2021 NFL Free Agency: The Best Move Every Team Can Make This Year
NFL free agency tends to take a backseat to the draft when it comes to roster building, as tools such as tags help teams keep the biggest names they draft. Think Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys.
But free agency remains critical because targeting needs on the market—and even overpaying for them—frees up premium draft picks for teams to select the best prospects available rather than being locked in to a particular need.
There are exceptions, of course, but generally, free agency is about filling big needs. With a reduced salary cap this year, teams' abilities to fill those gaps will hinge on their financial situations.
Taking into account needs, fits, cap situations and offseason outlooks (including the draft), we tabbed the best move every team can make this offseason.
Arizona Cardinals: Find a Starting-Caliber CB
The Arizona Cardinals have the look of a free-agency winner already after the addition of J.J. Watt.
While that move should bolster the defense, the secondary remains an issue. The Cardinals could lose Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick via the open market, so they should seek a quality starter to replace at least one boundary player.
This is especially important because corners aside from the biggest names seem to have been devalued lately. Grabbing an A.J. Bouye or Malcolm Butler shouldn't cost too much of the team's $22 million in cap space.
Addressing that will leave Arizona in position to draft replacements for Kenyan Drake and Larry Fitzgerald should it not get them back under contract.
Atlanta Falcons: Prioritize the Pass Rush
The Atlanta Falcons need to keep swinging on pass-rushers until someone sticks.
Atlanta inked Dante Fowler Jr. to a three-year, $45 million deal last offseason and got just three sacks in return. It also cut 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley from a defense that generated just 29 sacks.
While the Falcons remain in the red on the salary cap by $8 million, restructures and even trades or cuts can help and allow them to go after a smaller name such as Margus Hunt or a veteran such as Justin Houston.
In a rebuild under a new coaching staff, Atlanta needs the No. 4 selection to address its long-term quarterback outlook, so pairing a veteran free agent with later draft picks would be the best course of action.
Baltimore Ravens: Target a Big WR
Wideout is too deep of a position for the Baltimore Ravens to ignore it this offseason.
The Ravens need a big-bodied target to help Lamar Jackson. Last year, their small wideout group couldn't make plays on contested catches (even Marquise Brown caught only 58 of his 100 targets).
This is the time to strike. A big-money player such as Corey Davis could blossom in new surroundings, and a cheaper veteran such as A.J. Green could have a resurgence, too.
Wideout is by far the most impressive position on this year's market, so Baltimore should get a proven veteran to help Jackson and use its draft picks to fill needs along the offensive line and in the secondary.
Buffalo Bills: Snag a 2nd-Wave WR
The win-now Buffalo Bills already (surprisingly) wrapped up starting linebacker Matt Milano.
Milano, 26, was one of the top linebackers set to hit the market, and the Bills didn't have a ton of wiggle room to make something work ($9 million in cap space). Buffalo also prioritized Daryl Williams, with nothing being more important than keeping budding superstar quarterback Josh Allen healthy.
Now it's on to other more minor problems, such as the wideout room without deep threat John Brown. He had only 52 targets last year yet averaged 13.9 yards per catch. A cheaper deep threat such as Willie Snead IV, John Ross III or Phillip Dorsett II could replace the production.
No matter the name, Buffalo doesn't have a ton of holes to fill, and its surrounding pieces are good. Retaining those two key free agents should provide a boon, and adding a playmaking wideout at a low cost would keep its draft options open.
Carolina Panthers: Pay Up for an OL Upgrade
The Carolina Panthers are going to be one of those teams in need of as much wiggle room as possible so they can go after a quarterback early in the draft after Teddy Bridgewater's so-so first year with the team.
Otherwise, the offensive line would be the glaring need that should be addressed in such a range. Last year, the line allowed 36 sacks while Bridgewater mustered just 7.6 yards per attempt.
Since Carolina has the 11th-best cap figure ($33 million), it could easily be in range for top names such as Trent Williams and Kevin Zeitler, if not a versatile underrated player such as Matt Feiler.
Keep in mind this is especially important to get right if the goal is to draft a high-end passer who needs to develop on the fly.
Chicago Bears: Add a WR
Why would the Chicago Bears add a wideout when they hit Allen Robinson II with the franchise tag?
But Robinson hasn't been thrilled with the Bears for some time, and the tag is perhaps a tool to help them pull off a tag-and-trade scenario, whether it be for a starting quarterback or someone else.
And even if Robinson does stick, it wouldn't hurt Chicago to add to a wideout room wherein he was the only player with more than 631 yards last season. There is an amazing crop of free agent wide receivers this year, so adding a complement to Anthony Miller would only help.
At this point, even a simple deep threat such as Emmanuel Sanders or John Brown could be the space-creating option Matt Nagy needs.
Cincinnati Bengals: Go After Joe Thuney
The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the NFL's most predictable teams this offseason.
It's all about Joe Burrow.
Cincinnati backed into a near-generational quarterback prospect with Burrow, who proceeded to look great as a rookie despite a strange offseason and no preseason. He then went down with a season-ending knee injury in his 10th game largely because of gross negligence.
The biggest change for the Bengals this offseason was moving on from offensive line coach Jim Turner. They are a top-five team in cap space ($44 million), and after shocking as big spenders last year, they are in a position to pay a top-of-market guard such as Joe Thuney before using the No. 5 pick on a prospect such as Penei Sewell.
Cleveland Browns: Add to the Back 7
While the Cleveland Browns are strong up front with defensive anchor Myles Garrett, the back seven could use some work.
This could become more apparent as the Baker Mayfield-led offense continues to spread its wings and the defense faces more passes. A weak point such as Andrew Sendejo, owner of a 42.6 Pro Football Focus grade last season over 918 snaps, will continue to be a problem.
Luckily for the Brows, the free-agent class is loaded with safeties this year with Anthony Harris leading the way, never mind huge upside options such as Malik Hooker. Cleveland quietly has $24 million in cap space, so nabbing an upgrade and deploying the best-player-available approach in the draft would be the best way to keep its contention window open as wide as possible.
Dallas Cowboys: Finally Attack S
The Dallas Cowboys saved money on this year's cap by extending Dak Prescott instead of franchise-tagging him for a second time, but they might have to be bargain shoppers anyway.
Which is just fine if the Cowboys look at the right players because the defense that was on a historic pace for ineptitude last year should be easy to upgrade.
Damontae Kazee, Malik Hooker and Deon Bush could come cheap and offer big upside, while veterans such as Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro and even Shawn Williams would bring proven consistency at safety.
Given how the Cowboys have built their roster with so much money invested in the biggest names, a speculated big trade for a star safety never happened. But if the Cowboys play the market right over the next week or two, they can still upgrade the defense.
Denver Broncos: Buy on a Starting CB
Cornerback is a pretty clear problem area the Denver Broncos need to address.
Denver cut A.J. Bouye in a cap-saving move after ranking 16th against the pass in 2020 and now sits on $33 million in cap space.
The Broncos could shore up the unit via a massive splash on a name such as William Jackson III. That, or they could hope a deep market forces a veteran such as Patrick Peterson to take a smaller-than-expected deal.
No matter which way they go, a starting cornerback would free Denver to use the No. 9 pick on a quarterback if the front office isn't confident in Drew Lock.
Detroit Lions: Replace Romeo Okwara
Romeo Okwara is a candidate to shock as one of free agency's highest-paid defenders.
The Detroit Lions' breakout star is only 25 years old and just posted 10 sacks over 16 games (nine starts). The fact he had only 1.5 in 2019 but 7.5 in 2018 likely won't scare off teams in the race to add more pressure creators.
Detroit, with just $7 million in cap space, might not want to gamble big money on that kind of inconsistency. The front office could spend less on more of a known commodity, such as Carlos Dunlap II or Justin Houston.
Then the Lions can use their draft assets to build a new-look offense around Jared Goff.
Green Bay Packers: Get Aaron Rodgers Another No. 1
A deep crop of wide receivers on the market could mean the Green Bay Packers finally find a superb running mate for Davante Adams at a low cost.
Last year, Adams was again largely on his lonesome, putting up 1,374 yards and 18 scores while no other wideout breached the 700-yard mark.
Green Bay used restructures to get back in the black but is just $1 million over the cap. What little money it has figures to get used since it is all in on winning.
The wide receiver market itself—plus veterans who could make themselves affordable—means Aaron Rodgers might add T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Jones Jr. or A.J. Green.
Houston Texans: Add a Top Talent at WR or DB
Listing "everything" wouldn't be fair, would it?
The Houston Texans will head into the league's most significant rebuild if a speculated (and seemingly likely) Deshaun Watson trade goes through.
Even before such a move, the Texans have $29 million in cap space. It's time for them, with a new coaching staff, to add as much talent as possible, especially at premium skill positions such as wideout and corner.
Everything should be on the table in this regard. With Will Fuller V set for free agency, a player such as Marvin Jones Jr. should be a target. With corners Gareon Conley and Phillip Gaines headed to free agency and Brandon Williams having been released, so should big names such as Patrick Peterson and Mike Hilton.
This is painting in broad strokes, but it's necessary given the corner the Texans backed themselves into.
Indianapolis Colts: Go All In on the OL
No team should better understand how important offensive line play is than the one that lost Andrew Luck to retirement.
The Indianapolis Colts just had star left tackle Anthony Castonzo retire, and rather than gamble on moving left guard Quenton Nelson to that spot, the front office should put to use some of its $48 million in cap space.
Considering the market boasts left tackles Trent Williams, Russell Okung and Riley Reiff, there isn't much of a reason to leave the hole on the line to be filled by the 21st selection in the draft.
At the least, Indianapolis can sign a stopgap to make sure its trade for Carson Wentz isn't a lost cause. The Colts can still think about the long term with that draft pick (and start them elsewhere until the stopgap leaves), but they need production now.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Upgrade the Protection in Front of the No. 1 Pick
This is the moment for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Previous owners of the league's most extensive rebuild, the Jaguars are in position to draft quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1.
That means using their league-leading $70 million in cap space on fixing an offensive line that allowed 44 sacks last season.
The Jaguars already hit Cam Robinson with the franchise tag, locking down left tackle. Now is the time to focus on an elite guard such as Joe Thuney or grab another tackle such as Russell Okung. There's really no excuse to not get proven players in front of Lawrence to prevent a Joe Burrow situation, and the combination of that NFL-high cap space and a rookie quarterback contract opens the door for a huge upgrade.
Kansas City Chiefs: Upgrade Patrick Mahomes' OL
Notice a trend?
Offensive line play is a huge problem around the NFL—even for Super Bowl contenders.
Look at the Kansas City Chiefs, owners of a line that self-destructed in the big game this year. Some of that was due to injury, of course, but the Chiefs just cut tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz in cost-saving moves.
Naturally, this should put Kansas City in contention for the market's biggest names, including Trent Williams. It will take some cap creativity considering it is $4 million in the red, but any move is a good move if it means more stability in front of Patrick Mahomes.
Las Vegas Raiders: Attack WR
Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders have spared almost no expense in trying to craft an elite wideout room.
There was the Antonio Brown gamble, of course. But there was also using a first-round pick on Henry Ruggs III last year, only for him to struggle en route to 452 yards and two scores over 13 games. In fact, tight end Darren Waller led the team in receiving (107 catches, 1,196 yards, nine scores), while no wideout cracked the 900-yard mark in an offense that tallied 551 pass attempts and 4,383 yards.
The Raiders boast $41 million in cap space, so big names such as A.J. Green and T.Y. Hilton shouldn't be considered unrealistic.
After Las Vegas tried the draft route, spending big for proven production seems to be the only way the Derek Carr-led attack will keep pace in the AFC West.
Los Angeles Chargers: Upgrade Justin Herbert's OL
More offensive line talk—and it's warranted.
The Los Angeles Chargers were lucky they didn't have a Joe Burrow situation on their hands in 2020 after star rookie Justin Herbert was sacked 32 times. The offensive line ranked dead last in the NFL at PFF.
Like most teams with plenty of cap space, the Chargers don't have much of an excuse to not put forth some of that $41 million to better protect their passer. Stability provided by the arrival of an elite guard such as Joe Thuney or a tackle such as Trent Williams would change Los Angeles' outlook in a hurry.
A single free-agency cycle can't fix a problem this dramatic, but paired with smart drafting (the Chargers pick 13th), it can turn things toward the better.
Los Angeles Rams: Buy Low on Another High-Upside Edge
The Los Angeles Rams are good at squeezing big production out of value edge-rusher buys.
Playing alongside Aaron Donald tends to help players. Leonard Floyd erupted for 10.5 sacks in 2020, and Dante Fowler Jr. had 11.5 in 2019.
With Floyd set for free agency and the Rams $32 million over the cap (things will untangle once the Matthew Stafford trade is finalized), it's value time again for the front office.
Think re-upping Floyd or grabbing Carlos Dunlap II or Everson Griffen to become the next potential cheap veteran breakout.
Miami Dolphins: Add a Field-Stretching WR
The Miami Dolphins' rebuild keeps taking interesting twists and turns.
Miami spent huge money in free agency last year on Byron Jones and Kyle Van Noy plus made three first-round selections. Van Noy has been cut, and the offense still has notable issues such as the wideout room.
Last year, DeVante Parker led the way with 63 catches for 793 yards. The next wideout on the list was Jakeem Grant Sr., who made just 36 grabs for 373 yards.
Of course, the quarterback play wasn't perfect, but the Dolphins need to target a player such as T.Y. Hilton to make life easier for Tua Tagovailoa while he develops. The team has $33 million in cap space, so getting some help shouldn't be too much of a hurdle.
Minnesota Vikings: Upgrade the Trenches
Sounds vague, sure.
But like plenty of other teams, the offensive line is a major problem for the Minnesota Vikings. Guard Dru Samia put up a 33.1 PFF grade last year, and Dakota Dozier finished with a 44.6, with those guys flanking 2019 first-round pick Garrett Bradbury.
As a result, the Vikings stumbled to 7-9, and the Kirk Cousins-led offense couldn't carry games. The front office only has $10 million to work with for now, but the biggest interior linemen, including Joe Thuney, should be at the top of the wishlist.
Anything less makes the two-year, $66 million investment in Cousins seem like a waste of time, especially while NFC North teams like Green Bay surge.
New England Patriots: Invest in WRs
The New England Patriots checked the first big item off the list early by getting Cam Newton back under contract.
That can only be a good thing for both parties, as the former MVP arrived late in the process last year and looked like an odd fit. But another year in the system—and roster upgrades—could swing things for the better.
The dire state of the wideout room in Foxborough didn't help. Jakobi Meyers led the team in receiving with just 729 yards and zero scores, and 2019 first-round investment N'Keal Harry was a non-factor and has now come up in trade talks, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
The Patriots are third with $66 million in free space. Everything should be on the table, from T.Y. Hilton to A.J. Green and more.
New Orleans Saints: Retain Jameis Winston
Quarterback dominoes weren't going to take long to fall, and if the New Orleans Saints don't act fast, they could be left in a terrible spot.
Everyone has been working under the assumption Drew Brees was calling it a career this offseason, yet the calendar has reached mid-March and there hasn't been anything official.
Assuming that still goes through, the best course of action for the Saints would be getting Jameis Winston back under contract. The 2015 No. 1 pick looked good in spot duty last season and would project to give the Saints the best chance to be successful with the win-now roster originally built around Brees.
The Saints are an enigma from a cap standpoint as they still work on restructures to get in the black, but they should be able to afford Winston and aren't in a position to draft a better option at 28th overall.
New York Giants: Add to the OL
The New York Giants seem like one of the more confusing teams heading into free agency.
Kevin Zeitler was the team's only bright spot at guard last year with his 65.9 grade and just two sacks allowed. Shane Lemieux (32.2 PFF grade) and Will Hernandez (58.1) combined to struggle at the other spot.
Which is to say the Giants couldn't really afford to lose starting-caliber talent on the line in front of the still-developing Daniel Jones. But the Giants also have just $3 million in cap space, so the front office seemed to make a tough call by letting Zeitler hit the open market.
Provided the team can clear more space, any sort of stability-inducing signing, be it a Gabe Jackson or even a Richie Incognito, could upgrade things before the Giants are on the clock at 11th overall.
New York Jets: Dial in on CB
Quarterback is the obvious target for the New York Jets at second overall in the draft no matter how the team might feel about Sam Darnold.
That leaves the front office needing to upgrade the roster elsewhere with its second-best $70 million in cap space.
Cornerback sticks out as a sour spot that could net an immediate upgrade. Lamar Jackson (50.4 PFF grade) and Pierre Desir (48.1) had huge problems last year. Throwing money at Patrick Peterson or even Richard Sherman while also using a top-100 pick on the position could lead to a nice balancing act for a premium spot.
New York isn't going to fix everything in one offseason, but getting attacking corners is key. Reuniting Sherman with Jets coach Robert Saleh could work wonders at a big problem area.
Philadelphia Eagles: Add a Premium LB
With Carson Wentz gone and the sixth pick seemingly earmarked for a quarterback, the Philadelphia Eagles must use free agency to attack big needs.
One of those is linebacker, where nobody stood out for the Eagles in 2020 and the unit was consistently targeted by opponents through the air. That largely explained coughing up 26.1 points and 125.8 rushing yards per game.
Granted, adding talent on the market could be tricky while sitting $9 million over the cap in large part thanks to Wentz's $34 million dead-cap charge.
But restructures and creativity could free up room, which could mean being active on a market that boasts names such as Kwon Alexander, Kyle Van Noy and K.J. Wright.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Add a Dynamic RB
For most teams, adding a running back wouldn't be high on the priority list due to the devalued nature of the position.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers could use a versatile guy behind the returning Ben Roethlisberger, and it needs to be a cost-effective move with the team sitting on just $6 million in cap space.
Pittsburgh has a ton of free agents to worry about despite the cap issue, including linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner.
After putting up 721 yards and six scores last year with 35 catches, Conner might make more than the Steelers can spend right now. But a deep market featuring players such as Todd Gurley, Duke Johnson, Mike Davis and Jerick McKinnon—to name just a few—could help the team find a cheap replacement who is equally, if not more productive in the offense.
San Francisco 49ers: Attack CB
Richard Sherman himself has made it sound like he won't be back with the San Francisco 49ers, so it immediately becomes a big need for a team trying to get back to contention.
With Trent Williams also scheduled to hit free agency, it makes sense the 49ers wouldn't want to spend a big chunk of that $31 million in cap space on a corner, but the job of replacing Sherman probably shouldn't be left to the 12th overall pick, either.
That could mean going after any number of affordable veterans, from Justin Coleman to Brian Poole to Mackensie Alexander. But with the defense about to return Nick Bosa and others from injury, the secondary needs proven production from the back seven to form a cohesive unit that can do the bulk of the lifting in an offensive-minded NFC West.
Seattle Seahawks: Add to the Pass Rush
The Seattle Seahawks made a smooth win-now move by trading for defensive end Carlos Dunlap before last year's deadline.
Dunlap responded with five sacks in eight games and was then a cap casualty after the season. That put the Seahawks at $21 million in space before worrying about a huge list of their own free agents.
Reuniting with Dunlap could always be on the table, but it says it all that the team felt it needed to make a trade to help the pass rush in the first place. The team leaders in sacks last year were safety Jamal Adams (9.5) and interior lineman Jarran Reed (6.5), so some pressure from the edge is a must.
Outside of Dunlap, plenty of affordable veterans in the Ryan Kerrigan realm could be available and want to join a win-now contender, so making a shrewd move could provide the needed boost.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Buy Low on a High-Upside Pass-Rusher
The Super Bowl champions continue to work some magic ahead of free agency, saving $19 million against the cap with Tom Brady's extension, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Where that puts the Buccaneers in cap space right now is hard to say, but it has been clear from the beginning that they plan on getting star pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett back under contract. The team already used the franchise tag on wideout Chris Godwin.
With the predictable plan unfolding, the Buccaneers still need to add to the pass rush in the pursuit of a repeat, as adding a name to the rotation with Jason Pierre-Paul would keep everyone fresh.
Using a small amount of space on a veteran such as Justin Houston or Ryan Kerrigan could make the defense even scarier in 2021. Should Barrett leave, of course, this needs gets dramatically more dire, and the team should look to spend even more.
Tennessee Titans: Address the Edge
Tennessee has tried this plenty by adding players such as Jadeveon Clowney.
Last season, Harold Landry III led the Titans in sacks with a paltry 5.5, which probably isn't where the Titans hoped he would end up after using a second-round pick on him in 2018—never mind what that low total means for the rest of the defense.
The Titans have $18 million to work with in free agency and could use some proven production to boost the unit and pressure rates at this point. Buying low on a veteran in the form of Justin Houston or Melvin Ingram could spark Landry and possible draft picks to better on-field results, too.
As the Titans learned over eight games with Clowney last season, the name isn't as important as the production.
Washington Football Team: Find a QB
With Dak Prescott and Cam Newton already off the board and the Alex Smith ship sailed, the Washington Football Team doesn't have a ton of options left at quarterback for 2021.
The 19th pick won't net Washington a high-profile passer either, which leaves the team looking at a market highlighted by Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitchell Trubisky and Andy Dalton.
Barring a dramatic trade for someone such as Carolina's Teddy Bridgewater, Washington will need to use some of that $39 million in cap space to add a proven signal-caller to a roster that made the playoffs last year and has a strong defensive front seven that looks like it could carry it to the postseason again.
While the names aren't overly exciting, neither were Smith, Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen last year while making it to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Salary-cap and contract information via Spotrac.