In an NFL offseason that has already produced plenty of fireworks, more are on the way as free agency looms large. Teams are working hard to create cap space after COVID-19 impacted league revenue streams and led to a sizable drop in the salary cap for the 2021 season. While the general buzz around the NFL is that top players will still see big-money deals, it is the next tier of players likely to get squeezed by the financial shortcomings for each franchise.
With the league’s legal tampering window opening Monday and free agency officially kicking off Wednesday, I decided to rank the top 25 free agents and work out a logical landing spot for each of them. Players who received the franchise tag were not included and this list is updated through Sunday night. There is still a possibility teams could announce a deal to bring back a player before they ever hit the open market, much like the Packers recently did with Aaron Jones.
Keep in mind, these are not necessarily predictions for where each player will land, rather a look at good fits for team and athlete to find success. I took into account each team’s cap space and the financial figures I reference throughout are pulled from Spotrac and updated through Sunday night. Without further ado, here are my top 25 free agents for the 2021 NFL offseason.
1. Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, TB – Broncos
Shaq Barrett proved he was much more than a one-season wonder. He did not come anywhere close to replicating his outrageous 19.5-sack 2019 season, but he racked up eight sacks in the regular season and four more in the playoffs. While the Buccaneers seem determined to keep him, a return to Denver could be in the cards. With Von Miller in flux and the Broncos needing a pass rusher to play across from Bradley Chubb, Barrett could be a logical fit. He fits the prototypical build of a 3-4 outside linebacker for Vic Fangio. With an estimated $32.6 in projected cap space, the Broncos will be able to make Barrett one of the top-paid edge players in the league. Editor’s note: Barrett has re-signed with the Buccaneers.
2. Trent Williams, OT, SF – Colts
I expect San Francisco to make a big push to re-sign Trent Williams, but the Colts have $48 million in cap space after acquiring Carson Wentz and a major hole at left tackle with Anthony Costanzo’s retirement. Williams turns 33 in July, so he is not willing to wait around for a team to grow into a championship window. Indianapolis wants to run the ball and Williams is still one of the better run blocking tackles in the league. This would allow Chris Ballard to target an edge rusher or receiver in the draft while locking up a premier player at a huge position of need.
3. Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, BAL – Bills
There was plenty of buzz about Buffalo being a logical landing spot for J.J. Watt, but with the former Texan headed for the desert, the Bills should be in play for another top edge defender. While Buffalo does not have a ton of cap space, it can move on from John Brown and Mario Addison to free up some space. After a run to the AFC Championship game, I expect Brandon Beane to be active in looking for ways to improve the roster. Yannick Ngakoue is still one of the best defensive ends in football. He could play across from Jerry Hughes and eventually A.J. Epenesa. He has had at least eight sacks in each of his five seasons so far. This would be a slam dunk move for Buffalo.
4. Bud Dupree, EDGE, PIT – Falcons
It took him a few years, but Bud Dupree is now the pass rusher the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round back in 2015. He has 19.5 sacks over his past 27 games, including eight in just 11 games in 2020. He was on pace for a monster season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Atlanta has been looking for an answer at pass rusher for years now. They have to resolve some cap issues, but Dupree could transform this defense. The Falcons also have the No. 4 pick to find a potential pass rusher to play across from him. New defensive coordinator Dean Pees is known for his ability to scheme pressure, which would only bode well for Dupree’s future success.
5. Kenny Golladay, WR, DET – Patriots
With Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson both receiving the franchise tag, the top of the wide receiver market took a major hit. Golladay is clearly the best option available now. His 2020 season was cut short by injury, but he showed in 2019 that he can be a team’s top target. He had nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season. There is no team in the league that has a greater need at receiver than the New England Patriots. It just so happens, the Pats have roughly $65 million in cap space. Spending a chunk of that to grab a reliable outside receiver for Cam Newton, and whoever the quarterback of the future is, would be a great move to rejuvenate the offense.
6. Joe Thuney, G, NE – Jets
Whether Sam Darnold is the quarterback in 2021 or not, the Jets need to improve the offensive line. New York finished in the top 10 in sacks allowed in 2020 and both of their starting guards, Alex Lewis and Greg Van Roten, can be released with little cap implications. It would actually open up more space for a franchise already projected to have just shy of $70 million in signing power. Targeting Joe Thuney would make a ton of sense to help bolster the interior of the line. He played the 2020 season on the franchise tag and Joe Douglas seems willing to spend money to build an offensive line. If Thuney is looking for a lucrative long-term deal, the Jets could be more than willing to give it to him.
7. Corey Linsley, C, GB – Ravens
The Packers would love to bring back Corey Linsley, but Green Bay lacks a ton of cap space and could have more pressing needs. Elgton Jenkins played center in college and spent some time there this season when injuries cropped up. As a result, I could see Linsley finding his way to Baltimore to protect Lamar Jackson. The Ravens had issues at center all season long and Linsley would bring some much needed stability to the position. It does not solve all of Baltimore’s problems, but it would be a smart move to bolster their interior offensive line.
8. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, KC – Seahawks
While there are certainly injury concerns here to monitor, Mitchell Schwartz is one of the best right tackles in football. He made All-Pro in 2018 and has been a large part of why the Chiefs have been so successful offensively in recent seasons. Just go back and rewatch the Super Bowl to understand the impact of not having him on the field. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Russell Wilson went public with his concerns over Seattle’s offensive line. With $21 million in cap space, and Schwartz possibly coming at a discount due to the injury, this could be a great move for the front office to show Wilson it is listening to him. Schwartz would be a massive upgrade over Brandon Shell.
9. Will Fuller, WR, HOU – Chargers
Justin Herbert had a stunning rookie season and the Chargers seem poised for a jump in 2020. In order to see Herbert’s success continue, L.A. needs to surround him with talent at receiver. Will Fuller had a phenomenal year in his own right, but did get tagged with a PED suspension, which carries over to Week 1 in 2021. With Deshaun Watson intent on forcing his way out of Houston, Fuller should consider linking up with another young quarterback. Herbert has a strong arm and Fuller would give him a consistent deep threat that the offense lacked for much of the year. Herbert’s average depth of target was 24th in the league among qualified passers. Fuller would be a perfect complement across from Keenan Allen.
10. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, TEN – Cowboys
Dallas’ defense was one of the worst in the NFL this past season. The Cowboys surrendered five yards per carry in 2020, the third-worst mark in the league. Tyrone Crawford is headed for free agency and the front office needs to devote some resources to reshaping the defense. A great move would be landing Jadeveon Clowney. He is not the elite pass rusher many hoped he would develop into, but the former No. 1 pick is an elite run defender. Playing across from DeMarcus Lawrence likely wouldn’t hurt either. Tennessee signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal in 2020. Another short-term, “prove it” deal could be in play for Clowney, especially after an injury-derailed season.
11. Carl Lawson, EDGE, CIN – Bengals
On the surface, Carl Lawson’s numbers might not jump off the page. He had 5.5 sacks in 2020, his most since his rookie season in 2017. Dive a little deeper and you will see that Lawson had 44 pressures this past season, which was the fourth most in the NFL. One fewer than Aaron Donald and Joey Bosa. That grabs your attention. How about him leading the league in quarterback knockdowns with 27? Lawson is clearly a top-tier pass rusher, even if his sack numbers don’t show it yet. With a solid amount of cap space, the Bengals would be wise to bring him back. If he does hit the open market, expect the Jets, Patriots, Titans and Raiders to all be interested in securing his services.
12. Dalvin Tomlinson, DL, NYG – Jaguars
I think the Giants will make a strong push to keep him, but without much cap space and other needs on the defense, there is a good chance they won’t be able to afford bringing Dalvin Tomlinson back. The former Alabama defensive tackle is the best interior run stopper in this free agent class. He has 15 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Tomlinson chips in as a pass rusher as well, with 3.5 sacks in 2019 and 2020. Jacksonville’s run defense was horrendous this past season, allowing the third-most yards per game and sixth most yards per carry. Adding Tomlinson to plug up the middle would only increase the effectiveness of Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson on the outside.
13. John Johnson, S, LAR – Raiders
Safety has been a sore spot for the Raiders in recent years. Johnathan Abrams and Erik Harris struggled as starters in 2020 and Las Vegas does not have much in the way of proven depth behind them. John Johnson could be a reliable long-term answer. Outside of an injury-shortened 2019 season, Johnson has been a fixture for the Rams. He is a willing tackler and can more than hold his own in coverage. He is not the flashiest player available, but there is no question he would be a major upgrade over what the Raiders have been working with in previous seasons. Los Angeles will be sad to see him go, but is currently a projected $32 million over the cap.
14. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, PIT – Giants
Is Daniel Jones a franchise quarterback? For now, the Giants are acting under the assumption that he is. In order to truly evaluate Jones, he needs more consistent talent around him. Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate and Evan Engram have all struggled with injuries over the past few seasons. Finding Jones a reliable target like JuJu Smith-Schuster could make a world of difference. While he has been able to repeat his incredible 2018 season, Smith-Schuster has become one of the best possession receivers in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger actually had a slightly better passer rating this past season when targeting JuJu than he did in 2018. Finding a security blanket for Jones is a huge priority. Signing Smith-Schuster will be expensive, but probably not at the top of the receiver market.
15. Matt Judon, EDGE, BAL – Buccaneers
If Shaquil Barrett leaves in free agency, bringing in Matt Judon would be a really solid consolation prize. He excelled in Baltimore’s blitz-happy defensive scheme, which should translate well to Todd Bowles’ blitz-happy scheme in Tampa. Judon would give the Buccaneers another productive pass rusher to lineup across from Jason Pierre-Paul and will probably cost a little bit less to sign than Barrett. He might not be quite as prolific, but with at least six sacks in each of his past four seasons, he would be a great chess piece for Bowles to unleash.
16. Trey Hendrickson, EDGE, NO – Lions
Much like Leonard Floyd, Trey Hendrickson had a breakout 2020 season and had a position coach with his team take a head-coaching job elsewhere. Not only does Hendrickson have familiarity with Dan Campbell, he would fill a position of need for the Lions defense. Detroit has been desperately searching for an edge rusher for years. I don’t know that Hendrickson will be the answer to all their prayers, but he would represent a nice start to rebuilding Detroit’s defense.
17. Hunter Henry, TE, LAC – Chargers
This move would mostly be about keeping some continuity around Justin Herbert. It is clear the reigning Rookie of the Year has talent, but with a new head coach and new system being installed, finding some familiarity for him to fall back on is important. Plus, Henry has quietly been a very productive tight end over the past two seasons. He still struggles with injuries, but he has mostly been available, posting back-to-back 600-yard seasons. He is not as sexy or talented as Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, but Henry gets the job done. With $51 million in cap space, the Chargers should have the room necessary to bring him back on a reasonable deal. Something in line with Austin Hooper’s four-year, $42 million deal from last season feels like a good template.
18. Romeo Okwara, EDGE, DET – Browns
Cleveland desperately needs an edge rusher across from Myles Garrett. Romeo Okwara is coming off a 10-sack season and feels like a clean fit in the Browns’ 4-3 scheme. He would benefit from not being the center of attention as well, as he often had little help rushing the passer in Detroit. It is not as big a move as landing J.J. Watt or Shaquil Barrett, but Okwara would be a solid starter. This move would also free the front office up to target some help in the secondary or at linebacker in the NFL Draft.
19. Jonnu Smith, TE, TEN – Jaguars
The Jaguars have not had good production at the tight end position since Marcedes Lewis left town, and that was in 2018. The presumption is Trevor Lawrence will be the new quarterback in Jacksonville and the Titans need to build out his supporting cast. With plenty of money to spend, Jonnu Smith would be a logical target. The Jags are plenty familiar with him having played against him for the past four years. He is a dominant presence in the red zone. He and Collin Johnson could be a problem for opposing defenses close to the goal line.
20. William Jackson, CB, CIN – Bengals
Flying under the radar a bit, William Jackson is coming off a career year where he finally seemed to live up to his first-round pick status. He has steadily improved in coverage and should be one of the top corners available on the market. Quality cornerbacks are hard to come by as well. Cincinnati would be smart to bring him back before anyone else gets a chance to poach him. With over $44 million in cap space, the Bengals should have no problem finding the money to make a deal.
21. Anthony Harris, S, MIN – Browns
With the offense mostly set in Cleveland, the Browns feel very close to being a win-now team. With a couple of savvy free agent additions to the defense, this team should be well-positioned to build off its 2020 success. Safety was a weak spot for the Browns this past year. Andrew Sendejo failed miserably while Ronnie Harrison felt like a band-aid solution. Grant Delpit also missed the whole year due to injury. Anthony Harris would help stabilize things. He did not have quite as strong of a season as he did in 2019, but he is still difficult to beat in coverage and has a nose for the football. With experience at both safety spots, he could start alongside Delpit or another draft pick and turn the position into a strength for the defense.
22. Leonard Floyd, EDGE, LAR – Chargers
Sometimes, the NFL is very simple. Leonard Floyd had a breakout year in Los Angeles, racking up 10.5 sacks in his first year with the Rams. While Les Snead would undoubtedly love to bring him back, L.A. is a projected $32.1 million over the cap. So where will Floyd land? How about in the same city? His defensive coordinator just became the new head coach of the other team in town. The Chargers are in the market for someone to play across from Joey Bosa. Assuming that Brandon Staley brings his 3-4 system with him from the Rams, Floyd would be a logical fit in one of those outside linebacker spots.
23. Corey Davis, WR, TEN – Colts
T.Y. Hilton is headed for free agency, as is Zach Pascal. Even so, the Colts still would need wide receiver help. Indianapolis already acquired one top-five selection this offseason, why not add another? Corey Davis broke out in a big way in 2020. He still has not lived up to his original draft slot, but posting nearly 1,000 yards receiving in 14 games is bound to earn him another contract somewhere. At 6’3″, he would give the Colts some much-needed size at the position and a potential big-play threat.
24. David Andrews, C, NE – Patriots
New England seems set to let Joe Thuney walk after not franchise tagging him, but the Patriots must make some moves to keep its offensive line intact. They already brought back Trent Brown via trade on a restructured deal. After missing 2019 with blood clots in his lungs, David Andrews returned and played well in 2020. New England has plenty of other question marks on offense. Bringing back Andrews prevents one more from popping up.
25. Richard Sherman, CB, SF – Raiders
While many predict Richard Sherman will follow Robert Saleh to New York, I think he could stay a little closer to home. Sherman is from Compton, went to Stanford and has spent his entire NFL career in Seattle or San Francisco. I’m not saying he couldn’t switch coasts, but I think he would be very happy to stick in the Pacific time zone. Las Vegas is also in desperate need of corner help. The Raiders have to make a few moves to open up some cap space, but signing Sherman to a modest deal should be feasible. Add in that Las Vegas’ new defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, architect of the Legion of Boom, and I think this is a perfect fit.