1 Player Each NFL Team Can't Afford to Lose Next Offseason
When news of Patrick Mahomes' contract extension first broke, it was notable for two reasons. The unprecedented dollar amount—$450 million in base value—immediately jumped out, but it also meant that the Kansas City Chiefs won't have to worry about losing Mahomes until 2032 at the earliest.
Trying to replace arguably the best quarterback in the game today would be a nightmare, and teams face similar challenges yearly.
No, not every franchise has a Mahomes on its roster. However, each team has players who—because of talent, upside and/or scheme fit—would be tough to replace through free agency, via the draft or in-house.
At least one such player winds up with an expiring contract each offseason.
Here, we'll look ahead to 2021 and the one player scheduled for free agency (per Spotrac) that each team cannot afford to lose.
Arizona Cardinals: CB Patrick Peterson
Cornerback Patrick Peterson is the centerpiece of the Arizona Cardinals secondary. The eight-time Pro Bowler is as decorated as just about any defender in the game.
While he didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2019, Peterson did have another strong campaign. Despite a six-game suspension for a violation of the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, he managed to finish with 53 tackles, seven passes defended, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
While Peterson will be 31 at the start of the 2021 season, there aren't many true shutdown corners in the NFL, and the proven ones almost never become available. Peterson is one of the select few, and Arizona must ensure he doesn't get away.
Atlanta Falcons: S Keanu Neal
Although safety Keanu Neal appeared in only four games over the last two seasons because of injuries, he's still the one player the Atlanta Falcons cannot afford to lose next offseason.
When healthy, Neal is one of the best safeties in the game. The same is true about center Alex Mack, but he's turning 35 in November, and the Falcons might have already found his replacement in third-round rookie center Matt Hennessy.
If the first two years of Neal's career are any indication, he has the potential to be a perennial All-Pro. In his first two seasons, he totaled 222 tackles, 14 passes defended, eight forced fumbles and an interception. He also made the Pro Bowl in 2017.
There's a reason why the Falcons exercised Neal's fifth-year option even though he's missed 28 games over the past two seasons. He isn't easily replaceable.
Baltimore Ravens: OT Ronnie Stanley
Under no circumstances should a team allow its franchise left tackle to depart in free agency. The Baltimore Ravens are no exception when it comes to Ronnie Stanley.
Stanley has started every game in which he has appeared since the Ravens took him with the No. 6 overall pick in 2016. He has made a total of 56 career starts and earned his first Pro Bowl nod this past season.
Though he has missed eight games in total, he missed only one game because of injuries in each of the past two seasons. The Ravens held him out of their 2019 regular-season finale along with several other starters.
If Baltimore allows Stanley to leave next offseason, it will be doing itself—and quarterback Lamar Jackson—a major disservice.
Buffalo Bills: OT Dion Dawkins
Dion Dawkins has had an interesting start to his NFL career.
After the Buffalo Bills selected the former Temple guard with a second-round pick in 2017, he went on to start 11 games at left tackle in place of the injured Cordy Glenn. Dawkins then moved to the left tackle spot permanently and has not missed a game since being drafted.
While Dawkins is not yet an All-Pro tackle, he's skilled, durable, familiar with Buffalo's offense and is only 26 years old. The Bills will struggle to find that combination in free agency or the draft if he walks next year.
As such, Buffalo should look to keep its young blindside blocker on the roster.
Carolina Panthers: OT Russell Okung
When the Carolina Panthers traded for offensive tackle Russell Okung, they did so knowing that the two-time Pro Bowler would be under contract for only one season. However, they presumably view him as more than a one-year stopgap at the position.
If Okung isn't just a temporary fill-in for the Panthers, then they need to prioritize re-signing him next offseason. Though he will turn 33 in October, he is still a high-end left tackle when healthy, and those aren't easy to find.
The Panthers will be in Year 2 of the Teddy Bridgewater era next season. Ensuring Bridgewater has a quality blindside blocker should be one of the franchise's biggest goals.
Chicago Bears: WR Allen Robinson
While the Chicago Bears may no longer have quarterback Mitchell Trubisky under center in 2021, they should want to keep his No. 1 pass-catcher in the fold. Wideout Allen Robinson is one of the league's more dangerous wide receivers when healthy, as he was this past season.
Despite playing with the inconsistent Trubisky, Robinson managed to catch 98 passes for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019.
By keeping Robinson, the Bears can ensure that their quarterback—be it Trubisky, Nick Foles or someone else—has an elite receiving option moving forward.
Cincinnati Bengals: CB William Jackson III
Wideout A.J. Green is the most notable Cincinnati Bengals player slated to enter free agency next season. However, he's also 31 years old, missed the entire 2019 season because of an ankle injury and has had only one 1,000-yard season in the last three years.
Keeping Green would be nice—provided he returns to form in 2020—but doing so wouldn't necessarily fit the Bengals' rebuilding plan. Re-signing starting corner William Jackson III, on the other hand, would mesh with Cincinnati's youth movement.
The 2016 first-round pick has been a full-time starter for the past three years and has an impressive 30 passes defended in that span.
Jackson will also be only 28 years old when free agency opens next year.
Cleveland Browns: RB Kareem Hunt
Could the Cleveland Browns survive without running back Kareem Hunt? Sure. They have one of the league's best runners in Nick Chubb and have had Hunt on the field for only eight games thus far anyway.
But in his eight games last season, Hunt racked up 179 rushing yards, 285 receiving yards and three touchdowns while splitting time with Chubb, who narrowly missed out on the league rushing title.
New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski successfully utilized both Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison with the Minnesota Vikings last season. He'll likely take a similar approach with Chubb and Hunt this year.
If Hunt excels under Stefanski, he won't be easy to keep in Cleveland because he is a starting-caliber back. However, the Browns would be wise to keep his versatility in their offense for the foreseeable future.
Dallas Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott
The Dallas Cowboys used the franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott this offseason, ensuring he would be under center for 2020. But if they don't sign him to a long-term deal by July 15, he'll re-enter free agency in 2021.
If that happens, Dallas needs to move quickly to get a deal done before the start of free agency. Using the tag for a second consecutive year could be an option, but letting Prescott depart isn't one.
While Prescott may not be an elite signal-caller yet, he's inching toward that territory. The two-time Pro Bowler passed for an impressive 4,902 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this past season.
The Cowboys won't find a quarterback of his caliber—especially one who is only 27 years old—in free agency next offseason. They're also unlikely to play poorly enough to land one of the top signal-callers in the 2021 draft.
Denver Broncos: S Justin Simmons
You might be thinking to yourself: "Von Miller is scheduled to be a free agent in 2021, but he isn't he pick for the Denver Broncos?"
That's correct. Replacing Miller won't be easy, but he will turn 32 next March, and the Broncos have third-year pass-rusher Bradley Chubb waiting to replace him as their leading sack artist.
While it would be nice to keep Miller, Denver could be in an even worse position if 26-year-old safety Justin Simmons walks. The second-team All-Pro is coming off a remarkable campaign that included 93 tackles, 15 passes defended and four interceptions.
Simmons' age makes him a terrific fit for the current rebuild around quarterback Drew Lock. He can be a defensive centerpiece for the foreseeable future, whereas Miller might have only a few premium seasons left in his proverbial tank.
Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay
Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay is rarely included in lists of the NFL's top receivers, but he belongs in the conversation. He is a true No. 1 option and one of the most difficult players to cover one-on-one in the league due to his combination of size (6'4", 214 pounds) and route savvy.
In 2019, Golladay led the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns. He also racked up 1,190 yards on 65 receptions, despite playing only half the season with starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Golladay turns 27 in November, so he should have multiple Pro Bowl campaigns left in him. Even if Detroit is considering moving on from Stafford—trade rumors emerged this offseason—Golladay should be firmly entrenched in the Lions' long-term plans.
Green Bay Packers: OT David Bakhtiari
The Green Bay Packers have a steady left tackle in David Bakhtiari, but he could leave next offseason.
Originally a fourth-round pick out of Colorado in 2013, Bakhtiari immediately secured a starting job as a rookie and has started every game in which he has appeared since. He has made two Pro Bowls and has one first-team All-Pro appearance on his resume.
Though Bakhtiari is a seven-year veteran, he won't turn 29 until September and should have some of his best football still ahead of him. For Green Bay to get the most out of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers moving forward, locking up his blindside blocker is a must.
Houston Texans: WR Will Fuller V
When healthy, Houston Texans wideout Will Fuller V is one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapons. The former Notre Dame speedster is capable of making long receptions look routine and will regularly back safeties away from the line of scrimmage.
Last season, Fuller had 670 yards and three touchdowns on only 49 receptions. He's averaged an impressive 14.3 yards per catch for his career.
Perhaps more importantly, Fuller has created chemistry with quarterback Deshaun Watson, whereas offseason acquisitions Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb have yet to do so.
After trading No. 1 target DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, the Texans should be eager to keep Watson's top remaining target in the fold next year.
Indianapolis Colts: WR T.Y. Hilton
It remains to be seen whether quarterback Philip Rivers will remain with the Indianapolis Colts beyond the 2020 season. But regardless of who is under center next year, the Colts should be focused on keeping wideout T.Y. Hilton in the fold.
Hilton has been the Colts' No. 1 wideout for the better part of a decade, and he remains productive entering his 30s.
He was limited to 10 games because of injuries last year, but he still finished with 501 yards and five touchdowns in a lackluster passing attack. With Andrew Luck under center in 2018, Hilton had 1,270 yards and six scores on 76 catches.
If Rivers does come back in 2021, he'll want to have Hilton as his top target. If the Colts draft a young signal-caller, they'll need to have an experienced No. 1 wideout like Hilton on the roster to help him grow.
Jacksonville Jaguars: CB D.J. Hayden
With Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye both gone, D.J. Hayden becomes the veteran leader of the Jacksonville Jaguars secondary. However, experience isn't the only reason the Jaguars should be eager to keep the 2013 first-round pick on the roster.
Hayden also happens to be one of the better nickel backs in the NFL, and he's been valuable to the Jacksonville defense during his two seasons there. In 2019, he appeared in 15 games and finished with 41 tackles, six passes defended and a forced fumble.
With rookie CJ Henderson and free-agent acquisition Rashaan Melvin slated to start on the outside, Hayden is going to be the glue in the secondary during the upcoming season, and it would be smart to keep him in that role in 2021 and beyond.
Kansas City Chiefs: DT Chris Jones
Really, the Kansas City Chiefs should try to get an extension done with defensive tackle Chris Jones before the July 15 deadline. The team's most valuable defender was given the franchise tag this offseason and has threatened to hold out if not given a substantial pay bump.
Jones recently responded on Twitter to speculation that a deal short of $20 million per season might not be enough.
"Or I won't play," Jones tweeted. "[Le'Veon Bell] told me about this."
If the Chiefs don't get a long-term deal with Jones hashed out before the 2020 season but manage to get him on the field, they should do everything in their power to lock him up next offseason. Jones is one of the most versatile and dangerous down linemen in the league, and letting him walk would be a mistake.
Las Vegas Raiders: LB Nicholas Morrow
Nicholas Morrow isn't a household name, but Las Vegas Raiders fans will recognize him as an up-and-coming linebacker loaded with potential. The undrafted free agent out of Greenville emerged as a key contributor in 2019 and was rewarded with a one-year, $3.3 million deal as a restricted free agent.
After starting eight games in 2019 and finishing with 73 tackles, four passes defended and an interception, Morrow should get a crack at locking down a starting gig in 2020.
If he proves himself a capable starter, the Raiders should be in a hurry to lock up the 25-year-old. Even if he's nothing more than a valuable rotational player at outside linebacker, Las Vegas shouldn't let him leave.
Los Angeles Chargers: Edge Joey Bosa
The Los Angeles Chargers will be in a bit of a precarious position next offseason as several key players will be in line for free agency. Among them are wideout Keenan Allen, tight end Hunter Henry and pass-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
While Allen and Henry are both important pieces of the offense, edge-rushers hold more value. Good ones are extremely difficult to find, and of the two L.A. is set to lose, Bosa will be the most difficult to replace.
While Ingram is 31 and potentially nearing the back end of his career, Bosa is just 24 and entering his prime. He's a two-time Pro Bowler with 40 career sacks, and the Chargers would be fools to let him depart in free agency.
Los Angeles Rams: CB Jalen Ramsey
Losing cornerback Jalen Ramsey would be a painful experience for the Los Angeles Rams for a couple of reasons. For one, Ramsey is a three-time Pro Bowler and arguably the best cover man in the game today. Secondly, acquiring him cost L.A. a small fortune.
To get Ramsey, the Rams traded a 2020 first-round pick, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 fourth-rounder to the Jaguars.
That was a high price to pay under any circumstances, but at least the move could be worth it if he signs a long-term extension. If the Rams somehow end up surrendering that bounty for a year and a half of service, it would be downright ludicrous.
Miami Dolphins: WR Albert Wilson
Seeing as the Miami Dolphins are only truly beginning their rebuild this year, there aren't many key building blocks who will be up for free agency in 2021. However, veteran receiver Albert Wilson is scheduled to hit the open market, and Miami should be quick to retain him.
Though not an elite wideout, Wilson has proved a valuable complementary piece over the past two seasons. In 2019, he caught 43 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown.
Keeping Wilson around will be important because he has the veteran savvy needed to help rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa develop. Even if Tagovailoa doesn't get the opportunity to start in Year 1, he should be Miami's lead signal-caller by next season.
Minnesota Vikings: S Anthony Harris
The Minnesota Viking gave safety Anthony Harris the franchise tag this offseason. If they're not able to sign him to a long-term deal before July 15, they'll need to make re-signing him a priority early in 2021.
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2015, Harris has worked his way into the starting lineup and has become one of the top safeties in the NFL. Though he has never made the Pro Bowl, he did lead the NFL in interceptions this past season, snagging six of them to go with 60 tackles and 11 passes defended.
Keeping the 29-year-old safety in the fold will be important as Minnesota is in the process of revamping its secondary. Cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes all departed this offseason.
The Vikings cannot let Harris do the same next offseason.
New England Patriots: OG Joe Thuney
The New England Patriots will most likely have to wait until next offseason to extend guard Joe Thuney. By signing his franchise tender, he has set himself up to be the league's second-highest-paid guard in 2020, behind only fellow tagged guard Brandon Scherff.
That means the Patriots have little leverage while trying to get a deal done before the July 15 deadline.
New England should move quickly to get a long-term contract with Thuney done early in 2021, though. The former NC State standout has started every game since he was drafted in 2016 and should only be entering his playing prime when he turns 28 this November.
New Orleans Saints: RB Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara narrowly beats out safety Marcus Williams because of his value in the passing game. Kamara is the rare back who can be a reliable safety outlet in the passing game.
He has caught 81 passes in each of his first three seasons.
Keeping Kamara will be important because either one of two things will happen in the offseason. Either Drew Brees will return to finish out his two-year deal, or the Saints will move forward with a new signal-caller under center.
Regardless of whether New Orleans is looking to maximize its Super Bowl window with Brees or is trying to break in a new potential franchise quarterback, having Kamara in the backfield will be invaluable.
New York Giants: DT Dalvin Tomlinson
The New York Giants invested heavily in their defensive front last year, using a first-round pick on Dexter Lawrence and trading for Leonard Williams. However, their line could be in danger of taking a major step back in 2021 if nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is allowed to leave in free agency.
Though Tomlinson isn't a disruptive pressure tackle in the mold of Aaron Donald or Grady Jarrett, he is a wonderful early-down run defender and a load for opposing linemen to handle one-on-one. In 2019, he racked up 49 tackles, 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits.
Tomlinson will be just 27 years old when 2021 free agency kicks off, and he should have some of his best years in front of him. As the Giants look to continue rebuilding around Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, they should consider Tomlinson an essential defensive cornerstone.
New York Jets: LB Jordan Jenkins
One of the New York Jets' biggest weaknesses in 2019 was their inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Despite having an aggressive defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, they amassed just 35 sacks as a team, and 6.5 of them came from safety Jamal Adams.
Linebacker Jordan Jenkins led New York with 8.0 sacks. While that's not an overly impressive number, it's worth noting this was the second consecutive year in which Jenkins led the Jets in sacks. He tied Henry Anderson for the lead with 7.0 in 2018.
Simply put, Jenkins is the best edge-rusher New York has on its roster, and losing him would set the defense back significantly.
Philadelphia Eagles: S Jalen Mills
There's a caveat to this entry. For Jalen Mills to be truly indispensable to the Philadelphia Eagles, he will have to thrive in his new role as the starting strong safety. If he does, his ability to play both safety and his former position of cornerback will make him a player Philadelphia cannot afford to let go.
Mills will also have to stay healthy after missing 15 games over the last two seasons.
When healthy, he has been a quality starter at cornerback, and his new role at safety might even lead to more success. It will at least give him more freedom to aggressively seek out impact plays.
"I think the biggest thing for me is always wanting to be around the ball, whether it's getting a pass breakup, getting a chance to pick the ball off or make a tackle, blitz," Mills said, per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "I think that's the biggest thing, trying to be a tone-setter and a game-changer."
Defensive backs capable of playing multiple positions aren't common, and Philadelphia should hang on to Mills if he can be one.
Pittsburgh Steelers: DT Cameron Heyward
Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward will turn 32 before the start of the 2021 season, but it would still behoove the Pittsburgh Steelers to get him under contract next offseason. The longtime member of the organization has only gotten better with age and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons.
In 2019, Heyward finished with 83 tackles, six passes defended, nine sacks and a forced fumble—tremendous numbers for a 3-4 defensive end. While linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick are the stars of the Steelers defense, Heyward is the anchor up front who allows them to shine.
Pittsburgh simply isn't going to find a new defensive lineman with the same combination of impact potential and experience in Keith Butler's defense.
San Francisco 49ers: TE George Kittle
A top-tier blocker and pass-catcher, San Francisco's George Kittle might just be the most complete tight end in the game. He's certainly the most reliable pass-catcher on San Francisco's offense and serves as Jimmy Garoppolo's de facto No. 1 receiver.
In 2019, Kittle racked up 85 receptions, 1,053 yards and five touchdowns in just 14 games.
However, the 49ers could potentially lose Kittle next offseason when he is scheduled to become a free agent. Letting the 26-year-old two-time Pro Bowler leave for another team would be a massive mistake San Francisco has to avoid.
Seattle Seahawks: CB Shaquill Griffin
The Seattle Seahawks may no longer have the Legion of Boom roaming the defensive backfield, but they do have a Pro Bowl cornerback in Shaquill Griffin. The former Central Florida standout has been a starter since his rookie season and has amassed 186 tackles, 36 passes defended and three interceptions in his three pro seasons.
Griffin will also be just 25 years old when free agency opens next year.
It's never wise to let a young Pro Bowl pass-defender out the door, and Seattle could potentially have Griffin for five more years before he hits 30.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
Largely overshadowed by Mike Evans in his first two seasons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin became a full-fledged star in 2019. He finished the year with an impressive 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns on 86 receptions.
Keeping Godwin must be an offseason priority for a couple of reasons. For one, elite receivers are difficult to find, and Godwin appears to be developing into one. Secondly, the Bucs are looking at a limited window with Tom Brady at quarterback.
If Tampa hopes to get the most out of Brady during his two seasons under contract, it had better ensure his best weapons remain on the roster.
Tennessee Titans: RB Derrick Henry
As previously mentioned, special running backs are worth hanging on to. Tennessee Titans back Derrick Henry definitely fits the term "special" as the 6'3", 247-pound bruiser has the ability to wear down a defense all on his own.
Last season, the 26-year-old rushed for a league-high 1,540 yards and helped carry the Titans to the AFC title game.
According to general manager Jon Robinson, the Titans would like to get a long-term deal done with Henry, who was given the franchise tag this offseason. They have until July 15 to do so before he will have no choice but to play on the tag.
Tennessee will then have to wait until after the season to offer Henry a long-term deal, but it's imperative that they get him locked up before 2021 free agency.
Washington: OG Brandon Scherff
Washington might not yet know if Dwayne Haskins is franchise-quarterback material, but it does know one of the guys blocking for him is a keeper. Guard Brandon Scherff, who was given the franchise tag this offseason, is a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the top interior linemen in the game.
According to ESPN's John Keim, "there isn't much optimism" that a long-term deal will be reached before the July 15 deadline. If a deal isn't done this offseason, it needs to be one of the franchise's top priorities in 2021.
If Washington can lock up the 28-year-old, it will ensure that whoever is starting at quarterback—whether Haskins, Kyle Allen or a quarterback to be named later—has at least one premier piece of supporting talent for the long term.