NFL Free Agency 2021: Ranking the 10 Best Unsigned Players Under 30
As NFL teams take a short break from the practice field before training camp, coaches and general managers will take a look at available free agents.
Most of the top veterans have signed with teams, but several potential difference-makers remain on the market.
Let's go through the top 10 free agents who are younger than 30 years old. The list below doesn't include players who will reach that age at some point during the 2021 regular season.
We've used recent production, injury history and projected roles to determine the order. Each free agent is paired with a team based on roster need and optimal fit.
10. Duke Johnson, RB (27)
During the 2019 offseason, Duke Johnson wanted to part ways with the Cleveland Browns, citing a lack of loyalty when the team put him on the trade block. The club granted his wish and sent him to the Houston Texans.
In two campaigns with the Texans, Johnson racked up 1,304 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage. For most of his time in Houston, he served as a backup.
Last season, Johnson had opportunities to showcase his talent in a starting role while David Johnson missed four games on injured reserve (concussion) and the reserve/COVID-19 list. Yet the former posted average-to-below-average rushing numbers in his five starts.
Johnson isn't a 1,000-yard rusher who can carry a ground attack, but he's one of the better pass-catching running backs in the league with 307 receptions for 2,829 yards and 12 touchdowns through six seasons.
Because Johnson is a specialist at arguably the most expendable position, he ranks 10th on this list, but his skill set will attract teams that want a running back who can exploit matchups in the short passing game.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons don't have much experience among their tailbacks behind Mike Davis, who signed with the club this offseason. Nonetheless, running backs coach Desmond Kitchings says "the door is wide-open" for anyone to run away with the starting job.
The Falcons can use Davis, who's 5'9", 220 pounds, as a downhill ball-carrier and pair him with Johnson, a third-down pass-catching threat, for a balanced backfield. The latter would also have an opportunity to play a significant number of snaps at an unsettled position on the Falcons roster.
9. B.J. Goodson, ILB (28)
Typically, inside linebackers draw little attention on the free-agent market unless they're well-rounded defenders who can play on all three downs.
B.J. Goodson isn't a reliable cover defender. In 2020, he allowed an 80 percent completion rate. However, he'll occasionally make a play on the ball. Coming off one of his most productive campaigns, the sixth-year veteran logged a career-high 91 tackles, two for loss, two interceptions and six pass breakups.
Teams that need a physical downhill linebacker with some experience may see Goodson as a short-term asset for a thin linebacker group.
Despite Goodson's shortcomings in coverage, he ranks one spot above Duke Johnson because of his ability to handle a starting role. The 6'1", 242-pounder is also one of the best run-stoppers available at his position.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Rams
Goodson would make a good fit with the Los Angeles Rams. He could immediately push for a starting role within an inexperienced group.
According to The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue, the Rams have rotated inside linebacker pairings to "see what sticks" through spring practices. Goodson has more starting experience than Micah Kiser and Kenny Young, who played a significant number of snaps together before the former went on injured reserve last season.
8. Malik Hooker, S (25)
When healthy, Malik Hooker can serve as the last line of defense in the secondary. He's a ball-hawking free safety with the ability to read the quarterback and force turnovers.
In four seasons, Hooker has recorded seven interceptions and 11 pass breakups, but he's missed 28 games. Last season, the oft-injured safety tore his Achilles in Week 2.
Teams have likely shied away from Hooker because of his injury history, but at the right price, he's a high-value pickup with upside.
Unlike B.J. Goodson, who may have to sub out on third downs, Hooker has starting potential in an every-down role at his position. In 2018, he played 87 percent of the defensive snaps through 14 outings. The Ohio State product slides in at No. 8.
Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals must find a potential starter to line up alongside Budda Baker. Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson still have a lot to prove. The front office signed Shawn Williams, but he's far from a roster lock at 30 years old coming off a campaign in which he played 86 defensive snaps.
If Hooker stays healthy, he'd complement Baker, who's recorded just two interceptions in four terms.
7. Tre Boston, S (29)
At every stop in his career, Tre Boston has made an impact with his ball-tracking skills. He's recorded 15 interceptions in seven seasons, 12 within the last four years.
Despite Boston's ability to force turnovers, he's bounced around the league, suiting up for the Carolina Panthers (twice), Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals.
Last year, with the Panthers, Boston lined up in the box and center field. As a result, he accumulated a career-high 95 tackles but saw a drop-off in interceptions (one) and pass breakups (four) compared to recent seasons as primarily a free safety.
As strictly a deep-cover defender, Boston can perform at a high level in a starting role. He's a solid pickup for a team that needs a coverage specialist in the secondary.
Boston has missed just two games over the last four seasons. He's more reliable than Malik Hooker in terms of availability, so the 29-year-old safety takes the seventh spot.
Best Fit: Detroit Lions
In a breakdown of the Detroit Lions' projected 53-man roster, The Athletic's Chris Burke and Nick Baumgardner raised some concerns about the safety group:
"A bunch of veteran safeties are still on the market, so [Brad] Holmes might pounce on one before the Lions make their way to Allen Park for training camp. As is, this group's hopes would rest on [Tracy] Walker resurfacing as a borderline Pro Bowler, [Dean] Marlowe on excelling as a full-time starter for the first time and [Will] Harris being salvageable as a physical presence."
Boston could replace Duron Harmon, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons, as the Lions' best cover safety. Walker, Marlowe and Harris have played in the league for 11 years combined, and they have four total interceptions.
6. Kwon Alexander, ILB (26)
In six seasons, Kwon Alexander has played more than 12 games once. If the 26-year-old linebacker had been more durable, he might have more than one Pro Bowl nod on his resume.
Last November, the San Francisco 49ers traded Alexander to the New Orleans Saints. In a starting role, he put together a string of solid performances before landing on injured reserve with a torn Achilles in December.
Alexander should receive some calls in the coming weeks. He possesses a modern-day linebacker's skill set with the ability to play in space. The 6'1", 227-pounder has seven interceptions and 30 pass breakups for his career.
Alexander has suited up for three teams and started every game in which he's appeared. He may have to settle for a reserve role because of his late-season injury. Still, we know the talented off-ball linebacker can play at a Pro Bowl level when he's 100 percent, which is a feat Tre Boston has yet to accomplish. As a result, Alexander takes the sixth slot.
Best Fit: Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers don't have much depth at the inside linebacker position, and the projected starter, Denzel Perryman, has limitations in coverage.
The Athletic's Joseph Person listed the inside linebacker group as his top position of concern following the Panthers' spring practices. Instead of relying on Perryman or an inexperienced starter in Jermaine Carter, Carolina should take a look at Alexander if he's coming along well in his recovery from a torn Achilles.
5. Le'Veon Bell, RB (29)
Le'Veon Bell's critics may have already written him off as an over-the-hill running back because of his subpar performances over the last two seasons. The two-time All-Pro criticized former New York Jets head coach Adam Gase's predictable play-calling and said he would never play for Kansas City Chiefs lead skipper Andy Reid again on Instagram.
Last October, New York released Bell, and he signed with Kansas City. The Jets reportedly tried to trade him, but it seemed like a tough task to move a player who had been inefficient and unhappy with his workload. Furthermore, Bell was on injured reserve for three of the first five weeks of the 2020 term.
Bell averaged 3.2 yards per carry for the 2019 campaign with Gang Green and four yards per carry through nine outings with the Chiefs.
Bell is best suited for a team with a solid offensive line because of his patient running style. He can also help an offense that needs another receiver in the short passing game. The dual-threat tailback has 394 catches for 3,259 yards and eight touchdowns for his career.
Bell has to find an appropriate fit to trend in the right direction, but he's not coming off a major injury that may affect his performance in the upcoming campaign, which is the case for Kwon Alexander. Bell has a better chance to bounce back in 2021, so he gets the fifth spot.
Best Fit: Los Angeles Chargers
Bell could find room to run behind the Los Angeles Chargers' revamped offensive line. The team acquired All-Pro center Corey Linsley, guard Matt Feiler and rookie tackle Rashawn Slater this offseason.
Even though Austin Ekeler is listed as the lead tailback on the depth chart, he's yet to record more than 132 carries in a season. The Chargers can pair him with Bell for a solid one-two combination on the ground.
4. Vic Beasley, Edge (28)
Vic Beasley had a solid finish to his 2019 contract year with the Atlanta Falcons, logging four sacks in the final quarter of the season.
In 2020, Beasley hit rock bottom as a pass-rusher. He played five games apiece with the Tennessee Titans and Las Vegas Raiders but logged just one quarterback pressure without a sack.
Aside from Beasley's standout 2016 campaign with a league-leading 15.5 sacks, he hasn't performed up to first-round expectations. Yet the 28-year-old can still salvage his career with a team that needs a boost on the edge. He's recorded at least five sacks in four out of six terms.
As an edge-rusher, Beasley plays a premium position, and he's only two years removed from an eight-sack campaign. Le'Veon Bell's career has trended in the wrong direction since he sat out the 2018 season in a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of that, Beasley takes the No. 4 spot.
Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs will attempt to spark their pass rush with some creativity. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo plans to use Chris Jones on the edge and on the inside. The unit may have to play some games without Frank Clark, who was arrested for felony illegal possession of a firearm Sunday, per TMZ Sports.
With Jones set to learn a new position and Clark going through the legal process, the Chiefs should explore veteran options at defensive end. Beasley isn't a lead pass-rusher, but he can possibly help Kansas City's unit in a pinch for a short period.
3. Brian Poole, CB (28)
In the slot, Brian Poole can cover twitchy wide receivers, come downhill to supplement the run and generate some pressure as a disguised blitzer.
Through five seasons, Poole has played at a high level in the nickelback position for the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets, logging 299 tackles, 17 for loss, six sacks, seven interceptions and 31 pass breakups.
Poole's coverage ability should help him land a job with a new team sooner than later. In 2020, he allowed a 64.1 percent completion rate and a 61.6 passer rating as a targeted defender.
Last November, Poole landed on injured reserve with a knee injury, which likely hurt his value on the open market. If healthy, he should be able to compete for a decent role.
Even though Vic Beasley plays a more valuable position, Poole comes in at No. 3 because his versatile skill set allows him to impact the game in multiple ways. He can drop back into man coverage or plug holes in the run defense as an asset on all three downs.
Best Fit: Las Vegas Raiders
After Lamarcus Joyner's departure, the Las Vegas Raiders don't have a clear-cut starter in the slot.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley mentioned Nevin Lawson and rookie fifth-rounder Nate Hobbs as two players who stood out at the position through mandatory minicamp. The former will serve a two-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing substances policy, and the latter has a lot to learn in his first year.
Poole would have a good chance to beat out Lawson and Hobbs for the starting role.
2. Todd Gurley II, RB (26)
Todd Gurley II has a ton of wear and tear on his body because of his workhorse role with the Los Angeles Rams between 2015 and 2019. Even though he lost touches to Ito Smith down the stretch of the previous campaign with the Atlanta Falcons, the two-time All-Pro still tied for 14th in total touches (220) in 2020.
Gurley turns 27 years old in August, which suggests he's still in his prime, but a lingering knee issue will likely limit him.
Yet Gurley can bolster a team's ground attack as a complementary ball-carrier in a committee. Despite his declining rushing numbers, he's capable of moving the chains and punching the ball past the goal line in short-yardage scenarios. Last season, Gurley scored nine touchdowns and logged 45 first downs on the ground.
Though Gurley's production from scrimmage has been on the decline for three consecutive seasons, he's a decent asset in a limited role. With 10 to 12 carries per contest, the 6'1", 224-pound tailback can lead a club in touchdowns as he did last season in Atlanta.
As a dual-threat playmaker with 6,000-plus rushing yards and 2,000-plus receiving yards in his career, Gurley can be a factor on all three downs. So, he ranks second on this list over Brian Poole, who isn't an every-down playmaker. The latter hasn't played more than 76 percent of the snaps on his side of the ball as a nickelback.
Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks
Throughout the offseason, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has talked about a renewed commitment to the ground attack. Rashaad Penny, a 2018 first-rounder, hasn't been able to stay healthy. He's missed 21 contests in three seasons.
Running back Alex Collins generated some buzz through mandatory minicamp, but he spent most of his time on the practice squad last year in his return to Seattle. The Seahawks can sign Gurley as a solid RB2.
1. Steven Nelson, CB (28)
The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't find a trade partner for Steven Nelson, which led to his release. He's one of the most coveted free agents on the market.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, 14 teams have shown an interest in Nelson. Nearly half the league probably sees him as a surefire starting-caliber cornerback.
In 2019, Nelson didn't earn a Pro Bowl nod, but he shut down his side of the field, allowing a 50 percent completion rate and zero touchdowns in coverage. The 28-year-old surrendered seven scores last season but only allowed a 58.2 percent completion rate.
Nelson is a bit underrated because he doesn't have the career accolades to show for his performance over the last few terms, but the widespread interest in the cover man's services tells the story about his market value and rank among available free agents.
Nelson hasn't experienced a steady drop-off in production comparable to Todd Gurley II's decline over the past few seasons, which is the defining factor that propels him to the No. 1 spot on this list.
Best Fit: Buffalo Bills
Fowler listed the Buffalo Bills as one of the teams interested in Nelson. General manager Brandon Beane could land an upgrade over cornerback Levi Wallace, who has 35 starts over the last three seasons.
While Wallace has been solid, Nelson, at his best, is a borderline Pro-Bowl talent. As the Bills' Super Bowl window opens, the front office must consider options to bolster key positions.
If Nelson wants to compete for a title, the Bills should rank atop his list of preferred destinations.