Analysis

2021 NFL free agency guide: Which teams will be spenders? Which players could be traded?

NFL free agency took place last offseason just as the country was shutting down. This time around, NFL free agency will partly be a reflection of what our pandemic year has wrought.

The league set the salary cap on Wednesday at $182.5 million, an unprecedented drop of nearly $16 million from 2020. While this has been expected for months, it makes the 2021 market unique. In a series of dorky questions, let's break down the how and why of it all, with some trade candidates for dessert.

Have the big quarterback moves already happened?

My heart says no. I want chaos. I want headlines. My head says that nothing will top the Stafford-Goff trade until closer to the NFL draft.

The Texans are reportedly not picking up the phone about Deshaun Watson. I need to be convinced that the Russell Wilson winter of discontent is anything but great content. The free agents available (like Jameis Winston and Cam Newton) don't move the needle in the same way, and even intriguing trade options (like Jimmy Garoppolo, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold) appear more likely to get dealt in April, after some of the free-agent market shakes out.

Hopefully I'm wrong. But the teams that are empty-handed at quarterback -- SEE: the Bears, Saints and Patriots -- appear more likely to operate in half measures in March. Perhaps some team will prove me wrong and pull off something like the March 10th, 2015 Sam Bradford-for-Nick Foles deal, which felt seismic at the time. You had to be there.

(UPDATE: The Patriots are re-signing Cam Newton to a one-year deal.)

So, which positions are easiest to fill in free agency?

There are a ton of edge pass rushers. There are a lot of quality safeties. There are a decent number of wide receivers, especially after John Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were cut. There are more quarterbacks stuck somewhere between "quality backup" and "competing to start" than I can remember.

The edge rushers should still mostly get paid. Young players like Shaquil Barrett, Trey Hendrickson, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue don't normally come at a discount, even if the position is deep. Pass rushers are more valuable than ever in this pass-happy NFL and it's hard to find a team that has "enough."

Safeties and quarterbacks may have been a tad overrated in my Top 101 free agents, an annual occurrence. Teams need versatility in the back end, safeties who can cover inside and out, lining up near the line of scrimmage or in the deep backfield. Despite that, a number of quality starters wind up getting lost in the shuffle every year. That could be Anthony Harris or John Johnson this year. Worthy buy-low options like Xavier Woods, Malik Hooker and Keanu Neal may keep prices down because the position is so deep.

Winston and Newton were high on my list because a competent backup quarterback with significant upside is still worth so much. I believe the chance -- even 25 percent -- that each can be an average starter in the right system is worth a premium. NFL teams will probably disagree, with a deep quarterback class coming in the draft and a relative surplus at the position without many jobs truly open.

Which positions are the toughest to fill?

It's always impossible to find a starting offensive lineman without red flags at anything less than a premium. They just don't become available. Average starters like the Jaguars' Cam Robinson get the franchise tag. Quality guards like Brandon Scherff get tagged twice. Highly paid former free agents with injury issues like Trent Brown get traded. (In this case, back to the Patriots.) That means a true blue-chipper like Trent Williams will be paid like a quarterback and an above-average starting guard like Joe Thuney will get paid like a left tackle.

The cornerback market is also thin at the top. Shaquill Griffin and William Jackson are likely to get their contracts pushed higher because there are so few good, young options available. I also don't see many quality interior D-lineman, especially after Leonard Williams' franchise tag. My favorite options are Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris.

How much will the reduced salary cap impact this offseason?

While no teams made long-term plans for this cap reduction, they have expected this day to come ever since it was clear that COVID-19 would significantly alter 2020 revenue. Just as importantly, teams also expect the cap to skyrocket again next year, buoyed by expected television deal money.

In short: Teams can push some accounting pain into 2022 with typical cap shenanigans and it's probably not a long-term issue. Voidable "ghost" years in contracts, long a favorite accounting maneuver in places like New Orleans, will become more popular.

Still, there will definitely be less cap space available overall in the market. There will still be teams with more money than they need and some teams without much room to get wild. This is similar to how free agency looked for most of the last two decades -- before the last few years, in which the skyrocketing cap and cautious front offices left an increasing number of teams with great flexibility.

That raises a larger point: Plenty of teams haven't been spending all their cap space lately. There is still more money in the market than difference-making free-agent options available.

But aren't more quality players getting cut because of the lowered cap?

Not many. One NFL truism I believe in -- endorsed by former players like Tim Brown -- is that teams don't lose players they truly want to keep. If a player is still performing at a high level, his general manager will find a way to make the math work.

Kyle Van Noy, John Brown, Kevin Zeitler, Kenny Vaccaro and others cut in the last few days were ultimately released because their teams didn't think they were playing well enough to justify their salary. Almost all of them would have been released in any other offseason.

There are occasional exceptions. The Seahawks surely would've liked to retain Carlos Dunlap, just not at $14 million. But that sort of decision can happen any year. If the Seahawks truly loved Dunlap, they'd have kept him.

So, which teams are ready to spend?

The Patriots' reacquisition of Brown, along with an adjusted contract, was the first move in what promises to be a busy offseason for Bill Belichick. This is the worst roster in New England since 2000. Poor recent drafts have depleted the team's depth chart, and the Pats have more cap space ($65 million-plus as of this writing, per Over The Cap) than they can use.

The Jaguars, who boast the most cap space in the NFL, are prime candidates to set the market with inflated prices. They already started it by using the franchise tag on a so-so offensive tackle.

Washington, Miami and Carolina are three other teams that should be aggressive. The Colts and Bills may feel like they are only one or two big moves away. There are fewer teams with endless cap space to spend this year, but there are still enough to drive prices up.

Which teams are likely to be quiet?

The Saints, Eagles and Rams always find a few coins in the cushion to make their cap situations work, but they've already made their biggest moves. The Chiefs figure to be shopping at the margins, even after Thursday's release of both starting offensive tackles. The Falcons not only are short on cap space, but short on players under contract. They are bound to be a young team in 2021.

So, which players might miss out because of the reduced cap?

The middle class of NFL free agents figures to get squeezed. Solid contributors like Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Rankins and Marvin Jones, who might normally make between $5-10 million per year, could find that teams are more willing to wait out the veteran market or just rely on young players. Position scarcity and upside will always help guys get paid, but for someone with red flags like Jadeveon Clowney, that middle ground could be tough to find.

Expect a ton of one- and two-year deals, which was already the trend in veteran free agency. Players will want to hit the market again when the cap presumably goes up.

Is another trade tsunami coming?

Get your rain boots. The lack of cap space makes trading more complicated, but it could also force teams to make tough decisions on players who still have value. If it's tougher to improve the team in free agency, then player-for-player trades could be a general manager's best path to a new roster in 2021.

In no particular order, here is an incredibly incomplete list of players who could be available:

N'Keal Harry
New England Patriots · WR

NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported Wednesday that teams have inquired about Harry, which usually translates to "Bill Belichick is over you."

Stephon Gilmore
New England Patriots · CB

Gilmore may want a new contract that Belichick isn't willing to give him. Whether Gilmore wants to make life uncomfortable for the Patriots remains to be seen, because they are a much better team with Gilmore on the roster.

Zach Ertz
Philadelphia Eagles · TE

NFL Network's Michael Silver reported that multiple teams have inquired about Ertz, which is a surprise unless he's willing to accept a pay cut. He's due $8.25 million, a figure he would be unlikely to reach in free agency if he's released. A straight release still seems possible.

Andrew Norwell
Jacksonville Jaguars · OG

Norwell signed a massive free-agent contract with Jacksonville three years back. If the Giants couldn't get a late-round pick for Kevin Zeitler, I doubt the Jaguars can get one for Norwell.

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
Almost all the good veteran Bears defenders

Something has to give in Chicago. The Bears have a ton of cap space committed to their defense and little wiggle room to maneuver this offseason. They don't have a quarterback. General manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy may only have one year to turn things around.


The simplest move might be trading Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller or even Khalil Mack for draft picks, but does that help Pace's win-now priority? A trade for Russell Wilson still sounds like a pipe dream, but these defenders could be involved in a theoretical deal with Seattle. I have no clue what the Bears are going to do this offseason, but they are a prime candidate to make some moves out of desperation.

Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers · QB

The 49ers are in a perfect position to bide their time in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes. They sound committed to Jimmy G until a clearly superior option becomes available, and that might not happen until after the draft. Speaking of which ...

Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans · QB

Free agency doesn't feel like a flash point in a potential Watson trade. The Texans are reportedly not taking calls on their quarterback and that figures to continue until close to the draft, possibly longer.


Then again, trades this big usually land without a lot of breadcrumbs dropped along the way. If the Panthers or Jets can somehow squeeze "five first-round picks" in between when general manager Nick Caserio says "Hello, you've reached the Houston Texans" and "How dare you, sir?!", then a deal could come together sooner than expected.


(I'm not listing Russell Wilson in this exercise until there's any indication the Seahawks would remotely entertain this idea.)

Sam Darnold
New York Jets · QB

I'm not convinced there would be a market for Darnold beyond a third-round pick. At that price, the Jets can wait until the draft to see if they can get a bigger haul. Having Darnold around to compete with a rookie is not a crazy scenario. The last thing the Jets should be worried about is having too many quarterbacks.

Teddy Bridgewater
Carolina Panthers · QB

The Panthers haven't tried to hide their desire to upgrade at quarterback. Where that leaves Bridgewater, who has a lot of guaranteed money coming in 2021, is anyone's guess.

Nick Foles
Chicago Bears · QB

He's literally the only quarterback on the roster and his contract would be tough to move.

Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · RB

His name being floated in the Deshaun Watson trade rumors indicates he's not untouchable.

Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

So far, the Saints' roster pruning hasn't included a major surprise. Dealing Thomas only two years after handing him a $100 million contract would qualify.

Odell Beckham
Cleveland Browns · WR

I would keep OBJ if I was Browns general manager Andrew Berry. With that said, Beckham could be in a sweet spot of age (28) and contract where it makes sense to move him if a team sends an aggressive offer. Beckham is due just over $45 million in the next three years, which is a fair price for a player of his skill.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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