The Most Overrated Players in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 18, 2021

The Most Overrated Players in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    We're less than a month away from the start of the 2021 NFL free-agent frenzy, and the hype is already building around some of the most appealing and established players scheduled to hit the market in the middle of March. 

    But every year, we make the mistake of creating too much hype for free agents who aren't worth what they wind up getting. These players are often declining, injury-prone or just not as good as you might believe. 

    Here are 10 who come to mind this year.

QB Cam Newton

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Cam Newton has lost a lot of luster in recent years because he's rarely been healthy or consistently effective as a passer. However, the 2015 league MVP should theoretically be in his prime at age 31, and he served in a high-profile role as the New England Patriots starting quarterback in 2020. 

    As a result, some teams might mistakenly consider him to be a viable starting option in 2021. However, that would be a tremendous mistake.

    Newton has thrown only 10 touchdown passes (versus 15 interceptions) in his last 20 games dating back to December 2018—a stretch that also included 17 missed games because of injury/illness. And since the end of that MVP season, he ranks 29th among 31 qualified quarterbacks in passer rating (82.7), ahead of only Blake Bortles and Sam Darnold.

    At this point, Newton should be viewed as nothing more than a QB2 for a team that runs an offense reliant on the run and zone reads. 

QB Dak Prescott

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Dak Prescott has the ability and career trajectory you want to see from a franchise quarterback, but he might not be worth the price he'll likely get this offseason after five high-profile years with the Dallas Cowboys. 

    Not only is Prescott coming off a serious ankle injury, but his strong cumulative statistics early in 2020 might have overshadowed good-but-not-exceptional rate-based numbers (sub-100 passer rating, 9-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 2-3 record). 

    The highest-rated season of Prescott's career was his rookie campaign in 2016. Despite having plenty of support along the offensive line and at the skill positions since then, he's been a Pro Bowler only once and never a first- or second-team All-Pro. 

    If by chance he signs somewhere else, it's possible he'll disappoint in an offense that offers less support. And in Dallas, the offensive line has begun to deteriorate. That's a concern for a player who will either make $37.7 million on another franchise tag or a similar amount annually on a long-term deal. 

WR T.Y. Hilton

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The fear with T.Y. Hilton is that some team might pay him for what he's done rather than what he should be expected to do moving forward.

    The 31-year-old is coming off the worst two seasons of his career. Injuries have been a factor, but no team should suddenly expect that to change as the four-time Pro Bowler continues to age.

    Hilton was at his best in his mid-to-late-20s while catching passes from Andrew Luck behind a primo offensive line. That has all changed, and he may not have that type of support with the Indianapolis Colts or wherever else he winds up in 2021.

    He averaged 9.5 yards per target between 2014 and 2018, but that number has plummeted to 7.8 over the last two seasons. He's also missed nine games the last three years and may be running low on gas. And when receivers lose it, they often lose it quickly. 

    With younger, more enticing receivers like Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson II, Kenny Golladay and Will Fuller V slated to hit the open market as well, Hilton might be too much of a gamble headed into his 10th season.

TE Hunter Henry

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Hunter Henry is only 26, but he's been in the league five years and has missed 25 games because of injuries. Teams will have to wonder whether his body can hold up for the duration of a long-term contract that will take him close to or beyond 30.

    Henry is a household name with four solid yet injury-impacted seasons and one injury-derailed campaign under his belt. But he's never hit the 700-yard mark in a single season, and he hasn't scored more than five touchdowns since he posted eight scores as a rookie in 2016. His yards-per-target rate also dropped from 9.3 in 2017 to 8.6 in 2019 (he missed 2018 because of an ACL tear) to 6.6 in 2020. 

    A new setting might help the Arkansas product break out, but his durability concerns won't go away, and there's a chance that he's already peaked. However, he's clearly the top name on the tight end market, so there's likely to be a bidding war for his services in 2021 and beyond. 

    Teams might be better off extending a short-term offer to Jared Cook or pursuing Zach Ertz in a trade. And if Jonnu Smith or Gerald Everett are available at similar rates, they might be better avenues to explore as well.

EDGE Jadeveon Clowney

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Jadeveon Clowney is a tremendous run defender with strong playmaking ability and established pass-rushing chops, but there's a reason he lingered as a free agent for much of the 2020 offseason. Injury concerns were a factor then, and that shouldn't suddenly go away after he failed to record a sack while playing in eight games for the Tennessee Titans in 2020.

    The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has recorded just three sacks in his last 22 games dating back to the end of his 2018 campaign with the Houston Texans. He was a Pro Bowler three years in a row with the Texans, but he's still never put up a double-digit-sack season, is coming off knee surgery and isn't that young anymore at 28.

    Nobody should feel comfortable signing Clowney to a lucrative, long-term deal. That often happens regardless when you're a household name at a premium position, and it might in this case because he's supposed to be healthier this offseason than he was last offseason, but I'd much rather shell out for a younger edge-defender like Yannick Ngakoue (25), Carl Lawson (25) or Haason Reddick (26).

    Wanna bet none of those guys get a lot more dough than Clowney reels in this offseason?

EDGE Melvin Ingram III

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    Melvin Ingram III might come a lot cheaper than Clowney and those other impending free-agent pass-rushers because he's approaching 32 and coming off a significant knee injury with the Los Angeles Chargers. But he was a Pro Bowler in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and that could cause teams to overlook the fact that he's missed 12 games the last two years. 

    Or the fact that he's recorded just seven sacks in his last 22 games dating back to December 2018. 

    Ingram likely peaked when he put up 10.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in 2017. Since then, he's benefited from the presence of Joey Bosa while beginning to decline. Third-year second-round pick Uchenna Nwosu outplayed Ingram last year, which is why the Bolts should save their money by letting both him and Henry walk. 

    Those in the market for a complementary pass-rusher on a short-term deal in 2021 might want to instead take a flier on a player with remaining upside like Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley or Leonard Floyd.

LB Lavonte David

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    First, to be clear, Lavonte David is one of the NFL's best off-ball linebackers. But that doesn't mean he can't be overrated as a free agent, and that's often what happens when you play a starring role in the Super Bowl. 

    The championship premium is real, and it'll make it hard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to retain David's services, especially with Devin White in tow and both Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh both headed toward free agency. 

    Meanwhile, David is 31 and likely on the verge of decline after nine seasons and 137 NFL starts. He's been underrated for much of his career because he's so steady, but he doesn't make a lot of splash plays compared to those on the edge.

    Somebody will likely pay David megabucks after the title run, though, which is great for him but might haunt that team in a year or two. Matt Milano (26) or Nicholas Morrow (25) might be better investments.

CB Shaquill Griffin

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Good cornerbacks are extremely hard to come by, which is why somebody will fall in love with Shaquill Griffin's skill set and age (25) and give him shutdown-corner money even though he's surrendered 15 touchdowns in the last three seasons (and six in 2020).

    Only four corners gave up more scores last year than Griffin, who fared fine in most other rate-based categories but was by no means considered a star. He also missed a quarter of the season because of a hamstring injury.

    He's played just one complete season, and according to Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value formula, he was half as valuable to the Seahawks in 2020 as he was when he made his only Pro Bowl in 2019. 

    There's still room for the 2017 third-round pick to grow and become a high-quality No. 1 corner, but he has performed more like an average starter than an elite cover man, and a mere six interceptions in four seasons don't make up for his lapses in coverage and general inconsistency. 

    It might be worth it to spend a few extra bucks on William Jackson III or see about getting Troy Hill at a lower rate.

CB Patrick Peterson

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Meanwhile, Patrick Peterson has already been an elite shutdown cornerback, but those days are behind him. 

    The Arizona Cardinals' eight-time Pro Bowler is coming off an age-30 season in which he surrendered completions on 67.1 percent of the throws into his coverage and was responsible for five touchdowns. He and Griffin were two of 23 corners to give up more than 450 air yards in 2020. 

    Is he a liability? Not at all, and three interceptions helped compensate for mediocre coverage numbers. But the Cardinals undoubtedly expected a lot more for $13.2 million, and you wonder if somebody will top that this offseason in hopes that Peterson can recapture some of his All-Pro magic in a new setting. 

    That's still possible, and his experience is worth something as well, but it's likely he's low on fuel after 154 career starts. Jackson, Hill and Chidobe Awuzie are alternatives with more upside, and although he's also 30, Xavier Rhodes is coming off a better season.

S Anthony Harris

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Anthony Harris was all the rage when he hit free agency following a six-interception 2019, and that hype might still mistakenly linger after the 29-year-old recorded zero interceptions and saw his rate-based advanced stats plummet in 2020. 

    Considering his age and the fact that it's possible his 2019 campaign was an aberration, the Minnesota Vikings might be relieved they didn't sign the undrafted Virginia product to a long-term extension and had him ride out the franchise tag. 

    After missing just three tackles in 2019, he missed 10 in 2020. After surrendering zero touchdowns in coverage in 2019, he gave up four in 2020. And after allowing a passer rating of just 44.2 during that interception-filled 2019 campaign, he let that number skyrocket to 118.1 in 2020. 

    Harris has started just 47 games, which could mean there's extra tread on those soon-to-be 30-year-old tires but could also mean he's primed to fade as quickly as he ascended. If suitors can't afford Justin Simmons, they should consider pursuing Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye or Jaquiski Tartt instead of Harris.


    Stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.