NFL Free Agents 2021: Projecting Homes for Best Players on Post-Draft Market

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 5, 2021

NFL Free Agents 2021: Projecting Homes for Best Players on Post-Draft Market

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    Scouting and predraft evaluations all but consumed NFL front offices during the last month-plus. But the draft is over, and the focus shifts back to free agency.

    There could be a bit of a rush to sign the best remaining unrestricted FAs on the open market. A number of intriguing players are still available on both sides of the ball. Most are of the veteran variety, with some looking for redemption coming off injuries.

    Let's take a look at nine of the best and project landing spots based on potential fit. These players were chosen based on factors such as pedigree, recent performance and market demand.

CB Richard Sherman

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    There will be some groans with Richard Sherman's name on this list.

    On the one hand, Sherman is a 10-year veteran cornerback coming off an injury-riddled season in which he struggled tremendously when he was on the field. He was also named to the Pro Bowl in 2019. Sherman is not the same player he was with the Legion of Boom in Seattle. But he can still be a strong outside corner.

    Sherman was one of the better defensive backs in football in 2019. He earned an 88.9 grade from Pro Football Focus, finishing the season with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. Opposing quarterbacks had a 63.0 passer rating when throwing in his direction.

    Maybe age and injuries are costing Sherman some of his athleticism. However, he can still play press coverage and get good breaks on the ball. The three-time All-Pro also boasts a tremendous football IQ.

    It seems likely Sherman will take a short-term deal. He would probably prefer to go to a contender or fringe contender, though that might not be an option if money is a factor. What about a move to the Big Apple?

    Sherman spent the past few seasons playing for new New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh, who was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers from 2017 to 2020. The Jets waited until the fifth round to draft a corner (Michael Carter II) and could probably use a veteran presence at the position.

    New York is not necessarily the kind of win-now team Sherman might prefer. But it has a good deal of cap space and an evident need.

OT Mitchell Schwartz

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    Veteran offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz was a pillar of durability during his first eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Unfortunately for Schwartz, a back injury—plus Kansas City's cap issues—led to his release earlier this spring.

    Teams appear to be showing reservations to signing Schwartz following February back surgery. But he was among the better right tackles in the NFL in the past few seasons.

    Schwartz was an elite force on Kansas City's offensive line in 2018 and 2019. He was named First Team All-Pro in 2018, though his 2019 season ranked even higher in terms of PFF wins above replacement (WAR). According to PFF, the 31-year-old had the lowest pressure percentage in each of those two seasons before being limited to six games in 2020. 

    Needless to say, Schwartz was a key cog in Kansas City's high-powered offenses these past few seasons. It feels like he could return to the Chiefs.

    Kansas City fortified the offensive line this offseason, signing Joe Thuney and Kyle Long in free agency and, more recently, acquiring Orlando Brown Jr. from the Baltimore Ravens.

    The Chiefs might be content with the right tackle spot after bringing back Mike Remmers. But Schwartz has more established success at right tackle. Additionally, it's possible Remmers can compete with Long—who is coming out of retirement—for one of the guard positions.

    Schwartz didn't rule out a return to Kansas City during an interview with 610 Sports Radio. The Chiefs could remain in constant contact through the summer. If Schwartz feels healthy, general manager Brett Veach might pounce to bring him back.

CB Brian Poole

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Brian Poole might not have the same name recognition as fellow free-agent cornerbacks Richard Sherman or Casey Hayward, but he might be he strongest slot corner on the market.

    Poole has at least four or more passes defended since his rookie season in 2016 and has also proved capable of making plays in the backfield. He has a PFF grade of at least 77.1 in each of the past two seasons.

    Poole excels in coverage, holding opposing signal-callers to a 61.6 quarterback rating in 2020. The 28-year-old is also becoming more of a ball hawk. He has six combined interceptions in the past three seasons, including two in nine games in 2020. 

    One team that could use Poole's presence in the slot is Pittsburgh. 

    The Steelers re-signed Cameron Sutton in free agency, and he will likely play on the outside opposite Joe Haden. But Pittsburgh released Steven Nelson, with Mike Hilton signing with the Cincinnati Bengals. Additionally, the Steelers did not take a single corner until the seventh round the NFL draft.

    Poole would be a terrific fit in the Steel City with his coverage in the slot and ability to add to Pittsburgh's pass rush. He might also be one of the cheaper cornerback options and is sure to appeal to teams given his youth in comparison to guys like Sherman and Hayward.

Edge Melvin Ingram III

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Which Melvin Ingram III will show up in 2021? The one who made three straight Pro Bowls between 2017 and 2019, or the one who failed to record a single sack in seven games in 2020?

    Ingram is not far removed from being one of the better pass-rushers in football. He had 7.0 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss in 2019. The former South Carolina standout also recorded five passes defended.

    The 2020 season might not have been as bad as the numbers suggest. Ingram might not have gotten a sack, but he did manage a 76.3 pass-rush grade from PFF, which is an above-average mark.

    Sure, Ingram is 32 and coming off a knee injury that repeatedly gave him issues last fall. But he still has decent technique and speed in beating offensive tackles at the point of attack. 

    Ingram reportedly met with the Chiefs in March. Kansas City could be in the market to improve a pass-rush unit PFF ranked 22nd out of 32 teams. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars could be a team to watch as Ingram's market develops.

    The Jaguars still have the most cap space in the NFL, per Over The Cap, and head coach Urban Meyer could use Ingram to rush the passer and provide veteran leadership for a young roster.

    Jacksonville needs more defensive playmakers in the front seven. Joe Schobert and Myles Jack head the linebacking corps, with Dawuane Smoot providing some pass rush. However, the Jags could use a guy who can generate more pressure, making Ingram a potentially appealing target.

Edge Justin Houston

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    Justin Houston does not have the same physical gifts he once possessed, but he still puts up numbers.

    Houston has at least 8.0 sacks and 12 quarterback hits in each of the last four seasons. He wasn't as consistently impactful against the run in 2020, but he showed he could still harass opposing quarterbacks.

    It might be worth noting Houston was even more dangerous before the Indianapolis Colts added DeForest Buckner to the mix. He had 11 sacks—his most since 2014—and a stellar 87.1 grade from PFF in 2019 before posting a 63.5 in 2020

    Houston is likely not to return to Indy after the Colts added defensive ends in each of the first two rounds of last week's draft. So, where will this next chapter take him?

    The Ravens once again figure to play a role here. Houston met with Baltimore in mid-April, with Jeff Zrebiac of The Athletic reporting there was "mutual interest" between the two sides. ESPN's Jamison Hensley also reported the Ravens are favored to sign Houston despite using one of their first-round picks on Penn State's Odafe Oweh.

LB K.J. Wright

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    K.J. Wright is one of the most versatile players on the market.

    Wright has played both Will and strong-side linebacker. He has shifted to play up front on the defensive line and posed as more of a cover 'backer. The 10-year veteran can do everything.

    Wright has been a tremendous asset to Seattle's defense since he was drafted by the Seahawks in 2011. But he showed his adaptability in moving to the outside following Bruce Irvin's injury last season. The 32-year-old recorded 11 tackles for loss and 60 solo tackles. He occasionally got lost in coverage but still racked up 10 passes defended.

    Any number of teams could use a versatile linebacker, though Jordyn Brooks' presence might make it unlikely Wright returns to Seattle. Keep an eye on the Los Angeles Chargers.

    New head coach Brandon Staley has typically run a 3-4 scheme during his time as a defensive coordinator and could use a deep and multifaceted linebacking corps. 

    Wright said in February, per ESPN's Brady Henderson, he won't take a discount to stay in Seattle. But he won't overly expensive this late in the offseason. The veteran could be an option for Staley as he implements his scheme.

DT Geno Atkins

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Geno Atkins' run of six consecutive Pro Bowls ended in 2020. Still, the two-time All-Pro has been one of the best interior defensive linemen of the past decade. 

    Atkins had at least 9.0 sacks in each season between 2015 and 2018, including double-digit sacks in 2015 and 2018. He has demonstrated a propensity for getting in the face of opposing quarterbacks and stuffing the run up the middle.

    The 2020 season might lend a bit of skepticism to Atkins' ability leading into his age-33 season. He had a 54.0 grade and was limited to eight games because of injury. However, teams needing to beef up the interior could be willing to bank on his pedigree.

    Atkins would be afascinating fit with the Arizona Cardinals.

    General manager Steve Keim's big play came when the Cardinals signed three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt after he was granted a release from the Houston Texans in arguably the biggest stunner of the offseason. Watt and Chandler Jones give Arizona an elite pass-rushing duo. Perhaps Atkins can provide the Cardinals with even more depth inside and alleviate some pressure on the secondary.

    Arizona opted to add talent at the second level by drafting former Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins. The Cardinals also added multiple defensive backs via the draft. But Atkins could bolster the group up front and make the Cardinals all the more dangerous if he can recapture his old form.

DT Jurrell Casey

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Like Atkins, Jurrell Casey is a former perennial Pro Bowler coming off a frustrating 2020.

    The Tennessee Titans traded Casey to the Denver Broncos last offseason. He played three games before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. Denver then released him in a cost-cutting move.

    Casey has been a force on the interior. He had double-digit quarterback hits and at least 5.0 sacks in seven straight seasons prior to 2020. In fact, Casey has never graded below 70.0, with his 90.0 PFF grade ranking 12th among interior defensive lineman since 2011.

    One of the most appealing aspects of Casey's free-agent profile is his run-stuffing ability. The 31-year-old can get to the passer but is every bit as good as a sure tackler who can disrupt opposing rushing attacks. He had among the most run stops of any interior defender between 2016 and 2019. The Buffalo Bills could use someone with that kind of ability.

    Buffalo's defense ranked tied-22nd in yards per carry and ranked 15th in sacks in 2020. First-round pick Gregory Rousseau figures to be a guy who can move inside and also rush off the edge. But the Bills, a team hungry to contend right now, could probably benefit from adding a more established presence like Casey.

    Buffalo might have to pull some cap gymnastics to nab Casey, but he would provide a big boost to their run defense.

OT Charles Leno Jr.

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    Charles Leno Jr. wasted little time making his presence felt as the left tackle for the Chicago Bears.

    Leno was a seventh-round pick in 2014. But he needed one year to assume the starting job on the left side and became ingrained as Chicago's starter. Leno was a reliable presence for an offensive line often decimated by injuries and inconsistent play in recent seasons.

    However, the Oakland native is looking for a new home. The Bears released Leno on Monday, likely because they will slot second-round draft pick Teven Jenkins in at left tackle. 

    Leno should have a fairly strong market with a number of teams looking to bolster the blind side. He had a 74.6 grade in 2020 and has recorded an overall grade of 70.0 or higher in four of the last five seasons.

    One team that still has a fairly glaring hole at left tackle is the Indianapolis Colts. The position became a need for Indy after Anthony Castonzo announced his retirement earlier this year.

    Colts general manager Chris Ballard has often prioritized the offensive and defensive lines during his tenure. He was especially aggressive in adding to the D-line last week, selecting a pair of edge-rushers with each of the team's first two picks in Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo. Ballard did select offensive lineman Will Fries in the seventh round, but he is unlikely to be the starting left tackle.

    Indianapolis might show interest in Alejandro Villanueva or Eric Fisher, providing his recovery from an Achilles injury goes smoothly. But Leno might be cheaper than both and will likely be ready to go Week 1.


    All stats obtained via Pro Football Reference or Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted. Salary-cap information obtained via Over The Cap.