Every Top NFL Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2021

Every Top NFL Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Free agency is an exciting time in the NFL, and this year's foray into the open market will be no different. When the market opens March 17, several top-tier players will be on their way to new homes. While they'll bring along hope and high expectations, even the best pending free agents will also carry a red flag or two.

    There's no such thing as a sure thing in free agency, as former Pro Bowl players like Le'Veon Bell and Jadeveon Clowney have recently shown. Whether it's because of injury risks, inconsistent production, player age or questions about scheme or supporting-cast dependency, every free agent has some bust potential.

    Here, we'll examine the biggest red flags of this year's top pending free agents. We'll examine the 10 top free agents according to NFL.com—those who have not been franchise-tagged—and identify the biggest red flag for each.

    Some red flags are bigger than others, but none of them should be ignored.

Free-Agent and Franchise-Tag Updates

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Before we get into the top free agents themselves, let's take a quick look at who isn't on the list. Three players from NFL.com's top 10 aren't included here because they've signed, been franchise-tagged or are on the verge of being tagged.

    Pass-rusher J.J. Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals last week. While his contract is technically a five-year deal, the final three years are dummy years. In reality, it will be a two-year, $28 million pact that will include a cap hit of only $4.9 million in 2021.

    Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons has been franchise-tagged for the second year in a row. While Carolina Panthers right tackle Taylor Moton hasn't been tagged yet, it appears to only be a matter of time before he is.

    "The Panthers are expected to franchise tag OT Taylor Moton, source said, locking him in for the 2021 season," NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted Friday. "No party has given up on getting a long-term deal done."

    While the Broncos and Panthers could always reverse course—Denver could rescind the tag, as Carolina did with Josh Norman in 2016—these three players are off the market or appear to be off the market.

10. Edge Trey Hendrickson

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    The 1-Year-Wonder Factor

    New Orleans Saints edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson will likely top the wish list of many teams. He's just 26 and coming off a breakout 2020 campaign in which he amassed 13.5 sacks and 33 quarterback pressures.

    There is a big red flag with Hendrickson, though, and it's the possibility that he could be a one-year wonder. He was tremendous in 2020 but had just 4.5 sacks in 2019 and only 6.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons combined.

    There's a chance that Hendrickson could be the next Shaquil Barrett, who followed up his breakout 19.5-sack season in 2019 with a solid 2020 campaign for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had just 8.0 sacks, but he also had an impressive 42 quarterback pressures.

    Of course, Hendrickson could also follow in the footsteps of Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016 but has had just 18 sacks in the four seasons since and zero last season across stints with the Tennessee Titans and Las Vegas Raiders. There's simply no guarantee that Hendrickson's high level of production can be sustained.

9. Edge Bud Dupree

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    Strong Supporting Cast, ACL Tear

    There are two red flags with Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rusher Bud Dupree. The most obvious is that he's coming off a torn ACL suffered late in the 2020 season. There's no telling when or if he'll be back at 100 percent in 2021, though Dupree has oozed optimism.

    "Man, I'm feeling great right now," Dupree told NFL Network's Good Morning Football on Wednesday (h/t Frank Carnevale of TribLive.com). "I'm ahead of schedule in rehab."

    Teams will also have to be leery of how Dupree might perform away from the Steelers defense and pass-rushing running mate T.J. Watt. Dupree had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and eight sacks before the injury in 2020. However, he was merely average before his breakout season.

    Between 2015 and 2018, Dupree had never produced more than 6.0 sacks in a season. He had 20 sacks in total over those four years. Dupree might again be average on, say, the New York Jets or Cincinnati Bengals—and he might not even have a significant impact this season because of the injury.

8. OG Brandon Scherff

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Availability Issues

    There's a lot to like when it comes to Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff. He's a four-time Pro Bowler who earned a first-team All-Pro nod this past season. However, Scherff also received the franchise tag in 2020 and is likely looking to parlay that into a hefty payday.

    Scherff has a projected market value of $12.7 million annually on Spotrac.

    Now, plenty of teams would likely love to pay that price point if it means solidifying their offensive interior for the foreseeable future. The 29-year-old Scherff could do that, but these teams also need to recognize that Scherff isn't always available.

    Scherff hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2016, and he's missed 16 games over the past three years. He missed three games in 2020 because of an MCL sprain, and he finished both the 2018 and 2019 seasons on injured reserve.

    At this point, it feels like any team signing Scherff will have to expect him to miss at least a couple of games each season.

7. RB Aaron Jones

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Supporting Cast

    Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers may be the most coveted running back on the market this offseason. He's just 26 years old and has strung together two very strong seasons. He led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and had 1,459 scrimmage yards in 2020.

    However, teams should be wary of how Jones might perform away from Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and the rest of the Packers offense. It's worth noting that backup Jamaal Williams has shined when he's gotten opportunities to start in the same offense.

    In his two 2020 starts without Jones, Williams amassed 152 rushing yards, 64 receiving yards and a touchdown. Prorated over the 14-game season that Jones played, Williams' numbers (1,512 scrimmage yards, eight touchdowns) would have been comparable.

    While it's unfair to currently call Jones a product of the Packers system, the possibility exists that some team will find out the hard way that he is.

6. Edge Shaquil Barrett

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Supporting Cast

    As previously stated, Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett has shown that he isn't just a one-year wonder. However, it must be noted that he was a mostly average situational pass-rusher before joining the Buccaneers.

    In five seasons with the Denver Broncos, Barrett produced a total of 14 sacks. He started just 15 games in that span, but he never had more than 5.5 sacks in a season before 2019.

    Since arriving in Tampa, Barrett has enjoyed the benefit of playing alongside the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Devin White and Lavonte David. Barrett has also played for a team that ranked third in scoring in both 2019 and 2020.

    Opponents have rarely been able to focus solely on stopping Barrett, and they've often been forced to pass to keep pace on the scoreboard. It's entirely fair to wonder if Barrett can be the same prolific sack artist for a team that doesn't feature other pass-rushing options and/or an offense that doesn't consistently put points on the board.

5. WR Chris Godwin

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Injury History

    Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin is arguably the most red-flag-free player on this list. He's only 25 years old, he has one impressive 1,333-yard campaign on his resume and he's averaged 83.6 receiving yards per game over the past two seasons.

    Godwin doesn't have an extensive injury history, but what is on there shouldn't be ignored. Godwin has missed six games over the past two seasons. He suffered a hamstring injury in 2019 and dealt with multiple injuries this past season.

    In 2020, Godwin was suffered a concussion, a hamstring injury and a fractured finger that required surgery.

    Again, Godwin has never missed an extended stretch of games and shouldn't be considered a huge injury risk. However, teams will have to determine if his recent rash of ailments is a result of his style of play, sheer bad luck or if, perhaps, he is indeed injury-prone.

4. DL Leonard Williams

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    A Lack of Production Before 2020

    New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams had one of the biggest breakouts of 2020. Playing on the franchise tag, Williams proved his worth this past season, amassing 11.5 sacks and a whopping 42 quarterback pressures.

    However, teams interested in signing Williams have to be concerned about his relative lack of production prior to 2020. Williams had a Pro Bowl seven-sack season with the New York Jets in 2016 but had produced just 17.5 sacks in five seasons with the Jets and Giants before last year.

    So why the surge in 2020? Was it a motivational issue, with Williams looking to increase his value ahead of free agency? Was it Williams' role on a defensive line that also featured Dalvin Tomlinson and Dexter Lawrence? Or was it a result of the Giants hiring defensive coordinator Patrick Graham?

    It's worth noting that the Giants defense as a whole took a big step forward with Graham in charge this past season. In 2019, the Giants ranked 25th in total defense and 30th in points allowed. In 2020, they ranked 12th in total defense and ninth in points allowed.

    Teams have to wonder if Williams can continue being an elite defender away from Graham and the New York defense or if he'll return to being an above-average player who occasionally produces a Pro Bowl nod.

3. WR Allen Robinson II

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press


    Chicago Bears wideout Allen Robinson II is another pending free agent with few red flags. He's coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons despite getting subpar play from Chicago's cadre of quarterbacks. His injury history is also mostly behind him.

    Robinson did suffer a torn ACL in 2017, but he's missed just three games in the three seasons since his return.

    The one notable potential issue with Robinson is his age. He'll turn 28 this summer and has seven pro seasons already under his belt. While 28 isn't exactly old—even for NFL players—it could make a long-term deal problematic.

    While some wideouts are able to continue being No. 1 receivers well into their 30s, others fall off the proverbial cliff. Cincinnati Bengals wideout A.J. Green, for example, was a Pro Bowler for the first seven years of his career. In the three seasons since turning 30, though, Green has appeared in just 25 games, including missing the entirety of 2019, and has barely topped 1,217 combined receiving yards.

    Teams targeting Robinson as their new No. 1 receiver must be prepared for the possibility that he too declines within the next few seasons. They may want to give themselves an early out if offering a contract of four or more years this offseason.

2. OT Trent Williams

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    Age and a Limited Market

    San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams is coming off the eighth Pro Bowl campaign of his career. He's the top left tackle likely to be available in a limited market, and that's going to drive up his price tag.

    Williams' projected market value of $18.2 million per year on Spotrac may actually be a bit low, and teams will be careful about potentially overpaying Williams on an extended contract. A short-term deal may not be an issue, but paying Williams $18-plus million per season over four or five years may be a mistake.

    While Williams isn't excessively old, he will turn 33 in July. This could be a significant problem, as Williams has struggled to stay healthy over the course of a full season throughout his career. He has only played two 16-game seasons in his career and has missed an average of three games per season since his last one—not counting 2019, when he sat out the year.

    Expecting Williams to become more dependable as he ages would be foolish. Plus, while Williams was a Pro Bowler in 2020, he wasn't exactly elite. He allowed just four sacks but had 10 penalties, according to Pro Football Focus.

    While Williams may not be past his prime, he could be in the near future. Yet because the left tackle market is limited, he's still likely to be one of the league's highest-paid tackles by the end of the month.

1. QB Dak Prescott

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    The Ankle Injury

    There aren't too many red flags surrounding Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as a player. He's a two-time Pro Bowler who was leading the NFL with 1,856 passing yards when he was injured in Week 5 this past season.

    And while Prescott did suffer a season-ending ankle fracture, it's not the type of injury that should physically affect him over the long term. Still, teams cannot completely discount the injury, since it could impact both Prescott's mobility in 2021 and his ability to prepare for the season.

    Cowboys owner Jerry Jones estimated that Prescott's recovery would put him back on the field for spring practices. However, that doesn't mean Prescott can or will be a full participant or will be 100 percent in football shape by training camp.

    Teams will also have to do their own medical checks on Prescott to assess the risk of re-injury, and there's always the question of how it could affect his confidence. Will Prescott be the same mobile, confident gunslinger coming off an undoubtedly excruciating injury?

    It may take time for Prescott to settle back into being the player he was pre-injury, and it could be a longer process if he lands with a team that doesn't feature the supporting cast that Dallas does. The loss of confidence and ensuing decline of Carson Wentz could serve as a cautionary tale here, even if Prescott's injury recovery is—in theory—a more routine one than Wentz's return from a torn ACL in 2018.