NFL's Top 10 Players Most Likely to Be Traded During 2021 Free Agency
NFL free agency is scheduled to kick off on March 17. When it does, teams will engage in a feeding frenzy, scrambling to outbid one another for the services of unsigned players. Of course, unsigned players won't be the only ones on the move.
Every offseason, trades become part of free agency. Teams looking to clear cap space will move veterans, while teams that can't fill their needs on the open market look to acquire them. The 2021 offseason will be no different. In fact, its diminished salary cap may push even more players toward the trade market.
Which players could be on the move via trade? We'll rank the top 10 candidates here. Relevant buzz and rumors will be considered, but rankings will also be determined by common-sense factors such as player potential, trade value and cap space.
10. Edge Chandler Jones
The Arizona Cardinals recently signed J.J. Watt to help bolster their pass rush. Pairing him with three-time Pro Bowler Chandler Jones could give them one of the top pass-rushing duos in the league. However, it's worth keeping an eye on Jones as a potential trade chip.
Jones missed most of 2020 after undergoing biceps surgery, but he logged an impressive 19 sacks in 2019. His value would be high even at 31 years old. In addition to landing an enticing trade package, the Cardinals could net an additional $15.5 million in cap space by moving the final year of Jones' contract.
That could be important if Arizona is eager to bring back Haason Reddick following his breakout 2020 campaign. The 26-year-old logged 12.5 sacks and 34 quarterback pressures in his first year as a dedicated pass-rusher. He's also set to be a free agent, while the Cardinals are projected to have just $5.5 million in cap space.
A Watt-Jones pairing would be impressive, so this potential trade falls to the bottom of our list. However, if the right trade offer comes in, the Cardinals may jump at the chance to pair Watt with Reddick instead.
9. Edge Von Miller
Pass-rushers are always going to carry value on the trade market, which is why Jones could be moved quickly if made available. The same could hold true for Denver Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller.
The problem, though, is that a Miller trade would first require the Broncos to pick up a club option that costs $22.2 million against the cap. Denver would then have to find a team willing to trade for one year at $17.5 million in base salary.
Considering Miller is an eight-time Pro Bowler who will be a year removed from season-ending surgery by Week 1, the Broncos might find their suitor. A contender may love to scoop up Miller, even if only for the 2021 season.
However, the Broncos aren't in as tight a cap spot as Arizona with $46.4 million projected to be available. Unless Denver is wowed by an offer, it may simply prefer to keep Miller for another season.
8. Edge Derek Barnett
The Philadelphia Eagles would likely love to get something in return for pass-rusher Derek Barnett. While the 2017 first-round pick has been serviceable off the edge, he hasn't developed into a star and has just 19.5 sacks in four seasons. He's also entering the fifth year of his rookie contract, which will cost $10.1 million.
Is Barnett worth that much for the 2021 season? Probably not to the Eagles, who are projected to be $50.2 million over the salary cap. They'll likely look to move him before the start of free agency, at which point his contract will become fully guaranteed.
The problem is that other teams may not be thrilled about acquiring him at that price point, either. Of course, trading for Barnett and then negotiating an extension could be on the table.
While trading Jones or Miller would likely require their teams to get something substantial in return, the Eagles may take anything they could get rather than simply parting with Barnett and getting nothing. The question is whether another team would part with a late-round draft pick for a player who may be on the open market in a matter of days.
7. WR Emmanuel Sanders
The New Orleans Saints are projected to be $63.5 million over the salary cap, and they're going to have to create space somewhere. Multiple players could end up on the trade market, though several more will likely be released outright.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander, for example, is set to carry a cap hit of $13.2 million with no dead money on his contract. However, he's coming off a torn Achilles and is more likely a cut candidate than a potential trade chip.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, on the other hand, could be a valuable trade commodity. He caught 61 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns as the Saints' No. 2 wideout in 2020, and he often served as the No. 1 when Michael Thomas wasn't on the field.
New Orleans brought in Sanders as part of its Super Bowl push in 2020. With Drew Brees expected to retire this offseason, it may now be time to move on. The Saints could save $6.5 million in cap space by moving the 33-year-old via trade.
With receivers always in high demand, it's not hard to think a team would covet Sanders on a $6 million base salary for 2021.
6. QB Teddy Bridgewater
The Carolina Panthers gave Teddy Bridgewater an opportunity to establish himself as their franchise signal-caller in 2020. They don't appear to be happy with the results. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, they offered him and the No. 8 pick in the 2021 NFL draft to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
While the Stafford deal didn't pan out, the Panthers may still move Bridgewater before the end of the offseason. Should they use that No. 8 pick on a quarterback prospect, he will likely become expendable.
Even with $10 million in dead money remaining on his contract, the Panthers could save roughly $13 million in cap space by trading Bridgewater. There has been interest in the 28-year-old quarterback, too.
"San Francisco is among the teams that have called Carolina to gauge the Panthers' interest in potentially trading Bridgewater, according to league sources," Joseph Person of The Athletic wrote.
While a trade may not happen until after the draft, there's a good chance Bridgewater will be on the move this offseason.
5. QB Deshaun Watson
Right now, the idea of the Houston Texans trading Deshaun Watson feels like a 50-50 proposition.
On one hand, the Texans remain adamant they won't move their starting quarterback—and they don't have to as he signed a four-year, $156 million extension just last offseason.
"Houston is not only not interested in trading Watson but also not interested in listening to offers for him. At least two teams have given offers to Houston and gotten zero feedback. Like, no reaction, no 'We'll get back to you.' Nothing," Pro Football Talk's Peter King wrote.
However, if the Texans cannot repair their relationship with Watson soon, their options may be limited to trading him or watching him sit out the 2020 season.
"I highly doubt [Watson] will suit up in a Texans uniform again," Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey told the Huddle & Flow podcast. "He's extremely serious."
The only questions here are whether the Texans will blink before Watson does and if another team will offer a trade package Houston finds acceptable.
4. OT Orlando Brown Jr.
We're now getting into players more likely to be traded than not. While the Texans have pushed back against Watson's trade demands, the Baltimore Ravens have not taken the same stance with offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
Brown wants to be—and presumably be paid as—a left tackle. The Ravens are allowing him to explore his opportunities.
"Orlando Brown's representatives have begun exploring trade possibilities for a player eyeing a full-time role at left tackle, per source. The Ravens are aware of those plans," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler tweeted. "Plenty of teams will be in the market for left tackle help in coming weeks and months."
Brown took over for Ronnie Stanley at left tackle for the second half of 2020 and went on to make the Pro Bowl. There's far less uncertainty here than there is with a player like Watson. If a team makes a substantial offer for the 24-year-old, Baltimore will likely pull the trigger.
3. TE David Njoku
Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku asked for a trade last offseason, though the team didn't grant his wish. It's far more likely that Cleveland will look to move him this offseason, possibly before his fifth-year option becomes fully guaranteed.
Njoku's 2021 cap hit of $6 million isn't excessive, but the Browns also have two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper and 2020 fourth-round pick Harrison Bryant at tight end. If they can get something of value back for the 24-year-old, now would be the time to do so.
Njoku hasn't produced consistently, but he's flashed plenty of upside during his four years in Cleveland. For example, he had 639 yards and four touchdowns in his second season. It's not outlandish to think another team might view him as a No. 1 pass-catching tight end. If he can come close to reaching his first-round potential, his 2021 salary could be considered a bargain.
The Minnesota Vikings' recent release of tight end Kyle Rudolph could come into play here, too. Rudolph played under Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota and "would love to play for" him again, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
If the interest is mutual, Cleveland may be even more inclined to move Njoku this offseason. Trading him and signing Rudolph to a cheaper deal could free up more cap space to spend elsewhere.
2. TE Zach Ertz
It's a bit surprising tight end Zach Ertz hasn't been traded already. The Eagles are in a tough cap situation, can save $4.7 million by trading him and have a long-term in-house replacement in Dallas Goedert.
Of course, teams haven't had a reason to pursue Ertz aggressively up to this point.
Given Philadelphia's cap situation, he may be released if he isn't dealt before the start of the new league year. That means teams may wait until just before March 17 to try swooping in with lowball offers for the three-time Pro Bowler.
There's no reason to start a bidding war now when Philadelphia may take a late-round pick rather than lose Ertz for nothing in a cap-saving move.
However, a trade does seem likely. Some tight end-needy team will almost certainly offer a late pick rather than take its chances of getting him on the open market. Expect Ertz to be traded in the coming days.
1. CB Stephon Gilmore
For the New England Patriots and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a trade is likely a matter of when not if. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is entering the final year of his contract, and virtually everyone expects him to be moved.
"Most GMs have considered it a foregone conclusion that the Patriots would trade top corner Stephon Gilmore this offseason and I haven't heard anything about a contract extension, so a trade still seems like an eventuality," CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora wrote.
Gilmore had a bit of a down year in 2020 as he tested positive for COVID-19, suffered a leg injury and appeared in just 11 games. However, he's still one of the better cover corners in the game and would presumably bring the Patriots an impressive trade package in return.
Given the Patriots' propensity to part with players before they're past their prime, it does feel likely that they'll move Gilmore this offseason. The only real question is which team will offer the most to secure his services.
Cap and contract information via Spotrac.