Star 2021 NFL Free Agents Most Likely to Sign Elsewhere This Offseason
Big-name NFL players changing teams remains a staple of free agency.
While teams have tags and extensions to keep players in town, salary-cap restrictions and fit guarantee the open market annually sees major players don new jerseys, shifting the landscape of the NFL in the process.
Last year, Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Schobert, D.J. Reader, Kyle Van Noy, Tom Brady, Dante Fowler Jr. and Halapoulivaati Vaitai—nine of the 10 biggest contracts by dollar amount—signed with new teams.
This year shouldn't be any different, and cap space, team trajectory and other considerations will dictate which big-name players will find new homes.
Bud Dupree, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Slowly but surely, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to work out of cap purgatory.
It likely still won't be enough to retain Bud Dupree.
Dupree played on the franchise tag last season and had a strong year, posting a 60.2 Pro Football Focus grade with nine sacks. That was over just 11 games, though, as the 2015 first-rounder suffered a torn ACL in December.
Injury or not, some team will roll the dice on a 28-year-old pass-rusher who recently broke out. It probably won't be the Steelers, who are just out of the red with $7.9 million in cap space after re-working Ben Roethlisberger's contract.
Dupree will command top dollar once the dominoes start to fall, and Pittsburgh has to think about key free agents such as Matt Feiler, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Mike Hilton.
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Had Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay been able to stay healthy, he'd potentially be discussed as the market's highest-paid wideout this offseason.
Golladay is quietly an elite No. 1 who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with 16 scores from 2018-19. He's averaged 16.8 yards per catch and 65.3 yards per game since joining Detroit in 2017's third round and is only 27 years old.
The problem? He only played five games in 2020 due to injury, which complicates matters for a Lions team with only $10 million in cap space. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport suggested that a tag is possible, but the signing of wideout Tyrell Williams and the general cap situation seems to suggest a tag-and-trade scenario.
The Lions are significantly better with Golladay, but other teams aren't going to let them be competitive if he hits the open market.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green was a prime candidate to leave the Cincinnati Bengals last offseason because of a spotty attendance record that included just nine games in 2018 and none in 2019.
Instead, the Bengals hit him with the franchise tag ($18.2 million).
Green was supposed to be a huge boon for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow if he stayed healthy. And he did stay healthy, appearing in all 16 games but finishing third on the team in receiving, catching just 47 of his 104 targets for 523 yards and two scores.
He'll be 33 years old in July, and the Bengals are likely to find a speedier third wideout in free agency or the draft, leaving Green to settle for a prove-it deal somewhere as he looks to show he can still perform at a No. 1 pace in better surroundings.
Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones figures to be the exception to the rule at his position in free agency.
He's about to get paid.
Jones is one of the best offensive weapons in the league and is arguably underused, too. He's rushed for 1,000-plus yards in each of his last two seasons, scoring 25 rushing touchdowns and catching 96 passes over that span. For his career, he averages 5.2 yards per carry and has 43 total scores over 54 games.
The market won't try to lowball Jones despite his devalued position, and that could leave a Packers team $5.8 million over the salary cap in a bad spot. That would likely explain the team using a second-round pick on AJ Dillon in 2020.
In a position to get paid big, perhaps just once given the shelf life of running backs, Jones isn't going to settle for anything but a tag or—more likely—the market's top offer.
Matthew Judon, Edge, Baltimore Ravens
Matthew Judon is almost guaranteed to follow Za'Darius Smith as the next Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher to test the open market and leave the team.
Judon wasn't perfect in 2020 while playing under the franchise tag, recording six sacks over 14 games. Still, he's posted 34.5 over 76 career appearances and is just 28 years old. A team investing in him could do so with the hope he plays even better in a new location.
That—plus a so-so market for pass-rushers this year—is likely why ESPN's Jamison Hensley reported Judon wants $20 million annually on his next deal.
That's going to be too rich for a Ravens team with $26.9 million in cap space but a variety of other free agents such as defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, wideout Willie Snead IV and others, never mind extensions.
Over the years, Baltimore has generally remained a contender while avoiding matching inflated market prices for edge-rushers, and this wouldn't appear to be too different.
Matt Milano, LB, Buffalo Bills
Matt Milano is likely the next linebacker to receive a monster contract on the open market because his team doesn't want to match.
Last year, non-pass-rushers like Joe Schobert (five years, $53.8 million) and Blake Martinez (three years, $30.8 million) cashed in, and Milano should be next.
Just 26 years old, the 2017 fifth-round pick has been a key piece for a strong Bills defense, starting in 38 of 54 games while being productive on the stat sheet. For example, he recorded 101 total tackles in 2019.
Buffalo has under $5 million in cap space and has other free agents to worry about, such as offensive tackle Daryl Williams. If the market for Milano accelerates quickly, he seems almost guaranteed to land with a new team.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals are starting to ride the next generation of players built around Kyler Murray, and that might mean phasing out Patrick Peterson.
Peterson, 31 in July, regressed in 2020, picking off three passes, posting a 55.2 PFF grade and allowing a 67.1 completion percentage with five touchdowns. That came after he missed six games in 2019, too.
That said, he could still have a pretty active market because of the belief that he could again blossom with new surroundings. If nothing else, he could be a low-risk bargain buy for a team in need of secondary assistance.
Allen Robinson II, WR, Chicago Bears
It seems only a tag will keep Allen Robinson II with the Chicago Bears.
Robinson wasn't happy with the Bears as early as September, so it would make sense he's eyeing other destinations now. He went on to catch 102 passes for 1,250 yards and six scores in 2020 while dealing with the Nick Foles-Mitchell Trubisky tandem under center.
Robinson, who will turn 28 in August, has made a career of playing at an elite level despite mediocre quarterback situations. It's bound to make him one of the NFL's highest-paid free agents at any position.
The Bears still have a negative cap balance, have 27 free agents and seem desperate to fix the quarterback situation before anything else. Considering that likely means spending huge money, having the wiggle room to keep Robinson—if he even wants to stay—seems unlikely.