9 Free Agents Who Can Fill Remaining Holes After 2021 NFL Draft
The 2021 NFL draft may be over, but each teams' quest to put their best roster on the field by the time the season kicks off on Sept. 9 rolls on.
Before the weekend, teams were able to address a need through the draft. With all seven rounds officially in the books, the opportunities to improve their roster now exclusively lie in free agency again.
Most of the big names have already signed. We are far from the first wave of free agency, so the players still available don't come without risk.
Whether your team missed out on a blindside protector, some pass rush help or an offensive weapon for your quarterback there are still some players out there who can at least serve as a one-year bridge or a high-upside solution.
Now that the draft is over, these nine players should get some calls sooner rather than later.
Edge Justin Houston
Matthew Judon, Shaquil Barrett, Yannick Ngakoue and Bud Dupree all got paid this spring with multi-year deals. None of them had more sacks than Justin Houston did with the Indianapolis Colts last year.
At 31 years old, Houston couldn't have expected to get paid like those guys, but his eight sacks in 2020 showed his value as a pass-rusher. Houston's pressure percentage isn't what it used to be and indicates a decline in sacks is likely coming, but there's no one on the market who can match his production.
The former Chiefs and Colts pass-rusher might not have the same burst and athleticism that made him an elite player but he clearly has the savvy and technique to still get after quarterbacks as part of a rotation.
Someone like the Atlanta Falcons could use Houston in their rotation. The Falcons are still hoping Dante Fowler figures things out and didn't utilize one of their early picks on a defensive end. Houston would have more than doubled any edge defender in sacks last season.
The Colts could ultimately decide they aren't done with the veteran. They drafted Kwity Paye, but the rookie would benefit from having a veteran like Houston on the roster who can help him maximize his prodigious physical gifts.
The New York Giants stand out as another possibility. They just drafted Azeez Olujari in the second round but, like Kwity Paye, he might not be ready to be the No. 1 pass-rusher out of the gate. Taking a high-floor player like Houston could actually improve their respective rookie seasons.
Potential Suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants
DT Sheldon Richardson
The Cleveland Browns made Sheldon Richardson a late addition to the free agency pool, but that had more to do with the cap than it did Richardon's play. The Browns saved $11 million by releasing the veteran they relied on heavily last season.
Richardson hasn't missed a game since 2017, so he comes with a relatively clean bill of health. He racked up 64 total tackles and was a contributor in the pass rush. He had 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, and neither of those numbers are uncharacteristically high.
A team like the Dallas Cowboys could do worse than adding Richardson to their rotation. They are going to rely on some young talent such as Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill and newly drafted Osa Odighizuwa to take the next step, but Richardson is a more proven commodity than all three of them.
There's also the possibility where he returns to Cleveland.
General manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski have both made it clear they would be open to a return from the defensive lineman. The decision to release him was made almost purely from a financial standpoint.
The Colts are another prospective fit. They added Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo to their collection of defensive ends. Adding Richardson to their interior rush would bolster a group that lost Justin Houston but relies heavily on getting pressure with their front four.
Potential Suitors: Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts
CB Steven Nelson
Anyone who wishes they would have come away from the draft with a starting outside cornerback but didn't should be on the phone with Steven Nelson's agent.
Nelson's role as a starting corner on one of the league's premier defenses over the past two seasons should be enough to convince someone to ink him to a contract sooner rather than later.
Starting 30 games Steelers over two seasons, he allowed a 58.2 percent completion percentage on 98 targets in 2020 and 50 percent on 74 targets in 2019.
While many on this list are on the wrong side of 30 Nelson is 28 years old.
A team like the Arizona Cardinals should have Nelson's number on speed dial. They could use an upgrade to compete for the starting job with Robert Alford. The 32-year-old hasn't registered a snap since 2018 and surrendered a 138.5 passer rating when targeted in his last full season.
The 49ers could be another interested party in the NFC West. They came into the draft with the need to replace Richard Sherman (although he's still available), but they didn't address the position until the third round with Ambry Thomas.
If Nelson is looking to get back on a playoff team, the most obvious fit would be the Buffalo Bills. The AFC East favorite doesn't have much depth behind Tre'Davious White and Levi Wallace. With the AFC Championship road going through Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City, it wouldn't hurt to add another high-quality corner.
Potential Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills
CB Richard Sherman
While many teams spent the weekend attempting to find "the next Richard Sherman," the current Sherman is still looking for a home for the 2021 season.
There's risk in taking on the outspoken corner, sure. He only played in five games last season as he struggled with a calf injury, but the majority of those games were played in December.
He sustained the injury in the opening week, came back in Week 11 and ultimately sat out the last two weeks of the season when the Niners weren't playing for anything.
In his healthy 2019 campaign, he recorded three interceptions with 11 passes defended and a 63.0 passer rating when targeted. If he can return to anything close to that, he'll give a team a quality option at corner.
In an appearance on ESPN with Stephen A. Smith, Sherman said that he has had conversations with the 49ers, Seahawks, Saints and Raiders, but was waiting for the draft to play out before signing anywhere.
With the draft in the rearview, none of those teams selected a corner in the first two rounds, so it's safe to say any of those four could still be interested. Sherman has always excelled in zone coverage so his fits are a little more restrictive than some corners, but he's definitely worth a flier for any of those teams.
Potential Suitors: San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders
OT Alejandro Villanueva
Alejandro Villanueva has been a rock for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line over the last six years. After becoming a starter in 2015 he has started every game at left tackle for the team, rarely coming off the field and playing 100 percent of the offensive snaps in four of those six seasons.
He isn't going to be a Pro Bowl tackle. He's now two years removed from back-to-back selections, but he offers a baseline of play at the position that most teams would be happy to have. Last season he earned a 74.6 grade from Pro Football Focus while allowing three sacks and four penalties.
There are plenty of teams in the league who could use Villanueva as either a plug-and-play right tackle or a veteran mentor to a rookie. The Baltimore Ravens are reportedly expected to sign the 32-year-old.
The Washington Football Team could use someone like the Steelers veteran. They drafted Samuel Cosmi in the second round but he is going to have to improve from a technical standpoint before he's ready to protect Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Football Team has a roster right now that can compete in the NFC East if they can get adequate play out of the offensive line. Villanueva raises the floor of the unit.
Potential Suitors: Baltimore Ravens, Washington Football Team, Carolina Panthers
OT Eric Fisher
The Kansas City Chiefs might have decided to remodel their entire offensive line after watching Patrick Mahomes run for this life in the Super Bowl, but that wasn't because of Eric Fisher or Mitchell Schwartz.
Both of the since-released tackles were out with injuries and previously gave the Chiefs strong play. Manning the left tackle spot, Fisher was only responsible for three sacks allowed on 1,049 snaps for the season.
It isn't often that a Pro Bowl tackle is still on the market this late in the offseason, but Fisher will be coming off an Achilles injury, and there's no guarantee he will be ready by Week 1.
Still, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported there are multiple teams interested in the 2013 No. 1 overall pick. Provided the injury hasn't completely wrecked his confidence or ability, whoever takes a shot on him is going to get a veteran tackle who can still provide strong play.
The ideal fit might be a one-year situation with a team that took a rookie tackle outside of the first round. Tackle can be a difficult position to make an immediate impact, and a team like the Carolina Panthers could plug Fisher in at left tackle while Brady Christensen adjusts to NFL pass-rushers.
He also makes sense with a team like the Steelers, who are planning on young tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor stepping in and taking those starting jobs. Someone like Fisher could come in and give them an insurance plan if they don't work out early.
Potential Suitors: Washington Football Team, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers
OT Mitchell Schwartz
Teams looking for above replacement-level play at tackle actually have a few short-term solutions. You can include Mitchell Schwartz, who has plenty of experience and is still playing good football.
Schwartz only played six games this past season but hadn't missed a game in eight years as a starter prior to that. Before suffering a season-ending back injury, he graded out at 74.7 at PFF and gave up two sacks.
Add in Schwartz's playoff experience with the Chiefs, and he would be a great veteran addition for anyone looking to add a tackle to compete for a starting spot. He hasn't ruled out rejoining the team that cut him, either.
"I know some other teams have inquired, but again, just waiting to feel healthy. And once I feel healthy, then I can evaluate," he told Kansas City radio station KCSP-AM (h/t Chiefs Wire). "I will, for no reason, shut the door on the Chiefs; I'm sure we'll talk at some point."
Schwartz could end up pairing with the newly acquired Orlando Brown Jr., replace him in Baltimore (if the Ravens don't sign Villanueva) or head to Seattle, where he could replace Brandon Shell as the starting right tackle. Russell Wilson would surely love Schwartz's playoff pedigree and consistent play at the position.
Potential Suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks
Edge Melvin Ingram
This year's free-agency crop featured a strong group of pass-rushers. While that was great news for teams, it wasn't good for Melvin Ingram, who is coming off an injury-marred 2020 campaign.
Ingram didn't register a sack in the seven games he played this past season, the first time he's really shown his age (32). Previous to that, he registered seven sacks in back-to-back seasons.
He's probably never getting back to being a double-digit sack guy, and he probably isn't ready to even be the second-best pass-rusher on a good defense. But you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Ingram as a third edge player in your rotation.
He has always played with great intensity and would bring a strong veteran presence for a team that is either in need of a third pass-rusher or looking to bring along some young talent on the outside.
Mike Vrabel's Titans, for instance, had one of the worst pass-rushing units last season with just 19 sacks. They added Bud Dupree this offseason, but he's coming off an ACL injury, so bringing in depth there could be important.
The Vikings could also be a fit. They drafted Patrick Jones II in the third round and signed Stephen Weatherly, but they can use all the help they can get to line up opposite Danielle Hunter.
Potential Suitors: Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons
LB K.J. Wright
Speaking of veteran defenders who would bring leadership and intensity, K.J. Wright is the top linebacker without a team. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has been a foundational piece of the defense in Seattle for a decade.
While some of the guys on this list are looking to overcome injuries, Wright has already done it. He only played in five games (arthroscopic knee surgery) in 2018 but has since come back to play in all 32 regular-season games over the last two years.
Wright is limited in coverage at this stage of his career. He gave up four touchdowns in his 2020 campaign, but he's still a strong player in the run game and can play either strong-side or weak-side backer. He may not be able to stay on the field in sub-packages, but there's still some value left in what Wright can bring to a team.
He would make some sense for the Chargers in the Denzel Perryman role. He can easily be a run-stuffer who comes off the field in sub-packages. The Cowboys could decide he would make a good mentor for new linebacker Micah Parsons and replace Sean Lee as the elder statesman of the group.
Ron Rivera could also be looking for a veteran anchor for his young defense after the retirement of Thomas Davis.
Potential Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Football Team