Predicting Landing Spots, Contracts for NFL's Biggest Free Agents

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2021

Predicting Landing Spots, Contracts for NFL's Biggest Free Agents

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    The 2021 edition of NFL free agency is slated to kick off March 17. The legal negotiation window will begin two days before that, and in the coming weeks, we're likely to hear plenty of buzz about players like Dak Prescott, Trent Williams and Chris Godwin.

    These are among the best players scheduled to hit the open market in 2021. They're proven Pro Bowlers with more than enough left in the proverbial tank to be big-time targets in free agency. While a diminished salary cap—likely to be less than $185 million, according to ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio—may prevent the best players from landing record-setting deals, the guys are still going to get paid handsomely.

    Where might the biggest free agents land, and at what cost? That's what we'll examine here. We'll take a look at the top 10 pending free agents from a list compiled by Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield of USA Today. We'll take a look at what exactly makes them "big" free agents and where they may end up, based on factors like scheme fit, surrounding talent, projected cap space and on-field opportunity.

10. OG Joe Thuney

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney is an interesting member of a top-heavy but talented offensive-line class. Though not a Pro Bowler, Thuney is a steady lineman who has never missed a game and who allowed just two sacks in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Thuney also has experience at tackle, having played the position in college and spending time there with the Patriots last season.

    The Cincinnati Bengals need help all along an offensive line that allowed Joe Burrow to be sacked 32 times in 10 games as a rookie. Thuney could be a perfect free-agent target with his role becoming defined after he's already on the roster.

    Left tackle Jonah Williams remains very much unproven, with just 10 games on his NFL resume. Thuney could get a look at tackle or kick inside to guard if Williams proves serviceable and/or Cincinnati uses the fifth pick in the draft on a tackle.

    Last offseason, right tackle Jack Conklin received a three-year, $42 million deal from the Cleveland Browns. With guards generally being valued less than tackles, Thuney should land in a range just below that.

    Prediction: Thuney signs a three-year, $38 million deal with Cincinnati.

9. OG Brandon Scherff

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    While not quite as durable as Thuney—he's missed eight games over the past two seasons—Washington Football Team's Brandon Scherff is an even more accomplished guard. He's a four-time Pro Bowler who got the first first-team All-Pro nod of his career in 2020.

    At just 29 years old, Scherff is also still in his playing prime. This means that he should be one of the most coveted free agents on the market. Washington, though, is hoping that he doesn't get there.

    "According to people familiar with the situation, Washington could use a franchise tag on Scherff again, but the organization appears more interested in signing him to a long-term deal, with talks expected to start in the coming days," Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post wrote.

    Washington used the tag on Scherff last offseason, and a repeat would be impractical—it would trigger a 20 percent raise on Scherff's $15.0 million price. Expect Washington—which is projected to have $38.3 million in cap space—to offer a long-term deal instead.

    As is the case with Thuney, Scherff should garner around $12 million per year in free agency. Andrus Peat got a deal worth $11.5 million per year last offseason.

    Prediction: Scherff signs a four-year, $50 million deal with Washington.

8. Edge Shaquil Barrett

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Like Scherff, Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett received the franchise tag in 2020. He was the NFL sacks leader in 2019, and while Barrett didn't lead the league in sacks last year, he was still a very impactful playmaker.

    Barrett finished the 2020 season with eight sacks and an impressive 42 quarterback pressures.

    While Barrett's market stock may have taken a slight hit due to his drop in sacks, he should still be highly valued by the Buccaneers. They won Super Bowl LV largely because of their defense, of which Barrett was a huge part.

    A reunion between Barrett and the Bucs would make a ton of sense, though it may require a little cap management. Tampa is currently projected to have $9.4 million in cap space. A reworked deal with quarterback Tom Brady could come into play here, and the Buccaneers are open to extending the now seven-time champ.

    "It's a possibility. He certainly didn't look like he slowed down any this year," general manager Jason Licht told The Rich Eisen Show.

    Barrett earned $15.8 million on the tag in 2020. Expect him to get an extension with a similar per-season value.

    Prediction: Barrett signs a four-year, $63.2 million deal with Tampa Bay. 

7. OT Trent Williams

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    Offensive tackle Trent Williams didn't play for Washington in 2019, but once he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, he quickly regained his Pro Bowl form. The eight-time Pro Bowler took over for the retired Joe Staley and became an anchor along the line in San Francisco.

    Now, Williams is looking to gauge his value on the open market.

    "It's been 11 years in the league," Williams told reporters. "I have yet to see a franchise left tackle go to the open market. I think it would be interesting to kind of see what the value holds."

    The problem for San Francisco is that it is projected to have just $12.5 million in cap space. This means that keeping Williams off the market with the franchise tag isn't a realistic option. The franchise-tag value for offensive linemen is projected to be $14.5 million in 2021.

    Instead, the 49ers may opt to give Williams a lucrative but backloaded contract that is more cap-friendly this season. Tennessee Titans tackle Taylor Lewan led left tackles in 2020 with a salary of $18.1 million. San Francisco will probably have to offer an extension in that range to keep the 32-year-old Williams for the rest of his playing prime.

    Laremy Tunsil and David Bakhtiari are the only tackles to make more than $20 million annually. Expect Williams' next deal to fall just below that.

    Prediction: Williams signs a three-year, $56.5 million deal with San Francisco.

6. WR Kenny Golladay

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    It's a good year to be in the wide-receiver market, as several top pass-catchers are expected to be available. One of them is Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns before appearing in just five games last season.

    Golladay has shown that he has No. 1 receiver potential, and the new-look Lions—now helmed by quarterback Jared Goff—would likely love to keep him.

    "I just think his size and what he can bring to the table is something that a lot of people liked about Kenny Golladay, including me," special assistant Chris Spielman said, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

    The problem is that Detroit is projected to be $9 million over the cap. This makes using the franchise tag or chasing Golladay on the open market both financially painful options. With the Lions entering full-on rebuild territory, it may make more sense to let Golladay go.

    This could lead Golladay to a receiver-needy team like Washington. The Football Team desperately needs a quality target opposite Terry McLaurin, and they have the cap space needed to make a splash. Even with Golladay coming off an injury-plagued season, expect him to get between $16 million and $18 million in annual salary—a price range that includes Adam Thielen, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Mike Evans.

    Prediction: Golladay signs a four-year, $71 million deal with Washington.

5. WR Chris Godwin

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    As previously mentioned, the Buccaneers are facing a tough cap situation—though it's certainly not as dire a situation as those in which some teams find themselves. Tampa will have to get creative to keep many of its Super Bowl pieces in place for another season. Wideout Chris Godwin is one of the biggest pieces.

    Godwin was limited to 12 games and 840 receiving yards in 2020. However, he exploded the previous season, racking up 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games. A true high-ceiling player, Godwin could become one of the league's highest-paid receivers if he hits the open market.

    For this reason, it would make a ton of sense for Tampa to keep Godwin away from free agency entirely, even if it only results in one more season with the Bucs. While Tampa is open to an extension with Tom Brady, a one-year run is all that is guaranteed.

    It would require some contract finagling to fit the franchise tag into the equation. Tagging Godwin would cost the Bucs $16.4 million. However, that's likely less than it would cost to keep Godwin on a long-term deal.

    Nine NFL receivers make at least $16.5 million annually.

    Prediction: Tampa Bay gives Godwin the franchise tag, paying $16.4 million for 2021.

4. LB Lavonte David

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Another Buccaneer makes the list, which shouldn't be a surprise, given Tampa's total team success in 2020. Linebacker Lavonte David should be one of the top non-rush linebackers available in free agency this offseason, as he's an all-around defender in the truest sense.

    In 2020, David racked up 117 total tackles, six passes defended, an interception, three forced fumbles and 12 tackles for loss. Along with budding superstar Devin White, David gave Tampa arguably the top linebacker duo in the league.

    While David is 31 years old, he's shown no signs of regression and should be an offseason priority for the Buccaneers.

    "GM Jason Licht said it would be extremely important to keep Devin White and Lavonte David together," Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times tweeted.

    One creative approach the Buccaneers can and likely will consider is giving David a backloaded contract that helps keep the 2021 cap number manageable. The New Orleans Saints have used this backloaded approach for years—though it caught up with them this offseason, leading to a salary total $69.5 million over the cap.

    A similar approach could keep David in the fold for another Super Bowl run while pushing cap concerns off for a couple more years. Given David's age, a deal similar in annual salary to the four-year, $51 million deal Kyle Van Noy signed last offseason seems appropriate.=

    Prediction: David signs a three-year, $38 million deal with Tampa Bay.

3. S Justin Simmons

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos used the franchise tag on safety Justin Simmons last offseason, and for good reason. While Simmons only has one Pro Bowl appearance on his resume—his first nod cam this past season—he has established himself as one of the game's biggest playmakers in the secondary over the last two years.

    Between 2019 and 2020, Simmons logged 189 total tackles, 24 passes defended and seven interceptions. Another franchise tag could be his reward.

    "Barring a last-minute contract agreement, the Broncos are expected to use the tender on Justin Simmons for the second consecutive year, essentially taking him off the market. The deadline to apply the tag is March 9," Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post wrote.

    Using the tag again would make sense for the Broncos. Denver is projected to have $42.4 million in cap space, and a second consecutive tag would cost 20 percent more than what Simmons earned in 2020, or $13.7 million. That wouldn't even put Simmons in the top five among safeties. However, it wouldn't lock up Simmons for the long term either.

    Instead, the Broncos should and probably will offer Simmons a market-leading contract that keeps him in Denver for the foreseeable future. Budda Baker earns $14.8 million per year, most in the NFL. Expect Simmons to get an offer worth even more.

    Prediction: Simmons signs a five-year, $77.5 million deal with Denver.

2. WR Allen Robinson II

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Chicago Bears wideout Allen Robinson II should be atop the wish list of many receiver-needy teams this offseason. He dealt with a dreadful quarterback situation in Chicago in 2020—the tandem of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky was the envy of no team—and still finished with 1,250 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

    Robinson also had a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season in 2015—when he was catching passes from Blake Bortles with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Teams will either be eager to see what Robinson can accomplish with a consistent quarterback under center or will look for him to support their own questionable quarterback situations.

    The Miami Dolphins somewhat fall into both categories. They seem to believe that Tua Tagovailoa can develop into a franchise signal-caller, but the second-year Alabama product remains relatively unproven. Adding a wideout like Robinson would go a long way toward unearthing Tagovailoa's true potential.

    Pairing Robinson with DeVante Parker could give the Dolphins an explosive wideout tandem and help make them a legitimate threat in the AFC. Miami was a 10-win team in 2020 and should intrigue Robinson as well, though that alone won't get a deal done.

    Expect Robinson to be among the league's five highest-paid receivers in terms of annual salary next season.

    Prediction: Robinson signs four-year, $84 million deal with Miami.

1. QB Dak Prescott

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are in a tricky spot with quarterback Dak Prescott. They used the franchise tag on him last year, and doing so again would cost 20 percent more than he earned in 2020—or $37.7 million. That would place him third among quarterbacks in terms of annual salary.

    That number also represents more than the $19.4 million the Cowboys are expected to have available. They would have to create a significant amount of room just to tag Prescott and navigate the NFL draft.

    The problem is that signing Prescott to a long-term deal could be even harder. The recent trades for Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz prove that teams are willing to give up a lot to land a quarterback they believe is franchise-caliber. Prescott, who was leading the league with 1,856 passing yards when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in 2020, will be coveted.

    A team could easily be willing to make Prescott among the league's highest-paid signal-callers over the long term if he hits free agency. The quarterback-needy Patriots, for example, are projected to have $62.2 million in cap space and could offer a deal that pays $38 or even $40 million in 2020. 

    Because of this, Prescott has no reason to take a team friendly deal—or to accept any offer that would pay him less than $37.7 million this season—before the start of free agency. Therefore, if Dallas hopes to keep Prescott, it may have no choice but to use the tag once again.

    Prediction: Dallas franchise-tags Prescott at the cost of $37.7 million.


    Cap and contract information via Over The Cap.