We’ve watched salaries escalate year over year, which made perfect sense because the salary cap continued to rise. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, the NFL’s revenue sharing model has created a very unique situation. The salary cap in 2021 hasn’t officially been set yet, but it appears the number will be around $185.0 million, which is a 6.7 percent decrease. While it may not seem like much, it is when you have structured contracts around an escalating number.
So, buckle up, it’s going to be a fun ride throughout the 2021 NFL off-season. Here are the biggest names heading to the open market as of right now, as well as the teams I expect to show interest, and my prediction for where each player will land.
Let’s be real – the Cowboys aren’t going to allow Dak to walk in free agency. They didn’t work out a long-term contract, and with the salary cap coming down in 2021, it might be hard to make it work this offseason. I’m expecting another franchise tag if they can’t work something out, but you’re going to see the Cowboys have to dump salary somewhere, and that could be someone like Amari Cooper after the 2021 season, or by trading Michael Gallup away.
Top Potential Suitors: Panthers, Washington, Broncos
There are some teams who made it to the playoffs in 2020 without a starting-caliber quarterback, which should make Fitzpatrick a valuable commodity. He’s started for eight teams over his NFL career, which highlights his ability to learn an offense relatively quickly. He’s also played some of his best football over the last four years, throwing for 57 touchdowns to 36 interceptions while averaging 7.72 yards per attempt. Fitzpatrick is a stop-gap quarterback, which makes teams like the Bears or Washington the ones to watch because they’re both likely to draft a quarterback. You also want to keep an eye on Pittsburgh, should Ben Roethlisberger decide to retire.
Top Potential Suitors: Washington, Bears, Patriots, Eagles
I don’t think you’ll see any teams lining up to sign Winston given the salary cap situation around the league. Last year, before the salary cap was an issue, Winston had to take a one-year, $2 million deal. The Saints reportedly want him back, so unless someone magically had a change of heart, it’s likely he’s back for year two with Sean Payton, hoping to earn the void left by Drew Brees.
Top Potential Suitors: Steelers, Bears, Texans, Dolphins
Other Notable Free Agents: Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Mitch Trubisky
He’s far and away the best running back to be on the open market, but will the Packers be able to re-sign him before free agency begins? The two were working towards a deal when the talks abruptly ended in December, as they reportedly “weren’t close” on compensation. Jones hired a new agent, too. With them drafting A.J. Dillon in the second round last year, they were preparing for this moment, so look for Jones to have a new team in 2021. You’re going to have to find a team with plenty of cap room to make it work because Jones is apparently looking for north of $10 million per year.
Top Potential Suitors: Jets, Dolphins, Bucs, Bills
Knowing that Pete Carroll wants to “get back to running the ball” in 2021, you’d think re-signing Carson would’ve been a bigger priority. Running backs don’t get the money they used to in free agency, but Carson is likely looking to get a decent contract because he hasn’t received a big payday in the NFL just yet. The Bills are always a team that’s seemingly in the mix to add a free agent running back, though they’ve not pulled the trigger. Instead, they’ve drafted two running backs in the third round. Will they be involved in the discussion again?
Top Potential Suitors: Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Cardinals
Playing under the transition tag was supposed to give Drake a chance to earn a pay day in 2021, though his season didn’t go as planned. The Cardinals don’t have much depth at running back with Chase Edmonds and Eno Benjamin, so we could see Drake re-signed this offseason. He’s a running back with a three-down skillset, but there aren’t many workhorse jobs available, and he’s the No. 3 running back in this free agent class, while there are at least two running backs in the draft who are expected to be starters. Unless he re-signs with the Cardinals, Drake isn’t likely to have a 15-touch role.
Top Potential Suitors: Bucs, Jaguars, Jets, 49ers
Playing the way he did in the playoffs likely earned Fournette another contract in the NFL. If we based everything on how he looked during the regular season, he would’ve been likely looking at a one-year, $2 million deal somewhere. Heck, he still might considering the cap issues and fact that there are better running backs available. He’s someone who might have a better shot of winding up as a workhorse on a team who’s strapped for cash rather than one of the other high-priced free agents who will likely go to teams with plenty of cap space. Did his play in the playoffs make him too expensive for teams like the Falcons and Steelers?
Top Potential Suitors: Falcons, Steelers, Bills, Seahawks
Other notable free agents: James Conner, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, Tevin Coleman, James White, Mike Davis, Carlos Hyde, Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Williams
Yes, we heard an intoxicated Bruce Arians say they’re going to bring Godwin back, but under what terms? You can’t forget that Godwin wasn’t a first-round draft pick who earned a lot of money on his rookie contract. He earned just over $3.2 million over those four years, so it’s time for him to cash in at just 25 years old. Do the Bucs have the money available to pay him? There are some studs on the defense they’re hoping to retain, but we have heard that Mike Evans would be willing to reconfigure his contract to help out with some cap relief. Godwin would likely be taking less money to stay with the Bucs. The Patriots make so much sense considering Godwin’s flexibility to play both perimeter and inside the slot, but it’ll be tough for him to leave his teammates he just won a Super Bowl with.
Top Potential Suitors: Patriots, Washington, Dolphins
We know the Bears and Robinson are disagreeing on his worth, otherwise we would’ve seen them work out an extension. Robinson continually hints that he’s leaving the team and that he wants a shot at a ring. It seems many are convinced the Bears might franchise tag him, though funds are tight in a market where salary cap is hard to come by. If you franchise tag a wide receiver in 2021, he would get $16.4 million. Robinson could also threaten a holdout, putting the Bears in a bad spot. It’s a realistic possibility that we’ve seen the last of Robinson in a Bears uniform. It’s going to be a tough choice for Robinson, though, as most of the teams with major cap space to pay him might not have a chance at the ring he seeks.
Top Potential Suitors: Jets, Ravens, Seahawks, Washington
It was extremely odd to see Golladay and the Lions not work out a long-term deal, as he was everything the team had hoped he’d be. It would appear they’re headed towards a divorce, though the new regime may have a better shot. Oddly enough, he’s already 27 years old, so this is his chance to cash in on the open market. With the Lions cap issues, we could see Golladay playing for another team in 2021, though the franchise tag does remain in play for a WR-needy team like the Lions; they have only Quintez Cephus and Geronimo Allison under contract.
Top Potential Suitors: Jets, Patriots, Washington, Giants
How does the situation play out with Deshaun Watson? If he remains with the team and they work out their differences, they sure as heck retain Fuller. You can’t continually take away weapons and expect your quarterback to be happy, so there are certainly variables with Fuller and free agency. Fuller was able to stay healthy for 2020, though the use of PEDs could’ve contributed. He’s going to get a big deal no matter what, but if Watson stays in Houston, I’m guessing Fuller does as well.
Top Potential Suitors: Jets, Washington, Colts, Packers, Dolphins
If there’s one player who appears to be leaving his current team, it’s Smith-Schuster, which would’ve been considered crazy after his first two years in the league. The Steelers are currently $14.3 million over the cap, which doesn’t give them a lot of wiggle room, though there’s likely some movement in Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract that can free up some cash. There will also be some cuts they can make to free up cap space, but Smith-Schuster would be a hot ticket on the open market, so they may not be able to afford him.
Top Potential Suitors: Dolphins, Patriots, Washington, Jets
After the Titans opted out of his fifth-year option, Davis went out and had a career-year. Will they pay because of it, or have they really moved on? They’re a team who has severe wide receiver needs behind A.J. Brown, and not a lot of cap room to do anything about it. Davis is a tier two free agent who might have to take a short-term deal with limited cap space for many teams, so look for him to stay with the Titans or go to a team with a good short-term situation for him. If the Ravens were to miss out on Allen Robinson (predicted above), Davis would be the logical backup plan.
Top Potential Suitors: Ravens, Patriots, Giants, Bears
From Week 7 through Week 17, Samuel was the No. 10 wide receiver in fantasy, accumulating 58 receptions for 668 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another 137 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. This shot up his value in free agency, as the Panthers seemingly figured out how to best utilize his skill-set. Will they find a way to re-sign him or will we have to wonder whether he’ll be used correctly with a new team?
Top Potential Suitors: Lions, Cardinals, Patriots
He’s now 31 years old, so I’m guessing his destination will be one where he has a chance to win with an established quarterback. Will the trade for Carson Wentz make a difference? The issue is that we’ve already seen him slow down a bit in his production while dealing with some health issues over the last few seasons. Hilton’s more of a complement to a No. 1 wide receiver than the go-to receiver he used to be. If the Texans can’t re-sign Will Fuller, they could look to add Hilton, as they don’t have a draft pick until the third round. If the Titans can’t re-sign Corey Davis, Hilton makes sense as a complement to A.J. Brown.
Top Potential Suitors: Packers, Texans, Titans, Lions
Other Notable Free Agents: Antonio Brown, Marvin Jones, Nelson Agholor, A.J. Green, Sammy Watkins
After placing the franchise tag on Henry last year, the Chargers are in a bad spot after not extending him. To franchise tag him again, it would cost around $12.7 million. The Chargers do have some cap room, and Henry’s age/production aligns with Justin Herbert‘s immediate impact during his rookie contract. The Chargers are a team that should understand their rare/unique opportunity to sign players while Herbert is on his rookie deal. It is rumored that Henry wants close to $15 million per year, which is going to make him tough to sign for a lot of teams.
Top Potential Suitors: Colts, Jaguars, Patriots, Cardinals
If you were to ask me, Smith is the top tight end in this free agent class, though you wouldn’t know it by his numbers. He’s never finished with more than 448 yards in a season, which will turn some off, but it’s all about opportunity for me. He’s never really had the chance to shine, as he’s been capped at 30, 31, 44, and 65 targets over his four years in Tennessee. If he were thrust into a featured role where he received 100 targets, he’d be considered among the elite players at the position. Will he get the opportunity? Bill Belichick has always raved about Smith whenever he’s been given the chance, and knowing the Patriots have a clear need at the position with tons of cap room, he can go out there and acquire him.
Top Potential Suitors: Colts, Jaguars, Patriots, Seahawks
Other notable free agents: Gerald Everett, Rob Gronkowski, Jared Cook