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Saturday, June 19, 2021

2021 NFL free agency: Analytics-based player-team fits

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There are multiple factors that go into free agent signings, like team need, contract cost and player preference — and all factors must be carefully considered by teams in order to determine the potential consequences an addition will have on the entire roster. Given the added uncertainty of this particular offseason, in which the salary cap was lowered from last season, we could be in store for one of the most interesting free agency periods to date.

Before the action gets going in earnest, it’s worth taking a look at where some of the biggest names would add the most wins to a team in need in 2021.

The method I used to create an analytics-based perspective on where some of the most notable free agents would have the greatest impact was to measure which team they’d add the most wins to in 2021. I took my win-share model — which, as explained here, is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense — and matched the free agents with all the teams with needs at their position. Using each team’s current roster (and what’s missing from it), this model maximizes where each free agent would add the most wins in 2021, also taking into account scheme fit and cap space (per Over The Cap).

Like I said, there are a lot of considerations in free agent signings. This is just one lens to look through — where some of the biggest free agents project to add the most wins in 2021, given what we know right now. While I purposefully kept this exercise simple, a team could use a model like this, in conjunction with other tools, to help evaluate the overall free agency landscape and create a strategy for targeting optimal players at a cost that works for their cap situation.

Cam Newton

Washington Football Team

Projected to add: 3.64 wins. 

Next Gen Stats shows that last season as a Patriot, Newton’s pressure-evaded percentage was at 12.1, 14th highest in the NFL. Washington’s QBs, meanwhile, combined for a passer rating under pressure of 48.3, fourth-worst. Given that the 31-year-old Newton is likely to command a relatively affordable salary coming off a down year in New England, Washington would be free to add to the Terry McLaurin-led receiving corps. When you factor in Washington’s defense and the combined rushing efficiencies of Newton and Antonio Gibson, signing Newton as a veteran stopgap could help Washington win this season while also leaving them room to potentially draft a QB and acquire more talent to build for the future.

Aaron Jones

New York Jets

Projected to add: 1.48 wins.

I realize Jets backers could still be experiencing some PTSD from the unfavorable outcome produced by the team’s last big free-agent splash at the running back position, when they signed Le’Veon Bell. But Jones is a different rusher than Bell, and the fit I see makes it far likelier that New York would get what it paid for with Jones. Last season, Jones gained 167 rushing yards over expectation on inside rushes (third-most in the NFL, per NGS). The 2020 Jets’ running backs, meanwhile, averaged the third-fewest yards per inside rush, with 3.4. 

Bud Dupree

Las Vegas Raiders

Projected to add: 1.24 wins.

Despite losing the last five regular-season games of 2020 to a torn ACL, Dupree is tied for the second-most turnovers caused by pressure since 2019 (he has nine), per NGS. The Raiders had just a 25 percent pressure rate last season, which was tied for 14th-lowest in the NFL. Addressing pass defense — and especially pressure — via free agency (also by looking for defensive backs) is especially important in the AFC West. 

Kenny Golladay

Philadelphia Eagles

Projected to add: 1.24 wins.

Since 2018, Golladay has earned 27.5 yards per game on deep passes, the third most in the NFL (among players who have played at least 30 games), per NGS. Last season, Eagles wideouts caught just 27.8 percent of deep targets (the seventh-lowest rate). Acquiring a true deep-threat WR doesn’t just boost the deep-passing game; it also makes it possible to spread out the defense and increase the potential for players running shorter routes to catch the ball. With tight end Zach Ertz likely to part ways with the Eagles, Golladay would make life easier for presumed starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, not just on the perimeter but by helping the rest of the pass-catchers significantly. 

Trey Hendrickson

New York Jets

Projected to add: 1.12 wins.

Last season, Hendrickson had a pressure rate of 16.3 percent, which was third-highest in the NFL (among those with a minimum of 200 pass-rushing snaps, per NGS). The Jets got to opposing QBs on just 19 percent of pass rushes when rushing four or fewer (fourth-lowest). 

JuJu Smith-Schuster

New York Giants

Projected to add: 1.11 wins.

I really wanted to list two teams here, just to show the impact that a slot receiver can have, especially in the red zone. As for Smith-Schuster’s fit with the Giants, eight of his nine touchdowns in 2020 came from the slot (tied for the most, with Travis Kelce, per NGS). New York QBs had a passer rating when targeting the slot of just 82.3 last season, second-lowest in the NFL. On a roster that also boasts a returning Saquon Barkley, Smith-Schuster could easily fulfill the role of a No. 1 WR.

Now, Smith-Schuster also projects to add a healthy 1.07 wins with the Cardinals, were he to join Arizona (presuming Larry Fitzgerald begins the countdown clock to his Canton induction by retiring). Smith-Schuster aligned in the slot on 75 percent of plays in 2020, a career high for him, and Arizona averaged just 7 yards per target from the slot as a team in 2020 (sixth-lowest). Combining Smith-Schuster with DeAndre Hopkins would drive so much value that the Cardinals could strategically pull off not re-signing running back Kenyan Drake along with not overpaying for O-line help — GASP! (That latter factor is based on the assumption Arizona will be able to take advantage of cap casualties who end up on the market, who are likely to provide high return on investment.) 

Shaquil Barrett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected to add: 1.1 wins.

Barrett has racked up 127 QB pressures since 2019, when he first signed with Tampa, the most among edge defenders in that span, per NGS. The other Bucs edge defenders combined for just 117 QB pressures in that time frame. The point here is to keep Barrett, for two reasons: 1) the available, less-costly substitutes don’t provide enough value, and 2) the draft prospects available with pale in comparison. The takeaway is for Tampa to try to save money elsewhere.

Trent Williams

Miami Dolphins

Projected to add: 1.01 wins.

In the 14 games when Williams was on the field for the Niners last season, the line allowed just a pressure rate of 7.6 percent off the offensive left edge. When he wasn’t on the field, that number was 20.9 percent. For reference, the NFL average is 10 percent (per NGS). The Dolphins had the second-worst time to hurry last season, at 2.73 seconds. Adding a veteran presence would likely also help some of the younger players learn and adopt concepts faster, which is an exceptionally interesting benefit for Miami, which will have two offensive coordinators co-architecting their schemes.

Will Fuller

New York Jets

Projected to add: 0.86 wins.

Last season as a Texan, Fuller averaged 15.7 yards per target on pass attempts of 10-plus air yards, the fourth-highest in the NFL among players with a minimum of 25 targets, per NGS. The Jets’ receivers, meanwhile, averaged 8.4 yards per targets on such attempts, which was the third-lowest mark in the league. No matter who the quarterback ends up being, adding a deep threat, especially one with Fuller’s speed, changes the defensive game plan. This would be especially helpful if Denzel Mims is able to stay healthy.

Shaquill Griffin

Denver Broncos

Projected to add: 0.85 wins.

Since entering the league in 2017, Griffin has pressed on 41.2 percent of snaps when aligned as an outside corner (No. 20 in the NFL). Zero Broncos players pressed on more than 30 percent of snaps when aligned as a corner on the outside last season. The point here is, Griffin’s versatility drives exceptional value, when you take into account the combination of Denver’s pass rushers and the skill set of franchise-tagged safety Justin Simmons. (If the Broncos sign Griffin and complement that with a nasty rookie CB, they’ll be in great shape.)

Richard Sherman

New York Jets

Projected to add: 0.82 wins.

Yes, we come to another Jets fit — a sign of just how much work there is to do with this roster. There is a lot of value in both scheme familiarity (Sherman and new Jets head coach Robert Saleh spent the last three seasons together in San Francisco and previously worked together in Seattle) and the track record of excellence and teaching Sherman has embodied in his career. Last season, Sherman was only targeted on 13 percent of coverage snaps (fourth-lowest among outside CBs with a minimum of 150 coverage snaps, per NGS), while the Jets allowed a passer rating of 103.4 with five or fewer defensive backs on the field (eighth-highest). Adjust that passer rating for game script, and the picture from last season is even bleaker, which means the opportunity for Sherman to realize upside here is quite ripe. 

Curtis Samuel

Philadelphia Eagles

Projected to add: 0.81 wins.

Remember what I said about Kenny Golladay above? Well, my model really likes the Eagles’ chances if they were to combine both Golladay and Samuel, because of the spacing note I mentioned in Golladay’s blurb. In fact, the deep threat (Golladay) and slot dynamo (Samuel) would reinforce each other’s positive impacts. Samuel earned 527 yards from the slot last season in Carolina (seventh-most, per NGS), while the Eagles’ 2020 pass-catchers combined for just 1,148 total yards from the slot (ninth-fewest).

Corey Davis

Baltimore Ravens

Projected to add: 0.7 wins.

When aligned wide last season, Davis averaged 2.8 yards per route (fifth-most among those with a minimum of 150 routes, per NGS). The Ravens averaged 1.3 yards per route with players aligned wide last season, which was the second fewest. In other words, adding an incredibly efficient receiver to handle assignments that start from a wide alignment drives exceptional value here.

Hunter Henry

New England Patriots

Projected to add: 0.64 wins.

Since 2019, Henry has earned 656 yards in the middle third of the field, fifth-most among tight ends, per NGS. And that number would undoubtedly be more impressive had he been healthier and played in more games. Last season, the Pats’ tight ends combined to earn just 111 yards in the middle third of the field (tied for the second fewest). Henry’s presence would help make it easier for New England to solve for quarterback and receiver.

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