Patriots, 49ers among NFL free agency’s biggest spenders
By Emmanuel Morgan
In an offseason characterized by a $182.5 million salary cap, down 8% from 2020, NFL general managers are maneuvering the landscape carefully. With the official start of free agency underway, executives are looking at players to add — or keep — on their rosters, but only at the right price.
Of course, some teams are already spending more aggressively than others, mostly on big contracts for proven defensive talent and one-year deals for a handful of high-profile names.
In the coming days, teams with leftover cap room are expected to fill in the gaps with a loaded pool of free agent receivers who have taken a back seat with the crunched cap limit.
So far, these are the teams that have set the market in free agency, investing millions of dollars in free agency for a better chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next February (or throwing it to a teammate on another boat during the celebratory parade).
New England Patriots
After missing the playoffs and finishing 7-9 in 2020, general manager/coach Bill Belichick strengthened his team by spending more than $268 million in contracts, the biggest free agent spree in the league so far, according to Spotrac. New England doled a sizable portion of that sum to the offense, which struggled in its first season without quarterback Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl after leaving for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago in free agency.
Belichick went all in on tight ends, signing Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million contract and Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million deal. By prying Smith away from the Tennessee Titans and Henry away from the Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots are poised to use two-tight end formations, as they did from 2010-12 with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The offense ranked in the top three in scoring each of those seasons. Smith caught 41 passes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns last season and Henry was the Chargers’ second-leading receiver with 60 catches for 613 yards and four touchdowns.
While the Patriots re-signed quarterback Cam Newton to another one-year deal, it is still possible that New England adds another quarterback this offseason. Whoever’s under center should have at least two dependable targets.
San Francisco 49ers
Decimated by injuries last season, the 49ers inked two major additions to its offensive front in an effort to quickly rebound as an NFC contender.
The team locked in eight-time Pro Bowl selection Trent Williams to a six-year, $138 million contract, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. Williams had been traded to San Francisco last year after he held out the 2019 season over a claim that Washington Football Team doctors mishandled treating a cancerous tumor on his head. He joins center Alex Mack, a six-time Pro Bowler whom the 49ers signed to a three-year, $14.85 million deal.
A good chunk of the $164.9 million the 49ers spent in free agency went to adding two of the best blockers in football to protect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo against the NFC West’s aggressive pass rushers, the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Arizona Cardinals’ J.J. Watt. An upright quarterback tends to have a positive effect on a team’s offense.
By trading expensive players such as Jalen Ramey and Yannick Ngakoue in recent seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars entered free agency with plenty of available cap space. They have offered $144 million in total value for contracts. They focused primarily on defense, after finishing 1-15 with the league’s second-worst defense, signing cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a three-year, $40 millon contract, safety Rayshawn Jenkins to a four-year, $35 million deal and defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris to three years and $23.4 million.
Offensively, the Jaguars’ rebuild starts with the draft, where the team will most likely use the No. 1 overall pick to select Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. First-time NFL head coach Urban Meyer, who team owner Shahid Khan said will have roster control, is using free agency to plug holes before the new face of the franchise arrives. But Meyer has already voiced his displeasure with some aspects of running an NFL team, calling the league’s legal tampering period “awful.”
A strong free agency market for defensive talent led the woeful Bengals (4-11 in the 2020 season) to prioritize that side of the ball with $122.75 million in free agent contracts. The team also signed Vikings tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year, $7.5 million deal, the first step in fixing a weak offensive line charged with protecting Joe Burrow, who tied for ninth-most sacked quarterback in the league last season.
Derrick Henry’s legs can carry the Titans only so far. Despite a season where the running back again led the league in rushing yards, Tennessee was bounced from the playoffs in the wild-card round. This offseason, general manager Jon Robinson bolstered the pass rush by adding former Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree on a five-year, $82.5 million contract.
Dupree had eight sacks for the Steelers in the 2020 season. The Titans are paying him to help contain opposing quarterbacks with the potential to burn them on the ground as the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson did in key moments of that playoff loss to Baltimore.
New York Jets
First-year head coach Robert Saleh’s defensive background showed in free agency when the Jets signed defensive end Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal. It’s the largest the Jets finalized in free agency thus far, contributing to the $110.25 million in total contracts.
Pairing Lawson, whose speed helped him to 5.5 sacks last season with the Bengals, on the edge should complement the power of third-year defensive lineman Quinnen Williams. The Jets hold the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and are a rumored landing spot for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Their roster could still see major additions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2020 Super Bowl champions faced serious questions on whether they could keep the core group of key contributors — linebacker Shaquil Barrett, receiver Chris Godwin, tight end Rob Gronkowski and others needing new contracts — with little available cap space entering free agency.
With some slick accounting, Tampa Bay looks like it will keep most of the band together.
General manager Jason Licht cleared cap space by placing the franchise tag on Godwin, and Tom Brady contributed too by reworking his contract and signing a four-year extension to lessen the team’s cap hit.
The Buccaneers have spent $93 million so far in free agency, highlighted by a four-year, $68 million contract for Barrett, who shined at the end of the playoffs as part of the team’s phenomenal pass rush. Barrett sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times in the NFC championship game and hounded Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
Still finessing the available cap space, the Buccaneers also retained tight end Rob Gronkowski on a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $10 million and can now turn their attention to receiver Antonio Brown, running back Leonard Fournette and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh in the hope of making another championship run.
Los Angeles Chargers
Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert came into the league without a traditional training camp, was thrust into the starting spot after a freak injury to the starter and still completed a record-breaking rookie year.
He did all that with a rotating cast of offensive linemen, whom the Chargers have looked to upgrade in free agency by signing former Packers All-Pro center Corey Linsley to a five-year, $62.5 million deal and adding Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Matt Feiler on a three-year, $21 million deal.
Under new head coach Brandon Staley, the Chargers have spent $89.5 million so far in free agency to make Herbert’s second NFL season a bit more stable.
Washington Football Team
The most impactful of Washington’s signings was inking journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year, $10 million contract to challenge Taylor Heinicke (who got a two-year, $4.75 million deal) at the position. It will be Fitzpatrick’s ninth team in his 17-year career.
Fitzpatrick, who started last season for the Miami Dolphins before coach Brian Flores inserted rookie Tua Tagovailoa, should allow Washington to compete for a playoff berth in the wide-open NFC East. He also buys the team time to find a long-term quarterback solution if Heinicke isn’t it.
Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes absorbed three sacks and nine hits in the Super Bowl, largely because starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz were out with injuries.
The team released both long-tenured tackles and added Patriots lineman Joe Thuney on a five-year, $80 million contract. Kansas City re-signed tackle Mike Remmers to a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $7 million.