Finding Homes for NFL's Best 2021 Free Agents Still on the Market

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2021

Finding Homes for NFL's Best 2021 Free Agents Still on the Market

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Despite the addition of a two-day tampering period, NFL free agency still boasts a few heavyweight names capable of changing the complexion of teams and divisions outright.

    Some of it has to do with the sheer depth of some positions as things head into the third wave of the market. Veteran edge-rushers remain on the board, and so do viable contributors at the deepest position of all: wide receiver.

    The best homes for the remaining top names make sense schematically and are fits based on production, projection and team direction. Cap space is important too, but after the major spending and creativity from teams, it's less noteworthy than first thought despite the reduced salary cap.

    Here a shot at playing matchmaker for the best free agents and ideal fits.

Edge Jadeveon Clowney

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    It wasn't hard to see an extended wait coming for edge defender Jadeveon Clowney. 

    Clowney suffered the same fate a year ago as he hoped for a big-money deal, instead settling on a prove-it contract with the Tennessee Titans. Over eight games there, he registered zero sacks but was again all-around solid, hence the 74.9 Pro Football Focus grade.

    With the Titans splurging on Bud Dupree to fill that void and create pressure, it seems unlikely Clowney will be back in Tennessee. But that creates an interesting angle: He could go to Pittsburgh. 

    That would require Clowney to settle for another cheaper deal, and he may not want to at the age of 28. But if the market goes as it did last year, he might be better off finding a good schematic fit and hoping for a breakout. 

    Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers

Edge Carlos Dunlap

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's a little easy to forget about Carlos Dunlap in large part thanks to bad circumstances in Cincinnati last year. 

    Dunlap wasn't a major part of the new scheme for the Bengals and eventually got himself traded to Seattle, where he put up five sacks over eight games when actually given playing time. The Seahawks predictably ended up cutting him to clear $14 million in cap space, leaving the 32-year-old edge on the market looking for work. 

    Owner of 7.5 sacks or more in every season from 2013 to 2019, Dunlap is a smooth veteran add for a would-be contender like Washington, where he can play down on the line and come off the edge while taking advantage of his strengths. 

    Washington has plenty of cap space ($20.9 million) and a void to fill with Ryan Kerrigan still on the market. 

    Best Fit: Washington Football Team

Edge Justin Houston

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Pressure is king in the NFL, which means teams in need can find massive steals at this stage of free agency. 

    Look at Justin Houston: Over 59 percent of Indianapolis' snaps last year, he recorded 25 pressures with eight sacks, plus a 63.5 PFF grade. The savvy veteran has eight or more sacks in seven of his 10 seasons and at least that many in each of his last four seasons. 

    As usual, the normally conservative Colts have been slow despite a huge amount of cap space ($38 million), so a return for Houston seems like it should still be on the table. 

    Houston has spent the last two years with the Colts and has plenty to offer, so with the market settled, a reunion might be best for both parties. 

    Best Fit: Indianapolis Colts

WR T.Y. Hilton

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    T.Y. Hilton is another one of those Colts veterans who could simply end up staying where he is once the franchise stops hibernating. 

    Nobody could fault the two sides for making it happen, either. Still just 31 years old, Hilton had 762 yards and five scores last year, averaging 13.6 yards per catch, right in line with his 15.4 career average. He missed just one game, squashing concerns after missing six in 2019. 

    The market is simply too deep for Hilton to cash in big. (Just look at what JuJu Smith-Schuster got.) But he could elect to sign with a contender like the San Francisco 49ers if things don't work out with the Colts. 

    Those 49ers lost deep threat Kendrick Bourne on the open market, so Hilton could make sense on an affordable deal to boost the passing attack. 

    Best Fit: San Francisco 49ers

CB Malcolm Butler

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    One of the more predictable cuts before free agency, Malcolm Butler is a veteran presence capable of boosting a team in need. 

    Tennessee releasing Butler freed up $10.2 million in space, a tough call after he earned a 71.6 PFF grade last year by picking off four passes and making 89 solo tackles. 

    Butler was never going to have his pick of destinations with huge names like William Jackson and Shaquill Griffin leading the market and a strong draft class on the way. But that could let a savvy rebuilder like Detroit strike gold. 

    Those Lions, after all, lost Justin Coleman to the market and could swap Butler in to provide a steady veteran presence in a division highlighted by Aaron Rodgers. Detroit has a top-15 cap number and a definite need.

    Best Fit: Detroit Lions

WR Sammy Watkins

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Sammy Watkins is an interesting under-the-radar type who could be an incredible budget buy for a team. 

    Watkins, who turns just 28 years old in June, was a top-five pick in 2014 who has flown under the radar after missing 14 games over the last three seasons. Last year he made it in just 10 games for Kansas City, turning 37 catches into 421 yards and two scores. 

    His breakout season featuring eight scores in 2017 during a one-year stay with the Los Angeles Rams seems forever ago now. But if he can stay healthy, Watkins is still the guy who averages 14.5 yards per catch. 

    If the price is low like expected, that's bound to be an attractive idea for a team like Cincinnati, which lost A.J. Green to the open market and still has a top-10 cap number, plus the need for a third weapon alongside Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. 

    Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals

DL Sheldon Rankins

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    David Grunfeld/Associated Press

    A team looking at Sheldon Rankins is banking on the upside of a return to form. 

    Rankins, a first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2016, had a breakout season in 2018 by way of eight sacks and a 79.0 PFF grade. But he ruptured his Achilles in 2019 and struggled to get back to form last year, tallying 1.5 sacks over 12 games and a 57.8 PFF grade. 

    Going into his age-27 season, Rankins could be a huge net gain for a team that scoops him up on a prove-it deal.

    Maybe that's Cleveland, a contender that just lost Larry Ogunjobi on the open market after inconsistent play. The Browns boast $15 million in cap space, and if a prove-it deal pans out well, it boosts contention chances and the likelihood Rankins cashes in on a second deal. 

    Best Fit: Cleveland Browns