The Biggest Potential Bargains in 2021 NFL Free Agency
As Shaquil Barrett raced around the Kansas City Chiefs' hapless offensive tackles during Super Bowl LV, many probably viewed the performance as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' franchise player doing exactly what he's supposed to do.
Two years ago, Barrett wasn't the guy he is now—at least not in league circles. He entered free agency as a lower-tier edge-rusher after primarily serving as a role player with the Denver Broncos.
Coincidentally, he is a free agent again this offseason. He's no longer flying under the radar.
Yet organizations can point to his development into an elite edge-rusher as a justification for investing in bargain free agents instead of making big, splashy signings during the offseason. The biggest name isn't always the best option.
The market will play a role, as well. Few franchises will have the solvency to sign bigger names due to the shrinking salary cap that has resulted from lost revenue in 2020. As such, signing cheap, quality alternatives is becoming a bigger priority.
The next Barrett is out there waiting for some team to give him a chance. It falls on those evaluating the free-agent class to discern exactly who that player might be. Here, we'll identify a few names who fit the mold. They won't have massive markets and likely won't be found among top free-agent lists, but they could immediately help their next teams.
RB Marlon Mack
The running back market can be quite fickle. Teams aren't eager to sign a ball-carrier to a significant deal unless the individual in question is counted among the league's best—and usually with multiple years of significant production.
Marlon Mack doesn't fall into either category. However, he's 24 years old with a proven track record.
Mack entered the 2020 campaign primed for a big season. After his first 1,000-yard campaign while playing behind an outstanding offensive front and bolstered by quarterback Philip Rivers' addition, the 2017 fourth-round pick was positioned to become a true breakout performer.
Instead, he suffered a torn Achilles' tendon just 11 snaps into the season and opened the door for Jonathan Taylor to emerge as the Colts' featured back.
The combination of a flat running back market (aside from Aaron Jones) and Mack's recovery from injury will crater the young veteran's value. A short-term prove-it deal seems like the most likely course this offseason.
At the same time, a shrewd franchise in search of a lead back could find its answer if Mack returns to form. His 1,999 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns during the previous two seasons show he's more than capable of exceeding expectations.
WR Rashard Higgins
The Cleveland Browns have significant decisions to make regarding their current wide receiver room.
Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. present a combined $30.5 million salary-cap charge in 2021. General manager Andrew Berry could approach both about potential contract restructures.
Clearly, the offense played better after Beckham's season-ending knee injury. His departure from the lineup created more opportunities for others, specifically Rashard Higgins.
Higgins went from an afterthought in the scheme to Baker Mayfield's most reliable target. For example, the wide receiver caught six passes for 110 yards during the game in which Beckham suffered his first-quarter injury. Starting in December and through the postseason, Mayfield targeted Higgins 41 times for 25 receptions and 410 yards.
Considering what Cleveland already has in its star receivers and promising rising sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones, Higgins could be the odd man out as free agency nears.
As other teams scour the wide receiver market, he won't emerge as a flashy option. He's not the biggest (6'1", 198 lbs) nor the fastest ball-catcher. He wins through excellent route-running and reliable hands. If the ball is in his vicinity, he's likely going to snag it. These two traits are exactly why he built a strong rapport with Mayfield.
A squad in search of a second—or even third—receiving threat should strongly consider Higgins since he's yet to show what he's truly capable of in a full-time capacity.
TE Anthony Firkser
A tight end finished second overall in receiving yardage this past season. Anthony Firkser isn't Travis Kelce, of course. But the utilization of the position continues to evolve.
The idea of Firkser joining another team and being a traditional Y-tight end doesn't make much sense when he's more than capable of stepping into a system and serving as an immediate receiving threat.
A creative offensive play-caller could see the potential of this move tight end who excels working off the line of scrimmage, as an H-back and in the slot. He also has outstanding hands to serve as a primary receiving threat in some schemes.
Over the last three seasons, Firkser has a 74.2 percent catch rate. For comparison, Kelce had a 72.4 percent catch rate in 2020. In fact, the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle (76.2 percent) was the only individual among the league's top 10 tight ends in receiving yardage to post a better catch rate than Firkser's career number.
Unlike everyone else on this list, Firkster is a restricted free agent, which means the Tennessee Titans have a right to match any offer sheet he signs or receive compensation depending on the team's designation. It's an interesting situation since their top tight end, Jonnu Smith, is an unrestricted free agent and may be a bigger priority.
If Tennessee decides Smith will be a big part of the offense moving forward under new coordinator Todd Downing, who previously served as Tennessee's tight ends coach, another team should swoop in and pry Firkser away to become a featured offensive component.
OL Cam Robinson
Ereck Flowers' career isn't viewed as a success story after he became the ninth overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft and failed as the New York Giants' left tackle.
A career revival occurred with the Washington Football Team when he moved to guard and finally found a positional home at which he could excel. The following offseason, he signed a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins.
Cam Robinson and his representation should look at Flowers' career path to possibly pave the way toward rebuilding the 2017 second-round pick's value. Robinson has started 47 games since he entered the league. Every single one came at left tackle even though questions persisted about whether he should be a guard or tackle entering the league.
After a four-year experiment during which, quite frankly, Robinson hasn't been anything more than a replacement-level performer as the Jacksonville Jaguars' blindside protector, a different approach should be considered. In doing so, another organization might find a diamond in the rough.
Instead of wading into free agency obstinate about his positional designation, Robinson should be open to change. He might even flourish as a guard, just as Flowers has. A team would then be more willing to invest in the free agent with the thought he could be better as an interior blocker while still providing depth at left tackle if needed.
Edge Tyus Bowser
Pass-rushers aren't cheap unless they've yet to break through with a high-production season. The odds of signing J.J. Watt, Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree, Trey Hendrickson, Carl Lawson, Leonard Floyd, Romeo Okwara, Melvin Ingram III, Matt Judon or Yannick Ngakoue to relatively cheap, team-friendly deals aren't good.
Certain teams will be priced out of that market. But while the last two names mentioned are both from the Baltimore Ravens and will demand plenty of attention from their old team, as well as new suitors, one of their teammates in 2020 will be flying under the radar.
Tyus Bowser has started only two games during his four-year career. Though he was a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Baltimore's pipeline of pass-rushers has held the talented athlete at bay.
Each season, Bowser has played a little more and improved.
Technically, his production dipped from five to two sacks between the 2019 and '20 campaigns, but his overall consistency as a pass-rusher improved. He finished with 14 quarterback hits last season despite limited reps.
The edge-defender's value extends beyond getting to opposing quarterbacks. As a hybrid, he's athletic enough to work in space and make plays.
"Whatever I have to do, whether that is dropping in coverage or rushing, I'm just there to do it," Bowser told reporters in December.
LB Jayon Brown
The value of today's linebackers stems from their capabilities in the passing game.
As the game continues to change, teams have five—or even six—defensive backs on the field more than ever. Linebackers who can't work in space are easily exploited by opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
Jayon Brown is different than most at his position because he excels against the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranks 10th in pass coverage grade since the start of the 2018 campaign.
The 2017 fifth-round pick isn't simply capable of dropping into coverage when playing zone. He can cover tight ends and even handle the slot, albeit not in an expanded capacity. The second-line defender is constantly active with above-average ball skills.
Basically, Brown is a three-down linebacker who isn't forced off the field because offenses are constantly targeting him.
Even so, the linebacker position isn't necessarily highly valued by all franchises, and the depth of the upcoming free-agent class is suspect beyond Lavonte David and possibly Matt Milano.
A team isn't going to sign Brown, who is still recovering from a season-ending dislocated and fractured elbow, with the thought of him immediately upgrading its run defense. His ability to stay on the field in passing situations is far more important.
CB Mike Hilton
The nickel market cratered last offseason with some of the league's better slot corners receiving well below market value.
While Byron Jones signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract as an outside corner, the majority of the available nickel corners garnered one-year deals. Mackensie Alexander's $4 million pact was the high-water mark.
Even if the valuation increases this offseason, the nickel market will still pale in comparison to those working outside the numbers on a regular basis.
Mike Hilton spent more time as an outside corner in 2020 than he had during the previous three campaigns. Still, he'll be viewed primarily as a nickel corner even though his value to a defense is so much more than a specific positional designation.
"Mike is a special cat on this defense," Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt told reporters in December. "He blitzes, he drops in coverage, he does man-to-man coverage. He does basically anything that we ask him to do."
No team is going to sign a 5'9", 184-pound defensive back as a primary cover corner. That approach is rather short-sighted, though. Hilton is a chess piece capable of affecting all phases of the game. Despite his perceived physical limitations, a suitor with a proper plan for his deployment will end up signing one of the league's better multipurpose defenders.
Pittsburgh knows exactly what it has in the 2016 undrafted free agent, but its lack of financial flexibility could make his retention nearly impossible.
CB Troy Hill
The Los Angeles Rams finished the 2020 regular season with the game's top-ranked pass defense. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a star, of course. But Troy Hill grew into a big part of the secondary's success.
The 29-year-old defensive back became a full-time starter for the first time this past season, and he didn't disappoint. He effortlessly moved from nickel to outside corner and performed well at both positions, which allowed the Rams to do more with Ramsey.
"I think a lot of the versatility that we were able to activate with Jalen was a reflection of also Troy Hill's versatility," Rams head coach Sean McVay told reporters last month. "You feel comfortable, because in a lot of instances, you're saying you've got this elite corner in Jalen Ramsey and then you can bump him inside, but who's the guy that can play off of that and have the ability to play both positions as well? And Troy certainly enabled us to do that."
Hill isn't the most physical corner, and the fact he turns 30 prior to the start of the 2021 campaign limits his market. At the same time, another defense should welcome a veteran capable of playing so well off another top cornerback. His fluidity in coverage makes up for the fact he's a slight defensive back who may not contribute as much against opposing ground games.
The Rams aren't in a financial position to re-sign Hill, and they're more likely to tender restricted free agent Darious Williams. As such, Hill should be available as an instant upgrade due to his versatility and experience.