2021 NFL Free Agents Whose Values Tanked Last Season

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2021

2021 NFL Free Agents Whose Values Tanked Last Season

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Contract-year outbursts in the NFL get plenty of shine. When a player set to hit free agency has a successful season and helps himself on the open market, it's a headline item.

    Contract-year downswings don't get the same attention.

    Yet every season, players who bet on themselves with short contracts, tagged players and pending free agents struggle to match the expectations and put up the production necessary to secure a big deal. The setbacks could mean a player settles for less money or signs another prove-it deal.

    Here are the biggest names whose open-market value plummeted in 2020.

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    A.J. Green received the benefit of the doubt from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020 via a franchise tag that paid him north of $18 million.

    Green hadn't played in a regular-season game since mid-2018, but the Bengals were content to gamble that he could help No. 1 pick Joe Burrow and prove he was worth another long-term extension.

    Instead, Green struggled to look like his old self, catching 47 of 104 targets for 523 yards and two touchdowns. He stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time since 2017, but instead of playing like a No. 1 receiver should for a rookie passer, he fell behind both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

    Green could still produce well in a new scheme on a better team. But it's surprising that a full 16-game season for a prominent No. 1 wideout harmed his value on the open market.

Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    At 30 years old, Patrick Peterson had one more shot at a massive contract if he could post a strong showing in 2020 before heading to market.

    After missing six games in 2019, Peterson played in all 16 for the ninth time in 10 years in 2020, but his performance collapsed. He allowed a 67.1 completion percentage on 79 targets, and his Pro Football Focus grade regressed to 55.2, down from 68.6 the year prior and 82.5 in 2018.

    While Peterson's play had been declining, it would have been hard to predict his struggles as the team around him improved and he played a full season.

    Peterson could get back to his top-tier play in new surroundings, though he might have to do it on a short deal with little guaranteed money.

Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Tennessee Titans

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    After an odd trip to free agency last year in which he didn't receive a big contract, Jadeveon Clowney again heads to the open market in search of the same.

    But the same problem might hold him back—lack of pressure.

    In 2019, Clowney was one of the league's better defenders with an 87.3 PFF grade. But edge-rushers need to create pressure to make the big bucks, and he only put up 30 pressures, down from 48 the year prior.

    On a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans, Clowney only appeared in eight games and regressed to a 74.9 PFF grade. His pressures likewise dropped to 11.

    After not proving it on a prove-it deal, Clowney will likely have to settle for something similar this offseason instead of getting the massive deal he's hoped to find.

Todd Gurley, RB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Todd Gurley was another star player forced to play on a prove-it deal in 2020.

    In 2018, Gurley inked a four-year deal worth $57.5 million with the Los Angeles Rams. Two offseasons later, he had to settle for one season and $5.5 million from the Atlanta Falcons.

    Despite starting the year as the lead back with the offensively potent Falcons, Gurley managed just 678 yards and nine scores on a 3.5 average. Those numbers marked the lowest yardage of his career, the second-lowest average and the fewest touchdowns since 2016. Even his 25 receptions his fewest since 2015.

    At times, Brian Hill and Ito Smith looked better than Gurley as both ran for 4.3 yards per carry or better. He also averaged just 1.8 yards after contact.

    Turning 27 in August, Gurley seems sure to settle for another short deal instead of a big, final extension, and it might come in at less money than last year's contract.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Like Clowney, Cam Newton had an odd trip to free agency last year after being cut by the Carolina Panthers. He settled for a prove-it deal with the New England Patriots, checking in at one year and $1.75 million.

    While Newton completed 65.8 percent of his passes over 15 games, he threw for just 2,657 yards with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He added 12 scores as a rusher, but his production was muted compared to expectations for the former MVP.

    Newton posted a career low in passing yardage per game (177.1) and his fewest touchdown passes in a full season. His Approximate Value number of 12 was his lowest since 2016, not counting his injury-shortened 2019 season.

    New England likely wants to go in a different direction, and this offseason could see historic quarterback movement via trades and draft picks. Newton's value tanked instead of blossomed with the Patriots.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Everything seemed to align in 2020 for James Conner to get paid top dollar on the open market.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers got Ben Roethlisberger back from injury, and Conner only missed three games after sitting out six in 2019.

    But he rushed for just 721 yards and six scores, the latter number half of his scoring total in 2018. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry en route to the worst PFF grade of his career at 68.0. While his yards before contact went up in 2020, his yards after contact dropped.

    At 25 years old, Conner could play in a committee and break out similar to his 2018 form. If he does, a long-term extension could follow. But in this era of devaluing running backs, he's not going to be a solo workhorse after a so-so year.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Elsewhere in Pittsburgh, things fell flat for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    Smith-Schuster finished second on the team in targets at 128 yet third in receiving with 831 yards and zero 100-yard games, though he did tie for the team lead with nine scores. His 8.6 yards per reception ranked 126th, and he was the intended receiver on five of Roethlisberger's 10 interceptions.

    His breakout 2018 season with 1,426 yards and eight 100-yard games feels like a decade ago. Smith-Schuster is still 24 years old and is savvy at working free for targets, but the regression has been clear.

    With Pittsburgh in cap trouble, Smith-Schuster could end up elsewhere, but his value has dipped.

Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Kenyan Drake played on the transition tag with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020.

    After he came over from Miami in October 2019 and put up 643 yards on a 5.2 average with eight touchdowns over eight games, the move seemed best for both sides.

    Rather than continue the trend and earn a hefty extension, though, Drake didn't match expectations this past season. He appeared in 15 games, rushing for 955 yards and 10 scores on an even 4.0 yards per carry.

    Drake's PFF grade dipped to 60.9 compared to 71.2 in 2019, and he caught 25 passes, half of his previous season's total.

    Still 27, Drake should have a handful of teams interested. But the idea that he's a solo workhorse after struggling with more stability on a proven team dashes any mega-contract plans.