Predicting 8 NFL Players Who Will Be Overpaid in 2021 Free Agency
The 2021 edition of NFL free agency isn't far off. On March 17, the feeding frenzy will officially begin, though negotiations can commence two days prior.
Every offseason, players sign contracts that don't match their production or potential; that's the nature of free agency as teams try to outbid one another for the services of veterans. Last year, for example, Austin Hooper got what was a market-setting deal simply because he was a Pro Bowler getting his turn at the negotiation table.
Hooper is now the third-highest-paid tight end among those with long-term contracts, behind only Kansas City's Travis Kelce and San Francisco's George Kittle. He produced just 435 receiving yards and four touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns in 2020.
Pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. landed a three-year, $45 million deal following the only double-digit-sack season of his career. He returned to his typical form in 2020, logging just three sacks for the Atlanta Falcons.
Like Hooper, Fowler and several others last offseason, many pending free agents will be overpaid in 2020. We'll never criticize someone for signing on the dotted line, of course, but the following eight players are likely to be among them.
This isn't to suggest that any of these players are bad. Whether because of injury risks, inconsistent production, age or positional overvaluing, however, they're all likely to earn more than they should.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
RB Kenyan Drake
Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake is one of several players on this list who received the franchise tag or transition tag in 2020. This is no coincidence. If a team values a player enough to franchise-tag him, he must be one of the best at his position, right?
Well, not exactly, though it's true in some cases. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, tagged Dak Prescott last offseason because they didn't want to lose one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. In Drake's case, however, the transition tag may have been a way to give him another opportunity without committing to him long-term.
Drake was impressive during his eight games with the Cardinals in 2019, rushing for 643 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. However, he wasn't a proven full-time starter, and after a year on the tag, he still isn't. Drake split time with Chase Edmonds and finished with 955 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns but with a modest 4.0 yards-per-carry average.
While the 27-year-old may be a serviceable starter, he probably isn't worth $8.3 million-plus per season, which is his projected market value. However, a running back-needy team rich with cap space—along with the Cardinals—may drive Drake's salary into that price range. That's too much for a back with zero 1,000-yard seasons on his resume.
Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals
Edge Bud Dupree
Pass-rusher Bud Dupree received the franchise tag from the Pittsburgh Steelers last offseason, and he may parlay that into a massive free-agent deal this offseason. Guys who can get to the quarterback are regularly overvalued in free agency, which is how Fowler ended up with his lucrative three-year deal in 2020.
However, Dupree has some major red flags that suggest he will be overcompensated. One of them is the fact that he was merely average before his contract year of 2019. Then, in a contract year—and while playing opposite T.J. Watt—he ripped off 11.5 sacks.
Dupree had another eight sacks in 11 games last season before suffering a torn ACL. This is the second knock against his value. There's no telling when or if Dupree will be at 100 percent in 2021, though he is optimistic about an early return.
"Man, I'm feeling great right now," Dupree told NFL Network's Good Morning Football (h/t Frank Carnevale of TribLive.com. "I'm ahead of schedule in rehab."
The reality is that some cap-rich team with pass-rushing needs is likely to pay Dupree like a No. 1 pass-rusher. He has a projected market value of $18.2 million annually, but he may be more of a complementary piece and make a minimal impact in 2021.
Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals
S Anthony Harris
Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris is yet another player who received the franchise tag in 2020. Keeping Harris in the fold made sense, as the Vikings were in the process of revamping their secondary. Cornerbacks Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie Alexander all departed, and Harris had solid production the previous season.
In 2019, Harris amassed 11 passes defended and a league-high six interceptions to go with 60 combined tackles. The problem is that Harris took a step back as a coverage safety this past season. He logged no interceptions and allowed an opposing passer rating of 118.1, up from just 44.2 in 2019.
Harris has never been to a Pro Bowl, has failed to record an interception in four of his six pro seasons and will turn 30 in October. However, some team in need of secondary help is going to pay Harris like the younger ball-hawking safety he was two years ago.
Harris has a projected market value of $14 million annually. Given his age and his inconsistent level of coverage production, that would be an overpayment.
Potential Suitors: Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns
TE Hunter Henry
Pass-catching tight ends have become increasingly valuable to modern NFL offenses, and the lucrative extensions signed by Kelce and Kittle will do nothing to keep free-agency prices down.
This brings us to Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, another player coming off the franchise tag. The 26-year-old has been good as a pro but not great. His most prolific season came in 2019 with 652 receiving yards, and he has a significant injury history.
Over his five-year career, Henry has missed 25 games.
Yet he is the next receiving tight end to hit the open market and will likely be compensated like one of the game's best. He has a projected value of $10.9 million annually, which would make him the third-highest-paid tight end in terms of annual value.
Is Henry the third-best tight end in football? Of course not, but the next-man-up mentality of market negotiations means that either the Chargers or another cap-rich team without an established tight end will pay him as such.
Potential Suitors: Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals
Edge Matt Judon
Matt Judon will have a lot working for him when it comes to free-agent negotiations. He carries the allure of a player fresh off the franchise tag, and he plays the premium position of pass-rusher. This is why the Baltimore Ravens standout carries a projected market value of $15.6 million annually.
As was the case with Fowler's contract of $15 million per year, Judon's deal will likely be an overpayment. While he's been a fine fit for Baltimore's defense, he's never been among the league's most productive pass-rushers.
His best season came in his contract year of 2019, during which he produced 9.5 sacks. He had just six sacks in 2020 while producing a more impressive 32 quarterback pressures. While Judon does have two Pro Bowl nods on his resume, he's also produced seven or fewer sacks in three of his five NFL campaigns.
While he is undoubtedly a good player, someone is going to pay the soon-to-be 29-year-old like an elite sack artist—be it Baltimore or a cap-flush team lacking in sack potential.
Potential Suitors: Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets
CB Patrick Peterson
The Arizona Cardinals are reportedly hoping to retain cornerback Patrick Peterson.
"I know for the right number, they would like to re-sign him," Ian Rapoport said on NFL Network's NFL Now.
Arizona probably won't be the only team high on Peterson in free agency either. He is, after all, an eight-time Pro Bowler who plays a premium defensive position. Teams lacking a top-tier cover man will likely value Peterson as an elite free-agent target.
Peterson has a projected market value of $10.4 million annually.
Here's the problem, though. Peterson will turn 31 in July and is no longer the same lockdown defender he was a few years ago. In 2020, Peterson allowed an opposing passer rating of 98.2. In 2019, he allowed an opposing passer rating of 99.2. He didn't make the Pro Bowl in either of those campaigns.
Peterson should still be a starting-caliber cornerback, and he may be a future Hall of Famer. However, he appears to be past his prime. Someone, though, will pay Peterson like the player he was rather than the player he is now.
Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
While Peterson may be nearing the end of his playing prime, Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seems to be just getting started. He'll turn 25 in November, has one Pro Bowl season on his resume and had nine touchdown receptions this past season.
Some receiver-needy team will undoubtedly want him to be its new No. 1 target. And with his projected market value of $16.1 million annually, his compensation will likely match that of a No. 1 receiver. That price point would place Smith-Schuster just outside of the top 10 of wide receiver contracts.
If teams dig carefully into Smith-Schuster's past production, they should realize that he isn't a top-10 wide receiver and arguably isn't even a No. 1.
Yes, he had an impressive 1,426-yard, seven-touchdown season in 2018. However, he was playing the role of the No. 2 receiver opposite Antonio Brown. In the two campaigns since, Smith-Schuster has had the opportunity to establish himself as Pittsburgh's new top target. He produced 1,383 yards and 12 touchdowns combined.
Smith-Schuster was productive in 2020, with 831 yards and nine scores, but he wasn't an elite target. Quarterbacks targeting him had a passer rating of 99.4. His performance was more in line with Brandin Cooks—who drew a passer rating of 101.9 in 2020—than Julio Jones (126.5).
Jones has been a franchise cornerstone for the Atlanta Falcons, while Cooks has been paid like a No. 1 but has struggled to fill that role—which may be why he was traded just two years into his second contract.
Potential Suitors: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins
OT Trent Williams
The San Francisco 49ers traded for Trent Williams last offseason and got a Pro Bowl campaign out of the 32-year-old left tackle. However, while he was good in 2020, he wasn't great. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams allowed just four sacks but was responsible for 10 penalties.
This, along with Williams' age, makes him a bit of a risk in free agency. However, he is eager to see what he can get on the open market, and it could be a lot.
"It's been 11 years in the league," Williams said, per Kyle Posey of Niners Nation. "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 reality is that Williams is a Pro Bowl tackle hitting a market largely devoid of them. He, Russell Okung and Alejandro Villanueva top the list. This means that Williams' projected market value of $18.2 million per year may be a bit low. Potential contenders like the 49ers and Indianapolis Colts, who lost Anthony Castonzo to retirement, need a left tackle and will likely have to overpay to get one.
Shelling out $18-20 million for a 33-year-old tackle who was good but not great in 2020? That's the definition of overpaying.
Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts