Teams are set to navigate a reduced salary cap, creating a unique outlook for the 2021 offseason. The window for teams to apply franchise tags has opened, and altered tag prices will change the equation for many teams. With the legal tampering period less than three weeks away, here is each team's top free agent.
Yes, Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson are also set for free agency. But one has long been Cardinals-or-bust (Fitz) and the other (Peterson) has declined ahead of his age-31 season. Reddick has nowhere near these Pro Bowl bastions' Q rating, but the reborn edge rusher broke out in a contract year. Shuffled around the formation for three years, Reddick emerged with 12.5 sacks despite not being a full-time player until Week 7. Chandler Jones needing a top-market contract will complicate Reddick's desert return, but there will be a market for the former first-round pick if he hits free agency.
Some of Atlanta's pricey extensions will make retaining talent difficult, but the five-year safety starter resides atop the new Falcons regime's expiring-contract list. Neal's injury issues in 2018 and '19 (four total games played in that span) limits his value. But the Super Bowl LI starter did return to play 15 games last season. Losing Neal will further wound a defense that has struggled for years. At $20 million over the projected salary cap, the Falcons will have a tough time tagging Neal. Though, a decreased 2021 cap possibly meaning a $9 million tag price for safeties would make such a move easier.
Judon has a clear path to the market this year. Because the Ravens tagged him last year, it would cost them $20M to do so again. While Baltimore has shown it will not overpay at outside linebacker, as the free agency defections of Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, and Za'Darius Smith have shown in recent years, the team has an issue here. It rostered two franchise-tagged edges -- Judon and Yannick Ngakoue -- last season, and the since-re-signed McPhee and Tyus Bowser are also free agents. Judon has been more consistent than any of the above players the Ravens let walk, but a $20M tag would eat into their offseason funds considerably.
The Bills extended two Milano 2017 draft-class mates, in cornerback Tre'Davious White and tackle Dion Dawkins. They also have two top-tier deals to complete over the next two offseasons, for 2018 picks Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds. A four-year linebacker starter, Milano may fall through the cracks. The Bills are prepared to let the ex-fifth-round pick hit free agency, as franchise tags are tougher for pure linebackers. With 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebackers grouped together under the tag formula, no off-ball 'backer has been tagged since 2011. A key piece in Buffalo's defensive rise, Milano appears poised to cash in elsewhere.
The Panthers have just one of their primary 2020 O-line starters under contract for 2021 -- center Matt Paradis. Moton heads up the out-of-contract group, but that will not be the case for long. Moton has been Carolina's most consistent blocker since he took over at right tackle in 2018. The Panthers are prepared to use their tag , which could come in at a bargain rate (under $13M), on the former second-round pick. Matt Rhule's team will need to then get to work on filling out the rest of its O-line, especially if owner David Tepper's Deshaun Watson hopes to produce a blockbuster trade.
Robinson's six healthy NFL seasons have come for teams quarterbacked primarily by Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky. He may not have a chance to improve much on the QB front. The former Jaguars wideout rewarded the Bears' $14M-per-year investment by becoming their top weapon, but contract talks did not produce much and created a somewhat icy relationship . With Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace on hot seats, Robinson seems a lock to be tagged. And Robinson is an atypical tag recipient; as a seven-year vet, the price would be 120% of his 2020 salary. An $18M tag would be worth it for a regime desperate to win now.
Playing for an off-radar team and having registered only 5.5 sacks in 2020, Lawson is far from a household name. But his 32 QB hits ranked second in the NFL last season, which came after a 22-hit 2019 slate. The Bengals traded Carlos Dunlap and appear headed for a Geno Atkins separation. The franchise has let line talent leave in free agency over the past several years -- from Andrew Whitworth to Kevin Zeitler to Justin Smith -- but it must retain either Lawson or cornerback William Jackson via the tag. Here is betting it will be Lawson who stays at the reduced tag price of approximately $14M.
The Browns can afford to tag Ogunjobi, but the four-year defensive tackle starter profiles as more of a role player than one who would justify a pre-free agency commitment that would hamstring the team in a reduced-cap offseason. Ogunjobi has shown inside pass-rushing chops and can expect a nice market, with the defense-needy Browns potentially in play to re-sign him. But with the Browns chasing a higher-end pass rusher -- either J.J. Watt or someone else who can team with Myles Garrett -- a third big expense on their D-line would border on extravagant.
Year 3 of Dak negotiations, only this time the parties have let the talks reach the point they will legitimately hurt the team. A second Prescott franchise tag would cost $37.7M -- a nearly untenable price in a normal offseason, let alone this cap-crunch stretch. The Cowboys have until March 9 to finalize a Dak extension, or he must be tagged to be kept off the market. If the patient quarterback is intent on pushing this past that date, the Cowboys must consider trading him -- even though they have stocked their team with core players around Prescott's age. Dallas is dangerously close to Washington's Kirk Cousins path here.
The most reliable facet of Vic Fangio's two Broncos defenses should be back in Denver in 2021, via the franchise tag or long-term deal. With Von Miller's future in doubt, after all his Super Bowl teammates have left, Simmons profiles as Denver's cornerstone defender. The Pro Bowl safety has not missed a snap since the 2017 season and has posted nine INTs and 24 passes defensed in Fangio's two years. While the Broncos losing pass-deflecting maven Shelby Harris would hurt, the D-tackle's value is not on Simmons' level. He will stay, perhaps on a second franchise tag ($13.7M).
This is a situation to monitor for fans of receiver-needy teams. The Lions are rebuilding, but plans of Detroit's new regime tagging the team's No. 1 wideout have emerged. Jared Goff is light on receiver help. Marvin Jones joins Golladay in being on the free agency precipice. Given the Lions' standing, a Golladay tag-and-trade scenario -- similar to Jarvis Landry in 2018 -- should not be ruled out. The Lions could fetch a premium draft pick for the two-time 1,000-yard receiver. Despite entering the NFL in 2017, Golladay will turn 28 this year. He is shorter on time than peers to cash in.
Apologies to Ryan Grant and Eddie Lacy, but Jones is the best back to come through Green Bay during the Aaron Rodgers era. With Rodgers now 37 and coming off a third MVP season, the Packers need to do all they can to capitalize on his capabilities. Both Jones and All-Pro center Corey Linsley are top-tier free agents, but Jones is a game-breaker who has totaled 3,017 scrimmage yards and 30 TDs over the past two years. With the running back tag potentially coming in below $8M, it would be a surprise if the Packers did not take advantage and keep their 26-year-old weapon off the market.
Given the state of the franchise, this would be a depressing tag for Fuller (well, rich man's depressing; we are talking about a $14 million-plus payment). Deshaun Watson wanting out will cloud the picture for prospective free agents; no team's stock is lower presently. Fuller is an unreliable commodity, having battled injuries for four years and having seen a PED suspension halt his one healthy season. But the former first-round pick is a proven difference-maker from deep. The Texans are unlikely to tag him, making Fuller a potential beneficiary of other teams tagging wide receivers.
If the likes of Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, and Allen Robinson are tagged, older wideouts like Hilton also move up in priority queues. The Colts' longtime No. 1 target slumped through much of Philip Rivers' lone Indianapolis season but re-emerged down the stretch. Still, a 762-yard season coming after an injury-plagued 2019 will not make Hilton a glamorous free agent at this stage of his career. A tag should not be in play. The Colts have no in-house replacement, however, and could afford to re-sign the 31-year-old target for Carson Wentz. However, the team will have other options on the second-tier receiver market.
The Jaguars lead the NFL in cap space. And with all offensive linemen grouped together under the franchise tag formula, coupled with the cap reduction perhaps pushing the O-line tag price below $13M, the Jags tagging their left tackle is not a laughable scenario. Robinson has not justified such a payment, having been inconsistent for a declining team over the course of his career. The former Alabama blocker also missed extensive time because of a knee injury earlier in his Jags tenure. The Jags can add left tackle to their expansive needs list if they let Robinson walk.
On one hand, it sounds crazy that the Chiefs would consider another Watkins deal. They wildly overpaid the former top-five pick in 2018 and saw him battle injuries during a three-year run that did not include a 700-yard season. But Mecole Hardman has yet to show he is capable of being Kansas City's No. 2 wideout. And Watkins has delivered several big playoff games as a Chief. His injuries will significantly reduce his price as well. Ahead of another season, they will enter as the AFC favorites, the Chiefs have a key decision here. They may need a seasoned WR2. Watkins, 27, could still be a candidate for the gig.
Agholor re-established his value in 2020, leading Raiders wide receivers with 896 yards on 18.7 per catch. He is set for free agency again, only he will be there with numerous starter-caliber wideouts in a year that should produce more cap casualties than usual. That might make a Raiders return realistic. But the Silver and Black have bigger needs, especially after they drafted Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards early last year and still use Darren Waller as their aerial centerpiece. Agholor, though, will earn more than the veteran-minimum contract he received in 2020.
Having tagged Henry last season, the Chargers will not receive the discount rate many teams pondering a tag will in this pandemic-altered offseason. A second Henry tag will mean a $12.7M salary. But, as fantasy GMs know, tight end is not especially flush with proven players. Henry qualifies as such, after back-to-back 600-yard seasons, even if he barely crosses that border. The Chargers possess more than $20M in cap space but have multiple needs on their O-line. A long-term Henry deal may be tricky, but another rental makes sense now that the franchise struck gold with Justin Herbert.
Overshadowed by the Rams' bevy of splash moves over the past few years: the exodus of the team's middle-class talent. Dante Fowler, Cory Littleton, Rodger Saffold, and Lamarcus Joyner departed in free agency over the past two years. A four-year safety starter, Johnson resides in this middle-class player genre. The Rams have Jared Goff and Todd Gurley dead money exceeding $30M on their 2021 cap; the team is more than $30M over that cap. But Johnson has been key to the Rams' defensive success. With the safety tag projected to be barely $9M, the Super Bowl-or-bust team may go restructure-crazy and pull the trigger.
Used as an ultra-rare late-inning reliever quarterback last season, the 38-year-old veteran showed he can still play effectively. There should be a market for Fitzpatrick's services; he remains a quality backup and displayed last season he can spearhead victories as a spot starter. The Dolphins have committed to Tua Tagovailoa (well, so long as they do not trade for Deshaun Watson). Assuming Tua is the Dolphins' 2021 starter, Fitz still makes sense as a mentor. Other teams figure to reach out about a QB2 role, however. The popular passer could be on Team No. 9 soon.
Tagged last year, Harris surely realizes this may be his only chance a significant long-term payday. A second Harris franchise tag would cost the Vikings $13.7 million. That is almost certain not to happen, which will lead the 29-year-old safety to the market. The Vikings have Harrison Smith entering a contract year as well. Once rock-solid at safety, Minnesota now has some long-term questions on its backline. Harris may join the likes of John Johnson, Marcus Maye, and Marcus Williams on a hot safety market. He would stand to benefit if one or more of that group is tagged.
A rock on the Patriots' offensive line since they drafted him in the 2016 third round, Thuney is on the cusp of a monster contract. Holding the league's third-most cap space, the Pats could afford it. They also have center David Andrews set for free agency; he would be cheaper to retain. Thuney and the Pats were not believed to have come close on terms last year, and the team already has Shaq Mason on a lucrative guard contract. A five-year starter who has never missed a game, Thuney will test Bill Belichick's contractual restraint soon.
The Saints' 2017 draft class already doubled as a historic haul, but defensive end Trey Hendrickson came along with a 13.5-sack season in his contract year. Williams would both be cheaper to tag (around $9 million) and has delivered high-level play for far longer. Moving past his Minneapolis Miracle gaffe, Williams has become one of the NFL's premier safeties. The Saints' penchant for pushing cap issues down the road has become an issue, given the cap's imminent reduction. That will make Williams difficult to retain. Still nearly $70M over the cap, the Saints are in their own sector of financial trouble.
With a 2-6 record, the Giants shocked the NFL world by making a buyer's trade for a disappointing defensive tackle at the 2019 deadline. Turns out, Giants GM Dave Gettleman was right on Williams. But the former top-10 pick's breakthrough 11.5-sack, 30 -QB hit 2020 season will cost the Giants. They also have quality D-lineman Dalvin Tomlinson due for free agency. A second Williams franchise tag costs $19.3M, but this Giants regime will surely want to be proven right for its trade. A tag appears likely. That will make retaining Tomlinson and appropriately addressing a perennial edge rusher need more difficult.
New Jets coach Robert Saleh will inherit a defense devoid of many cornerstone pieces. With the safety tag cheaper than usual, expect the Jets to utilize it to keep Jamal Adams' former running mate. Maye would be one of the best defensive backs available, but the Jets have more cap space than all but one team (the Jaguars). They can afford a Maye tag, which could lead to an extension. Pro Football Focus slotted Maye as its No. 5 overall safety last season. The rebuilding Jets cannot let players like this walk and receive merely a compensatory pick.
This does not mean Peters will be back in Philadelphia; that would not make a lot of sense considering what has transpired in Philly since Carson Wentz's trajectory took a plunge. But Peters wants to play in 2021 and, prior to a season-ending injury last year put together a strong 2019 campaign. The nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle lingered in free agency for a while last year and may do so again, but the 39-year-old blocker can probably help a team. It won't be the Eagles, who are performing a begrudging rebuild.
Another franchise big on restructures that balloon cap numbers down the road, the Steelers are in deeper-than-usual financial trouble entering the March 9 tag deadline. As a result, they will say goodbye to some longtime starters. Among them will be Smith-Schuster, James Conner, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and edge rusher Bud Dupree. Smith-Schuster has not matched his lethal 1,400-yard season as Antonio Brown's sidekick, but he played fairly well in 2020 (831 yards) for a team dependent on yards after the catch. While his peers are tag candidates, JuJu can look forward to a hot market. He is still just 24.
As part of a revised contract agreement last year, the 49ers cannot use their franchise tag on Williams. That will make for a high-stakes stretch leading up to the legal tampering period, which starts March 15. Following his 2019 hiatus, the veteran left tackle returned to his Pro Bowl level in San Francisco. Williams took over for Joe Staley, teaming with ex-Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and was a key part of a 49ers run game that produced despite rampant backfield injuries. Williams, who will turn 33 this year, has said he would like to return to the 49ers. He has never been a free agent.
The Seahawks are another team that could capitalize on a reduced cap, with the cornerback tag potentially coming in at less than $14M. Griffin has not exactly taken the baton from Richard Sherman, but the former third-round pick has been decent during his four-year run as a Seattle starter. The Seahawks have Griffin and linebacker K.J. Wright as free agents on defense; Griffin being six years younger (25) works in his favor. He will join Sherman and Patrick Peterson on this year's market and may out-earn both due to his age, should the Seahawks -- who have Jamal Adams extension talks looming -- let him walk.
The following Buccaneers are set for free agency: Barrett, Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Ndamukong Suh, Leonard Fournette. Within the ludicrously high-profile UFA group, Barrett and Godwin have the most 2021-and-beyond value. He of 31.5 sacks in two Bucs seasons, Barrett winning his matchups against the Packers and Chiefs led the Bucs to their second Super Bowl title. A second Shaq tag would cost Tampa Bay $19M, but the former undrafted player wanting to cash in after a dominant postseason would make him difficult to otherwise re-sign. The Bucs (15th in cap space) want to keep everyone; this is about to get complicated.
A former top-five pick who rebounded after the Titans declined his fifth-year option, Davis joins tight end, Jonnu Smith, on the free agency doorstep. However, Smith profiles as Tennessee's tag candidate. Tight end franchise tags may cost barely $8 million -- well below the rate of recent years -- whereas cuffing Davis with the tag would cost north of $14M. With A.J. Brown profiling as Tennessee's WR1 and ineligible for a fifth-year option as a Round 2 pick, the Titans have a decision to make regarding their WR2. If unsigned by March 17, the 26-year-old receiver would be one of the top players available.
If Washington let Scherff hit free agency, he would be in line for a record payday for his position. Last year, Scherff became the first guard to be franchise-tagged since 2011. Washington tagging Scherff again would cost $18 million, making an extension a more palatable move for the organization. But Scherff and Washington have failed to reach an extension agreement for years. While the former top-five pick has battled injuries over the past few seasons, he was voted a first-team All-Pro in 2020. Washington's O-line would look much worse without its 29-year-old interior anchor.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.