NFL Free Agency 2021: Previewing This Year's Class

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2021

NFL Free Agency 2021: Previewing This Year's Class

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The 2020 NFL regular season has ended, and while 14 teams still hope to lift the Lombardi Trophy, many franchises—and their respective fanbases—have turned their attention to the 2021 offseason.

    The 2021 edition of free agency is going to be an intriguing affair, as several teams could be in tight cap situations. It does not seem the salary cap will fall to the $175 million floor set by the NFL and NFLPA, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport. However, it is likely to drop for the first time in recent memory.

    Still, we're bound to see a flurry of activity when the free-agent market opens March 17. That's the nature of the NFL offseason, and with many high-profile players expected to be available, that isn't going to change this year.

    Here, you'll find an initial position-by-position rundown of the top names slated to hit the open market in a little over two months' time.


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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    1. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

    2. Philip Rivers, Indianapolis Colts

    3. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

    4. Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints

    5. Andy Dalton, Dallas Cowboys

    6. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins

    7. Tyrod Taylor, Los Angeles Chargers


    We've included seven names at quarterback because it's likely at least a couple of these guys aren't allowed to hit the open market. It would be a relative shock, for example, if the Dallas Cowboys allowed 27-year-old Pro Bowler Dak Prescott to leave a year after handing him the franchise tag.

    If Prescott does become available, he'll be the best of the bunch. A dynamic signal-caller and two-time Pro Bowler, he has the tools needed to be a franchise cornerstone.

    Philip Rivers and, to a lesser degree, Ryan Fitzpatrick, are tremendous veteran options for teams that are looking to add a stopgap starter. Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston are potential reclamation projects who haven't established themselves as franchise quarterbacks but still have the potential to do so.

    Cowboys backup Andy Dalton falls somewhere in the middle. He's a high-end backup at worst, but he still views himself as a starter.

    "I'm very thankful for the opportunity that I had this year, with the ability to play and just put some tape out there. We'll see what happens come March," Dalton told reporters after the season ended.

    At 33 years old, Dalton is young enough to be a potential long-term solution. Tyrod Taylor is best suited to playing the stopgap/mentor role as he has in his last two stops with the Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns.

Running Back

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    1. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

    2. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

    3. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

    4. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

    5. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers


    With viable starters regularly found late in the draft—or after it, in the case of undrafted standouts like Jacksonville Jaguars rookie James Robinson—there may not be a huge market for veteran running backs this offseason. However, teams that seek an established player at the position will have options.

    Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones is the clear top choice. He's only 26 years old, led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and just wrapped up his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. While the Packers could retain either Jones or backup Jamaal Williams, keeping both seems unlikely.

    Green Bay used a second-round pick on AJ Dillon in last year's draft.

    Kenyan Drake, Chris Carson and Phillip Lindsay are all capable of holding down the starting job for extended stretches, though each brings some degree of injury concerns. None of them (nor Jones) played a full 16-game slate in 2020.

    Williams has never been a full-time starter, but he has shined when given starting opportunities. Even in a (mostly) backup role with the Packers this season, he produced 505 rushing yards and 236 receiving yards, and he averaged 4.2 yards per carry.

    Williams is just 25 years old, and some teams may view him as a future starter at running back.

Wide Receiver

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    1. Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears

    2. Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    3. Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions

    4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

    5. Will Fuller V, Houston Texans


    While last year's free-agent class produced a few pleasant surprises at wide receiver, this year's class is loaded at the top end. Chicago Bears wideout Allen Robinson II should be the top free-agent target after producing back-to-back seasons of 1,100-plus yards in an inconsistent Chicago passing offense.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin was limited to 12 games in 2020 but was a 1,300-yard receiver and a Pro Bowler the previous season. It would make sense for the Buccaneers to retain him, but with players like Mike Evans and Scotty Miller also on the roster, it may be hard to justify handing him a lucrative contract.

    Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay is in a similar position to Godwin, as injuries limited him in 2020. He played just five games and caught 20 passes this season.

    However, Golladay has shown No. 1 receiver traits, led the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions in 2019 and produced back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before 2020.

    Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn't recaptured the magic he had during his 2018 Pro Bowl season, but he's been a standout in a loaded Steelers receiving corps.

    Will Fuller V was establishing himself as the Houston Texans' new top target before his season ended after Week 12 because of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. That suspension will carry over into 2021 for a game and could impact his free-agent stock.

Tight End

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    1. Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

    2. Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams

    3. Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans

    4. Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints

    5. Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers


    Chargers tight end Hunter Henry headlines an underwhelming free-agent position group for 2021. He isn't a Pro Bowl talent just yet, but after catching 60 passes for 613 yards and four touchdowns this season, he's on the cusp.

    Gerald Everett and Jonnu Smith represent the next tier of younger pass-catching tight ends. Neither is as athletically dynamic as Henry, but both have been producers in offenses that don't lean heavily on the position.

    New Orleans Saints tight end Jared Cook is a two-time Pro Bowler who has had some stretches of greatness over the past few seasons. He had 43 catches for 705 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019 and was a Pro Bowler with the Raiders the previous season.

    However, Cook is also 33 yards old and perhaps only a top target for teams that want to win now.

    Similar statements could be made about Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski. A future Hall of Famer, Gronkowski has rounded into form over the last half of 2020. However, he is just a year removed from retirement and isn't likely to be a long-term option—if the 31-year-old is even willing to play with a quarterback not named Tom Brady.

Offensive Line

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    1. Brandon Scherff, Washington Football Team

    2. Joe Thuney, New England Patriots

    3. Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers

    4. Russell Okung, Carolina Panthers

    5. Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers

    6. Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers

    7. Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons


    Teams in need of offensive line help should have plenty of premier options, though much of the top talent is concentrated in the offensive interior.

    Guards Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney are at the top of the list, and an argument could be made for either player. Scherff has been a four-time Pro Bowler for the Washington Football Team, but he has also struggled to stay healthy in recent years. Thuney, on the other hand, has never missed a start for the New England Patriots.

    Packers center Corey Linsley is one of the league's most underrated linemen, and the 29-year-old should be capable of anchoring an offensive interior for several years to some. Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack is a six-time Pro Bowler, but he's also 35 years old and likely a short-term starting option at best.

    At tackle, San Francisco 49ers standout Trent Williams tops the list, though Russell Okung and Alejandro Villanueva are also both capable starters on the left side. None is under 30 years old, but teams in need of a starting left tackle should be all over them once free agency opens.

Edge Defender

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    1. Leonard Williams, New York Giants

    2. Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens

    3. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

    4. Haason Reddick, Arizona Cardinals

    5. Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    6. Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers

    7. Carl Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals


    While premier edge-rushers don't often hit the open market, the 2021 edition of free agency could be loaded with them. New York Giants defensive end Leonard Williams likely tops the wish list for many teams after his breakout 2020 campaign. After underwhelming in half a season with the Giants in 2019, he racked up 11.5 sacks and 41 quarterback pressures this year.

    Baltimore Ravens standout Matthew Judon only had six sacks in 2020, but his 21 quarterback hits should have defensively deficient teams drooling.

    Von Miller is an eight-time Pro Bowler. While he isn't officially a free agent yet, he could be by March. The Denver Broncos have a club option for Miller in 2021 and could face a difficult decision in the offseason after he missed the entire season with a tendon injury.

    Like Williams, Haason Reddick had a breakout season as a dedicated pass-rusher in 2020. Shaquil Barrett was the 2019 league leader in sacks, while Bud Dupree is one of the best edge-rushing linebackers to become available recently—though he is coming off a torn ACL and will likely lose some luster.

    Carl Lawson has largely been overlooked in the woeful Cincinnati Bengals defense, but he could be a prime target for teams that don't want to splurge on the market's bigger names.

Defensive Line

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    1. Larry Ogunjobi, Cleveland Browns

    2. Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh Steelers

    3. Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    4. Tyrone Crawford, Dallas Cowboys

    5. Solomon Thomas, San Francisco 49ers


    Free agency won't be quite as loaded with down defensive linemen as it is with edge-rushers. However, some quality top options will be available. Cleveland's Larry Ogunjobi should top the list for several teams.

    While the 26-year-old has been overshadowed by the likes of Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, Ogunjobi is a legitimate playmaker at the interior. He amassed 46 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2020.

    Pittsburgh's Tyson Alualu is a similarly underrated interior defender who racked up 39 tackles and two sacks in more of a rotational role.

    Tyrone Crawford is an unheralded but important piece of the Cowboys defensive front, while Tampa's 33-year-old veteran, Ndamukong Suh, is still capable of wrecking an offensive game plan when given the opportunity.

    San Francisco's Solomon Thomas is an intriguing pending free agent. While the 2017 first-round pick has shown flashes during his pro career, he hasn't blossomed into a true defensive playmaker. He's also coming off a season-ending ACL tear and will likely be viewed as a reclamation project by interested potential employers.


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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    1. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    2. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills

    3. Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans

    4. B.J. Goodson, Cleveland Browns

    5. Reggie Ragland, Detroit Lions


    As is the case at a few positions, one could make an argument for a couple of different players as the top off-ball linebacker this offseason. Tampa Bay's Lavonte Davis is a regular stat producer who has topped 100 tackles in each of his last four seasons. However, he is also on the wrong side of 30 and therefore best suited for a team that is ready to win now.

    Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano, on the other hand, has been more of a rotational player this season—he had 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 10 games with five starts—but is also in his playing prime at just 26 years old.

    Tennessee Titans linebacker Jayon Brown is a quality starter, but he also saw his season end after Week 11 because of an elbow injury. His recovery timetable will likely affect his free-agent stock in the coming months.

    Reggie Ragland and B.J. Goodson are both proven starters, though neither will be viewed as an elite player on the open market.

    While some defensive positions will be deep this offseason, linebacker is not one of them. This is unfortunate for teams in need of help at the second level, but it's a good thing financially for the few players at the top of the position.


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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    1. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals

    2. Shaquill Griffin, Seattle Seahawks

    3. William Jackson III, Cincinnati Bengals

    4. Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers

    5. Michael Davis, Los Angeles Chargers


    Cornerback is another defensive position that isn't deep, but there are a variety of options for teams to consider. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson may be in the back half of his career, but he's an eight-time Pro Bowler who will likely top the list for contending teams eager to solidify a starting spot.

    Seattle Seahawks corner Shaquill Griffin is a less accomplished player, but he is a quality starter in the prime of his playing career. He has started 53 games over his four NFL seasons and won't turn 26 until July.

    William Jackson III is a similar young starter for the Bengals, though he isn't as proven as Griffin. He has started just five fewer games but has no postseason experience.

    Potential contenders could also look to 32-year-old veteran Richard Sherman. Like Peterson, he is on the wrong side of 30 but is capable of playing at a high level when healthy—which, of course, he wasn't for much of the 2020 season.

    A return to the 49ers would make sense, though even Sherman knows it's unlikely.

    "If there's some miracle that happens, then sure there's an opening," Sherman told reporters. "But there's 40 free agents and they'll probably have $30 million or less in cap."

    Michael Davis is a two-year starter and an unheralded key contributor to the Chargers secondary.


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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    1. Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

    2. Marcus Maye, New York Jets

    3. John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams

    4. Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints

    5. Tashaun Gipson, Chicago Bears


    We're back to a position of depth at safety, and there should be plenty of satisfied teams come March if they're willing to spend.

    Denver Broncos standout Justin Simmons is a playmaker who has amassed 24 passes defended and nine interceptions over the past two seasons. He played on the franchise tag in 2020 and is likely to be among the most financially well-positioned defenders on the market.

    New York Jets safety Marcus Maye was overshadowed by Jamal Adams before the latter was traded to Seattle. However, he has come on strong as a playmaker in his own right this year. A versatile defender who can play either safety spot, Maye had 11 passes defended to go with two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

    John Johnson is perhaps the most underrated member of the Rams secondary. Along with rookie Jordan Fuller, he has forged one of the top safety duos in football. However, it is fair to wonder how much a strong supporting cast has benefited him.

    The same can be said of Saints safety Marcus Williams. While he may be best known for being on the losing end of the Minneapolis Miracle, Williams has been a key piece of a loaded New Orleans defense.

    Tashaun Gipson will be in a similar position leaving a talented Bears defense, though he was also a quality player with the Jacksonville Jaguars and with Cleveland.


    Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.