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2021 NFL free-agency buzz on all 32 teams: Execs break down key moves, what comes next

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So that was sort of a letdown.

Pass-rushers got paid, Kenny Golladay got paid, some surprise supporting players got nice contracts ... but the first wave of free agency wasn't exactly booming for the NFL.

Teams took full advantage of an 8% decrease in the salary cap, forcing veterans to take pay cuts and lowballing good players on one-year deals.

The second wave of free agency is usually for bargain signings, but this year those bargains include Pro Bowlers at several positions, high-quality players who continue to wait for a decent deal. Veteran players' agents are exasperated. Teams are feeling the crunch. And though 2022 should be better, that's hardly a slam dunk if regular-season attendance lags.

But fans watched their teams get better, or stay afloat, and we learned a whole lot about the mechanics of team-building.

ESPN made the calls to find out intel on all 32 teams after a week of leverage plays, incentives and voidable years.

Jump to:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

Arizona Cardinals

Level of free-agency aggressiveness: Time to win now
Top addition: Defensive end J.J. Watt for two years, $28 million

Arizona outbid everyone for Watt, securing a deal with the former Defensive Player of the Year on March 1.

It's hard to knock a team aggressively pursuing a player of Watt's caliber. But some teams believe Arizona slightly overpaid given the tough salary-cap climate, showing that Watt, 32, was smart to ask for his release from Houston in February.

Six defensive ends or outside linebackers age 30 and up have signed deals in free agency, and the next-closest payout to Watt's was Denico Autry's $21.5 million over three years with Tennessee. Accomplished players -- including Melvin Ingram (32), Ryan Kerrigan (33), Justin Houston (32) and Carlos Dunlap (32) -- continue to wait in the second wave of free agency.

Those players aren't Watt. But it's clear he beat the trend.

"It's tough out there moneywise," an AFC exec said. "Not sure he would have hit that number as a true free agent."

Many teams have pointed to Arizona as all-in after moves for Watt, A.J. Green and the trade for center Rodney Hudson.

A Raiders source said Hudson telegraphed this exit during the year. He expected to be out after the season, and it's believed Arizona was on his list well before the trade.