7 NFL Players Who Should Look Forward to Free Agency in 2021
Most rising stars on expiring contracts don't hit the free-agent market. Typically, NFL teams re-sign top playmakers and attempt to replace decent talent. Yet those castoffs can make a stronger impact elsewhere.
The 2017 draft class will flood the market next year as several notable players with a mix of impressive and subpar seasons hope to land rewarding deals or escape less than ideal situations.
Oftentimes, we see reserves or starters who experienced some struggles fit better with new teams.
In 2019, Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett led the league in sacks after he served as a backup for four active seasons in Denver.
Let's take a look at seven players most likely to hit the open market in 2021—not the ascending stars who will likely sign extensions before then.
The veterans below should look forward to free agency because of their chance to command a high-paying salary or find greener pastures with an expanded role.
QB Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
Coming off a productive but flawed season, Jameis Winston lists as the No. 3 quarterback on the New Orleans Saints depth chart.
According to The Athletic's Jay Glazer, Taysom Hill will be "the guy" to lead New Orleans' offense once Drew Brees retires. The front office signed the versatile playmaker to a one-year, $16.3 million extension this offseason.
Even though Winston may not see the field behind Brees and Hill, he could land a starting job in 2021 after a season with a winning organization. The sixth-year veteran has an extensive history as a starter and led the league in passing yards (5,109) with a career-high 33 touchdowns in 2019.
If Winston takes live snaps under center and looks impressive, the Saints may rethink their succession plan at quarterback and attempt to retain him.
Winston essentially lost his starting job to Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, which isn't something he should feel ashamed about. In fact, the 26-year-old remains confident in his abilities, per Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne.
"It's a love of the game, bro. It's bigger than me," Winston said. "Do I feel like I've earned my stripes? I do. Do I feel like I'm better than a lot of starting quarterbacks in this league? I do."
Perhaps Winston, who had offseason Lasik eye surgery, can cut down his interception rate with a more disciplined approach. Whether in New Orleans or elsewhere, the No. 1 overall pick from 2015 will likely have another chance to compete for a starting job in 2021.
RB Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars had predraft trade discussions about Leonard Fournette, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. On top of that, the front office declined his fifth-year option. Don't expect the club to offer him a massive deal before free agency next offseason.
The Jaguars haven't found a trade partner for Fournette, but the LSU product may generate buzz as a free agent, especially if he's able to match or top his 2019 numbers.
Last year, Fournette recorded a career-high 1,152 rushing yards and showcased his pass-catching skills, hauling in 76 passes for 522 yards. Most importantly, he missed only one game, which is notable after going inactive for 11 outings through his first two campaigns mostly because of injuries.
If Fournette can stay relatively healthy for consecutive campaigns and show off his dual-threat skill set, teams will flock to him on the market.
Running backs with an extensive injury history don't usually rake in big-money contracts, but Fournette could fill a void for a playoff contender rather than remain a solid contributor on a team at the bottom of the standings. He should want out of Jacksonville in 2021.
RB James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
During the 2018 campaign, James Conner seemed like a solid replacement for Le'Veon Bell, who held out for a new contract. He racked up 1,470 yards (973 rushing and 497 receiving) and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage en route to his first Pro Bowl.
In 2019, Conner battled knee, shoulder, ankle, quad and thigh injuries, logging 464 rushing yards and four touchdowns through 10 outings. He caught 34 passes for 251 yards and three scores, though Jaylen Samuels took on the primary pass-catching role out of the backfield, securing 47 of his 57 targets for 305 yards and a touchdown.
After Conner in 2017, Pittsburgh drafted a running back in each of the following years. The Athletic's Ed Bouchette expects the coaching staff to divvy up carries among the tailbacks.
"Conner will get every chance to show he can stay healthy, and they’re likely to cut back on his carries even if he remains injury-free for two reasons: to help save him and to use some of their other backs," Bouchette wrote.
Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and rookie fourth-rounder Anthony McFarland Jr. all have a chance to carve out specific roles, which hurts Conner's ability to show he's a workhorse ball-carrier.
Nevertheless, if Conner stays healthy and looks more like his 2018 self, he could land a lucrative deal on the open market as the Steelers move toward a backfield committee.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
JuJu Smith-Schuster jumped off to a strong start in his pro career, logging 2,343 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns through two terms. Last year, he struggled for two reasons: injuries and subpar quarterback play.
Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges started in 14 combined games, leading a passing offense that generated the second-fewest yards and ranked 28th in touchdowns.
Smith-Schuster caught only 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns. The Athletic's Ed Bouchette thinks the Steelers will allow the USC product to walk next offseason.
"I think Bud Dupree has the best chance. No to Conner, not likely to JuJu and Probably not with Al [Villanueva], sad to say," Bouchette wrote when asked about the likelihood of those players remaining with the Steelers past 2020.
This season, Smith-Schuster may shine as the Steelers' No. 1 wide receiver. Yet Pittsburgh may opt to roll with James Washington, Diontae Johnson and rookie second-rounder Chase Claypool, who would be much cheaper holdovers at the position, in 2021.
If Smith-Schuster registers another solid campaign, he may be the best wide receiver to hit the open market, assuming Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay and Cooper Kupp re-sign with their respective teams as lead wideouts. The 23-year-old has a Pro Bowl on his resume, a 1,400-plus-yard receiving season and a 67 percent catch rate.
LB Haason Reddick, Arizona Cardinals
Sporadically, Haason Reddick showed promise through three seasons, but he lost his starting job under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph last year.
From Week 7 through the end of the 2019 term, Joseph chose to start Joe Walker at inside linebacker over Reddick. Although the former signed with the San Francisco 49ers during free agency, the latter isn't in line to reclaim his starting position.
The Arizona Cardinals signed linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who started in 54 out of 59 contests for the Atlanta Falcons. He's likely to open the season alongside Jordan Hicks in the middle of the defense.
At Temple, Reddick lined up mostly on the edge, but he has showed versatility as a second-level defender at the pro level, registering 18 tackles for a loss and 11 pass breakups for his career.
The Cardinals declined Reddick's fifth-year option, which may become a blessing in disguise. The 2017 first-rounder must leave the desert to realize his full potential. In the meantime, he's probably going to see spot duty behind Campbell on defense.
CB Jourdan Lewis, Dallas Cowboys
Over the last two terms, Jourdan Lewis has been a solid slot defender for the Dallas Cowboys. The 5'10", 195-pound cover man can also line up on the perimeter as he did during his rookie campaign, logging 10 pass breakups and an interception.
In 2019, Lewis suited up for 16 contests and played 55 percent of the defensive snaps. Yet he provided impact in multiple ways, registering four sacks, four tackles for loss, six breakups and two interceptions.
This offseason, the Cowboys bolstered the cornerback group, acquiring Daryl Worley, rookie second-rounder Trevon Diggs and fourth-rounder Reggie Robinson II. The front office also re-signed Anthony Brown, who can play in the slot or on the outside.
With so much depth at cornerback, Lewis may find it difficult to reach his full potential in Dallas. As an unrestricted free agent, he could explore his options and compete for a full-time starting spot elsewhere.
Lewis' versatility could help him land a high-end deal relative to slot cornerbacks, or he may see a significant bump in salary if the team that signs him intends to play him primarily on the perimeter.
CB Kevin King, Green Bay Packers
In 2019, Kevin King finally shook off the injury bug and showcased his coverage ability, recording 15 pass breakups and five interceptions through 15 outings. Still, one standout campaign doesn't lock him into the Green Bay Packers' future.
King missed 17 games through his first two seasons because of shoulder, groin and hamstring injuries. Even if he replicates his 2019 showing, the Packers may be hesitant to offer him a long-term deal because of durability concerns.
According to ESPN's Rob Demovsky, the Packers have opened long-term contract negotiations with one of running back Aaron Jones' agents, Chris Cabott. General manager Brian Gutekunst should also consider extensions for nose tackle Kenny Clark and left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Per ESPN's Adam Schefter (h/t Reuters), NFL salary caps could take a hit without fans in full attendance for the 2020 season because of the coronavirus. As a possible result, the Packers may allow a less consistent playmaker to hit the market as opposed to an All-Pro tackle or Pro Bowl defender who has missed a few games.
On the flip side, King could command a massive deal if he stays healthy and continues to make impact plays on the boundary. At 25 years old, the rangy 6'3", 200-pound cover man would have arguably the most upside among free agents at his position.