In the first day of the 2020 legal tampering period, NFL teams threw millions of dollars at their own players to re-sign, and committed future dollars which will became real when the 2021 league year kicked in at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Now, as the calendar week draws to a close, is when the real work gets done. Sure the big names are — mostly — signed but this is the portion of free agency when rosters are truly built out, and championships are perhaps won. There are still all kinds of quality free agents at every position, and, even with the Patriots giving out roughly the GDP of a small nation in guaranteed money Monday, there is still plenty of cash to be spent by other teams. here are the most prominent names left on the open market.
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Scheme fit is a consideration when evaluating players, both incoming rookies and free agents. If the player does not fit well with what you run as an offense or a defense, is the player a viable option for your organization? That is a question that both college scouting departments and pro scouting departments are working through this spring for every NFL organization. Some players make the conversation easier than others, and those are the schematically-diverse players that can fit into any offensive system. Kenny Golladay is one such example, as he is the “universal” fit for any NFL offense. Whether you are looking for a receiver who can be effective on quick-game concepts, a receiver who can attack the middle of the field and between the hashmarks, or a vertical threat, Golladay can fit into any role. This video, which covers his fit from a New York Giants’ perspective, breaks down how well he can fit in any scheme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np3RJFN-ah8 This is a fascinating class of free agent wide receivers, and it will soon be followed by a fascinating class of incoming rookies. But from where I sit, Golladay is one of the best options available.
(AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Harris' 2019 season was one of the most remarkable for any safety in recent years. Then, he allowed just 14 catches on 20 targets for 164 yards, 47 yards after the catch, seven interceptions, no touchdowns, and an opponent passer rating of 55.0. He was the best deep-third safety in the NFL, and the Vikings responded by giving him the franchise tag designation as opposed to signing him to a long-term contract. That gave him a one-year guaranteed salary of $11,441, but as it turned out, Harris should have preferred an opportunity to bet on himself. Harris had a reversal of fortune as the Vikings did in 2020 -- the team went from 10-6 to 7-9, and Harris' own stats certainly implied regression. He allowed 15 catches on 28 targets for 236 yards, 40 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 121.4. Now, he was working with an entirely new cornerback group, and the Vikings' pass rush took a major nose dive. (from 48 sacks in 2019 to just 23 in 2020). That's going to affect any safety negatively, and as he showed in this near-pick of Matthew Stafford in Week 17, Harris was still anticipating offenses and making plays as he had the season before. The results just weren't there.
Still have questions? Here's Harris in that same game, rolling 40 yards deep and breaking off his own assignment to deny Mohamed Sanu a touchdown. (Also: This is an insane throw by Stafford. Get happy, Rams fans).
Sometimes you find yourself in a disastrous situation, and there's no way out. That's what Harris faced in 2020. It will be interesting to see if it depresses his market, but any team looking for that back-third safety should give Harris a relative pass as regards last season. He's not a fluke.
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One tends to shy away from cornerbacks with injury histories who will be 33 years old in the upcoming season, but Sherman is anything but typical. As long as he lands on a defense in which he can roll with No. 1 receivers to the boundary, and he's not asked to run match against smaller, quicker receivers from the slot, he's got plenty left to offer, and should be paid accordingly. In a recent episode of the podcast Sherman does with Cris Collinsworth, guest Jon Gruden and Sherman had a lot to talk about regarding Sherman's scheme fit with new Raiders defensive coordinator (and former Seahawks defensive coordinator with Sherman in 2011 and 2012) Gus Bradley, and how that might look. Something to watch. As is the statistic below: https://twitter.com/PFF/status/1359910480073097222
OT Russel Okung
(AP Photo/David Berding)
Due to injuries, the Carolina Panthers were forced to use a variety of combinations along the offensive line this season, but when he was healthy Russell Okung was their best option at the left tackle spot. Okung dealt with calf and groin injuries this season, and this comes in the wake of missing the start of the 2019 campaign after a pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots in his lungs. When healthy, he was a solid tackle in both pass protection and as a run blocker. Pro Football Focus credited him with a pass blocking grade of 80.0 this season, and charted Okung with allowing just three sacks and a single quarterback hit. This matches up well with the tape, and on film you can see how Okung puts his length and experience to work on the edge: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/OkungVideo1.mp4">[/video] On this play against the New Orleans Saints you can see the length as well as the hand speed from the left tackle. Working against Marcus Davenport, Okung is able to reach the defender and initiate contact, and then control him throughout the play, countering every move from Davenport with well-timed strikes and punches. That gives Teddy Bridgewater more than enough time to hit on a big play downfield. Health is going to be a question, but when he is on the field, Okung remains a very solid option at left tackle.
OT Alejandro Villanueva
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The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2021 offseason facing some critical decisions about their financial health. The retirement of center Maurkice Pouncey will alleviate some of those concerns, and in recent days the future of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has come into light. But another potential cap casualty could be left tackle Alejandro Villaneuva, who could be looking at a contract worth north of $15 million per season on the open market, something that the Steelers could not likely afford given their cap position, even after some recent pruning. Is Villaneuva worth such a deal? In all likelihood, yes. Sure, he struggled in a late-season game against Carl Lawson and the Cincinnati Bengals, but he is coming off a season where he allowed just three sacks and committed just four penalties, and notched his fifth-straight season of over 1,000 snaps. And when you’re talking about a left tackle with this kind of length and technique: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/AVVideo1.mp4">[/video] You’re talking about someone who is going to get paid on the open market.
EDGE Carlos Dunlap
The Seahawks traded for Dunlap last October with the full knowledge that the last year of his contract had a $14,037,500 cap hit in 2021. Dunlap also had a $3 million roster bonus that came due on the first day of the league year (March 17), so it should come as little surprise that Seattle viewed Dunlap as a half-season rental. Seattle had less than $5 million in 2021 cap space based on an estimated salary cap of $180.5 million, and even if the final number comes in at a few million dollars more, there’s no way Pete Carroll and John Schneider were going to blow their 2021 free-agency opportunities on a 32-year-old edge-rusher, no matter how good he is. That said, Dunlap was quite good when he finally escaped the Bengals’ misbegotten defense — in just 240 pass-rushing snaps for the Seahawks, he racked up five sacks, nine quarterback hurries, and 11 stops. Dunlap still has every tool needed to succeed in any four-man front — size (6-foot-6, 285 pounds), a considerable bull-rush, an array of hand moves and upper-body techniques, and movement skills in space. Given the current free-agency climate, and the number of teams close to broke from a player spending perspective, Dunlap (No. 43) may have to settle for a one-year deal, but as he showed for the Seahawks he’s still got enough to contribute in a major way.
WR Antonio Brown
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
The journey to Tampa Bay was long for Antonio Brown, but it culminated in the veteran 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 lead. 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.
DL Ndamukong Suh
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On one fourth-quarter drive in Super Bowl LV, Ndamukong Suh had 1 1/2 sacks and a roughing the passer penalty that negated another sack. Suh’s full sack came with 7:44 left in the game, one play after Patrick Mahomes hit Travis Kelce on a 33-yard pass over the middle of the field — one of the few positive gains Mahomes was able to manage on the day. Then, Suh beat a double-team from center Austin Reiter and right guard Stefen Wisniewski with a dynamite spin move.
The roughing the passer call came on the next play, as Suh drifted to the pocket after starting the play aligned head-up over Reiter. Suh’s half-sack, which he shared with linebacker Cam Gill, came with 5:03 left in the game, and Suh aligned on the outside shoulder of right tackle Andrew Wylie, chasing Mahomes through the pocket as if Suh was a 260-pound defensive end.
To get that kind of pressure late in a game from three different starting gaps says a lot about Suh’s ability. We can talk all we want about Kansas City’s overmatched offensive line, but Suh also had five quarterback hurries, and he was an absolute force throughout. Versatility was a hallmark of Suh’s 2020 season — he played a total of 518 snaps at defensive tackle as you’d expect, but he also played 423 snaps at some sort of edge position — either defensive end or LEO/REO. He also played 13 snaps in the box for good measure, and he proved to be a crucial piece in Todd Bowles’ multiple and ever-changing fronts. Suh finished the 2020 season with 7.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, 39 quarterback hurries, and 31 stops. He may not be the player he was with the Lions in the early 2010s, but Suh still has a tremendous amount to offer, especially to any defensive coordinator who wants to move him around the formation, as opposed to just putting him in a DT box and keeping him there.
WR T.Y. Hilton
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T.Y. Hilton is a few seasons removed from some of his most productive years in the NFL, such as the 2016 campaign when he caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards and six touchdowns, and his evaluation might be clouded by the quarterback play this past season in Indianapolis, when Philip Rivers was perhaps running on fumes near the end. But when you dive into his film and ignore the numbers Hilton is still a dangerous weapon, even as a downfield target. Hilton caught 56 passes this year on 93 targets for 76 yards and five touchdowns, but there were certainly opportunities for bigger plays that were left on the field. Take this post route against the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Hilton gets behind the coverage but the pass is slightly underthrown and intercepted:
[video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/HiltonVideo1.mp4">[/video]
Or this seam route where Hilton gets behind the coverage, but the throw is late and broken up:
[video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/HiltonVideo2.mp4">[/video]
Sure, other big-time options are going to draw the bulk of attention at the start of free agency. But on that secondary free agent market, after the splash deals are made, is where playoff teams are often crafted. Those teams are going to be targeting Hilton, and will be glad they did.
EDGE Olivier Vernon
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It was eclipsed on Cleveland’s defense by Myles Garrett’s exploits, but Vernon had nine sacks last season, his highest total since 2013, when he had 11.5 for the Dolphins. He also had eight quarterback hits, 34 quarterback hurries, and 24 stops in just 14 games. The Browns restructured Vernon’s contract before the 2020 season, which makes a return to Cleveland unlikely. But when he’s healthy, Vernon still has the speed to and through the pocket, and the moves and power to upset blockers. Vernon also gets sacks in bunches (two of Lamar Jackson in Week 14, three of Carson Wentz in Week 11, and two of Derek Carr in Week 8). He can be a fine addition to any team needing help on the edge.
LB K.J. Wright
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Wright has been a key cog in Seattle’s defense since the prime of the Legion of Boom days, and though that defense plays more like the Legion of Whom at times these days, Wright is still a fine player. Last season, Pro Football Focus credited Wright with 68 solo tackles, 20 assists, two sacks, 12 total pressures, 44 stops, and 61 receptions allowed in 81 targets for 502 yards, 350 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 97.9. Wright’s 13 missed tackles is a slight cause for concern, and he’s not someone you want to have in man coverage on tight ends (something the Seahawks learned the hard way in the second half of Super Bowl XLIX, and two of Wright’s three touchdowns allowed last season came in man coverage per Sports Info Solutions), but especially if your team plays a lot of base (three-linebacker) defense, Wright can be a really nice addition as a run-stopper and intermediate coverage defender.
CB Quinton Dunbar
(AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
When the Seahawks sent a fifth-round pick to Washington last March for the services of cornerback Quinton Dunbar, I was convinced that Seattle had committed grand larceny, and Dunbar was the guy who — along with former Lions safety Quandre Diggs — would help Seattle re-start the Legion of Boom. At the time, it was a reasonable assumption. Though Week 8 of the 2019 season, per Pro Football Focus, both Dunbar and Richard Sherman had allowed an opponent passer rating of 37.9, on the dot. Only New England’s J.C. Jackson (12.2) had a lower opponent rating among cornerbacks taking at least 50% of their team’s defensive snaps. By the end of the regular season, Sherman had allowed 27 receptions on 51 targets for 227 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 46.8. Dunbar had allowed 29 receptions on 52 targets for 344 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. 2019 was the year the light came on for Dunbar; for Sherman, that year was 2012, his second season in the league. Sadly for Dunbar and the Seahawks, it didn’t quite work out. Injuries limited Dunbar to just six games, and in those six games, he gave up 30 receptions on 47 targets for 381 yards, 101 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 101.5. There was also the matter of fit — one highly astute source who tends to know these things told me that Dunbar was doing a lot of “guessing” in Seattle’s defense, and the tape tended to back that up. However, in any system where he’s allowed to use his top-level instincts (and he’s actually healthy), Dunbar can still project to the guy he was in 2019 as opposed to the disappointments of 2020.
S Tre Boston
(Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)
It seems that I’ve been writing every year over the last few years about Tre Boston and his truly odd status as the most underrated and undervalued deep safety of his era. I wrote this before the Panthers gave Boston a three year, $18 million contract in March of 2020:
One of the biggest personnel mysteries in the NFL today is how Boston has moved from the Panthers to the Chargers to the Cardinals and back to the Panthers on a series of one-year deals when he’s consistently proven to be one of the NFL’s most effective deep third safeties. Boston has no known personal dings, and he’s been remarkably consistent as a player in the toughest possible situation, moving from scheme to scheme year after year. He’s never allowed an opponent passer rating above 76.3. He has 13 interceptions to six touchdowns allowed over the past four seasons, and he has given up just 41 catches on 85 targets over that four-year stretch.
On February 19, the news came down that the Panthers released Boston from that contract, which means he’s Mr. One Year again. While Boston didn’t have his best season in 2020 — he allowed 36 catches on 52 targets for 319 yards, 143 yards after catch, three touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 96.6 — he also made a lot of plays that showed he wasn’t on the back end of his skill set at age 28. My Twitter response elicited a question about Boston’s future viability, and here’s how I responded:
So, let’s look at those two plays from Week 3. The deflection of Justin Herbert’s deep pass to Keenan Allen saved a sure touchdown, as cornerback Troy Pride Jr. fell down in coverage. But Boston came over in coverage and calmly snuffed it out.
And on the K.J. Hill deflection, watch how Boston moved across the field with pinpoint accuracy out of Cover-1 to get what should have been an interception.
I don’t know what else to say about Boston’s obvious value in the NFL except that there is a desperate need for safeties who can credibly play the deep third, and he’s done that at a very high level for the last half-decade. Add in his ability to make plays at linebacker depth, and it’s about time somebody rewards him with a multi-year deal that sticks. Of course, in the compressed salary cap of 2021, that may not happen. Regardless, some team is going to sign Tre Boston, and Tre Boston will make that team look very smart. Same as it ever was.
OG Kelechi Osemele
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
After a long and winding road brought Kelechi Osemele to the Kansas City Chiefs, it looked like the NFL veteran was finally going to find his next NFL home. Having spent time with the Ravens, the Raiders and the Jets, Osemele slotted in as the Chiefs starting left tackle to begin the 2020 season. Through four games, Osemele was impressive as both a run blocker and a pass blocker, and our own Doug Farrar credited him with making the Chiefs offense even tougher to defend after his performance back in Week 1. But then Osemele was injured early in Kansas City’s Week 5 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, and the left guard was lost for the season with torn tendons in both knees. That marked the second year in row that Osemele’s season was cut short, as he lost the bulk of the 2019 due to a shoulder injury that required surgery; an incident that ultimately led to his release from the Jets after the team did not approve the surgery. Osemele’s toughness and status as a true road grader up front will make him an asset to almost any NFL offense, and given the Chiefs’ issues with protecting Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, one might expect Kansas City to try and bring him back for the 2020 season. If such a deal is not reached, teams looking for some toughness and the ability to run a course of gap/power designs are going to be calling, even with the injury concerns.
DB Jaquiski Tartt
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
As was the case for seemingly every defensive player on the 49ers’ roster in the 2020 season, Tartt missed time due to injury — nine games. When Tartt was healthy, he did what he has done throughout his recent time in Robert Saleh’s defense: he played more than credibly everywhere from the box to the slot to free safety. In total, Tartt allowed seven catches on 10 targets for 61 yards, 20 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, one interception (almost two, as detailed below), and an opponent passer rating of 85.8. Tartt showed his deep coverage skills in this deflection and near-interception of a Carson Wentz pass to tight end Richard Rodgers in Week 4….
…and he checks just about every box when it comes to the modern multi-position defender. It’s a coveted skill set in today’s NFL, and Tartt should see a correspondingly robust market for his services.
CB Bashaud Breeland
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Breeland was suspended the first for games of the 2020 season due to a violation of the NFL’s policy and program on substances of abuse, which allowed fourth-round rookie L’Jarius Sneed to show out surprisingly well as an outside cornerback. When he returned to action, Breeland allowed 43 receptions on 73 targets for 481 yards, 280 yards after the catch, five touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating allowed of 90.0. While Breeland does struggle at times against quicker, smaller receivers, he’s just fine in the open field, as Tom Brady learned in Week 12 (the Super Bowl LV prequel) when Brady tried to hit Scotty Miller on his patented backside fade. Breeland simply established outside position, matched Miller through the route, and came up with the pick.
And there’s this great play against the Raiders in Week 5, where Breeland covers Nelson Agholor on the deep over, and then breaks off to take Darren Waller on the intermediate crosser for the interception.
Breeland’s transitions didn’t always work out. In Week 13, he was toasted for two touchdowns by Denver quarterback Drew Lock, of all people. The real culprit here was receiver Tim Patrick (a really underrated player), who motioned from right to left pre-snap, and Breeland just couldn’t keep up after breaking off from Jerry Jeudy.
Breeland isn’t an elite cornerback, but he does enough well as an outside defender on deep routes to be a credible CB2 for a few more seasons.