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The official start to the 2021 NFL league year is just days away, which will provide a flurry of activity and player movement. Given that free agency is part of the season of hope, fans will be excited as their favorite teams sign new faces and start to build a roster that will hopefully be competitive — if not more — in the season ahead.
But not every player is a sure thing, even for established veterans. A prime example might be Adalius Thomas, one of Bill Belichick’s free agent additions during New England’s 2007 off-season. The venerable head coach went as far as telling his new player that he “backed up the Brinks truck” for him when signing him to a five-year, $35 million contract with $20 million of that guaranteed.
The signing, in many ways, did not pan out. Thomas struggled to find the right fit in New England’s defense, bouncing between inside linebacker and outside, and never quite lived up to that contract. For Belichick and the Patriots, an organization that prides itself on studying what a player “can do,” and not focusing on what they can’t, it was a difficult outcome to swallow.
And an example of how sometimes sure things in free agency are anything but.
Here is a look at some of the players on the offensive side of the ball that, while being incredibly talented players, might give future teams some pause before signing them.
1. QB Jameis Winston
(Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)
There are perhaps a few big red flags when it comes to evaluating Jameis Winston as an option on the quarterback carousel. First is the fact that in his final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their starting quarterback he threw 30 interceptions. Then the Buccaneers went out and signed Tom Brady, who immediately led them to a Super Bowl victory. Then there is this: Winston was signed by the New Orleans Saints behind Drew Brees, and when Brees went down with an injury, Sean Payton turned to...Taysom Hill to start in his place instead of Winston. Still, teams should not foreclose on Winston as an option at quarterback, and yes as a potential starter in this league. The bet will be that during his time in New Orleans Winston was able to work on his decision-making, so that when he sees his next live action the reads and throws will be faster, and not as risky. The biggest flaw I saw in Winston’s game after that final year in Tampa Bay was how the ball would sometimes just come out of his hand far too slowly for plays to be effective. If that has been fixed, Winston could in time be an effective starter in this league. What's the problem? Well, you saw the bit about the 30 interceptions, right? There's no denying that Winston knows more about playing the quarterback position than most people reading this -- and without question the author himself -- but 30 interceptions is a big number. Sure, he can walk you through the various reads on a route design against a bevy of different coverages, but can he put that together on the field? Perhaps he can, and again if Winston can be fixed he could still be a starter in the NFL. But the team that signs him will need to have a clear plan for his development, and potentially a Plan B behind him.
2. WR Antonio Brown
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The journey to Tampa Bay was long for Antonio Brown, but it culminated in the eteran receiver earning his first Super Bowl ring. After appearing in just a single game in 2019 -- a game where he caught four passes from Tom Brady for the New England Patriots -- Brown was suspended for the first eight weeks of the 2020 campaign for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. But he joined the Buccaneers at the end of his suspension, reuniting with both Brady and Bruce Arians, who was his offensive coordinator while Brown was with the Pittsburgh Steelers. During the regular season Brown caught 45 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns, including a game-winner in a comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons, which is the third of three plays highlighted in this video breakdown: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1341126296328290304 Brown still has the ability to get behind a defense. During the playoffs, Brown caught a touchdown pass against Washington on Wild-Card weekend, but his biggest play of the postseason was probably his touchdown catch in the Super Bowl, coming right before halftime to give the Buccaneers a 21-6. What's the problem? The risk with Brown comes off-the-field. He was suspended for eight games a season ago and shortly after his Tampa Bay debut it was reported that Brown destroyed a security camera and threw a bicycle at a security guard at his home back in October. Will a team bet on his talent? Both the Raiders and the Patriots made that bet a year ago, and he played in one game between the two organizations. Perhaps his relationships with Brady and Arians keep him with the Buccaneers for another season. Any team looking to sign him will need to be sure that the off-the-field issues do not outweigh what he offers now between the lines.
3. RB James Conner
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Back in 2018 James Conner was one of the NFL’s best stories. A cancer survivor, Conner rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in just his second professional season, earning an invitation to his first Pro Bowl. His production has dipped since then, but he still gained 721 yards on 169 carries last season, scoring six touchdowns. Injuries have played a part, as Conner missed six games in the 2019 campaign with both a shoulder injury and a knee injury that required surgery. This past season Conner exited the Week 1 victory over the New York Giants with an ankle injury, and also missed time due to a positive COVID-19 test. What's the problem? Beyond the standard caveats regarding running back value in today's NFL, Conner is going to need the right scheme fit to maximize his production in 2021. He has the vision and the footwork to operate in an outside zone based offense, but he might fit best in more of an inside zone or perhaps a gap/power structure. The teams looking to sign Conner might spend a lot of time studying his better running plays from the past few seasons to ensure that their offensive system will put him in the right position to succeed.
4. OG Brandon Scherff
(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)
It does not take long to come away impressed with Brandon Scherff’s game. Turn on any Washington game and you will immediately see the right guard doing things that are dominant at the position, and against top-level talent on the other side of the football. Take Washington’s Week 17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. This is Washington’s first offensive snap: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/ScherffVideo1.mp4">[/video] On this play Scherff is working against Javon Hargrave, a premier talent at defensive tackle. But Scherff just stones him, combining footwork with power and punch up top with his hands. Or this play against Hargrave, where Scherff has to handle a powerful bull-rush: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/ScherffVideo2.mp4">[/video] Hargrave drives Scherff back off the snap, but the right guard fights and fights for every critical inch in the pocket, giving quarterback Alex Smith just enough room to get off a throw to move the chains on a 3rd-and-long situation. But besides the passing game, Scherff can be a dominant force when the offense keeps the football on the ground. Washington used him in space as much as possible, due to his athleticism, and they must have enjoyed the results. Take this big gain against the Carolina Panthers, set in motion with Scherff pulling to the edge: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/ScherffVideo3.mp4">[/video] That’s a “you might be wondering how I got here” moment for safety Tre Boston. And yes, I kept the end of that play in the clip when it seems like the safety is asking Scherff that same question… What's the problem? Scherff is arguably the top player available at his position -- unless you are a huge fan of Joe Thuney which is an entirely reasonable position -- and one of the top players on the free agency list. The concerns are two-fold. First, how much are you willing to invest in an offensive guard? OverTheCap.com puts Scherff in around the $15 million range, which would make him one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL. He might very well be worth that, but that could price him out of the range of some teams. Second, there is the injury history. He has battled injuries each of the past three seasons and has not played a full 16-game regular season since 2016. He's one of the best there is, but that does not mean there are no concerns.
5. WR Will Fuller V
(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)
Speed kills. That’s why even with the injury history and the hamstring issues, Will Fuller V is still among the top tier of free agent options. Because when it comes down to it, the ability of a wide receiver to simply just run by a guy is unmatched in the NFL: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/FullerVideo1.mp4">[/video] This is not a coverage bust or anything like this, this is simply Fuller lining up and running right past the coverage for six points. Scheme fit does not matter when you can do this four or five times a game. There is also that trickle-down effect on the rest of the offense, in that Fuller can open up the rest of the field for his teammates as coverage is rotated in his direction. If he is attracting consistent safety attention over-the-top, that means a lighter box for the run game or more real estate for receivers to attack underneath. Again, things you cannot teach. So yes, Fuller has yet to play a full 16 game season, and you might be expecting more of the same in 2021 given his history. But he is coming off a career-year, with 53 receptions for 879 yards and eight touchdowns, all of which represent career-high numbers. You can bet teams are willing to take their chances given what he offers in the passing game. What's the problem? I mentioned the injury history, right? Ok, just checking. But that is the big concern with Fuller, who has yet to play an entire 16-game schedule. He missed time in 2017 with a broken collarbone and he suffered an ACL injury in 2018 that cut his season short. Then at the end of last season he was suspended for six games for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and still has a game remaining on that suspension. So while speed kills, his next NFL team will have to avoid being burned.
6. OT Zach Banner
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
After serving as a reserve tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 -- and playing 219 snaps at tight end in jumbo packages -- Zach Banner earned the starting right tackle spot for the 2020 season. Unfortunately, Banner suffered a season-ending injury during Pittsburgh’s Week 1 victory over the New York Giants, and now faces free agency with a minimal body of work over his three-year career. Still, Banner recently indicated that head coach Mike Tomlin told him that “...[Banner] is his answer for 2021.” Whether that means that Banner’s job at right tackle is safe, or he is an option to replace Alejandro Villanueva if the Steelers lose the left tackle in free agency, remains to be seen. But in his minimal 2020 action you can see that Banner has the combination of power and athleticism that can work on both edges of the offensive line, which might make him a valued commodity on the free agency market. What's the problem? The problem is this: Banner is still a relative projection as a full-time starting tackle in the NFL. For teams looking for that kind of player, they can pay Banner on the open market or perhaps dip into a rather deep and intriguing rookie class and maybe save a little money in the process. Given what Tomlin indicated earlier in the winter, it is likely that Pittsburgh views Banner as a potential backstop should Villanueva leaves, but as far as the open market, this is by no means a sure thing.
7. QB Cam Newton
(Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
There are two ways to view Cam Newton as we look ahead to the 2021 season. The “glass half-empty” approach is as follows: Last season with the New England Patriots documented his limitations as a passer in the modern NFL. Throws relying on timing and rhythm were a roller coaster, and Newton’s inability to execute the passing game with any consistency doomed the Patriots’ season. The “glass half-full” approach is as follows: Last season was an aberration, driven largely by the fact that Newton signed with New England late, the preseason was lost due to COVID-19, Newton was not the same player when he returned after his own bout with COVID-19 and the Patriots did not surround him with a ton of offensive talent. Despite that, Newton was still a major weapon in the run game, and showed flashes of what he could do in the passing game: https://twitter.com/MarkSchofield/status/1330974401181921284 As such, I’m more in the latter camp, and would not be surprised if the Patriots do bring Newton back - along with another move or two at the position - with the hopes that a full offseason in the program puts him in a better position for 2021. But in a spread-based offense relying on vertical concepts, Newton can still be a starting quarterback in this league. What's the problem? Just because I'm in the "glass half-full" camp does not mean that the "glass half-empty" camp is wrong. In fact, that camp might be exactly right. Thinking about Newton requires adjusting the expectations. Teams that sign him hoping to get the 2015 version of Cam Newton might be disappointed. Teams hoping for a player close to the 2017 version -- a quarterback that put the Carolina Panthers on his back and led them to the post-season -- might have a better chance of having those expectations met. Newton showed flashes last season as highlighted above, but he'll need talent around him and the right scheme fit (a more vertical-based offense) to reach even that 2017 potential.
8. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Jan 3, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback M.J. Stewart (36) returns an (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
Sure, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is what happens away from the field. Locker room dances, Fortnight gaming, and the rest. But between the lines Smith-Schuster is an emerging talent at the wide receiver position with the ability to fit in almost any offensive system, albeit with one preferred type of scheme. He is only a few seasons removed from a 2018 campaign that saw him catch 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, although he topped that touchdown mark with nine scores this past season. In 2020 he displayed the ability to serve as more of a vertical threat in the passing game, but his best work remains near the line of scrimmages on slants, quick-hitting designs, and concepts more rooted in the West Coast school of thought. For those reasons, Smith-Schuster might be an ideal fit for a few different teams, such as San Francisco, Las Vegas or Chicago, if the Bears are forced to watch Allen Robinson leave in free agency. This play against the Dallas Cowboys is a prime example of what he offers: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/JujuVideo1.mp4">[/video] He beats press coverage, extends the separation after the break on his slant route, and picks up yardage after the catch. In the right system, he could return to putting up the numbers we saw back in 2018 before you know it. What's the problem? The problem is one of scheme fit. Teams that operate on more of the West Coast offense tree, and are looking for a receiver who can win on routes like the above example, are going to love what Smith-Schuster offers. But teams that are looking for a pure downfield receiver, more of the "X" in the offensive system, might be disappointed if they sign Smith-Schuster to be that kind of player.
9. QB Joe Flacco
(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
Given the talent in this year’s class of rookie quarterbacks, a number of organizations could be looking for the “bridge” type of QB, a veteran who can start if needed early in the year until giving way to the younger quarterback. Veteran passer Joe Flacco fits that mold at this point in this career. Right now Flacco is not the quarterback you will look to to lead your franchise for a full 16-game season, but he can give you spot starts either to open the season or throughout the campaign as your team transitions to the quarterback of the future. Last season Flacco was behind Sam Darnold with the New York Jets, but did show in limited action that he can run the offense and still make some impressive throws in spots. One of his starts last year is a prime example of this idea. In a loss to the New England Patriots Flacco was impressive early in the game, before throwing a disastrous interception that paved the way for a Patriots’ comeback victory. What's the problem? It hardly seems fair to apply the "buyer beware" tag to Flacco, who checked in at the 101st -- and last -- ranked player on Touchdown Wire's list of free agents. Teams that sign him probably know full-well what they are getting. But if part of that is a potential mentor for a young rookie quarterback, that might not be the best idea. When the Baltimore Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson and Flacco was put in the awkward position of being a mentor to the player expected to take his job, it did not go well. And in a sense that is understandable, and human. I'm not sure many people reading this would be pleased to train their replacement, even if millions of dollars were on the table. Quarterbacks are competitive creatures, and Flacco is no exception. Not every veteran QB is willing to take on that mentorship role. Perhaps Flacco's viewpoint on this has softened, but teams would be wise to be clear with him what the expectations are going into a new season.