As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription — Perfect free-agent matches for all 32 NFL teams: Why Jameis Winston fits with the Patriots and more team-player pairings
With the 2021 NFL free-agency period fast approaching, it's time to get our ducks in a row and give hope to every fan base. Whether you are a fan of a team that is looking to move from the depths of the standings, or a team that is looking to add just one more key player for a Super Bowl run, free agency is one of the most exciting times of the year.
With the news of J.J. Watt signing a two-year, $31 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals, we at PFF thought it was time to take a look at the best fits for every team in free agency using each free agent just once. Each NFL team has a specific weakness — whether that's edge rushing, slot coverage or just general quarterback play — so we decided to fit a player who would fill that specific need for the team.
The draft might be the shining light at the end of the tunnel, but with the number of big-name players hitting the market in free agency this season, there will be a frenzy for the league's top unsigned talent.
2020 team: Steelers | Age entering 2021 season: 24
The Cardinals need someone who can work the middle of the field to take some heat off No. 1 wideout DeAndre Hopkins. And that's what JuJu's game is: the underneath middle of the field.
His game fell off a bit in 2020, and it remains to be seen whether he can be a true No. 1 receiver, but the beauty is that he won't have to be the top guy in Arizona. Smith-Schuster posted an 81.8 PFF grade as Antonio Brown‘s understudy in Pittsburgh in 2018, but that number fell to 63.1 in 2019 and 70.0 in 2020. Becoming a secondary option again might do wonders for both JuJu and the Cardinals in the make-or-break year for the Kliff Kingsbury era.
2020 team: Buccaneers | Age entering 2021 season: 28
The Falcons desperately need production off the edge and might be willing to overpay for Barrett. The former Denver Broncos edge rusher broke out in a full-time role in Tampa Bay, posting back-to-back PFF grades above 74.0 to rank among the top 25 players at his position in each of the past two years.
The price tag might be hefty, as Barrett's sack production will somewhat artificially inflate his value, but he is still an excellent player and is probably worth his weight in gold for a team that cannot get after the passer. Barrett's 15.6% pressure rate ranks seventh among the 131 edge defenders who have rushed the passer at least 200 times since 2019.
2020 team: Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 26
It wouldn't be the most glamorous signing, but the Ravens desperately need a true X receiver who can beat different kinds of coverage. Davis lined up as the outside receiver on over 75% of his snaps over his four seasons in Tennessee. And while he was slow out of the gate as a pro, his 2020 season was his best. His 85.3 grade ranked 10th among receivers, a big leap from the 51st-ranked 69.9 grade he earned in 2019.
2020 team: Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 26
The Bills did not get a lot of production from their tight ends in the passing game last season, so bringing in Smith would complete what would be a marvelous receiving corps. The rising fifth-year tight end is a capable blocker, but his usefulness truly comes when the ball is in his hands. Among tight ends with at least 25 targets over the past three seasons, Smith is fourth in yards after the catch per reception at 7.1.
As a second or third threat, this is the type of player you want; someone who can play a limited role yet still create extra yards when his number is called.
2020 team: Chargers | Age entering 2021 season: 26
No team suffered worse play from the tight end position last season than the Panthers. Matt Rhule & Co. could desperately use a real receiving target in that space heading into the 2021 campaign, as they gained a measly 204 yards from the tight end position in total last year.
Injuries have prevented Henry from becoming the all-world tight end he looked destined to become early in his career, but this is such an obvious upgrade for the Panthers. And because of those injuries, he will come with a very reasonable price tag.
Henry posted 80.0-plus grades in his first two years in the league before the injury bug hit, and the fact that he's managed to grade above 69.0 in each of the past two years means that he's still capable of carving a role in a passing attack. For his career, Henry has generated a 121.7 passer rating for his quarterback, which will be a welcome sight for whomever takes the reins of the Panthers' offense for 2021.
2020 team: Buccaneers | Age entering 2021 season: 31
One of Chicago's biggest issues this past season was how often teams targeted their linebackers in the middle of the field. And while Roquan Smith held his own, posting a very good 84.0 coverage grade, Danny Trevathan graded out at just 42.3.
David is one of the best in the business at shutting down those quick, easy throws. He has earned a PFF coverage grade above 83.0 four times in his nine-year career, and he has never graded lower than 64.6 in that area. A uniquely gifted player, David can go sideline to sideline in the running game and cover anyone in the passing game. He's now on the wrong side of 30, but still represents a significant upgrade for the Bears in this department.
2020 team: Texans | Age entering 2021 season: 27
Free agency will tell us a lot about what the Bengals plan to do in the draft, as both receiver and tackle are big-time needs. If they have their mind set at tackle in the draft — Oregon product Penei Sewell is looking like a heavy favorite — they could add a serviceable weapon for Joe Burrow in free agency. In Fuller, the Bengals would get a speed demon who can complement the other players in the receiving corps.
Given Burrow's accuracy in the intermediate range (1-19 yards downfield) and Tyler Boyd‘s big catch radius already entrenched in Cincinnati, the Bengals don't strictly need a tried-and-true player who can get separation. Instead, they could target Fuller's downfield speed, which would go a long way toward improving a passing attack that ranked 31st in deep passing yards in 2020 (470). Fuller also quietly had the ninth-highest grade at receiver in the league last season, at 86.2.
2020 team: Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 26
When it came to defending the slot, few teams were worse than the Browns in 2020. In total, they surrendered a 118.2 passer rating to quarterbacks targeting the slot, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL.
King hasn't quite hit the heights he promised earlier in his career, but he would still provide an upgrade in Cleveland. King was the second-highest-graded cornerback in the league in 2018, at 88.6. His play has fallen a bit, and the move to Tennessee didn't quite work out, so this could be a perfect buy-low option for the Browns.
2020 team: Packers | Age entering 2021 season: 30
Both Joe Looney and Tyler Biadasz struggled at center for the Cowboys last season. And while Biadasz was just a rookie, the Cowboys could still look to upgrade the position. Linsley is a no-brainer here; he's been one of the best centers in football over the past few seasons and then became the best center in football in 2020. He posted 80.0-plus grades as both a run-blocker and pass-blocker in 2020, the only center to do so.
2020 team: Patriots | Age entering 2021 season: 28
The Broncos had major guard problems last season. And considering that Drew Lock needs everything in front of him to be perfect to look like a competent NFL quarterback, upgrading at that position would be significant.
Thuney has yet to miss a game since being drafted. He has graded above 74.0 in each of the past four seasons and has ranked among the 10 highest-graded players at his position in each of the previous three. He would represent a considerable upgrade over both Graham Glasgow and Dalton Risner.
2020 team: Vikings | Age entering 2021 season: 29
The Lions had massive trouble defending the deep parts of the field, and they especially struggled over the deep middle. Anthony Harris can come in and change that quickly.
There is some scheme carryover between Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and what Aaron Glenn could bring to Detroit. Harris had the third-highest grade among safeties in 2018 before taking the top spot in 2019 and falling to 38th this past season. Still, there's a lot of upside here; the safety has forced an incompletion on 25.9% of his targets since 2018, first among the 76 safeties who have seen at least 50 targets over that span.
2020 team: Seahawks | Age entering 2021 season: 26
In a world where the Packers lose Aaron Jones to free agency, Carson would step in and be a more than worthwhile replacement for him.
Hidden away in Seattle, Carson has been one of the best runners in the league over the past few seasons, grading among the top 10 running backs in each of the previous three seasons and ranking third among running backs in yards after contact per attempt (3.4) over those years. He's a perfect replacement as a two-down running back who will need to cede his place for Jamaal Williams on third down.
2020 team: Broncos | Age entering 2021 season: 27
The Texans would love to have a do-it-all safety to bolster their secondary, and that's exactly what Simmons is. His versatility is definitely a big part of his game; he can play in the post, or can sit down low and attack in the running game.
Simmons earned a 90.7 PFF grade in 2019, the second-highest mark at the position, and although he fell to a 77.4 grade this past season, that was still good enough for eighth in the league. He's shown consistency and excellent playmaking ability, which is something the Texans haven't had in their secondary since Tyrann Mathieu left. Get this man in Houston ASAP.
2020 team: Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 28
Clowney fits perfectly in the Colts' two-high structure on defense because he can be a one-man wrecking crew against the run, and allow the Colts to continue to live with a down safety in the box. Clowney's grade has continued to drop in recent years, but he's still not even 30 years old yet. He's only two seasons removed from earning a career-high PFF grade of 87.2, so a bounce-back year is not entirely out of the question.
2020 team: Buccaneers | Age entering 2021 season: 25
The first order of business for a team with a dazzling new quarterback is to get him an elite separator at receiver. And not only can Godwin separate, but he can also do anything he wants to on the field.
Primarily a slot receiver, Godwin is big and strong and posted the highest grade among receivers in 2019 at 90.7. With the share-the-wealth philosophy and some injuries last year in Tampa, his grade fell to 75.5. Still, don't take this man lightly. He immediately bolsters an already decent Jacksonville receiving group and gives Trevor Lawrence an elite receiver right off the bat.
2020 team: Bills | Age entering 2021 season: 27
Milano is a very good coverage linebacker, and with the Chiefs holding leads in almost every game they play with Patrick Mahomes, these types of players are essential.
While Milano does miss tackles in the run game, that's not as important an aspect of the position right now. He had the NFL's 12th-highest grade at linebacker in 2018, at 76.1, but his play has dropped over the last two years, when he's graded at 65.6 and 54.5, respectively.
2020 team: Bengals | Age entering 2021 season: 28
The Raiders need all the cornerback help they can get, and while Jackson might never turn out to be the dominant man-to-man cover corner we all thought he could be early in his career, he would still be an upgrade over whatever the Raiders trotted out there last season. Las Vegas earned the second-lowest cumulative coverage grade against players lined up out wide last season. Jackson's 71.4 PFF grade ranked 26th among the 136 qualifying players at the position.
2020 team: 49ers | Age entering 2021 season: 33
The Chargers continue to forget that offensive linemen play football, and it's a mistake that has had a severe effect on their quarterback play over the last decade-plus. It's finally time to end that with the signing of Trent Williams, who just so happened to be the highest-graded tackle in the league last season.
Williams sat out of the 2019 season because of ongoing disputes with the Washington Football Team, and many wondered if that would cause his play to slip a bit. It didn't. His 91.9 grade in 2020 proves that he would instantly make the Chargers' makeshift offensive line a real-life professional unit.
2020 team: Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 26
The Rams fielded the league's best defense a season ago, and it looks like all the important parts will return, especially if they can re-sign John Johnson III. The only upgrade they'll need is at the linebacker spot, so Jayon Brown fits nicely here.
Brown does his best work in zone coverage and is agile enough to move around and align in unique positions, as we saw the Rams' linebackers do in 2020. He had the No. 8 grade among linebackers in 2018 (81.2) before slipping to 20th over the last two seasons, but he's still a value add for the Rams.
2020 team: Colts | Age entering 2021 season: 31
The Dolphins are picking early in the 2021 NFL draft, so what they do in free agency could provide insight into how their draft will go. Most mock drafts have the Dolphins taking one of the top receivers in the draft, but if they were to splash on a T.Y Hilton in free agency, this could open the door for them to bolster another area early and then still fall into one of the top receivers in the draft at No. 18.
Hilton might not be the same player who tore through the league with Andrew Luck by his side, but he's a serviceable complementary player from the Miami area. Even without Luck, Hilton has still posted a receiving grade above 75.0 in each of the last two years.
2020 team: Washington | Age entering 2021 season: 29
The Vikings need at least some semblance of inside protection, and signing Scherff to reunite with Kirk Cousins would go a long way toward fixing some of Minnesota's woes on offense. Scherff has been one of the most underrated players in the NFL since entering the league, and he's coming off career-high marks as both a pass-blocker and a run-blocker. Overall, his 86.3 PFF grade ranked fourth among all guards in the NFL.
Last season, Vikings guards produced a cumulative overall grade of 50.6 to go with an abysmally low 37.9 pass-blocking grade. They need an upgrade here more than any other team in the league by far.
2020 team: Saints | Age entering 2021 season: 27
If Cam Newton has already played his last snap in New England, the Patriots will need to either pay a quarterback in free agency or draft one. If someone they liked were to fall to No. 15, the Patriots would have no problem sprinting the card in, but there are no guarantees that it happens. Paying someone in free agency is the only guarantee.
Dak Prescott is the best choice, but the chance of him becoming available is pretty slim. So this move really comes down to Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston. If it's Fitzpatrick, then it's a stopgap until they find their next true quarterback. With Winston, Bill Belichick might believe he can be the one who molds him into a real NFL quarterback.
The tools are already there. Winston finished fourth in big-time throws in 2019 with 31, but he also led the league in turnover-worthy plays with 40. Someone is going to pay big money to try to fix this man.
2020 team: Patriots | Age entering 2021 season: 32
If Winston does leave — and Drew Brees retires — the Saints will say all the right things about loving Taysom Hill as their starting quarterback, but they will need a veteran backup. Between Newton and Andy Dalton, there are two interesting, and very different, ideas.
Dalton looked like the perfect backup when he signed with Dallas last season, and he had some moments when he looked competent after he was thrust into duty. With Cam, who did not look great in New England, at least there is some carryover on offense between what he can do and what will be in the playbook for Taysom Hill.
2020 team: Panthers | Age entering 2021 season: 27
The Giants went out and got Cameron Fleming to play right tackle for them last season, a move that proved to be unsuccessful, so getting a player like Moton to play the right side and pair with Andrew Thomas would be huge. Moton is a consistent pass-protector and improved as a run mauler this season. He'll protect Daniel Jones and is still only coming into his prime.
2020 team: Bears | Age entering 2021 season: 28
Last year, there were XFL rosters with better receiving corps than the Jets had, and the team cannot let that happen again, regardless of who is playing quarterback. If they decide to hold on to Sam Darnold or draft a quarterback early in the first round, they need to get themselves a real receiver. Robinson qualifies as just that.
Despite playing with inaccurate quarterbacks, as he has for almost his entire career, Robinson still posted an 89.1 receiving grade over the last three seasons. He also comes with some positional versatility; he's an outside receiver but did play a third of his snaps in the slot over those three years. The move gives the Jets two receivers in one.
2020 team: Lions | Age entering 2021 season: 27
It would behoove the Eagles to find an X receiver who can play right away to pair with Jalen Hurts — or whoever ends up playing quarterback next season. The Eagles earned the lowest cumulative outside receiver grade in the league last season, and that's where Golladay can get work done. Injuries hampered his 2020 season, but he still finished with an 81.6 receiving grade. Golladay's big catch radius and ability to work the sideline areas can help Hurts and his sometimes-erratic deliveries.
2020 team: Dolphins | Age entering 2021 season: 38
The Steelers desperately need a backup who can change the offense if Ben Roethlisberger decides to play quarterback the way he did in 2020. Maybe a full year removed from the elbow injury will get Ben back to his old ways, but this move gives them a contingency plan and a quarterback who might actually want to throw it past 10 yards. He'll also be comfortable holding on to the ball and finding space in the pocket to make a big throw downfield instead of getting rid of it as quickly as possible, as Big Ben did last season.
2020 team: Cowboys | Age entering 2021 season: 28
This may be blurring the lines a little, but Prescott is technically a free agent and the 49ers are definitely looking for a quarterback. He would be a massive upgrade at the position from Jimmy Garoppolo. An intelligent, heady player with incredible touch and decision-making skills, Prescott's 85.2 grade before injury was still good enough for eighth among all quarterbacks this past season, one year after finishing 11th in 2019.
2020 team: Ravens | Age entering 2021 season: 26
The Seahawks were a middle-of-the-pack unit rushing from the edge last season, so getting a player like Ngakoue, who is still developing, could prove to be a good move.
Seattle's edge rushers especially struggled on third down last season. And that's where Ngakoue could come in right away and make a difference. The former Raven ranks among the top 30 edge rushers in PFF pass-rush grade (72.8, 23rd) and pressure rate (14.1%, 27th) on third downs over the last three seasons.
2020 team: Giants | Age entering 2021 season: 27
Given his positional versatility and the Bucs' potential loss of Shaq Barrett, Williams would be a good pickup for the Super Bowl champs; he can play inside next to Vita Vea and kick out to the edge if needed. Tampa Bay is also known to play both a four-down and “Bear” front, adding to Williams' usefulness. He's been a solid player for his whole career, with four season grades above 75.0 and one above 80.0.
Tennessee Titans: Edge Carl Lawson
2020 team: Bengals | Age entering 2021 season: 26
Lawson is one of the quicker edge rushers and still has a lot of good play left in him. After the Jadeveon Clowney debacle, it will be interesting to see if the Titans go back to the well and sign another free-agent edge as opposed to building the position through the draft.
However, they shouldn't be nervous after the Clowney experiment failed; these are two completely different players. Lawson has been underrated for a long time and finished the season with a 76.3 grade that ranked 14th among edge defenders. Lawson is in his mid-20s and could stick around for a while in Tennessee.
2020 team: Saints | Age entering 2021 season: 24
Washington would do well to sign Williams to pair with rookie upstart Kamren Curl and form what could be an elite safety duo. Williams has been the model of consistency, and his elite play has allowed the Saints' defense to use elaborate schemes knowing they have the perfect last line of defense.
Mostly played as a free safety, he also has some scheme versatility and doesn't miss many tackles in any part of the field. He has graded above 70.0 in every season of his career so far, with two of his seasons surpassing 88.0.