The 2021 NFL season is officially in the books. The Los Angeles Rams hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as confetti rained down upon them in the friendly confines of SoFi Stadium. The star-studded squad featured a mix of homegrown players, marquee trade acquisitions and a handful of key free agents who made critical contributions down the stretch.
Odell Beckham and Eric Weddle, in particular, were in-season signings who played major roles for the Rams in the playoffs. The veterans joined the team on bargain-basement deals, but played like all-stars in the tournament to help the franchise win its second Super Bowl.
With the Cincinnati Bengals also making it all the way to Super Bowl Sunday behind some key contributions from offseason additions, I think this is the perfect time to survey the league to determine which free agents gave their teams the most bang for the buck. Here are the 10 best free-agent signings of the 2021 season:
Credit Duke Tobin and Zac Taylor for inking the former third-round pick to a blockbuster deal to upgrade the Bengals’ pass rush. Hendrickson has tallied 27.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including a career-best 14.0 sacks in 2021. With the veteran energizing the unit via his non-stop motor and disruptive play at the line of scrimmage, the Bengals’ defense emerged as a championship-caliber unit.
It took nearly a decade for an NFL coaching staff to figure out how to maximize the 2013 first-round pick’s skills as a hybrid playmaker, but kudos to this Falcons staff. Patterson amassed 1,100-plus scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns in 2021 while flourishing as a part-time running back in Atlanta. Most importantly, the veteran emerged as the offense’s top playmaker and the No. 1 option on Arthur Smith’s call sheet.
New England Patriots
The three-time Pro Bowler quickly embraced the Patriot Way as the team’s top defender. Judon led New England with 12.5 sacks while displaying a diverse repertoire of pass-rush moves off the edge. With Bill Belichick tapping into the veteran’s versatility and high IQ, the Pats’ marquee free-agent addition merited the four-year, $56 million deal he signed last March.
Credit general manager Tom Telesco for writing a big check to protect his franchise quarterback with the best pivot in football. The Pro Bowler steadied the Chargers’ offensive line with stout play, high football IQ and exceptional communication skills. As a rugged orchestra conductor at the line of scrimmage, Linsley organized the chaos in front of Justin Herbert to help the young passer thrive in the pocket.
Reuniting the one-time Pro Bowler with his former head coach (Gus Bradley) sparked a renaissance for the sixth-year pro. Ngakoue notched double-digit sacks (10.0) for the first time since 2017 and helped the Raiders’ front line become a more disruptive unit. With the veteran joining Maxx Crosby to create a formidable tandem on the edges, the Raiders are well-positioned to continue to wreak havoc on opponents on passing downs, even with Bradley heading to Indianapolis in 2022.
The veteran sparked the Chiefs’ O-line makeover with his rock-solid play in the trenches. Thuney’s physicality and nastiness not only set the tone for the unit, but his knock-back power enabled Kansas City to morph into a smashmouth football team at times. With the sixth-year pro also skilled at stymying interior pass rushers, the Chiefs’ O-line improvement started with No. 62’s arrival.
Who would have expected Conner to post the second-most rushing touchdowns (15) in the league after joining the Cardinals on a one-year, $1.75 million deal? The veteran surprised the football world with his production and performance as a goal-line specialist with playmaking ability in the passing game. Conner’s emergence as a prolific scorer added a dimension to the offense that enabled Arizona to get out to a fast start on the way to securing a playoff berth.
The former No. 1 overall pick remains a freak athlete with disruptive potential as an edge defender. Although he has failed to consistently dominate over the course of his eight-year career, Clowney put together one of his best seasons in 2021 with 9.0 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles in 14 starts. With Myles Garrett commanding most of the attention on the other side, Clowney’s re-emergence as a five-star sidekick could lead to a bigger payday and an extended stay in the Dawg Pound.
Reddick’s reunion with his old Temple coaches (Matt Rhule and Phil Snow) showed the football world how to best utilize his talents as an edge defender. The former No. 13 overall pick notched 11.0 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 18 QB hits and a pair of forced fumbles reprising his role as a speed rusher for his college defensive coordinator. With a résumé that features 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons, the 27-year-old should be a hot commodity when the free-agent market opens in a few weeks.
New England Patriots
After signing the former undrafted free agent to a three-year, $15 million deal in the offseason, the Patriots watched Bourne flourish as a part-time No. 1 receiver in the passing game. The 26-year-old posted career highs in receptions (55) and receiving yards (800) while also adding five touchdowns in a dink-and-dunk offense that distributes the ball evenly to all pass catchers on the perimeter.