Ranking the Top 25 Players on the 2021 NFL Free-Agent Market

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2021

Ranking the Top 25 Players on the 2021 NFL Free-Agent Market

0 of 13

    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Free agency is an exciting time in the NFL because new additions can mean new-found expectations for certain teams. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Tom Brady last offseason, for example, the Bucs were instantly viewed as Super Bowl contenders. Fortunately for Tampa Bay fans, those expectations turned out to be correct.

    Of course, Brady didn't deliver a championship by himself. He was the right fit for an already-talented team and one of several new signings who helped create the winning formula. Even in a vacuum, though, Brady was a tremendous addition because he was a tremendous player when he was signed.

    It all starts with how good a player is. Here, we'll examine the best free agents currently expected to be available this offseason. Proven production, upside and potential impact on the 2021 season will be the primary factors in these rankings, but factors like player age, injury history and potential long-term impact will also be considered.

No. 25-21

1 of 13

    Hunter Henry
    Hunter HenryAssociated Press

    25. DT Dalvin Tomlinson

    Overshadowed by New York Giants teammate Leonard Williams, the 27-year-old Dalvin Tomlinson quietly produced 3.5 sacks, 49 tackles and eight tackles for loss in 2020. He should be one of the hottest interior defenders on the market this offseason.


    24. TE Hunter Henry

    A fantastic pass-catching tight end when healthy, Hunter Henry amassed 60 catches and 613 yards for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. However, the 26-year-old has also missed 25 games in his five-year career, which sparks obvious injury concerns.


    23. WR Corey Davis

    While Tennessee Titans wideout Corey Davis hasn't developed into a No. 1 target, the 26-year-old can be a valuable complementary receiver. He amassed 985 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games this past season.


    22. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

    Miami Dolphins signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't going to be a team's long-term answer at quarterback. However, the 38-year-old gunslinger is arguably the best stopgap option headed to market. He started seven games and had a solid 95.6 quarterback rating this past season.


    21. TE Jonnu Smith

    Titans tight end Jonnu Smith might not produce gaudy receiving numbers. However, he's topped 400 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons and had eight touchdown catches in 2020. He also had 25 first-down receptions this past season.

No. 20-16

2 of 13

    Cam Newton
    Cam NewtonAssociated Press

    20. WR Curtis Samuel

    Carolina Panthers hybrid runner-receiver Curtis Samuel finally showed his true potential in 2020. Under the guidance of first-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the 24-year-old amassed 1,051 scrimmage yards and five total touchdowns in his fourth season in the league.


    19. QB Cam Newton

    It's fair to criticize Cam Newton for being an underwhelming passer in 2020. It's also fair to recognize that he rushed for 12 touchdowns and guided the offensively deficient New England Patriots to seven wins. At 31, Newton still has time to revitalize his career.


    18. Edge Jadeveon Clowney

    Jadeveon Clowney was one of the biggest names in free agency last offseason, and his potential as a pass-rusher is well-known. However, he missed eight games in 2020 and had just three sacks over the past two seasons. He's firmly a boom-or-bust gamble at this point.


    17. WR Will Fuller

    Will Fuller finished his 2020 campaign on a suspension and has missed 27 games in five seasons. However, the Houston Texans speed merchant has game-changing quickness and should be one of the top complementary receivers on the open market.


    16. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

    Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster had a tremendous 1,426-yard campaign back in 2018 opposite Antonio Brown. However, he's failed to establish himself as a true No. 1 target in the two years since. Still, there's a ton of value in landing a high-end No. 2.

No. 15-11

3 of 13

    Haason Reddick
    Haason ReddickRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    15. Edge Bud Dupree

    Steelers edge-rusher Bud Dupree had 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons and is still just 28 years old. However, he's benefited from playing opposite T.J. Watt and is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in December.


    14. Edge Haason Reddick

    There's a risk of Haason Reddick being a one-year wonder. However, his breakout season with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020 was noteworthy. The 26-year-old amassed a career-high 12.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in his first season as a dedicated pass-rusher.


    13. LB Matt Milano

    Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano is perhaps one of the most underrated defenders scheduled to hit free agency this offseason. He's not a major pass-rushing threat but can still have an impact through the air. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 70.9 in 2020 and has hauled in five interceptions in four years.


    12. Edge Yannick Ngakoue

    While perhaps not an elite pass-rusher, Yannick Ngakoue has been a consistently productive one. He's racked up at least eight sacks in each of his five pro seasons and won't turn 26 until the end of March.


    11. Edge Trey Hendrickson

    Another potential one-year wonder, New Orleans Saints pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson picked a perfect time to break out. After having just 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons, he amassed 13.5 in 2020 to go with 33 quarterback pressures.

10. C Corey Linsley

4 of 13

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Centers don't generate the sort of free-agent buzz that skill-position players do, but they're vital to a successful offense. Things simply operate more smoothly with a reliable center anchoring the interior, and the Green Bay Packers have a great one in Linsley.

    A first-team All-Pro in 2020, Linsley has been both consistent and dependable for the Packers. He missed three games this past season but had previously played all 16 every season since 2016. He played 100 percent of the offensive snaps in both 2017 and 2018, too.

    In 2020, Linsley wasn't responsible for a single penalty and allowed just one sack, according to Pro Football Focus.

    While he will turn 30 this summer, he should be the centerpiece of an offensive interior over the next few seasons at least. He's one of the very best offensive linemen available and should be high on the wish list of multiple teams.

9. Edge Matt Judon

5 of 13

    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Matt Judon might not be a double-digit-sack guy, but he's a fairly consistent pressure man who won't turn 29 until August. Judon has only topped eight sacks in a season once in his career—he had 9.5 in 2019—but he has 34.5 career sacks and has produced at least 30 quarterback pressures in each of the past three seasons.

    Judon also had at least 50 tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl in both 2019 and 2020.

    There is a sizable question mark with Judon, though, and it keeps him behind the top two pass-rushers on our list. Can he consistently produce away from a talented and aggressive Ravens defense? It's a fair concern, as is his drop in production after receiving the franchise tag last offseason.

    In 2020, Judon's sack total dropped by 3.5, while his quarterback-hit total dropped by 12.

    Still, Judon is a fantastic player on the right side of 30 and is perhaps one of the highest-floor defenders headed to market.

8. QB Jameis Winston

6 of 13

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Yes, a 2020 backup quarterback is cracking the top 10 of our list. Saints quarterback Jameis Winston didn't get an opportunity to be the first-stringer this past season, but he's started 70 games in his NFL career and has thrown for 19,812 yards with 121 touchdowns.

    Does Winston have a turnover problem? Yes, he does, which is why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved on last offseason and went with Tom Brady at quarterback. He also has tremendous arm talent, a ton of experience and is just 27.

    If Winston's turnover problem can be corrected, he could still be a franchise's long-term answer at the position. At worst, he's an average to above-average starter in a free-agent class that lacks them.

    That's why the Saints are looking long and hard at a Winston reunion this offseason.

    "Some Saints folks believe Winston has a higher ceiling than [Matthew] Stafford," The Athletic's Jeff Duncan wrote. "They clearly liked what they saw from him this past year and are intrigued enough by his potential to prioritize him in free agency."

    New Orleans probably isn't the only team that believes Winston can still become a franchise signal-caller.

7. Edge Carl Lawson

7 of 13

    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Pass-rusher Carl Lawson doesn't get a ton of media attention because he's played on an underwhelming Cincinnati Bengals defense and because he doesn't produce gaudy sack numbers. He's going to get some love here, though, and he's likely to get a lot of attention on the open market.

    Make no mistake, Lawson is a fantastic pressure man who oozes potential. Sure, it would be nice to see him finish with sacks more often—he has 20 in his four-year career—but sacks don't tell the whole story. He produced a whopping 44 quarterback pressures in 2020, more than the No. 1 player on our list.

    If a coach or coordinator can help Lawson unlock his true potential, he could be one of the breakout defenders of the 2021 season.

    Lawson also happens to be just 25, meaning he's only now entering his playing prime. He should have an immediate impact on a defense, but he could also prove to be one of the best long-term investments of the offseason.

6. S Anthony Harris

8 of 13

    Al Godlis/Associated Press

    While Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris wasn't as productive in 2020 as he was in previous seasons, he's still been one of the league's better safeties over the last two years. In 2019, Harris amassed 11 passes defended and a league-high six interceptions to go with 60 combined tackles. He took a step back as a cover man in 2020, allowing an opposing passer rating of 118.1, but he did have another seven passes defended and 104 tackles.

    If Harris wasn't turning 30 in October, he might rank even higher on this list. He's still a top-10 free agent, though, because he should make a significant impact for at least the next couple of seasons.

    Harris also ranks highly because he's the best safety left standing in a dwindling market. Marcus Maye, Marcus Williams and Justin Simmons all received the franchise tag before Tuesday's deadline.

    While Harris may be more valuable as a short-term investment than a long-term one, he's still the top safety and one of the best instant-impact defenders scheduled to hit the open market.

5. Joe Thuney, OL

9 of 13

    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Interior offensive linemen don't usually generate headlines, sell jerseys or get fans pumped during free agency. What they do is create running lanes, protect quarterbacks and provide the foundation for a powerful offensive line.

    This is precisely why Patriots guard Joe Thuney finds himself in the top five of our list. While he's never been to a Pro Bowl, he's been as reliable as they come in the trenches. Thuney has never missed a start in his NFL career and has played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps in each of his five pro seasons.

    He also has experience at offensive tackle, having spent time at the position in college and with the Patriots.

    A versatile, reliable lineman who is still just 28, Thuney should be a top target for any team looking to upgrade its offensive line.

4. RB Aaron Jones

10 of 13

    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Running backs aren't traditionally great long-term investments in free agency. However, we're adding weight to a player's immediate impact, which is why Packers running back Aaron Jones is near the top of the list. The 26-year-old should be a legitimate workhorse for the next few seasons at least.

    And Jones is a true No. 1 running back. He can break off yards after contact, catch balls out of the backfield and find running room in traffic and near the goal line. He led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns in 2019 and had more than 800 receiving yards combined over the past two seasons.

    Jones has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his past two campaigns and has averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry for his career. He can truly do it all, which is why the Packers are still hoping to re-sign him before March 17, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    If a team is looking for an impact player on offense who can produce both on the ground and through the air, it need look no further than Jones.

3. WR Kenny Golladay

11 of 13

    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Detroit Lions wideout Kenny Golladay lands at No. 3 for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, he's a tremendous wide receiver with legitimate No. 1 traits who has consistently produced when he's on the field.

    While Golladay was limited to five games in 2020, he topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of the previous two seasons. He also averaged 67.6 yards per game this past season despite battling hamstring and hip injuries. Those injuries were relatively minor and shouldn't have a significant impact on the 27-year-old's playing future.

    In 2019, Golladay led the NFL with 11 receiving touchdowns.

    The other reason he ranks extremely high is that with Allen Robinson II and Chris Godwin receiving the franchise tag, he's the only No. 1-caliber wideout left to hit free agency. Golladay is a fantastic receiver, and he's going to be someone's No. 1 target in 2021.

2. OT Trent Williams

12 of 13

    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    This year's free-agent tackle class may lack a lot of big-name talent, but San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams is a standout player. He returned after sitting out the 2019 season to put together a Pro Bowl campaign in 2020.

    Williams isn't a perfect free-agent target, of course. He's missed at least two games in each of the past five seasons he's played, and he'll turn 33 this summer. However, he's still a high-end player who allowed just four sacks this past season, according to Pro Football Focus. He's an eight-time Pro Bowler, and the accolades haven't come by accident.

    Given the lack of enticing alternatives at left tackle—Russell Okung is the only other notable name—Williams will be one of the most coveted players on the open market.

    He's the best player available at one of the game's most important positions. That's enough to land Williams a spot at No. 2 on our list.

1. Edge Shaquil Barrett

13 of 13

    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Pass-rushers are always valuable in the NFL. While several good ones are slated to hit the open market, Shaquil Barrett tops the list.

    The Buccaneers defender led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019. While his sack total dropped to eight this past season, he still produced an impressive 42 quarterback pressures in 15 games. He also added four more sacks in the postseason.

    The 28-year-old Barrett is a legitimate defensive difference-maker in his prime. Those simply don't hit the free-agent market often. There's a chance, of course, that Barrett won't either.

    "Having tagged WR Chris Godwin, I'm told the Bucs have begun discussions in earnest on a long-term deal with Shaq Barrett, one of the stars of Super Bowl LV and a crucial edge-rusher in Todd Bowles' defense," Albert Breer of The MMQB tweeted.

    But for now, at least, Barrett tops our list of pending free agents.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.