NFL Free Agents 2021: Buying or Selling Top Players Coming off Injury

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2021

NFL Free Agents 2021: Buying or Selling Top Players Coming off Injury

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    NFL teams are almost always searching for bargains in free agency. This will definitely be the case in 2021, as the salary cap is set to drop for the first time since the 2011 lockout. One way teams may look to save cap space is by betting on players coming off of injury.

    Rehabbing players can be bargains because they represent a bit of a risk. When or if they return to 100 percent can be a complete unknown.

    Not every player can come back from a serious injury and immediately regain elite status like Adrian Peterson did during his 2012 MVP season. Often, a team takes a chance on a recovering player only to see mediocre results in return—this was the case with the New England Patriots and Cam Newton in 2020.

    Here, we'll examine eight high-profile players who—like Newton last offseason—are coming off of notable injuries and scheduled to hit free agency. We'll determine whether teams should be willing to buy in for the 2021 season based on factors like injury history, injury type, recent production and player potential.

    We'll be looking specifically at the 2021 season here. So, while we'll be selling the free-agent stock of some players on this list, we're not saying any of them will be complete busts or won't be valuable in the long term.

    Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Edge Jadeveon Clowney

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    As the first overall pick in the 2014 draft and a three-time Pro Bowler, pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney definitely falls into the "high-profile" category. Based on his last couple of seasons, however, Clowney doesn't exactly represent a potential bargain.

    Because of his profile, the 28-year-old South Carolina product isn't likely to come at a bargain-basement price. He signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans last offseason worth $13 million. In return, the Titans got just eight games and zero sacks before Clowney was lost for the year to a knee injury.

    Had the injury been a fluke occurrence, it might be easy to overlook. However, Clowney also missed three games in 2019 and has missed 29 games in seven seasons. Clowney has also never been a high-volume sack guy, notching just three in 2019 and averaging 4.6 for his career.

    The fact that Clowney is coming off a significant knee injury and hasn't performed at a Pro Bowl level since leaving the Houston Texans should give teams pause. This year's free-agent class is also loaded with pass-rushers—including healthy ones, like 2019 sack leader Shaquil Barrett—and Clowney shouldn't be high on teams' wish lists.

    Verdict: Sell

Edge Bud Dupree

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Like Jadeveon Clowney, Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher Bud Dupree is coming off of a knee injury. In his case, it's a torn ACL suffered in Week 12. The good news is Dupree appears to be progressing well in his rehab.

    "Man, I'm feeling great right now," Dupree told NFL Network's Good Morning Football (h/t Teresa Varley of the Steelers' official website).

    The bad news is the timing of Dupree's injury is still problematic. He was injured in early December, meaning it'll be roughly nine months between the injury and the start of the 2021 regular season. While Dupree may be back on the field in that time frame, it's hard to believe he'll be at or near 100 percent.

    Teams should also consider that Dupree has only one double-digit-sack season on his resume and was markedly mediocre before the arrival of Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt.

    Dupree had just 20 total sacks over his first four pro seasons.

    The reality is Dupree just might not make a major impact in 2021. He'll likely still be working his way back early in the season, and there's no telling how productive he'll be away from Watt and the sack-happy Steelers defense.

    Verdict: Sell

WR Kenny Golladay

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay missed the first two games of 2020 with a hamstring injury and then finished it on injured reserve with a hip injury. However, in the receiver's own words, the hip injury wasn't too significant—he simply tried coming back too soon.

    "I for sure thought I was ready or I wouldn't have went out there. Clearly, it just wasn't ready yet, to be honest. It sucks, really, but I've gotta be smart with my body," Golladay said, per Justin Rogers of the Detroit News.

    With a full offseason to recover, Golladay should be back to 100 percent by Week 1. That should be enough to garner teams' interest. In the two seasons prior to 2020, Golladay established himself as a pass-catcher with legit No. 1 receiver potential.

    He topped the coveted 1,000-yard mark in 2018 and 2019 while leading the NFL with 11 touchdowns in 2019. Golladay was also solid in his five 2020 appearances, averaging four receptions and 67 yards.

    Teams looking to immediately upgrade their receiving corps should be high on the 27-year-old.

    Verdict: Buy

Edge Melvin Ingram

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    While pass-rusher Melvin Ingram may be a decent complementary piece in 2021, it feels unlikely that he'll be a major impact player. The soon-to-be 32-year-old hasn't had a double-digit-sack season since 2017 and is coming off the first campaign of his career without a sack.

    Ingram was limited to just seven games in 2020 because of knee injuries. What's alarming about it is Ingram landed on injured reserve twice in the same season. Ingram returned from injured reserve, played five games, and then landed back on IR with an injury to the same knee.

    This suggests Ingram's knee issues could persist. If he cannot fully return to pre-injury form, that could be a significant problem.

    Ingram wasn't particularly effective when he was on the field this past season. In his seven outings, he totaled just 10 tackles and 12 quarterback pressures with no sacks, forced fumbles or tackles for loss.

    Unless Ingram is willing to sign a team-friendly deal, teams looking for an immediate defensive boost may want to steer clear.

    Verdict: Sell

Edge Von Miller

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Denver Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller is an outlier on this list for a couple of reasons. For one, he's not yet slated to be a free agent. The Broncos have a club option for 2021 that, if exercised, will create a cap hit of more than $22 million

    There's a reasonable chance, though, that the Broncos won't take on that cap hit and will allow Miller to reach the open market. If that happens, teams will likely be clamoring to sign the eight-time Pro Bowler. They'll be right to do so based on what also distinguishes Miller from the rest of the players discussed here.

    Unlike everyone else on this list, Miller wasn't injured during the 2020 regular season. He suffered a dislocated peroneal tendon in his ankle and underwent surgery just before the start of Week 1. This means Miller will have a full calendar year between his surgery and the start of the 2021 season. He should be as close to pre-injury form as any other injured player—and that will be enticing.

    Miller had eight sacks and 37 quarterback pressures in 2019 and reached double-digit sacks in each of his five prior campaigns.

    Now, it's worth noting that Miller potentially faces league discipline: He's under unspecified criminal investigation, according to Kieran Nicholson and Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post. Teams will have to determine if he's worth the risk on that front. From an on-field standpoint, though, Miller should be worth a gamble for the 2021 season.

    Verdict: Buy

QB Dak Prescott

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    While Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott didn't suffer his injury before the season—as Von Miller did—he was fortunate to have it happen early in 2020. Prescott suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle in Week 5. He should have roughly 11 months between the injury and Week 1 of the 2021 season, which fits nicely with his projected recovery timeline.

    "This is a four-month injury and so far, if anything, everything we're getting from [associate athletic trainer Britt Brown] and the doctors is that he's ahead of schedule," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said in November, per ESPN's Todd Archer.

    Barring an unforeseen setback, Prescott should be at 100 percent by the start of training camp. This makes him an extremely attractive option for quarterback-needy teams, should Prescott hit the open market. Dallas will presumably try to negotiate a long-term deal or again use the franchise tag before free agency begins on March 17.

    Prescott, a two-time Pro Bowler who was leading the league with 1,856 passing yards through five games after his season-ending injury, will be just 28 years old and healthy at the start of the 2021 campaign. If he does reach the open market, teams without an established franchise quarterback should be buying high.

    Verdict: Buy

CB Richard Sherman

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman missed 11 games in 2020 because of a calf injury. He did return from injured reserve, though, to play four late-season games before being ruled out of the final two meaningless contests once San Francisco was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

    The fact that Sherman was able to return before finishing the season on the sideline suggests that the injury shouldn't be a major concern for cornerback-needy teams. Teams will likely be more preoccupied with Sherman's age—he'll turn 33 in March—and performance in 2020.

    Sherman allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 116.2 this past season. However, he was likely hampered by the nagging injury and, with a full offseason of recovery, should return to pre-injury form. That's a prospect that should have teams excited.

    "Just a couple of years ago, Sherman was PFF's highest-graded and most valuable cornerback in the NFL. He was limited to only five games in 2020 but gave up just 87 yards across 210 coverage snaps," Anthony Treash of Pro Football Focus wrote.

    In 2019, he allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 63.0. While he might not offer quite that level of elite production, teams should expect something close to it. Sherman may not be a great long-term answer for a rebuilding team, but he could be a huge asset for a 2021 contender.

    Verdict: Buy

Edge Olivier Vernon

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns pass-rusher Olivier Vernon had a fantastic 2020 campaign. He appeared in 14 games and logged nine sacks and 28 quarterback pressures to go with 36 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. Unfortunately, Vernon didn't make it to the postseason.

    The former New York Giants standout ruptured his Achilles tendon in the season finale, which puts him on a very problematic recovery timetable. While Vernon should be back eventually, his return might not happen in 2021.

    "A ruptured Achilles tendon is usually about a nine-to-12-month recovery, but about 78 percent of NFL players return from the surgery," Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com wrote.

    Even if we're looking at the low end of that recovery timeline, Vernon wouldn't be back on the field at all until October—and not likely back to 100 percent until long after that. If the 30-year-old trends toward the high end of the recovery timetable, he might not even be able to practice before the 2021 postseason.

    Teams looking for an immediate and significant defensive impact have little reason to look toward Vernon this offseason.

    Verdict: Sell