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Your 2021 NFL Free Agency Primer

Who are the best players scheduled to hit free agency next week, and where could they wind up? All that and more in this year’s NFL free agency primer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The teams that succeed in the NFL do not spend big in free agency. As football guru/Ringer podcast host Warren Sharp pointed out last week, bad teams spend a lot of money in free agency, while good teams—the Patriots, the Chiefs, the Seahawks—do not. In other sports, big contracts are a sign of big acquisitions. In football, it’s usually a sign of desperation (unless Tom Brady is available). The teams that “win” free agency are the ones who do not participate, or the ones who get bargain signings a week or three into the process, or the ones who prevent their best players from becoming free agents at all.

At least, that’s how it usually goes. This offseason may be different. For just the second time since 1994, the salary cap is going down. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, cap projections had the figure over $210 million per team this year. But lost revenue has dropped that number to $183 million. That $27 million difference means the cap will be more of an obstacle in 2021 than usual. And it also means teams will be trying to get expensive contracts off the books by releasing players. So more quality veterans may be available than ever, even though teams have less money to sign them. Spending big money in free agency is not a good way to build a team, but by thrift shopping over the next few weeks, smart teams could put together the finishing touches of a contender. So without further ado, let’s look at the year’s top free agents, broken down by position.

Quarterback

Headliner: Jameis Winston

Winston had 42 combined interceptions and fumbles in his last year as a starter for Tampa Bay. The Bucs replaced him with Tom Brady last season and immediately won the Super Bowl. Winston will most likely re-sign with the Saints, but Taysom Hill might remain the starter.

Best of the Rest

Mitchell Trubisky: Perhaps this is the year we pivot from making fun of Trubisky as a terrible starter to touting him as a lovable backup.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: Fitz is clearly good enough to play somewhere. His ideal fit is as a veteran option for whatever team drafts North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, who is probably too raw to play in Week 1 (or maybe even Year 1).

Andy Dalton: Still exists!

Jacoby Brissett: Brissett could be a solid backup for a team that doesn’t have any good options, like the Cardinals.

Quarterback-Thirsty Teams

Washington: The Football Team needs a veteran quarterback after cutting Alex Smith and re-signing Taylor Heinicke.

Jets/Jaguars/Eagles/Broncos: All of these teams have top-10 picks and could draft a quarterback in those spots. All could also use a veteran mentor on the roster.


Running Back

Headliner: Aaron Jones

The Packers let Jones hit free agency and are reportedly trying to re-sign him. But if the Packers really wanted to re-sign Jones, they would have just tagged him. The tag for Jones would have cost $8.6 million, or about half of what the Panthers pay Christian McCaffrey each year. In truth, the Packers telegraphed they were letting Jones leave when they drafted running back A.J. Dillon in the second round last year.

There is a lot of debate over what running backs are worth these days, but Jones is part of a small group of guys who can do everything. He can run, block, catch, and run routes like a receiver. He may not be as good as McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara, but he’s close. The question is how effective Jones will be if he goes to another team, where he would almost certainly be playing with a worse quarterback and a worse offensive line than he had in Green Bay.

Best of the Rest

Chris Carson: Carson isn’t famous, but he’s fun to watch and he runs hard (#Grit). His bruising style makes him injury prone and therefore not a good candidate for a long-term deal. But if he signs a one- or two-year contract, he will quickly become a fan favorite wherever he goes for plays like this.

Leonard Fournette: Fournette just won the Super Bowl and is peaking in life, but he was nowhere near as effective as Ronald Jones II last season when both were healthy. Fournette has more name (and Twitter) value than on-field value.

Todd Gurley: Somehow just 26 years old! But his trainer admitted two years ago Gurley has an “arthritic component to his knee.” He’s not the same player he was during his 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

Kenyan Drake: The Cardinals paid him $8 million last year and, in exchange, he hit 80 rushing yards in four total games and ranked 42nd in the league in yards per carry (4.0).

James Conner: Conner struggled with injuries in Pittsburgh and was not impressive when he was on the field last year.

Frank Gore: Death, taxes, etc. Gore has exactly 16,000 rushing yards in 16 seasons. Has played in 125 of a possible 129 games since turning 30.

Running-Back-Thirsty Teams

Pittsburgh Steelers: Conner is a free agent and none of the other backs on the roster have played impressively enough to secure the job.

Arizona Cardinals: Drake is leaving and Chase Edmonds doesn’t have the juice to be a three-down guy.

New York Jets: They cut Le’Veon Bell five games into the season and were leaning on 37-year-old Frank Gore to carry most of the rushing load (no offense, he’s a legend). The Jets need faster running backs to work with the Shanahan-esque scheme expected to be used by offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.


Pass Catchers

Headliner: Kenny Golladay

When he’s on the field, Golladay is special. He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2019. He gets contested catches, and he’s a downfield threat. But Golladay played just five games last year after suffering a hip injury. At 27 years old and with health issues in his past, Golladay could be an expensive risk. But the upside is immense.

Headliner: JuJu Smith-Schuster

We’re going with co-headliners at the receiver position because this is the deepest spot in this year’s free agency class (JuJu is the headliner who is less talented but more famous). JuJu was one of the most productive players in the NFL early in his tenure in Pittsburgh, ranking fifth in receiving yards in 2018 at just 22 years old. He enters this free agency period at just 24 years old—three years younger than Golladay. And that alone means he might have more room for growth in his future.

But the flipside is that JuJu has struggled to produce since Antonio Brown left. Defenses used to focus on Brown, and JuJu benefitted. But JuJu hasn’t commanded focus from opposing teams in the same way. His best performances have come in the slot. And investing $16 million in JuJu without knowing he can win one-on-one on the outside is a dubious proposition at best, especially since he was outperformed by two young receivers—Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson—just last season. It’s also a bet that Ben Roethlisberger’s decline brought down the Steelers offense enough that JuJu was hidden.

And while this is annoying to talk about, some teams also are going to care about JuJu’s social media presence. Whether that is fair or not is irrelevant. His dances on opposing teams’ logos, tugs of war with lions, and punches in the stomach two weeks before free agency could affect how Career Football People see him. This isn’t the main reason a team won’t sign JuJu, but it doesn’t help his case when he was the third-best receiver on his own team last year and is likely looking for $15 million annually.

Best of the Rest

Corey Davis: Davis was the fifth pick in the 2017 draft, and while he’s been relatively anonymous behind running back Derrick Henry and receiver A.J. Brown, he has legit skills and physical talent. Davis disappointed in his first couple of seasons in the NFL, but this is an immensely talented player who has spent his career on a team that’s obsessed with running the football. Putting him into a passing-oriented offense could make him a household name.

Will Fuller V: Fuller is coming off career highs in almost every meaningful category: receptions, receiving yards, yards per reception, touchdowns, first downs—everything. But the Texans receiver was suspended for the final five games of the season (and the first of 2021) after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. It’s a brutal situation for a player whose career has so far been split between on-field success and injuries. Fuller is a game-changing player ...

... but he hasn’t played more than 11 games in a season since 2016. It’s hard to invest significantly in that.

Antonio Brown: Considering the relationship between Brown and Tom Brady, it’s hard to see Brown going anywhere other than Tampa Bay.

A.J. Green: Finally getting to leave Cincinnati … well after his prime is over.

T.Y. Hilton: If Hilton has any speed left, it wasn’t going to shine through with checkdown king Philip Rivers throwing him the ball. But betting on speedy 31-year-olds is tough.

John Brown: Brown was a speed receiver option for the Bills who has also developed underneath routes. He would be a quality addition for any team that needs a speed option.

Hunter Henry: An injury-prone guy who has flashed top-five tight end potential when healthy.

Pass-Catcher-Thirsty Teams

Cincinnati Bengals: They need receiving options for Joe Burrow behind Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

Detroit Lions: They may lose Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. in free agency and will need options for Jared Goff (lol).

Patriots: They’ll need to land a good receiver at some point … right?

Baltimore Ravens: They need better receivers to give Lamar Jackson the chance to develop as a passer. Willie Snead IV can’t be the team’s third-best option.

New York Giants: They need a no. 1 option on a team with a lot of no. 2 options.

Offensive Line

Headliner: Trent Williams

It is rare that left tackles this good reach free agency. Williams sat out all of 2019 after a nasty medical dispute with Washington, and he ultimately forced a trade to San Francisco for 2020. As part of that fiasco, he negotiated a contract with a clause that he could not be given the franchise tag, meaning he would be able to reach free agency this offseason. Now one of the league’s best left tackles can go wherever he wants. Williams turns 33 in July, but this caliber of player does not usually become available, and he hits the market at a time when teams are desperate for tackle depth. Half of the league needs his services, and he could parlay that into the biggest annual income ever for an offensive lineman, breaking the $23 million annual mark that Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari got last year.

Best of the Rest

Corey Linsley: One of the league’s best and smartest centers. He would pair well with one of the half-dozen rookie quarterbacks about to enter the league.

Daryl Williams: Solid, but unremarkable right tackle. He’d still be an upgrade for plenty of teams.

Mitchell Schwartz: First-team All-Pro right tackle in 2018. He missed Kansas City’s Super Bowl run last year with a back injury. If healthy, he’s one of the best players available.

Eric Fisher: The second of Kansas City’s starting tackles to get cut this week, Fisher is a former no. 1 pick who has had a solid NFL career (albeit not by no. 1 pick standards). He’s competent at a position where competency is rare.

Joe Thuney: Never missed a game in his career and has been solid for the Patriots for five years. Not the best pure-pass-protecting guard, but overall a solid player.

Offensive-Lineman-Thirsty Teams

OK, so it’s pretty much all of them, but notably ...

Kansas City Chiefs: They just cut both of their starting tackles, don’t have solid replacement options on the roster, and presumably will not trot Patrick Mahomes out behind two rookies. It would be nice to see them sign Trent Williams after their embarrassing pass-protection issues in the Super Bowl.

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers ranked last in run blocking and 30th in pass blocking in Pro Football Focus grading last season. Justin Herbert was pressured more than every quarterback in the NFL except Russell Wilson.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh needs to revamp the entire left side of its offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired and both its left guard and left tackle are hitting free agency.

Chicago Bears: They need a replacement for Bobby Massie at right tackle.

Pass Rushers

Headliner: Yannick Ngakoue

Ngakoue is not overwhelming or elite, but he is solid. He’s had at least eight sacks in each of his five NFL seasons, and players like that usually don’t reach free agency. He led the NFL in forced fumbles in 2017, and has had four in each of the past two seasons. The problem is that Ngakoue may be better as a situational pass rusher than an every-down player. Baltimore was using him situationally in the second half of the season, and it’s not because the team didn’t need depth at edge rusher. It’s hard to justify giving a massive deal to a player who might not be able to play consistently on run downs.

Best of the Rest

Shaquil Barrett: Barrett was dominant in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win, and he might re-sign with the Bucs before free agency starts.

Bud Dupree/Trey Hendrickson/Haason Reddick: I’m lumping these three players together because they have similar profiles. All three had career years last season after pretty disappointing stretches before that. Hendrickson had 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons and then 13.5 last year. Reddick had 7.5 sacks in his first three seasons and then 12.5 last year. Dupree had 20 sacks in his first four seasons and then 19.5 in his last two. They also all played with a superior pass rusher who was capable of occupying much of the offensive line’s attention. Dupree paired with T.J. Watt in Pittsburgh, Hendrickson lined up with Cameron Jordan in New Orleans, and Reddick worked alongside Chandler Jones in Arizona. Now teams have to figure out whether these players can carry a defensive line on their own, or if they merely benefitted from talented surroundings.

Dupree and Hendrickson scream overrated. Both came from extremely talented defenses where they were the third-best linemen in their rotations and had secondaries that could force quarterbacks to hold on to the ball, inflating sack totals. The fact that Dupree is coming off a torn ACL makes his case even more dubious. Reddick is the most intriguing of the three. He had the weakest supporting cast, especially since Jones played just five games. And the quality of Reddick’s sacks were higher. Whereas Hendrickson often got sacks because of disruption caused by other players, Reddick was creating disruption and getting the sacks. All three are risks, but Reddick is the best bet.

Carl Lawson: The most underrated player in this class, possibly because he was on the Bengals and the Bengals are boring. While he had just 5.5 sacks last season, the skills are here for him to contribute for a contender.

Pass-Rusher-Thirsty Teams

Las Vegas Raiders: Jon Gruden has needed pass-rush help since the Raiders traded away Khalil Mack.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are not going to be competitive until they find a pass rusher. They didn’t have an edge rusher with more than 3.0 sacks last season. Yikes.

Tennessee Titans: They’re so desperate for a pass rush they gave roughly $23 million to Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley last offseason and got zero sacks out of it.


Linebackers

Headliner: Nobody

The best two linebackers on the market, Lavonte David and Matt Milano, both re-signed with their teams this week. Sometimes the headliner at a festival cancels.

Best of the Rest

K.J. Wright: The longtime Seahawks stalwart is not looking to take a discount to stay in Seattle. At 32, Wright might have something left in the tank, and he’d be a fearsome contributor for a contending team that needs a linebacker who can do a little bit of everything.

Kyle Van Noy: The former Patriots Super Bowl contributor was cut by Miami just one year after signing a big contract. He’s a versatile player who could end up anywhere within the Belichick diaspora.

Jayon Brown: Brown is better in pass coverage than run defense, and would be a good and athletic addition to a team who runs a lot of zone coverage.

Linebacker-Thirsty Teams

Carolina Panthers: The team has yet to truly replace Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker.

Defensive Backs

Headliner: Richard Sherman

He may not be the best defensive back available in free agency, but he is by far the biggest name, as well as the most revered veteran on the market. Oh, and he still can ball. Sherman could bring a lot of leadership to the Jets, who hired former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their head coach in January. Sherman was excellent in 2019 but had a tough 2020, as injuries plagued him (and the rest of the 49ers).

Best of the Rest

Shaquill Griffin: His 2020 was not as impressive as his 2019, but Griffin is a big, physical cornerback with excellent athleticism. He’ll get a big deal.

Mike Hilton: A former slot cornerback for Pittsburgh who can do a little bit of everything. The Steelers will be worse for letting him go, and anyone who signs him will get better on defense.

William Jackson III: Jackson quietly had a good year on a bad Bengals defense. A high-upside former first-round pick who might benefit from a change of scenery.

Jason Verrett: An immensely talented cornerback who has been as injury prone as any player in the NFL. But last year, Verrett finally put together a healthy season and was stellar in the process. High risk, high reward.

Patrick Peterson: A once-elite All-Pro who took a step back after a suspension for violating the league’s policies on performance-enhancing drugs in 2019. He’ll be 31 next season, but he could play younger on a team that has better cornerback depth than the Cardinals.

Anthony Harris: An underrated and understated safety for the Vikings who’s finally leaving. He’s great in pass coverage as a true free safety, and would fix the hole Dallas has had in its defense for a decade.

John Johnson III: A key safety for the Rams defense last year. He was elite in stretches, but has had issues with injuries.

Defensive-Back-Thirsty Teams

Arizona Cardinals: Losing Peterson in free agency and cutting Robert Alford locks the Cardinals in as the weakest cornerback group in the league. The gap between the team’s offensive and defensive skill talent basically makes this Kliff Kingsbury’s second stint at Texas Tech.

San Francisco 49ers: They’re potentially losing two of their top cornerbacks in Sherman and Verrett.

Dallas Cowboys: Dallas has a solid second-round cornerback in Trevon Diggs, but there’s nothing but question marks behind him and Anthony Brown in the secondary. Dallas allowed more points through seven games last season than all but one team in modern NFL history.