The Best NFL Free Agents Still Available Ahead of Preseason

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2021

The Best NFL Free Agents Still Available Ahead of Preseason

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Some of the biggest NFL free-agent dominoes have yet to fall with the 2021 preseason rapidly approaching.

    Headlined by edge-rusher Justin Houston, a few major names at premium positions remain available. Whether it's waiting for the right contract, fit or merely until an opening appears, several free agents could instantly boost teams in need.  

    Below, we'll look at the top available names left on the free-agent market. Past and projected production plays a big part, as do positional value and holes that the players can fill. We'll also outline best remaining fits for each player based on team needs. 

K.J. Wright, LB

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    K.J. Wright has been a steady workhorse for the Seattle Seahawks since entering the league in 2011.

    The 32-year-old linebacker has played at least 13 games in all but one of his 10 NFL seasons, and he posted 86 total tackles, two sacks, 10 passes defensed and one interception last year.

    He earned a 75.3 Pro Football Focus grade last season, which ranks firmly in the starter category

    Wright doesn't rack up a ton of sacks or turnovers, so teams didn't prioritize him in free agency over pressure-creating edge-rushers. But he's reliable and isn't slowing down, which should make him a target of interest as camps kick into full gear.

    Best Fits: Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals

Geno Atkins, DT

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    While defensive tackle isn't a premium position, Geno Atkins has been a standout for most of his NFL career.

    In his 11 years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Atkins racked up 76 sacks across 161 games. He might not be Aaron Donald, but his relentless pocket pressure routinely enabled Cincinnati to keep more of its back seven in coverage.

    However, the wheels fell off for Atkins last year, as he suffered a shoulder injury near the start of the season. He played in only eight games and finished without a sack for the first time in his career.

    Atkins was cleared for all football activity in mid-June, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, so his market should pick up soon. Only three years removed from a 10-sack season, he would be a great pickup for a team in need of rotational pressure help. 

    Best Fits: Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys

Everson Griffen, Edge

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Everson Griffen split last season between the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, spending seven games with each team. He notched 2.5 sacks with the Cowboys and 3.5 with the Lions, which marked his seventh season with at least six sacks over the past nine years. 

    Stability would likely help Griffen perform even better. He had 23 pressures last season compared to 35 across 15 starts with the Minnesota Vikings in 2019.

    Between the 2014 and 2019 seasons, Griffen had only one year in which he finished with fewer than eight sacks. He might no longer be an every-down player—he played 78 percent of Minnesota's defensive snaps in 2019—but he has plenty to offer as a rotational piece.

    Griffen wants to return to the Vikings, according to KFAN's Paul Allen (h/t Will Ragatz of Inside the Vikings), although that appears to be a long shot. Some other team should take a flier on him if a Vikings reunion isn't in the cards.

    Best Fits: Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys

Russell Okung, OT

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    Russell Okung has been on the decline over the past few seasons, but he can still play a critical role on an offensive line. 

    A calf injury limited Okung to only seven games with the Carolina Panthers last season. He still mustered a 73.0 PFF grade despite allowing three sacks. 

    Health is the big red flag for Okung, as he's missed 19 games over the past two seasons. He suffered a pulmonary embolism during the 2019 offseason that jeopardized his NFL future, but he wound up returning and playing six games for the Los Angeles Chargers before getting traded to the Panthers in March 2020.

    Questions about his health have likely kept Okung on the market for now, but it only takes one injury in a training camp for a team to call him up as a potential fill-in.

    Best Fits: Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins

Mitchell Schwartz

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    Mitchell Schwartz started all 16 games for the Kansas City Chiefs from the 2016 through 2019 seasons, but a back injury limited him to only six starts last year. 

    In 2019, he allowed zero sacks on 1,046 snaps to finish with a 84.0 PFF grade, which put him just shy of Pro Bowler territory. Last season, he allowed two sacks in only 357 snaps to earn a 74.7 PFF grade, which put him on the lower end of the starter range. 

    The Chiefs released Schwartz in March to save roughly $6.3 million in salary-cap space. They proceeded to remake their offensive line by signing Joe Thuney and trading for Orlando Brown Jr.

    However, Schwartz was one of the NFL's best right tackles prior to last season, and he hadn't missed a game since 2012 until suffering his back injury. Whether it's as a full-time starter or a high-upside backup, some team should bring Schwartz in to bolster its offensive line.

    Best Fits: Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs 

Duke Johnson, RB

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Former star running backs such as Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley remain on the free-agent market. But Duke Johnson might be the better value. 

    Going into his age-28 season, Johnson is averaging 4.2 yards per carry for his career, and he has eight rushing touchdowns on only 459 attempts. But where he really shines is as a receiver.

    Johnson has caught 307 passes for 2,829 yards and 12 touchdowns over his six-year NFL career. He's also been targeted 60-plus times in five of his six seasons.  

    Johnson doesn't profile as an every-down running back, but he's an ideal third-down pass-catching weapon. He could provide a huge boost to a backfield committee.

    Best Fits: Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons

Justin Houston, Edge

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    After racking up 19 sacks over the past two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Justin Houston now finds himself looking for a new home.

    Houston is no longer the same player who led the league with 22 sacks in 2014, but he's now had 25 or more pressures for three straight seasons. He tallied 25 last year despite playing in only 59 percent of the Colts' defensive snaps. 

    The 32-year-old has notched at least 7.5 sacks in eight of his 10 NFL seasons. The lone exceptions were his rookie campaign and the 2016 season, during which he suited up only five times. 

    Houston has already turned down some offers, and "at least four teams" have reached out to him, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. Whichever team winds up landing him will receive an instant boost to its pass rush.

    Best Fits: Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers

Richard Sherman, CB

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Richard Sherman is a three-time All-Pro, Super Bowl winner and one of the premier defenders of his generation, but he has yet to find a team. The price point and his injury history and age likely played a role in would-be suitors' hesitance, but now he faces more serious questions. 

    Sherman was arrested in mid-July on five misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass (domestic violence), malicious mischief (domestic violence), resisting arrest, driving while under the influence and reckless endangerment of roadway workers. He apologized for his actions following the arrest but has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

    From a football perspective, the 33-year-old still has plenty to offer despite playing in only five games last year because of a calf injury. He earned an 88.9 PFF grade while starting 15 games in 2019, which nearly pushed him out of the "Pro Bowler" range and into the "elite" category. 

    Teams might have been willing to overlook Sherman's 2020 struggles because of his encouraging performance in 2019. However, his ongoing legal case could have a huge bearing on his chances of being signed.

    His next court date is scheduled for August 13, at which point we may have a better idea of his chances of playing this season.

    Best Fits: San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets