Realistic Landing Spots for NFL's Biggest 2021 Early Cap Casualties
Free agency hasn't even unofficially arrived yet, but there's nothing stopping NFL teams from signing any of the following veteran players.
All of them are accomplished NFL starters who have been released in the lead-up to the launch of the new league year, mainly for financial reasons as teams work to squeeze under the reduced 2021 salary cap.
Here are realistic landing spots for all 10 of 'em.
QB Alex Smith: New Orleans Saints
The Chicago Bears make a lot of sense as a potential landing spot for veteran quarterback Alex Smith. After all, Chicago is desperate for quarterback help, and current Bears head coach Matt Nagy worked with Smith for five years when they were both with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But Chicago might want to swing for the fences with a quarterback who has more upside. Instead, consider how well Smith might fit in as Drew Brees' replacement with the New Orleans Saints.
Like Brees, Smith is a careful, smart, reliable quarterback who can move the ball down the field without unloading missiles. He'd be able to sit back and let Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas make football art, and as a soon-to-be 37-year-old, he might be willing to do so at a discounted rate in order to make one final championship run as a starter.
That'd be big for the Saints, who remain well over the projected salary cap, according to Spotrac, and could have trouble retaining potential Brees successor Jameis Winston.
Of course, this all goes out the window if Brees decides not to retire.
WR John Brown: Green Bay Packers
Are you in need of a veteran burner on the outside, but you can't afford Will Fuller V? Then former Buffalo Bills wideout John Brown might be right for you!
Cap-rich teams like the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts are much more likely to chase guys like Fuller and Kenny Golladay, but the 30-year-old Brown could come at a discounted price after an injury-derailed 2020 campaign in which even his rate-based numbers fell off a cliff.
At this point, Brown should be viewed as a No. 3 receiver who can be used to stretch the field without being relied on as a primary weapon. That's the Green Bay Packers to a tee.
At the least, the two-time 1,000-yard vet would likely have a chance to beat out Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a role opposite Davante Adams, and he wouldn't fetch a lot of guaranteed money on this market at his age after that disappointing season.
WR Golden Tate: Pittsburgh Steelers
Are you in need of a veteran slot receiver but can't afford JuJu Smith-Schuster? Then former New York Giants wideout Golden Tate might be right for you!
Cap-rich teams might be more inclined to pursue dudes like Smith-Schuster or Curtis Samuel on the free-agent market, but the 32-year-old former Pro Bowler is a year removed from scoring six touchdowns in 11 games in a mediocre Giants offense.
In the right setting with the right quarterback, he could shine. But he likely has to be satisfied in order to excel while accepting a non-featured role, which means he'll ideally land with a team that gives him a decent shot at another ring.
With that in mind, it would make perfect sense for Tate to replace Smith-Schuster for the cap-strapped Steelers. He'd be my choice over a 35-year-old Danny Amendola or a disappointingly unproductive Adam Humphries, both of whom should be in a similar price range.
TE Jared Cook: Buffalo Bills
Are you in need of a veteran tight end but can't—OK, that schtick has probably run its course. But teams in win-now mode that aren't in the market for Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith or Gerald Everett but need tight end help should be all over the consistently reliable and durable Jared Cook.
Teams like Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.
Dawson Knox hasn't taken off as a 2019 third-round pick for the Bills, who didn't get much out of impending free agent Tyler Kroft. Meanwhile, Greg Olsen has retired, and Jacob Hollister is headed toward free agency for the Seahawks, who didn't get enough out of those guys, Will Dissly or rookie Colby Parkinson in 2020.
Still, the Seahawks have more options on the roster (veteran Luke Willson could remain in the picture) and more work to do in free agency (K.J. Wright and two starting-caliber corners remain unsigned), so we'll lean Buffalo.
OT Eric Fisher: Indianapolis Colts
It's safe to assume that after back-to-back Super Bowl runs with the Chiefs, left tackle Eric Fisher will be looking to land with a team that is all-in right now. And it's safe to assume that after losing Anthony Castonzo to retirement, a competitive Indianapolis Colts team is desperate to bring in an accomplished left tackle in support of new quarterback Carson Wentz.
It's just convenient that Indianapolis also has more salary-cap space than all but three other NFL teams, according to Spotrac.
Fisher wouldn't be cheap because primo left tackles rarely hit the market, and that's exactly what gives Indy an edge over potential competitors like the Washington Football Team, the Carolina Panthers and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Critically, his presence would allow the Colts to keep Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in their current spots. Offensive line continuity is always a good thing.
OT Mitchell Schwartz: Baltimore Ravens
It's also safe to make that assumption about former Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who turns 32 in June and was Mr. Durability before succumbing to a back injury in 2020. Offensive tackles have relatively long shelf lives, but Schwartz will likely want to join a contender in need of a new right tackle.
Enter the Baltimore Ravens, who are in the process of trying to trade disgruntled incumbent starting right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.
That would leave Baltimore with a big hole opposite Ronnie Stanley, who is coming off a significant ankle injury and could use as much support as possible alongside an oft-shaky interior offensive line. Schwartz would bring some stability and experience to that unit, and it's possible he'd offer a discount to a team that might be tight for cash but should be well-positioned to make another run with Lamar Jackson and Co. in 2021.
The move could still force the Ravens to have to choose between Yannick Ngakoue or Matthew Judon on the edge. But a starting right tackle trumps a No. 2 pass-rusher, and they should at least get something decent in return for Brown.
OT Riley Reiff: Kansas City Chiefs
The offensive tackle market is deeper than usual beyond Fisher and Schwartz, but former Minnesota Vikings blindside protector Riley Reiff should have no trouble finding a home after an eight-year run in Detroit and Minnesota in which he missed just nine starts and a solid 2020 campaign in which he surrendered just one sack, according to Pro Football Focus.
He's never been a star and has been prone to lapses, and that's unlikely to change now that he's 32. But impending free agent Trent Williams isn't expected to get away from the San Francisco 49ers, Cam Robinson was tagged by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Reiff is a couple of months younger than potential free agent Russell Okung.
He and Alejandro Villanueva (if the Pittsburgh Steeler hits free agency) are likely the top two options beyond Williams and Fisher.
With Fisher gone, I'd expect the Chiefs to pursue both of those players as a potential replacement at a cheaper price. Neither is necessarily a giant upgrade over Mike Remmers, but there's no way they can enter 2021 without another established tackle option following a pass-protection disaster in Super Bowl LV.
LB Kyle Van Noy: New England Patriots
Kyle Van Noy's release from the Miami Dolphins came as quite a surprise this week, but after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl thanks in large part to sensational play from their off-ball linebackers, a versatile linebacker with a Super Bowl pedigree should be in high demand on the open market.
In fact, coming off a six-sack, 69-tackle season in which he forced a pair of fumbles and was a team captain, the 29-year-old could wind up with a contract that is just as lucrative as the four-year, $51 million deal he signed with Miami last offseason.
Whoever pays him has to be a contender (because he's not young), with money (especially with Lavonte David and Matt Milano off the market) and the luxury of being able to pay up for a player at a non-premium position.
Um, how about the New England Patriots? Their moves thus far this offseason indicate they feel they can contend again in 2021, and Van Noy—who won two Super Bowls during his first run with the Pats—left a hole in the middle of that defense when he departed last offseason.
There isn't a setting that makes more sense, although you'd like to see the Cincinnati Bengals or Cleveland Browns give Bill Belichick a run for his money.
CB Malcolm Butler: Dallas Cowboys
The free-agent cornerback talent pool is quite deep, which means somebody could be tempted to jump the line this weekend for recently released vet Malcolm Butler.
The 31-year-old didn't live up to his five-year, $61.3 million contract with the Tennessee Titans, but he still intercepted four passes and surrendered a passer rating of just 83.2 into his coverage in 2020. He'd fit well with a team that has Super Bowl hopes in 2021 and is in need of a solid No. 2 outside corner.
The Dallas Cowboys fit that profile after struggling immensely on defense in 2020, especially because they're clearly gunning for it all with Dak Prescott's new contract and they could lose both Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis on the free-agent market.
With Butler, they'd get older but more accomplished, potentially at a similar price because of the limited upside associated with a 31-year-old cover man.
CB Janoris Jenkins: Atlanta Falcons
Meanwhile, veteran corner Janoris Jenkins was a cap casualty following a three-interception season in which he allowed a passer rating of just 81.8 into his coverage with the New Orleans Saints.
It just so happens that Terry Fontenot, the assistant general manager with that Saints team, has taken the GM job with the NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons, who are in need of help in the secondary.
And while it's possible new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will lobby for Butler to join them after those three were recently in Tennessee together (and that very well could happen), Fontenot is calling the shots. The Falcons are also extra-low on cap space (minus-$7.6 million), and Butler might be a tougher target because he's younger than Jenkins, who turns 33 in October.