The 5 Most Surprising NFL Free Agent Signings of 2021

Patrick Peterson
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This article previously appeared on our nationally-themed affiliate site,

Nearly two weeks of free agency has frenzied the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings in early spring of 2021. The first wave – which unofficially began on March 15 – was the most titillating as legal tampering [just by the nature of those two words] doled out unforeseen transactions.

Franchises orchestrated moves on condensed budgets due to the coronavirus pandemic. The salary cap shrunk to $182.5 million. This was particularly heartwrenching for general managers because the cap was probably going to swell at $208 million or so. But no such luck during a global pandemic.

The New England Patriots and Houston Texans arguably “won” the two weeks, if sheer volume is the criteria. New England has a slew of new faces, finding virtually all of them in the first couple of days of free agency. And then Houston has been steadily adding personnel like grains of sand into a bucket – steadily and bountifully.

So – what are the most surprising free agents signings? Here are five of them in ascending order of awe.

5. Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers

On the surface, it is not crazy that Green Bay would retain a Top 10 NFL running back. The analytics crowd will bemoan the move, but that bunch decries the very idea of halfbacks ad nauseam.

The Packers opted not to franchise-tag Jones, so most folks believed Jones was heading to the Miami Dolphins or some other place outside of Wisconsin. After all, Green Bay invested 2nd-Round draft capital in A.J. Dillion less than twelve months ago. He is a bowling-ball of a runner.

But he will not be the heir apparent. For at least two more seasons, Jones will serve as the green and gold RB1 while Dillon hones his craft as an RB2. “Two seasons” is the forecast here as Jones was only allotted $13 million guaranteed at the time of signing.

4. Patrick Peterson – Minnesota Vikings

Peterson-to-Minnesota was a large news event thanks to the way it unfolded. The Vikings did not reach out to Peterson – the All-Pro cornerback reached out to them. Peterson appreciates quarterback Kirk Cousins’ skill set, is fond of head coach Mike Zimmer, and has personally known upstart wide receiver, Justin Jefferson, for years.

Minnesota was in the market for an experienced bargain-bin corner to accelerate the maturations of Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney. But Peterson will do more than that. The 30-year-old will kickstart the Vikings usually-good secondary alongside Dantzler and Gladney. He was ushered into Minnesota to do more than tutor men. Peterson will provide leadership and on-the-field stability for a secondary that was shaky during the pandemic season.

3. Kenyan Drake – Las Vegas Raiders

In the grand landscape of the NFL, this one doesn’t “matter” too much. A journeyman tailback finds another home – so what?

It’s the logistics of the move.

Drake’s career wavelength took an odd turn last week. He will presumably return to an RB2 role after acting as an RB1 with the Arizona Cardinals. Weird. Most running backs in their prime – if they have the talent (Drake does) – prefer a landing spot where touches are plentiful. Unless Josh Jacobs is unceremoniously jettisoned (unlikely), Drake falls back into a secondary role.

This also has a bizarre impact on fantasy football players – especially Dynasty participants.

2. Andy Dalton – Chicago Bears

Dalton only makes the cut at a high spot due to the nature of his arrival.

The Chicago Bears were supposed to be number-one-with-a-bullet stakeholders in The Russell Wilson Sweepstakes. And, they were if Pro Football Focus is to be trusted.

Therefore, the Bears put an ante on the table. It wasn’t good enough. The ransom was too low – evidently – and the Seattle Seahawks seem to be on track to retain Wilson after all.

Insert news that Dalton in the contingency plan. This can be classified as a buzzkill. Chicago was on the cusp of securing the rights to the NFL’s second-best passer. Instead, the franchise was shoved into a reality of settling for the league’s 30th-or-so best quarterback.

The outcome was very Bears-esque.

1. J.J. Watt – Arizona Cardinals

Watt-to-the-Cardinals was the story that commenced all the free-agent festivities. The generally-loved humanitarian, Watt, posted a photo of himself lifting weights, sourced himself, and announced his voyage to the desert.

Before that, Watt was theorized to return home and play for the Packers. That didn’t happen. Maybe he’d join his brother in Pittsburgh? Nope.

Watt chose to join the Cardinals – a team with a sexy roster dripping with trendy Super Bowl pick vibes. He reunites with DeAndre Hopkins and a mobile quarterback in Kyler Murray – otherwise known as the Arizona Texans.