Dark-Horse Destinations for NFL's Top 2021 Free Agents

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 13, 2020

Dark-Horse Destinations for NFL's Top 2021 Free Agents

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Jason Witten to the Las Vegas Raiders? Philip Rivers to the Indianapolis Colts?

    In honor of the upcoming Aug. 28 release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, "No way!"

    Yes way.

    These mind-bending moves and much more occurred this offseason. Something similar will happen next year. It always does.

    No one should be close-minded about where some of the biggest free agents could sign in 2021. Contract extensions and franchise tags will likely remove some of them from the market, but for now, let your imagination run wild.

    Free agency could look far different next offseason since the current salary-cap number, $198.2 million, could shrink to $175 million based on revenue this fall. At that number, 14 teams would already be in the red without taking any rollover cap into consideration, per Spotrac.

    Certain organizations will have tough decisions to make, and only a handful may have the financial flexibility to pursue top free agents—the following of which were determined based on a combination of age, positional value and production potential.

Yannick Ngakoue to Cleveland Browns

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    If Shaquil Barrett continues to produce this fall as he did during his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (league-high 19.5 sacks), he'll surpass Yannick Ngakoue among the top free-agent pass-rushers.

    Until then, the 25-year-old Jacksonville Jaguars holdout squeaks into the back end of the top 10 since he's two-and-a-half years younger than Barrett.

    Ngakoue isn't without his faults. He demanded a trade, got in a Twitter spat with Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan and recently changed his representation, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. But on the field, his fluidity as a pass-rusher makes him one of the league's hardest edge defenders to block.

    Prior to the 2019 campaign, Ngakoue's pass-rush grade ranked among the league's elite, including Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Myles Garrett, per Pro Football Focus. Ngakoue's sack total (eight) dropped slightly last season, but the defensive end had fewer opportunities to get after opposing passers while playing for an underwhelming Jaguars squad.

    The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, flirted with the idea of adding more opposite Garrett all offseason.

    Cleveland had an offer on the table for Jadeveon Clowney before renegotiating Olivier Vernon's current deal. The team courted Vinny Curry after that point, too.

    Vernon is scheduled to be a free agent after the upcoming season. His departure plus a projected $40-plus million in available salary-cap space—once Cleveland's league-leading $39.2 million in available salary-cap space rolls over—should create a situation where the Browns pursue a top defensive end like Ngakoue.

Alvin Kamara to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints will be placed in a near-impossible situation next offseason since they're already a projected $77.8 million over the 2021 salary cap. Running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Demario Davis, tight end Jared Cook, defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins and safety Marcus Williams are all on expiring contracts, too.

    Kamara is the most intriguing free agent of the bunch since he's classified as a running back yet should be viewed as an offensive weapon. The 25-year-old wasn't just the team's leading rusher the last two seasons; he also finished second behind Michael Thomas in receptions both years.

    The Carolina Panthers made Christian McCaffrey the NFL's highest-paid running back this offseason because of what he can do in both phases of the game. Kamara has a similar skill set, though he's a notch below McCaffrey.

    If the Saints don't re-sign Kamara, the best fit for the three-time Pro Bowler may still reside within the NFC South.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently signed veteran LeSean McCoy as insurance for their younger backfield options, Ronald Jones II and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. If Jones continues to disappoint and McCoy isn't with the team next season, they would then be looking for a running back to complement Tom Brady.

    The Buccaneers may prioritize other players already on the roster when it comes to next offseason's spending, but swiping Kamara from the Saints would be a boss move.

Keenan Allen to New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots are one of the few teams that should have a lot of money to spend next offseason. They're currently projected to have $92.7 million (including this year's rollover cap), which is the second-most available salary-cap space in 2021.

    They'll have plenty to accomplish with that pile of cash, starting with their quarterback situation.

    Cam Newton is operating on a one-year deal. If he becomes the starter and performs well, the Patriots will need to re-sign the 2015 MVP. If he doesn't, they must go in another direction.

    Either way, they'll need to bolster their wide receiver corps. Beyond Julian Edelman, who will turn 35 in May, New England lacks reliable receiving options. 

    Keenan Allen feels like a perfect fit for Bill Belichick's locker room since he's a route-running wizard. According to Pro Football Focus, the three-time Pro Bowler has "generated open separation (more than a couple of steps) against single coverage on 48 targets since 2017—five more than any other receiver in the league." 

    Allen's dedication to technique and precision should make him an ideal addition for New England.

    The Los Angeles Chargers will have the ability to extend Allen, but his decision should come down to whether he sees a better opportunity to compete for a championship elsewhere while simultaneously cashing in.

Kenny Clark to Arizona Cardinals

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark is tired of being overlooked.

    "Sometimes, it messes with my mind because I don't know what (more) I can do or show," Clark told reporters when asked about being snubbed from the NFL Top 100 this year. "I don't know if they respect me as much or it's because I'm inside and they don't see. They don't know the game."

    The 24-year-old graded within the top five among interior defenders during their first three seasons, per Pro Football Focus, joining the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Houston Texans' J.J. Watt, Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins and Kansas City Chiefs' Chris Jones. That quartet has combined for 20 Pro Bowl nods, 12 first-team All-Pro selections and five NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.

    Clark is both a standout run defender and capable of consistently collapsing the pocket.

    The Packers will have multiple decisions to make next offseason with Clark, left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley, running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Allen Lazard set to enter free agency. They're projected to have only $1.9 million in salary-cap space, which could lead to some difficult departures.

    The Arizona Cardinals were desperate to address their defensive interior this offseason, so they signed Jordan Phillips to a three-year, $30 million contract. But with a projected $23.2 million in available salary-cap space next year, they could go after Clark to play alongside Phillips.

David Bakhtiari to Los Angeles Chargers

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    David Bakhtiari is the NFL's best pure pass-blocker. Over the last five seasons, no other offensive tackle—not even the great Joe Thomashad a higher pass-blocking grade than him, per Pro Football Focus.

    The two-time Pro Bowler already went through this process when he signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension with the Green Bay Packers during the 2016 campaign.

    "I look to how I did in '16. I get paid to play," Bakhtiari told reporters in June. "I'm the left tackle, and I'm under contract for another season, and that's what I'm focused on. Whatever the organization decides they want to do moving forward with me, we can have that conversation when it's there."

    Bakhtiari's contract is woefully outdated, as he is tied for the 16th-highest-paid tackle on an annual basis.

    A year from now, the Packers will be barely in the black once rollover cap space is applied. Green Bay has played a dangerous game of not providing quarterback Aaron Rodgers with much help in recent years, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if the franchise allows its stalwart left tackle to leave.

    One destination should be especially intriguing to Bakhtiari.

    The Los Angeles Chargers should follow the path that the Los Angeles Rams took when they signed an aging Andrew Whitworth to protect young and developing quarterback Jared Goff. Whitworth provided an anchor up front to stabilize the entire unit. Bakhtiari can do the same with the Chargers, who are going into this year's training camp with an open competition at left tackle.

    The California native can also reunite with his old offensive line coach, James Campen.

Chris Godwin to New York Giants

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Chris Godwin might be the NFL's best all-around wide receiver.

    Last season, Godwin finished third leaguewide with 1,333 receiving yards, tied for fourth with nine touchdown receptions and tied for 13th at 15.5 yards per reception. But traditional metrics tell only part of the story.

    The 24-year-old received Pro Football Focus' highest overall grade among wide receivers last season. He also ranked second behind future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald with a 98.9 percent catch rate.

    The 2017 third-round pick has the third-highest contested catch rate over the last three seasons. In addition, he forced the third-most missed tackles last year, and he was the only wide receiver to generate at least five yards after the catch on 19 of his receptions.

    But with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans hogging the spotlight in Tampa Bay, Godwin may have to leave the Bucs to earn his designation as a WR1.

    As of now, the Buccaneers have the league's least amount of salary-cap space. They do have some financial flexibility next offseason with a projected $16 million in cap room, but that doesn't include possible extensions for Gronkowski, linebacker Lavonte David and edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett.

    Godwin should wait and test the market as the top available target, where he'll likely find multiple suitors.

    The New York Giants have built a promising young offensive nucleus in quarterback Daniel Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, wide receiver Darius Slayton and offensive tackle Andrew Thomas. All four will still be under rookie contracts next offseason, which would allow the Giants to splurge on a big-time receiving threat for Jones.

Ronnie Stanley to Washington Football Team

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    Baltimore Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley quietly developed into the league's best player at his position last season. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2016 sixth overall draft pick led the NFL in pass-blocking grade among all offensive linemen and had the lowest percentage of negatively graded run blocks.

    "Love Ronnie, played his butt off this year, All-Pro left tackle," Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Excited about that, excited about his future, excited about the player, and excited about the person."

    The 26-year-old is entering the prime of his career and plays one of the league's most valuable positions. That should make him highly sought-after if the Ravens don't extend him before the start of the new league year.

    "It's definitely not really in the forefront of my mind," Stanley told reporters Monday. "We're still in talks, and hopefully we're trying to get something done soon. My main focus right now is just—for me, it's always been be the best player I can be, help my team win. The money usually takes care of itself after that."

    The Ravens are projected to have nearly $23 million in cap space next offseason, and that number will only increase depending on certain moves they make throughout the roster. 

    However, the Washington Football Team is far better positioned not only to pay Stanley, but to make him the highest-paid offensive lineman of all time. Washington has $27.1 million in available salary-cap to roll over into next year's number—which already sits at $33.5 million. 

    Someone has to protect Dwayne Haskins' blind side. Why not pay for the best?

Jalen Ramsey to San Francisco 49ers

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    Neither the Los Angeles Rams nor the San Francisco 49ers are projected to have a ton of financial wiggle room next offseason, though the latter might be better positioned to make a run at Jalen Ramsey next year.

    According to former NFL GM and The Athletic contributor Michael Lombardi, San Francisco "wanted to clean up cap issues" and placed linebacker Kwon Alexander, edge-rusher Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt on the trade block earlier this offseason. 

    Tartt will be a free agent in 2021, but the 49ers can cut both Alexander and Ford and create nearly $19 million in salary-cap space. The front office could also create more flexibility by restructuring Jimmy Garoppolo's $137.5 million contract, which would add to the $11.8 million the team currently has in potential rollover cap space.

    The Rams don't have the same amount of elasticity within their current salary-cap structure. The team is barely under the cap now, and the same applies for next offseason. Even so, the franchise is trying to negotiate a long-term contract with Ramsey.

    "I can't do anything about it. I'm not worried about it. I'm trying to do my job as a football player," the three-time Pro Bowler told reporters last week. "... Look, if it comes, it comes. It's going to be a surprise to me like it's going to be a surprise to y'all."

    San Francisco may need significant upgrades at cornerback next season since Richard Sherman, K'Waun Williams and Akhello Witherspoon are free agents. Ramsey would be the perfect corner for Robert Saleh's Legion of Boom-inspired scheme, and taking him away from a division rival would make it even sweeter.

Dak Prescott to Indianapolis Colts

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    The Dallas Cowboys already screwed up negotiations with franchise quarterback Dak Prescott by prioritizing extensions for other players. Thus, he will play under the franchise tag this fall with the possibility of becoming a free agent next offseason.

    The Cowboys could slap the franchise tag on Prescott a second time, but the organization's lack of financial flexibility makes that possibility less feasible. Dallas is already $2 million over next year's projected salary cap, with only $2.7 million currently to roll over to next year after the Everson Griffen signing.

    The front office will need to shed a significant portion of its current projected spending, while structuring Prescott's contract in such a way to make a long-term deal feasible.

    The Indianapolis Colts aren't in the same position, as general manager Chris Ballard has built quite a nest egg since taking over three years ago.

    The Colts currently have $20.7 million in available salary-cap space. Next season, they're projected to have a league-leading $79.3 million, even at the potentially lowered cap figure.

    That flexibility will allow them to chase a true franchise quarterback after going with Jacoby Brissett last season and a soon-to-be 39-year-old Philip Rivers, who is operating on a one-year deal, this fall.

    "If we get to a point, and you can read this as you want to read it, a true difference-maker in the free-agent market, I'm good paying for," Ballard said in a radio interview (via the Indianapolis Star's Jim Ayello). "But they have to be a true difference-maker, unquestionably. Not the media saying he's a true difference-maker, the tape saying he's a true difference-maker."

    Prescott could be a franchise-changer. At 27 years old, he's in his prime at a premium position. The Colts can easily make him one of the league's highest-paid quarterbacks and still have plenty of wiggle room to address other contract extensions or free-agent signings.

    Salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.