From winners and losers, to sleepers and a quarterback carousel: Breaking down a wild 2021 NFL free agency

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NFL fans were spoiled this offseason with a barrage of Ian Rapoport and Adam Schefter tweets. We had big names getting traded left and right, a ton of players switching teams and one of the larger quarterback carousels in recent history. With teams retooling and recalibrating for Super Bowl contention, The Daily Californian’s sports department gives you a recap and analysis of a wild 2022 NFL free agency.

Who was the biggest winner and the biggest loser of free agency?

Kenzo Fukuda: My biggest winner is also my biggest loser: Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins spent the offseason primarily upgrading their offense for new head coach and offensive guru Mike McDaniel. The big ticket name is Tyreek Hill, who will pair nicely with Jaylen Waddle, but they also added nice personnel pieces such as Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, strengthened their O-line with Connor Williams and Terron Armstead and retained key pieces in Mike Gesicki and Emmanuel Ogbah. So while Tagovailoa has been given all of the tools to succeed, he also has no more excuses for his lackluster play. We’re looking at a make or break for Tagovailoa with a team he should be able to find success with. If not, the Dolphins have two first rounders next year to solve their quarterback issues.

Max Mullins: My biggest free agency winner is another quarterback: Derek Carr. The Raiders entered the offseason with a tremendous amount of uncertainty after head coach Jon Gruden resigned midseason. Special teams coordinator and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia filled in admirably, guiding the Silver and Black to a playoff berth, but the team decided to part ways after the season. It was fair to wonder what Carr’s future with the team would hold in an offseason that promised plenty of quarterback movement. Instead of trading him, however, the Raiders got Carr an offensive-minded head coach in former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and an elite No. 1 receiver (and former college teammate) in Davante Adams — and they may even sign him to a hefty extension. Carr is set up for a big season in 2022, with arguably the best coaching staff and supporting cast he has had since the team drafted him in 2014.

My biggest loser is Jacksonville, a choice with a much shorter explanation. Quantity does not equal quality. The Jaguars were incredibly active in free agency, but they paid out a ridiculous amount of guaranteed money for players who are not elite, including Evan Engram, Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Foyesade Oluokun. Unless the team turns around quickly, many of these signings will likely end up cut for salary cap space in the next few years.

Ryan Sheehan: My biggest winner is newly minted Buffalo Bill Von Miller. The Super Bowl champion defensive end just inked a six-year deal with the Bills to make himself one of the highest-paid defenders in the NFL. With $45 million guaranteed, Miller will be paid handsomely while he tries to help Buffalo win its first Super Bowl title. Like he did for the Rams, Miller could be the piece the Bills need to go from contender to champion. And if this long-term gamble pays off on the veteran defender, Miller will become only the second player in NFL history with three Super Bowl rings from three different teams. Now 33 years old, Miller may very well retire as a Bill and as one of the most decorated defenders to play the game.

My biggest loser has to be Baker Mayfield. This crazy offseason featured an end to the football side of the Deshaun Watson frenzy. For Mayfield, this already controversial story did not have a happy ending. The Browns’ front office found a way to lure the Pro Bowler Watson to Cleveland for a war chest of draft capital and a historic amount of guaranteed money. Just a day prior to the move, Mayfield asked the Browns for a trade, which was refused. Now, not yet two years removed from an impressive playoff run, Mayfield looks to be out of a job in Cleveland. Even more difficult for Baker and his agent, the yearly game of quarterback musical chairs is almost over; and right now, the former Heisman Trophy winner is without a chair to sit on.

What was the high-value move that snuck under the radar?

KF: Call me biased, but I want to say that my 49ers sneakily grabbed one of the better secondary guys in Charvarius Ward. He’s certainly not a household name, but he is an elite cornerback. Ward has allowed 49.8 completion percentage since 2019, the lowest in the league. He’s a quality cornerback, something the Niners were sorely lacking in last season. Injuries to Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley left San Franciscos decimated on the outside. The team ranked a measly 18th by Pro Football Focus’ secondary analytical database, thanks in part to its league-high 21 pass interference calls. With Ward signed for the next three years, the Niners addressed their secondary concerns. But more importantly, an extra corner means less plays for Josh Norman, who posted a disgusting 47.4 coverage grade and allowed a whopping 125.0 passer rating when targeted.

MM: One move that stands out to me is the Vikings adding pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, who was released by the Packers. Smith missed all but one game last season after back surgery, so the move comes with some risk. However, the Vikings got him on a team-friendly, three-year $42 million deal that allows Minnesota to pay as it goes with minimal guaranteed money and only a $3.3 million dollar cap hit in the first year. For the upside of an edge rusher with 26 sacks and two Pro Bowl nods across the 2019 and 2020 seasons, that is a steal.

RS: Running back Mostert to the Dolphins. As if Miami’s offense was not loaded enough, Tagovailoa gets another great piece in the backfield. Mostert, who has had several strong seasons for the 49ers, joins McDaniel, his former offensive coordinator in San Francisco. The Dolphins picked up Mostert on a one-year, $3.125 million deal to bolster their run game, which was in the middle of the pack last year. With this pickup among many other offensive additions, Tagovailoa is getting all the help he needs for his “prove-it” year in Miami.

After the carousel of quarterbacks has finally stopped spinning (for now), which new quarterback on their new team is poised to be more successful than expected?

KF: The Steelers signing Mitch “The Biscuit” Trubisky is a move I never expected to like, but nonetheless, here I am. Last season’s Steelers simply needed a quarterback who wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger. The defense and Najee Harris were elite enough to drag Big Ben to a seventh seed — imagine what that team could do with a quarterback who can (sort of) throw down field! He’s a quarterback who raises the floor for a very talented Pittsburgh roster, a bandage on the quarterback gap left in the post-Roethlisberger era. Trubisky isn’t flawless, but considering the other options, such as taking Jimmy Garoppolo’s monster contract or starting Mason Rudolph, the Steelers did well to grab Trubisky at a cheap price.

MM: The last time Matt Ryan was considered elite, he had a star wide receiver in Julio Jones, a great ground attack lead by Devonta Freeman and an offensive genius in Kyle Shanahan as his coordinator. By the end of his tenure in Atlanta, Ryan had none of that support. With that being said, Ryan has been incredibly solid for almost his entire Falcons tenure. The last time he posted a passer rating lower than 89 was in 2009. This offseason, the Colts somehow managed to gain draft capital by shipping Carson Wentz to the Commanders and acquiring Ryan, and they secured a significant, albeit aging, upgrade in the process. Though he might go under the radar due to the Falcons’ lack of recent success, Ryan could exceed expectations with a new team with some exciting weapons in Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. and great protection with Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith.

RS: The last time Russell Wilson was in a Super Bowl, he threw a goal-line interception that was picked off by Malcolm Butler to seal the game. After Super Bowl 49, Wilson’s Seahawks steadily declined. The Legion of Boom was quickly disbanded, and this year marked the first time in Wilson’s career that he ended a season with a losing record. Now a Denver Bronco, Wilson has a chance to recapture the glory of a Lombardi. Though Denver’s current defense is a far cry from its 2016 team that captured Super Bowl 50, it should improve with the arrivals of key box players Randy Gregory and D.J. Jones, among other additions. Super Bowl 50 also marked the last time the Broncos fielded a Pro Bowl quarterback, and it shows. Denver’s offense has outright suffered since the days of Peyton Manning’s record-breaking run. Despite the shared years of pain, Wilson inherits a team who has the potential to keep pace in a loaded AFC West. Broncos faithful and Wilson alike might just be in for a impressive return to playoff form this upcoming season.

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