The NFL regular season is over, and six more teams have been eliminated from the playoffs, meaning 24 franchises are looking ahead to the first team-building opportunity in the offseason — free agency — to bolster their rosters and put themselves in a better position for next year.
A lot is still to happen between now and then, but let’s take an early look at one free agent each NFL team should be pursuing.
They may not all be the marquee names, and there may be some crossover, but here’s a player who would upgrade each NFL franchise.
Arizona's offense stalled this season, but with young pieces in place, we expect it to improve without major additions in 2021. The Cardinals could certainly upgrade at receiver in free agency or the draft, but their biggest need is at cornerback, and this is a far more sparsely populated free agent group at that position.
William Jackson III is the obvious choice with a combination of age on his side, talent and history of quality play. His first season of playing time (2017) was one of the greatest statistical campaigns we have seen from a corner before his play faded away, but for his career, he has allowed just 52% of passes thrown his way to be caught for an 85.3 passer rating.
ATLANTA FALCONS: EDGE CARL LAWSON
The Falcons need pass-rush pressure and somebody to help out Grady Jarrett in getting after the opposing quarterback. They have spent draft picks to try and get it done in recent seasons, but it's been fruitless. They need to turn to free agency.
It’s not an amazing group, but Carl Lawson has a nice combination of proven pressure without necessitating a monster contract. Only Jessie Bates III had a higher PFF grade on defense for the Bengals this season, and Lawson ended up with 64 total pressures, a new career-high. His 84.9 PFF pass-rushing grade was also the best of his career and a top-10 figure among all edge rushers this season.
Baltimore has a unique offense compared to any other in the NFL landscape, but it shares some characteristics with Kyle Shanahan’s in San Francisco in that it doesn’t feature wide receivers in a conventional way, leaning instead on the run game and tight ends. Shanahan’s offense doesn’t need conventional No. 1 wide receivers, but impact playmakers change how it looks when they do utilize them.
Baltimore’s offense might not use wideouts the same as other teams, but we don’t yet know if the unit is limited by the lack of impact players at that position. Adding a complete receiver like Chris Godwin would answer that question, and he has the versatility to ensure he succeeds regardless of what the Ravens ask of him. Godwin has the fourth-most yards and touchdowns when lined up in the slot over the past two seasons.
The Bills invite teams to run the ball by design, but it still couldn’t hurt to have an interior presence who is better able to win one-on-one matchups and prevent yardage. If that player can generate a little pressure at the same time, all the better.
Leonard Williams has never quite become a dominant force, but he has averaged over 52 total pressures per season in the NFL and 31 defensive stops. Williams could provide some steel up the middle with the return of Harrison Phillips from injury and Ed Oliver as an option to allow Buffalo to maximize the return of its defensive strategy.
Carolina plowed all of its draft resources last season into the defense, and while the team still has some holes on that side of the ball, it's likely to give that youth a chance to succeed.
The Panthers' offense had a lot of success this year despite not having Christian McCaffrey for most of it, but tight end is a weak spot.
Gerald Everett is a dynamic player with the ball in his hands but has been a smaller part of the Rams' offense than you would have expected somebody with his playmaking ability to be. This season saw a career-high in snaps for him (637) — yet also a career-high of six drops, more than twice his previous high. For his career, Everett has averaged more than five yards after the catch; he can add a real threat to Carolina’s offense.
The best thing for Chicago would probably be to just retain Allen Robinson II, but you would forgive him if he wanted to search out a viable quarterback situation, having not had one since at least high school.
Without much cash to spend, the Bears may not be all-in on the top names at the position, either. However, JuJu Smith-Schuster's struggles in the past couple of years will make his price tag low enough. He still has the most touchdowns of any receiver in the league when lined up in the slot over the past two seasons (11). Smith-Schuster has functioned on the outside as well as in the slot, even if he has been less effective there, but he would be able to perform within Chicago’s offense.
With Joe Burrow coming off a season-ending knee injury, the Bengals desperately need to put some protection in front of him going forward. Jonah Williams (70.1) was solid in his first year of action, and the team might be in position to draft Penei Sewell out of Oregon in April. Free agency would also give them a good chance to find some interior help.
Thuney has allowed just three sacks in the past three years, posting PFF pass-blocking grades of at least 85.0 in two of those three seasons. He is also a good run blocker and doesn’t get penalized often. He would represent a monster upgrade along Cincinnati’s offensive line.
Cleveland’s defense is a mess, and the unit could use upgrades throughout, but somebody like Justin Simmons would be a very versatile addition to the secondary. Simmons is an outstanding free safety who has shown he regularly impacts plays underneath in a way a lot of free safeties don’t.
He had 28 defensive stops in each of the past two seasons, a top-10 figure among all safeties, despite playing the majority of his snaps as a deep-lying free safety. He also has nine interceptions and 14 pass breakups over the same time frame and would add a much-needed playmaking presence to Cleveland's backend.
The Dallas Cowboys' defense was a disaster this season, faring particularly poorly against the run. The unit allowed a monstrous 2.3 yards per carry before contact on average, which is a full half-yard worse than any other defense in the league.
Defending the run is, to some degree, just a conscious choice involving alignment and the number of players in the box, but that stat speaks to a lack of strength up the middle, where a player like Dalvin Tomlinson would immediately change the outcome. Tomlinson has PFF run-defense grades of at least 70.0 in every season of his career, and this season added a little pressure, with 28 combined sacks, hits and hurries.
The Denver Broncos put a LOT of talent around Drew Lock for 2020. Yet, they failed to see any kind of improvement out of their young signal-caller, at least beyond a couple of glimpses. Lock began the season slotting in at 32nd in our starting quarterback rankings heading into the year, and he finished the campaign with a 63.5 overall PFF grade, good enough to rank 34th out of 42 qualifiers.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a perfect bridge quarterback who can get the most out of receiving weaponry and has quietly been playing the best football of his career recently, earning a PFF grade over 10 grading points higher than Lock. He is also used to serving as a mentor and transition player at this point and could help Lock along.
Assuming the Lions don’t keep Kenny Golladay, they need to replace him. And Allen Robinson might be the best receiver available in free agency.
Robinson was the No. 5-graded receiver at PFF this season, posting an 88.3 overall mark that tied for the best of his career despite a combination of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles throwing him the football. Robinson has consistently been a top-10 receiver with no viable quarterback play during his NFL career, and he's still just 27 years old. He had just one drop on 157 targets this past season.
There aren’t too many major holes on Green Bay’s roster, and with Aaron Rodgers playing as well as he has this season, this is a team with a potentially short Super Bowl window. As such, the Packers may be interested in snagging a short-term rental like K.J. Wright to fix one of those few problem areas.
Wright has been a consistently excellent player for the Seahawks for years, and a switch in position this season to the strong side saw his PFF grade (75.7) jump back to its highest level since 2016. He will provide a consistently solid level of play that the Packers haven’t been able to rely on this season at linebacker.
The good news is that the Texans have so many holes that they could go in any number of directions and add a major upgrade to the roster. The bad news is that they have very little cap space to make it happen, and even once inevitable restructures or roster moves are made to improve that situation, they are unlikely to be big spenders.
Houston will have to roll the dice on a gamble, and few players represent that riverboat mentality more than Jason Verrett, who finally had a healthy season for the first time since at least 2015. He allowed just 8.9 yards per catch and a 76.3 passer rating when targeted this season. If he stays healthy, he's a talented and productive starter for a defense crying out for one.
If T.Y. Hilton departs Indianapolis, the Colts could do a lot worse than replacing him with Will Fuller V, a player they will have plenty of familiarity with from his career in Houston so far.
Fuller’s magic on the Texans' offense wore off a little this season, but his 86.2 PFF grade was the best mark of his career. He also generated a 132.5 passer rating when targeted. Fuller’s speed changes how a defense approaches his offense, and for his career, he's produced a 108.0 passer rating when thrown at.
Hilton is a more reliable and more complete player, but Fuller can replace the deep threat while allowing young players such as Michael Pittman Jr. to step into a larger role.
The Jaguars will be selecting Trevor Lawrence at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft, and while they could definitely use receiver help across the board, a reliable tight end would really help with his transition to the NFL.
Henry has never quite bounced back to the level of play we saw from him in his first two seasons before injuries began to strike, but for his career, he has generated a 121.7 passer rating when targeted for his quarterback — including a 99.4 mark this season for Justin Herbert. Henry is an outstanding safety net for any quarterback and would be a great insurance policy for the biggest investment the Jags will make for a long time.
One of the reasons the Chiefs have been so dominant with Mahomes at quarterback is that they have consistently maintained an extremely high level of supporting cast around him. With Sammy Watkins hitting free agency, they need to replace him with a player who can have those same big games when the gravitational pull of Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill opens up the opportunities.
Nelson Agholor has shown this season for the Raiders he can make those big plays when single-covered. This is the Agholor we saw at USC, and he has three games this season in which Derek Carr has ended up with a perfect passer rating when throwing the ball in his direction.
The Raiders made what the data says was the right move in trading away Khalil Mack at the peak of his powers given what they got in return for him, but it doesn’t change the reality that they haven’t been able to build a consistently strong pass-rush unit since he left. They have found useful players along that defensive front — but nobody who can generate reliable pressure on the quarterback.
Yannick Ngakoue is a potential answer there, even if he is a liability in the run game. He has a PFF pass-rushing grade of at least 75.0 in each of the past four seasons, more than five grading points better than any Raiders edge rusher managed this season.
Death, taxes and a sizable hole along the Chargers' offensive line that needs to be plugged. These are life’s constants. Justin Herbert had an excellent rookie season, and part of the reason it was so impressive is that the Chargers didn’t improve the offensive line protecting him much from previous years.
Brandon Scherff may never have become the superstar he was supposed to when he was drafted No. 5 overall, but his 86.3 PFF grade this season was not only a career-high but good enough to place him on PFF’s All-Pro second team at right guard. Scherff allowed just 21 total pressures this year, around half the total of the platoon of Chargers that manned that spot throughout the season.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: EDGE ROMEO OKWARA
Aaron Donald is a one-man pass-rush unit up front, but the Rams' defense is significantly better when it has a viable secondary threat to complement him and take advantage of the cleanup pressure he creates. Dante Fowler was able to achieve that last season, and it was Leonard Floyd this year.
It could be a nice fit for Romeo Okwara, who has shown flashes of being even better than just a complementary piece. He had 61 total pressures and a top-10 PFF pass-rushing grade this season. With Donald generating even more free plays, he could look like a star for the Rams.
Whether the Dolphins are running into 2021 with Tua Tagovailoa as their starting quarterback or making a bold decision at the top of the draft, they need to get their signal-caller some help in the form of receiving weapons.
T.Y. Hilton gives them a deep threat that’s largely absent from the current group of wide receivers. At 31 years old, Hilton may never get back to his peak, but even now with Philip Rivers as his quarterback, he was able to scare defenses deep and change the way coverages approach the offense. Hilton being on the field for Miami would open things up for other receivers.
The Minnesota Vikings‘ defensive line this season was one of the worst the league has seen in a number of years. The unit lost Michael Pierce before the season to a COVID-19 opt-out and missed out on Danielle Hunter due to an injury. Even before those losses, though, the team was struggling on the defensive line.
The Vikings don’t have much salary cap space to play with, so an under-the-radar player like Shelby Harris might make a lot of sense. Harris has an overall PFF grade of at least 76.0 in each of the past four seasons and can cause problems against the run and pass. This season, he had 27 total pressures and 19 defensive stops on only 441 snaps.
The first repeat target in this list, Allen Robinson II to New England makes a lot of sense from the Patriots’ point of view, even if there’s less in it for Robinson.
The Patriots have one of the worst group of receivers in the entire NFL — which has been the case for multiple seasons — while Robinson is arguably the best receiver available. He caught 68.8% of passes thrown his way this season despite ugly quarterback play. And he has just 24 drops in his career from almost 800 targets. Robinson can get open, make spectacular catches and win contested plays at the catch point. Plus, he’s well used to sub-standard quarterback play.
The Saints may have the best roster top-to-bottom in the entire NFL, so it’s not easy to find too many glaring weaknesses and obvious spots to upgrade.
Mike Hilton has been one of the better slot corners in the league for the Steelers and, across his four years in the league, has PFF grades of at least 72.0 in every facet of play over a given season. He can cover, blitz from the slot and defend the run. That would give the Saints a true slot specialist to complement the players they have on the outside.
No New York Giants edge defender notched more than 20 total pressures this season. Nine edge rushers combined to generate just 81 total pressures, which is simply not enough in today’s NFL.
Haason Reddick’s career got off to a slow start, as the team decided to move him off the ball and away from what he was so good at in college — rushing the passer. Reddick had 56 total pressures this season on 412 pass-rushing snaps, 26 of which came in the last month of the season. At the minimum, he would make for a formidable situational rusher to add to a defense that is stout against the run.
Lost at times in all of the mess surrounding the Jets was how bad their cornerback situation was. They need talent and reliability at that position, and Shaquill Griffin gives them some battle-tested quality.
Griffin’s career has been up and down thus far, but he has shown a serious ability to disrupt passes, breaking up 40 across his four seasons. At 25 years old, he is still young and worth a shot for a team such as the Jets, who need to start finding some viable, starting-quality players in addition to shooting for elite talents.
The Eagles' linebacker group this season was one of the worst units in all of football, regularly responsible for major coverage busts and big plays where they were overmatched in their assignments.
Matt Milano has been solid for Buffalo, particularly in coverage. For his career, he has allowed just an 83.9 passer rating, some 20 points lower than the average target into a linebacker’s coverage. His play against the run has been more inconsistent, but we saw this past week in the playoffs that he can make impact plays in this area, as well.
Pittsburgh’s rushing offense was the league’s worst this season. As much as you can reasonably place much of the blame on the offensive line as well as the struggling passing game, the Steelers feel like a team that will want to pursue an upgrade at running back to address it.
Few players have run the ball consistently harder than Chris Carson since he entered the NFL, averaging 3.3 yards per carry after contact and breaking 147 tackles on 744 carries over his NFL career.
The 49ers are potentially losing their best two cornerbacks this offseason, with both Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett slated to be free agents. Even with Sherman and Verrett on the roster, they would be rolling the dice on getting them both for a full season in 2021. Plus, this is a team that still thinks — with a healthy quarterback — their Super Bowl window is open.
Xavier Rhodes isn’t a long-term answer, but he showed this year he can still be a top-flight cover guy when healthy. He allowed just 51.3% of passes thrown his way to be caught this season and had 10 pass breakups.
Seattle’s offensive line remains a mess, which is so taken for granted that we rarely even consider it anymore when evaluating the team's offense and the relative struggles of Russell Wilson late in the season. The interior players combined to surrender 89 total pressures this season. And the unit wasn't vastly better in the run game.
Corey Linsley allowed just two total pressures all season long and was the highest-graded center in football, dominating as a run blocker, as well. He would represent a huge upgrade and potentially provide the kind of impact on that line that Duane Brown did when he arrived years ago to fix left tackle.
Tampa Bay’s defense could use an injection of pressure along the defensive front. And with Tom Brady likely back for another round regardless of how the playoffs pan out, the Buccaneers may not mind a short-term rental to address it.
Melvin Ingram III has dealt with injuries lately and will be 32 years old next season, but he can still pressure the quarterback consistently. He has had seven-straight seasons with a PFF pass-rushing grade above 70.0, and he notched 28 total pressures on 236 pass-rushing snaps in 2020.
Arguably the biggest issue on Tennessee’s defense has been a complete inability to rush the passer. Harold Landry never developed into the edge rusher we thought he would be coming out of Boston College, and he remains the team's primary source of pressure.
Leonard Floyd had a career-best 52 total pressures this season. He benefitted from playing alongside Aaron Donald, but he also had 31 defensive stops and has been a consistently solid run defender over his career. Floyd won’t solve the problem all by himself, but the Titans don’t have a ton of cash to spend to achieve that. He will help take steps in that direction.
The Washington Football Team clearly have a major need at quarterback, but it’s probably not one that’s going to be solved in free agency. Whoever their quarterback is, that player will need players to throw to. The team has relied on Terry McLaurin and little else for too long now.
Corey Davis hits free agency coming off a career year and having shown he is at his best when he can be a complementary piece to an elite receiver like McLaurin. Davis finished fifth in the NFL in yards per route run (2.58) and generated a 123.6 passer rating for Ryan Tannehill when targeted in 2020 despite finishing the year with three ugly games.