NFL Free Agency 2021: Ranking the Top Players Still Available

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2021

NFL Free Agency 2021: Ranking the Top Players Still Available

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    The initial rush of signings for the 2021 edition of NFL free agency has come and gone. With the legal tampering period starting on Monday, the majority of big-name free-agent targets have already agreed to contracts for next season. 

    Fortunately for teams who have taken a more patient approach to free agency, there are still quite a few difference-makers who have yet to figure out where they are playing next season. 

    Whether it's a cap casualty who was a little late to the party or a player still waiting to see just how much money they can make next season, there are still a lot of options for teams who have to fill some needs.

    Considering their talent, age, production and level of risk, here's a look at some of the best free agents who are still available.

10. WR T.Y. Hilton

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    T.Y. Hilton is clearly a cut or two below some of the big names who were looking for new homes, but he's an underrated option for teams looking to give their quarterbacks new weapons.

    Hilton is 31 years old, so his days as a No. 1 option are behind him. But some of his best games in 2020 came in the second half of the season, including a two-game stretch in Weeks 13 and 14 in which he had 13 catches for 196 yards and three touchdowns.

    He may not be the big playmaker he was, but he has had only five drops over the last two seasons, and his 8.2 yards per target last season was in line with what he did in many of his prime seasons.

    Teams looking to add a reliable slot receiver or an experienced veteran would only improve with Hilton.

9. LT Eric Fisher

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs made a somewhat surprising move when they axed both of their starting tackles to clear some salary space. Kansas City clearly missed Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz in the Super Bowl, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush had Patrick Mahomes running for his life.

    That leaves a duo of starting tackles with plenty of playoff experience on the market. They don't come without baggage, though. Fisher has clearly lost a step. He had the fourth-most blown blocks in the league last season.

    Fisher's season ended prematurely with a torn Achilles, further putting his stock in questionable territory.

    Those drawbacks aside, he still graded extremely well by Pro Football Focus' metrics. He had the 16th-highest grade in their tackle rankings. At a position where simply being average is valuable, teams should be willing to roll the dice that Fisher can get healthy and put together another strong season.

8. LT Russell Okung

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    If Russell Okung could stay healthy, he would be closer to the top of this list. Then again, if he could stay healthy, he probably wouldn't be a free agent in the first place. 

    Okung only played in six games with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019 due to blood clots in his lungs and a groin strain, and he was limited to seven games with the Panthers last season while dealing with a calf injury. The latter two are the kinds of injuries that can linger for an entire season, but rest should help him come back for the 2021 season, at least to start. 

    Okung has surrendered just seven sacks over the last four seasons. That's not even mentioning the fact that he's still an athletic road-grader in the run game. 

    Finding a good tackle on the free-agent market is often a challenge. Even at 32 years old with a history of injuries, Okung is worth a good, long look from teams who could use an upgrade at left tackle.

7. RT Mitchell Schwartz

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    Mitchell Schwartz could be in the same boat as Okung. Tackle is such a hard role to fill, and they both have a track record of strong play, but injuries and age keep them on the market and toward the bottom of this list. 

    Schwartz is one year removed from giving up just three sacks on a Super Bowl-winning team. In 2020, he gave up the same amount of sacks on just 226 pass-blocking snaps, before a back injury took the rest of the season from him. 

    In a February tweet, Schwartz announced that he was undergoing surgery to fix the issue and gave no indication he is planning on retiring. 

    He turns 32 in June, so it wouldn't be surprising if he retired. Or, like Andrew Whitworth, maybe he gets back to his peak level and plays well into his 30s. 

    Either way, he's well worth the risk now given what he can do in pass protection.

6. LT Alejandro Villanueva

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Of the tackles on this list, Alejandro Villanueva ranks the highest because he's the healthiest. He's 32 years old, so he isn't the most exciting option, but then again, 32-year-old Trent Williams just became the highest-paid tackle in the game. 

    Villanueva is a prime candidate to play well into his mid-30s. He didn't become a starter until he was 27 years old and has started every game for the Steelers over the last five seasons, missing just 3 percent of the snaps once, in 2017, during that time. 

    In short, he has played nearly every snap for a half-decade in Pittsburgh, giving them solid play at a very important position. 

    He looked like he had lost a step at times last season, but he still only gave up two sacks. Some team is going to scoop up Villanueva on a short-term contract, and their quarterback will thank them.

5. Edge Justin Houston

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The best edge-rushers were off the table quickly this year. The market was full of excellent pass-rushers, and they found the money they were seeking. Trey Hendrickson, Yannick Ngakoue, Carl Lawson, Matthew Judon and Romeo Okwara all got more than $12 million per year. 

    Houston isn't on those guys' level anymore, but he's still a pass-rusher who has done nothing but produce in his time in Indianapolis. He has played in all 16 games in each of the last two seasons and posted 19 sacks in that time frame. 

    At 32 years old, Houston isn't a long-term solution, but he also doesn't have an extensive injury history. Teams should feel comfortable signing him for a pass-rushing role and will likely get great value from his contract. 

    At this point in the game, that's good enough to make him one of the top talents available. 

4. Edge Jadeveon Clowney

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    It's beginning to feel like Jadeveon Clowney is just going to be a perennial presence on "best free agents available" lists. The prodigiously talented edge defender is seeking his fourth team in four years after signing a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans last season.

    It seems fair to assume he'll only be brought in on a one-year deal again. Much like last year, all of the biggest names on the market at his position have long since been signed, and Clowney is still available.

    Part of that is a lack of production in the pass-rush department. He had no sacks with the Titans last season and only registered three in his one year with Seattle. The sacks don't tell the whole story, though. He registered 45 pressures in 13 games in 2019, a rate almost as good as DeMarcus Lawrence' and better than Brandon Graham's.

    It also doesn't account for how well Clowney defends the run. He was PFF's 19th-graded edge defender, which included being ranked in the 95th percentile against the run.

    Unfortunately for Clowney, missing eight games this past season with a meniscus tear isn't going to do much to get him a big, long-term contract.

3. CB Adoree' Jackson

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The cornerback market is fairly saturated with guys who can cover the slot. What isn't abundant are true outside corners with the athleticism to perform on an island and make plays on the ball.

    Adoree' Jackson fits that bill. Since 2018, Jackson has the fourth-highest coverage grade on the outside, per PFF. Only Jaire Alexander, Richard Sherman and Stephon Gilmore scored higher.

    Alexander and Gilmore are unavailable, and Sherman is 32 years old, whereas Jackson is 25. He is coming off a season in which he missed all but three games because of injury, but it's important to note he played in the team's final games.

    Jackson didn't look great, giving up 10 completions and three touchdowns on 13 targets. We have three seasons' worth of data that show that isn't the kind of player he is, though. Cornerback play is always volatile, so that blip while playing through injury should only serve to give an organization a chance to sign him to a team-friendly deal.

2. CB Kyle Fuller

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Kyle Fuller was a bit of a surprise cap casualty in Chicago. So now, the Bears' misfortunate is going to be some other team's great addition to its secondary. 

    Fuller's new team is going to get a free agent with a track record of success and few red flags. The 29-year-old is still in his prime and offers high-level play at a crucial position.

    His interception totals have dropped from seven in 2018 to three in 2019 to just one in 2020, but those numbers can be misleading. Teams also went from targeting him 121 times in 2018 to just 83 in 2020. In essence, opponents finally learned not to throw the ball his way. 

    He still only allowed a 55.4 percent completion rate this season, putting him right on track with the 56.2 percent he allowed in his 2018 All-Pro season. 

    Fuller shouldn't have to wait long to find a new home. Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reported the Denver Broncos are expected to make a "strong push" for the corner, which would reunite him with former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. 

    As PFF noted, Fuller was their 16th-highest-graded corner from 2015-18, when he was playing in Fangio's defense. 

1. WR Kenny Golladay

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    The wide receiver market has been one of the most interesting to track during free agency. Names like Nelson Agholor signed on Day 1, while players like Kenny Golladay are still unsigned.

    Golladay's 2020 season, which was marred by a hip injury, seems to have made people forget just how good he was in 2019. When fully healthy, he was seventh in the league in yards, sixth in yards per target and first in receiving touchdowns.

    That's a bona fide No. 1 receiver still available as the first week of free agency comes to a close.

    Golladay's injury isn't a particularly scary one despite all the missed time. He suffered a hip flexor sprain that kept him out, but it's important to note that by the time the receiver was on the mend, the Lions were well out of contention.

    Given the turbulence in the organization, it would be understandable that he was just extremely cautious knowing he was hitting free agency.

    The market for Golladay still seems to be healthy despite the prolonged back-and-forth. ESPN's Dianna Russini reported the Cincinnati Bengals have already extended an offer to Golladay. Adam Schefter reported he has also taken visits with both the Bears and New York Giants as he weighs his options.

    All three teams could use a wide receiver with his skills and would be celebrating the acquisition of one of the best players in free agency.


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