Whether your team is on top of the playoff picture, on the fringe, or out of the picture entirely, there’s nothing unusual about turning one’s thoughts to the next wave of free agency, which takes place when the new league year begins in March. Projected revenue shortfalls in the 2020 season due to COVID has the estimated 2021 salary cap at $175 million, down from 2020’s figure of $198.2 million.
That would affect the total value of free agent contracts to a degree — the lower ceiling would present a lower aggregate — but that notwithstanding, there’s a ton of potential talent on the hoof once that gate opens.
Here, per our statistical and tape study, are the best offensive free agents of the 2021 league year. We’ll get to the defense later in the week.
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Prescott's season-ending ankle injury, which he suffered in Week 5 against the Giants, could complicate a quarterback/team situation with the Cowboys that was already too complicated. There's absolutely no question that Prescott is a Top-10 quarterback when healthy, and the hope was that with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb as his targets, Prescott would go off the proverbial hook in 2020 and force Jerry Jones' hand from a long-term contract perspective. Prescott is guaranteed $31.409 million in 2020 on the franchise tag, and though Dallas currently has an estimated $28,521,005 in 2021 cap room, franchising him again simply raises the one-year price and does very little for either side. A multi-year deal would solve a lot of problems, but Jones has been unusually reticent to give his franchise guy (both figuratively and literally) just that. "We've got to be reminded that to have a team, we've got to really manage how we dole out our resources," Jones said soon after the injury. "Dak is deserving of anything that you want to put on a piece of paper, relatively speaking. He's deserving of that. If you evaluate what he can do to help us win championships, you can see that it's there. Plus, he's a leader at the premier leader spot. We've got to make it work. So what am I saying? I'm saying exactly the same thing I said the last time I was asked about this before the season started. This is part of the game, the business and the contract part." Were Prescott to hit the open market at the beginning of the new league year, the suitors would be multiple, and you could expect him to get a top quarterback contract, which -- regardless of the projected 2021 COVID-based revenue shortfall -- would likely put him in the neighborhood of $35-40 million per year in total value, with more than $60 million guaranteed. Perhaps far more. How any team would dole that out in a salary cap sense is to be determined, but it's clear that Prescott and the Cowboys are nearing that particular tipping point. For Jones, it is time to pay, or move on.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals
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In the 2020 free agency space, there were exactly four running backs (Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, J.D. McKissic, and Peyton Barber) who were given new contracts of more than one year, and Gordon led the way with $16 million total, and $13.5 million guaranteed as he moved from the Chargers to the Broncos. There are no backs in the upcoming free-agency period who are going to get anywhere near the four-year, $57,5 million extension the Rams gave Todd Gurley in 2018, but given the way that deal turned out, talent might not matter at this point. Of the upcoming free agents, Drake is probably the best of the lot. With 168 carries for 719 yards and seven touchdowns, Drake is on pace for the first 1,000-yard season in his five-year career, and his 21 broken tackles as a runner, and six runs of 15 yards or more for 162 yards, show a player with still-untapped potential. A smart team in need of a lead back in a rotation will snap Drake up, and probably for a relative bargain.
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Juszczyk has been a key part of Kyle Shanahan's complex, run-based offense since the 49ers gave him a four-year, $21 million contract in 2017. Given the perfect marriage of player and team, it's entirely possible that Juszczyk never sees free agency, and that's probably best for both parties. And it's not as if every NFL team will see Juszczyk's value -- there are teams who don't even put a fullback on the field, never mind having the wherewithal to use him in multiple roles. But there are enough teams like the 49ers, Ravens, and Patriots who do use a fullback in everything from heavy personnel to motion sets that put the fullback outside of the formation to make Juszczyk an intriguing player if he is able to test the market.
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
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There is no player in the NFL right now more deserving of an actual quarterback than Robinson, and he might finally get his opportunity in 2021. Yes, he burned himself by signing with the Bears instead of the Packers in 2018, but hey -- Mitchell Trubisky actually made the Pro Bowl in 2018. Overall, though... Robinson's primary quarterbacks at Penn State were Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg, his primary quarterbacks in Jacksonville were Blake Bortles and Chad Henne, and his primary quarterbacks in Chicago have been Trubisky and Nick Foles. Yeesh. Keep in mind that both Trubisky and Bortles actually had above-average seasons when Robinson was their primary target, and since 2014 (his rookie year), Robinson ranks 23rd in the league with 426 receptions, 19th in receiving yards with 5,578, and 10th in receiving touchdowns with 38. That's with nothing even approaching a decent quarterback, and despite the fact that he missed all but one game in 2017. You put this guy in a functional offense, and he'll be worth whatever you pay him. https://twitter.com/robertmays/status/1333458895008894979
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
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Speaking of contested catches: I spoke with Golladay in February as he was training with Travelle Gaines in Los Angeles to put together the season that might finally get him paid as one of the NFL's better receivers. Golladay was specifically working on his ability to be a top-flight contested-catch receiver. It's an attribute that certainly helps your value. “Those tough 50-50 balls — attacking the ball when I’m in the air and bringing it down," he told me then. "You make a play for the team and make a play for the quarterback. Just being that guy — when the quarterback needs to be bailed out, and he has that trust in you where he knows you’ll come down with it. You’ve got to be consistent with that stuff.” This season, per Next Gen Stats, only Miami's DeVante Parker and Cincinnati's A.J. Green have operated with smaller average cushions against defenders than Golladay's 1.8 yards per attempt. Golladay has missed time this season due to hip and hamstring issues, but he's a potential force multiplier in the right offense where he can use his speed and strength to create separation and make big plays downfield.
Will Fuller IV, WR, Houston Texans
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And if you want pure speed at the receiver position, there are few more interesting options in the 2021 free agent class than Fuller, who has proven able to burn any deep-third safety downfield when he's healthy. This season, on just 15 targets of 20 or more air yards, Fuller has eight catches for 314 yards and four touchdowns. He might want to hang around with Deshaun Watson for a while, as Watson has been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks of late, but expect him to get a lot of looks from teams in desperate need of an expanded passing game.
Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
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Washington traded Williams to the 49ers in April right around the time that San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley announced his retirement, and way past the point where the schisms between Williams and Washington's medical staff were solvable. Williams has allowed four sacks this season, but two came in Week 4 against the Eagles' dominant defensive line, Nick Mullens was holding onto the ball in that game as if it was made of pure gold, and Williams has allowed no sacks and just four total pressures since Week 6. He's also a dominant run-blocker, and at age 32, he's still got another decent-sized contract length in his career.
Taylor Moton, OT, Carolina Panthers
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Moton, a second-round pick out of Western Michigan in 2017, isn't the biggest name on this list, but he'll be a notable free agent based on performance -- if he gets that far. He's allowed just nine sacks in his four-year career, including just two this season, he hasn't given up a single pressure over the last three weeks against the Buccaneers, Lions, and Vikings, and in Week 5 against the Falcons, he came up with what has to be the Disrespectful Block of the 2020 Season against defensive lineman John Cominsky on a 17-yard Mike Davis run. https://twitter.com/geoffschwartz/status/1315999717948567555 Moton has the right attitude and aptitude to be a top-level right tackle, and he's going to get paid correspondingly in 2021.
Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots
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It should come as no surprise that Thuney has allowed just one sack and nine total pressures in 352 pass-blocking snaps this season -- since he came into the NFL in 2016 as a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina State, Thuney has improved as much as any player at his position. He allowed a total of 10 sacks in his first two seasons, and since then? Just two sacks overall, and that includes the Patriots' 2018 Super Bowl run, in which Thuney gave up no sacks and 26 total pressures on 765 pass-blocking snaps. Thuney isn't a blow-you-away athlete, but he's worked hard with New England's coaching staff to turn himself into an admirable technician with a great feel for all kinds of pressure packages. As the picture above shows, even the great Aaron Donald was able to do very little in Super Bowl LIII when Thuney was his primary obstacle.
Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Football Team
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Injuries over the last few seasons have cost Scherff time on the field, and may affect his earning power after the 2020 season if that continues. He’s already missed time with an MCL injury this season, but when he’s healthy and on the field, you see every bit of the talent that had Washington selecting him fifth overall in the 2015 draft, picking up his fifth-year option in 2019, and giving him the franchise tag in 2020. This season, on 301 pass-blocking snaps, Scherff has allowed just one sack and nine total pressures. Can Scherff compete as a run-blocker? Ask Lions defensive tackle Danny Shelton [No. 71], who tips the scales at 345 pounds, about that idea. Scherff [No. 75] gave Shelton a full plate of pancakes on this Antonio Gibson run in Week 10. It's hard to say what Scherff's value will be on the open market given the injury history, but based on pure talent, there's no question about his value.
Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
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The Packers took Linsley out of Ohio State in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, and he's been the team's starting center ever since. He's always been a great athlete on pulls and traps and second-level reaches, and over time, he's worked on his root strength to become one of the NFL's best at his position. 2019 was a bit of a fallback as everyone was getting the hang of the Matt LaFleur/Aaron Rodgers marriage -- that's when Linsley gave up a career-high five sacks and regressed a bit as a run-blocker, but everything's just fine now. In 2020, Linsley has allowed just one sack and two total pressures, and he's worked very well in the run game. Green Bay gave Linsley a three-year, $25.5 million extension in 2017, and while it wouldn't be surprising if they did it again, Linsley would have a lot of interest around the NFL if he's out there in the new league year.