NFLTR Review: Top 2021 Free Agents, Realistic Edition

     

Happy Friday once again as we’re pumped to bring you another edition of NFLTR Review! This week’s issue includes:

  • A look at the top 2021 free agents who could actually be available in March
  • The Broncos’ newest practice squad player who was grinding 10 years to get his first NFL shot
  • The latest on what’s going on around the league with various coaching and GM searches

Top Free Agents Realistically Available

I love reading the lists of top free agents every year as we enter roster-building season but one of my biggest pet peeves is how they’re not always the best gauge of the players who will be available. For instance, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is clearly the top quarterback and best player on an expiring contract, but everyone and their momma knows Jerry Jones would sink his yacht before letting Prescott hit the market. Dallas will either tag Prescott or sign him to a long-term deal. 

Plenty of other top free agents won’t make it to free agency either, as teams are incentivized not to let their talent walk for nothing and equipped with mechanisms like the franchise tag to do it. But some will. We keep our ears to the ground here at NFLTR, listening to what teams and beat reporters are saying and connecting the dots to try and get at the big picture. 

So here’s a more realistic look at the 2021 free-agent market, based partially off our Top 50 – 2021 Free Agents. If your favorite team has money to spend or a glaring need at a particular position, here’s what the landscape of players available at each position could look like. 

Quarterback: 

  • Cam Newton
  • Jameis Winston
  • Jacoby Brissett
  • Andy Dalton
  • Mitchell Trubisky

Last year’s free-agent bonanza at quarterback was one-of-a-kind. 2021 will come back to earth in a number of ways. Prescott won’t sniff the market and I would bet on Philip Rivers either signing another one-year deal with the Colts or taking his career off-ramp into high school coaching. The legitimate wildcard here is Newton. 

Thursday night’s 24-3 loss to the Rams was the second time Newton has been benched this season. It was the third time he’s completed single digit passes and the third time he’s failed to account for a touchdown. At 6-7, the Patriots are on the verge of elimination from playoff contention. 

There are mitigating factors. Newton’s rushing ability has often been the only thing keeping the offense afloat as there’s a complete lack of talent at wide receiver and tight end. A full offseason could also do wonders for Newton, who came in playing catchup and wasn’t helped by a bout with COVID-19. There are quite a few plays every game where he shows he could still be an effective quarterback even if he’s no longer the MVP-caliber player he once was.

But there’s no guarantee Newton comes back to the Patriots in 2021. The franchise tag is an option and the Patriots can certainly afford it. They could also let him test the market and risk him signing elsewhere to try and get a lower deal. There are three games left for Newton to prove he deserves the tag and another chance with a reloaded Patriots team. 

That leaves the roulette of former, failed starters. Winston might have the most potential, though New Orleans electing to go with Taysom Hill and his 18 career passing attempts doesn’t say good things about Winston’s work behind the scenes. Trubisky, Dalton and Brissett are likely looking at backup jobs with the hope to get a spot start or two and put out some good tape. If your team needs anything beyond a backup this year, you’ll need to spend a draft pick. 

Running Back: 

  • Aaron Jones
  • Chris Carson
  • James Conner
  • Kenyan Drake
  • Le’Veon Bell

This is the group that will once again test the waters that have proven to be choppy for running backs. The going rate for the top running backs was shown to be around $12 million this summer, as Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara all signed deals in that range. With the exception of Jones, none of these players will sniff that number, and Jones isn’t getting that from the Packers. 

Right now, most signs point to Carson and Conner trying to cash in on a big second contract in free agency. But there are still viable paths for each to remain in place. Conner has deep Pittsburgh roots dating back to his youth and he might be willing to accept a figure that accommodates the Steelers’ cap constraints. And the Seahawks still place a high enough premium on both the value of the run game and Carson himself to where it’s not hard to see them eventually reaching an accord. 

Drake has been playing out this season on the transition tag and while his total stats have been solid, his efficiency has dropped. He’ll also be 27 next year, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of interest he generates, either from Arizona or elsewhere. Bell was likely hoping for a bigger role with the Chiefs to revitalize his stock and result in another significant contract. 

Wide Receiver:

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • Corey Davis
  • Sammy Watkins
  • Curtis Samuel
  • Marvin Jones
  • T.Y. Hilton
  • A.J. Green
  • Nelson Agholor
  • Breshad Perriman
  • John Ross

This right here is a perfect example of why a list like this is needed. The list of receivers on expiring contracts includes stars like Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay and Will Fuller, but odds are none of those guys will make it to free agency given how in-demand elite wide receivers are. And while the market has surged to $18-$20 million a year for top wideouts, circumstances surrounding the pandemic mean using the franchise tag to buy more negotiation time will cost just over $15 million in most circumstances. 

Godwin and Golladay will likely be tagged as Tampa Bay and Detroit negotiate long-term deals. Robinson’s tag would be higher due to the 120 percent previous salary provision but it’s still hard to see the Bears letting him walk for nothing. And there’s been increased momentum in Houston in recent weeks, especially from Deshaun Watson, to keep Fuller in town

That leaves Smith-Schuster as the clear top-dog on the market this spring. Steelers beat writers have been reporting the Steelers are unlikely to re-sign him for a number of reasons, but he should find plenty of suitors elsewhere. Behind him, Davis is poised to capitalize on a breakout 2020 after the Titans declined his fifth-year option. Watkins could look for another payday and a chance to be a No. 1 somewhere. If he returns to the Chiefs, it’ll have to be for cheap. Samuel is another player who could find more money and a bigger role in a receiver-starved market. 

After that, there’s a variety of veterans who could be contributors. Jones and Green don’t fit their team’s current rebuild movements. Hilton hasn’t been as productive and the Colts haven’t had any contract talks with the 31-year-old. Agholor, Perriman and Ross are all former first-round picks looking for a fresh start and who could still be viable No. 3 receivers. 

Tight End:

  • Gerald Everett
  • Jared Cook
  • Trey Burton
  • Jordan Reed
  • Greg Olsen

It’s shaping up to be a really sparse tight end market. Titans TE Jonnu Smith and Chargers TE Hunter Henry will be priorities for their teams and franchise tag candidates given the tender for tight ends isn’t prohibitive, even if it would be the second straight year on the tag for Henry. Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski is also a free agent, but the only quarterback he’ll be catching passes from is Tom Brady

Everett is an intriguing option who the Rams are unlikely to have room to re-sign, though. He’s physically talented but hasn’t quite been able to put it all together. Cook could be a solid role player for a team if he’s priced out of New Orleans. Burton has had some flashes for the Colts but likely fits best as a No. 2 tight end given his issues staying healthy. The same is true for Reed and Olsen, though Reed’s injury history is terrifying and Olsen’s body seems to be failing him. 

Offensive Tackle: 

  • Taylor Moton
  • Alejandro Villanueva
  • Cam Robinson
  • Russell Okung
  • Daryl Williams

Like receivers, the NFL is starved for quality tackles and the pickings in free agency are usually slim. This year isn’t that different. 49ers LT Trent Williams is the top option potentially available but he’s likely San Francisco’s top offseason priority. Williams does have a no-tag clause in his deal, which is worth noting. 

Moton is the type of player who usually doesn’t come close to sniffing the market. However, the Panthers have yet to open extension talks with him and might not be comfortable with his asking price. Another team will be if he hits the market, $15 million a year will be the floor and he could possibly get a lot more. 

The Steelers need to get younger on the line and re-signing other free agents than Villanueva could be higher on Pittsburgh’s priority list. Money won’t stop the Jaguars from re-signing Robinson if they want. His performance and injury history might. Okung doesn’t fit Carolina’s youth movement even though his performance has been solid and the Bills likely won’t have the money to re-sign Williams, so either would present solid, middle-tier starters for teams in need. 

Guard: 

  • Joe Thuney
  • Mike Iupati
  • Lane Taylor
  • Germain Ifedi
  • Kelechi Osemele

Some guys who appear to have good chances to re-sign with their original teams include Washington G Brandon Scherff and Steelers OL Matt Feiler. Scherff won’t be cheap and played out 2020 on a $15 million franchise tag, but HC Ron Rivera appears to be impressed with him as a part of his efforts to change the team’s culture. Feiler is a homegrown player who kicked over to guard from right tackle this year. He won’t break the bank and has valuable versatility for the Steelers. 

Thuney was the top free-agent guard projected to be available last year when the Patriots surprisingly hit him with the franchise tag. New England has a ton of cap space available next year and could theoretically tag Thuney again if they don’t reach a long-term deal, albeit for north of $17 million when the market hasn’t yet hit $15 million. But with a large contract already invested in G Shaq Mason, that’d be a lot for the Patriots to tie up in one position. 

Thuney will likely cost around $15 million a year but the rest of the potential guard available should be much more cost-effective. Iupati and Taylor have both had good seasons when healthy but could be pushed out by younger, cheaper options in Seattle and Green Bay. Ifedi took a prove-it deal in Chicago and has played well. If the Bears can’t or won’t pay him more, he should be able to find a decent contract elsewhere. And Osemele was making highlight tapes with the Chiefs before being hurt again. If he’s healthy, he’s a potential starter. 

Center: 

  • Corey Linsley
  • Ted Karras
  • Alex Mack

The Packers have a fair amount of work to do to break even heading into this offseason, so you’ll see some tough decisions with other free agents besides Jones. Linsley is Pro Football Focus’ top-rated center but the Packers have a number of other options on the interior offensive line who have played well, especially while Linsley has been hurt. 

Karras signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins last year with the goal of testing the market again, so if he finds greener pastures outside of Miami he’s not a lock to stay. Mack is the biggest name potentially on the market, but at 35 he could retire instead of coming back for a 13th season. 

While Washington’s Chase Roullier and the Rams’ Austin Blythe are also set to be free agents, both are probably good candidates to be back. Roullier is seen as an extension candidate by the Washington beat and centers don’t typically break the market, which should make it easier for the Rams to work out a deal for Blythe. 

Edge Rusher

  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Bud Dupree
  • Matt Judon
  • Leonard Floyd
  • Melvin Ingram
  • Trey Hendrickson
  • Olivier Vernon
  • Ryan Kerrigan
  • Aldon Smith
  • Markus Golden

Edge rushers have been popular candidates for the franchise tag in recent seasons. The top one available, Ravens DE Yannick Ngakoue, actually is playing on a tag the Jaguars initially gave him last year. If the Ravens don’t sign him to a long-term deal, he likely gets tagged again, especially because it’s cheaper due to the pay cut he signed to facilitate his trade out of Jacksonville. Buccaneers OLB Shaquil Barrett and Colts DE Justin Houston are also strong candidates to re-up with their teams 

However, most of the top pass rushers projected to be available should make it to the market. Clowney negotiated a no-tag clause in his deal and likely will take another crack at the open market, though it’s doubtful he fares much better than he did last time. The Steelers can’t afford to bring back Dupree but his ACL injury will complicate his market. Even if the Ravens could, they likely wouldn’t tag Judon for a second straight year, either. 

The second wave of pass rushers is also strong. Floyd is having a strong season for the Rams and they’d probably like to have him back. But the question will be if they can clear enough cap space. Ingram is likely on the way out in Los Angeles after an injury-riddled season and younger options waiting their turn in the wings behind him. Hendrickson broke out for the Saints with 10.5 sacks and counting. Double-digit sacks usually equal double-digit millions. Other intriguing veterans like Kerrigan, Smith and Golden could also find a fair amount of interest. 

Interior Defensive Line: 

  • Shelby Harris
  • Sheldon Rankins
  • Tyson Alualu
  • Roy Robertson-Harris
  • DaQuan Jones

We still have a long ways to go in setting the stage for this coming offseason, but something to keep an eye on is how few options teams looking to fix their interior defensive line could have. There’s a shortage of slam-dunk defensive tackle prospects in the draft and that could lead teams to hold on to the guys they have, like the Giants and Leonard Williams/Dalvin Tomlinson, the Buccaneers and Ndamukong Suh and the Browns and Larry Ogunjobi

There will be a few options, though. Harris was someone who drew some buzz last year as a player who could crack $10 million per year, but he ended up returning to the Broncos on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. He’s someone who could try his hand again at a major second deal. 

The Saints will be hard-pressed to retain many of their free agents, and while Rankins has struggled to stay healthy, he’s flashed the ability that made him a first-round pick. Alualu, Robertson-Harris and Jones have all had strong seasons but could shake free from their original teams due to cap issues.

Linebacker:

  • K.J. Wright
  • Haason Reddick
  • Denzel Perryman
  • Jarrad Davis
  • Kevin Pierre-Louis

The top off-ball linebacker, Lavonte David, is a criminally underrated player who is not underrated by the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has a good number of free agents but also a fair amount of financial flexibility to bring them back. 

Outside of David, it’s a little thin at linebacker in free agency as well. Wright is still a solid player but he’s shown some signs of decline and the Seahawks have been drafting behind him for a couple years now. Perryman’s an excellent run stuffer but an otherwise limited player. Reddick is finally starting to put it together and could be an interesting piece, while Davis’ pedigree as a former first-round pick will get him a shot. Pierre-Louis has also played well for Washington this year and will draw interest if he’s not brought back. 

Cornerback:

  • Richard Sherman
  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Patrick Peterson
  • William Jackson
  • Logan Ryan
  • Troy Hill
  • Michael Davis
  • Ronald Darby
  • Jason Verrett
  • Bashaud Breeland

You can never have too many good corners, which is why the pickings are sometimes slim in free agency. You have to imagine CB Shaquill Griffin is the Seahawks’ top priority of their free agents. Xavier Rhodes and Desmond King have also both meshed well with their new AFC South teams. 

That leaves Sherman as the clear top corner available even at the age of 33 next season. Wherever 49ers DC Robert Saleh lands is a good spot to keep an eye on for Sherman. A number of other decent corners should be available as well. There hasn’t been a lot of momentum between the Cardinals and Peterson about a new deal. Jackson seems interested in leaving the Bengals for hopefully greener pastures.

Ryan has meshed well with the Giants but also would like to take another run at the free-agent market in 2021. As for Awuzie, Dallas has been abysmal enough on defense that’s there no telling who comes back, even if he’s one of the more solid individual players on the defense. 

There’s also some intriguing second-wave options. Hill has been solid for the Rams despite a lot of attention his way from teams avoiding Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles might not be able to keep him. Davis has also performed well after being pressed into service due to a number of other injuries in the Chargers secondary. Darby’s done well on a prove-it deal with Washington, while Verrett has revitalized a career that was on the brink. Finally, Breeland remains a solid corner, but the Chiefs need to get younger and cheaper in the secondary.  

Safety:

  • Anthony Harris
  • Marcus Williams
  • Malik Hooker
  • Duron Harmon
  • Xavier Woods

It’s a good year to need a safety. While the Broncos likely won’t let Justin Simmons hit the market and Jets defensive captain Marcus Maye is one of the few players New York should bring back, there are a number of other strong options slated to be free agents this year. The Vikings tagged Harris last year and likely won’t be able to keep him from the market this year due to some financial constraints. The Saints are in a similar position with Williams. 

Hooker’s Achilles injury in September will complicate his market but the former first-round pick still has a ton of potential and should garner interest. As the Lions move to a presumably less Patriots-friendly system, Harmon will likely need to find a different fit. Despite Dallas’ disaster of a season on defense, Woods is still an established starter who could find success in a less chaotic environment.

This Week In Football

  • The Eagles couldn’t put it off any longer and made the decision to bench QB Carson Wentz this week in favor of second-round rookie Jalen Hurts. This of course opens up an unprecedented can of worms, as there’s no playbook for what to do when your $128 million, 27-year-old franchise quarterback suddenly malfunctions. Philadelphia’s options with Wentz have already been beaten to death: they can either stick with him and hope he snaps out of it or trade him to another team to rip the band-aid off on his salary. But it’s shocking to think about how bright the future with Wentz was seen just a year and a half ago when he first signed this deal. 
  • Despite winning a Super Bowl only three years ago, though I’m sure it feels longer at this point, Eagles HC Doug Pederson appears to be on the verge of burning through all the goodwill generated by that success. He’s on the hot seat along with everyone in Philly. 
  • The head coaching landscape is starting to take more shape, as the Chargers continue to falter. As things stand, it looks like HC Anthony Lynn will have until the end of the season to save his job. Things are also falling apart in Chicago to the point that it’s being speculated the Bears could make a run at Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.
  • One coach who might not end up with a job is former Jets DC Gregg Williams, who cost himself his job and New York it’s first and possibly only win of the season on a last-second, Cover-0 blitz that allowed the Raiders to score the winning touchdown. Williams has been a heel in the NFL for a while now, dating back to the Bountygate scandal with the Saints at least. It’ll be interesting to see where or if he finds another job. 
  • Some of the general manager openings around the league look like they’re heating up as we move through December. The Falcons plan to interview former Texans GM Rick Smith, Rams director of college scouting Brad Holmes and Saints assistant GM Terry Fontenot for their vacancy and are also reportedly interested in ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. All four of these candidates are Black and it appears Atlanta is invested in making a minority hire in this cycle. 
  • The Texans are reportedly planning to interview former Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey, who has some strong ties in the Houston organization that could make it his third GM job. Another former GM, the Giants’ Jerry Reese, is also getting some traction as a candidate for the Lions. 
  • One job that won’t be open for quite some time if things continue on their track will be Buffalo’s, as the Bills locked up GM Brandon Beane to an extension through the 2025 season along with HC Sean McDermott
  • These last four games appear to be the final four for 49ers (say that four times fast) CB Richard Sherman, who said it would take a “miracle” for him to be back in San Francisco in 2021. Sherm is smart, so I’ll let him explain: “There are 40 free agents, they’ll probably have $30 million or less in cap (space) and they’ve got to bring back Trent [Williams], who costs over $20 million, and they have to pay Fred [Warner], who costs over $18 million a year. Anybody who knows the situation understands that.”
  • Colts QB Philip Rivers will have offseason surgery to fix a foot issue. It’s not stopping Rivers from playing but it’s worth keeping in mind when evaluating if the 39-year-old veteran will return for another season in 2021.
  • Titans OLB Jadeveon Clowney underwent season-ending knee surgery this past week, ending a disappointing year for Clowney and the team. The good news for Clowney is that the injury wasn’t to the knee he had microfracture surgery on in the past. The bad news it’s another injury for a guy teams already had injury concerns for, and it won’t help him when he tries to swing for a big pay-day in free agency again this year. 
  • Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey‘s stamina and endurance the first three years of his career were legendary. But in 2020, McCaffrey can’t catch a break, as a high ankle sprain, separated shoulder and now a mysterious thigh injury have conspired to limit him to just three games just months after signing a monster contract extension. Considering how poorly and rapidly other running back deals have aged, it’s fair to be nervous for McCaffrey. Hopefully this is just something else we leave behind in 2020. 

Deep Dive: Taylor Russolino

The pandemic has dramatically altered business as usual in the NFL this season. Undrafted free agents didn’t get normal training camps to show what they could do. But the expanded practice squads have added extra opportunities for some players, and that includes new Broncos K Taylor Russolino, signed as an emergency option this past week. 

At 31, Russolino is a lot older than the guys typically on the workout circuit. He graduated D-III Millsaps College in 2010 and has spent the past 10 years chasing his NFL dream. It’s taken him to more than half a dozen Arena League teams everywhere from New Orleans to Shanghai, China.

Workouts with the Buccaneers in 2018 and Bears in 2019 didn’t result in an offer, but bis grind paid off this year with his performance in the XFL for the St. Louis Battlehawks, where he was 9-10 on field goals, including a 58-yard make. 

Russolino took some time to talk with NFLTR about his journey to this point. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

NFLTR: How did this shot with the Broncos come about?

TR: To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I was just sitting at home last Monday, I was actually with my fiancee’s family and expressing some frustration to them about how so many guys this year are getting workouts, Four of the XFL guys are in the league, and I was the best one in the league and I’m not getting any workouts. Then all of a sudden my phone rang while I’m on the couch, and it was the pro personnel guy [from Denver]. He was like, ‘Look man, we’re bringing you on to the practice squad, we’re going to fly you up in the next day or so, no workout, we’re just going to sign you to the practice squad, get you in here ASAP and get you going.’

NFLTR: What did those 10 years on the workout circuit look like? 

TR: In 2013, I was invited to actually a bowl game. It was a bowl game for guys who were either right out of college or a couple years out of college. It was called the Prograss International Scout Bowl (Notable alums include Falcons DE Steven Means and former Saints RB Khiry Robinson). I played in that bowl game and during the whole week of practice, had a phenomenal week of practice. I don’t think I had any field goals during the game, but I had a few touchbacks.

During those years, I was [also] attending free-agent combines put on by [former K] Michael Husted and Gary Zauner. Those are two of the more prominent specialist free agent combines that go on every spring for guys like myself to take their talents in front of NFL scouts. Was a finalist at Zauner’s in 2018 alongside [Falcons K] Younghoe Koo. The years I was not signed, those were the big stages to be recognized. And I would always do well at those. One year, 2018, Darren Rizzi, the special teams coach with the Miami Dolphins, came up to me. But nothing really ever came of it, which was very weird, because it was one of my best performances ever and it came in front of 30 NFL scouts. 

NFLTR: 10 years is probably pushing the record for being on the NFL workout circuit. What kept you going that long?

TR: I mean, from the moment myself and others recognized that I had the ability to kick at a high level, once I set that goal in my head there was nothing stopping me. I do have a phenomenal support system, from my parents back at home to some coaches who have continuously motivated me to my fiancee who has been there through the ups and downs. But honestly, I just love the game of football. You’ll hear some kickers who just kick because they’re so damn good at it. For me, I love kicking. I’d be going to the field 2-3 times a week every single week for like 10 years, and there’s no offseason. So for me, it’s part of my life. Whenever I look at these opportunities, it was just another day to go kick. 

I look forward to hopefully getting the opportunity to play years and years in this league, because at my age at 31, I’ve legitimately been getting better and better. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I feel like I’m 24, I’m hitting the ball better than ever and it’s still getting better. The XFL obviously provided a huge platform for me, and when I was able to get in the XFL and then succeed in the XFL, it was like “alright, I do belong here.” So that obviously added continuous motivation, and then just having so many good people in my corner motivate me and see my talent like [former Saints K] John Carney, guys who I’ve been training with in southern California, and then even some of my peers, guys in the NFL who are like, “I’m going to see you at midfield someday.”

NFLTR: Have you ever been close to calling it? 

TR: I mean…no, there’s never really been a time where I’m like ‘alright, I’m done.’ But I have had thoughts where it’s like ‘well shit, am I ever going to get a legit opportunity?’ Because sometimes, as a kicker you get a workout. You get ten field goals off sticks, and if you don’t go 10 for 10, they think you suck. Obviously we’re all capable of going 10 for 10 off sticks, but sometimes you just miss one or two. The three workouts I’ve been to before this, not one guy at any of three of those went perfect. But every guy there was a great kicker in my opinion. 

NFLTR: How do you keep your name fresh on the workout circuit and generate opportunities?

TR: For me, the big key was reaching out, whether it was through social media or whether it was through any sort of contact I would have, whether it was an email or a phone number I may have gotten… I was just relying on somebody seeing my talent, because every day I’d go out there and compete against guys who are in the NFL, against some of the best college kickers coming out, and there were days where I would beat almost every one of them. And something that kept me going was thinking “Alright, I’m not going to give this up until some of these college kids come out and beat my ass.” And it hasn’t happened. 

Check This Out

  • 2020 did bring us a tremendous showcase game between BYU and Coastal Carolina, both ranked teams, after a scheduling cancellation. It was a great look at BYU star QB Zach Wilson who’s generated a tremendous amount of buzz this year but faces questions about the level of competition. CCU is a quality opponent, though, and Rotoworld’s Derrik Klassen breaks down how Wilson held his own.
  • The story I have most wanted someone to write for about a year now is an in-depth profile on Texans VP Jack Easterby and how he gained so much influence after a humble start as a team chaplain. Sports Illustrated finally came through for me. Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop dive deep into all the behind-the-scenes machinations that have quickly come to define Easterby’s NFL career to this point. 
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