Outside of the quarterback position, the 2020 NFL free-agent class left a lot to be desired. That won’t be the case come March. Multiple young stars are set to hit the open market, while others are going to cash in with jaw-dropping contract extensions before they ever hit the open market.
It’s in this that we look at the top-25 potential free agents around the NFL next year, including several future Hall of Fame performers.
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Top 25 NFL free agents of 2021
25. Ryan Kerrigan, EDGE, Washington Redskins
Washington selected fellow edge pass rusher Chase Young No. 2 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. It also picked Montez Sweat in the first round of the 2019 draft. Needless to say, the Skins are preparing for a future without this four-time Pro Bowler. That has shown up this season. Kerrigan has played in 40% or less of Washington’s defensive snaps in eight games. Despite this, the stud veteran has recorded 5.5 sacks. Talk about production.
24. Cam Newton, quarterback, New England Patriots
It took forever for Newton to land with New England this past offseason. The former NFL MVP had to settle on a one-year, prove-it deal. While things have not gone swimmingly at all times this season (see four-game losing streak, COVID-19), Newton has more than proven himself to be a starter-caliber quarterback in the NFL. He’s put up 13 total touchdowns and seven interceptions in nine starts. This is despite the fact that New England lacks capable skill-position players.
23. Leonard Williams, defensive tackle, New York Giants
A lot of skeptics gave embattled Giants general manager David Gettleman crap for trading for Williams during the 2019 season, only to place the franchise tag on the former Jets No. 6 overall pick. Those skeptics are quiet right now. Through the first 10 games of the season, Williams has racked up 16 quarterback hits and five sacks. At 26, he looks to be among the best interior pass rushers in the NFL.
22. Bud Dupree, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
After struggling through his first four NFL seasons, this former first-round pick has picked it up big time recently. Dupree recorded 17 quarterback hits, 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles a season ago. Thus far in 2020, the Kentucky product has eight sacks in 10 games. It’s going to be hard for Pittsburgh to retain him with Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt set for a huge payday following the 2020 campaign.
21. Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ngakoue wanted out of Duval before the 2020 season started. The former Maryland standout was promptly traded to the Minnesota Vikings. And after just a handful of games in Minnesota, the impending NFL free agent was dealt to the Baltimore Ravens. Through it all, Ngakoue has been able to keep up his production A third-round selection back in 2016, he recorded 71 quarterback hits and 29.5 sacks in the three seasons prior to 2020. Thus far this year, Ngakoue has six sacks in 10 games.
20. Brandon Scherff, guard, Washington Football Team
Here’s a top-end 2021 free agent who might actually hit the market. Washington placed the franchise tag on this former top-five pick back in March, paying Scherff north of $15 million in 2020. That’s a lot of cash to pay out to an interior offensive lineman. It also suggests there would have been significant interest across the NFL if he could test free agency. The only issue here is that Scherff has missed 17 games since the start of the 2018 season to injury.
19. K.J. Wright, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks
One of the more consistent linebackers in the game, an argument can be made that Wright has performed at a higher clip than better-known fellow Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner in recent years. The nine-year veteran recorded a career-high 132 tackles to go with 11 passes defended, three interceptions and he excelled in coverage last season. The 31-year-old Wright has seen a downtick in production thus far this season, leading to speculation that he might have to settle on a shorter-term deal.
18. Richard Sherman, cornerback, San Francisco 49ers
One of many top-end free agents for the defending NFC champs after the 2020 season, Sherman showed out big time in his second year with the team. The future Hall of Fame corner recorded 11 passes defended and three interceptions en route to earning his fifth Pro Bowl selection. Unfortunately, the stud veteran corner has been out since Week 1 with a calf injury. Expect that to impact Sherman’s free-agent market with a return to San Francisco seemingly likely.
17. JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Smith-Schuster followed up a 1,400-yard performance back in 2018 by struggling big time with injuries last season (552 yards in 12 games). There’s no excuses thus far this year for the young receiver’s lack of production, especially with Ben Roethlisberger back at 100%. JuJu has recorded 58 catches and is averaging less than 10 yards per reception in 10 games. How might that impact him as one of the top NFL free agents at wide receiver?
16. Patrick Peterson, cornerback, Arizona Cardinals
The subject of trade rumors in recent years, it seems that this future Hall of Fame corner will ultimately finish his career in the desert. Peterson, 30, has played all nine-plus NFL seasons with the Cardinals since they made him a top-five pick in 2011. He’s earned eight Pro Bowl appearances during that span, the only exception being last season when he served a six-game PED suspension.
15. Anthony Harris, safety, Minnesota Vikings
Yet another former undrafted free agent, this Virginia product came out of nowhere last season. Harris, 28, recorded 60 tackles and 11 passes defended while leading the league with six interceptions. He’s seen as a single-high safety with broad coverage ability. Harris’ skills led to Minnesota placing the franchise tag on Harris, paying him $11.44 million this season. That will ultimately be Harris’ low-water mark once he hits free agency following the 2020 season.
14. Shaq Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barrett came out of nowhere in his first season with Tampa Bay after moving on from the Denver Broncos. The former undrafted free agent recorded a league-high 19.5 sacks to go with 37 quarterback hits and a whopping six forced fumbles. This forced Tampa to place the franchise tag on the Colorado State product. Barrett, 28, has seen somewhat of a downtick in production this year with a mere five sacks in 11 games. Is he a one-year wonder? That’s a question one of the top NFL free agents of this class will be subject to come March.
13. Philip Rivers, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
Rivers, 38, opted to sign with the Colts after spending his first 16 NFL seasons with the Chargers. It was somewhat surprising that Rivers made this move without really considering any other options. He loves the fit, and could look to finish his career in Indy. Thus far this season, Rivers’ decision appears to have been fruitful. Indy sits at 7-3 on the year and he’s thrown 14 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. Regardless of what happens moving forward this season, expect Rivers to re-sign with the Colts.
12. Lavonte David, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A two-time Pro Bowl performer, David will likely end up moving on from the Buccaneers for one final big-market contract as one of the top NFL free agents on defense. He entered the 2020 campaign having recorded 100-plus tackles in seven of his first eight seasons. He has 22 career forced fumbles and 12 interceptions to his name. That type of play-making ability, even at 30, should lead to a solid free agent market.
11. Von Miller, EDGE, Denver Broncos
There’s been a lot of talk about this former Super Bowl MVP leaving the Broncos in the not-so-distant future. It makes sense in that Denver has a young edge rusher in Bradley Chubb ready to replace for the 31-year-old as the face of the defense. With Miller having missed the entire 2020 season to an ankle injury, that’s magnified even further. If this is indeed the case, Miller and his 106 career sacks will latch on with a contender in short order come March.
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Top 10 NFL free agents of 2021
10. Kenny Golladay, wide receiver, Detroit Lions
A third-round pick of the Lions back in 2017, most figured that Golladay would be among the top-five NFL free agents this coming March. Issues with injuries might impact that moving forward. The former Northern Illinois star is dealing with a hip injury that has limited him to 20 receptions in five games. This came after Golladay tallied nearly 1,200 yards while leading the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions a season ago. At 27, he’s still going to have an extremely solid market.
9. Chris Godwin, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Elite. That’s what we’ve seen from Godwin since he entered the NFL with Golladay back in 2017. The Penn State product recorded 86 receptions for 1,333 yards with nine touchdowns while catching north of 71% of his targets last season. Godwin remains productive with a struggling Tom Brady under center for the Buccaneers this year. He’s 24 years old and has not yet reached his ceiling. If the Bucs don’t franchise Godwin, he’ll become one of the highest-paid receivers in the league as one of the top NFL free agents come March.
8. Allen Robinson, wide receiver, Chicago Bears
Vastly underrated. Forced to catch passes from Mitchell Trubisky, among other horrible quarterbacks in recent years, Robinson continues to produce. The still-young 27-year-old pass catcher hauled in 98 receptions for 1,147 yards a season ago. Thus far in 2020, he’s catching 66% of his targets and has yet to drop a pass. Robinson is going to get paid big time once free agency starts. Just don’t expect a return to the Bears.
7. Matt Judon, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
Noticing a theme here? There’s a lot of late-round picks and undrafted selections slated to head the free-agent class next March. None is more relevant than this former fifth-round selection of the Ravens. Judon, 27, recorded a ridiculous 33 quarterback hits and 9.5 sacks a season ago. He’s put up seven-plus sacks in each of the past three seasons and is on pace to hit that mark again in 2020. Playing under the $15.83 million franchise tag tender, look for Judon to top $20 million annually if he’s able to hit free agency next spring.
6. Aaron Jones, running back, Green Bay Packers
It’s looking more and more like the Packers have no plans to retain Jones in free agency. It’s a crying shame in that he’s the best running back Aaron Rodgers has ever had in Green Bay. Last season saw the 29-year-old Jones record 1,558 total yards and a league-leading 19 touchdowns from the running back position. While the UTEP product has been limited some by injury this season, he’s still going to become a top-five paid running back as one of the best NFL free agents this coming March.
NFL free agents 2021: The best of the best
5. Justin Simmons, safety, Denver Broncos
Denver’s decision to place the franchise tag on this 27-year-old safety will cost the team $11.44 million in 2020. It’s a bargain considering that four other players at his position are earning $14 million annually. This won’t be the case following the 2020 season. A third-round pick out of Boston College back in 2016, Simmons has recorded 19 passes defended and seven interceptions over the past two seasons. Through the first 10 games of the 2020 campaign, Simmons has 65 tackles, seven passes defended and a whopping four interceptions. He’s as elite as they come.
4. Joe Thuney, guard, New England Patriots
New England surprisingly placed the franchise tag on the 28-year-old Thuney after a brilliant fourth year with the team. Said tag represents top-five money, a total of $14.78 million this season. Given that the Pats are apparently headed into rebuild mode, there was some talk about him being traded. Alas, that did not come to fruition. Expect Thuney to walk in free agency, becoming the highest-paid guard in NFL history.
3. Alejandro Villanueva, left tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers
A two-time Pro Bowler, this military veteran has quickly morphed into one of the best blindside protectors in the entire NFL. He’s earned two Pro Bowl appearances in four seasons as Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle. Now 32 years old, it’s not yet known whether Villanueva will get a long-term deal in free agency next March. What I do know is that he’ll get a significant raise from the $6 million he’s earning annually on his current deal.
2. Trent Williams, left tackle, San Francisco 49ers
Acquired by San Francisco during the 2020 NFL Draft, Williams replaced the recently-retired Joe Staley as Jimmy Garoppolo’s blindside protector. Despite sitting out all of last season with Washington due to a contract dispute, Williams remains one of the best left tackles in the game. In fact, the seven-time Pro Bowler has graded out as the best overall left tackle in the NFL this season despite the plethora of injuries San Francisco has dealt with. Whether with the 49ers or another team, Williams will get that one final big paycheck in March. Take that to the bank (literally).
1. Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
The devastating ankle injury Prescott suffered back in Week 5 should not impact him in free agency. Heck, the Cowboys would be smart to double down with their most-recent offer of making him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in NFL history. Prior to suffering said injury, Prescott had tallied over 7,100 total yards with 45 total touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his previous 21 starts. He’s a franchise quarterback. He will get paid like it.
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Author: Vincent Frank