Top NFL free agents for 2021: Deep class at offensive line, receiver
By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL analyst
While NFL free agency doesn’t officially begin until Wednesday, teams have already started to position themselves for the upcoming signing period.
With the salary cap officially set at $182.5 million – down from $198 million last season – teams have maneuvered to get under the cap for the start of the new league year. They have cut veterans and used the franchise tag on potential free agents, all in preparation to sign new players next week.
The franchise tag originated in 1993 with the first collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA. It was intended to reduce player movement to bigger markets, back when the entire NFL wasn’t flush with cash.
A tagged player gets a one-year, guaranteed deal that’s an average of the top five contracts at his position. A team is allowed to place the franchise tag on one unrestricted free agent, thus not allowing him to hit the open market. Between the tag deadline and July 15, that player and the team may negotiation a new contract.
The franchise tag can be viewed through many lenses, depending on the situation.
For the players, it's seen as not ideal because it prevents them from hitting the open market for a payday that would almost certainly be greater than what their current team would offer. It’s also a one-year deal that provides no long-term security.
While the tag is viewed as team-friendly, it provides the player with a fantastic opportunity to negotiate a deal based on the tag number. We see this example with quarterbacks, but this season, Washington offensive guard Brandon Scherff could reset the guard market.
The franchise number for offensive linemen does not differentiate among the positions on the line. Although an offensive guard makes less than an offensive tackle, the tag number reflects the bigger money that tackles receive.
Because Scherff was tagged last season, his tag number this year represents a 20% increase, landing at a little more than $18 million. If Washington wants to sign Scherff to a long-term deal, that will be the starting point: an annual salary that is $4 million more per year than the next guard.
In a rare instance, the tag provides more money than a player would make on the open market.
Kirk Cousins is a great example of a player who benefitted from the tag. The quarterback played his second season on the tag, at $23 million. That made him the third-highest paid QB in the NFL. It was unlikely he’d have gotten more per season on the open market.
From the perspective of someone who loves the drama of free agency and loves players getting paid, the franchise tag can steal some of that drama.
I was excited to see receiver Allen Robinson potentially leave the Bears, who’ve wasted his talents. Justin Simmons, an up-and-coming defensive back for the Broncos, was due a huge payday as the top safety in this class. Chris Godwin, fresh off a Super Bowl victory, would have been the No. 1 receiver somewhere else.
Now, these players, along with six others, are "stuck" on their current teams. But even with these nine players off the market, there are plenty of options to help your favorite team.
Here's a friendly reminder that premier organizations use free agency cautiously. They strategically add high-priced free agents but often opt to sign veterans for lower costs.
The Chiefs are a great example of that prudent approach. They’ve played in three consecutive AFC Championship Games and back-to-back Super Bowls. Of their top contributors in those three seasons, only two have been acquired via free agency: Mitchell Schwartz, my brother, in 2016 and Tyrann Mathieu in 2019.
Keep all that in mind as I go through the best free-agent targets.
I’ll start with what I know best: the offensive line. There are three players who are immediate impact linemen and could boost your team’s offensive front right now.
Trent Williams did not play in 2019 before being traded from Washington to San Francisco for the 2020 season. No surprise, but Williams played outstandingly in his new environment. While this draft is stocked with excellent offensive tackles, Williams would be a welcome addition to plenty of contenders in 2021, including the Colts and Chargers.
Two interior offensive linemen, former Patriots guard Joe Thuney and Packers center Corey Linsley, would be welcome additions to a handful of teams. Want to make Russell Wilson happy in Seattle? Sign Thuney to lock down left guard. The Bears, Cowboys, Vikings and more could use either one.
The receiver position is also flush with talent. Now, a receiver is an accessory piece. It’s not the outfit. It's pointless to sign a wideout to a cap-consuming deal without having the guts of your team in place.
Here’s the long list of free-agent receivers available:
It’s difficult to place individual receivers on teams, but I know which teams could use these guys. Indianapolis added Carson Wentz at quarterback, and the Colts must add a receiving weapon in free agency. The Dolphins, no matter who is at quarterback, need a huge upgrade at receiver to help the offense. The Chiefs have no consistent second option. The Ravens desperately need a big-bodied target for Lamar Jackson to throw 50-50 balls to on third down.
Besides offensive line and wide receiver, there are no positions in free agency that are stacked with elite talent.
However, a pass-rusher such as Shaq Barrett, who had 19.5 sacks in 2019 and 12 total sacks in 2020 (including four in the playoffs), will be in high demand.
Yannick Ngakoue isn’t elite, but he will provide critical production for any team seeking improvement from the pass rush.
Trey Hendrickson, a potential tag option by the Saints, is free after a 13.5-sack season. That was his only year of production at that level, so I’d be wary of the potential that he's a one-year wonder.
It’s nearly impossible to have an explosive offense without a tight end, and there are two in free agency who should garner attention. Hunter Henry has been productive during his time with the Chargers, and former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith is coming off his best season.
While some have former Packers running back Aaron Jones high on their top free-agent lists, do not sign him. Who was the most recent highly paid free-agent running back to prove worth the money? Do not pay running backs.
I’m excited for the start of the league year and to see where all these veterans end up. Let the frenzy begin.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.