Ideal Replacements for Big-Name 2021 NFL Free-Agency Departures

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2021

Ideal Replacements for Big-Name 2021 NFL Free-Agency Departures

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    One NFL team winning big on a massive free agent leaves another team's fanbase feeling down. 

    But for the fans losing a big name, there's always time to reload. 

    A deep free-agent class means a chance to land fallback plans—look at the Cincinnati Bengals agreeing to terms with edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson right after losing Carl Lawson. 

    The best replacements for big-name departures follow that trend. Schematic fit, cap space and the trajectories of each franchise play a significant role in determining who goes where after the most sought-after dominoes collapse.

    These are the ideal replacements available to teams that have a void where a key player used to slot on the depth chart.

Patriots: Trai Turner for Joe Thuney

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots decided to spend money at a variety of spots once legal tampering started, but guard Joe Thuney wasn't part of the plan. 

    Thuney, the franchise player for the Patriots last year, ended up signing with the Kansas City Chiefs to protect Patrick Mahomes. That leaves New England with a sizable void at guard in front of Cam Newton as Thuney was still elite last year with a 74.2 Pro Football Focus grade and just two sacks surrendered. 

    Trai Turner is one of those veteran names who could fill the gap. He's 27 years old and was cut by the Los Angeles Chargers ahead of the market opening. He only appeared in nine games (all starts) last year with his new team, yet he allowed just one sack over 536 snaps, so he could be looking at a prove-it deal.

    If nothing else, a small deal like this is a nice stopgap solution at a cheap cost until the Patriots can fully groom a draft pick to take over the spot for the long term.

Steelers: Ryan Kerrigan for Bud Dupree

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It seemed obvious the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to lose star edge-defender Bud Dupree. 

    Pittsburgh just didn't seem to have the cap space to be competitive, and it was debatable whether the front office wanted to make a long-term commitment after Dupree became an injury risk due to a torn ACL late in the season. 

    Dupree ended up signing a five-year deal with the Tennessee Titans, meaning the Steelers now have to replace a developing star who put up 19.5 sacks over his last two seasons while missing five games. 

    A veteran like Ryan Kerrigan could work as his career winds down and he pursues a title after being in Washington since 2011. He's tallied 95.5 sacks over that span, with 5.5 last year. He's going on 33, but he could rush from multiple spots and doubly serve as a mentor for the next wave of Steelers defenders. 

    Steady, proven veteran production on a stopgap basis would make sense for the Steelers while the team turns to the draft for edge-rushers.

Packers: Nick Martin for Corey Linsley

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers went an interesting route to start free agency, re-signing star running back Aaron Jones back and then losing elite center Corey Linsley on the open market. 

    Linsley joined the Los Angeles Chargers, a team desperate to better protect budding franchise passer Justin Herbert. 

    That leaves Aaron Rodgers twisting in the wind a bit. Linsley is going on 30 years old and just missed games for the first time since 2016, but he was still a first-team All-Pro last year with an 89.9 PFF grade. 

    If the Packers don't want to throw a rookie out there, 27-year-old Nick Martin is a low-cost option. Cut by the Houston Texans in February, the 2016 second-round pick still has plenty of upside after allowing just one sack over 980 snaps, albeit on a 56.1 PFF grade.

    At this point, no replacement is going to match Linsley's play. But with limited cap, the Packers could make a low-risk signing with plenty of upside to offset the loss.

Saints: Justin Houston for Trey Hendrickson

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints hit the tampering window with one of the NFL's worst cap-space outlooks, so it wasn't any shock to see the team lose pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson. 

    Hendrickson had the look of a budding star last year after breaking out with 13.5 sacks. But he did so while playing just 53 percent of the defense's snaps, a career high. 

    Ideally, the Saints would like to spend less on safer production that can potentially play more snaps, too. That sounds like a veteran such as Justin Houston, 32, who tallied eight sacks last year and has at least that many in each of his last four seasons. Age and a rich market could still drive Houston's price down. 

    Given the cap limitations, a low-budget signing who can provide a steady presence is a good solution for a team still looking to contend in the post-Drew Brees era with Jameis Winston under center.

Titans: Kyle Rudolph for Jonnu Smith

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans made a splash with Bud Dupree and have cap room to work with, so the next pursuit might be filling the void left by some big-time losses. 

    One of those was tight end Jonnu Smith, a budding star of a player at 25 years old who scored eight touchdowns last year and ended up signing with the New England Patriots. 

    While a veteran like Kyle Rudolph isn't going to be as explosive as Smith, most aren't. Rudolph, 31, was a cap casualty in Minnesota after tallying 334 yards and one score over 12 games last season. He hadn't missed a game since 2014 prior to that, and in 2019 put up six scores, so there's still potential, especially on a contender. 

    Given the need to fill other holes and the run-first approach of the offense anyway, a sure-handed veteran who won't break the bank would be a smooth move for the Ryan Tannehill-led passing attack.

Ravens: Melvin Ingram III for Matthew Judon

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens have made a habit of developing edge-rushers into stars before letting them walk and repeating the process. 

    Matthew Judon is the latest example, as the Ravens franchise player from a year ago agreed to terms with the New England Patriots, sticking in the AFC with another potential contender. 

    Before the Ravens reload and do it all over again, the front office needs to walk the tightrope between the future and contention right now. Three-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram III could be the perfect bridge as he heads to his age-32 season a year removed from only appearing in seven games. If he's healthy like he was in 2019 for 13 games (seven sacks), he's bound to produce in Baltimore. 

    The Ravens have plenty of cap space, but opting for a veteran who can come in and make an impact right away in an already-strong front seven will give the team some breathing room to find and develop the next guy.

Rams: Keanu Neal for John Johnson III

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    John Johnson III was quietly one of the better defensive players on the market this year. 

    That would explain the Cleveland Browns agreeing to a deal worth $33.8 million with him, much to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Rams. Johnson, 25, was all over the field last year while earning an 85.6 PFF grade. 

    The situation could leave the Rams hunting for high-upside help in the form of a player like Keanu Neal. He's only 25 years old, and the fact that he played just four games combined in 2018 and '19 before 15 last year could send him to prove-it-deal territory. Over those 15 games, he looked slow rounding back into form, posting a 68.2 PFF grade. However he was a Pro Bowler in 2017, his only full season.

    Considering the Rams dug themselves a hole from a cap-space standpoint at $24.2 million in the red, good for last in the league, a low-cost signing that could boom while working behind a strong front seven is preferable over simply throwing a rookie to the wolves back there.

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