This year’s free agency is going to be the most challenging one NFL franchises have faced. While it’s not official yet, there is a chance the 2021 NFL salary cap drops in the range of $10-20 million from the 2020 number of $198.2 million due to the impact of COVID-19. For perspective, the salary cap has increased over $10 million in every single season since the 2011 lockout. And that year — which was the only season the cap has ever dropped — didn’t see a decline close to the drop we have this season (just $3 million from 2009, 2010 went uncapped).
Some teams are going to have to get creative and those free agents that aren’t really in the blue-chip category are going to have to settle for less. With the help of our new free agent rankings page containing position rankings, projected contracts, PFF grades and PFF Wins Above Replacement (WAR), we break down everything you need to know about your favorite team heading into free agency next month.
(Note: All cap projections are provided by our friends at OverTheCap, and only notable unrestricted free agents were listed for each team. All 32 teams are listed in order of projected cap space as of 2/8/2021 and is under the assumption the salary cap is set at $180 million.)
Projected cap space: $77 million
Potential cuts: TE Tyler Eifert (saves $5.25 million in 2021)
Team needs: CB, S, EDGE, WR, T, QB
Jacksonville can make some big-time money moves this offseason. They were among the worst in the NFL at every single position in the 2020 season and have an opportunity to fix that in free agency and the draft.
The secondary should be a starting point in March. Jacksonville allowed the second-most EPA per pass play this past season, and more than one move isn’t going to cut it. Safeties Anthony Harris and Marcus Williams highlight the free agent defensive back class and are each likely to hit the open market. Those two are second and tied for third, respectively, among all safeties in PFF grade over the last three years. The pass-rush could also use an upgrade as well. Second-year edge rusher Josh Allen showed signs of growth in 2020 with a 74.2 pass-rush grade, but he was the only positive to speak of. The pass-rush unit as a whole was still among the five lowest-graded in the league. Shaq Barrett is the clear-cut best edge defender on the market and would provide an immediate upgrade. With the Bucs the last two years, Barrett has been the 11th-most valuable player at his position. Tampa may not be in a position to bring him back in 2021, and the interest between him and Jacksonville could be mutual. After all, the fact Florida has no state income tax weighed heavily in him playing for Tampa.
Their likely (virtually guaranteed) quarterback for 2021, Trevor Lawrence, also will need some more receiving weapons at his disposal alongside D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault. Long-time Indianapolis Colt T.Y. Hilton wouldn’t be a bad addition despite him not being the elite deep-threat he once was. Hilton was right around the 80th percentile among wide receivers in WAR generated in 2020.
Projected cap space: $68.9 million
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: QB, EDGE, WR
With Philip Rivers deciding to retire after his one year in Indianapolis, the Colts are now back to the drawing board at quarterback. Regardless of who they end up bringing in to run the offense whether it be Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold or even Jacob Eason, it wouldn’t hurt to add another receiver with all the cap space they have considering T.Y. Hilton looks like he is on his way out and Parris Campbell can't stay healthy.
Speedster Will Fuller is one avenue to pursue. He’s a certified deep threat and would be a great complementary piece to what Indy already has on the roster. Over 26% of Fuller’s targets since 2018 have resulted in a 15-plus yard gain (eighth-highest percentage among wide receivers).
Bringing back cornerback Xavier Rhodes on a team-friendly deal should also be a priority for the Colts. Rhodes seemingly turned his career around with the Colts this past season. After ranking 100th among cornerbacks in PFF grade in 2018 and 109th in 2019, Rhodes was cut from Minnesota and came to Indy for 2020, where he earned the ninth-best grade at the position. His ball production doubled from the year prior, his catch rate allowed dropped over 30 percentage points and his passer rating allowed went from 131.1 to 78.3. Remember, coverage play is volatile. Rhodes may have turned things around in Matt Eberflus’ defense, but it’s important not to break the bank on him even with all the cap space they have.
Projected cap space: $67.5 million
Potential cuts: WR Jamison Crowder (saves $10.4 million in 2021)
Team needs: QB, CB, WR, EDGE
There is a light at the end of a dark tunnel for the New York Jets. Their offense has been among the worst in the NFL for well over a decade now, but there is a prime opportunity for them to flip the script this offseason thanks to a plethora of cap space and premium draft capital. As long as they get rid of Sam Darnold, they have a win-win scenario at quarterback. They can either trade for Deshaun Watson or select Zach Wilson of BYU No. 2 overall. Regardless of what the plan of action ends up being, they will need to go out this offseason and secure a true WR1. Throwing whatever they can at either Allen Robinson, the NFL’s third-most valuable wide receiver of 2020, or Kenny Golladay, who tied for the most deep catches in 2019 prior to an injury-plagued 2020, along with a new quarterback would surely dig themselves out of the hole they have been in:
New head coach Robert Saleh will need an upgraded secondary. The Jets fielded the third-lowest-graded coverage unit of the 2020 season. Impending free agents Marcus Maye and Brian Poole were the only two bright spots. Over the last two years, Maye is fourth among all safeties in coverage grade while Poole is seventh among slot corners. Retaining those two should be a priority. For the outside starting spots, perhaps a reunion with impending 49ers free agents Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett could be in the cards. Those two had a lot of success in Saleh’s defense in San Francisco and would be immediate upgrades.
Projected cap space: $62.5 million
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: QB, WR, TE
New England is really going to have to bank on securing one of the five first-round quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft because there are zero quality options for them in free agency. They could pursue a veteran like Andy Dalton, but that’d put them in quarterback purgatory. Assuming they do secure one of those quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, they are going to need new receiving weapons because what the Pats have now isn’t going to cut it.
Tight end Hunter Henry and wide receiver Will Fuller — the 10th and 11th ranked free agents on PFF’s board — are two intriguing options worth pursuing for New England. Henry hasn’t quite reclaimed that near-elite play that we saw from him in his first two years in the league in 2016 and 2017 prior to the injuries, but he was still the sixth-most valuable tight end of the 2020 season. As for Fuller, he can be the big-play threat that New England desperately needs with his deep speed.
Projected cap space: $39.1 million
Potential cuts: QB Alex Smith (saves $19 million in 2021 if cut after June 1)
Team needs: QB, WR, T
Terry McLaurin was quite easily one of the biggest steals of the entire 2019 draft class. He has produced receiving grades of 86.5 and 77.6 in his first two seasons in the league. Even with having a top-25 receiver on their hands in terms of PFF grade, Washington still had the lowest-graded receiving room in the entire league in 2020. That’s how bad the depth is.
Lowest-graded WR and TE units receiving
|Washington Football Team||64.7|
|New York Jets||65.4|
|New England Patriots||66.5|
Quarterback is obviously the first priority for Washington this offseason, but whoever is leading the offense for the Football Team needs more receiving options outside of McLaurin. Washington can afford one of the top receivers on the market even with re-signing key contributors from 2020 guard Brandon Scherff and cornerback Ronald Darby. Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay and Corey Davis — all of whom ranked in the top 15 in PFF WAR at the position in their last full season played — should all be on the table.
Projected cap space: $37.3 million
Potential cuts: DI Geno Atkins (saves $12.1 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), T Bobby Hart (saves $5.8 million in 2021), RB Giovani Bernard (saves $4.1 million in 2021), TE C.J. Uzomah (saves $5.1 million in 2021)
Team needs: OL, CB
As great a prospect Penei Sewell is, he should not be in the Bengals' plans this offseason. Cincinnati’s offseason plan should consist of three things: (1) Upgrade the offensive line in free agency, (2) re-sign William Jackson III and bring in a slot corner and (3) reunite Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick.
Cincy’s offensive line has been one of the five lowest-graded units in the NFL in each of the last four years. In 2020 specifically, they came in at No. 30 in combined offensive line PFF grade. Jonah Williams was a strong performer in his first year of NFL action (missed all of 2019 due to injury) ranking 13th among left tackles in true pass set grade, and center Trey Hopkins produced an above-average pass-block grade at his respective position for the second-straight year. The other three positions, however, were a liability. A dream-scenario would be Taylor Moton — the fourth-highest-graded right tackle over the last three years — and Joe Thuney — the fourth-highest-graded left guard over the last three years — each hitting the open market. If that occurs, Cincinnati needs to cough up the coin for those two ASAP Rocky.
Projected cap space: $28.4 million
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: DL, LB
Tampa Bay’s free agency plans aren’t about who they can add, but rather who they can keep. They have six key players slated to hit free agency, but only approximately $33 million available to spend.
Of that group of impending free agents, wide receiver Chris Godwin should take precedence over anyone. He may not have had a great 2020 campaign and have had a bad case of the drops in their postseason run, but let’s not forget it was an injury-riddled year for Godwin. And yet he still earned a top-20 receiving grade in regular-season play with an 80.2 mark. Godwin more than proved he can produce at an elite level back in 2019 when he was the highest-graded wide receiver in the NFL (90.7). Depending on what Antonio Brown is willing to accept, he should be second-priority. All things considered, Brown has been exceptional for the Bucs after a tumultuous last couple of years of off-the-field issues. In the 2020 regular season, Brown cracked the top 10 in receiving grade (86.0).
If it comes down to Lavonte David or Shaq Barrett on the defensive side of the ball, the choice should be the off-ball linebacker and nine-year Buccaneer. Davis has generated nearly twice as much WAR for Tampa Bay than Barrett over the course of the last two seasons and is going to cost far less.
Projected cap space: $27.7 million
Potential cuts: S Bobby McCain (saves $5.7 million in 2021)
Team needs: iOL, WR, DL
Miami is likely to be one of the many teams in the hunt for a wide receiver available such as Robinson, but they should also be looking to upgrade a bit on the offensive line and to retain Ryan Fitzpatrick (assuming they don’t trade for Deshaun Watson). The Dolphins trotted out a young set of offensive linemen in 2020, and they were marginally better than in 2019. Miami’s offensive line went from the lowest-graded group in 2019 to the fifth-lowest-graded in 2020. Center is likely to be the only position they consider addressing and the highest-graded center from the 2020 season, Corey Linsley, just so happens to be a free agent. Over the course of his seven years at the NFL-level, Linsley has generated the sixth-best PFF grade at the position.
Projected cap space: $23.7 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: TE Hunter Henry, EDGE Melvin Ingram, T Sam Tevi, G Forrest Lamp, C Dan Feeney, C Mike Pouncey, QB Tyrod Taylor, CB Michael Davis, S Rayshawn Jenkins, LB Denzel Perryman
Potential cuts: G Trai Turner (saves $11.5 million in 2021)
Team needs: OL, DI, TE
The theme for the Chargers in free agency: offensive line. The unit was among the worst in the NFL this past season, and a lot of the lowly performers are set to hit the open market in March. As a group, they ranked fourth-to-last among the 32 offensive lines in pass-block grade. Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert overcame the poor pass-protection and produced the highest pressured passing grade in the entire league this past season. In fact, the Chargers’ 0.11 EPA per pressured dropback was the third-highest single-season mark in the last 16 years. As we all know though, this is not sustainable. Herbert is not going to be able to sustain that level of play when under pressure.
Percentage % of dropbacks with quick pressure (<=2.5 seconds from the snap) in 2020
(minimum 400 dropbacks)
The good news is that this Los Angeles team has the funds to pursue one of the top offensive linemen on the market, like Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva. Over the last three years, Villanueva ranks 12th among all left tackles in pass-block grade. Signing him along with another interior offensive lineman like David Andrews — the 11th-highest-graded center since 2016 — should be first priority for the Chargers before they try to retain Hunter Henry or go out sniffing in the interior defensive line market.
Projected cap space: $21.2 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: EDGE Olivier Vernon, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Terrance Mitchell, S Karl Joseph, DI Larry Ogunjobi, S Andrew Sendejo, LB B.J. Goodson, LB Malcolm Smith, WR Rashard Higgins
Potential cuts: DI Sheldon Richardson (saves $11.5 million in 2021)
Team needs: S, LB, DL
It seemed virtually impossible just a few years ago that Cleveland would be in one of the best situations in the NFL from a team-building perspective, but here we are! The Browns do still have a pretty large hole at safety, even with 2020 second-round draft pick Grant Delpit returning from injury. They’ll need to make a play in free agency and fortunately for them, there is a lot of supply and they have the funds to attack. Safeties Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye and John Johnson III are all set to hit free agency and all five have finished in the top five at the position in WAR in either 2019 or 2020. Harris, Williams and Johnson are the ones most likely to find a new team, and Cleveland should be in on all three.
Projected cap space: $18.9 million
Team needs: QB, CB
Simmons is all but guaranteed to be a Denver Bronco in 2021 and beyond and understandably so. He has fit perfectly in Vic Fangio’s diverse defense and generated the second-most WAR among all safeties over the course of the last two years. And if for some reason Cincinnati decides to part ways with cornerback William Jackson III, Denver ought to be all over him. Jackson has been among the 25-most valuable cornerbacks in the NFL in three of his four seasons at the NFL level. If he gets brought in, that’d be a juggernaut of a defense.
For most teams that are in dire need of a quarterback, I wouldn’t condone picking up a free agent on the market like Andy Dalton. But in Denver’s case, things are a little bit different. They have a quality roster outside of quarterback that really isn’t tankable. Dalton would be a fine bridge quarterback to one that they could take with their No. 9 overall pick. Dalton ranked 23rd in PFF grade in 2020 with Dallas. He failed to create many big-time throws (32nd by rate), but he limited bad throws, too. He posted the 10th-best negatively graded throw rate and delivered an accurate ball with the fifth-highest accurate pass rate on passes beyond the line of scrimmage. Basically the exact opposite of Drew Lock.
Projected cap space: $17.9 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: QB Dak Prescott, QB Andy Dalton, C Joe Looney, T Cam Erving, S Xavier Woods, EDGE Aldon Smith, CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Chidobe Awuzie, LB Sean Lee, DI Tyrone Crawford
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: DI, S, CB
Prescott deserves to get paid, and it would be a shock if he didn’t secure the bag from the Cowboys before the free agency market even opens. Prior to going down with a season-ending injury in Week 5, Prescott was off to a fiery start. He ranked seventh among quarterbacks in PFF grade through the first five weeks of the season at 85.2 and led the league in deep passing yards with 507.
After the dust settles on the Prescott situation and if Dallas has leftover cash to use, it’s likely not going to be a lot. Cornerback should be the first priority when using this theoretical excess cash and four-year Cowboy Chidobe Awuzie isn’t a good fit for Dan Quinn’s man-heavy defense. Ronald Darby, on the other hand, is. He ranks in the 92nd percentile in single coverage grade since he entered the league.
Projected cap space: $17.7 million
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: WR, S, iOL, EDGE
Baltimore's top goal this offseason is to find a true WR1 and then devise a plan for the edge, safety and interior offensive line positions. The Ravens’ wide receiver group was among the five lowest-graded units in the NFL in 2020. The unit was responsible for 38 explosive receptions of 15-plus yards, 11 fewer than any other wide receiver room in the league.
Baltimore needs an “X” receiver who imposes a threat to defenses. Corey Davis might be the best option considering the money Baltimore has at its disposal. He was the 11th-highest-graded wide receiver in the league this past year, generated the fifth-best contested catch rate (64.7%) and ranked in the 85th percentile in grade against single coverage.
Projected cap space: $13.5 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: T Trent Williams, CB Richard Sherman, EDGE Solomon Thomas, CB Jason Verrett, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, CB K’Waun Williams, S Jaquiski Tartt, FB Kyle Juszczyk, WR Kendrick Bourne, C Ben Garland
Potential cuts: EDGE Dee Ford (saves $15.3 million in 2021 if cut after June 1)
Team needs: CB, QB
Safety Jimmie Ward — who signed a three-year, $28.5 million contract last offseason — could be looking like Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” gazing around at an empty home this offseason. His defensive coordinator in 2020, Robert Saleh, is already gone. Plus, safety Jaquiski Tartt and cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams are all impending free agents. If they all depart, Ward would be the only returning 49ers defensive back who played over 200 coverage snaps in 2020 and earned a 60.0-plus coverage grade (72.5).
John Lynch cannot let that happen.
He could, hypothetically, bring back both Verrett and K’Waun Williams for a cap hit under $10 million combined in 2021 while also re-signing Trent Williams, who was the highest-graded tackle last season. Verrett had a big-time comeback with San Francisco in 2020. After playing just over 300 snaps from 2016 through 2019, he was finally healthy and finished the season as one of the 20 most valuable cornerbacks in the league. Meanwhile, K’Waun Williams is the sixth-highest-graded slot corner over the past two years.
Projected cap space: $13 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: CB Patrick Peterson, WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Kenyan Drake, G J.R. Sweezy, EDGE Haason Reddick, EDGE Markus Golden, T Kelvin Beachum, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Johnathan Joseph, S Chris Banjo
Team needs: CB, WR, TE, DI
Arizona needs man cover corners in Vance Joseph’s scheme, and long-time NFL veterans Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick just aren’t that anymore. They each failed to reach the 25th percentile in coverage grade when in single coverage this past season for Arizona.
Ronald Darby and Gareon Conley are two inexpensive options on the market worth pursuing to take over the outside starting spots. They each rank above the 70th percentile in single coverage grade throughout their respective careers. If Arizona goes down that path, then they still have plenty of cash to get Kyler Murray another receiving weapon, such as tight end Gerald Everett. The four-year Los Angeles Ram had a down year in 2020, but he was among the 10 highest-graded tight ends as a receiver in the two years prior.
Projected cap space: $11.1 million
Team needs: LB, TE, CB, EDGE
Carolina can’t really afford to bring back both Taylor Moton and Russell Okung in 2021. But if the team has to choose, it’s Moton 10 times out of 10. He’s younger, has finished no lower than 12th among all tackles in PFF WAR generated in each of the last three seasons and is second among right tackles in pass-blocking grade since 2018.
Last year, the Panthers’ tight end room ranked dead last in receiving grade and was responsible for only three 15-plus yard receptions (four fewer than any other team). Jonnu Smith would be a great addition to Carolina’s receiving corps — a player Joe Brady would surely love to utilize. His after-the-catch ability is among the best at the position. Smith ranks third among tight ends since 2019 in yards after the catch per reception (6.8) and sixth in broken tackles (17).
Carolina’s linebacker room in 2020 generated the sixth-worst combined unit grade in the NFL. The Panthers don’t have the money to pay for players like Matt Milano or Jayon Brown. But if Seattle parts ways with off-ball linebacker K.J. Wright, Carolina should be among the first to call. The 31-year-old is fresh off a year in which he was the sixth-most valuable player at the position and is likely to command just a two-year, $6 million deal.
Projected cap space: $6.1 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: CB Shaquill Griffin, LB K.J. Wright, CB Quinton Dunbar, G Mike Iupati, G Ethan Pocic, WR David Moore, RB Chris Carson, EDGE Benson Mayowa, TE Luke Willson, TE Jacob Hollister
Potential cuts: None that stand out
Team needs: CB, DL
As of now, it looks like the only notable move Seattle can make this free agency is to pay Shaquill Griffin to come back to the Evergreen State. Griffin took big steps forward in 2019 and 2020 after a poor Year 2 in 2018. He has been the 17th-most valuable cornerback in the league since 2019 and was able to sustain a quality level of play in 2020 despite nagging injuries.
Defensive line is also a glaring need for the Seahawks, but it's hard to see them making any big moves to bolster the unit. Seattle’s defensive line produced the fourth-worst pass-rush grade of all 32 units in 2020. If they can swing it financially, Aldon Smith would be an immediate upgrade. After a four-year absence from the NFL, he made his return in 2020 and managed to perform extremely well given the circumstances. His 70.0 pass-rush grade tied for 34th at the position, while his 16% win rate came in at 24th.
Projected cap space: $5.7 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones Jr., WR Danny Amendola, S Duron Harmon, EDGE Everson Griffen, EDGE Romeo Okwara, G Oday Aboushi, RB Adrian Peterson, LB Reggie Ragland, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Darryl Roberts
Potential cuts: TE Jesse James (saves $5 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), DI Nick Williams (saves $4.7 million in 2021), DI Danny Shelton (saves $4 million in 2021), CB Desmond Trufant (saves $6.2 million in 2021)
Team needs: WR, EDGE, LB
Detroit has approximately $10 million in the bank, so bringing back star receiver Kenny Golladay will be hard to pull off. Marvin Jones Jr., on the other hand, will cost less than half that of Golladay and could form a strong tandem with one of the top three wide receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft — Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle — if the Lions use the No. 7 overall pick on such a player.
Jones is capable of playing on the outside or in the slot while still producing at a high level despite getting ready to turn 31. He has been among the league’s 25 most valuable wide receivers in each of the past two years.
Detroit’s defense as a whole ranked last in the NFL this year. The group allowed more expected points added per play than any defense in the past decade. Safety Duron Harmon was the Lions' only somewhat decent defensive back, as he was the lone wolf in the group to produce a coverage grade above 60.0. The Lions will be looking for value plays at every position, and two of those guys could be edge rusher Melvin Ingram III and linebacker Denzel Perryman.
Injuries have derailed Ingram's past few seasons, but he has still been the same productive pass-rusher when on the field. Since 2019, he ranks 21st in pass-rush grade, at 79.0. Bringing back Romeo Okwara on a one-year, prove-it deal is a possibility, as well. After failing to produce a pass-rush grade above 60.0 in any of his first four years, Okwara heated up down the stretch for Detroit in 2020 and finished with an 85.4 pass-rush grade.
As for Perryman, he has yet to be a full-time starter in his five seasons at the NFL level. He was a small sample size darling in 2020 with an 83.3 PFF grade across 317 snaps.
Projected cap space: $1.4 million
Team needs: G, EDGE, WR
Daniel Jones showed a lot of growth from a downfield passing perspective in 2020. On throws of 20-plus yards, Jones ranked third in passing grade. He still has a lot of room for improvement and a lot yet to prove, though. That being said, adding a quality deep threat — such as Kenny Golladay or Will Fuller V — to this passing offense that ranked 28th in passing efficiency in 2020 could do wonders.
But the one thing New York shouldn’t do is break the bank for Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson, both of whom are due for new contracts. In an ideal world, the Giants would allocate the money that would go to them to more important positions, but that’s not going to happen. They are going to bring back at least one, if not both.
If New York has to decide, they should choose Tomlinson. First, he will cost around $7 million less per year than Williams. Second, the difference in value generated between the two is not that significant. Williams generated just one-10th more PFF WAR than Tomlinson this past season. In 2019, Tomlinson generated more.
Projected cap space: -$2.1 million
Potential cuts: DI Quinton Jefferson (saves $8 million in 2021), EDGE Mario Addison (saves $8.2 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), DI Vernon Butler (saves $6.8 million in 2021), LB Tyler Matakevich (saves $3.4 million in 2021)
Team needs: DL, CB
Buffalo can open up over $20 million in cap room via cuts prior to free agency. If they do that, they’ll be in the market to bolster their middling defensive front. Quinton Jefferson, Mario Addison and Vernon Butler all underwhelmed and produced PFF grades below 61.0. Yannick Ngakoue isn’t going to provide much in run support, but he will bolster the Bills’ pass-rush and could slide right into Addison’s role in 2021. Ngakoue is tied for ninth among edge rushers in pass-rush grade over the last four seasons. He and Hughes would immediately become one of the better pass-rushing tandems in the NFL.
Projected cap space: -$3.4 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, CB Desmond King, LB Jayon Brown, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, DI DaQuan Jones, DI Jack Crawford, T Ty Sambrailo, TE MyCole Pruitt, K Stephen Gostkowski
Team needs: EDGE, CB
There really isn’t much opportunity for Tennessee to make more than one significant move this offseason given their cap situation and cut candidates. And any move would likely look to improve at the edge position, as their group was second to last in pass-rush grade last season. Jadeveon Clowney only played half of the 2020 season due to injury and was as expected: above-average at-best. He ranked 19th at the position in PFF grade at 74.9 and there were no “dominant” pass-rush outings to really speak of. That’s really been the story of Clowney’s whole career. The moral of the story is to not break the bank on Clowney if they do decide to bring him back, which seems likely.
If Davis and Smith both depart, Tennessee should probably consider giving Ryan Tannehill more receiving options. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, PFF’s 38th-ranked free agent, and tight end Jared Cook, who ranks fifth in PFF receiving grade among TEs since 2018, could both potentially fit into the budget if they don’t pursue an edge rusher.
Projected cap space: -$6.5 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: WR Nelson Agholor, G Denzelle Good, CB Nevin Lawson, S Erik Harris, LB Nicholas Morrow, DI Johnathan Hankins, DI Maliek Collins, CB Daryl Worley, EDGE Takk McKinley, EDGE Vic Beasley Jr.
Potential cuts: CB Lamarcus Joyner (saves $8.7 million in 2021), WR Tyrell Williams (saves $11.6 million in 2021), S Jeff Heath (saves $3.2 million in 2021), T Brandon Parker (saves $2.2 million in 2021)
Team needs: Every position on defense
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden recently appeared on PFF’s “The Cris Collinsworth Podcast with Richard Sherman” and made it known that he and the Las Vegas brass are “looking for an alpha presence in our secondary” this offseason. Understandably so — the Raiders secondary has been extremely poor in each of Gruden’s three seasons with the Raiders since his return to coaching:
The entire defensive front may need improvement, but the secondary should be priority No. 1 for Vegas this offseason. Coverage is far more important than the pass-rush. It’s proven. Their outside cornerback room in 2020 was the fourth-lowest-graded unit in coverage, Lamarcus Joyner gave up the fourth-most first downs in the slot (26) and safety Johnathan Abram was the lowest-graded safety in coverage. It’s a relatively young group, but they’ve left a lot to be desired. If the Raiders make all the cuts listed above, they can open up over $23 million in spending this offseason — and they should hand the bag to any quality defensive back they can. Perhaps the best, and most likely, option is none other than the PFF boss’s podcast co-host, Richard Sherman — Las Vegas brought in Gus Bradley, Sherman’s former defensive coordinator, to run their defense.
“Richard Sherman, if you are a free agent, which there is a rumor you are, we are looking for an alpha presence in our secondary. Somebody that could play this Hawk 3-press technique with the read step. If you're available and interested, maybe you and I can get together at some point off-air.” — Jon Gruden
Just a couple years ago, Sherman was PFF’s highest-graded and most valuable cornerback in the NFL. He was limited to just five games in 2020 but rarely surrendered a big play. He gave up just 87 yards across 210 coverage snaps. Securing him along with a safety in March would do wonders for this team.
Projected cap space: -$6.7 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: WR Allen Robinson II, QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, G Germain Ifedi, S Tashaun Gipson, CB Artie Burns, EDGE Barkevious Mingo, DI Brent Urban, DI Roy Robertson-Harris, DI Mario Edwards
Team needs: QB, WR, OL
The fate of the entire Chicago front office and coaching staff hinges on the quarterback and passing offense in 2021. This year’s free agency class, however, is not the year to be in dire need of a new passer. The draft offers options, but picking at 20 does them no favors. They’ll likely need to make a power play via the trade market for that position. Regardless of who is under center for Chicago, they’ll need quality receivers to help get the passing offense rolling. That conversation starts with Allen Robinson, who is likely to garner a lot of attention on the open market.
Outside of acquiring a quarterback, bringing back Robinson is the most important thing for the Bears to do in the coming weeks. This past season, Robinson was one of the five highest-graded wide receivers in the NFL with an 88.3 mark. One of his two quarterbacks, Mitchell Trubisky, was among the five-lowest-graded passers in the NFL. That marked just the fourth time in the last 10 years that a receiver ranked in the top five at his position in PFF grade with a quarterback ranking in the bottom five. He has yet to have a quality quarterback throw him the ball at the NFL level, and Robinson still has managed to be the 13th-most valuable receiver since entering the league in 2014 (remember, he also missed all of 2017 due to injury). Robinson made a killing on adjusting to inaccurate balls and in contested scenarios this past season and really all throughout his career. If he leaves and Chicago makes no significant upgrade at quarterback, they’d be in the running for worst offense in the NFL.
Another under-the-radar move that would pay big dividends this offseason for the Bears would be moving on from Buster Skrine and going after one of the several quality slot corners on the open market this March, like K’Waun Williams. Slot corners are extremely undervalued; they are one of the most valuable positions on the field. In Skrine’s case, he has performed at the bottom of the position despite netting above-average pay. Of the 11 highest-graded slot corners from the last couple of years, seven are set to hit the open market. And all seven are projected to receive a cheaper contract than Skrine’s this offseason.
(NOTE: All free agents listed in the data visualization are PFF projected 2021 cap hits.)
Projected cap space: -$8.1 million
Team needs: EDGE, DI, OL
Minnesota was in an extremely bad spot last offseason from a salary cap perspective, and the defense had to undergo a complete overhaul as a result. The No. 8 defense in terms of EPA per play allowed from the 2019 season fell to No. 27 in 2020 after trotting out an inexperienced cornerback group and flat-out bad defensive line.
That drop by the Vikings from 2019 to 2020 was the second-biggest behind only the New England Patriots. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they don’t have much cap space to work with to improve on defense. They’re going to have to hope the young cornerbacks show growth in 2021 and that they hit a home run with their 14th-overall pick, whether that be dedicated to a pass-rusher like Kwity Paye or another corner like Caleb Farley or Patrick Surtain II.
The best-case scenario for Minnesota this March in free agency is picking up a veteran defensive lineman and guard for dirt-cheap. One option for the defense line is a reunion with Everson Griffen, who racked up nearly 500 pressures in his 10 years with the Vikings from 2010 to 2019. Minnesota had the lowest-graded guards in pass-protection in 2020 and needs to seek an upgrade there. Pittsburgh Steeler Matt Feiler has experience playing at both guard and tackle at a high level. Feiler spent 2019 at right tackle and produced the fifth-best pass-block grade at that alignment then kicked to left guard for 2020 where he ranked 12th in pass-block grade.
Projected cap space: -$13.9 million
Team needs: CB, S, EDGE
Houston’s motive in free agency should be all about finding low-cost options to repair the secondary, as they ranked third-to-last in EPA per pass play allowed. They aren’t necessarily in a good position to rapidly improve that considering they are over the cap and don’t have a first-round pick. Of course, this could all change if they end up trading quarterback Deshaun Watson and edge defender J.J. Watt, but that has yet to happen so we'll operate under the assumption that they will be back.
Regardless, there are cheap options on the market to vastly improve their slot coverage. Cameron Sutton emerged in that role for Pittsburgh in 2020 and was among the most productive players at the position. He allowed only seven first downs/touchdowns in the slot while making six plays on the ball and forcing eight passing stops.
Bradley Roby did a quality job, as expected, manning one of the outside spots (26th among cornerbacks in coverage grade), but the man opposite him, Vernon Hargreaves, did not. He produced the fifth-worst coverage grade at the position (37.3). With him on his way out as a free agent, Houston should look at Quinton Dunbar. Just two years ago, Dunbar was the second-highest-graded corner in the league for Washington. Last year, however, Dunbar battled injuries in Seattle and struggled when on the field and his PFF grade fell nearly 40 grading points. It’s a low-risk option, as he is projected to receive a two-year, $12 million deal and would certainly be an upgrade either way.
Projected cap space: -$15.5 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: S Daniel Sorensen, C Austin Reiter, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Sammy Watkins, EDGE Tanoh Kpassagnon, T Mike Remmers, CB Bashaud Breeland, LB Damien Wilson, DI Mike Pennel, G Kelechi Osemele, RB Le’Veon Bell
Potential cuts: LB Anthony Hitchens (saves $6.4 million in 2021 if cut after June 1)
Team needs: iOL, EDGE, LB
Kansas City hardly has a favorable cap situation, but it’s not going to affect their 2021 output because they have Patrick Mahomes on their team. If they have the money available, the team could make some moves to improve the interior offensive line, or they could take a shot at improving their pass-rush with a guy like Olivier Vernon.
The 30-year-old edge rusher tore his Achilles before Cleveland’s postseason game and isn’t likely to receive a big payday this offseason as a result. If he can get back to form, Vernon should bolster a Chiefs pass-rush that ranked 22nd in pass-rush grade in 2020. He posted a respectable 71.6 pass-rush grade before his injury this past season, which is over 15 grading points higher than any other Kansas City edge rusher.
Projected cap space: -$26 million
Soon-to-be unrestricted free agents: T Alejandro Villanueva, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, G Matt Feiler, DI Tyson Alualu, EDGE Bud Dupree, LB Avery Williamson, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Mike Hilton, RB James Conner, T Zach Banner
Team needs: OL, QB
There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room for the Steelers this offseason — if Pittsburgh cuts Williams, restructures Ben Roethlisberger’s contract and Maurkice Pouncey retires, they’d barely be under the cap.
They have several key free agents set to depart and holes to fill along the offensive line. However, the most important thing for Pittsburgh to do in free agency is to ensure they bring back Mike Hilton and/or Cameron Sutton, both of whom are projected to cost less than $4 million in 2021. The CB duo ranked sixth and second, respectively, in the NFL in slot coverage grade this past season, and that's a position that the Steelers cannot abandon, especially in favor of a cheap offensive lineman.
Projected cap space: -$27.3 million
Team needs: LB, EDGE, C
Unfortunately for the Rams, they really don’t have the funds to bring back safety John Johnson III. Excluding his injury-impacted 2019 season, Johnson has ranked 11th or better in PFF grade each year as a Ram. Losing him and defensive coordinator Brandon Staley certainly won’t help the Rams’ quest in retaining the No. 1 coverage title they earned in 2020.
On the bright side, they do have a good shot at bringing back Troy Hill, who has been one of the best slot defenders over the last couple of years. In fact, he leads all defensive backs in slot coverage grade in that span. Hill is projected to garner a two-year, $10.5 million deal.
If L.A. can swing it, a new center is also worth considering. Alex Mack, a 12-year veteran and 35-year-old, may not be the consensus top-five center he once was in Cleveland and Atlanta, but he isn’t going to cost a lot and can still provide quality play. This past year was the lowest-graded season of Mack’s career, yet he still managed to generate the 11th-most WAR among centers.
Projected cap space: -$28.7 million
Team needs: WR, LB, DI
The one thing Green Bay shouldn’t do in free agency? Open up some cap space to give a fat contract to running back Aaron Jones. The one thing Green Bay should do? Open up some cap space to bring in another quality wide receiver for Aaron Rodgers.
Davante Adams generated more than six times as much WAR as any other receiver on Green Bay’s roster in 2020. Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were the two most targeted wide receivers after Adams, and each posted sub-70.0 receiving grades while ranking fifth- and sixth-to-last respectively in drop rate. Rodgers hasn’t had two wide receivers crack the top 50 in PFF grade in any of the last four years. It’s time for that streak to end in 2021, and it really shouldn’t be a thought considering Rodgers just recorded the highest single-season PFF grade ever given to a QB.
Projected cap space: -$32.2 million
Potential cuts: EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. (saves $7.9 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), S Ricardo Allen (saves $6.3 million in 2021), DI Allen Bailey (saves $4.5 million in 2021), DI Tyeler Davison (saves $3.5 million in 2021 if cut after June 1)
Team needs: CB, S, EDGE
This offseason will define the Atlanta franchise for decades to come, from the decisions they make with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to whether they take a quarterback with the fourth overall pick. Still, none of those decisions will impact what kind of moves they can make in March, given the dead money the two veterans carry, so either way, they are looking at low-cost additions, specifically on defense.
Atlanta’s edge unit and secondary fall short of what is required in the NFL. Their group of edge defenders ranked fourth-to-last in pass-rush grade, while their secondary ranked fifth-to-last in coverage grade.
Vinny Curry isn’t going to be an every-down pass-rusher, but he can come in on an inexpensive deal and provide quality play in a limited role. That’s precisely what he has done for Philadelphia the last two seasons, earning pass-rush grades of 81.7 and 70.9.
As for the secondary, retaining Dearqueze Dennard is a move to make. He played both in the slot and outside out of necessity in his eight games as a Falcon in 2020 and was battle-tested with a whopping 53 targets. Despite that, Dennard still managed to only allow around a yard per coverage snap. Gareon Conley, a 2017 first-round pick, should also be in the cards. He missed all of 2020 due to injury but was a fine man-cover corner in the two years before that. Conley’s 22.2% forced incompletion rate is the highest mark in the league since he entered the NFL ranks.
Projected cap space: -$49.5 million
Potential cuts: WR Alshon Jeffery (saves $13 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), DI Malik Jackson (saves $10 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), EDGE Derek Barnett (saves $10 million in 2021), WR Marquise Goodwin (saves $4.3 million in 2021), WR DeSean Jackson (saves $8.7 million in 2021 if cut after June 1)
Team needs: CB, LB, QB
The City of Brotherly Love will be a cap-casualty city this offseason. The team will be looking for cheap options all over the place to fill some needs all over the roster, but especially at linebacker. The Eagles’ linebacker room gave up an NFL-high 10 touchdowns in 2020 and produced a bottom-five unit coverage grade.
Journeyman Kevin Pierre-Louis fits the bill as a value player in free agency. The 2014 fourth-round pick shined on a limited sample for Chicago in 2019 before playing a career-high 506 snaps with the Football Team in 2020, where he produced a strong 83.9 coverage grade.
Robey-Coleman is also among the relatively cheap options out there that could pay big dividends. The former Ram struggled in his first season with the Eagles in 2020, earning a 53.3 coverage grade, but let’s not forget what he did in the years leading up to that — he was the third-highest-graded slot corner in the league in the four years prior. Projected to fetch a one-year, $2 million deal, he’s worth taking another swing on.
Projected cap space: -$84.2 million
Potential cuts: LB Kwon Alexander (saves $13.2 million in 2021), G Nick Easton (saves $5.9 million in 2021), DI Malcom Brown (saves $4.9 million in 2021), RB Latavius Murray (saves $3.3 million in 2021 if cut after June 1), CB Janoris Jenkins (saves $10 million in 2021 if cut after June 1, $7 million if before), WR Emmanuel Sanders (saves $6 million in 2021 if cut after June 1, $4 million if before), CB Patrick Robinson (saves $2.6 million in 2021)
Team needs: QB, CB, WR
Players to target/prioritize to re-sign: QB Jameis Winston
There’s never been a more precise example of what salary cap hell is than the 2021 New Orleans Saints. They’re going to have to get real creative in the coming weeks.
Drew Brees retiring would free some space up, but that’s not going to change the fact that will have a load of cuts to make. Marcus Williams, the sixth-most valuable safety of 2020, is surely a goner. So, there is really only one player the Saints can and should prioritize bringing back: QB Jameis Winston.
Yes, Jameis is a roller coaster, but the volatile Winston can provide more high-end play than any other option the Saints can afford. In his most recent season as a starting quarterback in 2019 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston ranked third in positively graded throw rate and tied for third in total big-time throws. At the same time, he also ranked third in negatively graded throw rate.
This has been a common theme all throughout Winston's career. But no other option that New Orleans has — including Taysom Hill — can match Winston's upside. The Florida State product is aggressive and errant by nature, and he is the best option the Saints have at taking advantage of their roster while it’s still intact.