The Ideal Target for Every NFL Team in 2021 Free Agency
It's never wise for an NFL team to build its foundation through free agency. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a good argument against this idea by building a Super Bowl roster with free agents like Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown and, of course, Tom Brady.
However, key pieces like Tristan Wirfs, Chris Godwin, Devin White, Carlton Davis, Ronald Jones II and Antoine Winfield Jr. were all acquired recently through the draft. Building a solid—and relatively inexpensive—foundation through the draft can allow for a free agent or three to put a team over the top.
This is the strategy Tampa took in 2020, and it's a big reason many teams believe they're one or two key pieces away from being title contenders.
Of course, picking the right free agents is a huge part of the equation. Tampa's plan didn't work because it signed a free-agent quarterback; it worked because Tampa added the right quarterback to execute it.
With this in mind, we'll examine one ideal free-agent target for each NFL team in 2021. We'll lean into the concept of "ideal" here and include players who may not actually reach free agency and moves that may require some financial finagling. However, factors like cap space, team needs, roster construction and past player production will be considered.
To keep things interesting, we'll also be dismissing incumbent free agents and limiting pairing players with one team each. After all, Brady might have been an ideal fit for many teams, but he could only sign with one.
Arizona Cardinals: DL Leonard Williams
With Kyler Murray, Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins leading the charge, the Arizona Cardinals have the foundation for an elite offense in place. Their defense, however, has some issues.
In 2020, the Cardinals ranked just 22nd against the run. While they ranked 10th against the pass and logged 48 sacks, they're also set to lose Haason Reddick in free agency and could part with Chandler Jones in the not-too-distant future.
Jones is entering the final year of his contract and is set to carry a cap hit of nearly $21 million. Arizona could save more than $15 million by parting with him this offseason.
Enter 2020 breakout star Leonard Williams. Not only is the former USC standout stout against the run, but he's a quality interior pressure man—he logged 11.5 sacks and 42 quarterback pressures in 2020. Bringing him in could help bolster the run defense while also helping to overcome the potential losses of both Reddick and Jones in the pass-rushing department.
Atlanta Falcons: Edge Carl Lawson
The Atlanta Falcons took a flier on Dante Folwer Jr. last offseason hoping to bolster their pass rush. The move didn't pan out, as Fowler produced just three sacks and the Falcons finished with only 29.
Unfortunately, Atlanta is projected to be more than $12 million over the salary cap. This means that even after making some space-saving moves, the Falcons may still have to target second- or third-tier free agents to boost their defense.
This is where Cincinnati Bengals edge defender Carl Lawson should fall. He racked up an impressive 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2017 but hasn't produced more than 5.5 sacks as a situational rusher in a season since then.
In a pass-rusher market headlined by the likes of Von Miller (team option), Shaquil Barrett and Bud Dupree, Lawson should be a relative bargain. That's perfect for a cap-strapped team in need of defensive help like Atlanta.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Allen Robinson II
Wide receiver Allen Robinson II appears likely to leave the Chicago Bears this offseason, and not just because he's looking for a payday. It appears that Robinson is eager to land with a team that has realistic Super Bowl aspirations.
"That's what it's about. It's about being able to play your best, being able to play meaningful games, being able to compete for a Super Bowl," Robinson told Tyler Dunne of GoLongTD.com.
The Baltimore Ravens, who advanced to the divisional round this past season, could be viewed as a legitimate contender. The Ravens also have a need for a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Marquise Brown led all Ravens receivers with 769 receiving yards in 2020.
The Ravens also happen to have more than $27 million in projected cap space. They're one of the few teams that could afford to pay Robinson fair market value, meaning he wouldn't have to choose between an enviable paycheck and an enviable playoff opportunity.
Buffalo Bills: Edge Yannick Ngakoue
The Buffalo Bills had one of the league's best offenses in 2020, ranking second in both yards and points scored. However, their defense, while adept at forcing turnovers—it had 15 interceptions on the season—left something to be desired.
The Bills ranked 14th in total defense, 16th in points allowed and had a good-not-great 38 sacks on the year.
Adding to the pass rush could help put the Buffalo defense closer to the offense's level, and 25-year-old edge defender Yannick Ngakoue could be an ideal target.
Ngakoue has only reached double digits in sacks one time, but he's produced at least eight sacks in all five of his pro campaigns. He is the perfect fit for a young team looking to go on a sustained run like Buffalo.
The Bills would have to generate some cap space to add Ngakoue, as they're projected to have just over $2.5 million in cap space. If they can find some room, however, this would be a tremendous short- and long-term pairing.
Carolina Panthers: CB Mike Hilton
Mike Hilton might not be a household name, but the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback is one of the most versatile young pass defenders in the league. The 26-year-old Mississippi product is capable of playing both in the slot and along the perimeter, and he adds value as both a run defender and a pass-rusher.
In 2020, Hilton had 51 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks and seven passes defended. He allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 60.2 in coverage.
Hilton would be a great addition to a defense that has plenty of talent up front and a young star safety in Jeremy Chinn. He could help boost a defense that ranked 16th overall and 18th against the pass this past season.
Hilton's age should also fit nicely with the rebuilding Panthers. If Carolina can become a contender within the next few seasons, Hilton should still be in his playing prime.
Chicago Bears: IOL Austin Blythe
The Chicago Bears have been shuffling the interior of their offensive line ever since the retirement of guard Kyle Long last offseason—and given his injury history, really, before then.
In 2020 10 different offensive linemen took snaps, with eight of them seeing at least 300 reps. Unsurprisingly, running the ball was an exercise in inconsistency, as Chicago ranked 21st with a 4.2 yards-per-carry average.
If the Bears weren't projected to be over the salary cap, they might go after an interior lineman like All-Pro Brandon Scherff. They are, however, and may have to settle for second-tier free agents this offseason.
That's where Los Angeles Rams center Austin Blythe falls, though he would be a proven and valuable addition to the Bears. He played at least 997 snaps in each of the last three seasons and has experience at both guard and center. He could play either spot for Chicago and, ideally, could help its next interior lineup be a lasting one.
Cincinnati Bengals: OG Brandon Scherff
While the Bears will have to deal with a tough cap situation, the Cincinnati Bengals are not bound by the same restriction. Cincinnati is projected to have more than $45 million in cap space and can go after an All-Pro lineman like Brandon Scherff.
It should too, because protecting second-year quarterback Joe Burrow has to be Cincinnati's top goal this offseason.
Burrow flashed plenty of promise as a rookie this past season, but he was also consistently in harm's way. He was sacked 32 times in 10 games before a serious knee injury brought his inaugural campaign to an abrupt halt.
While a premier tackle should top Cincinnati's wish list, there are a few elite prospects in this year's draft class—including Oregon's Penei Sewell and Northwestern's Rashawn Slater. The Bengals have the fifth overall pick, which is a bit high for a guard in most drafts. Adding Scherff would at least give the Bengals one Pro Bowl talent along the line before draft weekend.
Cleveland Browns: S Anthony Harris
The Cleveland Browns proved that their offense is playoff-caliber this past season, but there's work to do on the other side of the ball. The Browns ranked 21st in points allowed and 22nd against the pass in 2020. A versatile safety like Anthony Harris would go a long way toward straightening out Cleveland's defense.
Harris, who was given the franchise tag in 2020, is a ball-hawking free safety with nine interceptions, four fumble recoveries and 33 passes defended in his six-year carer. He's a commodity that will be well-known to Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski, who was previously with Harris with the Minnesota Vikings.
For some teams, Harris' age might be a deterrent, as he'll turn 30 this season. However, the Browns are poised to contend for the next several seasons and should be able to get the best out of Harris' remaining prime years.
Cleveland is also projected to have more than $21 million in cap space, meaning that it shouldn't have to cut corners to give Harris a fair-market deal.
Dallas Cowboys: S Marcus Maye
Like the Browns, the Dallas Cowboys should look to add defensive help this offseason. As a team, Dallas ranked 28th in points allowed, 31st in rushing yards allowed and 27th in passing touchdowns allowed last season.
Also like Cleveland, Dallas has a fair bit of cap space with which to spend—though that will likely change if the Cowboys re-sign quarterback Dak Prescott. Right now, Dallas is projected to have more than $20 million in space.
If the Cowboys can make things work financially, safety Marcus Maye could be a tremendous fit. While he was largely overshadowed by Jamal Adams for most of his Jets career, Maye is a versatile and productive defender in his own right. In 2020, he finished with 88 total tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, 11 passes defended and two interceptions.
In Dallas, Maye could rotate between both safety spots or take over for pending free agent Xavier Woods at free safety. Regardless of how he's used, though, Maye should be a valuable asset for this defensively deficient franchise.
Denver Broncos: S John Johnson III
The Denver Broncos appear poised to retain free safety Justin Simmons. According to Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post, Denver is expected to use the franchise tag for a second consecutive season if it cannot ink Simmons to a long-term deal.
Pairing Simmons with free agent John Johnson III would give Denver one of the top young safety duos in the NFL. The 25-year-old has played both safety spots for the Los Angeles Rams and has quietly been one of the team's top defenders.
Johnson finished 2020 with 105 tackles, two tackles for loss, eight passes defended and an interception.
Having played free safety this past season, Johnson would also provide Denver with insurance for the event that negotiations go south with Simmons. If both are on the roster, though, the Broncos would likely significantly improve their pass defense, which ranked 16th last season.
Detroit Lions: Edge Jadeveon Clowney
A few years ago, Jadeveon Clowney was a Pro Bowler and considered one of the most exciting young defenders in the league. After two injury-plagued seasons and very little production, though—just three sacks between 2019 and 2020—the 28-year-old Clowney is probably looking at a "prove-it" deal in free agency.
Not only does Clowney have to prove that he can be productive away from the Houston Texans, but he must also show that he can stay on the field. The need to reestablish his value could make Clowney a budget option this offseason.
A budget option is exactly what the Detroit Lions need. Detroit is projected to be over the salary cap and will have to cut salary to make any moves this offseason. The Lions, who produced just 24 sacks last season, also need pass-rushing help.
Clowney should cost a fraction of the $13 million he got from the Tennessee Titans last offseason. If he can reestablish himself as a premier player, though, he's still young enough to be a long-term part of Detroit's rebuild.
Green Bay Packers: Lavonte David
When the Green Bay Packers signed linebacker Christian Kirksey last offseason, the move was supposed to solidify their linebacker corps and help improve their run defense. It didn't exactly pan out. Kirksey missed five games and was released earlier this offseason. Green Bay's run defense was only marginally better, ranking 21st in yards per attempt allowed after ranking 24th in 2019.
Lavonte David, meanwhile, has remained one of the league's best all-around linebackers into his 30s. The 31-year-old recently helped the Buccaneers win a title and finished the 2020 regular season with 117 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, six passes defended and an interception.
The Packers would have to create more cap room to sign David, as they are projected to be nearly $10 million over the cap. However, David may be willing to take a team friendly deal to land with another Super Bowl contender.
If the Packers could make it work financially, adding David would be a major boon to the linebacker corps and the defense as a whole. He's a proven leader and could be the impact linebacker that Kirksey wasn't.
Houston Texans: LB Matt Milano
The Houston Texans are in desperate need of defensive help. In 2020, they ranked 30th in total defense, 28th in yards per pass attempt allowed and dead-last in rushing yards allowed.
Linebacker Matt Milano could help in a big way. While not the most reliable run defender—he missed 24 tackles over the past two seasons—he's a great all-around player who excels in coverage.
In 2020, Milano amassed 45 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three passes defended and an interception in 10 games. He allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 70.9.
This is another move that would likely require some cap clearing, as Houston is projected to just over $10 million in cap space. However, adding the 26-year-old linebacker could immediately make the Texans defense better against division rivals like the Indianapolis Colts.
Indianapolis Colts: OT Trent Williams
If we assume that quarterback Carson Wentz can regain at least some of his Pro Bowl form in Indianapolis, then the Colts should again be considered one of the favorites in the AFC South. They made the playoffs with a 39-year-old Philip Rivers last year and have many of their key pieces returning.
One player who won't be back, though, is left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who announced his retirement this offseason. The Colts need a new left tackle who can start right away, and veteran Trent Williams would be an ideal option.
Williams was traded to the San Francisco 49ers last offseason and went on to have a Pro Bowl season. He allowed just four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and he could replace Castonzo as the anchor on Wentz's blind side.
While Williams is likely to be one of the more expensive options in free agency—due to both his past performances and positional value—the Colts have the cap space needed to land him. Indianapolis is projected to have nearly $46 million in cap space this offseason.
Jacksonville Jaguars: S Marcus Williams
The Jacksonville Jaguars are widely expected to take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the 2021 NFL draft. With skill players like DJ Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and James Robinson on the roster, the basic foundation of a potent offense is in place.
Jacksonville's defense, however, needs some work. The Jaguars ranked 31st in both points and yards allowed in 2020. Adding a legitimate playmaker to the back end of the defense could go a long way toward turning things around.
While many fans remember New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams for being on the wrong side of the Minneapolis Miracle, the four-year veteran has quietly developed into one of the league's better coverage safeties.
Over the past two seasons, Williams has logged 20 passes defended, seven interceptions and a defensive touchdown.
Signing the 24-year-old shouldn't be an issue for the Jaguars either, as they're projected to have more than $79 million in cap space—the most in the NFL. With a new quarterback coming into the fold and a new rebuild underway, the Jags need to spend their money on free agents who will still be in their prime when Lawrence—or whomever Jacksonville nabs at No. 1—is entering his. Williams is exactly that sort of player.
Kansas City Chiefs: OT Kelvin Beachum
This isn't a selection that is likely to excite Chiefs fans, but offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum could be an ideal budget choice for the reigning AFC champs. The Chiefs need at least a part-time fill-in for left tackle Eric Fisher, who suffered a torn Achilles during the playoffs. While Beachum most recently played right tackle with the Cardinals, he played on the left side with the New York Jets.
Beachum has missed only three games over the last four seasons and could play the left side during Fisher's recovery. He's also likely to come at a fair price, as Beachum played last season on a one-year deal worth less than $1.2 million.
This is an important factor because Kansas City is projected to be more than $21 million over the salary cap.
While Beachum may not be a long-term piece of the proverbial puzzle, he's a proven starter who could help the Chiefs avoid the sort of protection breakdowns they experienced against Tampa in Super Bowl LV. That's something that must be avoided, as protecting Patrick Mahomes will be critical to Kansas City getting back to the Big Game.
Las Vegas Raiders: Edge Leonard Floyd
The Las Vegas Raiders are in dire need of pass-rushing help. Despite using a 2019 first-round pick on Clelin Ferrell, an inability to reach opposing quarterbacks remains the team's biggest defensive weakness. In 2020, Las Vegas totaled just 21 sacks as a team.
Pass-rusher Leonard Floyd, meanwhile, rejuvenated his career a bit during a one-year stint with the Rams. After amassing only seven combined sacks in 2018 and 2019, he racked up 10.5 in 2020 to go with 30 quarterback pressures.
The Raiders will have to clear some cap room to make a deal, of course, as they're projected to be more than $14 million over the cap. However, Floyd—who played on a $10 million deal last season—should be relatively cheap compared to defenders like Shaquil Barrett and Leonard Williams.
While it may just be a coincidence, the Raiders also have a recent history of picking up former Rams defenders. In 2019, they brought in cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Last offseason, they signed linebacker Cory Littleton. Las Vegas could keep its streak going by adding Floyd this offseason.
Los Angeles Chargers: C Corey Linsley
The Los Angeles Chargers are in need of a new starting center following the retirement of Mike Pouncey. It's a significant need, as protecting second-year quarterback Justin Herbert will be paramount moving forward.
Fortunately, one of the best centers in the league is expected to hit the open market. Packers lineman Corey Linsley is scheduled to be a free agent and should be near the top of L.A.'s wish list.
While Linsley missed three games in 2020, he started all 16 contests in each of the previous three campaigns. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just one sack and didn't commit a penalty in 734 offensive snaps this past season.
The 29-year-old center should be on the radar of many teams this offseason, but Los Angeles has the cap space to be competitive during the bidding process. The Chargers are projected to have more than $34 million in cap space.
Los Angeles Rams: Edge J.J. Watt
The Rams have gone all-in on quarterback Matthew Stafford and should be looking to pick up a title before the 33-year-old is past his prime. As a result, addressing short-term needs will likely take precedence.
One need the Rams may have is that of an edge-rusher. Leonard Floyd is an impending free agent, and he was the only player not named Aaron Donald to amass more than six sacks this past season.
Enter J.J. Watt, who was recently granted his freedom from Houston. He's a pass-rusher who fits with the win-now mentality of the Rams and should thrive playing alongside Donald in the Rams defensive front.
Watt is one of the hottest names on the market right now, though he isn't in a rush to pick his next home.
"You're gonna have to give me a second to choose a new team and city," Watt tweeted.
Presumably, a team's ability to chase a championship will play a role in Watt's decision. Hopefully, it will play a bigger role than financial compensation, as the Rams are already in cap trouble—they're projected to be more than $34 million over the cap. If they can clear a significant amount of room and prove to Watt that they're title contenders, this could be the perfect pairing.
Miami Dolphins: RB Aaron Jones
The Miami Dolphins may have found their franchise quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa. That picture should become clearer in 2021. What's clear now, though, is that the Dolphins don't have an elite workhorse running back to support their quarterback.
Miami could change this by bringing in Packers running back Aaron Jones. The more underrated "Aaron" in Green Bay's offense, Jones has been a major contributor over the past two seasons. He led the league with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and racked up 11 total scores and 1,459 scrimmage yards in 14 games this past season.
With Jones leading Miami's backfield, the Dolphins would take some pressure off of Tagovailoa while also improving an offense that ranked 29th in yards per rushing attempt (3.9) in 2020.
While Jones is likely to be the most coveted back on the market, that shouldn't be a problem for Miami. The Dolphins are projected to have more than $26 million in cap space.
Minnesota Vikings: CB William Jackson III
The Minnesota Vikings are projected to be more than $10 million over the salary cap. This means they'll need to create cap space and chase budget-friendly options in free agency. While William Jackson III shouldn't be considered purely a bargain-basement option, he's not one of the bigger cornerback names headed to market.
Jackson is, however, a fine young cover corner. The 28-year-old has never quite played at a Pro Bowl level, but he did allow an opposing quarterback rating of just 88.2 this past season. He has 48 games of starting experience and should have an early impact on Minnesota's defense.
This is important because the Vikings need help in the secondary. Despite using first-round picks on cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Jeff Gladney in the last three years, Minnesota's pass defense remains a massive question mark.
In 2020, the Vikings ranked 25th in passing yards allowed and 30th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Adding Jackson to the mix could help the secondary trend in a better direction.
New England Patriots: WR Chris Godwin
The New England Patriots need to find their permanent answer at quarterback this offseason. Whether that happens during free agency or the draft is irrelevant. Another stopgap quarterback like Cam Newton will only further delay the transition away from the Tom Brady era.
Regardless of who is under center in 2021, though, the Patriots also need to find a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry has not been as advertised, and there isn't a true No. 1 target on the roster.
Jakobi Meyers led New England with just 729 receiving yards last season.
Adding Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin would net the Patriots the No. 1 receiver they've been missing. Godwin was limited to 12 games this past season, but he had 1,333 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games in 2019.
New England is in a terrific spot cap-wise, with more than $64 million in projected space available. Using a chunk of that capital to sign Godwin could be huge for the development of the Patriots' next signal-caller.
New Orleans Saints: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
The New Orleans Saints are not looking at a good cap situation. They're projected to be more than $70 million over the cap and will have to clear room to sign anyone this offseason.
However, the Saints may have no choice but to bring in another quarterback. They have only seen glimpses of Taysom Hill as a starter and are likely to lose Drew Brees to retirement in the near future.
"Sean Payton told people, several people, a couple weeks ago that he expected Brees to clarify his retirement within the coming weeks," ESPN's Jeff Darlington said on SportsCenter (h/t Matt Howe of 247Sports).
Bringing back Jameis Winston could be an option for the Saints, but since we're dismissing incumbent free agents, we'll instead look to journeyman extraordinaire Ryan Fitzpatrick.
As far as starting-caliber quarterbacks go, Fitzpatrick should be on the budget end. He's only seen brief stints as a full-time starter—his longest being a four-year run with Buffalo—and won't be viewed as a long-term answer. However, Fitzpatrick is capable of playing at a high level, as evidenced by a solid 95.6 passer rating in 2020.
If New Orleans can generate the cap room to sign him, Fitzpatrick could be the perfect placeholder as the Saints transition away from Brees and perhaps develop a rookie quarterback.
New York Giants: OG Joe Thuney
The New York Giants are currently projected to be over the salary cap by about $1 million. This could change, however, if New York decides to make some changes along the offensive line.
The Giants could save $6 million by parting with tackle Nate Solder, who opted out of the 2020 season. They could save another $12 million by releasing or trading guard Kevin Zeitler, who will turn 31 in March and is entering the final year of his contract.
If the Giants do generate some much-needed cap room, Patriots guard Joe Thuney could be the perfect free-agent target. He has also played tackle in New England and played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps in each of his five pro campaigns. He allowed just two sacks over 980 snaps this past season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Adding the 28-year-old Thuney could help bolster the Giants line for the long term. This would be a major benefit as the Giants look to develop, protect and/or determine the future of quarterback Daniel Jones. To this point, protection has been an issue for the third-year pro, who has taken 83 sacks in his 27 NFL games.
New York Jets: TE Hunter Henry
The New York Jets may run it back with Sam Darnold in 2021. They also may choose to select a new signal-caller with the second pick in the draft. The future of their quarterback position will likely be determined in the coming weeks.
"Part of the process for the Jets is going to be assessing the quarterbacks that'll be available with the second pick, and comparing them to Darnold, and seeing them throw is part of that equation," Albert Breer of The MMQB wrote.
Regardless of who is under center for the Jets this year, New York needs a premier pass-catching tight end. A good tight end can help a developing quarterback—be it Darnold or a rookie to be named—tremendously by providing a reliable outlet option. Unfortunately, a pass-catching tight end is something the Jets currently lack.
Chris Herndon led Jets tight ends with a mere 287 receiving yards in 2020.
New York could remedy the situation by snagging Chargers tight end Hunter Henry in free agency. While Henry has never been a Pro Bowler and has a bit of an injury history—he's missed 22 games over the past three seasons—he's also produced at least 600 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons and has a nose for the end zone with 21 career touchdowns.
Philadlphia Eagles: OT Russell Okung
The Philadelphia Eagles have moved on from Carson Wentz. If they hope to get better production from the quarterback position, though—either from Jalen Hurts or a rookie draft pick—the Eagles must do a better job in pass protection.
In 2020, Philadelphia quarterbacks were sacked a whopping 65 times.
Insurance at left tackle would be ideal, as the Eagles still don't know exactly what they have in 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard. He played just 337 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of 2020 with a torn biceps.
Philadelphia will have to look at bargains in free agency, as it's projected to be nearly $47 million over the cap. The Eagles might be able to find one in left tackle Russell Okung, who is 32 years old and was only healthy for 13 games over the last two years.
Okung is a proven starter, however, and would represent an upgrade over impending free agent Jason Peters, who was a borderline disaster in 2020. He allowed eight sacks in 509 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Okung played roughly 100 fewer snaps but only allowed three sacks.
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB Jameis Winston
Ben Roethlisberger's future with the Pittsburgh Steelers is cloudy at best. Even if the 38-year-old returns for 2021, he is no longer the long-term answer at quarterback. This means the Steelers need to start considering life after Big Ben.
If Pittsburgh chooses to bolster its quarterback room in free agency, Jameis Winston could be an ideal target. He does have a turnover problem—he had 30 interceptions in 2019—but he also possesses immense physical upside.
Winston threw for 19,737 yards in five years as a starter for the Buccaneers.
Because of his ball security issues and limited 2020 playing time, Winston may be willing to take a team-friendly deal for a chance to rehab his market value. That would be big for Pittsburgh, as it's projected to be more than $7 million over the cap.
If Winston can take better care of the football and become a reliable signal-caller, at just 27 years old, he could be Pittsburgh's next long-term answer at quarterback.
San Francisco 49ers: CB Patrick Peterson
The San Francisco 49ers may be forced to overhaul their secondary in 2021. Safety Jaquiski Tartt is scheduled to become a free agent, as are cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett and K'Waun Williams. Since we're not targeting incumbent free agents for this exercise, we'll instead look to eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson.
Like Sherman, Peterson is nearing the back end of his career. However, he's a seasoned cover man who possesses leadership skills and has remained durable throughout his career. While Peterson missed six games in 2019 because of suspension, he hasn't otherwise missed a game in his 10-year career.
Last season, Peterson totaled 61 tackles with seven passes defended and three interceptions.
While San Francisco isn't in a completely desperate cap situation—it's projected to have more than $14 million in space—it may still have to free up some room to add Peterson. However, doing so would help San Francisco's secondary transition into its next incarnation.
Seattle Seahawks: CB Richard Sherman
Would Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks consider a reunion tour in 2021? If they would, then this potential pairing makes a ton of sense. Pass defense was an issue for Seattle early in 2020—the Seahawks still finished 31st in passing yards allowed—and cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar are both headed to free agency.
Sherman may have been limited to five games this past season, but he was a tremendous coverage presence in 2019. That season, he allowed an opposing quarterback rating of just 63.0.
While it remains to be seen whether the 49ers will get back to playoff contention in 2021, the Seahawks' postseason window remains wide-open. That, along with a familiar situation, might prompt Sherman to come back to Seattle.
And if Sherman would be willing to give the Seahawks a bit of a discount, it could be even better for all involved. Seattle is projected to have nearly $15 million in cap space, but additional savings could enable the Seahawks to build a championship-caliber roster.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Buccaneers are projected to have more than $28 million in cap space. They'll likely use that money to bring back free agents like Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David.
If we're looking strictly at external free agents, though, wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster could be an ideal fit. The Bucs will need another receiver if Godwin and/or Brown don't return. Smith-Schuster, who amassed 831 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2020, could help reload Tom Brady's arsenal.
Smith-Schuster's lone Pro Bowl season came in 2018 while he played opposite Brown. In Tampa, he would get to play opposite another premier pass-catcher in Mike Evans and could even reunite with Brown.
Smith-Schuster is likely to be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, but Tampa currently has the cap space and the Super Bowl shine likely needed to land him.
Tennessee Titans: LB K.J. Wright
While the Tennessee Titans have established an identity as a dangerous offensive team, they've also allowed their defense to regress. In 2020, the Titans ranked just 28th in total defense, 29th against the pass and 19th against the run—in 2019, they ranked 21st, 24th and 12th, respectively.
Unfortunately, spending big in free agency isn't a viable option for Tennessee, which is projected to be just barely under the salary cap. Defensive additions will mostly have to come through the draft, though an aging veteran like K.J. Wright could be a perfect free-agent target.
One of the league's best all-around linebackers, Wright finished the 2020 season with 86 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, 10 passes defended and 11 tackles for loss. However, his lone Pro Bowl appearance came in 2016 and he'll turn 32 in July.
Wright should be a relatively inexpensive option—though he did recently tell radio host Jim Rome that he won't offer Seattle a hometown discount—who could still provide a significant boost to Tennessee's run and pass defense.
Washington Football Team: QB Dak Prescott
It feels unlikely that the Cowboys will allow quarterback Dak Prescott to get away. However, if Prescott does reach free agency, the Washington Football Team should be all over its former division rival.
Prescott is a two-time Pro Bowler who was leading the league with 1,856 passing yards when he was injured in Week 5 this past season. The Football Team, meanwhile, is searching for a long-term answer at the quarterback position.
Washington may have Alex Smith back in 2021 and did re-sign Taylor Heinicke to a two-year extension. However, Smith is undecided on his future, and Heinicke is unproven outside of two career starts. Adding Prescott to the mix would set up the reigning NFC East champions for long-term success.
Armed with more than $31 million in projected cap space, Washington is also one of the few teams that could afford to make Prescott a fair-market offer during this decreased-cap offseason.