As March reaches its halfway point, the 2021 NFL Free Agency draws closer and closer. The official signing period is set to get underway this upcoming Wednesday at 4 pm Eastern time. Meanwhile, most teams have different but glaring needs heading into the offseason. This means, in turn, as always, that there are hidden gems on the market that could address their issues at a very low price.
Moreover, high-profile players could also represent some dilemmas for all 32 teams, but mainly for struggling teams with resources to spend. The NFL’s market inefficiency has once again resulted in sharply different players being valued similarly. At the same time, clubs have shown more than once that they aren’t always smart enough to prioritize their needs first. Lastly, draft plans could also play a role in a front office’s strategy as regards the 2021 NFL Free Agency. However, those are largely established after the conclusion of the main part of the signing period.
Nonetheless, teams at the top of the salary-cap chain are set to be the most active this offseason. There certainly are particular players that could ensure balance and stability at a value that’s worth it. However, those teams have not always been the best when it comes to financial discipline and market efficiency.
Here are this spring’s five best 2021 NFL Free Agency fits, and why they might not happen:
2021 NFL Free Agency Fits: Shaquil Barrett and New England Patriots
Why They Fit: The last two seasons have been the only campaigns in which Shaquil Barrett has started more than ten games. Inevitably, this led to his enormous breakthrough period, and now the 28-year-old is one of the most highly-regarded edge-rushers in the National Football League. And rightfully so.
In 2019, Barrett posted 19.5 sacks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while starting all 16 games for the first time in his career. The former Colorado State Rams product led the league in QB sacks that year. In addition, he was the second-most valuable player for the Bucs in Pro-Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric with 12 AV. Furthermore, Shaquil Barrett followed that up nicely with eight sacks this past season, which was the third-best on a very strong Tampa Bay pass-rushing unit.
After that tremendous two-year span, Barrett is scheduled to hit the free-agent market after the Buccaneers used their franchise tag on Chris Godwin. Spotrac projects him to be one of the most expensive assets in the 2021 NFL Free Agency with an annual salary of $19.5 million.
Therefore, not many teams would be able to afford such a pricy but talented pass-rusher. Sure, he could absolutely turn out to not be worth almost $20 million per year, and that’s if any teams are even willing to give him that as of now. Therefore, his price could also drop noticeably. However, for teams with enough salary-cap space to fill in all of their holes, the significant risk could be worth it.
The New England Patriots might be one of those teams. The Patriots will be looking to build a playoff team after missing the postseason for the first time in eleven years. However, Bill Belichick faces the challenge of fixing more than just the Patriots’ edge-rushing front during the 2021 NFL Free Agency. The wide-receiving core and the middle part of the defensive line are both suffering from departures and lack of depth.
However, New England will be able to address all of them by the virtue of the third-most cap space under the $182.5-million threshold. The Patriots will have about $63 million to spend when free agency opens on March 17th. While Shaq Barrett would be a risk for any team, the Patriots are the team that would lose the least if he turns out to be a bust.
New England badly needs help at the position, having posted just 24 sacks last winter – tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL.
Why It Won’t Happen: As already mentioned, the Patriots could have other priorities regarding the 2021 NFL Free Agency. The aforementioned defensive tackle and receiver posts are issues way more woeful and, in the meantime, way more important.
Wide receiver is a particular field of concern. Therefore, it won’t be surprising to see New England opt to spend resources in the $10-$20-million range on the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster or Will Fuller, or Corey Davis, or even multiple high-profile names.
2021 NFL Free Agency Fits: Phillip Lindsay and New York Jets
Why They Fit: The New York Jets are largely in the same boat as New England. The team is amongst the clubs with the most cap-space availability with $5 million more at hand than the Patriots. However, most readers likely realize a much more impactful difference – the Jets’ running game is nowhere to be compared to the Patriots’ pass-rush as regards 2021 NFL Free Agency priorities.
After all, the Jets’ ground-game faction didn’t turn in a pleasant display over the course of the 2020 season. The stable produced the seventh-fewest yards per carry at 3.9. However, there are problems much more severe. For instance, the club’s awful air raid and passing defense, both finishing near the bottom of the league, lead the pack. Meanwhile, the running game’s role as an afterthought will, in turn, mean that Joe Douglas is going to allocate less money to that department. Yet, Phillip Lindsay‘s estimated value and subsequent statistical analysis could make that a very team-friendly deal during the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
According to Spotrac, Lindsay is projected to only get $8.2 million this spring. His value was dramatically affected by his latest campaign. In 2020, Lindsay suffered from injuries, a shared workload with Melvin Gordon, and a mere downturn in production alike. When it was all said and done, he only played eleven games, started eight, and averaged just 4.3 yards per carry.
That was a big downward turn as opposed to his first two campaigns in the league. Across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Phillip Lindsay averaged 4.9 yards per run on more than 400 rushes. Moreover, he put on an average of 5.4 yards in his rookie year, a figure which decreased to 4.5 the following year. The latter number seems like his current potential at his worst.
That’s not very disappointing, though, when adjusted for the bigger picture, price, and competition on the market. Two years ago, these 4.5 yards per carry came on 192 rushing attempts. Now, let’s take a look at this past campaign’s most-relied on running backs.
There were just 14 running backs with more than 190 rushes. Collectively, they averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which is close to being on par with what Lindsay had to offer at his worst. It might be a much wider combination of stats compared to Lindsay’s but the point is that he compares well to most high-workload running back. In addition, half of those 14 backs averaged less than that 4.6-mark. The only two of those RBs who are entering the 2021 NFL Free Agency market – Todd Gurley and Kenyan Drake – were within that group.
The bottom line is that Phillip Lindsay has the potential to be amongst the most productive running backs on teams that run the ball sufficiently. That is a perfect fit for a team that needs to ease Sam Darnold‘s workload. All of that at a great price, perhaps even more beneficial than simply getting two low-workload backs to form and share a stable.
Why It Won’t Happen: Similarly to the Patriots, the New York Jets currently don’t have the running game in mind when thinking about the 2021 NFL Free Agency. Filling in holes at safety, cornerback, wide receiver, and pass-rusher could take a big chunk of the Jets resources.
That alone shouldn’t prevent them from paying that $8 million for Lindsay. It could, however, prevent them from engaging in negotiations at an earlier stage, meaning he could be more expensive or already signed if the Jets start off the 2021 NFL Free Agency with their bigger issues.
2021 NFL Free Agency Fits: Justin Simmons and Jacksonville Jaguars
Why They Fit: The Jacksonville Jaguars have the most money available in cap space – almost $74 million. At the same time, their secondary mightily struggled last year and their starting safety happens to have an expiring contract. That’s where Justin Simmons comes in the context of the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
Last year, the Jaguars’ passing defense was amongst the worst in the National Football League. Their allowed team passer rating of 105.6 ranked as the third-worst, while the completion percentage and total yards they conceded were the second-worst and the sixth-worst, respectively. The 2021 NFL Free Agency would be the perfect platform for a restart given the departure of starting safety Josh Jones and starting corner D.J. Hayden.
Furthermore, Justin Simmons probably isn’t the biggest bargain on this year’s safety market. However, he is the almost consensus best safety this offseason, and the Jaguars are the perfect team to add drastic help that would match his $15.6 million per year, per Spotrac.
Simmons started all 16 games in each of his last three seasons with the Denver Broncos. In addition, he was very solid in pass coverage, if not dominant, for the former two of those years. Simmons followed up a rating of 94.5 in 76 targets by surrendering a staggering 43.6 on 53 targets in air coverage throughout 2019. On the other hand, he was slightly worse in his latest effort, allowing a rating north of 100.0. Yet, the success from his previous two years sets the bar very high as the 27-year-old Boston College alum heads into the prime part of his career.
Why It Won’t Happen: Jacksonville badly needs to improve what may have been its worst component during the 2020 season. Simmons is perfectly affordable so there could be three reasons why this move might not occur in the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
Firstly, the Jacksonville Jaguars could decide that they indeed want to put efficiency and quality over star factor and price and get a cheaper, better player. Even in a safety class that lacks depth, there are such examples, like John Johnson and Tre Boston. Secondly, the team could decide that they want to spend the big bucks on a corner or another player, rather than a safety. The third scenario, likely the worst-case, would be, due to the worse class in the 2021 NFL Free Agency at the safety post, for Simmons’ price to increase due to growing demand.
2021 NFL Free Agency Fits: AJ Green and Baltimore Ravens
Why They Fit: The Baltimore Ravens are nothing like the previous three teams mentioned here. While the team has very few holes entering the 2021 NFL Free Agency, it has just $20 million at hand under the $182.5-million salary-cap threshold.
At the same time, the team could use not just a new leading running back, after Mark Ingram agreed to sign with Houston. In addition, the receiving corps lack any depth and the Ravens should feel lucky that they had opted to build a team around the running game.
Baltimore doesn’t use the throwing game very often. Last winter, the team had the fewest passing attempts, as well as the most rushing attempts. That seemed to bring the right outcomes for the team’s offensive unit, with the Ravens leading the pack in yards per carry for the second year in a row with 5.5 yards per run.
Also, for the second year in a row, the team maintained a 58:42 play-selection split in favor of the running game. Their production was steady as compared to his figures in 2019 while Lamar Jackson turned in a slight downturn, averaging 6.3, sixth-tenths less than his sophomore season. Therefore, he isn’t technically declining, at least not yet. However, as the team’s top running back is now J.K. Dobbins, a notable decrease in the team’s main offensive strategy could occur in 2021.
The upfront solution to that could be a new signing to join the ground game. However, as Lamar Jackson‘s ground success promises to run out of magic, John Harbaugh and Greg Roman could be more and more reluctant to use him on the ground as often as before. Instead, he could be forced to throw more, and not only is he not accurate enough but his supporting cast is less than prolific. That would make for a lack of balance between the offense’s groups.
As of currently, Marquise Brown, Willie Snead, and Miles Boykin are the only Ravens pass-catchers with more than 30 targets in 2020. Two of them had a catch percentage of under 65.0 percent while the same applies to tight end Mark Andrews. Meanwhile, the team’s catch percentage – 63.8% – was the 12th-worst.
A.J. Green is projected to be very cheap on this year’s market, specifically $6 million a year. For once, this might be one of Spotrac’s inefficiencies as their mechanism only takes the last two years. Between 2019 and 2020, Green only participated in 17 of 32 games, being targeted just 181 times. All in all, he is unlikely to be that cheap.
Nevertheless, his value is still bound to take a huge hit. In the presence of much better receivers and given his catch percentage of just 51.4% since 2019, the demand for him could be much lower than it would have been during the previous two offseasons. As a result, an experienced receiver in the $10-million range, if not under $10 million, would be a great addition to ensure attacking balance once the running-stable problem is worked out.
Why It Won’t Happen: If teams somehow are still interested in A.J. Green after years of inconsistencies and his age of 33 years, his price might soar above $10 million. In such a scenario, there’s no way the Ravens should approach Green during the 2021 NFL Free Agency. Similar market inefficiency with players past their peak has been observed in the past so that wouldn’t be such a surprise after all.
2021 NFL Free Agency Fits: Patrick Peterson and Detroit Lions
Why They Fit: It was no secret that the Detroit Lions struggled more than any team when in pass coverage during the 2020 NFL season. The team allowed a combined passer rating of 112.4, by far the highest in the league. Moreover, that was accompanied by the fifth-highest conceded completion percentage and the third-most yards through the air.
The 2021 NFL Free Agency happens to be the perfect time for the team to gain leverage for its passing defense. As the Lions head into the 2021 offseason, the team has much more than the cornerback post to think about. This is particularly caused by a lack of depth, as well as some crucial departures, such as star wide receiver Marvin Jones.
Moreover, Desmond Trufant, who was thought of as a starter last year but played just six games, is set to hit the free-agent market. This is an important note as that virtually means an opening at cornerback and a reason for Detroit’s front office to prioritize that department. Trufant and draftee Jeff Okudah were supposed to be the starting duo on the outside in 2020. However, both were inconsistent, appearing in less than ten games and posting allowed rating figures north of 100.0.
While Amani Oruwariye‘s sensational surprise promises to leave him in the mix, the Lions wouldn’t pass on a quality player like Peterson at a position of such need during the 2021 NFL Free Agency. Over the past three seasons, Peterson has never allowed a passer rating in coverage of more than 100.0 in a single season.
Why It Won’t Happen: The Lions are estimated to have just $4 million in salary-cap space as of now. Therefore, a potential signing of Peterson, whose price tag is at $10.4 million, would be on the table only with significant cuts ahead of the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
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