tackles probably won’t amount to much in the big picture.
For the Dolphins, free agency is supposed to be merely the warm-up act for draft fireworks anyway. Viewed as a pruning-and-sprucing operation instead of an (ill-advised) attempt to overtake the Chiefs, this turned out OK.
Key Additions: QB Jared Goff, DE Michael Brockers, WR Breshad Perriman, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams
Key Departures: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Kenny Golladay, CB Justin Coleman, WR Marvin Jones, CB Desmond Trufant, KR Jamal Agnew, K Randy Bullock
Re-signing edge rusher Romeo Okwara was the Lions’ most important and best move since the Stafford/Goff trade — the Okwara/Brockers/Trey Flowers defensive front gives head coach Dan Campbell something to build around.
Most of the rest of the Lions’ moves involve bringing in Campbell’s guys (tight end Josh Hill) or general manager Brad Holmes’ guys (various Rams) while shedding lots of veterans the past regime hoarded over the previous three years. Whether this is a tactical rebuild or typical deck-chair reshuffling remains to be seen. But the Lions appear to be headed in the right direction so far.
Washington Football Team
Key Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Lamar Miller, WR Curtis Samuel
Key Departures: QB Alex Smith, CB Ronald Darby
Samuel was a much-needed addition to the receiving corps. Miller adds some sizzle to the running back rotation. Fitzpatrick is a weaker option at quarterback than Andy Dalton, but my colleagues treat him like Baby Yoda for some reason. Washington also didn’t tantalize its fanbase with Russell Wilson, so the WFT gets a pass despite overspending on a quarterback non-solution.
(And yes, I’m aware that it’s Grogu, not “Baby Yoda,” but you would have tripped over that reference.)
San Francisco 49ers
Key Additions: EDGE Samson Ebukam, C Alex Mack
Key Departures: WR Kendrick Bourne, DE Solomon Thomas, CB Akhello Witherspoon
Richard Sherman’s status was still up in the air at press time, making this grade somewhat incomplete. Mack’s arrival, coupled with the Trent Williams re-signing, bolsters the offensive line so the 49ers can get by with yet another year of Jimmy Garoppolo & Friends at quarterback if they must. And they probably must.
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The 49ers might have earned a solid “B” if not for John Lynch’s “Niners fans, you want some ‘juice?’” tweet to tease the Kyle Juszczyk extension. Seriously, John — pull another stunt like that ever again, and we’re calling human resources.
Key Additions: EDGE Haason Reddick, TE Dan Arnold, C Pat Elflein, OT Cameron Erving, WR David Moore, LB Denzel Perryman
Key Departures: WR Curtis Samuel, DT Kawaan Short, P Michael Palardy
Short has not signed elsewhere yet, but the Panthers aren’t making a bid to re-sign him. Left tackle Russell Okung’s status is also uncertain. He may retire so he can swim around like Scrooge McDuck in a vault filled with BitCoin.
It’s not clear what the Panthers are doing, but they sure did do a lot of it. Head coach Matt Rhule was praised after the Reddick signing for acquiring another player from one of his old college teams. Folks, it’s never a good sign when a former college coach builds his rebuilding strategy around getting his old recruits. But overall, the Panthers got more than they gave away.
Key Additions: CB Ronald Darby, CB Kyle Fuller, RB Michael Boone
Key Departures: CB A.J. Bouye, RB Phillip Lindsay
The Broncos extended Von Miller, franchise-tagged safety Justin Simmons, reinforced their secondary with Darby and Fuller (just as they tried to do with Bouye last year), retained a few in-house role players, and did little else.
John Elway may have handed the reins to new general manager George Paton, but the Broncos still appear to think they have a playoff nucleus in place once everyone gets healthy and Drew Lock goes full Josh Allen on his doubters.
Do you want to tell them or should we?
Key Additions: OT Marcus Cannon, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, RB Mark Ingram, LB Jordan Jenkins, LB Christian Kirksey, RB Phillip Lindsay, CB Terrance Mitchell, WR/KR Andre Roberts, P Cameron Johnson, etc.
Key Departures: EDGE J.J. Watt, LB Benardrick McKinney, etc.
The good news here is that the Texans are doing real football things, like signing free agents, re-signing some in-house veterans, and even making a helpful trade to acquire Cannon. The bad news is that they appear to be taking a buckshot approach, doubling up at easy-to-fill positions like running back and grabbing lots of ordinary-at-best veterans who will clog the depth chart of what should be a rebuilding team.
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It looks as though general manager Nick Caserio keeps extra busy calling old pals in Miami and New England and making minor moves. At the same time, Supreme Leader Jack Easterby gets ready to blunder the moves that matter. But at least the Texans have proven their phones still work, which is a step in the positive direction for them.
Free-Agent Grades: Treading Water
Our next batch of teams consists primarily of teams that entered free agency with maxed-out credit cards and the repo man skulking around team headquarters. But there are also a pair of teams in this group that is so terrible that only a historic free-agent haul would have helped them. And history tells us that historic free-agent hauls are more likely to hurt than help.
Key Additions: OT Joe Haeg, DB Miles Killebrew
Key Departures: DE Tyson Alualu, EDGE Bud Dupree, OT Matt Feiler, CB Mike Hilton
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster’s re-signing was a surprise. It wasn’t a pleasant one for the toxic sect of the fanbase that wanted to shove him out the door. The Steelers re-signed just enough role players (CB Cam Sutton, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, DT Chris Wormley) to stave off a disastrous mass exodus.
The Steelers have been letting players like Dupree walk and replacing them via draft-and-development succession since the dawn of free agency. Their traditional free-agent strategy may be yielding diminishing returns in Ben Roethlisberger’s twilight years, but at least it’s a coherent, consistent plan.
Key Additions: QB Carson Wentz
Key Departures: QB Philip Rivers (retirement), DE Denico Autry, OT Anthony Castonzo (retirement), QB Jacoby Brissett, LB Anthony Walker
Either the Carson Wentz trade was the NFL equivalent of salvaging a ‘68 Mustang that was rusting in someone’s front yard, or it’s another short-term fix by an organization obsessed with Jeopardy-style guest hosts instead of real solutions at quarterback.
Also, either the Colts are prudently limiting their free-agent spending so they can handle in-house matters, or they’ve grown a little bit complacent. Signing CB Xavier Rhodes to a one-year extension and retaining RB Marlon Mack were steps in the right direction. But it would have been nice to see the Colts hedge their Wentz bet a little by upgrading their receiving corps, adding an edge rusher, or at least replacing Castonzo.
Key Additions: TE Gerald Everett, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, G Gabe Jackson
Key Departures: WR Phillip Dorsett, EDGE Carlos Dunlap, CB Shaquill Griffin, TE Jacob Hollister, RB Carlos Hyde, WR David Moore
Everett and Witherspoon are minor upgrades from Hollister and Griffin. Chris Carson re-signed at a reasonable cost, so the loss of Hyde won’t matter. Extending DT Poona Ford was wise, and adding Jackson should settle Russell Wilson down a bit.
The problem here is that the Seahawks somehow got weaker at edge and wide receiver, the two positions where talent was easiest to find in free agency. Maybe they’ll grab some bargains on the aftermarket in the next few weeks. Or perhaps this will be another year of waffling while an increasingly surly Wilson drags them to the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers
Key Additions: None
Key Departures: C Corey Linsley, LB Christian Kirksey
Extending running back Aaron Jones made sense, even at a somewhat hefty price, because you don’t change tires while you’re barreling down the freeway at 90 mph. Tendering TE Robert Tonyan to keep him off the frenetic tight end market was also shrewd. Linsley’s departure will sting a bit. Kirksey’s departure is addition through subtraction.
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Each year, the Packers’ offseason goal seems to be to troll both Aaron Rodgers and their fanbase by doing as little as possible. Graded on that curve, they deserve an A-plus-plus-plus.
Key Additions: WR Jamal Agnew, DE Tyson Alualu, WR Phillip Dorsett, CB Shaquill Griffin, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Marvin Jones, EDGE Jihad Ward, others
Key Departures: WR Keelan Cole, CB Rashaan Melvin
There are some wise additions in the Jaguars’ chunky stew of acquisitions, including the additions of Ward (a talented role player on the cheap) and Johnathan Ford (a special teams monster who could be more). But there’s also a lot of filler — Hyde, the return of Alualu, and all of the injury-prone, mid-tier receivers.
An NFL-savvy organization would have attacked one or two young top-dollar free agents, then waited for the draft before clogging up its depth chart with the likes of Chris Manhertz. Urban Meyer went on a recruiting junket instead.
Key Additions: G Kevin Zeitler
Key Departures: EDGE Matt Judon, RB Mark Ingram, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, C Matt Skura
Like their division rivals just west on I-70, the Ravens let veterans like Judon and Ingram walk all the time as part of their long-established organizational philosophy. But the Steelers did a better job of retaining some of their in-house talent than the Ravens did.
Zeitler should help put some thump back in the Lamar Jackson option attack, but the Ravens just lost most of their pass rush. And while landing Kenny Golladay or Curtis Samuel was always more like fanfic than a real plan, the Ravens could at least have dabbled in the receiver market a bit.
Los Angeles Rams
Key Additions: QB Matthew Stafford
Key Departures: QB Jared Goff, EDGE Samson Ebukam, TE Gerald Everett, CB Troy Hill, S John Johnson
The Internet was full of “I appreciate Matthew Stafford on far more levels than you do” analysis, praising the Rams in the wake of the Stafford-Goff deal. But the reality set in this week — the Rams traded a moderate upgrade at quarterback for further cap woes that forced them to part ways with young contributors like Johnson and Everett. And, of course, the Rams have been trading away the draft picks they need to replace those starters for years.
Only re-signing Leonard Floyd kept the Rams from earning a “D” or lower with their NFL free-agency grade.
Key Additions: CB Chidobe Awuzie, EDGE Trey Hendrickson, CB Mike Hilton, DT Larry Ogunjobi, OT Riley Reiff
Key Departures: DT Geno Atkins, WR A.J. Green, CB William Jackson, EDGE Carl Lawson, WR John Ross
Swapping Lawson for Hendrickson was a lateral move. Losing Jackson but gaining Awuzie and Hilton was a modest upgrade in the secondary. But losing both Green and Ross without upgrading the offensive line clouds the Bengals draft strategy. They’re in prime position to draft Oregon tackle Penei Sewell but may now be tempted to address their need at wide receiver instead.
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So the Bengals are swimming sideways. But at least they are swimming after a few seasons of doing the Dead Man’s Float all through the offseason. And the departures of cradle-to-the-grave Bengals like Green and Atkins was a much-needed rebuilding step the team should have taken circa 2019.
Key Additions: S Anthony Harris
Key Departures: We don’t have all day, folks.
Were you expecting an “F”? The Eagles’ overall grade for the last 18 months or so is definitely an “F.” But all they did this week was sign a quality starter on the cheap (Harris) while further bandaging their cap wounds. If you don’t believe their NFL free-agency grade could have been worse, imagine if the Eagles had spent their last cap dime on Ryan Fitzpatrick to mentor (read: undermine) Jalen Hurts.
New Orleans Saints
Key Additions: FB Alex Armah. Yes, “FB” as in “fullback.”
Key Departures: QB Drew Brees (retirement), LB Kwon Alexander, TE Jared Cook, EDGE Trey Hendrickson, RB Mark Ingram, CB Janoris Jenkins, DT Sheldon Rankins, WR Emmanuel Sanders, others
The Saints retained Taysom Hill, so Sean Payton’s life is complete, and the rest of humanity can pound sand.
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The Saints avoided a failing grade because they fit many core veterans under the cap for another year. Unfortunately, that will likely only lead to “D” grades in 2022 and 2023, when they do the hard cap work they avoided this year.
Free-Agent Grades: Big Risks, Dubious Rewards
This may be our most controversial group of teams. They all spent lots of money and landed some big names. Many of their fans may be expecting “A” or “B” grades. Unfortunately, a team can’t buy its way from around .500 to the Super Bowl. Those who try are both kidding themselves and causing themselves some future headaches.
New England Patriots
Key Additions: WR Nelson Agholor, OT Trent Brown, WR Kendrick Bourne, DT Davon Godchaux, EDGE Matt Judon, DB Jalen Mills, TE Hunter Henry, LB Kyle Van Noy, TE Jonnu Smith
Key Departures: DT Adam Butler, OT Marcus Cannon, S Patrick Chung (retirement), G Joe Thuney
The Justice League “Snyder Cut” of NFL free agency — bloated and self-indulgent, somewhat better than the previous edition, still nowhere near as good as the competition, and considered a masterpiece by superfans who think the guy responsible for it is some infallible genius.
I recently wrote about the Patriots’ poor grade for their 2021 NFL free-agency signings — they swung and missed.
Key Additions: WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson, EDGE J.J. Watt, K Matt Prater
Key Departures: RB Kenyan Drake, CB Patrick Peterson, EDGE Haason Reddick
If your college roommate’s father-in-law, who has been in your fantasy league since 2009 but stopped watching football about six years ago, was given a job as a real NFL general manager, this is what his offseason would look like.
The Cardinals would be graded more harshly, except: A) They’ve still got a ton of in-house business to do; B) Acquiring Hudson was a wise move; and C) C’mon, it’s J.J. Freakin’ Watt.
Las Vegas Raiders
Key Additions: RB Kenyan Drake, DT Quinton Jefferson, C Nick Martin, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, DE Solomon Thomas
Key Departures: WR Nelson Agholor, OT Trent Brown, C Rodney Hudson, G Gabe Jackson
Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden are like an old Vaudeville juggling act that can only handle one ball each. They managed to upgrade a defensive line that has been a weakness for years, but only by significantly downgrading an offensive line that has been a strength for years. As a bonus, they overpaid for a committee back in Drake.
Moves like these are how they build a team that is almost good enough for a Wild Card berth every single year.
NFL Free-Agency Grades 2021: Biggest Losers
There’s no sugar coating it — these teams spent the last week making things worse for themselves, owning the worst NFL free-agency grades.
Key Additions: CB Patrick Peterson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, LB Nick Vigil
Key Departures: S Anthony Harris, EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo, OT Riley Reiff, TE Kyle Rudolph
Signing cornerback Patrick Peterson for one year at $10 million while releasing Harris is the kind of galaxy-brained Vikings move that mere muggles like us cannot hope to comprehend.
Look, I’m bored with poking fun of the Vikings for building their roster each year as if their goal is to earn the most expensive Wild Card berth possible. So maybe if the Vikings stop doing that, I’ll stop making fun of them. Do we have a deal, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman? Eh, they’re not listening. They’re probably adding voidable years to Kirk Cousins’ contract, so it lines up with the Taysom Hill deal or something.
Los Angeles Chargers
Key Additions: TE Jared Cook, C Corey Linsley, OT Matt Feiler
Key Departures: CB Casey Hayward, TE Hunter Henry, OG Dan Feeney, S Rayshawn Jenkins, LB Nick Vigil
The Chargers overspent on offensive line upgrades as they so often do. Somehow, they never manage to build a truly great offensive line this way. Go figure!
Henry to Cook is a significant downgrade at tight end. Jenkins and Hayward will be hard to replace in a secondary that is already thin.
In other words, the Chargers’ organizational commitment to irrelevance is downright impressive. They should be gearing up for a quick surge during Justin Herbert’s affordable years. Instead, they’re spinning their wheels.
Key Additions: TE Lee Smith
Key Departures: C Alex Mack, DB Keanu Neal
Besides trading for a 33-year-old backup tight end and losing their center, the Falcons extended Matt Ryan’s contract to achieve cap compliance. That’s like the groundhog seeing his shadow, but instead of six more weeks of winter, it sentences Falcons fans to six more years of The Ryan Argument.
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C’mon, you know how The Ryan Argument goes: “He’s still playing at a high level, so truly informed fans like me know he’s not the problem. It’s a matter of building an absolutely flawless roster around him, despite not having enough money! No, this is NOT an inherent contradiction!”
Key Additions: QB Andy Dalton (!!!!!!!!), CB Desmond Trufant
Key Departures: CB Kyle Fuller, QB Mitch Trubisky, probably others
The Bears really, truly believed they were going to get Russell Wilson from the Seahawks. That’s why they franchise-tagged receiver Allen Robinson, even though that was a questionable move from a cap-management and player-satisfaction standpoint.
General manager Ryan Pace then told himself, “Hey, our defense can afford to lose Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks if that’s what it takes to land Wilson!” When the Wilson mirage turned into a Dalton dune of despair, Pace’s brain remained stuck on the “we can afford to lose Fuller and Hicks” concept. Fuller signed with the Broncos, while Hicks is on the trading block.
In other words, Pace failed to improve the offense, but he made up for it by gutting the playoff-caliber defense.
This is what happens when you give a haplessly inept executive an extra year to try to fix his past mistakes.
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