NFL free agency: Breaking down the six best deals so far

Watch as Kyle Brandt joins Ken Reid to discuss if the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears have made the right deals in NFL free agency.

Free agency is still young, but we've already seen plenty of solid signings and significant spending sprees this week as teams retool, rebuild and start afresh with the new league year.

As we eagerly anticipate more deals to come – particularly in the deep wide receiver market – here’s a look at our favourite deals signed so far.

John Johnson III

Position: Safety
Team: Cleveland Browns
Contract: Three years, $33.75 million

Cleveland had a singular focus to open free agency — get the top safety on the market — and they did exactly that, signing Johnson to a deal that recognizes the player's worth without breaking the bank.

In Johnson, the Browns get a massive upgrade to a secondary that struggled mightily last year. Cleveland's safety group was its biggest weakness in 2020, earning league-worst grades. It will now roll out the young dynamic trio of Johnson (25), Ronnie Harrison (23) and Grant Delpit (22), who spent his entire rookie season sidelined with an Achilles injury.

The Browns have also gotten themselves a proven defensive leader who can call the shots on the field, is loved by his teammates and is a force in the community.

In addition, this signing marks a significant turning point in the franchise, going from a perpetual rebuild to a contender where big-name players choose to land. Johnson showed that enthusiasm with a personal address to Browns fans on Wednesday.

According to Browns reporter Mary Kay Cabot, Johnson’s agents said he turned down “significantly more money” to join the Browns. — Emily Sadler

Trent Williams

Position: Left tackle
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Contract: Six years, $138 million

At first glance, the signing of a 32-year-old left tackle to a six-year record-breaking contract could appear short-sighted from a team standpoint, but I love this deal for both sides.

In Williams, the 49ers lock up one of the NFL’s best players to solidify one of the most important positions in the game for the foreseeable future. And for Williams, the deal is a fitting reward after what has been a roller-coaster ride over the last few seasons – from a cancer misdiagnosis in Washington to a season out of football to a return to the pinnacle of his sport over the course of two years.

Williams bet on himself, and he won big. Now he’s got the largest-ever salary for an offensive lineman to show for it, and 49ers GM John Lynch doesn’t have to worry about left tackle for the next half-decade. — Geoff Lowe

Shaq Barrett

Position: Linebacker/Edge
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Contract: Four years, $72 million

The salary cap can be a ruthless opponent, but the Super Bowl champs are taking no prisoners.

Almost tougher than actually winning the Super Bowl is keeping a victorious team together, and Tampa Bay brass have (mostly) accomplished that with the franchise tagging of receiver Chris Godwin, the re-signing of linebacker Lavonte David, the extension (and restructuring) of Tom Brady's pact, and finally, on Tuesday, the signing of Shaq Barrett to a four-year contract to keep this core intact and poised to run it back.

Now that’s some salary cap magic.

Since joining the Buccaneers in 2019, Barrett has put up a league-leading 111 pressures and the second-most sacks (27.5) behind only the Steelers' T.J. Watt. Barrett and the Bucs’ defence were an absolute force in 2020 and throughout the club’s Super Bowl run, making even Patrick Mahomes look pedestrian when faced with wave after wave of pressure. — Emily Sadler

William Jackson III

Position: Cornerback
Team: Washington Football Team
Contract: Three years, $40.5 million

In William Jackson, Washington was able to add arguably the top cornerback available on the free agent market without having to hand out top-10 cornerback money to do it. Jackson’s $13.5-million AAV ranks 12th among players at the position, according to Spotrac.

Pairing Jackson, an excellent cover corner, with Kendal Fuller gives Washington a formidable starting duo, and makes the job of getting after the quarterback for the Football Team’s already dominant defensive line all the easier.

Jackson joins a Washington defence that was among the best in the league in its first year under Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio, and gives the team a big upgrade at a vital position. — Geoff Lowe

Jonnu Smith & Hunter Henry

Position: Tight end
Team: New England Patriots
Contracts: Four years, $50 million (Smith); three years, $37.5 million (Henry)

NFL Network insider Tom Pelissero summed up the New England Patriots’ spending spree perfectly with this: Rome wasn't built in a day, but the 2021 Patriots might be.

As thrilling as it was uncharacteristic, the big spending we saw from Bill Belichick (and his dog?) instantly thrust the Patriots back into the league's spotlight after struggling through a 7-9 season and watching as Tom Brady won it all.

On the seriously long list of signings, two stand out as particularly Belichickian in style: Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Not because of their price tags – BB rarely spends like this – but because of their position and versatility.

As we know from those two decades of success, Belichick is a big believer in having two capable and versatile tight ends to act as pillars of blocking and offence. Smith brings the dynamic pass-catching and athleticism of a wide receiver with the versatility of a tight end, while Henry brings a skillset Belichick has long admired.

The question still remains: Is Cam Newton the right guy to lead this club? Your weapons are only as good as the guy throwing to them, after all. But Newton’s had his biggest success when paired with an elite tight end, and it’s clear now that this club is doing everything it can to set him up for more. — Emily Sadler

Joe Thuney

Position: Guard
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Contract: Five years, $80 million

Think all the way back to Feb. 7 and Super Bowl LV — what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it’s Patrick Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, running for his life as he single-handedly tried to keep his Chiefs in the game with zero help from his offensive line.

Evidently, that is the lasting image for K.C. general manager Brett Veach, too, as the Chiefs made it a priority on Day 1 of free agency to make Joe Thuney, the top guard available, the highest-paid player at the position.

Thuney, a two-time Super Bowl champion during his time in New England who can play anywhere in the interior of the offensive line, should do plenty to help ease the Chiefs’ concerns. And at just 28, they could be getting his best years.

The Chiefs don’t appear to be done after signing Thuney, either. They’ve also reportedly lured former Bears guard Kyle Long out of retirement after being part of the Trent Williams sweepstakes until the very end.

If the Chiefs are putting pen to paper to better protect Mahomes, that’s a winning strategy in my books. — Geoff Lowe

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