NFL News & Analysis

Linsey: Favorite NFL team fits for top remaining free agents

Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks corner back Richard Sherman (25) prepares for play during the first quarter in a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The end of the 2021 NFL Draft and the passing of the compensatory pick deadline on May 3 means that free-agent activity should begin to pick back up. We’ve seen it already with the signings of Eric Fisher, Alejandro Villanueva, Charles Leno Jr., Casey Hayward Jr. and Bobby Massie.

The remaining unsigned players are still available because of some combination of injury, age and poor play, but there is still plenty of talent out there that can help contending teams.

These are my favorite team fits for some of the top available free-agent options.

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CB Richard Sherman: Seattle Seahawks

Sherman recently told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that he’d held talks with two of his previous employers, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, in addition to the Las Vegas Raiders and New Orleans Saints. However, the Raiders’ decision to sign Casey Hayward Jr. likely takes Gruden & Co. out of the running.

When it comes to meaningfully contributing to a contending team, Seattle may make the most sense for Sherman. They have two of Sherman’s former teammates in San Francisco — D.J. Reed Jr. and Ahkello Witherspoon — in addition to fourth-round rookie Tre Brown and Tre Flowers as the top options on the depth chart as of now. It’s a relatively young (and shaky) group for a team with playoff aspirations in a competitive NFC West.

Sherman — PFF’s highest-graded cornerback in 2019 — could step in and add value immediately as a starter while serving as a mentor for the other players at the position.

EDGE Melvin Ingram III: Miami Dolphins

The combination of Ingram’s age (32) and injury history (he has played only 20 games in the last two years) was always going to depress his market this offseason, but I still think there’s a good chance that he provides more value than most of the free-agent edge defenders on the deals they’ve signed in recent months. Ingram may not have recorded any sacks in 2020, but his 12.8% pressure rate was still a top-25 mark among qualifiers. He can still get after the quarterback.

The Dolphins added Miami edge rusher Jaelan Phillips in the first round of this year’s draft, but they could still use an additional pass-rushing threat on the edge to rotate with him and Emmanuel Ogbah.

Miami’s defense has taken a massive step forward over the last two seasons under Brian Flores. Ingram could continue to elevate it in a rotational pass-rushing role.

T Mitchell Schwartz: Kansas City Chiefs

An offseason back surgery muddies the picture for Schwartz heading into next season. However, he stands out as one of the clear top remaining free agents if he’s able to work his way back to full strength. His 86.2 PFF grade across five seasons with the Chiefs ranked third among 43 qualifying right tackles in the NFL.

The Chiefs haven’t been shy about throwing resources at their offensive line this offseason, but right tackle remains one of the weaker links up front. Former third-round pick Lucas Niang will compete with Mike Remmers for the job as things stand right now. It’s hard to imagine that Kansas City wouldn’t feel more secure with Schwartz back on the roster and ready to return to his old spot when healthy.

CB Steven Nelson: New York Jets

There is a lot to like about what the Jets have done this offseason. They have made a concerted effort to build around No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson with additions such as Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Alijah Vera-Tucker. New York also added one of the best pass-rushers available this offseason in Carl Lawson.

The position that they neglected in that process was cornerback, and their projected starting trio of Blessuan Austin, Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry is now in the running for worst in the NFL.

Nelson’s release from Pittsburgh this offseason was due to money rather than poor play. Over the past four seasons, he has allowed a completion percentage of just 55.0% into his coverage, 10th at the position. He’s one of the better fits still available for Robert Saleh’s zone-heavy defense.

T Russell Okung: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s decisions this offseason, ranging from restructuring Ben Roethlisberger’s contract to drafting immediate contributors such as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth with their first two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, indicate that they want to make one last run before looking toward the future. If that’s the case, it makes sense to bring on a reliable veteran to man the left tackle position on a one-year deal.

The Steelers are currently trending toward starting fourth-year man Chukwuma Okorafor at left tackle after earning a 57.4 PFF grade in his first year as a starter on the right side in 2020. Zach Banner is expected to return from injury to man the right side. That duo has combined for 1,653 snaps in seven NFL seasons, while Okung has notched nearly 9,000 snaps in 11 years to go along with an 80.9 career grade.

He would bring some stability to the left side in Pittsburgh’s effort for one final push with Roethlisberger.

Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker K.J. Wright (50) and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park. Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

LB K.J. Wright: Denver Broncos

Wright showed this past season in Seattle that there is still gas in the tank as he gets set to enter his 11th NFL season, as he earned a 75.7 PFF grade on over 1,000 defensive snaps. That overall grade ranked seventh among all off-ball linebackers behind only Fred Warner, Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, Lavonte David, Demario Davis and Blake Martinez.

Denver has one of the stronger rosters in the NFL outside of the quarterback position, though linebacker has been thrown around as a position where they could look to improve. Penn State’s Micah Parsons was commonly linked to Denver in the pre-draft process, and they could use another option to compete for snaps with Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. Wright’s coverage ability, in particular, would be welcome in Vic Fangio’s defense.

S Malik Hooker: Dallas Cowboys

It seems as though the Cowboys have been searching for a safety for years. They went heavy on defense in the 2021 NFL Draft, but they didn’t really address the safety position in that process. Hooker, who was brought in for a visit along with free-agent signing Damontae Kazee, should still be on the table as a player capable of playing single-high safety in Dan Quinn’s defense.

Injuries have kept Hooker from truly breaking out at any point across his first four years in the NFL, but he has been effective when healthy. Hooker earned a career-high 79.2 PFF grade in his healthiest year back in 2018 and has the kind of range necessary to be a playmaking single-high safety. That’s something the Dallas roster is currently missing. Signing Hooker to a one-year, low-risk deal to compete with Kazee increases the chance that the Cowboys hit on that skill set.

CB Brian Poole: Carolina Panthers

Simply drafting Jaycee Horn at eighth overall raises the talent level of Carolina’s secondary, but there is no clear starting slot cornerback on the roster after the Panthers let Corn Elder walk in free agency. None of their top three cornerbacks — Horn, Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye — are natural fits inside. Poole, meanwhile, has been one of the best nickel defenders in the league over his last two seasons with the Jets.

Poole’s 76.9 PFF grade when lined up in the slot since 2019 ranked sixth among players with at least 500 snaps in the alignment. He not only gave New York solid play in coverage; he was also a contributor against the run, earning a 91.3 run-defense grade from the slot. Poole would fill a clear need on Carolina’s young defense.

Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (98) sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) during the first half of an NFL football game at FirstEnergy Stadium, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Credit: Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal

DI Sheldon Richardson: Green Bay Packers

It’s been a few seasons since Richardson has been a truly dominant force, as he was early in his career with the Jets. He has been just about as steady as they come up front, though. Richardson has never played fewer than 650 defensive snaps or graded below 68.0 in his eight NFL seasons. He can be relied on to give you some interior pressure on the quarterback and hold up against the run.

That should be appealing to Green Bay after struggling to find any sort of consistent contributor alongside Kenny Clark on the defensive line over the past few seasons. The Packers’ best options for that spot at the moment are guys like Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry and the hope that Kingsley Keke can take the next step in his career. Richardson would give them a little more certainty along the defensive line in a time where there’s little of that to go around in Green Bay.

C Austin Reiter: Los Angeles Rams

There’s something satisfying about the Chiefs signing 2020 Rams center Austin Blythe only for the Rams to later sign Kansas City’s former starter at the position. Los Angeles didn’t have many draft picks to work with in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the picks they did have went primarily toward the defense and adding speed at wide receiver in the form of Tutu Atwell.

That leaves their options at center thin. The Rams can either roll with Brian Allen, who last started nine games in 2019 and picked up a 58.6 PFF grade, or move Austin Corbett to center after starting at both guard spots over the past two years. Reiter provides a better option than both of those alternatives. He would help provide a clean pocket for Matthew Stafford in his first year in Los Angeles following three straight seasons with a pass-blocking grade of at least 77.7 for Kansas City.


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