2021 Free Agency Preview: Offense
The free-agency period officially begins on March 17, and it's a weird one this year.
For only the second time since its introduction in 1994, the salary cap is going down, thanks to the effects of the ongoing pandemic. While the NFL is doing fine (see the television deals signed this year, with each network paying over $2 billion for the rights to show the NFL), not even a league as omnipresent as this one could entirely avoid feeling the effects of empty seats for most of 2020.
And so teams are having to tighten their belts to an extent we have never really seen before. Before this season, the record for worst financial situation entering the offseason belonged to the 2015 New Orleans Saints, which opened that year $23.3 million over the salary cap. But in 2021, three teams have broken that record, with the Saints ($69.5 million), Eagles ($43.0 million), and Rams ($34.0 million) all miles deep as the offseason began. With two weeks to go before the league year began, a dozen teams were still over the cap, leading to a plethora of cuts and restructures, cuts and restructures that are still going on as we speak as teams struggle to get under the tighter cap for 2021.
The end result? We may see more free-agent movement than we have in quite a few years. As franchise tag values are based on pre-existing salaries, the reduced salary cap made it more difficult to tag players. With some teams massively over budget already, they had to let their veterans go, meaning the teams who do have cap space will have a wider pool of players to pick from. As always, the tippy-top of the potential free agency class is more likely to stay put, but we may see more movement than we have in years. That leads to an exciting offseason!
Today, we're looking at the best free agents available on the offensive side of the ball. We'll look at just why they're so much in demand, how much money they're likely to grab on the open market, and which teams would be the best fit by our reckoning. And, for those who lose out on the best player sweepstakes, we're also including the best alternatives available; the consolation prizes for those come up just short.
Best Available Player: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins
The jewel of the 2021 free agency class was Dak Prescott, but after a multi-year saga, the Cowboys finally locked up their quarterback to a long-term deal on Monday. Without any franchise quarterbacks remaining on the market, teams are left to pick from a selection of journeymen. Oh, but what a journeyman!
Ryan Fitzpatrick has had one of the oddest career arcs in NFL history. He's been a seventh-round nobody, a high-priced free-agent bust, an injury replacement fan favorite, a bearded guru. He has started for an NFL-record eight teams, and there's no reason to think he can't make it nine in 2021. He's now had three of his top four seasons by DYAR in the last three years, so even at 38, he's shown he still has some gas in the tank. He outplayed Tua Tagovailoa, his replacement in Miami; the move to swap quarterbacks certainly wasn't based on Fitzpatrick's performance this season. No team wants to hook their future to an aging quarterback who tops out in the teens in passing DVOA, but plenty of teams could do a heck of a lot worse for a season or two than to dabble in some dark Fitzmagics.
Fitzpatrick's best attribute at this point in his career is grace under pressure, or at least the knowledge of what to do when everything breaks down in front of him. Fitzpatrick led the league in 2020 with an 8.3% DVOA under pressure; he and Patrick Mahomes were the only two quarterbacks to have positive DVOAs with pass rushers breathing down their throats. Being that good is somewhat of an outlier, but Fitzpatrick has been sharper than your average quarterback under fire for years now, generally hanging in the top 10 in DVOA difference with and without pressure. Sacks are a quarterback stat, and Fitzpatrick generally has better-than-league-average sack numbers -- not a bad attribute to have for a team in the midst of rebuilding their offensive line.
How Much Will He Cost?
In recent seasons, premium backup quarterbacks have been going for about $8 million a season -- that was how much Nick Foles got in his restructure with the Bears, and Marcus Mariota was at about $8.8 million when he signed with the Raiders. That's a floor for Fitzpatrick, who has shown he can still start at acceptable levels; he's not a re-tread or a rehabilitation project. Currently, no quarterback in the league makes between $10 and $14 million a season, but that's the range that makes the most sense for Fitzpatrick. Expect a one-year deal at the bottom of that range.
The general consensus is that Trey Lance is the least pro-ready quarterback among the top picks in the 2021 draft, so whichever team ends up drafting Lance would have the biggest need for a one-year stopgap. Recent mock drafts on NFL.com have had the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers end up with the North Dakota State passer; of the three, the Patriots would seem to have the biggest need for a temporary veteran, and we'll admit we'd love to see Fitzpatrick finish the AFC East quartet. The Denver Broncos are another intriguing spot; they seem to be happy with Drew Lock as the starter for one more season, and Fitzpatrick would serve as a good mentor-slash-competitor there.
After Fitzpatrick, there are a smorgasbord of journeymen keeping the seat warm, reclamation projects and quality backups available; none who you'd really be excited about being under center in Week 1. Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton are all likely to sign one- to two-year deals somewhere in the league. They'd be an upgrade at QB2 for plenty of teams, but likely just temporary options for teams lacking quarterback direction if they're expected to start.
Best Available Player: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
As a general rule, giving big contracts to running backs is a poor decision for teams. It's not that the Christian McCaffreys, Ezekiel Elliotts, and Alvin Kamaras of the world aren't more effective than your average replacement runner; it's just that paying the extra premiums to keep them rather than spend that cash elsewhere generally leads to bigger problems down the line, as we have seen with Todd Gurley's $57.5-million deal with the Rams, Le'Veon Bell's $52.5-million deal with the Jets, or David Johnson's $39-million deal with the Cardinals. All of those players left for pennies on the dollar before their deals expired. You have to be both fairly sure that the running back you're signing is going to be elite for years to come and have gobs of extra cap space to blow to really make a big deal to a running back at all worth it.
The question, then, is whether or not Aaron Jones is that sort of player. Jones has finished in the top 10 of both rushing DYAR and DVOA in each of the three seasons he has been eligible for the leaderboards; he's the only back who can make that claim over the last three years, and the first one to do that since Bell from 2014 to 2016. As a receiver, he adds volume—he's one of 13 backs to have over 1,000 receiving yards over the past three years—but not efficiency, as he has been at -5.0% receiving DVOA over the past two seasons. A consistently good runner who isn't a lead weight in the passing game is a useful player; Jones has been a great value for the Packers as a fifth-round pick. But when you sign Jones, you're not bringing Aaron Rodgers or the Green Bay offensive line along with him. If you're going to splurge on a running back this year, Jones is the one to go for. As always, however, caveat emptor.
How Much Will He Cost?
The aforementioned Elliot and Kamara deals, each for $15 million a year, represent the top of the free-agent market. The bottom for a top player such as Jones would be Dalvin Cook's five-year, $63-million extension. Jones will likely be closer to the top than the bottom, though the reduced salary cap probably means he won't set any new records.
There aren't a lot of teams that have the combination of significant cap space, a need at the position, and proximity to contention to justify adding a top running back. The best choice is probably the Miami Dolphins, who were just 23rd in rushing DVOA last season. Myles Gaskin is fine, but Jones would likely be a significant upgrade. If we cross out "proximity to contention," Jones could fit in with the Jets, going from one LaFleur to another. The Chargers using him as their primary runner, with Austin Ekeler serving more as a receiver in the backfield, would be an interesting idea as well.
There's no one else out there, with the possible exception of Chris Carson, who is going to command a double-digit million-dollar contract. Mike Davis did enough replacing the injured McCaffrey to earn a spot somewhere. Le'Veon Bell won't be earning any record-breaking deals again as he has lost most of his explosiveness, but he still can be a valuable piece as part of a backfield committee. Kenyan Drake, James White, James Conner … there are plenty of decent running backs that can be acquired for a fraction of the price of Jones.
Best Available Players: Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears and Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions
(Ed. Note: Chicago informed Robinson he is getting the franchise tag on Tuesday.)
We're defining "outside" here as players who saw less than 60% of their targets come out of the slot/inside—or less than league average, in other words. Admittedly, both Allen Robinson and Kenny Golladay are closer to 50/50 than a Mike Evans or Odell Beckham type who lives outside the hashmarks, but that's the reality of the free-agency picture in 2021.
Robinson saw 84 targets in the slot and 68 out wide in 2020, but that represented a significant swing away from his 104/55 split in 2019, and he was used mostly on the outside in Jacksonville. Since his sophomore season with the Jaguars in 2015, Robinson hasn't ranked inside the top 20 in either DYAR or DVOA at any point, often finishing closer to 50th than to first. Considering he has spent his career catching passes from Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky, however, Robinson's production has been outstanding—it's not at all hyperbole to call him one of the top 10 receivers in the league. Robinson has dropped just seven passes in his time in Chicago and has routinely caught between 80% and 90% of his catchable passes from Trubisky, per Sports Info Solutions' charting. Projecting what he could do with an even halfway capable quarterback is enticing, to say the least.
Golladay struggled to stay on the field in 2020, though his 90 DYAR in just five games would have placed him in the top 50. Healthy in 2019, Golladay ranked ninth in DYAR and 13th in DVOA, and his presence was sorely missed in Detroit this year. In their five games with Golladay in the lineup, the Lions passing DVOA jumped to 30.3%, compared to 10.4% without him. Golladay's the best deep-threat available this year; his 14.9-yard average depth of target would have been seventh-highest among qualified receivers in 2020, and he was at 15.4 in 2019. Teams looking for someone to make contested catches deep downfield could do far worse than signing Golladay.
How Much Will They Cost?
For a long-term deal, we're looking at the higher end of the same range for Godwin and Smith-Schuster. Robinson might crack the $20 million a year barrier, pointing to Michael Thomas' five-year, $100-million extension as a baseline, considering what he has managed to do with less-than-quality play around him. Golladay will be looking for the same sort of numbers, but his comparatively shorter track record combined with the salary cap dip this season may keep him falling just short of that amount.
The Dolphins could use either player as their top receiver, giving everyone else easier assignments, and the Jets still have gobs of cap space and needs everywhere. But if you're looking for a team just a piece or two away from being at the tippy-top of the league, consider the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens attempted just 91 passes to receivers lined up wide in 2020, fewest in the league. Some of that is a product of their option-based offense, but you would ignore wideouts too if your options were Marquise Brown (-5.5% DVOA) and Miles Boykin (5.6% DVOA). Adding a deep threat slightly more dangerous than Willie Snead would close a gaping hole in the Baltimore offense, one that has reared its ugly head when the Ravens have had to try to come from behind in the postseason against Buffalo and Tennessee the last two years.
If you're signing Corey Davis, you're gambling heavily that 2020 was him finally figuring everything out, rather than a one-year mirage—before putting up a 22.4% DVOA this season, Davis' previous career high was 5.4% in 2019, and the former first-round pick had been written off as a bust before Arthur Smith's offense came to town. Still, it may be a safer gamble than picking up T.Y. Hilton, who will turn 32 next season as he transitions from a top threat to a reliable complementary piece. And it's certainly a safer gamble than picking up Antonio Brown, who provided significant value for the Buccaneers on their march to the Super Bowl, but who also brings with him several Pullman cars full of baggage.
Best Available Players: Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers and Will Fuller, Houston Texans
(Ed. Note: Tampa Bay informed Godwin he is getting the franchise tag on Tuesday.)
There are enough quality receivers available this year that we're splitting them into outside and slot positions. Some teams' needs are broad enough that they can go dipping their toes into either category and find an improvement, but it's
Injuries kept Chris Godwin from repeating his 1,300-yard season from 2019 and held him out of the top 10 in DYAR. Don't think that it was a down season by any stretch of the imagination, however; Godwin still ranked fourth with a 28.0% DVOA and the Buccaneers, as a team, ranked seventh when targeting slot receivers in 2020. Some of that is due to quarterback play, of course, and Bruce Arians' offenses have always squeezed great performances out of their slot receivers, but Godwin is a budding superstar who may just have the best hands in the league; Sports Info Solutions has charted him with just eight drops in his four-year career for a drop rate of just 3.0%. Godwin has 682 receiving DYAR over the past two seasons, the most in the league; teams in on Godwin are buying high.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, on the other hand, is at more of a crossroads. His 109 targets out of the slot led the league, but the efficiency hasn't always been there to match the volume. JuJu led the league in DVOA as a rookie and was still hanging inside the top 20 in 2018, but he has put up negative numbers in each of the two years since. You can somewhat write off 2019 as a factor of catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, and Smith-Schuster had a positive DVOA through Week 11 last year, just before Ben Roethsliberger's arm turned into a wet noodle, so it's not that there's no hope here. An excellent route-runner with good size, Smith-Schuster is still only 24 years old—younger than Calvin Ridley. Whether he remains as a coverage-beater in the slot or finally gets full-time usage outside is a big question for his next team, but either way, this is a potential buy-low opportunity.
And then there's Fuller. Fuller's 2020 season was by a significant margin the best of his career -- he led all receivers in DVOA, topped 300 DYAR for the first time, and generally showed that he could produce outside of DeAndre Hopkins' shadow. Even before this season, however, the Texans have been demonstratively better with Fuller's speed on the field than not; their passing DVOA shot up by over 25 percentage points in each of the last two seasons with Fuller on the field. There's the rub, however -- we have a pretty decent sample size for splits with and without Fuller, as he's yet to play a full season. Be it from a variety of leg injuries or the PED suspension that ended 2020 early, Fuller has never played 16 games in a season, and has missed at least five games in each of the past three years. He won't play 16 games in 2021, either; he still has a week left of suspension to serve. Fuller has now shown that he can absolutly be the focal man in an offense. His next team hopes he can show an ability to stay on the field for an entire season.
How Much Will They Cost?
On their next deals, our trio of slot standouts will likely be hanging with Mr. Cooper. Receivers of this general quality tend to fall in the $15 million-to-$20 million a year range, with Cooper Kupp's three-year, $48-million extension serving as a floor and Amari Cooper's five-year, $100-million deal serving as a ceiling. Somewhere in the midpoint of that range feels about right, with Godwin likely earning $1 or $2 million more thanks to his superior performance over the last two seasons.
The Buffalo Bills saw their offense jump to the next level when they added Stefon Diggs, allowing Cole Beasley and John Brown to slide down to second and third receivers and increasing everyone's effectiveness. Now, it may be time for their division rivals to do the same. The Miami Dolphins have a solid duo of DeVante Parker and Preston Williams (-4.7% and 10.6% DVOA in 2020), but neither of them is exactly a top threat. They also ranked 22nd when targeting slot receivers, a role that ended up mostly going to tight end Mike Gesicki. Bringing in either Godwin or Smith-Schuster would instantly bump every other pass-catcher on Miami down a rung on the depth chart, resulting in easier matchups and more options for Tua Tagovailoa to work with. It would also free up the third pick in the draft to be used on an offensive lineman or pass-rusher. That might be all Miami needs to pick up an extra win or two and be in the wild-card hunt in 2021. Other options might include the Raiders as an upgrade over free agent Nelson Agholor, or the Jets, who have oodles of cap space and needs all over the field.
There are plenty of other receivers out there who saw at least 60% of their 2020 targets come out of the slot. Curtis Samuel set career highs with 95 DYAR, a 0.1% DVOA, and 851 receiving yards in his first year with Joe Brady; he may just need the right offensive scheme to produce. Marvin Jones is the cagey veteran of group, turning 31 this offseason. While his 2017 form is never coming back, Jones has been in the top 30 in DVOA in each of the past five seasons, and remains a solid complementary piece.
Best Available Player: Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers
The next time Hunter Henry plays a full season will be his first; the talented yet oft-injured tight end has yet to play all 16 games in a season. Up until 2020, the book on him was fairly clear—Henry was in the top 10 in DVOA every time he qualified for our main tables, a player oozing with potential who was just being held back by his laundry list of injuries. It's worth noting, however, that Henry's DVOA has fallen every time he has qualified, and 2020 saw it plummet to -2.9%, 28th in the league. It's tempting to chalk at least some of that up to L.A.'s quarterback change. Philip Rivers was more than happy to use his tight ends early and often, giving Henry plenty of work in the slot. It took Henry and Justin Herbert a little while to click together, with Henry only hitting double-digit DYAR in Week 15, just before he was shut down for the rest of the season on the COVID list. It seems unlikely that Henry will ever return to his 2016-2017 form, before the ACL tear and the tibia fracture. Still, it's fair to believe that last year's downturn was a product of circumstances rather than an ominous portent for years to come.
How Much Will He Cost?
While George Kittle and Travis Kelce have reset the tight end market, it would take an act of pure optimism to suggest Henry will end up in that stratosphere. A more reasonable comparison would be Austin Hooper's four-year, $42-million contract which briefly set the record for largest tight end signing in history. Henry would be the fourth $10-million tight end in NFL history.
Carson Wentz always loved hooking up with Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. With Ertz not following Carson to the Crossroads of America, it would make sense for the Indianapolis Colts to hook their new quarterback up with a high-caliber pass-catching tight end such as Henry. Mo Alie-Cox was 11th last season with a 14.8% DVOA, and Jack Doyle wasn't all that far behind, but both players had fewer than 40 targets. Letting Doyle handle more of the in-line work while Henry is the primary pass-catching tight end sounds like a winning combination. Other options would include the Jaguars, who recently announced they would not be re-signing Tyler Eifert, or the Seahawks, as Greg Olsen has retired and Will Dissly didn't have the breakout season some were hoping for last year.
A pair of YAC-friendly move tight ends make up the tier below Henry, with both Jonnu Smith and Gerald Everett making regular appearances on our YAC+ leaderboards. Neither player has been a high-volume target yet; both set career highs with 60-odd targets apiece in 2020. Smith is coming off of the better season, though he had the advantage of working with Ryan Tannehill and not Jared Goff; he'll likely sign a larger deal than Everett will. Both have proven value as complementary pieces in an offense, and it will be interesting to see if anyone takes a chance on them being more than that on a new deal.
Best Available Players: Trent Williams, San Francisco 49ers and Taylor Moton, Carolina Panthers
(Ed. Note: Carolina informed Moton he is getting the franchise tag on Tuesday.)
There's a fairly deep class of offensive linemen available this year, and they weren't all franchise tagged. A theoretical all-free-agent select could have 60% of their starting line be All-Pro and Pro Bowl veterans, with quality players throughout. It's not a bad time to have money to spend and gaping holes up front.
After taking a year off due to a contract dispute, Trent Williams immediately returned to his status as one of the elite tackles in all of football. Joining his old coordinator Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, Williams didn't just return to his Washington form; he arguably surpassed it. SIS charted him with 12 blown blocks, placing him firmly in the upper quartile of qualified tackles this season. Importantly for a team as dependent on the run game as San Francisco, he had just three blown blocks on rushing plays, and consistently paved ways to the second level and beyond. Don't think he's just a road-grader, either; ESPN ranked Williams fourth in pass block win rate. The 49ers have indicated they want to sign the soon-to-be 33-year-old to a long-term deal, but they may have missed their window to negotiate with him exclusively.
The other top tackle on the market is Taylor Moton, coming off arguably his best season to date. Always consistent, Moton set a career low with just 12 blown blocks. Williams has the better highlight reel and the flashier pedigree and is in general the better player, but Moton's calling card is an almost complete lack of negative plays. Moton drew just one flag in 2020 and only 10 in his four-year career. Last year, he allowed just two sacks and three opponent run stuffs per SIS charting. Rarely putting a foot wrong, you can watch hours of Panthers tape without ever hearing Moton's name called. When it comes to linemen, that's typically a good trait to have.
How Much Will They Cost?
Williams is the best free agent on the wrong side of 30, and he's going to get paid like it. By waiting a season before signing a long-term deal, Williams proved that he has what it takes to be a prime blindside protector, with all the financial accompaniments that brings with it. Because he is 33, he may end up falling just short of David Bakhtiari's four-year, $92-million extension from November, but that set the bar for Pro Bowl-caliber tackles. $20 million a year is not at all out of the question. Lacking the Pro Bowls and cache, and playing the traditionally less valuable right tackle slot, Moton will likely be a relative steal. Think more in the Trent Brown range; four years and $66 million. In 2019, that was enough to make Brown the highest-paid lineman in football. Now, he has fallen out of the top five.
The Jaguars and Jets sit one-two in available cap space and will likely both have new franchise passers in 2021, and they will be looking for big bodies to help protect said franchise passers as well. But we could assign pretty much anyone to Jacksonville or New York without much effort. A more interesting option might be the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished 29th in adjusted line yards a season ago and 31st in ESPN's pass block win rate. They, too, have a franchise passer to protect, and Trey Pipkins is not the answer at left tackle. Squeezing Williams in under their salary cap is doable, if a little awkward, and he'd be an instant, massive upgrade at the position.
The $10 million-to-$15 million range has a variety of tackles available for teams without massive pocketbooks. Buffalo has a number of decisions to make with their free agents, and so Daryl Williams may be on the move; he only has two fully healthy seasons in the last four years, but they were both very good ones. And speaking of injured ex-Panthers, Russell Okung is also available. He has played just 13 games over the past two seasons, but has been firmly above average when available. Alejandro Villanueva isn't going to wow anyone, but a team looking for a veteran with a long history of consistent if not particularly astonishing play could do far worse.
Best Available Player: Joe Thuney, New England Patriots
The best guard entering free agency, Brandon Scherff, ended up receiving the franchise tag from Washington, so he's not going anywhere. Joe Thuney, on the other hand, avoided that fate. The Patriots tagged Thuney last season, and doing so again would have cost them $17.7 million, making him by far and away the highest-paid guard in football. It's always difficult to tag a player in consecutive years, and it's worse on the interior of the line, as all five positions are grouped together in one bucket for the purposes of tag values. New England likely wouldn't have tagged Thuney anyway, however; he was made somewhat expendable by the emergence of Michael Onwenu. That means someone else will get the benefit of a guard who has yet to miss a game in his five-year career; one who has played at a Pro Bowl level even if he has never made the actual trip. Thuney has the reputation of being better against the run than the pass, and it's not entirely unwarranted, but he hasn't given up multiple sacks in a season since 2017, per SIS charting, and he has generally been trending positive over the course of his career dealing with troublesome rushers up front.
How Much Will He Cost?
Quite the pretty penny. The current highest-paid guard is Brandon Brooks, who signed a four-year, $56.4-million extension in 2019. Thuney is younger than Brooks was when he signed his deal; it's entirely within the realm of possibility that he could set the new high water mark, even with the salary cap declining this season.
The Cincinnati Bengals ended up starting Michael Jordan and Alex Redmond at guard in 2020. They'd likely have been no worse off had that been the basketball player and Doctors character rather than their football-playing namesakes. 31st in adjusted line yards and 24th in adjusted sack rate, Cincinnati needs a massive overhaul of their protection if they don't want Joe Burrow to get hurt. Again. The usual suspects—the Jets, Dolphins, et cetera—would all be in the market as well, and don't count out the Cardinals looking to upgrade from J.R. Sweezy in free agency.
If you're specifically looking for a guard and you miss out on Thuney, you're out of luck; the guard class is thin. You'll be forced to wade into the second and even third waves of free agency, looking to find bargain deals on players such as Germain Ifedi or Matt Feiler. If a team is debating where to splurge to improve their line, better to spend the money on a top guard and find a second-tier tackle later on; the latter position is much deeper this year than the former. If you're looking for a center, Corey Linsley is dependable and likely available, considering the Packers' salary-cap situation.