The best NFL free-agent signings in 2021 (so far)

When we talk about free agent signings, it’s always more fun to discuss the busts, unless you’re one of the guys responsible for signing a David Boston or Albert Haynesworth. But just as there are those mistakes in free agency that get people fired, there are also those moves that propel teams forward for the right price. You can ask the Buccaneers and a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback about that.

Through the start of the new league year, here are the signings and re-signings we think will make their teams the happiest in the 2021 season and beyond.

William Jackson, CB, Washington Football Team

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Last season, under head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Washington Football Team ranked third overall in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metric, and second only to the Steelers against the pass. Cornerbacks Kendall Fuller, Ronald Darby, Fabian Moreau, and Jimmy Moreland allowed a total of nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, and with Darby off to the Broncos on a three-year, $30 million deal, it was time for reinforcements. Instead of an average reinforcement, the Football Team agreed to terms with the best cornerback in the 2021 free agency class, and one of the five best man coverage cornerbacks in the NFL. Former Bengals defender William Jackson becomes the Football Team’s newest cornerback, and he could be the one guy to take Washington’s defense from No. 2 to No. 1. Per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Washington nabs Jackson on a three-year, $42 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. That is CB2 money for a CB1, which is as good as it gets. Last season in a Bengals defense that helped nobody from a schematic standpoint, Jackson allowed 36 receptions on 69 targets for 537 yards, 169 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 86.4. But when Jackson is utilized in ways that best show his skill set, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Last May, I ranked Jackson as the NFL’s ninth-best cornerback in man coverage, and here’s what I wrote about him back then:

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Not much went right for Cincinnati’s bottom-feeding defense in 2019, but Jackson was a rare standout in a positive sense. Though he struggled with injuries in the second half of the season, An outstanding boundary cornerback who was negatively affected at times by some perplexing safety “help” looks, Jackson seemed more comfortable when he could just erase his target on his own. Last season, Jackson did allow one touchdown in man coverage (which the Bengals used on just 33% of their snaps), but aside from that, he gave up just 10 catches on 28 targets for 159 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.1% — good for fourth-best in the league.

Well, at least Jackson was stalwart in this regard in 2020, though Cincinnati’s coverage was still a whole lot of sad trombone, as it has generally been under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Unless you believe that going from 29th in pass defense DVOA in 2019 to 27th in 2020 is a Great Big Thing, which I do not. In any event, Jackson was targeted 40 times in 227 man coverage snaps in 2020, allowing just 15 receptions for 187 yards, and a Positive Play Rate of 32.5%, which ranked fourth among cornerbacks with at least 25 targets in man coverage. Consistent? Admirably so at a position where you can quickly find yourself on the dark side pretty quickly. Jackson is also a pretty decent zone cornerback — he allowed 16 completions on 27 targets for 292 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a Positive Play Rate of 44.4%. Jackson isn’t really a “bail-and-trail” boundary cornerback in the traditional sense — he’s more the guy you want pressed up against his receiver and following the route all the way though. Much better in man and match than spot-drop zone. If you play him off-coverage, you can wind up with things like this 50-yard completion from Deshaun Watson to Brandin Cooks against the Texans in Week 16.

(No, I’m not quite sure what the safety to Jackson’s side was doing here, either). Here, from the same game, is how you want Jackson to operate: Matching receiver Chad Hansen step-for-step from the start of the route, and nearly coming up with the pick as he breaks off to the ball.

It’s not easy to find great man cornerbacks, and even more difficult to find man cornerbacks who have Jackson’s consistency from year to year. He will be highly paid for that reason alone, and don’t be surprised if the Football Team — who played man coverage on just 24% of their defensive snaps last season, but allowed an EPA per play of -0.26, third-best in the league — doesn’t avail itself of more Cover-0, Cover-1, and 2-Man in the 2021 season and beyond.

Marvin Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Last season, the Jaguars finished 1-15, and their receiver corps was certainly part of the problem — targets with potential, but not a great deal of production. DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. are talents on the rise. But if the Jaguars are to present the most hospitable possible environment for Trevor Lawrence, they’ll need better. The Jaguars got better at the position on the cheap on Tuesday when they agreed to terms with former Bengals and Lions receiver Marvin Jones. Jones will get $14.5 million with $9.2 million guaranteed over the next two years, and that’s a great deal for a guy who, in 2020, would have led the Jaguars in targets by 22 (115 to Chark’s 93), in receptions by 18 (76 to Shenault’s 58), and in touchdowns by four (nine to the five posted by Chark, Shenault, and Keelan Cole). Jones has never been a WR1 in number — he has just one 1,000-yard season in his career — 2017 with the Lions, the same year he led the league in yards per reception at 18.0. The deep catch has always been a key component of Jones’ skill set. In 2020, he led the Lions with 11 catches of 20 or more air yards on 27 targets for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Pairing him with Chark in that regard gives Lawrence two vertical targets, and rounds out the Jacksonville receiver group quite nicely — for a relative pittance for a player of Jones’ abilities. Our friend Laurie Fitzpatrick, who analyzes Jaguars tape (and NFL and draft tape) very well, is impressed.

Nelson Agholor, WR/Hunter Henry, TE, New England Patriots

(Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

When looking at the Patriots’ impending free agents, you can spin it one of two ways: Either Bill Belichick is “overspending” to cover up mistakes he’s made in the draft, or he’s reacting to what was essentially a waste year in 2020 by loading up at positions of need. I tend to err on the latter, especially when it comes to two of those players. When the new league year turns over at 4:00 p.m. ET, former Chargers tight end Hunter Henry and former Eagles and Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor will officially become members of the Patriots’ offense, and that’s part of an overhaul of Cam Newton’s targets (or the targets of whoever is Belichick’s starting quarterback in 2021) that also includes ex-Titans tight end Jonnu Smith, and ex-49ers wideout Kendrick Bourne. It’s an interesting assemblage for a team that had precocious little in the way of target talent, and the combination of Henry and Smith will allow Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to run their preferred two-tight end sets. Last season, with Devin Asiasi and Ryan Izzo as their primary tight ends, New England ran formations with two tight ends on just eight dropbacks all season, per Sports Info Solutions. To put that in perspective, the Bills were second-lowest with 33 such dropbacks, and 18 different teams had more than 100 dropbacks with two tight ends in 2021. Clearly, Belichick wants his team to be one of them in 2021 and beyond. But for the purposes of this piece, let’s take a look at Henry and Agholor, and how they can combine forces to present one of the toughest formations and concepts to defend: The 3-by-1 set in which the tight end is the isolated receiver to the back side, and the speed receiver is the inside slot man to the front side. The Chiefs have been killing defenses with this, and while it helps when your tight end is Travis Kelce and your speed slot man is Tyreek Hill, there are specific reasons this idea can work for any team with the right personnel.

Why is this thing so illegal? Well, in the case of the Chiefs, especially when Hill runs the deep over route to the front side, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get a linebacker on Hill, which is an epic mismatch at the best of times. And if the target is Kelce — the “Y iso,” if you don’t bracket him, or if you don’t have a dominant cover linebacker like Lavonte David of the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, you’ve got issues in that your cornerbacks aren’t going to “out-physical” Kelce, your linebackers aren’t quick enough, and your safeties probably won’t get to him in time. Kelce’s pivot route above against Browns cornerback Denzel Ward — one of the best players at his position — is just nasty. How does this apply to the Patriots? Well, they used to run various “Y-iso” packages when they had Rob Gronkowski to put on the back side, and quick slot guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman on the inside to trips. Henry isn’t Gronk, but when he’s healthy, he’s proven able to fill that role quite well. On this 10-yard touchdown pass from Justin Herbert in Week 13 against the Raiders, Henry is lined up backside, detached from the formation, with trips to the front side, and Oakland’s defense can’t answer it. Henry just boxes cornerback Keisean Nixon off the screen, and it’s touchdown time. He’ll do that all day.

And on this 21-yard touchdown against the Colts in Week 14 for those very same Raiders, Agholor has the inside slot, and just burns through the middle of Indianapolis’ defense. Agholor led the Raiders in slot touchdowns last season with three, and he was also the team’s most productive deep receiver. Per Pro Football Focus, Agholor had 11 catches on 23 targets of 20 or more air yards for 444 yards and six touchdowns. Not quite on Hill’s level, but a lot closer than you may think. Last season, Hill had 13 deep catches on 33 targets for 475 yards and eight touchdowns.

Notice also that tight end Darren Waller, one of the best players at his position, is the backside iso opposite trips. You think Belichick and McDaniels have watched this? I do. So, the Patriots have the parts that fit, they have the history with it, and one suspects that when the 2021 season begins, they’ll not only match that eight dropbacks with two tight ends last season in the first quarter alone, but also that they’ll frequently try to vex defenses with the most indefensible formation in the NFL today.

Corey Linsley, C, Los Angeles Chargers

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

When you have a franchise quarterback, it behooves you to do everything possible to protect him. The Chargers unquestionably have That Guy in Justin Herbert, but in Herbert’s rookie season, per Pro Football Focus, he was pressured on 239 of his 653 dropbacks — only Russell Wilson was pressured more often. Center Dan Feeney was definitely part of the problem — in 729 pass-blocking snaps, he allowed four sacks, five quarterback hits, and 24 quarterback hurries. That tied him with Connor McGovern of the Jets for the most total pressures (33) allowed by any center. Now, with a five-year, $62.5 million deal given to former Packers center Corey Linsley (which, per Mike Garafolo and Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network, makes Linsley the league’s highest-paid center), the Chargers go from the bottom of the barrel to the NFL’s penthouse at the position. Linsley allowed just four total pressures last season on 437 pass-blocking snaps — the lowest pressure total in the NFL. Linsley is coming off one of his best seasons as a professional, as he allowed just a single sack during the regular season, back in Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was at times dominant as a run blocker, helping pave the way for the Packers talented stable of running backs. In terms of pass protection, according to charting data from Pro Football Focus he allowed just a pair of quarterback hits this past regular season, both of which came against the Chicago Bears in Week 17 (that is in addition to the sack allowed in Week 10 to the Jaguars). This play against the Detroit Lions highlights what he offers in terms of pass protection:

After delivering the shotgun snap, Linsley slides to the outside to meet the threat of the slanting defensive tackle. While the DT has a buildup of speed on his pass-rushing attempt, Linsley is able to control the defender and keep the pocket clean for Aaron Rodgers, giving his QB time to hit on a downfield throw. Linsley made Rodgers very happy for a long time, and he’ll do the same for Herbert.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Washington Football Team

Ryan Fitzpatrick has a new home, and he is entering the next training camp of his career as the expected starting quarterback of a playoff team. Last season the Washington Football Team finished with a 7-9 record, and that was enough to propel them to the NFC East title and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. They would lose that contest — to the eventual Super Bowl Champions — and rewarded the starting quarterback in that game, Taylor Heinicke, with a new contract. But understanding that the franchise cannot enter the 2021 campaign with just Heinicke as the potential starting quarterback, and sitting 19th overall in the first round, perhaps out of range of the top rookies in the incoming class, the team needed to make another move. That move has been made, as the organization reached an agreement with Fitzpatrick on a one-year deal worth $10 million and potentially up to $12 million with incentives. Why is this a great signing for Washington? Two big reasons. First, should Heinicke somehow emerge as the starting quarterback Fitzpatrick is the rare veteran QB who has been willing to take on the role of mentor: With his experience — and as we saw last season — Fitzpatrick can still step in with limited practice time and lead an offense. After all, this is the quarterback almost single-handedly threw the Miami Dolphins into playoff contention, and later in the season threw the Las Vegas Raiders out of playoff contention in dramatic fashion: And that leads us to the second bit of evidence bolstering why this is a great move for Washington: Fitzpatrick can still play. He might not put up massive numbers, but he is a veteran quarterback who can run the offense and accept defeat on a given play. Why might that matter? As we saw last season the strength of the Football Team is their defense. Sometimes, taking a sack or throwing the ball away on third down and letting the punt team come on the field might be a good move for Washington. This move gives the team much needed stability at the quarterback position, a veteran who has been willing to take on that mentorship role for younger players, and it allows the organization to address other needs in both free agency and the draft. Washington still might draft a quarterback at 19 should one fall. But they are not forced into that position. They have options. That is always a good thing.

John Johnson III, S, Cleveland Browns

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2020, the Browns went 11-5 and made the postseason for the first time since 2002. They did it with a roster that is stacked at most every position, but there was one major liability for the team, and that was the safety position. Cleveland selected LSU safety Grant Delpit with the 44th overall pick in the second round of the 2020 draft, but Delpit missed his entire rookie season due to a torn Achilles tendon he suffered in training camp. In place of Delpit, the Browns put four different safeties on the field: Sheldrick Redwine, Andrew Sendejo, Ronnie Harrison, and Karl Joseph, and those four players combined to allow 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Targeting former Rams safety John Johnson III to a three-year, $33.75 million deal with $24 million guaranteed is a great way to improve what should be a much better safety rotation with Johnson and a healthy Delpit. Coverage stats for safeties aren’t generally illustrative of their play on the field, and that tends to be more true at that position than others. To accurately discern responsibility for coverage is just tougher when you’re dealing with deep safeties who are more often than not coming down to stop plays than they are rolling deep with speed receivers. So when we reveal the 2020 coverage stats per Pro Football Focus for Johnson — 55 receptions allowed on 73 targets for 390 yards, 235 air yards, three touchdowns, one interception, nine pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 95.1 — you may think we’re talking about an average pass defender. Then, you see the plays Johnson makes all over the place, and his value becomes clearer .The nine pass deflections last season, though? Pay attention to that, because while Johnson isn’t a ballhawk in the traditional sense with just nine interceptions in his four-year career, he is a plus-level disruptor at the catch point. Watch, for example, how Johnson comes down in spun single-high coverage to slow-play Rob Gronkowski over the middle in Week 11, making Tom Brady think he’s got the throw to his old buddy, when he really doesn’t.

If you want positional versatility… well, Johnson played 164 snaps in the slot last season, and here in the wild-card round against the Seahawks, he’s just waiting to whack the heck out of D.K. Metcalf, one of the NFL’s most physical receivers, to interrupt yet another pass.

Johnson is also a fine run defender, and he’s got the 31 stops in the 2020 season to prove it. His interception numbers may not overwhelm, but that doesn’t stop Johnson from being one of the most complete safeties in the league — and a clear asset for any NFL defense. He was also the on-field shot-caller for Brandon Staley’s defense in 2020, so he’ll bring that acumen to a Browns defense that could really use it.

Romeo Okwara, EDGE, Detroit Lions

(Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)

The list of available pass-rushers has decreased by one when the Detroit Lions agreed to a deal with Romeo Okwara for the defender to stay with the organization. According to Ian Rapoport, the parties have agreed to a three-year deal worth $39 million dollars. Last year was a breakout campaign for Okwara, who posted career-high numbers in a few different defensive categories. In his fifth season, the undrafted Notre Dame alum posted 10 sacks, 29 quarterback hits, 30 quarterback hurries, nine knockdowns, and three forced fumbles. Long and lanky at 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds, Okwara uses his long legs like pistons off the snap for speed and momentum, and he can easily use his hands to get choppy with opposing offensive tackles to run by and get to the quarterback. Okwara might not be the most impressive athlete on the edge, but his technique is sound as highlighted here by The Scouting Academy: This move is a solid decision for the Detroit Lions for a number of reasons. First, with Markus Golden returning to the Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bringing back Shaq Barrett, the number of potential pass-rushers available on the market is dwindling fast. Second, this incoming class of rookies at the EDGE is intriguing, but uncertain. For example Jaelan Phillips might be the best of the group but he comes with some questions about his medical history. Azeez Ojulari is talented, but needs to fill in some of the blanks around that athleticism. Jayson Oweh is incredibly athletic, but people will question his lack of production in 2020. Joseph Ossai is explosive, but needs refinement. Rather than having to dip into that position early — and roll the dice — the Lions bring back a player they know can produce for them.

Kevin Zeitler, G, Baltimore Ravens

(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

The Baltimore Ravens have a very specific and unique offensive profile. They want Lamar Jackson to affect defenses almost as much as a runner as he does as a passer, and a lot of the rest of Baltimore’s run game works off Jackson’s athleticism and his constant threat as a runner. The Ravens also run more gap blocking than any other team, especially gap blocking with one or more pulling guards. These processes were complicated in 2020 with the retirement of Marshal Yanda, the eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro who had been a constant force for the team at right tackle and right guard (mostly right guard) from 2007 through 2019. But after Yanda’s retirement, and with Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips trying to fill Yanda’s right guard spot, Baltimore’s offense wasn’t quite as effective. That’s why the Monday signing of former Bengals and Giants right guard Kevin Zeitler is a big deal. Baltimore got Zeitler on a three-year, $22 million deal with $16 million fully guaranteed, per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network. It’s a great addition for the Ravens not only because Zeitler is still a great player in the abstract at age 31, but more specifically because he’s a perfect schematic fit for his new team. The Giants released Zeitler on March 10 to free up $12 million in 2021 cap space, but the cut was not based on performance. In 2020, per Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens ran gap blocking with one or more pulling guards in the run game on a league-leading 245 snaps, gaining a league-leading 1,518 yards, a league-leading 672 yards after contact, and a league-leading 13 touchdowns. The Giants in 2020 ran behind those kinds of blocking patterns on 125 snaps for 552 yards, 292 yards after contact, and one touchdown. Of course, the Giants didn’t have Lamar Jackson or Lamar Jackson’s running backs (especially with Saquon Barkleys injuries), but it speaks to the fact that Zeitler won’t have to start from scratch schematically. Zeitler also allowed just two sacks and 28 total pressures last season on 630 pass-blocking snaps last season, so he’ll help keep Jackson protected when he does drop back more than Jackson was last season. This is a great move for the Ravens — not that Zeitler is quite at Yanda’s future Hall of Fame level, but he’s still very good, and more importantly, he’s very good in the ways the Ravens need him to be.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Washington Football Team

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This is a tremendous move for the Washington Football Team, who are having themselves a great start to the off-season. First the club added quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and as we outlined here there are a number of reasons why that signing makes sense for the organization. But with a need at wide receiver, the Football Team made another move, adding WR Curtis Samuel, one of the more enticing wideouts available in free agency. Ian Rapoport was among those reporting the terms of the deal: Last year, his first season in Joe Brady’s offense, Samuel set career-high marks in receiving yardage, yards from scrimmage, receptions, first downs, rushing attempts, rushing yardage, and touches. Brady found a variety of ways to get Samuel involved in the offense, and teams looking for that type of Swiss army knife type of weapon are going to love what he did on film. Purely as a receiver, Samuel can fit in an offense either as a slot or a Z type of player, who can be effective to all levels of the field and offer a complex and varied route tree. Samuel was very efficient on routes working over the middle, being used in a manner similar to how Brady used Justin Jefferson two years ago in the LSU offense. Samuel shows a knack for finding soft spots in zone coverage on routes working across the field, and can even go up and high-point the football in contested catch situations. He is a WR2 type of player in most systems, and even offenses that run a heavy dosage of 12 personnel would love to have him as one of the two wide receivers on the field. And just think, his numbers last season could have even been better: Another thing that he brings to the table is toughness as well as versatility, and he put both on display on this play against his new team:

Scott Turner will love to design plays for Samuel, who now gets to operate with Terry McLaurin on the other side of the field. Washington is starting to put together a nice little offense, with McLaurin and Samuel on the outside, Logan Thomas growing into a solid NFL tight end, and running back Antonio Gibson and his own versatility. With a deep wide receiver draft class, Washington could find a third option at any point of the draft and really have a solid offense around their expected starting quarterback in Fitzpatrick.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Buffalo Bills

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Well, Josh Allen will not lack for slot targets in 2021. Last season for the Saints, Sanders caught 61 passes on 82 targets for 726 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season, adding eight catches on 12 targets for 51 yards in the postseason. He also led the Saints in slot targets with 26, slot catches with 19, slot yards with 184, and slot touchdowns with two. He was also New Orleans’ best deep receiver, catching six passes of 20 or more air yards on nine targets for 211 yards and one touchdown. Not bad for a receiver in an offense where the deep ball was an endangered species. Now, with Allen as one of the better deep throwers in the league, Sanders adds his quickness off the line and route savvy to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s four-receiver packages, and he can go inside and outside when Cole Beasley and the underrated Isaiah McKenzie are also on the field. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, only the Cardinals had more dropbacks with four receivers than Buffalo’s 155, and Allen completed 97 of 135 attempts for 1,093 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions in those four-receiver packages. Sanders could add to that efficiency, and for $6 million on a one-year deal, it’s easy to see why it makes sense. Sanders isn’t a WR1, but with Stefon Diggs on the team, he doesn’t need to be, and he’s a fine replacement for John Brown, who was released for salary cap reasons.

Alex Mack, C, San Francisco 49ers

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Alex Mack was the Browns’ starting center for just five games in 2014 when Kyle Shanahan spent that season in Cleveland as the team’s offensive coordinator, but Shanahan saw enough to persuade the Falcons to sign Mack to a five-year, $45 million deal in 2016, when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, and the Falcons rode Shanahan’s offensive concepts to their only Super Bowl appearance. Now, with the news that the 49ers have signed Mack to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, Shanahan and Mack are together again for the third time. It’s a necessary move for San Francisco, as the Weston Richburg deal never quite worked out due to multiple injuries, and Shanahan had to alternate between Daniel Brunskill and Ben Garland at center with mixed results. Mack may not be what he was at his Pro Bowl peak, but he’s a tough blocker who allowed just one sack and 25 total pressures last season. And he obviously has more than a passing familiarity with Shanahan’s multi-tiered, motion-heavy offense, which is a big plus. The big news about San Francisco’s offensive line is obviously Trent Williams’ mega-deal, but this is a sneaky-good signing that will improve that line in the short term.

Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Last season, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams allowed four sacks, four quarterback hurries, and 11 quarterback hits in 562 pass-blocking snaps. All four of those sacks allowed happened by Week 5, and Williams allowed just 10 total pressures from Week 6 through the end of the season. This in an offense in which starter Jimmy Garoppolo missed 10 games due to injury and was replaced primarily by Nick Mullens. It made sense that Williams might need a few games to shed the rust; he had missed the entire 2019 season due to the discovery of a cancerous growth on his head which was diagnosed as dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. Williams had issues with the then-Redskins’ medical staff, which led to larger issues with the team, and the former fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft was traded to San Francisco in April, 2020. The 49ers were dealing with the retirement of Joe Staley, and Williams fit perfectly in Staley’s old spot. And now, the 49ers have rewarded Williams with a historic contract. Per ESPN’s Dianna Russini, Williams and the 49ers have agreed to terms on a new six-year, $138 million contract with $55.1 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. It’s not the largest guarantee — Baltimore’s Ronnie Stanley has $70 million in total guarantees in his current five-year, $98.75 million contract extension — but it’s a major commitment. And at age 32, Williams has proven worthy of it. “Anytime someone misses, no matter what your age is, when you take a year, more than a year off football, you’re always concerned about that,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said of Williams in his January season-ending press conference. “At least knowing the person helped me that’s for sure (Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2010-2013). Being able to talk to him helped. Hearing what he had to say, hearing how hungry he was helped. Knowing how talented he was and everything, when you hear the hunger, you hear his passion about getting back and getting in a different situation and then it was cool for me to talk to guys like [RB Jerick McKinnon] Jet, [receiver] Deebo [Samuel], guys who were working out with him down in Houston who were calling me, telling me about this guy they’re working out with and how talented he is and how ready to go is. “I told them I already knew who he was, but that definitely helped because I hadn’t seen him in a while. So, when you hear all those things and you know the guy and you talk to him, I wasn’t worried at all about it because of the information we got. I was a little worried not having much of the time to get him back into football shape just with not having OTAs and the training camp and stuff, but that’s why I was glad he was able to stay healthy in training camp because that got him some of the reps he needed and stuff. I think that’s what got him ready for the year.” Williams remains a master at his craft, with technique to win in any situation and against any type of pass rusher. This play against Markus Golden of the Arizona Cardinals, who received his own two-year deal to stay in the Valley of the Sun, is a prime example: Williams (No. 71) flashes his hands early, baiting Golden into trying to counter the move. When the edge rusher does just that he exposes his chest, allowing the offensive tackle to pull his arms back and then counter by getting into Golden’s chest to control him. The defender tries to cut to the inside, and Williams uses his footwork to mirror the move and finish the play. And on this Mullens 49-yard pass to rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk in Week 13 against the Bills, watch how Williams gives rookie edge-rusher A.J. Epenesa an expensive lesson in how pass protection is performed at the NFL level. Williams keeps Epenesa out of the gate as he’s working back through the arc by extending his hands, and when Epenesa gets into Williams’ chest, the veteran simply uses his strength to stonewall the edge-rusher. By the end of the rep, Epenesa looks completely gassed. “Problem” solved. And if you question Williams’ ability to wreak havoc at the second level… well, don’t. We don’t let know who will be the 49ers’ quarterback in 2021 and beyond, but whoever it is, he won’t have to worry about his blind side.



Published: 2021-03-18 03:18:35

Tags: #NFL #freeagent #signings


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