NFL Free Agents Who Can Help Fuel Playoff Runs in 2021
The NFL playoffs are still a few months out, but it's already becoming clear which potential participants are flawed.
Some teams appear poised for a postseason run but are still one or two pieces short of becoming a high-end Super Bowl contender. Others are going to have a tough time winning enough games to punch a playoff ticket unless they shore up some major areas of concern.
Fortunately for these squads, there are still notable free agents available who can help plug some of their most glaring holes.
With that in mind, here are some of the best unsigned talents who can come in, make an impact in the back half of the campaign and assist during a playoff run.
QB Cam Newton
There are teams out there that feature a strong enough defense to make a serious playoff run but are being held back by their quarterback situations.
Cam Newton offers hope for one of these slumping offenses. The 2015 league MVP is currently the top available signal-caller after his release by the Patriots.
Newton was a high-end starter as recently as 2018, when he completed 67.9 percent of his attempts for nearly 3,395 yards and 24 touchdowns. He dealt with injuries in 2019—his final season with the Panthers—and didn't fare well in his lone campaign with New England, but the 32-year-old could still produce in the right system.
The Browns and their run-heavy offense are a viable landing spot for Newton. The team leads the league in rushing offense and could become even more dangerous by deploying a quarterback who has 5,398 career rushing yards and 70 rushing touchdowns.
Browns starter Baker Mayfield missed Thursday's matchup with the Broncos because of a torn labrum and tuberosity fracture in his left shoulder.
Mayfield is targeting an Oct. 31 return to face the rival Steelers, per ESPN's Jake Trotter, but may not be at full strength in time for the Week 8 contest:
If I am not able to ... be 100 percent, that is where I would be out. I have to make that decision. Only I know how my body feels. If anyone questions whether I'm hindering the team and going out there injured, that's just not right. It's my decision. I get to say whether I am able to play or not, and that's just how it is.
Cleveland was already one of this season's most disappointing franchises even before Mayfield's injury, ranking near the bottom of the league in passing offense while getting off to a tepid 4-3 start.
The team still has postseason aspirations but may find it difficult with its No. 1 quarterback performing poorly prior to getting hurt. The Browns beat a sputtering Denver squad with Case Keenum, but the backup was hardly impressive in his first start, going 21-of-33 for 199 yards and a touchdown.
If Cleveland secures a higher-end backup like Newton, it could feel more comfortable giving Mayfield extra time to recover. Newton also makes for a strong insurance policy in case Mayfield misses a significant chunk of time with future injuries.
OT Russell Okung
Russell Okung may be on the wrong side of 30 and hasn't been a regular starter since 2018, but the offensive tackle still has what it takes to make an impact in the NFL.
He proved that last year during his seven-game stint with the Panthers, earning a commendable 73.0 Pro Football Focus grade across 406 snaps.
Okung, a two-time Pro Bowler, has dealt with injuries that cost him more than a season's worth of games between 2019 and 2020. While he may not be the most durable option, he's an ideal midseason pickup for an organization that feels it is an offensive lineman away from making a playoff run.
The Bears should be more desperate than any of the offensive-line-needy teams to sign the veteran.
Chicago is still well in contention at 3-3. The team snuck into the expanded 14-team playoffs last year and could make a run this year despite its current offensive line problems.
Shoring up the offensive trenches would significantly aid both the team's ability to win games and develop rookie quarterback Justin Fields. Fields and former starter Andy Dalton have taken an untenable 22 sacks—the most in the NFL—over the first six games of 2021.
Because of this, no team has been more impotent with the football than Chicago. The Bears are averaging an abysmal 246.2 yards per game, over 20 fewer yards than the second-worst offense. The Bears' 117.2 passing yards per game is unfathomable, clocking in more than 50 yards shy of the NFL's No. 31 unit.
Unsurprisingly, Chicago ranks in the bottom three in scoring as well, posting a meager 16.3 points per game.
While Okung won't be able to fix all these problems himself, signing the 33-year-old would be a step in the right direction. He could slot in almost anywhere on this line, protecting Fields and opening rushing lanes.
The 12-year veteran would be an ideal swing tackle and spot starter. Okung's steadying presence is exactly what Chicago needs to salvage its 2021 season.
OT Mitchell Schwartz
An offensive line can make or break a team's playoff run. Fortunately, there are still a few quality options available for teams desperate to improve in the offensive trenches after a poor start.
One of those is Mitchell Schwartz, the former Chiefs and Browns offensive tackle who remains unsigned while recovering from a back injury that cost him time last year.
Schwartz underwent surgery for the issue in February and said he's close to returning. He recently told the Arrowhead Addict podcast that he's nearly recovered and still considers himself an active player:
Yeah, I'd say still current NFL player. You know, I'm in the last stages of recovery here hoping to kind of get over this final hump. It's taken a little longer than I would have liked or we would have liked but once I'm 100 percent fully ready to go, I think I can make that decision and figure out what's next for me.
If Schwartz is 100 percent, he could immediately slot in and start for plenty of teams.
The Titans are in dire need of Schwartz's skill set. Kendall Lamm has been among the worst in football at the tackle spot during his limited snaps. Unfortunately, the team didn't have a better option after starter Taylor Lewan suffered a scary concussion in Week 6.
Lamm had a paltry 36.7 PFF grade grade going into Week 7. He's given up a sack and been flagged for two penalties in 45 snaps.
Only the Bears gave up more sacks than Tennessee's 20 through six weeks of play.
Signing Schwartz, who has been one of the most consistent tackles since being taken in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, would do wonders for this line. The 32-year-old was an iron man for the majority of his career, starting every game and playing almost every snap before the back injury ended his streak last season.
Schwartz would be a huge upgrade over Lamm and gets the Titans offense far more ready for a run regardless of which tackle spot he lines up at.
Edge Olivier Vernon
Because of this, the edge-rusher is likely to remain unsigned for a while longer. That doesn't mean he should be off the radar, as many contending organizations will want to keep tabs on Vernon's rehab progress.
If Vernon is healthy enough to suit up down the stretch, he could make a significant impact during the postseason.
No team would benefit more from a late-season Vernon addition than the Chiefs. The back-to-back AFC champions have not been able to get after the opposing quarterback, recording a disappointing eight sacks—tied for the fewest in the league—through six games.
Kansas City didn't manage a single sack between Weeks 5 and 6 and will have a tough time making a third consecutive Super Bowl without a viable pass rush.
If Vernon returns to full strength, he can bolster the edge in a big way. The 31-year-old had a quality 2020 season, notching 28 pressures, 16 quarterback hits, 12 hurries, nine sacks and seven knockdowns over 805 snaps.
The Chiefs desperately need a pass-rusher like Vernon to unleash on obvious passing downs. If they fail to add a player of his caliber, the team's playoff run may be short-lived or even nonexistent.
CB Brian Poole
Brian Poole was recently let go by the Saints, but it shouldn't be long before the veteran cornerback finds a new home.
There should be no shortage of suitors for Poole, arguably the top free-agent option at his position after he was released from injured reserve without playing a single snap in the Big Easy.
The 29-year-old earned a 77.1 PFF grade last year after he recorded 41 tackles and two interceptions while allowing 27 catches on 40 targets. It was the second season in a row and third time overall that the cornerback graded above a 73.6.
Poole, a slot specialist for most of his five-year career, has already visited the Patriots and Texans. The Buccaneers may want to bring him in for a workout after injuries have wreaked havoc on the cornerback room.
The position has been significantly depleted in recent weeks. The team lost a pair of Week 1 starters in Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting to quad and elbow injuries, respectively. The Bucs tried to shore up the position with a late-September signing of Richard Sherman, but the veteran went down with an injured hamstring after appearing in three games over a 12-day stretch.
With former practice-squad member Pierre Desir and Dee Delaney—now on his third team in three seasons after being out of football entirely last year—taking on substantial roles, the Bucs clearly need all the help they can get in their secondary.
Poole would be an asset for a defense that is allowing 280.8 passing yards per game, the seventh-worst mark in football. Tampa has given up 14 receiving touchdowns on the season, tying the club for the sixth-most in the NFL.
The Bucs have a strong enough offense to run it back, but it will be tough to win another Super Bowl if their secondary can't stop any elite receivers. Poole can aid in that effort and deserves a shot to prove it for Tampa.
All stats and rankings courtesy of Pro Football Reference and accurate entering play Sunday, Oct. 24.