The Most Intriguing NFL Free Agents on the Market in 2021 Offseason
The NFL's 2021 free-agency period could be one of the most interesting in history.
Sounds like hyperbole, yet the unknown status of the league's salary cap could mean even superstar players have to settle for one-year deals of the prove-it variety until things get back to normal. Fittingly, in the same way blockbuster trades have the NFL feeling more like the NBA lately, these short deals could mean stars briefly teaming up to ring-chase too.
This year's most intriguing free agents aren't necessarily the biggest names. Dak Prescott's final contract numbers are a point of interest, but it's hard to imagine Jerry Jones botching that situation.
More worthy of the spotlight are outliers at devalued positions, high-risk, high-reward players and names who simply have an unknown fate on the market even in a normal year.
CB Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman is an incredible example of a fascinating 2021 free agent.
Sherman, one of the best corners of his generation, heads to the open market without a clear direction or number. And he understands his time with the San Francisco 49ers has come to a close, telling Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee that "it's been made pretty clear" he won't be back.
Though he turns 33 in March, Sherman was still solid last year, posting a 67.7 Pro Football Focus grade but while playing just 32 percent of the defense's snaps over five games. He played in 15 games the year prior, finishing with an 88.9 PFF grade and permitting just 27 catches on 51 targets.
Whether teams think Sherman can stay healthy at this stage and just how much he's worth is a big question mark. It's also one that could have a huge impact on the 2021 season; if he's healthy and in 2019 form, a contender that ponies up for him could make a serious run.
Edge J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt doesn't need until the start of the new league year in mid-March to be one of the most intriguing names out there.
The Houston Texans cut Watt loose ahead of the market opening, presumably to give him his choice of destinations. And while Watt figures to go ring-chasing with a contender, whether he settles for a relatively cheap deal to do so could change the landscape of the league.
Watt, after all, was still a standout player last season, even if he's slowing down with age. Last year at the age of 31, he still posted an 85.4 PFF grade with five sacks, and his 29 pressures were actually more than the year prior.
ESPN's Ed Werder reported that a dozen teams have already expressed interest, and Watt himself has already described free agency as "wild." The five-time All-Pro has the center-stage spotlight to himself for now.
Edge Trey Hendrickson
Trey Hendrickson isn't a household name outside of the greater New Orleans area.
But that could change soon.
Hendrickson, a third-round pick by the Saints in 2017, posted a ho-hum first three seasons before erupting in 2020. He played a career-high 15 games and registered 13.5 sacks, adding seven hurries and 33 pressures.
Hendrickson's rise coincided with him getting the highest defensive snap percentage of his career at 53, so the 26-year-old edge-rusher could end up being one of the highest-paid names on the market. The ability to pressure the quarterback, after all, is king in the NFL, and it only takes one team to buy into the upside of what Hendrickson might do with an even bigger role.
Edge Romeo Okwara
Like Hendrickson, Romeo Okwara isn't a big name unless you're closely watching the Detroit Lions.
But that's what makes him so interesting.
Undrafted in 2016 and already looking at possibly joining his third team, Okwara just recorded the best season of his career. He posted 10 sacks, 10 hurries and 10 quarterback knockdowns with 31 pressures.
The problem? Okwara managed just 1.5 sacks over 14 games in 2019 but 7.5 in 15 appearances in 2018. It's unknown whether the 25-year-old turned a developmental corner and will establish consistency, yet it takes just one team to buy into the idea to make him a big offer.
QB Jameis Winston
All signs seem to indicate Jameis Winston will be the starting quarterback of the New Orleans Saints in 2021.
But are things ever so simple?
Drew Brees hasn't made his retirement from the NFL official. And while he could surprise us and decide to return, there is a limited window for the Saints to get something done before free agency opens in March and other teams show an interest in Winston.
While Winston hasn't lived up to the hype of being a No. 1 overall draft pick, he is still just 27. He threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards with 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in 2019 before joining the Saints last offseason. If he can cut down on his turnovers, a new team could be quite happy with the results.
Even if Winston returns to the Saints after testing the market, it's worth watching how other franchises value him and if he ultimately ends up a starter.
RB Kenyan Drake
Kenyan Drake may have needed a huge season in 2020 in order to earn a big contract at a devalued position.
Playing on the transition tag for the Arizona Cardinals, Drake recorded just 955 yards and 10 scores while averaging 4.0 yards per rush over 15 games, failing to match expectations after erupting for 643 yards and eight scores on a 5.2 yards-per-carry average in eight games in 2019 after joining Arizona via trade.
Drake, 27, is in the middle of his prime, but his ho-hum showing threw into question whether he'd get offered lucrative money in free agency, especially given that running backs (see: David Johnson, Todd Gurley, etc.) frequently haven't played to their contracts in today's NFL.
RB Aaron Jones
Unlike Drake, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones never had a problem matching expectations.
Jones, 26, is a 2017 fifth-rounder who has averaged 5.2 yards per carry over four seasons en route to 37 scores and recorded more than 1,000 yards through the air.
Were this 10 years ago, Jones would unquestionably break the bank on the open market. But huge contracts for running backs have seemed to backfire. In Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott has a six-year deal worth $90 million and 21 career fumbles, including six last year. He also rushed for just six scores for a 6-10 Cowboys team that was without quarterback Dak Prescott for most of the season.
While Jones is one of the NFL's best running backs, the devalued reputation of his position and the idea he's a product of his surroundings in an Aaron Rodgers-led passing attack behind a strong line could give him a weak market in which he settles for less than expected.
QB Cam Newton
What does the NFL think of Cam Newton at this point?
Newton, the first overall pick in 2011 and 2015 NFL MVP, had one of the strangest trips to free agency before signing with the New England Patriots late in the process last year.
He seemed like a dream pairing with head coach Bill Belichick, but he threw for just eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 2,657 yards in 15 games. The former Carolina Panthers signal-caller was versatile, at least, rushing for 592 yards and 12 scores.
At 31 years old, Newton can still make his case as a starting-caliber player. But it will be interesting to see whether teams give him a pass for last year after he joined a new team for the first time in his career amid an unusual offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newton is arguably the most intriguing free agent this offseason given the importance of his position, the type of contract he could receive and the way in which he could impact a QB-needy team if given the chance to prove himself.