The Worst Possible Landing Spot for Every Top NFL Free Agent
NFL free agency creates new opportunities for veterans on expiring contracts, though they should carefully weigh their options.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy seemed like a great fit with the Miami Dolphins under head coach Brian Flores, who also came from the New England Patriots. Yet the team released him after one season despite his solid production (69 tackles, 10 for loss, six pass breakups and six sacks).
After a 5-11 campaign, Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule didn't hitch his 2021 offense to Teddy Bridgewater, whom the team signed to a three-year, $63 million deal last offseason. According to The Athletic's Joseph Person, the sense is owner David Tepper has already become "frustrated" with his quarterback situation.
While most free-agent fits make sense because of position need, we have to dig deeper to uncover a poor match between a team and its potential targets.
Based on recent production, we'll profile eight of the top available veterans set to test free agency and pair them with the worst landing spot among the most realistic destinations. For example, we won't match Aaron Jones with the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry, but among the teams that need a running back, at least one is a poor fit.
OLB Shaquil Barrett: Cincinnati Bengals
Shaquil Barrett wants to stay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he also told Adam Schein of SiriusXM he has his eyes on the financial prize with the intent to "break the bank" (h/t Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio).
Barrett has earned the opportunity to chase a top-dollar salary after logging 27.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He plays one of the most important positions, which should allow him to net around $20 million per year, though the 2019 sack leader must consider his new team's outlook if he leaves Tampa Bay.
Barrett is in talks with the Buccaneers on a long-term deal, per Pro Football Talk, but if negotiations break off and he goes to a bottom-tier squad, his production may take a hit and leave him susceptible to pay cuts or his release.
The Cincinnati Bengals could lose edge-rusher Carl Lawson via free agency. With $41 million in cap space, they can lure Barrett into the fold, but the Pro Bowl outside linebacker should resist the money in this scenario.
In Cincinnati, Barrett would draw more attention in the trenches, lining up alongside a lesser collective group of talent on the defensive line. As a pass-rusher, Sam Hubbard took a step back in his third season, Geno Atkins turns 33 years old in March and is coming off an injury-riddled campaign, and D.J. Reader doesn't provide much pocket pressure, having recorded just 6.5 sacks in 66 contests.
Barrett should stay away from the worst team in the AFC North and join a contender with a strong supporting cast on the front line.
WR Kenny Golladay: Washington Football Team
In 2020, Kenny Golladay battled hamstring and hip injuries, which sidelined him for 11 games. Despite a down year, he'll likely command north of $16 million on the open market because of his strong run between the 2018 and 2019 campaigns as the Detroit Lions' lead receiver.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, who appeared on Get Up (h/t 97.1 The Ticket), Golladay balked at a massive extension from the Lions' previous regime.
"Last year, these two sides had discussions about a long-term extension and Kenny Golladay turned down somewhere around $18-19 million a year, depending on who you want to believe," Schefter said.
After catching just 20 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns through five contests this past season, Golladay will probably drop his asking price, but he should still become one of the highest-paid players at his position.
The Washington Football Team has the cap space ($37 million) to meet Golladay's contract demands, but they don't have an attractive situation for wide receivers.
Washington only has one quarterback on the books, Taylor Heinicke. This past term, he played in the club's Wild Card Round loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the 27-year-old signal-caller only has one other start on his resume. The front office will likely tender Kyle Allen, though he's recovering from a dislocated ankle.
Although Washington could push to acquire the Las Vegas Raiders' Marcus Mariota or New York Jets' Sam Darnold, Golladay should wait for the Football Team to upgrade at the position or take a comparable deal with a squad that has a stable quarterback situation.
TE Hunter Henry: Buffalo Bills
Last offseason, the Los Angeles Chargers franchise-tagged Hunter Henry. He put together a solid campaign, catching 60 passes for 613 yards and four touchdowns.
Henry's production with Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert came up short of spectacular, and his injury history raises some concerns. Yet he could command a contract worth close to $10 million per year because of his impact on the passing game when healthy.
According to ESPN's Marcel Louis-Jacques, the Buffalo Bills will survey their options at tight end this offseason.
"We just never really got that position," Beane said. "At the end of the year, I thought we did a little bit, Dawson started to get his groove. But it was never where the opposing defense was like, 'Man, we've got to stop their tight ends from going off.' So we'll look into that group."
Beane mentioned Dawson Knox, who's going into his age-25 term. The 2019 third-rounder still has room to grow, so he'll likely remain in the Bills' game plan going forward. The Ole Miss product could cut into Henry's targets.
Furthermore, the Bills have All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs leading the pass-catching group, slot receiver Cole Beasley, who racked up 82 receptions for 967 yards and four touchdowns this past season, and a budding talent in wideout Gabriel Davis.
Henry may like the Bills' trajectory following their trip to the AFC Championship Game, but they won't have a lot to spend on a tight end ($1.9 million in cap space) with a handful of playmakers to feed in the passing game. He can make more money and become a bigger part of an aerial attack with another team.
S John Johnson III: Jacksonville Jaguars
Among the top safeties, the Denver Broncos' Justin Simmons, New Orleans Saints' Marcus Williams and New York Jets' Marcus Maye received the franchise tag, so John Johnson III should draw several suitors willing to pay him a premium on the open market.
Johnson broke out during the 2018 campaign, logging 119 tackles, three for loss, 11 pass breakups and four interceptions before a shoulder injury limited him to six appearances with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. This past season, he had a solid showing, recording 105 tackles, two for loss, eight pass breakups and an interception while allowing a 71.9 passer rating in coverage.
Johnson can line up as the deep safety or in the box and cover pass-catchers in the slot as a versatile defender in the secondary, though he's had some support, playing alongside All-Pros such as Marcus Peters and Jalen Ramsey on the back end with arguably the best interior pass-rusher up front in Aaron Donald.
Jacksonville must solidify the back end of its defense. CJ Henderson heads into his second term after missing eight games this past season because of shoulder and groin injuries. Fellow cornerback Tre Hendon has shown flashes, but he's not a surefire starter on the opposite end. The Jaguars have major question marks at safety with a below-average pass rush that tied for 29th in quarterback pressures (116) in 2020.
Without a strong supporting cast around him, Johnson could struggle to make impact plays. Jacksonville would ask a lot of the 25-year-old within an unproven group of defensive backs and not much complementary help from the pass rush.
RB Aaron Jones: Seattle Seahawks
Coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign, Aaron Jones sits atop the free-agent running back pool. Over the last two years, he's carried a heavy load, logging 3,017 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns.
Multiple suitors will likely see Jones as a featured playmaker on the ground and in the short passing game.
Even though Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll plans to establish the ground attack next season, Jones should steer clear of the club in free agency.
Jones would likely fill Chris Carson's role if the latter signs with a new team this offseason, which isn't a bad spot when you consider running back Rashaad Penny's delayed development because of injury and his limited impact on the passing game.
However, the Seahawks have a shaky offensive line that has a question mark at center with impending free agent Ethan Pocic, an aging left tackle in Duane Brown and a void at left guard following Mike Iupati's retirement. Among the key reserves, Phil Haynes has suited up for two games in his career, and Jordan Simmons has played 20 games, which includes just nine starts.
Wilson hasn't requested a move, but Jones should avoid the Seahawks unless they address in-house matters with their quarterback and solidify the offensive line.
Edge Yannick Ngakoue: Houston Texans
Over the last two years, Yannick Ngakoue has bounced around the league, suiting up for three different teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens.
As Ngakoue looks for the right fit in free agency, he should dodge dysfunction. He had a glimpse of that type of environment with the Jaguars.
Ngakoue and cornerback Jalen Ramsey left Jacksonville on bitter terms. The former exchanged tweets with Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan before holding out through training camp. Jacksonville traded him to the Minnesota Vikings, but he went through a rough process.
The Houston Texans desperately need a pass-rusher after they released J.J. Watt, who led the club in sacks (five) and quarterback pressures (29) this past season.
As outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus goes into his age-31 term, the Texans don't have a young accomplished pass-rusher in his prime. Ngakoue certainly checks that box, but he's undoubtedly aware of Houston's trade standoff with quarterback Deshaun Watson.
That's a warning to stay away from Houston.
OG Joe Thuney: Carolina Panthers
Through five seasons, Joe Thuney has become a reliable interior run- and pass-blocker, starting in all 80 games for the New England Patriots since 2016.
Last offseason, the Patriots franchise-tagged Thuney. On the open market, the durable guard should attempt to land the most lucrative deal while in his prime at a non-premium position.
According to The MMQB's Albert Breer, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Andrew Norwell and Los Angeles Chargers' Trai Turner are on the trade block, two of the six highest-paid guards (annually via Spotrac). Thuney should seek stability in a winning team willing to pay him a top-dollar amount.
The Carolina Panthers are heading into their second offseason under head coach Matt Rhule and their first with general manager Scott Fitterer. It would be risky for Thuney to join the team for the second year of its rebuild, as it might be at least a year away from making the playoffs.
Secondly, the Panthers franchise-tagged tackle Taylor Moton, and they'll continue to work with him on a long-term deal, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Center Matt Paradis is the only other probable offensive line starter currently on the roster. Carolina has multiple OL needs, so it isn't likely to offer Thuney a high-end salary, though the front office may show interest in him.
The Panthers have $16.6 million in cap space. Thuney would have a better chance of landing a contract averaging $14 million elsewhere.
OT Trent Williams: Pittsburgh Steelers
Turning 33 years old in July, Trent Williams has to strike for a big payout while he's hot. Following an eighth consecutive Pro Bowl nod—not counting the 2019 season he missed—the veteran left tackle could still command $20 million per year.
The San Francisco 49ers acquired Williams from the Washington Football Team and agreed not to franchise-tag him on a restructured deal, per ESPN's Field Yates. Obviously, the 11-year pro wants long-term security and the ability to weigh his options if the 49ers don't offer an adequate proposal on an extension.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may let Alejandro Villanueva test the market and explore other free-agent options at left tackle. Williams should land on their radar, but he's too expensive for their budget.
Pittsburgh has only $3.3 million in cap space, which likely means general manager Kevin Colbert will address costly needs during the draft. At a premium position, Williams should ink a huge deal with a squad that's flush with cap space.
Player contracts and team cap-space figures courtesy of Over the Cap unless otherwise noted.