The 2021 NFL offseason has kept fans and teams alike on their toes. Just like every year, NFL free agency winners and losers have emerged, but the one similarity they’ve experienced is change. First, we have the uncertainty of the quarterback carousel and superstars like Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. Matters were made more complicated when the salary cap was lowered by eight percent.
As a result of the cap going down, teams have had to move on from players to make up for the cap decreasing. The Kansas City Chiefs moving on from pro bowl tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz is evidence of that. So who are the NFL free agency winners and losers given what they’re working against?
NFL Free Agency Winners and Losers
Winner: New England Patriots
The New England Patriots are the biggest winners, and that’s thanks to Bill Belichick. Before the offseason, the Patriots were talked about as a team that could start a rebuild and misses the playoffs. Instead of rebuilding, Belichick countered by spending in free agency in a way we’ve never seen from him. As a result, the Patriots sit atop of the NFL free agency winners and losers list. The main losses are offensive linemen Marcus Cannon and Joe Thuney are gone, along with Patrick Chung who opted out last year and is now retired.
Belichick started with signing a pair of the league’s most promising young tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. A year ago, Belichick’s tight ends caught just 15 catches for 238 yards. Smith is one of the best in the league at yards after the catch, and Henry has top-five potential at the position if he can stay healthy. Along with them, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne were brought in to help a weak wide receiver group.
Finally, Belichick was able to address one of the worst pass-rushing units from 2020. Bringing in Matt Judon gives them a legitimate edge rusher who can win one on one matchups. And reuniting with veteran Kyle Van Noy was a smart, safe choice. Trading for Trent Brown brings back a familiar and reliable face at left tackle. While the return of Dont’a Hightower will bring a vocal leader the defense badly needs. The Patriot’s biggest obstacle to the postseason is the quarterback play. Either Cam Newton or someone else will have to be an upgrade over what they got from the position last year.
Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers
Although the drama surrounding Ben Roethlisberger is put to rest, he’ll be walking into a much different-looking locker room than he expected in his swan song season. Since the start of free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been strapped for cash and have seen the departure of many veterans. Roethlisberger’s longtime favorite teammate Maurkice Pouncey retired while Mike Hilton signed with rival Cincinnati Bengals. Bud Dupree left for Tennessee, Vince Williams was a cap casualty, and JuJu Smith-Schuster had told teammates he’s likely gone. He’s since re-signed.
Out of the NFL free agency winners and losers, the Steelers are losing the most because their super bowl window has been slammed shut. The offensive line is getting a makeover, with four of the five starters from week one being replaced. And after being the league’s most ineffective rushing attack last year, they’ll have a new running back in place of James Conner. Considering how much they’re losing and how little cash they have, the Steelers are going to have to nail the draft to build for the future.
To not be entirely negative, the Steelers still have one of the league’s premier defenses. T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Stephon Tuitt are all-pro caliber players. And veterans like Joe Haden and Cameron Heyward won’t allow the defense to slip too much. But the loss of Williams could come back to bite them. All they have at coverage linebacker now is Devin Bush coming off an ACL injury, safety turned linebacker Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane. At this point the Steelers Super Bowl window appears over, so 2021 will be about Big Ben’s final season in the Steel City.
Winner: Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team is in a better position to challenge for the NFC East than they were last year when they won it. All the NFL free agency winners and losers have lost some good talent from last season. But the Football Team is primarily adding good players to support an already talented team.
For starters, adding Curtis Samuel will make life for Terry McLaurin a lot easier. Samuel can do whatever coaches ask him to do in their offense and is only 24. Since McLaurin entered the league, he’s been the primary focus of opposing defenses. But now he’ll have someone to take defenders’ eyes off of him and should see a jump in production as a result. Rising sophomore Antonio Gibson should also see the field open up thanks to Samuel’s presence.
Much like the Patriots, the biggest obstacle in Washington’s way for a playoff birth is quarterback play. They released Alex Smith, re-signed Taylor Heinicke who showed flashes, and brought in 39-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick. On the surface, a 39-year-old quarterback doesn’t align with the youth of the Football Team’s core pieces. But Fitzpatrick is still capable of winning games, and at worse is an invaluable mentor to Heinicke or anyone else they bring in.
Their defense is the biggest strength of the team and only got stronger by replacing Ronald Darby with William Jackson III. Jackson has shown he’s capable of being one of the better man-to-man corners in football, and should only make the third-best passing defense from a year ago better. Ryan Kerrigan and needs a new contract, but the majority of the ferocious front seven from last year will be back. They might not get flashy wins, but the Football Team is going to win plenty of games with this improved balance.
Loser: New Orleans Saints
Last but not least, arguably the NFL’s best-constructed roster of the last four years is starting to disband. It’s surreal that in the last four years of Drew Brees‘s career, he was surrounded by arguably the NFL’s most complete roster and wasn’t able to make a Super Bowl. Sean Payton is looking at a different offense now that doesn’t include Brees, Emmanuel Sanders, or Jared Cook on offense. Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will have their work cut out for them if some more weapons at wide receiver and tight end aren’t brought in.
On defense, Cameron Jordan will have to pick up the slack left by the departures of Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks last year), Kwon Alexander, and Malcolm Brown. One of the biggest strengths of the New Orleans Saints‘ four-year run was a pass rush that finished fifth in sacks in 2018, third in 2019, and eighth in 2020. In the secondary, Janoris Jenkins departs, but most of that group will remain intact. Expect the Saints to address the defensive line and linebacker positions in the draft as they’re still six million dollars below the cap.
The Saints will still be competitive in 2021. Obviously replacing a legend like Brees is going to be an impossible task. But Winston and Hill are surrounded by one of the best offensive lines in football, and still have Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. But considering the losses on defense and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bringing the band back together, the days of assuming the Saints will win the division are over.
Free Agency Still Has Quality Players Left
Being on the list of NFL free agency winners and losers doesn’t mean your offseason is decided. At the time of this being written, there are lots of big names left on the free agency board. Among the biggest names is legendary corner Richard Sherman. Each of these signings could change who’s winning and losing in free agency. Also be sure to watch out for trades, especially as draft season gets closer.