NFL Free Agency 2021: 1 Player Each Team Shouldn't Re-Sign
The 2021 NFL free-agency period is quickly approaching, and this year's action should be even more frenzied than usual.
The salary cap has dropped—and rather significantly, at that—for the first time in a decade, meaning teams will be making tough cuts to free up money they can use to sign free agents. Organizations will also have to decide whether they want to let their own unrestricted free agents go or make a move to retain them.
Almost every team will be letting at least one player walk, whether for salary-cap reasons or to free up a roster spot. It's a busy time for front offices around the league but a critical one, as making the wrong decision could set a franchise back significantly. With that in mind, here are the unrestricted free agents each team should let walk this offseason.
Arizona Cardinals: Kenyan Drake
Kenyan Drake has been an inconsistent performer during his NFL career, and it's not unreasonable to assume he'll soon be joining his third franchise in his sixth year in the league. The running back failed to impress during his first full season with the Cardinals in 2020, coming up short of the 1,000-yard mark despite playing in 15 games. He was close to a non-factor in Arizona's passing attack and only truly separated himself with heavy usage near the goal line, which helped him rack up a career-high 10 touchdowns.
The Alabama product played out this past season on the transition tag and is now going to hit the open market. Arizona should be willing to let him walk after getting some solid performances last year from Chase Edmonds, a speedy, pass-catching back who seems to jell more in head coach Kliff Kingsbury's system.
The bruising 6'1", 211-pound Drake could command upwards of $5 million per year as a serviceable power back, but the Cardinals can forge ahead without him on the roster without skipping a beat and should balk at the idea of paying him that much after shelling out $8.5 million for a subpar campaign in 2020.
Atlanta Falcons: Alex Mack
Alex Mack was once one of the league's top centers, but he will be turning 36 during the 2021 NFL season and is dealing with a diminishing skill set. He declined rather noticeably last year, the final season of a five-year, $45 million contract he signed with the Falcons back in 2016. It wasn't good news for a team on the verge of entering a complete rebuild, with many of its top veterans such as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones being bandied about in trade rumors.
Atlanta would be smart to avoid committing much, if anything to an aging offensive lineman at this juncture. The team is coming off an ugly 4-12 campaign and has far more pressing needs up and down the roster.
With new head coach Arthur Smith taking over the reins, the club will likely want to get younger and find free agents to fit his plans for the future. Mack only has so much left in the tank, and he'll likely make one of his last stops in the league somewhere else this offseason.
Baltimore Ravens: Yannick Ngakoue
Yannick Ngakoue has bounced around in the past year, moving from Jacksonville to Minnesota at the start of the 2020 campaign before a midseason deal brought him to Baltimore, and it's now looking like he'll soon be playing for his fourth team since 2019. The edge-rusher has performed his role serviceably over the last half-decade, but he also has not done enough to warrant his current club jumping at the chance to arrange a long-term commitment.
A team willing to pay market value for Ngakoue, which could range from $15 million-$20 million per season, should be one that will deploy him alongside quality defensive tackles and mostly in pass-rushing situations. He has had issues against the run during his career and is a one-dimensional talent.
The Ravens have been leery about doling out hefty long-term deals for their pass rushers and likely won't reverse course to keep Ngakoue around, even after giving up two mid-round draft picks to acquire him in October. Baltimore has a strong track record at unearthing talent at the edge position and will likely find an in-house option or more affordable free agent to replace him.
Buffalo Bills: Josh Norman
Josh Norman used to be one of the biggest names at cornerback for a reason, but his skills have faded as the conclusion of his career draws closer. The 33-year-old joined the Bills on a one-year, $6 million deal in 2020, but he only saw action in nine games and started just three of those.
While Norman probably isn't ready to hang up his cleats and still showed some flashes in 2020—returning his lone interception for a touchdown while also recording two fumble recoveries, four pass deflections and 24 tackles—he should be moving on to his next stop this spring.
Norman should be open to a pay cut based on his recent playing time and performances, but Buffalo would be better served opting for younger, more productive options to build its secondary around. The team just reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time in nearly three decades and should be using its cap room on players it can count on for years to come.
Carolina Panthers: Curtis Samuel
After three seasons of being utilized incorrectly, Curtis Samuel finally lived up to the expectations Carolina had for him when it selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. But unfortunately for the franchise, it will now have to shell out some serious cash to retain the playmaker in 2021.
The Panthers were rumored to have been shopping Samuel after he disappointed during his initial seasons out of Ohio State, but offensive coordinator Joe Brady found a way to unlock the speedy wideout's potential in their first year together. Samuel has found a niche as a slot receiver who also gets touches out of the backfield, providing the squad with a unique weapon poised to break off for a big gain at any time.
While these gadget-type players don't often get huge contracts, Samuel now belongs on the field for a healthy number of snaps and should be in line to make around $8 million a year on the open market.
Retaining him with D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson already on the roster would be quite costly for an organization that still needs to find a franchise quarterback though, so parting ways rather than paying to keep three quality receivers is the right call for a team that is still at least a couple of years away from contending.
Chicago Bears: Allen Robinson II
Chicago has a few options at its disposal for retaining Allen Robinson II, including the franchise tag, transition tag or extending his contract, but it appears time for the receiver and organization to part ways after three seasons together.
It would cost nearly $16.5 million to franchise Robinson and more than $14 million to place the transition tag on him, according to Over The Cap. That's a hefty price tag for a team that currently has less than $1 million to spend before breaching the projected salary cap for the 2021 NFL season. Robinson would almost certainly get offered more by a deep-pocketed rival if the Bears tagged him, which would allow him to test the market and give Chicago the right to match any offer.
While there are some moves the Bears could and likely will make to free up money, including cutting several veterans like Buster Skrine and Bobby Massie, the club still has multiple holes to fill if it is going to make it back to the postseason next year.
While an extension once seemed to be the best choice, that ship may have sailed now that the 27-year-old can be courted by teams with a higher-quality quarterback than Mitch Trubisky and a better chance to contend than the Bears can offer. While they may not have to outright let Robinson walk—they could franchise-tag and then trade him to return some value—it's quite possible he's played his last snap in the Windy City.
Cincinnati Bengals: William Jackson III
William Jackson III just finished playing out the final year of his extended rookie contract in Cincinnati, capping off an up-and-down five seasons with the club that took him in the first round back in 2016. While he had some strong campaigns during that span, Jackson hasn't exactly lived up to the hype that made him the No. 24 overall pick.
Although the Bengals currently have the seventh-most cap space, committing to a cornerback that has not performed at a high level in the last three seasons is not a wise move. Considering Trae Waynes, whom the team signed last spring to a three-year deal, already accounts for the biggest cap hit on the Cincinnati roster at $15.8 million, it would be smart to avoid tying up more long-term cash with another corner whose production could be replaced with a draft prospect.
Jackson is likely to field some sizable offers from squads desperate to improve their secondary, and the Bengals should be willing to let him walk when he does.
Cleveland Browns: Olivier Vernon
Although the Browns have nearly $25 million in cap room to play with going into free agency, team brass could be busy reworking several deals to free up extra money that would let them be a major player in the open market. Restructuring the contracts of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry alone will give the organization plenty of flexibility to improve on its best season since returning to the NFL in 1999.
One player that doesn't seem to fit into Cleveland's future plans is linebacker Olivier Vernon, who hasn't played at an elite level for a few years now. He suffered an Achilles tear at the tail end of the 2020 campaign, which jeopardizes his availability in 2021 and is the latest in a string of injuries the 30-year-old has dealt with.
The timing of this latest ailment will almost certainly result in a one-year, incentive-laden, "prove it" deal—if he can even get back on the field—but it shouldn't come from the Browns front office. The club must build on its first postseason appearance since 2002 and first playoff win since 1994 by inking contributors who can stay healthy and assist the team in becoming a more consistent contender.
Dallas Cowboys: Andy Dalton
Andy Dalton signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys last spring after he was cut by the Bengals after nearly a decade of starting for the club. Dallas envisioned Dalton as a backup, but an injury to starter Dak Prescott forced him into the starting role a month into the 2020 campaign.
During his 11 games in a Cowboys uniform, Dalton proved he's still a very serviceable option under center, putting up 2,170 passing yards and 14 touchdowns despite the fact the Dallas offensive line was marred with injuries to key players like left tackle Tyron Smith. That showing sets Dalton up to be a possible starter in this league again; he could serve as a bridge quarterback and mentor with a franchise planning to roll the dice on a rookie prospect in the upcoming draft.
Dalton isn't the only quarterback Dallas has to consider re-signing this offseason, as Prescott could also hit the open market after being franchise-tagged in 2020. The Cowboys will either need to pay nearly $38 million to tag him again or hammer out a long-term deal, which should be their top priority. If the team can secure its franchise QB, then Dalton, who is likely to get between $4 and $5 million per year, should find a new home elsewhere.
Denver Broncos: Shelby Harris
Shelby Harris has quietly become one of the league's better interior defensive lineman, helping the Broncos consistently shut down the run when he's on the field. He's also evolved into a respectable pass-rusher during his four-year tenure in Denver, but it will probably cost the team too much to keep him around much longer.
With only a handful of quality D-linemen set to hit the open market and the draft class leaving something to be desired, Harris could score himself a nice payday in free agency. The Broncos were able to retain him on a one-year, $3.3 million deal for 2020, but he's in line to potentially receive double that or more on a multiyear deal this offseason.
Although the Broncos would certainly benefit from retaining Harris, the team may find more value allocating that money to a free agent who will see the field more. Harris has only had two seasons with 500 or more snaps in his six-year career, which makes him too expensive of a role player for a team that has lots of work to do across the board to get back to a competitive level.
Detroit Lions: Danny Amendola
Detroit made it obvious that it's changing direction this offseason after trading away franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford, but it would be foolish for the team to stop there. The Lions need to continue cleaning house as part of a significant roster overhaul, and that includes letting receiver Danny Amendola walk.
Amendola is now 35 years old, and while he chipped in 46 catches for 602 yards in 2020, he's not the type of player the Lions want to be retaining with the goal of building a contender around. Detroit needs to get younger and assemble a promising nucleus with smart free-agency decisions and draft picks while jettisoning the aging veterans from the Matt Patricia era.
Given the Lions are currently nearly $4 million over the cap, they don't have much flexibility to make any marquee signings right now, but they also shouldn't be looking at inking any veterans at the end of their careers either. There is always the chance Amendola decides to retire after 12 seasons in the NFL, but if he does give it another go, it will likely be with the goal of winning another Super Bowl.
The odds are stacked against Detroit being a realistic contender in 2021, so this is likely the end the wideout's two-year run with the club.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones is one of the big-name free agents of the 2021 class and will be the hottest running back on the market. He was named to his first Pro Bowl in a fantastic 2020 campaign in which he amassed 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns on just 201 carries and showed his capabilities as an excellent receiver out of the backfield with 47 catches for 355 yards and two more scores.
This was the second consecutive year in which Jones was one of the best running backs in football, and he is likely to be paid as such when he hits the open market for the first time since he was drafted by the Packers in 2017. Some teams will be wary of Jones, however, as he had the good fortune to run behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines and share the field with Aaron Rodgers, who just won his third NFL MVP award.
While Jones can still succeed regardless of where he lands this offseason, the Packers simply don't utilize the running back enough to warrant paying him top dollar. Head coach Matt LaFleur has previously stated his commitment to using a backfield committee, while Jones is about to receive bell-cow money from someone. Green Bay has all seven of its picks in the upcoming draft and would be better served bringing in a rookie prospect over taking on Jones' impending steep price tag.
Houston Texans: Will Fuller V
The Houston Texans are one of the most fascinating teams in the league right now, as they are still trying to convince Deshaun Watson to stick around after the franchise quarterback made it clear he no longer wants to play for them. Watson has demanded a trade, and if the club cannot get him to walk that request back, it's probably time to blow the rest of the roster up and start a full-fledged rebuild.
The team already traded away superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins last year and released fan-favorite pass-rusher J.J. Watt in February, so letting receiver Will Fuller V find a new home in free agency is hardly a stretch despite the fantastic production he has accounted for when he's actually on the field. Fuller was looking like one of the best wideouts in football when he was active last year but was hit with a season-ending suspension after 11 games.
Considering Fuller has not played more than 11 games since his rookie year and has never completed an entire 16-game season, the club should be reticent to get involved in a long-term deal here, especially now that the quarterback situation is so volatile. Fuller should be considered expendable at this juncture, making way for younger prospects to pick up the slack for this rebuilding organization.
Indianapolis Colts: Xavier Rhodes
The Colts took on a reclamation project after the Vikings released Xavier Rhodes following seven seasons of service. The cornerback appeared to be washed up two seasons after making the All-Pro First Team in 2017. Rhodes proved he wasn't done yet in Indianapolis, showing he could play at a high level when healthy.
It helped that Rhodes wasn't asked to be a shutdown, man-coverage corner in Indianapolis, which utilized a scheme that played to the defensive back's strengths. While Rhodes isn't the athlete he once was, he provides value as a 30-year-old coverage corner in the right system.
Unfortunately for the Colts, Rhodes' bounce-back year will likely raise his value beyond the one-year, $3 million deal they gave him. He could make upward of $8 million per season on the open market, a steep price for a corner who's coming off one good year and who dealt with nagging injuries that hindered his capabilities as recently as 2019.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Keelan Cole
Jacksonville is one of the most money-flush organizations in the NFL, and Spotrac estimates the team will be a whopping $85.7 million under the projected salary cap of $185 million. With so much cash to throw around, the team can afford to retain almost all its key players. However, letting some go to save money for the future and avoid getting entangled in deals that aren't team-friendly will better position the franchise for a turnaround.
The Jags can afford to part with Keelan Cole during free agency. The wideout has been dependable, if unspectacular, in four NFL seasons. An undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan, Cole caught the most passes (55) and scored the most touchdowns (5) of his career in 2020, just in time to hit the open market.
While there may be mutual interest from the team and player to keep working together, other organizations will be hungrier than Jacksonville to acquire receiving depth. If Cole is offered upward of $7 million per season to be a No. 2 receiver in an offense with a more stable quarterback situation, the Jaguars would be wise to let him walk and prioritize more pressing positions of need with their free-agency moves.
Kansas City Chiefs: Sammy Watkins
When he joined the Chiefs in 2018, many felt Sammy Watkins could finally become the star he was supposed to be when Buffalo drafted him No. 4 overall in 2014. After three seasons with the team, it is apparent the wideout is a quality No. 2 in a receiving corps at best. When he's on the field, Watkins has been a boon to the Kansas City offense, but he's too injury-prone to be considered a reliable option.
Watkins appeared in 10 regular-season games last year as he dealt with a concussion, hamstring and calf injury, the last of which plagued him during Kansas City's run back to the Super Bowl. He posted a career-low 421 yards and two touchdowns on 37 receptions and was a non-factor in the playoffs, playing in one game in which he caught his lone target for 13 yards.
Although Watkins shows flashes of greatness, it's time to phase him out of the Kansas City offense and make room for a healthier receiver. The team brought him back last year after Watkins agreed to take a pay cut, but the Chiefs should move on and let another franchise take a flier on the once-promising 27-year-old.
Las Vegas Raiders: Nelson Agholor
Nelson Agholor has been the definition of inconsistent during his six-year NFL career, but he is coming off one of his best seasons. The Raiders swapped Agholor from a slot receiver to a field-stretching weapon, helping him reach a career high in yardage (896) and tie his best mark for touchdowns (eight).
While Agholor was projected to be a higher-end No. 1 option when he came into the league as a first-round pick in 2015, he provides good value and has flashed above-average skills in multiple roles. That versatility will round out a deeper team's receiving corps, but the Raiders should focus on acquiring a primary wideout to complement Henry Ruggs III, the dynamic downfield threat they used a first-round pick on last year.
Agholor could command around $8 million per year, and Las Vegas should be hesitant to dish that out. That cash would be better served on a more consistently productive receiver for a team that needs to provide quarterback Derek Carr with a true No. 1 target to contend.
Los Angeles Chargers: Tyrod Taylor
The Chargers went into 2020 with the notion that Tyrod Taylor would be their starting quarterback until rookie Justin Herbert was ready to take over the job, but a pregame injury to Taylor in Week 2 thrust Herbert into the No. 1 role. The first-year signal-caller proved he will be the starting QB in Los Angeles for years to come, so Taylor must accept the backup job at a reduced salary or look elsewhere for a chance to become a starter again.
Taylor's performance in his sole start last year didn't help his value as he connected on 16 of 30 attempts for 208 yards without a touchdown. While he made the Pro Bowl in 2015, he'll have a tough time convincing a front office that he can replicate that level of play in 2021.
Most teams won't see the 31-year-old as more than a quality backup, which could net Taylor offers in the range of $5 million per year. With Herbert set to be the man for the Bolts, they can let Taylor walk and sign a more affordable second-stringer.
Los Angeles Rams: Gerald Everett
The Rams made an all-in move to contend for a Super Bowl by trading for quarterback Matthew Stafford, but they still have work to do before the offense can compete with the top teams in the league. They first must sort out their salary-cap issues, as they sit more than $29 million over the projected cap for 2021.
Restructuring and extending some big contracts will help alleviate that financial pressure. The team should also consider letting tight end Gerald Everett sign elsewhere in free agency to avoid taking on the $7-8 million per year he'll command on the open market.
While Everett has improved each year since being drafted in the second round in 2017—reaching new highs in targets, catches and yardage last season—his usage does not warrant a long-term deal with the organization. Fellow tight end Tyler Higbee is under contract for another three seasons, and the club may want to explore other options, such as a trade for Eagles tight end Zach Ertz—if the Rams can restructure some larger contracts such as those of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to free up cap space first—that would round out the roster.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been one of the great stories in modern NFL history, defying Father Time and his backup quarterback status by appearing in at least six games every year over the past decade. He has played on six teams in that span, and it appears to be time for another stop after he spent the last two seasons with the Dolphins.
The 38-year-old Fitzpatrick still has something to bring to the table after throwing for 2,091 yards and 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions while completing 68.5 percent of his passes—adding 151 yards and two scores on 30 carries—in nine games.
Despite a strong start to the year with Fitzpatrick as the starter, Miami transitioned to rookie signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa midway through the 2020 campaign and is committed to him for the future—at least if the rumors about a trade for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson don't come to fruition.
As the 'Phins look to build around their young quarterback, they can let go of what would be an expensive backup. Fitzpatrick just finished a two-year, $11 million deal and could make around $10 million per year as a bridge starter for another franchise.
Minnesota Vikings: Eric Wilson
The Vikings have gotten plenty of mileage out of Eric Wilson after bringing him back last season on a cheap one-year deal as a restricted free agent. Their linebacker unit dealt with multiple injuries, and Wilson filled the void, totaling 122 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, eight passes defensed and three interceptions in a career year.
The athletic Wilson displayed good range and coverage skills but had some trouble shutting down the run, which hurt Minnesota given how much he was on the field. Unless he improves in that department, Wilson would be better off deployed as a situational defender, but he may get paid as an every-down linebacker on the open market.
With the Vikings in the red, it may not be worth the cost to keep a player who isn't an all-around linebacker when his salary could reach $9 million per year over multiple seasons.
New England Patriots: Cam Newton
The Patriots suffered a devastating blow when they lost Tom Brady to free agency and elected to kick the tires on Cam Newton after the Panthers released him. Newton couldn't come close to replicating the successes of his predecessor as the organization replaced its starting quarterback for the first time in two decades. Newton threw eight touchdown passes while getting picked 10 times and fumbling six times.
Newton is no longer the strong-armed, dynamic signal-caller he was when he led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance, and New England needs to move on.
While finding another Brady late in the draft is unlikely, the Pats should allocate Newton's playing time to younger players with more upside. Whether that's Jarrett Stidham—going into his third year with the organization—or a prospect the team drafts in April remains to be seen.
New Orleans Saints: Jameis Winston
Given the injuries veteran quarterback Drew Brees had been dealing with, the Saints made a wise play to sign a high-upside former starter in Jameis Winston to serve as a backup for the 2020 campaign. Winston signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract despite leading the league in passing yardage in 2019 and got a chance at redemption when Brees went down with an injury in Week 10.
The Saints were conservative with Winston in that contest against the 49ers, and he completed six of 10 passes for 63 yards. He then took a back seat to Taysom Hill, who served as the starter for the remaining four games Brees missed because of a promise head coach Sean Payton made before Winston signed. Winston appeared once more in the divisional round, throwing his only touchdown as a Saint on a trick play.
The Saints went 3-1 when Hill started this past season and have a history with the multitalented signal-caller, so he appears to be the heir apparent if Brees retires this offseason. Winston probably won't take another team-friendly deal and should get a shot from an organization that wants to roll the dice on him as a starter. The Saints should end any potential for drama in the Big Easy and let Winston walk away, going all-in on Hill as their QB of the future.
New York Giants: Leonard Williams
The Giants once again have a tough decision to make regarding Leonard Williams, who is set to hit the open market for the second consecutive year. Last year, Big Blue opted to franchise-tag the 2015 sixth overall pick, whom they acquired via trade with the Jets in 2019, and they have yet to reach a long-term arrangement as the new league year draws closer.
To make matters worse, the G-Men are also locked in a battle with their star defensive lineman over his positional designation. They classified him as a defensive tackle instead of a defensive end last year, which cost him $1.7 million in salary. If the team opts to tag Williams again, it could be the difference between a $19.4 million salary and a $21.3 million payout.
Either figure is a hefty price for any player, especially one who has just one Pro Bowl appearance in a half-decade in the league. While Williams is coming off a career-high 11.5 sacks and lived up to his capabilities as a disruptive game-changer, the team should go in a different direction. New York would have to shell out too much for a player whose true value is likely closer to $12 million per season, while other teams may be willing to overpay to get a quality defensive lineman in free agency.
New York Jets: Brian Poole
The Jets are another franchise teeming with cash to spend this offseason at nearly $83 million under the projected salary cap. Their biggest problem could be courting marquee free agents to play for an organization that has struggled in recent years, but the allure of New York should help them make a splash in the market.
While Gang Green won't need to pinch pennies, it shouldn't keep all of its unrestricted free agents either. One player they could consider saying goodbye to is Brian Poole, the slot cornerback who has been one of their few consistent players.
Poole isn't a flashy player, but he covers well and doesn't allow big plays often. He provided nice return on a one-year, $5 million investment in 2020, but he's due for a raise and a long-term commitment going into his sixth NFL season after showing he can be a reliable defender.
A contending team that lacks a steady slot corner should send a multiyear offer Poole's way. The Jets—with so many other needs across the board—should think hard before investing in a defensive back who turns 29 in October.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Mills
The cash-strapped Eagles need to shed salary to get cap-compliant. One player they might have to let walk is safety Jalen Mills, a veteran who has made it clear he doesn't wish to play anywhere else. He re-signed with the club in 2020 for $4 million and was willing to switch from cornerback to safety to facilitate the signing, but he could be shown the door in 2021.
According to Dave Zangaro of NBCSports.com, Mills told CBS Sports HQ he desires to be part of new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon's scheme: "When you're talking about a guy like that and you see the scheme that he has, it's a lot of two-high safety, and I've actually had a conversation with a couple of guys in the league that I kind of think that's where the league is going."
While Mills, who turns 27 in April, brings versatility to the lineup, he's likely to make another $4 million or so for the 2021 campaign. He could also get a better offer from a contending team that wants a player who can line up at several spots to complete its secondary. With the Eagles mired in one of the worst salary-cap crises in the league, they may have to part ways with Mills and use that money to bring in cheaper players to fill out the roster.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Once the heir apparent to Antonio Brown as the main weapon in the Steelers' aerial attack, JuJu Smith-Schuster has seen his career arc change. After making a massive splash in 2018—piling up 1,426 yards in his second season in the league—he has cooled off with 1,383 yards over the past two seasons combined while dealing with nagging injuries.
Several other receivers have emerged for the Steelers, including Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, both of whom outperformed Smith-Schuster in yardage in 2020. The club has a few years before their rookie deals run out, but Pittsburgh will have to shell out to extend them if they continue playing at their current levels.
While the offense would be better with Smith-Schuster, the Steelers are in the red and must deal with over 20 of their players hitting free agency. Retaining Smith-Schuster, who could get around $17 million per year on a long-term contract, would be a luxury Pittsburgh cannot afford if it wishes to field a competitive lineup in 2021.
San Francisco 49ers: Richard Sherman
The 49ers made a splash when they signed Richard Sherman after the rival Seahawks released him in 2018. They got a decent return on their three-year, $27.2 million investment in the veteran cornerback. Now they need to be willing to part ways as he enters the final phase of an illustrious career because of the projected cost to retain him.
Sherman still rates as a serviceable corner, but his diminishing athleticism is becoming a more apparent issue at the age of 32. He was exposed in Super Bowl LIV by an explosive Chiefs offense and struggled in an injury-plagued season in 2020. While he can use his smarts and innate feel for the game to contribute, it will get tougher to make up for his weaknesses.
The 10-year veteran out of Stanford is in line for one more big payday and could ask for around $10 million per season on the open market. It would be a big risk for a San Francisco squad that regressed last year to allocate that much money to a member of the secondary in the twilight of his career.
Seattle Seahawks: Chris Carson
Chris Carson is a workhorse who consistently produces when he is on the field, even if the 2017 seventh-rounder lacks the pedigree of a high draft pick or notable accolades during his four seasons with the Seahawks. He has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his career and scored 21 rushing touchdowns over the last three years. He has also developed into a reliable pass-catcher, amassing 74 receptions for 553 yards and six more scores over the past two seasons.
The knock on Carson going into free agency is that he's dealt with some recent injuries, including a hip fracture in 2019 and a sprained foot in 2020. He has also had ball-security problems, coughing up seven fumbles two years ago, though he improved to just one last year.
While the Seahawks are a better team with Carson, they have also acquired insurance for his potential exit. The club drafted DeeJay Dallas in the fourth round last year and also has 2018 first-rounder Rashaad Penny. Both should be in line for a bigger role in 2021 if Seattle is not willing to match the $7-8 million per year Carson could garner on the open market.
Given the in-house options to replace him that come at a cheaper price tag, the Seahawks can safely walk away and allocate that money for improvements to their offensive line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Leonard Fournette
The Buccaneers made a smart decision to scoop up Leonard Fournette after the Jaguars waived him last August. They deployed him cautiously at first before unleashing him on opponents during their Super Bowl run. He finished with 97 totes for 367 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season but turned on the jets in the playoffs, racking up 300 yards and a trio of scores on 64 carries. He added 148 yards and a touchdown on 18 postseason receptions.
Tampa was fortunate to get strong production from a player the Jags were ready to move on from after three seasons, and Fournette showed he can still be a workhorse for an NFL franchise. This revelation does hinder the incumbent organization's chances of retaining the back beyond the one-year, $2 million deal he signed last season.
While Fournette is in line for a big raise, the Bucs still have Ronald Jones II—their No. 1 RB during the 2020 campaign—and it is a stretch to think they'll splurge on a second back. If the LSU product wants a chance at winning back-to-back championships with the Bucs, it will probably have to come at a steep discount.
It remains to be seen if Fournette wants to stay in Tampa after being used sparingly. Plenty of teams are in the market for a lead back, and Fournette projects to fill that role aptly, so expect him to sign a deal elsewhere that pays him as such.
Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis
The Titans hoped Corey Davis would be a game-changing receiver when they used the No. 5 pick on him in 2017, but the Western Michigan product hasn't developed into that type of player. While he's still an asset, it's unlikely he becomes anything more than a good No. 2 option.
Davis is still trying to breach the 1,000-yard mark after four seasons in the league. He came close in 2020, playing in 14 games and accumulating 65 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns, all career highs. The Tennessee offense has evolved with Ryan Tannehill under center, which has helped Davis' progression, but it's improbable he becomes a game-breaking weapon regardless of the system or signal-caller.
An organization that wants a serviceable receiver to complement a true No. 1 could do worse than doling out market value for Davis this spring. That price tag could be too steep for the Titans, however, who know what he brings to the table isn't worth the $10 million per year it may take to keep him around.
Washington Football Team: Ronald Darby
The Washington Football Team needed a cornerback last spring and handed a prove-it deal to free agent Ronald Darby, who had spent the previous three seasons competing for the NFC East rival Eagles.
Darby has been plagued by injury and inconsistency throughout his six years in the league but had a bounce-back season in Washington in 2020. He played his most snaps in a season and was a standout defender in man coverage.
However, the team should not bank on him to repeat that performance. He's yet to string together a pair of good seasons as a pro and hadn't had a great year since he helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl to conclude the 2017 campaign.
Because of Darby's history of injuries and lack of ball-hawking skills, Washington should avoid committing the $10 million-plus per season that the cornerback could garner in free agency. The odds are low that the signing will pay off, especially over a multiyear contract, and it's not worth the risk for a team that barely made the postseason last year. Washington needs to address multiple holes to keep pace in a division that could get far more competitive in 2021.