Predicting Landing Spots for Top 2021 NFL Free Agents Left on the Market
Three weeks into the 2021 NFL offseason, notable veterans remain on the free-agent market, which means teams can still land a player who can shore up weak areas for the upcoming campaign.
Despite an increasing focus on the draft, we could see a few of the top available talents sign deals in the coming weeks. All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and starting-caliber players will likely weigh their options before they make a final decision.
After the initial waves of free agency, some clubs will look to capitalize on solid veterans whose prices may have dropped over the last week or so.
Based on pro accolades, recent production and projected impact at new destinations, we've picked the top 10 free agents and matched them with a landing spot. Our predictions take four factors into consideration: rumors, reports, roster need and scheme fit.
WR Antonio Brown: Baltimore Ravens
After an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, Antonio Brown suited up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and found his groove with former New England Patriots teammate Tom Brady in 2020.
In an attempt to keep their Super Bowl roster together, the Buccaneers have engaged in talks with Brown on a return, but they're "not close" on salary numbers, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
Going on 33 years old, Brown may look for the biggest payday available rather than re-sign with the Super Bowl champions.
Brown could play a bigger role in the Baltimore Ravens' passing attack opposite his cousin Marquise Brown on the perimeter.
Although (Marquise) Brown has recorded 104 receptions for 1,353 yards and 15 touchdowns through two solid campaigns, the Ravens still need help at wide receiver. Willie Snead IV signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Miles Boykin hasn't developed into a consistent contributor with 32 catches in 32 games.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson wanted Brown to sign with the team last offseason. Perhaps he gets his wish this time around.
Edge Jadeveon Clowney: New England Patriots
In consecutive offseasons, Jadeveon Clowney has landed on the open market. Last year, he signed a one-year, $13 million deal with the Tennessee Titans but only appeared in eight games before a knee injury derailed his campaign.
By all standards, Clowney had a down 2020 term. He finished without a sack and just 11 quarterback pressures. He'll likely settle for a deal at around $10 million this offseason.
Clowney can still set the edge against the run and contribute to a solid front seven, though teams shouldn't expect him to become a sack leader. He visited the Cleveland Browns and left without a contract, but the club remains interested in him at the right price, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
Coming off mediocre and injury-riddled seasons, Clowney should join a team with a solid track record of fielding top-notch defenses.
The New England Patriots added several players early in free agency. Most notably, they signed Matt Judon, who's going to bolster their pass rush. General manager and head coach Bill Belichick can help Clowney play up to his draft pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 class.
The Patriots have fielded a top-10 scoring defense every year since 2012. Alongside Judon, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich, Clowney could round out a high-end group.
RB James Conner: Arizona Cardinals
Only 25 years old, James Conner could see his best NFL years ahead if he stays healthy.
Through four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Conner accumulated 3,265 yards and 26 touchdowns from scrimmage. In 2018, he took over the featured role while Le'Veon Bell held out for a new contract. The latter signed with the New York Jets during the 2019 offseason, and the former held on to the starting job.
Despite Conner's prominent role, he's battled injuries throughout his career, missing 14 games with the Steelers. The Pro Bowl tailback will likely share the workload at his next stop.
Conner could serve as an appropriate complement to Chase Edmonds in the Arizona Cardinals backfield. He's a 6'1", 233-pound ball-carrier who runs behind his pads with power, which allows him to take on short-yardage and goal-line situations.
At 5'9", 210 pounds, Edmonds doesn't seem equipped to handle the pounding through a 17-game slate with the majority of touches, though head coach Kliff Kingsbury has a different perspective.
As a three-year pro, Edmonds hasn't logged more than 97 rush attempts in a season. He's due for an uptick in touches following Kenyan Drake's departure to the Raiders, but the Cardinals should add a big, bruising insurance policy who can split the load for a solid one-two punch on the ground.
OT Eric Fisher: Kansas City Chiefs
As the No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 draft, Eric Fisher came into the league with high expectations attached to his career outlook. After going through ups and downs early, he developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle, earning two nods since the 2018 term.
Fisher started in 15 out of 16 contests this past season but tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills. He didn't suit up for Super Bowl LV, and the Chiefs cut him about a week before the start of free agency.
Prior to Fisher's release, general manager Brett Veach stated the 30-year-old could return to action mid-August. After cutting him, the Chiefs nearly struck a deal with left tackle Trent Williams, who re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
Without any top-tier options available on the open market comparable to Williams, the Chiefs should circle back to Fisher as a veteran placeholder at an open position.
The Chiefs' interest in Fisher would likely hinge upon his recovery over the spring and early summer along with the team's draft haul. If Kansas City isn't confident in a rookie starter at left tackle, the eight-year veteran could become a short-term option.
Veach re-signed Mike Remmers, who lined up at right tackle for most of this past season. Lucas Niang, a third-round pick last year, will rejoin the team after he opted out of the 2020 term. Still, the Chiefs must protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes' blind side.
Coming off a significant injury, Fisher could become a low-cost insurance policy at a premium position. With him on the roster, the Chiefs wouldn't have to rush a rookie into action before he's ready to handle live snaps.
CB Casey Hayward Jr.: San Francisco 49ers
Former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley accepted the Los Angeles Chargers' head coaching position, which led to some turnover across the roster, including the release of cornerback Casey Hayward Jr.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Hayward didn't fit the Chargers' new scheme.
In 2020, Hayward had mixed results. He allowed a 49.4 percent completion rate and five touchdowns in coverage. The two-time Pro Bowler has had some average overall performances and stellar showings, logging 20 or more pass breakups in three of his nine seasons.
Hayward isn't an elite cover man, but he's capable of filling a void for the short term until a younger talent earns the starting spot.
The San Francisco 49ers will likely lose cornerback Richard Sherman. They re-signed Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett, but the team cannot rely on the latter, who has an extensive injury history.
Hayward would serve as a more dependable starting option than Verrett. In the best-case scenario, the 49ers can go into the 2021 season with three solid perimeter defenders to combat quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray within the division.
Edge Justin Houston: Indianapolis Colts
After eight productive seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Justin Houston continued to make a difference rushing the passer under Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Over the last two seasons with the Colts, Houston has recorded 53 quarterback pressures and 19 sacks. Still performing at a high level, the 32-year-old should have plenty of suitors on the open market.
According to The Athletic's Stephen Holder, the Colts are actively engaged with Houston.
"Things remain fluid with veteran Justin Houston, who is still talking to the team and could be re-signed," Holder wrote. "The team is also in talks with several veteran edge players, according to a league source. A free-agent move before the draft is possible if not likely."
The Colts lost versatile defensive lineman Denico Autry, who ranked third on the team in sacks (7.5) this past season. He signed with the Tennessee Titans. Indianapolis could make a strong push to seal the deal with Houston since Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu haven't established themselves as full-time starters on the front line.
CB Steven Nelson: New York Jets
Almost a week into free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut Steven Nelson, who initially requested a trade, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Coming off a solid year, he allowed a 58.2 percent completion rate while recording nine pass breakups and two interceptions in coverage.
Two years ago, Nelson allowed a 50 percent completion rate, giving a new definition to the phrase 50-50 ball when targeted downfield. He doesn't have a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod on his resume, but the 5'11", 194-pound cover man should land a starting job because of his performances on the boundary.
Since ESPN's Rich Cimini doesn't see cornerback Richard Sherman as a likely match for the New York Jets, Nelson could gain traction as immediate help for a pass defense that ranked 28th in 2020.
Cimini says the Jets need a starting cornerback and that general manager Joe Douglas will assess prospects in the draft. Nelson could fill that void.
The Jets don't have any surefire starting cornerbacks who are consistent high-end playmakers. If they sign Nelson, Douglas can still look for a rookie to line up on the opposite side to address the position.
OT Mitchell Schwartz: Baltimore Ravens
Along with Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz hit the free-agent market via release before the new league year. The latter's career could head down a new pathway.
In 2020, Schwartz missed 10 contests because of a back injury that required surgery. Turning 32 years old in June, he may not have a robust market.
At right tackle, Mike Remmers had a solid showing with the Chiefs this past season, allowing zero sacks while playing 709 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. His solid performances and Lucas Niang's return likely spell the end for Schwartz in Kansas City.
Recovering from back surgery, Schwartz will likely sign after the draft with a team unsure about an inexperienced starter on the perimeter.
Because of the potential loss of Orlando Brown Jr., who wants to play left tackle, the Baltimore Ravens may have a question mark at right tackle as the team goes through organized team activities and training camp.
The Ravens could deal Brown and select his replacement in the early rounds of the draft, but that rookie isn't a lock to start the season. Baltimore can ink Schwartz to a one-year deal and open the term with an experienced right tackle who didn't miss a start before the 2020 term.
CB Richard Sherman: Las Vegas Raiders
During his three-year tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, Richard Sherman shored up the secondary and served as a mentor for the young players within his position group.
In 2019, Sherman earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod with a squad that made it to Super Bowl LIV. He didn't have much of a follow-up act because of a lingering calf injury that sidelined him for 11 games this past season.
In December, Sherman had a feeling he wouldn't re-sign with the 49ers. During the offseason, he has drawn interest from Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Coincidently, the Silver and Black has yet to sign a veteran defensive back aside from Nevin Lawson, who will serve a two-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Even though Sherman has a connection with former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who's the head coach of the Jets, ESPN's Rich Cimini said a reunion between the two would be a "surprise" to him.
If Sherman isn't on the Jets' free-agent wish list, he's more likely to land in Vegas with Gruden. He could help groom upstart cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen, who are heading into their second and third seasons, respectively.
Also of note, Sherman played under Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for two seasons in 2011 and 2012.
LB K.J. Wright: Dallas Cowboys
At 31 years old, K.J. Wright hasn't shown signs of slowing down. He finished the 2020 campaign as the only player with 10-plus tackles for loss and at least 10 pass breakups. A decade into his career, the 6'4", 246-pound linebacker is a complete defender.
Despite Wright's age, teams shouldn't worry about his durability. He hasn't missed a game since the 2018 term and played in at least 15 contests in eight out of 10 campaigns.
During an interview with Jim Rome on CBS Sports Radio, Wright said he wouldn't take a hometown discount to re-sign with the Seattle Seahawks, who will have to pay star safety Jamal Adams, their 2020 sack leader. Adams' contract runs out after the 2021 season.
The Seahawks may turn to 2020 first-rounder Jordyn Brooks to fill Wright's role. The latter might continue his career elsewhere in 2021.
Wright told SI.com's Mike Fisher the Dallas Cowboys are on his preferred list of teams. He would reunite with his former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who called plays for the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014.
At linebacker, the Cowboys have Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, but the latter has struggled to stay on the field, missing 13 games over the past two seasons. Dallas will use Keanu Neal in the hybrid linebacker-safety role, though he wouldn't cut into Wright's snaps in the middle or strong-side spots.
The Cowboys defense needs a high-impact addition after giving up the fifth-most points this past season.