Best Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Impact 2021 Season

Alex KayContributor IOctober 9, 2021

Best Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Impact 2021 Season

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Injuries are piling up fast just one month into the NFL season.

    With so many notable players hitting injured reserve in recent weeks and more certain to wind up there in the coming months, it's critically important for teams to add depth.

    There aren't many quality free agents left on the open market, but there are still a handful of players who could contribute in 2021.

    With that in mind, here are the best free agents yet to be signed and some clubs they could land with in the coming weeks.

QB Cam Newton

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Cam Newton is the best quarterback on the market right now.

    After being released by the Patriots right before the campaign kicked off, the 10-year veteran is still without a home for 2021. That could change in the coming weeks as teams become more desperate for a proven signal-caller.

    Newton reportedly struggled to grasp New England's offensive system, but the 32-year-old could still thrive in the right situation.

    The 2015 league MVP is only three years removed from a respectable season with the Panthers. In 2018, Newton completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,395 yards and 24 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He also added 488 yards and four scores on the ground.

    While Newton dealt with injuries in 2019 and wasn't a fit schematically during his lone campaign with the Pats, he could provide value to a club willing to tailor the playbook to his strengths.

    One place Newton could wind up is Pittsburgh. The Steelers have limped to a 1-3 start with Ben Roethlisberger under center. Big Ben has only completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,033 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions while taking an unsightly 10 sacks. Getting the mobile Newton under center would help reduce those hits and open up the downfield offense a bit more. 

    ESPN's Mike Tannenbaum believes Pittsburgh needs to give Newton a shot, while former wideout Keyshawn Johnson thinks the Steelers should have already signed him.

    The Texans also may want to consider inking Newton. The team hasn't won a game since losing starter Tyrod Taylor and is slumping with rookie Davis Mills under center. Washington is short a quarterback with Alex Smith on IR and could bolster the QB room by signing Newton.

    With more quarterbacks likely to land on IR this year, it would be a shock if Newton doesn't get an offer floated his way before the season is over.

    Potential Landing Spots: Steelers, Texans, Washington

RB Todd Gurley

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    After making a trio of All-Pro teams and Pro Bowl appearances over his first five years, running back Todd Gurley is still unsigned.

    It may feel like Gurley has been in the league forever, but the veteran back is only 27 years old and ready to play in his seventh professional season.

    While the Georgia product saw his production dip during his lone year with the Falcons, he still punched in nine rushing touchdowns while gaining 678 yards on 195 carries. It was the fourth consecutive campaign with at least nine scores.

    Knee injuries may have cost Gurley the elusiveness and speed that earned him a pair of first-team All Pro nods in 2017 and 2018, but he still has the size and strength to be a standout goal-line back at this stage of his career.

    At 6'1", 224 pounds, Gurley can complement a more dynamic option in a platoon. A team like the Panthers, which have been dealing to injuries to star Christian McCaffrey and have little productive depth behind rookie Chuba Hubbard, would make sense here.

    The Ravens have been bleeding talent in their backfield, recently benching Ty'Son Williams after he went into 2021 as the starter. With J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards out for the season, Baltimore used a trio of Latavius Murray, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman to pound the rock in Week 4. The latter two were especially ineffective, combining for 15 yards on five touches.

    Even the red-hot Chargers could benefit from the bruising Gurley. The team has seen little production from the RB position outside of Austin Ekeler. Larry Rountree III is LA's second-leading rusher with a paltry 60 yards on 24 carries.

    Regardless of where he ends up, Gurley can still bring some toughness and hard running to the backfield. With seven teams scoring touchdowns on 50 percent or fewer of their red-zone trips, the hard-nosed back deserves a call.

    Potential Landing Spots: Panthers, Ravens, Chargers

WR Anthony Miller

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Teams that need to add talent to their wide-receiver room now have a new option.

    The Texans released Anthony Miller earlier this week, ending his tenure with the organization just one month into the season. The fourth-year wideout saw action in two contests, catching five of his 11 targets for 23 yards and a score.

    Miller has been a serviceable option in the slot for much of his career. He spent his first three years in Chicago, hauling in 134 receptions for 1,564 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    At just 26 years old, the Memphis product should still have plenty left in the tank. PFF graded him out at a solid 65.8 for his limited work in 2021, and he's never earned less than a 58.5 in any season.

    The Broncos make plenty of sense for Miller. Denver has been ravaged by injuries within its receiving corps, losing both Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler in recent weeks. Head coach Vic Fangio is familiar with Miller from their time together in Chicago, making this an ideal landing spot.

    Cleveland is also lacking a slot receiver with Jarvis Landry sidelined. Although Landry will be eligible to return soon, the club's leading receiver is currently Rashard Higgins with a pitiful 114 yards on eight catches. Even with Odell Beckham Jr. back in the fold, it's obvious the Browns need to improve Baker Mayfield's weapons to help the QB get back on track.

    The Saints may want to bring Miller in for a look. The squad is averaging an abysmal 144 passing yards per game, with only the Bears putting up less through the air in 2021. Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway have done their best in Michael Thomas' absence, but adding an intriguing slot receiver like Miller into the mix could help turn things around.  

    Potential Landing Spots: Broncos, Browns, Saints

OT Mitchell Schwartz

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    It's hard to comprehend why tackle Mitchell Schwartz still hasn't been signed considering how many teams are having offensive line problems right now.

    Schwartz, a 32-year-old who was released in March after spending a half-decade with the Chiefs, dealt with injuries that cost him 10 games in 2020. Prior to that, though,  he had never missed a contest, starting every game and playing nearly every snap over the first eight years of his career.

    Schwartz is still a major asset at one of the game's most important positions when healthy. He earned a respectable 74.7 grade from PFF last year and scored at least an 84.0 mark in each of the two seasons prior.

    Von Miller, Denver's future Hall of Fame pass-rusher, recently told Colin Cowherd that Schwartz was the toughest lineman he's ever clashed with:

    "I think the toughest challenge for me was Mitchell Schwartz. You wouldn't expect it. I think Mitchell Schwartz having a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes that could really play to Mitchell's angles—I had the toughest time with Mitchell Schwartz."

    There is no shortage of clubs that could benefit from Schwartz's presence.

    The Raiders saw their offensive line exposed on Monday, giving up a season-high four sacks to the rival Chargers. Rookie tackle Alex Leatherwood has especially struggled, drawing an ugly 31.1 PFF grade over his first four games.

    The Giants have lost two starters for a lengthy amount of time after Nick Gates and Shane Lemieux went down with injuries. Right tackle Nate Solder has played poorly after sitting out the 2020 campaign, earning a 51.5 PFF grade.

    The Panthers have predictably struggled with Cam Erving manning the left tackle spot. The journeyman has already given up a sack and taken three penalties, grading out at a 53.3 thus far. With new quarterback Sam Darnold taking 12 sacks—tied for sixth-most in the NFL—this unit sorely needs an upgrade.

    Those are just three of many franchises that would benefit immensely from adding a stalwart tackle. If he's fully recovered from February's back surgery, Schwartz needs to be signed immediately.

    Potential Landing Spots: Giants, Panthers, Raiders

EDGE Olivier Vernon

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    With pass-rushing talent so important and at such a premium in the modern NFL, a team could greatly benefit from adding Olivier Vernon later in the year.

    Vernon is coming off a strong 2020 campaign in which he recorded 36 tackles—12 for a loss—16 QB hits, nine sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a safety. He hurried the opposing signal-caller 12 times and knocked them down on seven occasions while forcing 28 total pressures across 805 snaps.

    Those are strong numbers and a major reason why PFF graded him out at a solid 74.8 in his second campaign with the Browns.

    Unfortunately, a ruptured Achilles tendon in the regular-season finale cost Vernon a chance to play in the postseason. While no prognosis has been revealed, the injury will likely keep him sidelined until late in the regular season—if he's able to return at all.

    Regardless, the 31-year-old is still a real asset when on the field. He could potentially provide a late-season spark as a sub-package rusher if healthy. 

    Teams like the Saints, which are hoping to contend despite a poor pass rush, should be checking in on Vernon. New Orleans has just six sacks, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL, through four games.

    The Packers make sense if Vernon is holding out for a top-tier contender. Green Bay has just seven sacks on the year and needs to up its edge-rushing capabilities to make a third consecutive NFC Championship Game.

    Even the Chiefs are struggling defensively after making back-to-back Super Bowls. Kansas City has seven sacks on the year and has given up over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns through the air.

    Vernon should eventually land with a squad that feels it is a pass-rusher away from making a leap. He's too talented to remain unsigned once he is recovered and ready to go.

    Potential Landing Spots: Chiefs, Packers, Saints

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