NFL Free-Agent Signings That Should Happen Before the 2021 NFL Draft
One week from today, representatives from all 32 NFL teams will gather in Cleveland for the next big phase of the 2021 offseason: this year's draft. By the time the dust settles, 259 incoming rookies will have new homes.
The event will be followed by undrafted free-agent signings and then another wave of free agency as teams use veteran players to fill in the gaps they were unable to via the draft.
However, there are still seven days remaining for teams to better the state of their rosters ahead of the draft. The high-end free agents long ago found homes, but there's still meat on the bone on both sides of the ball, including a wide receiver with six 100-catch seasons and a cornerback with five Pro Bowls to his credit.
There are teams that have a need for those players and the salary-cap resources to sign them.
There are deals that should happen between now and April 29.
OT Alejandro Villanueva to Los Angeles Chargers
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, Alejandro Villanueva could be on the verge of committing Steel City blasphemy. The longtime starting left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers is set to visit the Baltimore Ravens.
However, it would be a curious fit. Even if the Ravens do wind up trading young tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the team's need is at right tackle, a position Villanueva has never played. The 32-year-old is a much better pass protector than run-blocker, which could be a sizable issue with the run-heavy Ravens.
Add in that Baltimore has long been a franchise loath to sacrifice compensatory picks by signing big-name free agents, and this feels like the Ravens hedging their bets if they can't find a tackle in the draft.
However, there's another team with both the cap space to bring in Villanueva and a massive need to upgrade the offensive line.
According to Pro Football Focus, there wasn't a worse offensive line last year than the unit that "blocked" in front of Justin Herbert in Los Angeles. The Chargers took steps to address that by signing center Corey Linsley, but the left tackle spot is still a question mark. The team's starter as things stand (Trey Pipkins III) allowed five sacks in just 571 snaps in 2020.
Bringing in Villanueva on a short-term contract doesn't preclude the Chargers from drafting a tackle with the 13th overall pick. What is does do is preclude the Bolts from having to throw that young tackle to the proverbial wolves on Herbert's blind side—whether he's ready or not.
DL Sheldon Richardson to Green Bay Packers
This signing would take some doing. With just $3.4 million in cap space, the Green Bay Packers are going to need to clear room just to sign their rookie class. But with some work (and perhaps a restructuring of superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers' contract), they can clear enough room to bring in one impact free agent on a short-term deal.
And as it happens, that type of free agent recently became available at an area of need.
The Packers have an excellent nose tackle in Kenny Clark and a pair of solid edge-rushers in Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith. But between that outside presence and inside force are defensive ends Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke, who aren't exactly scaring anyone.
It has been a while since Sheldon Richardson played end in a three-man front. His recent stints with the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings were spent mostly as a 3-technique tackle.
But back in 2014, as a member of the New York Jets, Richardson logged his lone Pro Bowl season as an end in a 3-4 defense. That year, he logged the second-most tackles of his career (67) and tallied a career-high eight sacks.
Richardson would offer the Packers an experienced veteran presence who's capable of playing end in the base defense and tackle in sub-packages and who should help clog running lanes and collapse the pocket.
The 30-year-old defender would not only get a chance to start but also do so for a team gearing up for a deep playoff run.
Edge Justin Houston to Indianapolis Colts
Who says you can't go home again?
"Justin [Houston] could come back," Irsay said. "There's some other options in free agency and the draft."
To be fair, Houston is on the downslope of his professional career at 32 years old. And after he notched 11 sacks in his first season with the Colts in 2019 (his first campaign with double-digit sacks since 2014), his numbers dipped in 2020.
But he still ranked second on the team with 8.0 sacks, trailing only defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (9.5). With Houston and defensive lineman Denico Autry (who signed with the rival Tennessee Titans) now no longer with the team, the Colts are precariously short on proven pass-rushers behind Buckner, who is the only player on the roster who had more than four sacks in 2020.
Yes, some mock drafts have predicted that Indy will use the 21st overall pick on an edge-rusher. But the position has a notoriously steep learning curve, and adding an edge-rusher there does little to address the team's glaring need at left tackle after the retirement of Anthony Castonzo.
Neither is especially good news for a team that fashions itself a Super Bowl contender.
Money isn't an issue. The Colts are sitting on the fourth-most cap space ($26.1 million) in the league.
The wisest move for both player and team is to continue this relationship at least one more season.
CB Steven Nelson to San Francisco 49ers
It has been a rough offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Faced with a daunting financial situation as the result of the reduced salary cap in 2021, the team was forced to make some difficult decisions, including the release of veteran cornerback Steven Nelson.
Nelson admittedly didn't have a great 2020 campaign. His passer rating against spiked by over 30 points compared to 2019, and the 28-year-old gave up seven touchdowns. But go back a little further, and those 2020 struggles look like an aberration.
In Kansas City in 2018 and in Pittsburgh in 2019, Nelson allowed fewer than 52 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed, with a passer rating against of under 75 both seasons. He allowed just five touchdowns over those two seasons combined.
Nelson is (at the least) an above-average cornerback in the prime of his career.
There are plenty of teams that could use a player like him. And the San Francisco 49ers are at the top of that list.
They were ravaged by injuries in 2020, but for the first time in a long time, Jason Verrett stayed healthy, playing 13 games and allowing a passer rating against of just 76.2. But thanks to personnel losses in the offseason, both depth on the back end and the starting spot opposite Verrett are areas of need.
And after San Francisco traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to presumably take a quarterback, adding an impact starter at that position early in the 2021 draft is likely out.
Bringing in a veteran, though, is possible. The 49ers are sitting on $18.4 million in cap space.
CB Casey Hayward Jr. to Seattle Seahawks
After watching veteran cornerback Shaquill Griffin sign a lucrative deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Seattle Seahawks are in serious need of some help on the back end. They brought in Ahkello Witherspoon in an effort to offset Griffin's departure, but the position group has more converted safeties than proven cornerbacks.
Unfortunately, Seattle isn't in great position to remedy that situation, with only $6.1 million in wiggle room. And compliments of the trade that brought Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams to the Pacific Northwest, Seattle's first pick in the 2021 draft is the property of the New York Jets.
What the Seahawks need is a veteran corner who might be willing to sign a below-market short-term deal for an opportunity to rehab his stock (prior to what's expected to be a higher 2022 cap) and potentially make a deep playoff run.
They need a cornerback like Casey Hayward Jr.
At 5'11" and 192 pounds, Hayward is on the small side compared to what the Seahawks generally target in cornerbacks. He also gave up 16.6 yards per completion in 2020, which was nearly five yards more than the year before.
But the 31-year-old is a steadying veteran presence who allowed less than half of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed last year, and he has a pair of Pro Bowls on his resume.
If Seattle is going to keep pace with the Rams and Cardinals in the NFC West, it has to get better in the secondary. The team allowed the second-most passing yards per game in 2020.
CB Richard Sherman to New York Jets
Just one more cornerback. Promise. But it's a position where quality options remain even this late in free agency.
At this point in his professional career, Richard Sherman would no doubt prefer to sign with a team that has a real chance of making a run at a Super Bowl. But in addition to being 33 years old with a fairly extensive injury history in recent years, Sherman is somewhat limited in his scheme fits.
Playoff contenders that have cap space to spare and run a lot of Cover 3 aren't in high supply right now. That's not to say that a contender won't come calling after the draft, but there's at least one team that is a good fit for Sherman and has plenty of wiggle room.
That squad just isn't anywhere close to contending.
The New York Jets have been active in free agency this year, adding help on defense and offense, including edge-rusher Carl Lawson and wide receiver Corey Davis. But the team's cadre of corners led by Bryce Hall and Bless Austin might be the weakest in the NFL.
The Jets have $28.3 million in cap space, and only one team has more left to spend.
New York will be running a 4-3 "under" defense under new head coach Robert Saleh in 2021, and that's the same defense Sherman played in the past three seasons in the Bay Area.
WR Antonio Brown to Baltimore Ravens
It's still possible that the Buccaneers and wide receiver Antonio Brown will agree to terms that will land the 32-year-old back in Tampa Bay in 2021. But with the two sides reportedly at an impasse on compensation, it's also not a bad idea for him to consider playing for a new team this season.
It's also no secret that upgrading the WR corps was at the top of Baltimore's wish list this offseason. The team was able to add Sammy Watkins to the roster, but he's at best a replacement for the departed Willie Snead IV. After the Ravens whiffed on the big-name free agents at the position, there's a reason why so many mock drafts forecast them taking a wideout with the 27th pick in April.
Signing Brown to a short-term contract won't solve all that ails Baltimore's receiving corps. It wouldn't necessarily change the team's plans in the draft either.
What it does do is take some of the pressure off Baltimore in Round 1 by making the need at the position just a bit less overwhelming. Brown may no longer be the player who made it to six straight Pro Bowls from 2013 to 2018 with the Steelers and topped 100 catches in all of those seasons, but he showed in Tampa last year that he can still be a reliable complement and would be one to Marquise Brown underneath.
He also shouldn't be all that expensive—a big plus for a Ravens team with just $13.2 million in cap space.
The plus for Brown? A chance to really stick it to AFC North rival Pittsburgh.
OT Russell Okung to Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs surprised many across the NFL when they released both of their starting offensive tackles in an effort to clear cap space. Granted, Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills, and Mitchell Schwartz is recovering from back surgery.
But it was still a shock, especially after watching Patrick Mahomes run for his life for most of the Super Bowl LV defeat against the Bucs.
The Chiefs signed Mike Remmers as a possible starter at right tackle, but as ESPN's Jeremy Fowler wrote recently, Mahomes' blind side remains a huge area of concern.
"Picking 31st overall in April's draft doesn't ensure landing a top tackle," he wrote. "They've checked in on veteran free agent Russell Okung. It wouldn't surprise if the Chiefs at least explore an Orlando Brown trade."
A trade for Brown would be expensive, both in terms of draft capital and salary resources. That's not going to be easy for a team with the next-to-last pick in Round 1 and just $12.4 million in cap space.
Signing veteran Russell Okung is far from a sure bet. The 32-year-old has played in just 13 games over the past two years because of injuries, including blood clots in his lungs.
But Okung is also a two-time Pro Bowler who (when healthy) is a plus blocker both in the running game and in pass protection. Over 1,792 snaps in 2017 and 2018, he gave up just five sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Signing him would be a gamble. But if the price is right, it's one worth taking for the back-to-back AFC champs.