The 1 Free Agent Every NFL Team Must Let Walk This Offseason
Sometimes, it's good to know when to say goodbye. This is true in the NFL, as factors such as salary-cap space, potential contract terms and organizational direction can make it best for a team and a player to part ways.
It can even be smart to let go of a longtime starter when the money won't work or in the rare instance when a team has an Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. Other times, it can make sense because a player no longer fits the state of a franchise—think of an older Matthew Stafford and the rebuilding Detroit Lions.
So, while much of the focus will be on which players teams should add or re-sign when free agency kicks off March 17, we're going to look at those they shouldn't. This doesn't mean any of these players aren't good or won't be assets elsewhere—only that it wouldn't be warranted for their employers to bring them back. We focused on pending free agents, so potential cut or trade options weren't considered.
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald
Wideout Larry Fitzgerald is a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players to ever wear an Arizona Cardinals uniform. While the 37-year-old could be mulling retirement, he hasn't made a decision on next season.
"I haven't given it much thought," Fitzgerald said, per Jose M. Romero of the Arizona Republic.
If Fitzgerald wants to play in 2021, Arizona needs to let it happen elsewhere. The Cardinals are projected to have more than $19 million in cap space, but with DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella on the roster, receiver is far from the team's biggest need.
Sentimentality could make this a tough decision for the Cardinals, but Fitzgerald deserves a chance to finish his career with a title contender. Arizona isn't on that level and should be prepared to let him walk.
Atlanta Falcons: Todd Gurley
The Atlanta Falcons took a chance on three-time Pro Bowler Todd Gurley in the offseason. The gamble didn't pay off. The once-dominant Gurley started 15 games but averaged a mere 3.5 yards per carry while failing to reach 850 scrimmage yards.
It's time for Gurley to get another fresh start. Atlanta is projected to be more than $23 million over the salary cap and cannot afford to spend on a running back who appears to be past his prime.
Might Gurley recapture some of his early-career magic in 2021? It's possible, as he won't turn 27 until August. The Falcons, however, shouldn't bet on that scenario for a second consecutive offseason.
Baltimore Ravens: Dez Bryant
The Baltimore Ravens took a flier on veteran wideout Dez Bryant this season, signing him to the practice squad in October and moving him in and out of the lineup. Bryant appeared in six games and caught six passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns.
Bryant played on a one-year, $1.1 million contract. It may not be a major issue for the Ravens to afford him in 2021, but they should focus on spending elsewhere. Baltimore is projected to have about $29 million in cap space, but key defenders Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are slated to hit the open market.
Just as relevant is the fact that re-signing Bryant would cost the Ravens a valuable roster spot. Baltimore needs to find a No. 1 receive to pair with Lamar Jackson, and Bryant isn't that.
It would behoove the Ravens to seek long-term pieces to their passing puzzle and to move on from Bryant.
Buffalo Bills: Trent Murphy
Defensive end Trent Murphy was a solid contributor for the Buffalo Bills in 2020. He appeared in 10 games and registered two sacks and 19 tackles. Murphy, however, is 30 years old and unlikely to be a budget option in free agency.
Murphy's cap hit for 2020 was just under $10 million. Bringing back Murphy at anything close to that price wouldn't make sense for Buffalo, which is projected to be less than $4 million under the cap.
The Bills will have to clear some cap room as it is, and there will be better ways to spend money than on a defensive end who is more of a rotational piece than a high-end starter. In Mario Addison and A.J. Epenesa, the Bills would still have adequate depth at the position.
Carolina Panthers: Russell Okung
The Carolina Panthers acquired offensive tackle Russell Okung from the Los Angeles Chargers for Trai Turner. While the hope was that Okung would solidify one of the tackle spots, he was healthy for just seven games.
In his 406 snaps, Okung was responsible for four penalties and three sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 32-year-old Okung appears to be past his prime. He has played just 13 games over the past two years and hasn't been a Pro Bowler since 2017.
With Carolina projected to have less than $18 million in cap space, it wouldn't make sense to overpay to keep Okung, who carried a cap hit of $13 million or more in each of the last three seasons. The Panthers should instead look to add a younger, more reliable and preferably cheaper tackle.
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky
If the Chicago Bears cannot find a new quarterback in the draft and cannot afford a staring-caliber option in free agency—they're projected to be just over the salary cap—then they may view Mitchell Trubisky as an affordable short-term option.
This doesn't mean Chicago should bring back the 2017 No. 2 pick, however. In his four years with Chicago, Trubisky has failed to show he can be a cornerstone. He has helped the Bears reach the postseason twice, but with a career passer rating of just 87.2, he has been along for the ride more than he's been in the driver's seat.
Running it back with Trubisky would prevent the Bears from moving forward—especially if they do end up drafting a quarterback of the future. Again, if Trubisky is still out there after the draft and the Bears don't have a viable starter, he very well could be back. He should not be their top option early in free agency, however.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green
In an effort to provide rookie quarterback Joe Burrow with an experienced veteran receiver in 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals used the franchise tag on A.J. Green. But Green and Burrow never developed chemistry, and Green was a liability as often as he was an asset.
Though he appeared in 16 games, Green produced only 523 yards and two touchdowns on 47 receptions. He also had a catch rate of just 45.2 percent, while quarterbacks targeting him had a passer rating of just 55.1.
It's time for Cincinnati to move on from the former No. 1 receiver. Green may be able to help a different squad, but the Bengals have emerging young wideouts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and little need for an aging veteran.
Cleveland Browns: Cody Parkey
The Cleveland Browns reached the divisional round of the playoffs this season and may have the foundation of a Super Bowl roster in place. But they have a glaring weakness at kicker, as Cody Parkey was a weak link too often in 2020.
Parkey did not miss a kick in the playoffs, but he missed three field goals and four extra points in the regular season—including one of each in a close game against the Ravens in Week 14. Just as problematic was the fact that the coaching staff did not trust Parkey enough to even attempt long kicks.
Parkey did not try a field goal of 50 or more yards during the regular season. In his career, he has missed 13 of 52 attempts from 40-49 yards.
Most championship-caliber teams enjoy reliability at kicker, and the Browns need to search for it. They waived Parkey before the 2017 season and need to let him walk.
Dallas Cowboys: Aldon Smith
The Dallas Cowboys took a chance on veteran pass-rusher Aldon Smith. After a nearly five-year hiatus from the NFL, Smith proved he can still play. He logged five sacks, 48 tackles and 20 quarterback pressures while starting 16 games.
The problem for Dallas is that Smith played on a one-year, $2 million deal. Now that he's shown what he can still do, he is going to be a lot more expensive.
While the Cowboys are projected to have more than $27 million in cap space, they are going to need all that and then some to lock up quarterback Dak Prescott. While Dallas would likely love to have Smith back, it cannot afford to get into a bidding war.
Smith's next chapter needs to be written elsewhere.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller
Linebacker Von Miller is not yet set to become a free agent. The Denver Broncos have a club option for 2021 that would trigger a cap hit of more than $22 million. But they shouldn't be eager to exercise it.
For starters, Denver could use that money to sign 27-year-old Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons. Secondly, the Broncos produced 42 sacks without Miller this season, so it's not as if pass-rush help is a need.
Miller is also under criminal investigation in Colorado, though details haven't been released, according to Kieran Nicholson and Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post.
The Broncos can save $18 million by simply ignoring their option and allowing Miller to walk in free agency. That should be the preferred option to splurging on a soon-to-be 32-year-old who is coming off a season erased by surgery and potentially facing a league-mandated suspension.
Detroit Lions: Everson Griffen
Everson Griffen may not be the standout defensive end he once was, but he was more than serviceable in seven games for the Detroit Lions in 2020, logging 3.5 sacks and 13 tackles in a rotational role.
Here's the problem, though. The Lions traded for Griffen when coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn were still trying to save their jobs. Both were fired in November and replaced by Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes after the regular season.
The Lions have since agreed to trade quarterback Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff, a pair of first-round picks and a third-rounder—a move that should mark the beginning of a rebuild. The 33-year-old Griffen doesn't fit into such a plan, as both his age and potential salary could be problematic.
Green Bay Packers: Kevin King
The Green Bay Packers should look to move on from cornerback Kevin King—and not just because he was the goat of the NFC title game.
King is a starting-caliber cornerback but has a tendency to miss tackles—26 of them in the last two seasons—that cannot be ignored. While King can be a solid cover man—he allowed a not-great-but-not-horrendous opposing passer rating of 96.2 in 2020—blown coverages such as the one at the end of the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers loom large.
King's market value will be higher to teams other than Green Bay. One will be willing to pay him a starter's rate in free agency, which means a team-friendly deal for the Packers is unlikely.
With Green Bay projected to be nearly $30 million over the cap, a bargain is the only thing that would make sense. Instead of haggling to keep King, though, the Packers would be better off letting him walk.
Houston Texans: Vernon Hargreaves III
The Houston Texans have to sort out a tricky situation with disgruntled quarterback Deshaun Watson. Finding a way to make him happy—and to get him behind center for Week 1—has to be the team's top priority.
After that, Houston needs to focus on fixing its 24th-ranked pass defense. The Texans aren't going to go far in the AFC if they cannot slow Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and others.
This means finding a replacement for pending free agent Vernon Hargreaves III should be on the agenda. Hargreaves may be a fine cornerback in a different situation, but he hasn't worked out for the Texans or Buccaneers.
The 2016 No. 11 pick allowed an opposing passer rating of 109.1 and surrendered six touchdown receptions in 2020. That's simply not what a team looks for in a starting corner.
Indianapolis Colts: Marlon Mack
Marlon Mack is not a bad running back, and it's a shame his 2020 season was cut short by a torn Achilles after just four carries. The Indianapolis Colts should not consider re-signing Mack, however.
Indianapolis used a second-round pick on former Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor, and the rookie was nothing short of impressive following a slow start. Taylor rushed for just 22 yards on nine carries in his debut, but he racked up 101 in his first career start the next week.
In all, Taylor amassed 1,169 rushing yards, 299 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020. He is the Colts' new workhorse, and they have quality backups in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, meaning re-signing Mack should be out of the equation.
He certainly deserves the chance to be a starter—just not with Indianapolis.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Tyler Eifert
The Jacksonville Jaguars have finally embraced a rebuild. They have a new head coach in Urban Meyer, a new general manager in Trent Baalke, and—if things go as expected—they will have a new franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence.
The Jaguars should be on a mission to add promising young players who can be around for the long term. That isn't a description that fits 30-year-old tight end Tyler Eifert.
The Jaguars took a flier on the 2015 Pro Bowler with a $3.3 million cap hit for 2020. While Eifert wasn't a disaster—he finished with 36 receptions for 349 yards and two touchdowns—he was merely average.
Eifert is only set to become a free agent if the Jaguars let him. Jacksonville has a club option that must be exercised by Feb. 23. Exercising that option would cost the Jags more than $6 million in cap space—a price that simply does not match Eifert's production. The smart move would be to ignore that option, allow Eifert to hit the open market and let him sign elsewhere.
Kansas City Chiefs: Sammy Watkins
Sammy Watkins hasn't emerged as the star receiver the Kansas City Chiefs were hoping to land when they signed him in 2018. He's never reached 700 yards and has served as a complementary piece.
Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce are also on the roster, so Watkins is purely a luxury. And an expensive one too. Even after Watkins renegotiated his contract, he carried a cap hit of more than $15 million in 2020.
It's unlikely Watkins will play for the league minimum in 2021, so it's time for Kansas City to push him aside. The Chiefs are projected to be more than $8 million over the salary cap, and they have enough weapons to continue contending without Watkins.
Las Vegas Raiders: Vic Beasley
The Las Vegas Raiders took a chance on former Falcons pass-rusher Vic Beasley after he was cut by the Tennessee Titans midseason. Beasley signed a modest one-year, $910,000 deal with Vegas but continued to disappoint as a pressure man.
In 10 games with the Titans and Raiders, Beasley generated zero sacks and just one quarterback pressure.
There's no reason for the Raiders to bring Beasley back for 2021. He was worth a short-term gamble at a discounted price, but he's shown that he isn't likely to be an impact player in the Vegas defense. He's not worth the roster spot or the valuable cap space to a team projected to be $9.2 million over the cap.
Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Ingram
Defensive end Melvin Ingram III has been a defensive mainstay for the Los Angeles Chargers for nearly a decade. However, he's also 31 years old and coming off a wildly disappointing year. Ingram appeared in just seven games this season and failed to produce a sack for the first time in his NFL career.
The Chargers are entering a new era with quarterback Justin Herbert and head coach Brandon Staley, so now is the time to pull the plug on Ingram.
Could he bounce back and be a high-level defender in 2021? It's possible, but the Chargers shouldn't roll the dice. L.A. is projected to have nearly $34 million in cap space, but it also has key contributors like Mike Pouncey, Hunter Henry and Denzel Perryman set to hit the open market.
Bidding to keep an aging defender who may or may not be effective next season is not the sort of move a rebuilding franchise like L.A. should make.
Los Angeles Rams: Leonard Floyd
Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams signed pass-rusher Leonard Floyd to a one-year, $10 million contract. He rewarded L.A. with a 10.5-sack campaign, the best of his career. While the Rams may be tempted to bring back Floyd for 2021, they shouldn't.
The reality is that playing in the Los Angeles defense—and alongside Aaron Donald—seems to turn otherwise average pass-rushers into stars. Two years ago, it was Dante Fowler Jr. who logged double-digit sacks for the Rams. He signed with the Falcons in the offseason and reverted to being a lackluster pressure man, with just three sacks in 2020.
Overpaying to keep Floyd wouldn't be prudent, as the Rams are already projected to be $25.2 million over the cap. While it's not entirely fair to suggest that L.A. can stick just anyone into that pass-rushing role and have him succeed, the Rams can get solid production out of someone who doesn't cost $10 million-plus to roster.
Miami Dolphins: Matt Breida
Last offseason, the Miami Dolphins traded for running back Matt Breida. While he was far from terrible—he averaged 4.3 yards per carry—he also saw limited opportunities. Instead, Miami often looked to get younger backs like Salvon Ahmed, 22, and Myles Gaskin, 23, involved in the running game.
With Breida set to turn 26 later this month, expect Miami to continue going younger at running back. In addition to utilizing Ahmed and Gaskin, the team may look to add another back in the upcoming draft.
Breida, on the other hand, played on a one-year, $3.3 million contract in 2020 and may not be interested in taking a pay cut. The Dolphins aren't in bad shape cap-wise, with $35.6 million in projected room, but that doesn't mean it makes sense to overpay an underutilized piece of a rotational backfield.
Minnesota Vikings: George Iloka
The Minnesota Vikings are in a tough spot this offseason. They're projected to be nearly $5 million over the cap, and coming off a 7-9 season, they're probably closer to a rebuild than title contention.
There isn't a good reason to use their cap space or a roster spot on a soon-to-be 31-year-old safety who spent time on the practice squad and appeared in only four games in 2020 before going on injured reserve.
George Iloka didn't play in 2019. He appeared in all 16 games for the Vikings in 2018, but he wasn't a significant contributor, playing just 11 percent of the defensive snaps. It's time for Minnesota to find a younger and more consistent option for safety depth.
New England Patriots: Cam Newton
The New England Patriots signed quarterback Cam Newton to help lead their offense through a transition season in 2020. For that purpose, he was adequate. The team won seven games in its first campaign of the post-Tom Brady era.
However, Newton was not a strong fit for coordinator Josh McDaniels' passing offense and struggled to consistently move the ball through the air. He finished with just 2,657 passing yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Now it's time for New England to abandon its quest to simply get through a tough season. The Patriots need to find their quarterback of the future and fully commit to the post-Brady rebuild. They need more than just a placeholder under center, and this means that it's time to move on from Newton.
New Orleans Saints: Jared Cook
There are a few reasons why it makes sense for the New Orleans Saints to move on from tight end Jared Cook. For one, he's going to turn 34 in April, and New Orleans could be headed toward a fairly significant rebuild. They may not have quarterback Drew Brees in 2021.
"I think within the next week, week-and-a-half we'll get a little bit more information relative to Drew," head coach Sean Payton told PFT Live on Wednesday.
Secondly, the Saints have other options at the position, including 2020 third-round pick Adam Trautman and blocking tight end/H-back Josh Hill.
Lastly, of course, is the fact that the Saints cannot afford him. New Orleans is projected to be $70.7 million over the cap and has no room to pay an aging tight end in free agency.
New York Giants: Cameron Fleming
The New York Giants are only projected to have $7.9 million in cap space. That's without including new deals for pending free agents like Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson. Even keeping one of these two standout defenders is likely to require significant cuts elsewhere.
This is one reason why bringing back offensive tackle Cameron Fleming doesn't make sense. Fleming played on a one-year, $3.5 million deal in 2020. That's a reasonable price tag, but even that outweighs his performance.
According to Pro Football Focus, Fleming was responsible for seven penalties and six sacks last season. The Giants shouldn't look to soak up cap space with an offensive lineman who was average at best.
New York Jets: Frank Gore
This is a simple matter of Frank Gore's age not lining up with the state of the franchise. Gore was serviceable for the New York Jets in 2020, rushing for 653 yards but averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
He isn't quite ready to hang it up either.
"I showed that I can still play," he told The Morning Roast on Friday (h/t David Bonilla of 49ers Webzone). "I'm still having fun out there.
However, Gore is going to turn 38 in May. He's at a point in his career where he's best suited to be a contributor on a contending team. With the hiring of new head coach Robert Saleh, the Jets are rebuilding. They should be looking to get younger at positions like running back, not looking to employ the oldest ball-carrier in the league.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Peters
Longtime Philadelphia Eagles starter Jason Peters isn't quite ready to call it a career.
"I'm gonna play one more year, try to get me another ring," Peters told 6 ABC Philadelphia.
Peters admitted that he probably won't be back in Philadelphia, and the Eagles should feel the same way.
Peters allowed eight sacks in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus, and is 39 years old. The Eagles are projected to be $41.5 million over the cap and should be looking at budget options to fill out their offensive line.
Peters is an Eagles legend, but it's time for his tenure in Philly to end.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a terrible spot financially. They're projected to be nearly $19 million over the salary cap and have numerous key players—including Alejandro Villanueva, Bud Dupree, Tyson Alualu and JuJu Smith-Schuster—scheduled for free agency.
Of those pending free agents, Smith-Schuster should be considered the most expendable. He is projected to have a market value of more than $16 million annually, which is the sort of money Pittsburgh does not have.
Additionally, receiver is a position of strength, with players like James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool capable of filling the void.
Lastly, it's worth noting that Smith-Schuster may not even be worth his projected market value. He had a stunning 1,400-yard campaign back in 2018, but that was with Antonio Brown in the lineup.
In two seasons without Brown drawing the attention of defenses, Smith-Schuster has 1,383 combined receiving yards. Given Pittsburgh's history of uncovering draft gems like Smith-Schuster and Claypool, there's no reason to overpay to keep him.
San Francisco 49ers: Richard Sherman
Cornerback Richard Sherman may be a future Hall of Famer, but he shouldn't be a part of the San Francisco 49ers' future. While he was a strong starter in 2018 and 2019, injuries limited him to just five games in 2020.
With Sherman set to turn 33 in March, San Francisco should be prepared to move on. Not only is he an aging player coming off an injury-plagued season, but he's also likely to command plenty of attention on the open market.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, for example, indicated he has his eye on Sherman on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast, which Sherman co-hosts (h/t Bonilla).
Overpaying to keep Sherman is something the 49ers cannot afford to do. They're projected to have more than $21 million in cap space, but they may need a large chunk of that money to re-sign left tackle Trent Williams.
Seattle Seahawks: Bruce Irvin
As is the case with several players on this list, the future of Seattle Seahawks pass-rusher Bruce Irvin is clouded by a combination of age and salary implications. Health is also a factor, as the 33-year-old linebacker suffered a torn ACL after just two games this season.
While Irvin was once a fan favorite in Seattle—he spent the first four years of his NFL career there—he should not be a priority for the Seahawks this offseason. Irvin signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal to play in 2020. While that might be a fair price for a team with more cap space, the Seahawks are not that team.
They are projected to have $13.6 million in cap space and shouldn't spend a chunk of it on an aging player coming off a significant injury.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Antonio Brown
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a chance on wideout Antonio Brown this season and have gotten solid contributions from him as a complementary piece. He appeared in eight regular-season games and finished with 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns.
However, Brown played on a one-year, $1.7 million deal. Now that he has reestablished himself as a capable NFL receiver, Brown is not likely to offer Tampa that sort of discount a second time. Financially, it's best for the Buccaneers to let him walk.
While Tampa is projected to have more than $38 million in cap space, it also has several key players slated to hit the open market. Re-signing guys like Chris Godwin, Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett should take precedence.
Tennessee Titans: Jadeveon Clowney
Pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney is reportedly interested in returning to the Tennessee Titans in 2021.
"A league source with knowledge of the situation indicated that Clowney is 'definitely open' to a return to Tennessee," Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.com wrote.
However, Tennessee should have no interest in bringing back Clowney. He was a non-factor this season, producing just 11 quarterback pressures and zero sacks in eight games. For those contributions, Clowney carried a cap hit of just under $13 million.
Clowney is a three-time Pro Bowler and plays a premium position, so it's unlikely he'll sign anywhere on a bargain-basement deal. Tennessee needs to let another team gamble on him this offseason.
Washington Football Team: Ryan Kerrigan
Washington Football Team pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan proved that he can still be a solid contributor in 2020. The four-time Pro Bowler appeared in all 16 games and logged 5.5 sacks in a rotational role. However, Kerrigan is 32 years old and happens to play a position in which Washington does not lack depth.
The team has bookend pass-rushers in Chase Young, 21, and Montez Sweat, 24. This means bringing back Kerrigan would be a luxury. Overpaying to retain that luxury—pass-rushers always generate interest on the open market—doesn't make sense.
While Washington is projected to have more than $43.1 million in cap space, it should focus on positions of greater need. Securing a high-end starter at quarterback should be goal No. 1, and Washington would be wise to add to a receiving corps that is largely underwhelming aside from standout Terry McLaurin.