The Best NFL Free Agent Still on the Market at Every Position
Now that the NFL season has started, there's unsurprisingly a dearth of talent on the free-agent market. After all, most big-name FAs get signed at the start of the new league year in March.
But help can still arrive.
Each year, there are a handful of veterans who waited for an opportunity to arise or didn't it make it through the preseason roster purge for whatever reason. They're short-term solutions to be sure. At the same time, they're competent enough to provide stability when a team faces difficulties.
At every position, a veteran presence remains available for an organization to sign and get an immediate return. Here are those options.
Quarterback: Cam Newton
Cam Newton understands the baggage he will bring to another team. He's a former No. 1 overall pick, Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP. He's been a starter his entire career and relatively successful in the role.
However, the 32-year-old quarterback has reached the next stage of his career and has seemingly come to grips with the reality of the situation.
"If they would have asked me, 'Would I play behind [Mac Jones]? They say, 'Cam, we're going to give the team to Mac, you're going to be second string. We expect you to be everything and then some to guide him throughout this tenure.' I would have said 'absolutely,'" Newton said during an interview orchestrated with his father. "But listen, the truth of the matter is this: He would have been uncomfortable. And they knew. And it comes by the mere fact of me being me."
The Patriots chose to release last year's starter and move on with the first-round rookie as their point man. The move is understandable considering they invested this year's 15th overall draft pick in the Alabama product.
Typically, a ready-made starter isn't available once the regular season begins. An injury to a team's QB1 tends to be a death sentence. Newton can be a legitimate fallback plan. On his end, he can be patient to see what options come available.
At this juncture, Newton isn't the same quarterback he once was. He's comfortable taking a back seat and said as much. Yet he can be a short-term solution for a team desperately trying to stay afloat if/when an injury occurs to its current starting signal-caller.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson
Since leaving the Minnesota Vikings after the 2016 season, future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson has bounced between four different teams and remains unsigned. Sometimes, a once-great player turning into a journeyman can become a sad sight. In Peterson's case, he's still a viable option looking to make the most out of what's left of his career.
Clearly, the 36-year-old ball-carrier isn't done with football. He's looking for the right situation, such as a Super Bowl contender with a need in the backfield.
"The training is going well, and I'm going to control the things that I can control right now, and, when that time comes, somebody will give me a call," Peterson said in July.
"I've been chasing [a Super Bowl] for a long time," Peterson added. "It would be nice to finally get one."
Over his last three seasons, the 2012 MVP carried the ball 618 times for 2,544 yards, a respectable 4.1 yards per carry (considering his age).
Peterson's impressive physique and tireless work ethic are legendary. He'll be prepared if given another chance.
"My body feels good. I came out healthy from last season," he said. "My body feels strong. I still feel young. I still feel good. I'm ready to play ball."
The 14-year veteran just needs someone to put the ball in his court so he can run with it.
Wide Receiver: John Brown
John Brown asked for and received his release from the Las Vegas Raiders after signing a one-year deal with the team as a free agent this offseason.
The move came as a shock.
"The biggest factor was, I had to think about my career," Brown said after agreeing to terms, per Pro Football Talk's Myles Simmons. "I actually turned down more money to come here. I felt like it was the best decision for my career, so I had to put everything else aside and had to try to decide what would make me happy at the end of the day."
Brown didn't take into account the continued development and organizational preference to feature the Raiders' young targets in Jon Gruden's offensive scheme. Las Vegas is invested in Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow, and the head coach has raved about each of them over the last year or so. They were always going to be the Raiders' top three options.
Once Willie Snead IV and Zay Jones were thrown into the mix, Brown saw the writing on the wall.
The 31-year-old's greatest asset has always been his speed. Brown is a vertical threat. He can still be a viable option within a passing game. After all, he had 1,060 yards with the Buffalo Bills in 2019. Granted, Brown probably won't produce at that level anymore, but he's still a capable option.
Larry Fitzgerald and Golden Tate remain available as well, but both are older and must decide if they still want to play, particularly in Fitzgerald's case. Maybe a franchise takes yet another chance on Josh Gordon.
Tight End: Tyler Eifert
Once upon a time, Tyler Eifert was an elite tight end. His career hasn't experienced a storybook ending, though.
After posting 13 touchdown catches in 2015 and earning a Pro Bowl nod, Eifert suffered through three injury-plagued seasons before bouncing back and playing 16 games in 2019. He signed a two-year, free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars the following offseason.
The Jags didn't pick up his option this offseason, though.
The most important stat for Eifert at this point in his career is games played. Over the last two seasons, the tight end participated in all but one contest. The injuries appear to be in the past even though he's now 31 years old.
Eifert remains a threat in the passing game. The eight year-veteran caught 79 passes for 785 yards over the last two seasons. He may not be the mismatch he once was, yet he can still find the soft spots in the zone and serve as a security blanket for a quarterback if needed.
Comparatively, there's no one else on the market who can provide anything similar to Eifert. When Josh Hill and Virgil Green are the best remaining options, teams in need of tight end help better call Eifert sooner rather than later or risk missing out on the one option that can legitimately start and help an offense.
Offensive Line: Russell Okung
A lack of quality offensive line depth is an NFL plague. Most teams struggle to field five reliable blockers, let alone have two or three more capable backups on the roster. Thus, quality free-agent options are nearly non-existent.
Russell Okung is a rare exception, though his price tag is likely off-putting for those in search of offensive tackle help.
Okung, who serves as his own agent, made no bones about his demands when ESPN's Bill Barnwell predicted he'd eventually join the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Truth is they cannot afford me," Okung tweeted in May.
Desperation changes minds quickly. Maybe Okung's asking price turned off potential suitors before the regular season began. As injuries occur and teams scramble to put together a manageable front five, the price tag could become far more palatable.
Pro Football Network's Adam H. Beasley reported that Okung expects to remain "super-patient" and isn't "desperate to play in 2021."
The soon-to-be 33-year-old left tackle dealt with blood clots and then a calf injury the last two seasons and participated in only 13 games. Still, he played relatively well when on the field.
Left tackle is a premium position and Okung can secure the spot.
Defensive Line: Geno Atkins
The Cincinnati Bengals disrespected one of the franchise's all-time greats with their handling of Geno Atkins this past year.
Despite eight Pro Bowl appearances and being the best defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald for nearly a decade, the Bengals chose to go in another direction last season. Atkins found himself out of the starting lineup and used exclusively as a part-time, sub-package pass-rusher. At the time, sources told the Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon that the coaching staff thought it was "what's best for the team," and Atkins was reportedly upset with the decision.
Eventually, a shoulder injury ended his season. Before then, Atkins graded as the game's third-best interior defender in his limited opportunities, according to Pro Football Focus.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the defensive tackle was cleared for all football activity in June.
Ironically, Atkins shouldn't be viewed as an every-down defender once he joins a new team. He can still be a highly effective and disruptive defensive tackle. Considering his recent injury history and the fact he'd be a late signing, the 33-year-old could be an integral part of some team's defensive line rotation.
As for edge-rushers, the pickings are slim. Olivier Vernon is available, but he's still recovering from last season's torn Achilles, which he suffered in Week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He could be a possible midseason addition for a squad in need of a little more juice from its pass rush.
Linebacker: Benardrick McKinney
The Miami Dolphins traded a sixth-round draft pick and Shaq Lawson to the Houston Texans for Benardrick McKinney and a seventh-round selection back in March.
Miami released the linebacker just five months later. Basically, the team wanted to dump salary, and it did so effectively by getting two large contracts off the books.
However, the 28-year-old McKinney can still man the middle of a defense. Prior to 2020, when he experienced a season-ending shoulder injury, McKinney averaged 107.5 total tackles per season from 2016-19.
His performance warranted a five-year, $50 million contract extension with the Texans back in 2018, but a new regime wanted to shed salary. The Dolphins did the same and even reworked his contract to reduce his salary before eventually releasing him.
From there, McKinney looked relatively good throughout training camp. According to Kyle Crabbs of USA Today's Dolphins Wire, McKinney impressed in summer sessions.
"I just want to prove to myself that I still can play, and that I'm a big inside linebacker who can help defenses win games," McKinney told reporters in July. "Be the leader that I am and fly around and make plays. ... Whatever happens happens."
The seven-year veteran does have limitations working in space since he's a hard-nosed middle linebacker who's at his best working between the tackles. But he brings plenty of toughness and physicality when playing downhill. A team will know exactly what it's getting in McKinney if/when he's signed.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman
From an on-field perspective, Richard Sherman is the best available free agent at any position.
Since turning 31 in 2019, Sherman has posted the second-highest coverage grade among all NFL cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Now 33 years old, the five-time Pro Bowler laid out his career plans at the beginning of the offseason.
"I only want to play two more [seasons]," Sherman told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith (h/t ESPN's Nick Wagoner). "I want to get on a competitive team. I think I still have a lot to give to the game. I think I still have a lot that I want to accomplish and I think I can go out there and help a defense come together like it should and reach their potential, reach the heights that the defenses that I've played on have reached."
Potential fits likely dwindled based on Sherman being charged in July with five misdemeanors of driving under the influence, reckless endangerment of roadway workers, criminal trespass in the second degree (domestic violence designation), resisting arrest and malicious mischief in the third degree (domestic violence designation).
The cornerback allegedly attempted to break into his wife's parents' home and was said to have resisted when officers made physical contact with him. According to NFL.com's Grant Gordon, "Public documents detailing the events ... describe Sherman as allegedly suicidal."
Sherman pleaded not guilty to the charges and addressed the situation through social media.
"I am deeply remorseful for my actions on Tuesday night," he wrote in a statement. "I behaved in a manner I am not proud of. I have been dealing with some personal challenges over the last several months, but that is not an excuse for how I acted. The importance of mental and emotional health is extremely real and I vow to get the help I need."
If the conclusion to Sherman's legal situation enables him to play and he is healthy, he could land with a new team (or old one).
Safety: Tre Boston
Tre Boston had finally found a home—or so it seemed.
The safety has never been a priority free agent. Between 2017-19, he didn't sign with a team before May. In the latter of those two seasons, his free agency lasted well into July.
Eventually, Boston's return to the Carolina Panthers appeared to pay off with a three-year contract extension. But the defensive back played just one year of the deal before the organization released him.
Carolina didn't properly utilize Boston in head coach Matt Rhule's first season at the helm. As Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo noted, the Panthers used him much more around the line of scrimmage than any team had in previous seasons.
Boston excels as a free safety working along the back line. His best attribute revolves around being a sideline-to-sideline coverage defender. He's not nearly as effective in or near the box. As such, the veteran became expendable when the staff decided to move Jeremy Chinn from linebacker to safety.
"Tre is just flat out tough and he's smart," Panthers secondary coach Jason Simmons told reporters after Boston re-signed last offseason. "... He has a natural and a real energy. It's authentic and invigorating."
The wait for an interested suitor to appear is nothing new for the 29-year-old defensive back, and Boston has been patient in the past. Before signing another deal, he needs to find a situation where he'll be used correctly to maximize his skill set and earning potential.