Buyer Beware: Which NFL Free Agents Should Teams Avoid in 2021?
Once the first wave of NFL free-agent signings passes, older players, one-year wonders and veterans who are coming off injuries start to hear their phones ring with interested suitors on the line.
Some well-known players won't generate a lot of buzz on the free-agent market. They will settle for bargain-bin contracts in an attempt to parlay that into a long-term deal next offseason.
Most notable free agents will receive a call or two, though teams should stay away from a handful unless the price is right.
Despite the difficulty in evaluating a majority of incoming draft prospects because of shortened collegiate seasons and COVID-19 opt-outs, general managers must avoid overpaying for veterans with the salary cap set to shrink because of the loss of ticket revenue at stadiums.
At all costs, clubs should beware of six big-name veterans who are on the mend with major injuries or had disappointing 2020 seasons.
DE Jadeveon Clowney
On the open market, edge-rushers can rake in cash with massive deals, though teams should beware of big-name players whose production doesn't warrant a big payout.
Last offseason, Jadeveon Clowney sought a deal of $20 million or more per year, according to ESPN's Dianna Russini, but he overestimated his market value. The three-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year contract worth up to $13 million with the Tennessee Titans.
In 2020, Clowney suited up for eight games, logging zero sacks, 19 tackles, four for loss and four pass breakups. He landed on injured reserve in November with a knee injury.
Before Clowney's underwhelming 2020 campaign, he only recorded three sacks for the 2019 season with the Seattle Seahawks, though his 30 quarterback pressures showed his ability to make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.
Nonetheless, Clowney's production doesn't match the cachet of his name and draft pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 draft. He should have a better understanding of his market value because of last year's offers, but teams may want to stay away from him after an injury-riddled season.
Along with meager sack numbers, Clowney has missed 11 contests over the past two campaigns because of injuries. He could ink another prove-it deal north of $10 million, but the 27-year-old will likely disappoint a team that needs a lead pass-rusher.
WR Will Fuller V
The league office cut Will Fuller V's breakout 2020 season short with a six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs that extends to Week 1 of the 2021 term. He still recorded career highs in receptions (53), yards (879) and touchdowns (eight).
Fuller formed a strong rapport with Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who predicted the fifth-year wideout would have a big year. Unfortunately, the impending free agent likely hurt his market value with the PED violation.
Teams will show interest in Fuller because of his uncommon speed and ability to stretch the field, but general managers should show some financial restraint when they go to the negotiating table with his representatives.
Fuller's spotty availability is his biggest red flag, which raises concerns for a potential big-money free agent. He's missed at least five games in each of the last four years.
When you look at Fuller's splashy plays on film, you can see why a team would pay more than $15 million for him. On the other hand, he's injury-prone while serving a significant suspension.
WR A.J. Green
Going into his age-33 term, A.J. Green isn't a No. 1 wide receiver anymore.
In 2020, Green saw 104 targets through a full 16-game slate, third-most for the Cincinnati Bengals behind Tyler Boyd (110) and Tee Higgins (108). He had a chance to bounce back from a down 2019 campaign, but the seven-time Pro Bowler didn't make the most of his opportunities.
Green logged a career-low 45.2 percent catch rate and initially struggled to build a rapport with quarterback Joe Burrow, who played through Week 11 before tearing his ACL and MCL. The veteran wideout finished five games without a catch this season.
Despite his 6'4", 210-pound stature, Green didn't provide much in the red zone, hauling in just two touchdown receptions.
In the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, Green missed 23 contests because of toe and ankle injuries. With a significant drop-off in his production, general managers must adjust their expectations and move him down the free-agent wish list.
At this stage in his career, Green isn't worth an eight-figure annual salary, though he may land a deal worth that amount with a wide receiver-needy squad. Yet the free-agent market will offer much better options such as Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson II and Kenny Golladay.
RB Todd Gurley
Todd Gurley's prime has come and gone in six terms. Despite questions about his knee, the Atlanta Falcons signed him to a one-year, $5.5 million deal last offseason.
Initially, Gurley seemed to have the legs to handle a featured role. He logged at least 14 rush attempts in the Falcons' first nine contests, but then his workload tapered off. The 26-year-old recorded single-digit carries in his last six games. Interim head coach Raheem Morris moved Ito Smith into the lead role by the end of the campaign.
Gurley only missed one outing but finished with career lows in carries (195), rushing yards (678) and touches (220). The Falcons used him sparingly in the short passing game. He hauled in 25 out of 35 targets for 164 yards.
Gurley's average in rushing yards per game has dipped since his 2018 All-Pro season. Going into his age-27 term with a declining number of touches, he'll likely settle for a role within a committee.
Last March, an NFL source described his knee condition as "very bad," per The Athletic's Jeff Schultz.
Gurley could become an afterthought with Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake, James Conner and Mike Davis on the market. With 1,703 career touches and a concerning knee issue, he's a high-risk pickup.
S Malik Hooker
Dating back to his last term at Ohio State, Malik Hooker has shown flashes of his ball-tracking skills. He recorded seven interceptions as a redshirt sophomore, which elevated him on draft boards.
Through four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Hooker hasn't realized his potential. While matched up against receivers, he struggled, allowing at least a 73.7 percent completion rate in the 2018 and 2019 campaigns.
In his rookie year and the 2020 term, Hooker suffered significant injuries. This season, he tore his Achilles during a Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Teams that need a safety who can line up in center field and read the quarterback 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage will value Hooker's ability to attack the football while it's in the air. He snagged seven interceptions in his first three years with the Colts, though his gaps in availability should make suitors wary of him. He has missed 28 career contests.
In a search for help at safety, general managers should flock to Justin Simmons, Marcus Maye, Anthony Harris and Marcus Williams before they settle on a one-year deal for Hooker.
DE Olivier Vernon
After an injury-riddled 2019 campaign with just 3.5 sacks and four tackles for loss, Olivier Vernon had a rebound year, logging nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss this season.
Unfortunately, Vernon finished the 2020 term on injured reserve because of a torn Achilles. Since 2017, he's missed 17 games. Now coming off a major injury, the ninth-year defensive end is a major risk for any team that hopes he has a strong comeback following a setback.
Because of the timing of his injury, Vernon isn't a lock to suit up for Week 1 of the 2021 season—another reason teams may want to steer clear at the beginning of free agency.
Pending the rate of his recovery, he seems like a late-offseason addition for clubs that desperately need a pass-rusher or squads looking for depth on the edge.
Otherwise, general managers would be wise to stay away from a 30-year-old edge-rusher who's coming off a torn Achilles.