2021 NFL Free Agents: Which Available Players Can Still Be Key Contributors?
One month into free agency, NFL teams are still active on the open market.
In the past few days, the Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks signed edge-rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Aldon Smith, respectively. Although draft talk continues to heat up, front offices can find veteran contributors to plug into lineups.
General managers don't have to chase big names to fill voids. A few unheralded playmakers could sign for short-term deals and produce career numbers in hopes of landing bigger contracts next offseason in a more promising salary-cap situation.
We'll profile eight free agents who can start Week 1 of the upcoming campaign and match them with the best team based on the potential to play a significant role. As a result, these selections don't include veterans coming off serious injuries with uncertain recovery timetables.
WR Antonio Brown
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will get back all 22 starters from their Super Bowl roster, and Antonio Brown wants to rejoin the team as well. For now, he's at odds with the front office on the parameters of a new deal.
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians left the door open for the 32-year-old receiver's return, but he's approaching the situation with patience.
Tampa Bay has starting wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin under contract. Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson can provide quality depth. Last season, the former recorded 501 receiving yards, while the latter hauled in two touchdown passes.
According to Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times, Brown wants "something closer to market value" than the one-year, $1 million prove-it deal he took last season. If that's the case, he'll need to look elsewhere, as the Buccaneers have just $1.1 million in cap space.
Assuming Brown enjoyed the feeling of playing for a contender, he could start for the Super Bowl LV runner-up Kansas City Chiefs and take a chunk of their $11.7 million in cap space.
The Chiefs lost wideout Sammy Watkins to the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, which frees some snaps opposite Tyreek Hill on the perimeter. Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson could fill that role, but neither player has a comparable resume to that of Brown, who's a four-time All-Pro.
In 2020, Brown showed he could still perform at a high level, scoring touchdowns in four consecutive games from Week 15 through the Buccaneers' wild-card matchup against the Washington Football Team. With him in the fold, the Chiefs would have arguably the best pass-catching group in the NFL.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
RB Wayne Gallman
Aside from star running backs, ball-carriers can slip between the cracks on the open market, even players younger than 30 years old.
Wayne Gallman took advantage of opportunities in his age-26 campaign, rushing for 682 yards and six touchdowns. He led the New York Giants' ground attack while Saquon Barkley sat out 14 games with a torn ACL.
In stretches, Gallman performed like a lead ball-carrier, logging a career-high 135 yards against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and scoring in five consecutive outings.
Yet Gallman remains unsigned. The Giants inked Devontae Booker to a two-year, $5.5 million deal in March. He's the probable backup for Barkley next season.
Gallman can carve out a sizable role with the Denver Broncos, who lost Phillip Lindsay to the Houston Texans in free agency.
From the 2019 to 2020 terms, Broncos running back Royce Freeman saw a significant drop-off in touches (175 to 47) and likely won't be a big obstacle to playing time. Gallman can reunite with former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, who's the offensive coordinator in Denver, and share rushing duties with Melvin Gordon III as the 1B option out of the backfield.
Best Fit: Denver Broncos
CB Casey Hayward
A couple of days before the start of the legal tampering period (March 15), the Los Angeles Chargers released Casey Hayward. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the 31-year-old cover man didn't fit new head coach Brandon Staley's system.
Hayward assembled a solid 2020 campaign, allowing a 49.4 percent completion rate and a 93.6 passer rating. He recorded eight pass breakups and an interception.
On the boundary, Hayward can start for a cornerback-needy team. He's a good fit for the Dallas Cowboys, who must shore up the secondary opposite second-year pro Trevon Diggs.
With the 10th pick, the Cowboys can select the first cornerback in the 2021 draft, whether it's Alabama's Patrick Surtain II or South Carolina's Jaycee Horn. On the other hand, Dallas could add a known commodity for immediate improvement in coverage.
Hayward can reunite with Mike McCarthy, his former Green Bay Packers head coach, and play in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's system, which is similar to ex-Chargers play-caller Gus Bradley's scheme. The two coordinators have roots in Seattle under lead skipper Pete Carroll.
In Dallas, Hayward will see a familiar face, fits the system, and most importantly, fills a need.
Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys
Edge Justin Houston
Justin Houston will immediately improve a team's defensive line wherever he lands. Over the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, the 32-year-old recorded 19 sacks and 21 tackles for loss.
According to Hensley, the Ravens won't sign certain free agents until after the draft to preserve their 2022 fourth-round compensatory picks for losing edge-rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon.
Houston may wait until after the draft to weigh his options. He could sign for a bigger payday in Indianapolis than Baltimore if the Colts use some of their $23.6 million in cap space to offer a competitive salary.
Colts owner Jim Irsay says Houston "could come back," which seems like the most probable scenario.
Indianapolis needs Houston's presence on the edge after it lost Denico Autry to the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu and Tyquan Lewis still have a lot to prove as potential playmakers along the defensive line.
Best Fit: Indianapolis Colts
CB Steven Nelson
Before the Pittsburgh Steelers released Steven Nelson, the cornerback requested a trade, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The team didn't find a partner, so the six-year veteran will move on via free agency.
Nelson locked down the boundary of the Steelers secondary for most of his two-year tenure with them, allowing 50.0 and 58.2 completion percentages for the 2019 and 2020 terms, respectively. In that span, he recorded three interceptions and 17 pass breakups.
At 28 years old, Nelson should draw multiple suitors, but he's a solid fit for the Los Angeles Chargers, who released Hayward in March.
Nelson can play man coverage on the boundary and blanket receivers on an island. He's also a long-term solution in his prime.
If the Chargers want to match up against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice per year, they need a pair of solid cornerbacks. Nelson and Michael Davis would form a good perimeter duo.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Chargers
DE Everson Griffen
Everson Griffen suited up for two teams during the 2020 campaign. Last offseason, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys, who traded him to the Detroit Lions before Week 8.
Even with the change of scenery, Griffen remained steady on the edge, recording 33 tackles, six sacks, 23 quarterback pressures and 11 tackles for loss as a productive player for two of the worst defenses in the league.
Griffen turns 34 years old in December, but he still has much to offer in a designated pass-rushing role for a team that places an emphasis on pocket pressure.
Robert Saleh's defense helped propel the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance two years ago. For the 2019 term, his unit racked up 48 sacks with Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford on the defensive line.
As the head coach of the New York Jets, Saleh can accumulate pass-rushers for a strong rotation up front, which would help a secondary with an inexperienced cornerback group.
The Jets signed Carl Lawson to bolster their pass rush. They can solidify the edges with the addition of Griffen.
Griffen, Lawson, Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry would give offensive lines a handful every week. The four-time Pro Bowler can become the finishing touch for the Jets' revamped defensive line.
Best Fit: New York Jets
OT Rick Wagner
When called upon to start, Rick Wagner filled in adequately at right tackle for the Green Bay Packers last season. He played with the first-stringers from Week 12 through the NFC Championship Game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner allowed one sack through 610 offensive snaps. He's been a solid pass protector with the Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions and the Packers through eight seasons.
Although Wagner settled for a fill-in starting role last year, he showed he could hold his ground in a prominent position. The 31-year-old can do the same for at least another year or two.
If Wagner is open to a little deja vu, he could fill a need for the Lions. According to Justin Rogers of the Detroit News, the team could keep Halapoulivaati Vaitai at guard during the upcoming season.
Last year, Vaitai signed a five-year, $45 million deal, and he struggled at both positions on the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6'6", 320-pound offensive lineman allowed six sacks.
Playing Vaitai inside would open up a competition between Tyrell Crosby and Matt Nelson at right tackle, which is the position Wagner played for three seasons (2017-19) in Detroit. Still a capable starter, he would strengthen quarterback Jared Goff's pass protection.
Best Fit: Detroit Lions
LB K.J. Wright
If we look past age, K.J. Wright should garner a ton of buzz on the open market. With an increasing demand for defenders who can play in space, the 31-year-old linebacker can be a solid contributor for a few more seasons.
Since 2019, Wright has posted 21 pass breakups and four interceptions while handling his downhill responsibilities, logging 218 tackles, 16 for loss and two sacks. He's a complete playmaker.
Yet the Seattle Seahawks may turn to 2020 first-rounder Jordyn Brooks at linebacker, a cheaper commodity compared to Wright, who told The Jim Rome Show he doesn't plan to accept a team-friendly contract.
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera spoke openly about the need to replace a departed linebacker, per Sam Fortier of the Washington Post.
"We would like to replace the KPL loss more so than anything else," Rivera said.
Washington allowed Kevin Pierre-Louis to test free agency, and he signed with the Houston Texans.
With Wright in town, he and Cole Holcomb could take on the majority snaps in the middle of the field because of their coverage abilities. Jon Bostic would play an early-down role.
With an experienced cover linebacker on the second level, Washington would shore up one of the few holes in its defense.
Best Fit: Washington Football Team