What could turn out to be the best NFL free agency signings of 2021

NFL free agency has begun, and several game-changing names have already come off the board.

By Stone Lexington

Updated: March 19, 2021 • 8:20 PM ET

corey linsley.jpg

Corey Linsley - Wikimedia Commons

As the NFL Draft looms, the league’s free agency period has arrived. Below are the signings that could turn out to be the best acquisitions in free agency this year.


1. Corey Linsley - Los Angeles Chargers

Seeing Linsley at the top of this list may be a bit surprising, but protecting the quarterback (especially a second-year stud) is of the utmost importance in the NFL. A fifth-round selection in the 2014 draft out of Ohio State, Linsley has overwhelmingly outplayed his draft position. After seven seasons spent protecting Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay at center, Linsley will now be tasked with protecting one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, Justin Herbert. And after being named first-team All-Pro last season, the Chargers scooped up Linsley in free agency and signed him to a five-year, $62.5 million deal.


2. Joe Thuney - Kansas City Chiefs

After seeing Patrick Mahomes run for his life in the most recent Super Bowl, the Chiefs knew they had to bolster their offensive live. That task became even more pressing after both starting tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, were released earlier this month. And although he’s not a tackle, the addition of Thuney at guard should allow Mahomes to breathe a little easier — the Chiefs should expect nothing less from a player they handed a five-year, $80 million deal with the first two years fully guaranteed at $32.5 million. Kansas City is seeking another Super Bowl title, and Thuney has experience winning championships, as he is a two-time champion from his previous stint in New England with the Patriots. Only Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce has played more snaps than Thuney since the latter entered the league in 2016.


3. Shaquil Barrett - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After the premier outside linebacker helped Tampa Bay win a Super Bowl last season, re-signing Barrett had to be a top priority. A pass-rushing extraordinaire, Barrett was part of a fearsome defense that helped the Bucs win their first Super Bowl since 2002. And despite his sack total dipping from 19.5 to eight in 2020, the Bucs rewarded Barrett with a four-year, $72 million deal with $36 million fully guaranteed. In return, Tampa Bay hopes Barrett can come closer to that 19.5 sack total he amassed in 2019.

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4. John Johnson - Cleveland Browns

When the Browns drafted safety Grant Delpit in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft and he subsequently suffered a season-ending injury before the season ever began, Cleveland was left without a supremely promising player. With the former Thorpe award winner expected back from an Achilles tendon tear this season, though, pressure to perform has been taken off his shoulders with the Browns’ signing of former Los Angeles Rams safety John Johnson. Cleveland signed Johnson this week to a three-year, $33.75 million deal with $24 million guaranteed, giving the Browns an intriguing safety group that includes Ronnie Harrison, who filled in admirably for Cleveland a season ago. The Browns were a middle-of-the-road defense last season, and Johnson’s playmaking ability should help the unit improve next season. A captain and defensive signal-caller in Los Angeles last season, the 25-year-old Johnson played all 16 games and totaled 105 tackles with eight passes defended. The Browns seem to have every position filled with talent on offense, and Johnson should help the unit on the other side of the ball take a major step forward.

5. Trent Williams

If the San Francisco 49ers wanted to keep premier left tackle Trent Williams, they knew they would have to cough up a ton of cash. The 49ers did just that when they gave Williams a six-year, $138.06 million deal this week, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. The numbers only get more staggering from there, as $55.1 million of the deal is guaranteed with a $30.1 million signing bonus. Considering how talented the eight-time Pro Bowler is, it isn’t surprising that San Francisco did everything they could to keep one of the best offensive lineman in the league.

6. Yannick Ngakoue - Las Vegas Raiders

In the 2019 NFL Draft, the Las Vegas Raiders selected Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick over names like Devin White, Josh Allen, T.J. Hockenson and Devin Bush. Unfortunately for Raiders fans, Ferrell has been one of the biggest busts of that draft class thus far. The Clemson product was expected to replace the production that Khalil Mack walked out the door with, but that hasn’t come to fruition. After posting 38 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his rookie season, Ferrell seemed to regress in his second season, totaling only 27 tackles and two sacks in 11 games. Hence, the Raiders turned to free agency this year to bolster their edge-rushers. Las Vegas signed disruptive sack artist Yannick Ngakoue to a two-year, $26 million deal this week, a defender who has never totaled less than eight sacks in a season in his five-year career. Partially due to Ferrell’s lack of production, the Raiders ranked 30th in sacks per game last season (1.3). With Ngakoue in the fold, that total should go up.


7. Romeo Okwara - Detroit Lions

After a very productive 2020 season with Detroit, Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara seems to be only scratching the surface. The 25-year-old Okwara totaled 10 sacks and forced three fumbles last season, production that triggered Detroit to re-sign him for three years worth $39 million. The Lions failed to make the playoffs in each of the last four seasons and their roster is in dire need of talent, so allowing good players to walk out the door isn’t beneficial. Seeing the player that Okwara has turned into has to be especially frustrating for New York Giants fans, as the team cut the Nigeria-born pass rusher in 2018.

8. Chris Carson

Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Seahawks have re-signed running back Chris Carson to a three-year, $24.625 million deal that voids after two years. Although Carson is a very talented running back, the move is a bit surprising considering the four-year pro received less than 12 carries per game last season, the lowest average attempts per game of his career. Following back-to-back 1,100-yard-plus seasons in 2018 and ’19, Carson received only 141 carries in 12 games last season, rushing for 681 yards. Carson, however, posted the best yards-per-carry rate of his career a season ago, rushing for 4.8 yards per touch. These numbers suggest that Carson could be one of the better running backs in the league next season, if he gets enough touches.