2021 NFL Free Agents Who Must Be Re-Signed This Offseason
The 2021 NFL free-agent class looks like another league-altering one based on the big names set to be available.
Notable players like Los Angeles Chargers edge defender Joey Bosa and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey are already wrapped up on extensions. But with one franchise quarterback to lead the way, the remainder of the class is strong.
That quarterback and a handful of other names set to hit the open market must be re-signed by their current teams. They're irreplaceable and worth top dollar, and their losses would set their respective teams back dramatically.
Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers made a big splash last offseason by striking a trade for embattled Washington tackle Trent Williams.
The 49ers coughed up third- and fifth-round picks on the low-risk, high-reward buy, getting a veteran who had missed time but was essentially a one-year rental.
That rental now deserves a long-term stay.
Williams has proved he's still elite even after missing all of last season, grading at 90.2 at Pro Football Focus this season and permitting just four sacks over more than 600 snaps. While he's 32 years old, there's no reason to think his play dips dramatically in the coming years.
Teams spend years searching for offensive tackles, and the 49ers acquired a guy who's playing like one of the NFL's best. That will be critical in front of Jimmy Garoppolo for the foreseeable future if the 49ers want to contend, so the front office has no excuses not to bring Williams back.
Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all-in on trying to win now after luring Tom Brady to town.
That means keeping weapons like Chris Godwin.
The 2017 third-round pick has only played in six games this year because of injuries, leading to just 412 yards and two touchdowns. But over the two years before that, he scored 16 touchdowns and had more than 2,100 yards.
A variety of weapons have carried the load for the seven-win Buccaneers as six players have 20 or more catches. But Godwin still sits third on the team in receiving, which speaks to his importance this year and over the remainder of the Brady era.
Teams don't often stumble into 24-year-old wideouts with Godwin's upside, so the Buccaneers should put some of their $31.9 million in 2021 cap space to use.
Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos are fortunate enough to roster one of the NFL's best safeties and would be wise to make sure he remains a building block for the future.
Justin Simmons was a third-round pick by the Broncos in 2016 and received the franchise tag last offseason after putting up a 90.7 PFF grade, picking off four passes and only allowing 25 receptions on 47 targets in 2019.
Over nine games in 2020, the 27-year-old has played 100 percent of the defense's snaps to the tune of an 81.0 PFF grade and three interceptions, albeit 24 receptions permitted on 30 targets. But it's hard to knock him too much for regressions on a Von Miller-less defense that has stumbled overall, coughing up 28.2 points per game.
Simmons is still ranked as a top-five safety in the NFL, so the Broncos would be foolish to let go of one of the roster's best players, especially as a transition away from veterans like Miller continues.
Yannick Ngakoue, Edge, Baltimore Ravens
Yannick Ngakoue has resembled a hot potato of late, though the Baltimore Ravens should be on the hunt to keep, not pass.
Ngakoue split with the Jacksonville Jaguars in August via a trade to Minnesota, where he signed a one-year deal for $12 million. When the win-now ambitions of the Vikings flopped, he found himself traded to a contender in Baltimore.
The 25-year-old star pass-rusher has appeared in three games with the Ravens and doesn't have a sack after totaling five in Minnesota. It isn't shocking he's been slow to adjust and produce for his third team in a matter of months.
Odds are Ngakoue is the same superstar edge defender who put up eight or more sacks in four consecutive seasons before this year. It's hard to imagine a team with as much defensive acumen as Baltimore doesn't figure out how to get him going—now and over the long term. He's a foundational block and a rich-get-richer move acquired for just a third-round pick and a fifth-round conditional in 2022.
Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots shouldn't move away from Cam Newton after a single season.
Newton looked like a massive steal for Bill Belichick and Co. when he signed with the Patriots in June on a one-year deal. While the team is only 4-5, Newton has slowly adjusted and blossomed, completing 68.8 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and seven interceptions, along with nine scores as a rusher.
The Patriots' transition from Tom Brady to Newton was going to take time, and Belichick has decried the team's cap situation as a reason for the team's lack of depth. Add in a slew of player opt-outs related to COVID-19 before the season started, and it's not hard to see why the Patriots are below .500.
But looking at the long-term angle, Newton is only 31 years old and a former MVP, so it's worth continuing to build around him, particularly because the Patriots don't have anyone in-house to turn to. (Look how fast they said no thanks on Jarrett Stidham.) Plus, their trajectory has them likely to pick in the middle of the first round, well out of range for one of the top passers in the 2021 draft.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have a problem many teams wish for—they have to pay up for a proven franchise quarterback.
Dak Prescott appeared in five games this year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Playing on the $31.4 million franchise tag, he was on a historic pace, completing 68.0 percent of his passes with 1,856 yards and nine touchdowns against four interceptions.
The Cowboys have imploded without Prescott to keep things afloat. Dallas is 2-7, allows a league-worst 32.2 points per game and can't even compete in an NFC East where the first-place team is 3-5-1.
Jerry Jones and Co. were lucky enough to back into a franchise passer in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Prescott is a career 66.0 percent passer with 106 touchdowns and 40 interceptions with a 42-27 record; gambling on finding that sort of late-round success again would be foolish.
Dallas likely won't want to pay up on the money escalation of a second franchise tag, nor does it have much leverage after how things have unfolded this year. Prescott is going to get paid big, and the Cowboys would be wise to make sure it's them who write the check.