This coming free-agency cycle is going to be a morally complicated one. For the lot of us, it will be wildly entertaining to see a slew of high-profile veterans change teams. For the players themselves, who will undoubtedly get squeezed off their current rosters due to the salary cap lowering to $182.5 million, it will be a frantic and complicated period that may see them forced to accept a deal well below their market value. Owners, who, similar to other CEOs around the country, are using this time to clear payroll and blame it on the pandemic, will ultimately net a big win.
Now that the 2021 salary cap has been finalized, we will probably see a good number of recognizable names hit the market in addition to our list of the top 200, which posted Tuesday. Here, we’ll include one player for each team to go after. Because we don’t know the extent of who is available yet, we’ll add some players who are currently under contract on other rosters, as well as some obvious trade candidates.
Questions, complaints? My direct messages are always open.
Odell Beckham, wide receiver
There are a lot of ways Arizona should go. Let me explain my thought process with Beckham. The Cardinals led the league in 10-personnel usage last year, utilizing the one running back and four wide receivers on 21% of their snaps. Their expected points added per play out of 10-personnel (0.05) was the best out of any of their three most commonly used personnel sets. So is cornerback a priority? Yes. Do they need help at linebacker and interior defensive line? No doubt. But, if you hired an Air Raid coach to run an Air Raid system with an Air-Raid quarterback, why not double down on what you do exceptionally well?
Joe Thuney, guard
For a story on new Falcons coach Arthur Smith’s offense a few years back, I talked to Geoff Schwartz about the importance of a guy like Roger Saffold, who arrived via free agency in Tennessee and helped the Titans transform their wide-zone rushing scheme (while consequently dooming the one he left behind in L.A.). The Falcons have one excellent pulling guard in Chris Lindstrom, but opponents were able to key on certain aspects of their offense by focusing on him. The addition of Thuney on the opposite side would make Smith’s offense more likely to catch on right away.
Curtis Samuel, wide receiver
There are few more obvious needs than the Ravens and a wide receiver. The team scraped the bottom of the barrel last season, considering Antonio Brown and ultimately signing Dez Bryant. If we would like Lamar Jackson to take a figurative next step (even though he has already shown us all the tools required of a long-term franchise quarterback), we must also give him the tools. Samuel would be an excellent addition to Baltimore’s already flummoxing offense.
Zach Ertz, tight end
Only three teams in the NFL ran more 11-personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end) than the Bills last year. But almost all other teams got more out of the tight end position than the Bills. Trading for Zach Ertz, or acquiring him if Ertz is released (because no one cares about dead money anymore!) is an excellent way to maximize Josh Allen and help his development. A movable chess piece like Ertz would be dominant in Brian Daboll’s matchup offense.
Shaquill Griffin, cornerback
The Panthers will continue using a zone-heavy scheme and Griffin, despite playing on a bad defense last year, can excel in this type of setting, which features a similar man-zone split. The former third-round pick was not tagged in Seattle but had a solid season last year, surrendering less than a 63% completion rate on passes thrown in his direction. Griffin can handle elite wideouts and can battle with the best of the corners on this market.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback
The Bears don’t have a lot of remaining options and, oddly, the future at quarterback could come down to Mariota vs. Jameis Winston again, just like the Buccaneers debated back in 2015. If Chicago cannot land Russell Wilson (they are on his list of amenable partners), they have to bet on a high-upside option that also contains significant risk. Cam Newton could fit in this space. Winston could fit here. With the right mindset, Robert Griffin III could work here. The same could be said for Tyrod Taylor.
What Chicago cannot do is accept what is currently on its plate, whether that’s building with Nick Foles or re-signing Mitch Trubisky.
Corey Linsley, center
The Bengals need a great deal of help up-front, and while it looks like 2018 first-round pick Billy Price has the inside track at the center job by default, Linsley would be a tremendous gift to Joe Burrow. He’s a center used to directing traffic for one of the most demanding and cerebral quarterbacks in modern NFL history (Aaron Rodgers). Price can compete elsewhere, and if he truly has developed, he should have no problem winning one of the other interior offensive line spots.
Matt Judon/Bud Dupree/Melvin Ingram, edge
Cleveland would like to pair Myles Garrett with a top-tier edge rusher now that Olivier Vernon is likely out of the picture. Judon and/or Dupree would come with the added bonus of taking that player away from one of its division rivals and pocketing some valuable intel in the process. Ingram, while entering his age-32 season and having dealt with some recent injury issues, knows how to play well in the orchestra. He could be a huge benefit to Garrett.
Dalvin Tomlinson, defensive tackle
The Cowboys’ front needs help. The Cowboys’ defense in general needs assistance, but acquiring Tomlinson would take a key player away from a divisional opponent (the Giants) and feed Dan Quinn with some built-in-zone-rushing busters. Dallas was gouged often by the popular rushing scheme, finishing 29th against zone runs in 2020.
Jameis Winston, quarterback
I think the Bears are in a remarkably similar situation to the Broncos. While we’re not advocating for Vic Fangio’s ouster, there is a similar reality to that of Matt Nagy in Chicago: If there is no playoff berth or evidence of tangible progress, it will have been three-plus years, which is, in this mixed-up world we live in, a fully constituted shot at this thing. Like Chicago, the Broncos cannot go into this season with only Drew Lock unless they plan on making a change at the offensive coordinator spot, too.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver
The Lions already signaled their desire to go shopping on the middle shelf in free agency, which makes sense. They’re rebuilding but need to provide Jared Goff something to work with (and a reason to put butts in the seats for a year or two while Dan Campbell gets it all figured out). Watkins has familiarity with both Goff and Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.
Green Bay Packers
William Jackson III, cornerback
This would continue the Packers’ streak of doing things that would ultimately but not directly benefit Aaron Rodgers. Cornerback is perhaps the Packers’ biggest need aside from defensive interior this offseason and while they rarely shop at the top of the market—maybe Jason Verrett and Desmond King are more their speed—signing Jackson would show a seriousness about not being left at the conference championship game altar again.
Sam Darnold, quarterback
The Texans need … everything. But what they need more than anything is a developmental option at quarterback to replace Deshaun Watson (or if Watson is not traded, they’ll need someone to hold the fort down while he holds out). This will be an especially disastrous offseason for the Texans, who will likely find themselves frozen out of most sensible deals unless they’re willing to spend well above market value.
David Njoku, tight end
If the Colts get boxed out for Zach Ertz, perhaps they’ll go for Njoku, who can provide Carson Wentz with a similarly versatile playmaker, albeit one not familiar to him. Njoku still isn’t happy in Cleveland, and the Browns have options they might like better, anyway. This could be the year they finally try and get some return on investment.
Hunter Henry, tight end
The Jaguars have a silly amount of cap space to throw around and a good tight end is a godsend for a rookie quarterback. Hunter Henry won’t be back in L.A. after the Chargers opted not to use the franchise tag on him. I have a feeling that, if DE Josh Allen had not fallen into their laps two years ago, Jacksonville may have been in on T.J. Hockenson. This is a chance to get another threat at the position.
Kansas City Chiefs
Yannick Ngakoue, edge
If the Chiefs were reactionary, we’d see them signing every offensive lineman available, especially after releasing Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher on Thursday. Though, I wonder whether a relative lack of pass rush concerns them more as they head into next season. The Chiefs were sixth in bringing “pressure” in 2020 but 20th in expected points added per pressure situation.
Las Vegas Raiders
Will Fuller, wide receiver
With Nelson Agholor on the market, and Jon Gruden planning to run his heavy 11-personnel offense once again, the Raiders will need a third wideout to complete the troika around Henry Ruggs and Hunter Renfrow. Fuller will have plenty of options this offseason. Will Gruden offer the most money?
Los Angeles Chargers
Mitchell Schwartz, tackle; John Feliciano, guard/center
The Chargers need to upgrade quickly on the offensive line, which was a patchwork disaster throughout the Anthony Lynn era. Now that Justin Herbert has solidified himself as a critical roster piece for years to come, it’s time to throw a little money at his protectors up-front.
Los Angeles Rams
Alex Mack, center
I admittedly stole this from Pro Football Focus, but I suppose it’s not stealing if we admit it. I love the idea of pairing Matthew Stafford with one of the best centers of his generation. Having Mack would be a luxury for both Stafford and Sean McVay, who has bet big and hit big on veteran offensive linemen in the past (see: Andrew Whitworth). This is a safe, low-cost, high-upside investment for a team that is all in on the Super Bowl.
Kenny Golladay, wide receiver
Pairing the developing young Tua Tagovailoa with a versatile receiver who can attack the middle of the field as artfully as he can dominate the sidelines makes sense. Miami has no choice but to throw its chips in on Tagovailoa, which means getting him a wideout befitting of a developing young passer.
Kawann Short, defensive tackle
The Vikings are going to have to replenish their needs via the draft at this point. There are no quick fixes here at their price point, which means hoping that one of the veterans available, like Short, Johnathan Hankins or someone like Jurrell Casey can come in and provide meaningful snaps on a budget.
New England Patriots
T.Y. Hilton, wide receiver
My first instinct was to say safety Daniel Sorensen, and that might still be true. He’d be a great fit in New England. But this requires a little bit more panache, given how much salary-cap money Bill Belichick has to throw around. It would be difficult to imagine him limping into next season with the same receiver lineup, especially if he’s going to try and upgrade at QB as well.
New Orleans Saints
There’s really no telling how the Saints are going to fit a quarterback onto their roster (or whom) let alone a slew of supporting-cast free agents who can build this roster into something better than what has failed to reach the Super Bowl over the last three years.
New York Giants
Corey Davis, wide receiver
The Giants have to bolster their front five, add some pieces to the secondary, re-sign a key piece of their defensive line and add to Daniel Jones’s weapon set. Davis seems like the kind of player who might be torn between high-upside one-year offers on better teams with better quarterbacks or maybe a more generous, long-term offer from some team like the Giants.
New York Jets
Sheldon Rankins, defensive tackle
Teams sleeping on Rankins will be sorely mistaken when the 2016 first-round pick stands out next year. Robert Saleh would love this finally healthy, three-technique DT, who, after recovering from Achilles issues early in his career, is poised to round into form.
Jason Verrett, defensive back
While the Eagles struggled most significantly in man coverage last year (despite running it more than a third of the time) and Verrett comes from the zone-heavy 49ers, he can help new coordinator Jonathan Gannon transition into a more Matt Eberflus–esque zone scheme. This is going to be the Eagles’ new reality during the Wentz dead-money years. Verrett can be a very high boom in free agency, or he could struggle to fend off injury.
Chris Carson/Leonard Fournette, running back
With James Conner out of the fold and the Steelers entering full-on sell-out mode for one last run with Ben Roethlisberger, they’ll try turning to one of two vicious short-yardage runners who can help grind out yards after first contact. Given Pittsburgh’s cap situation, running back may be the kind of “splashy” aisle they’re shopping in.
San Francisco 49ers
Quinton Dunbar, corner back
With Robert Saleh in New York, the 49ers may try and run a similar version of Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme under new coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Dunbar had a difficult year in Seattle last year, pocked by injuries, but could come to San Francisco on a budget-friendly deal and help fill in admirably for the departed Richard Sherman.
Jonnu Smith, tight end
This would solve multiple problems for the Seahawks, adding a very capable pass-catcher for Russell Wilson and a strong piece who can assist in both the pass- and run-blocking game for Pete Carroll. Some of the concepts Shane Waldron will bring with him to Seattle will be familiar to Smith.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Aaron Jones, running back
We’re going to hear more talk about the dream team after Tom Brady was able to lure talent down to Tampa Bay last year. With Jones not wanting to accept a deal below the perfectly reasonable franchise tag tender in Green Bay, he can do the next best thing, heading down to Tampa to glide off that wonderfully talented offensive line and beat up on some struggling NFC South defenses.
Aldon Smith, edge
Signing Jadeveon Clowney last year was a sign of the Titans’ discontent on the edge, and Aldon Smith would absolutely be another stopgap solution. However, he would provide Mike Vrabel with both an adequate pass rusher and willing run stopper who will stick his nose into the thick of it.
Washington Football Team
Jacoby Brissett, quarterback
(Note: We initially listed Cam Newton here, but news of his re-signing in New England broke shortly after we published.)
Washington needs a quarterback and unless they plan on starting over again, which might be difficult given their draft position, they’ll need a solution. Brissett was a victim of his own injuries and the injuries of the Colts’ receivers during his time in Indianapolis. There's a good chance he can work out in a balanced, ball-control offense. With Newton off the board, Brissett can help move the chains and put enough points on the board to complement Washington’s world class defense