Top 101 NFL free agents of 2021: Who are the best players available?

Chris Wesseling and I worked together on the Top 101 Free Agents list for the past seven seasons. For years before that, we battled on AOL Instant Messenger over fantasy football rankings at Rotoworld. There’s no one I respected more than Wess, which meant there was no one I loved arguing with more. It doesn’t feel right doing the rankings without him this year. It may never feel right.

Those arguments mellowed in recent years. Maybe it was perspective after his first cancer battle or maybe we were just getting old. To argue about football is to love it, and to love it is to know it can mean everything and nothing at all. We’d wonder about a job that could be joyous yet ephemeral. His voice, however, will remain lodged in my head forever, including during this exercise. I heard him dismiss my ranking of Jameis Winston below with incredulity. Mike Hilton, long one of Wess’ favorites, was given a bump.

Many of our last conversations came on Tuesday afternoons in the fall, driving him home from chemo. Football was usually part of the discussion, a dose of normality in a year that was anything but. We marveled at Aaron Rodgers playing on easy mode or ranked Justin Herbert’s place in history among rookie QBs. It was nothing and everything all at once.

NOTE: Each player’s listed age represents how old they will be on Sept. 9, when the 2021 NFL season is expected to kick off.

It perversely may have taken a major injury for Cowboys brass to fully appreciate Prescott’s value. The longer they wait, the more expensive Dak gets.

A Hall of Fame-caliber player like Williams performing near his peak at a premium position will do incredibly well in the open market. (And Williams will get there because the 49ers agreed not to tag him.) Great tackles often play well into their late 30s, which is why I fully expect Williams to become the highest paid player at his position.

It has never been harder to be a top-10 NFL receiver because the position is so deep. Robinson still belongs in that group, so don’t be surprised if there’s a trade market after the Bears presumably tag him.

Giants GM Dave Gettleman was right. Unleashed in an attacking scheme, Williams was one of football’s best interior linemen last year and is about to be paid like it.

The Broncos appear ready to go year-to-year with their star safety and locker room leader, just like they are going year-to-year with the head coach who utilizes Simmons’ skill set so well. 

Like a lot of players near the top of this list, Godwin will almost certainly receive the franchise tag. The Bucs won’t let Tom Brady’s favorite target walk.

He is still a hoss. Watt played 91.5 percent of the Texans’ defensive snaps last season, the highest of any free agent defensive lineman. His next team could see more explosive plays by giving the 10-year veteran more rest.

While Barrett’s sack total fell in 2020, he was a monster in the playoffs. Anyone believing he’s a one-year wonder should also check out his remarkably steady annual PFF grade, never dipping below 74.0 in six NFL seasons despite increased usage. 

The 3,017 yards and 30 touchdowns on just 533 touches over the last two seasons speaks to Jones’ explosiveness and efficiency. The projected franchise tag value for running backs is so low that the Packers would be foolish to let him go.

 A Pro Football Focus top-20 tackle for three seasons running, Moton is highly unlikely to hit the open market.

Scherff is elite in all aspects of guard play. The four-time Pro Bowler would be ranked in the top five here if not for the 16 games he’s missed over the last three seasons before turning 30.

A late-season torn ACL hurts Dupree’s value, but he’s versatile and strong enough to make a three-year contract worth it.

The 2017 third-rounder always looked like a guy who could explode if given more snaps. In 2020, he was and he did. A Shaq Barrett-like career path is in play, with more production at his second stop.

Pass rush in a bottle. I can’t imagine why the Bengals would not tag Lawson, who finished fourth in pressures (64) and second in QB hits (24) among edge rushers, per PFF.

An injury-marred 2020 season won’t erase memories of Golladay skying over defenders and winning 1-on-1 matches on the outside, a difficult skill set to find.

His stock is at a low, but I’m still taking Clowney’s snap-to-snap ferocity upside over players like Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon. Still just 28, Clowney remains capable of a strong second phase to his career.

Above-average starting guards who never miss a snap get paid so much in free agency that Bill Belichick may just use the franchise tag on Thuney for the second year in a row.

Never lacking for effort, Judon is the product of a Ravens system known for strong outside linebacker play that doesn’t always translate to other rosters.

The Packers are probably going to disappoint Aaron Rodgers by allowing Linsley or Aaron Jones to leave. Linsley figures to cost more after seven rock-solid seasons in Green Bay.

It’s clear that Ngakoue’s pure outside rush doesn’t work in every scheme after a lost season in Minnesota and Baltimore. He’s a liability against the run, and it’s a red flag that his production has fallen every season since 2017, when he played on a historically good Jags defense.

Finally healthy and on his way to a monster season, Fuller’s 2020 campaign was cut short by a PED suspension that will also sideline him for Week 1 of next season. The NFL equivalent of a plus-minus NBA standout, Fuller’s speedy presence on the field has proven to make everyone around him better.

Milano isn’t quite a young Lavonte David, but he’s close enough. There aren’t many off-ball linebackers left who can be an asset on all three downs, tracking down runners while holding up in coverage.

It will take the right coach, but Winston could improve a handful of starting quarterback situations. Don’t be surprised if it happens in New Orleans.

It took Panthers coach Matt Rhule to show Samuel’s full value, helping him to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage with a mix of route trees and surprisingly potent inside runs. He’s a perfect weapon for today’s wide-open offenses.

He’s known for his social media, yet JuJu’s game is decidedly old school. A perfect No. 2 receiver who can do all the dirty work with incredible toughness over the middle.

Look closer at Newton’s 2020 season and it’s clear he’s not done yet as a starter. His yards per attempt (7.2) was near his career average, and he was still able to rush for 592 yards and 12 scores. Bridge quarterbacks are worth plenty!

Closer to a poor man’s Gronk or Delanie Walker than a Travis Kelce-type, Smith’s value goes beyond the box score. He’s an incredible red-zone weapon.

It’s OK if Henry doesn’t ever develop into Tony Gonzalez. Putting up more than 600 yards annually with a knack for field-stretching plays up the seam is going to make Henry rich.

After four admittedly streaky years in Seattle, Griffin is undeniably an above-average starting cornerback. The thin market at the position could bump up his price tag.

You could argue Fitz’s peak started around age 37. Why stop now?

His pass-rush production spiked in 2020 with 61 pressures, tying him for the fifth-most among edge rushers, according to PFF.

Consider it a red flag the Titans thought so little of Davis a year ago that they didn’t exercise his fifth-year option. After he recorded 984 yards in 14 games, they may regret that decision like they regret letting Jack Conklin walk a year ago.

Jamal Adams’ departure to Seattle helped Maye shine in 2020. The Jets have so much cap space they might as well keep Maye with the franchise tag. 

If you need a consistent big body to anchor the middle of your defensive line, Tomlinson is a fine choice. Guys with his size and strength inevitably get huge dollars.

The secret back-end weapon in the Rams’ defense last year could possibly join his old coach Brandon Staley without changing stadiums.

I feel guilty ranking the linebacker this low because he’s a borderline Hall of Famer coming off another steady season. But with David already having logged 9,000-plus snaps in an incredibly durable career, teams could get caught paying for past accomplishments.

A dislocated kneecap a few years ago ruined Williams’ previous chance to cash in following a second-team All-Pro season. Now fully recovered, Williams proved in Buffalo he can still play right tackle at a high level.

If the Saints can find the cap space, they will try to retain Williams. He’s been a smart, reliable starter since the day he entered the league.

Playing on the same line as Aaron Donald gave Floyd a bump like it did to Dante Fowler a year ago. Floyd’s longer track record as a workmanlike starter makes him a relatively safe pickup.

Youngish cornerbacks with some terrific highs in their careers are few and far between in this market. Jackson is a prime candidate to get more money than expected.

If you know, you know. A master shot blocker in the paint, Harris’ game has exceeded his brand name for a while.

Professionalism ages well. One of the most productive pass rushers of the last decade can still get it done, albeit in a reduced role.

In one year, Reddick went from a potential roster cut to a contract-year revelation. I’d be wary of expecting 2020 production from Reddick again, but his first-round pedigree will help him get paid.

Brown just makes plays. After four seasons with Mike Vrabel, the inside linebacker could stay within the extended Bill Belichick coaching tree and land in New England or Miami.

This is the part of the free agent list where I’m willing to take a chance. Verrett is the type of boom-or-bust signing who is worth a shot on a one-year deal for a contending team.

It feels like Darby is available in free agency every season. I usually rate him higher than the market does and finally felt justified after he ranked 12th out of 79 qualifiers in PFF’s 2020 cornerback grades.

Smaller receivers don’t always age well, but Hilton’s tape last year was a lot more impressive than his final numbers.

Great backup quarterbacks were weirdly undervalued in last year’s market, receiving less money than mediocre situational pass rushers. Dalton is settling into the phase of his career where he’s one of the best backups in football. 

After missing the 2019 season due to career-threatening blood clots, Andrews came back to anchor the Patriots’ line in 2020. He’s a quick fix for any team with a center problem.

His play dipped in 2020 after a torrid season and a half in the starting lineup. The depth in the free agent safety class could hurt Harris’ bottom line.

With flair for days, the Steelers slot corner would bring energy and versatility to any team that knows how to use him.

There is some concern that Ingram’s ferocious playing style could be compromised by injury (missed 12 games since 2019), but he’s been a force every time he’s stepped on the field and could give any defense a nasty attitude upgrade.

It’s not cool to value tackle-breaking running backs like Chris Carson, but it is exceedingly cool to watch Chris Carson play football.

Wright bounced back from an injured 2018 and down 2019 season to show off his incredible instincts in 2020, but the market for an off-ball linebacker who turns 32 in July still may not be to Wright’s liking.

I wanted to rank Gronk lower before realizing he finished in the top 10 among tight ends in yards (623) and touchdowns (7), all while blocking well and rarely leaving the field. He will live forever.

It’s hilarious to think of Agholor’s five seasons in Philadelphia, where he was used as a chain-moving slot receiver. He doubled his yards per catch in Las Vegas (18.7 in 2020; 9.3 in 2019) and probably doubled his salary.

Still flush with mid-air ball skills, Jones pulled off one of the toughest feats in the NFL: He made it to the very end of a five-year free agent contract! (And his 978-yard 2020 campaign could earn him one more nice payday.)

I defy you to watch Autry for a few games and not come away thinking, “Nice ballplayer!”

Sherman is only one year removed from a remarkable late-career second-team All-Pro season. A calf injury in 2020 limited him to 321 snaps, most of them at less than full strength.

Playoff heroics aside, Watkins hasn’t topped 700 yards in a season since 2015. In related news, he has missed at least six games three of the last five years.

In the right scheme, Rhodes showed in Indianapolis he still has quality snaps to give. 

Undrafted free agents with forgettable names and prominent mustaches tend to get ignored, which is a shame for this solid starting cornerback.

See my note on Andy Dalton for the relative value of backup quarterbacks. The last time Brissett played with a healthy shoulder, in the first half of the 2019 season, he played quite well.

A.B. was more productive than you might remember (483 yards in eight regular-season games), but still wasn’t the old Antonio Brown. The risk-reward ratio now looks out of whack unless your team employs Tom Brady at quarterback.

The Titans’ scheme asked Jones to do a lot that doesn’t show up in the box score, and he did it all well.

I like medium-risk/high-reward free agent signings like Tartt. He’s a devastating tone-setter with explosive skills and significant injury risk.

See above. Williams may have some injury risk like Tartt, but he’s been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL during stretches of his career.

He had to work harder in 2020, but Drake topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the third straight season. His best role would be as a dangerous tag-team partner, rather than as a lead back.

The Cardinals asked a lot of Peterson the last two years, and it did not pay off for the future Hall of Fame candidate. The right coach should still be able to find a role for him. 

A nice third-round pick by the Browns, Ogunjobi’s play seemed to decline as his rookie contract wore on.

Teams will eventually see diminishing returns on these one-year deals for Suh, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Any Cowboys defender associated with last season’s meltdown figures to come at a discount. Woods was quietly an effective player before defensive coordinator Mike Nolan arrived.

The Chiefs have a lot of tricky decisions to make on the offensive line, including whether to bring back their starting center Reiter after two capable years protecting Patrick Mahomes.

Patterson is ranked this high because he’s one of the best special teams players in NFL history, not because of his efficiency as an offensive weapon (no matter how hard coaches still try).

The upside here — his boffo 2018 season — is significant. Will Rankins be better another year removed from Achilles surgery, or is he just settling in as a useful rotation piece? 

Injuries have taken a toll, but Neal started to show flashes of his physical form down the stretch last year. Would Dan Quinn bring him to Dallas?

Sean McVay could never fully unlock Everett, but the tight end has the size and speed to carve out a long NFL career.

 I remain convinced Johnson can be one of the best third-down backs in football, even after landing in two straight tricky situations for running backs. 

It looks like the Steelers are ready to move on from Villanueva, which is a red flag because the Steelers are nothing if not loyal.

After falling out of favor with the Chargers, King helped the Titans’ secondary down the stretch last season. He has special teams value, too. 

While Smith’s comeback faded as the season wore on in Dallas, he showed enough to get another contract as a third pass rusher for some team.

It’s a shame that the Chargers’ medical staff mishap cost Taylor a chance at being a Week 1 starter in 2021. He can still help a team as a backup.

Cornerback is a weird position: You can have a name brand and make huge dollars, or you can be a guy like Breeland, going year-to-year while always giving his team creditable starts.

One of the league’s most underrated running backs would be worth a flier, even coming off a torn Achilles.

While Williams couldn’t stay healthy with the Raiders, there’s a reason he cost $11 million per year just two offseasons ago.

Cheap, serviceable snaps from a tackle is hard to find in free agency. Beachum got the job done for the Cardinals last year.

 It was no surprise that Wolfe helped the Ravens as a rotational player last season and should provide a similar boost for some team in 2021. 

It’s pretty rare for a former first-round nose tackle to have his best season at 33 years old, but Alualu made himself some money with the Steelers.

Inconsistent play will hurt Dunbar’s market, but there is plenty of upside here.

This ranking is absolutely my way of saying sorry after clowning John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan for giving Juszczyk a record-breaking deal four years ago. It proved to be a bargain!

 I’d love to see the right organization turn McKinley’s career around because the juice he showed in his first three seasons as a pass rusher was not a fluke.

Players coming off major injuries like Hooker’s torn Achilles can often be underpaid in free agency.

There’s a reason Hill kept getting snaps in Los Angeles over the last five years (usually making the most of them): He’s competitive as hell.

Being named to the Patriots’ All-Decade team of the 2010s — a decade that included five Super Bowl appearances — should be worth something!

The Tulane legend has been one of the most consistent kickers in the league and is coming off a season in which he hit 30 of 32 field goals and 36 of 37 extra points.

Arnold’s listed at 220 pounds, helping to explain why he’s one of the most purely athletic pass-catching tight ends in football.

The Pittsburgh offensive line didn’t help Conner’s decisiveness over the last two seasons. 

One of the better defensive tackles in football over the last decade is worth a flier after two injury-ravaged seasons.

 A reunion with Tom Brady would make a lot of sense after both players appeared to miss one another in 2020.

If you need cheap, capable speed on the outside, Perriman is your guy.

Remember that week when everyone wondered if the Bears would have to re-sign Trubisky to a big contract? That was weird. 

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