NFL Free Agency 2021: Predicting landing spots for five star players

With two major quarterback transactions this winter, the rise of trade rumours about other quarterbacks and buzz about next month’s draft, the NFL is always at least on the periphery of its fans’ minds — even in the depths of the off-season.

On the immediate horizon is the NFL free agency period, which starts at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Before several stars hit the market, we’ve highlighted five — with a prediction for where they’ll sign.

(Note: To add context to the projected value of these players, we are using Spotrac’s calculation of market value as expressed by average annual salary)

WR Kenny Golladay

Age: 27
2020 stats: 20 catches, 338 yards, 2 TDs
2021 market value: $17 million

A hip injury derailed Golladay for most of the 2020 season, forcing him to miss 11 games (including Week 9 and onward). That prevented the 2019 Pro Bowler from posting a third consecutive 1,000-yard season with the Detroit Lions, and it might bring his price tag down slightly as he looks for a long-term deal.

The Miami Dolphins have been linked to Golladay, but he also makes a lot of sense for the Indianapolis Colts, discount or not. With 31-year-old T.Y. Hilton and his $14.5 million cap hit off the books, the Colts have just $7.1 million in total cash committed to the wide receiver position for 2021 (rostering Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell on rookie deals doesn’t hurt).

Carson Wentz, the Colts’ new quarterback, probably wouldn’t mind having a surefire No. 1 target heading into training camp. If the Colts are serious about competing — and they seem to be, given the Wentz trade — then ponying up for Golladay is in their best interest.

Prediction: Colts

RB Aaron Jones

Age: 26
2020 stats: 1,104 rush yards (5.5 per attempt), 355 receiving yards, 11 TDs
2021 market value: $14.6 million

The Green Bay Packers squeezed a ton of value out of Jones, their 2017 fifth-round pick, spending less than $4 million for 43 total touchdowns over four seasons. Now it’s Jones’s turn to capitalize.

In 2020, Jones earned his first Pro Bowl selection while posting a career-high 78.9 rush yards per game. The season before, he led the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns. And now, he’s a perfect fit for the New York Jets.

It’s not like the Jets have to spend their nearly $70 million of cap space (calculated by Over The Cap), but that kind of discretionary income leaves the door open for lots of possibilities, such as securing an every-down back.

Want to guess who the Jets’ rostered running backs are as we speak? Sit on that for a second.

OK, I’ll just tell you: La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson and … Pete Guerriero (whose Twitter handle, @PeteyTheJet, we very much enjoy).

Maybe the Jets will settle for a Perine-Johnson duo to help them soldier through another rebuilding year. But why settle when you can afford to be the highest bidder on Jones?

Prediction: Jets

CB Patrick Peterson

Age: 30
2020 stats: 3 INT, 61 tackles (52 solo), 8 pass breakups
2021 market value: $10.4 million

The value of shutdown corners in a pass-happy league is continuing to rise, which is why Peterson projects such a high market value despite entering his age-31 season.

Sure, the three-time All Pro might have lost a step or two, but he’s proven he can still compete with the league’s top talent. Just ask D.K. Metcalf, who Peterson held to five catches and 69 yards in two matchups last season (Metcalf averaged 5.6 catches and 88 yards per game the rest of the year).

Teams like the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans, who had putrid pass defences in 2020 and have money to spend now, make sense for Peterson. But we like the idea of him pulling a Richard Sherman and sliding from one NFC West team (Arizona Cardinals) to another (San Francisco 49ers).

The 49ers, who have nearly $25 million in cap space, could overhaul their cornerback group, as all of their primary contributors from last season — including Sherman, Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley — are free agents. They are currently committing a grand total of $3.14 million to cornerbacks on the roster.

Of course, San Francisco could bring back some of its own guys heading to free agency, but Peterson has the type of experience and resume that only Sherman can rival.

Prediction: 49ers

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Age: 24
2020 stats: 97 catches, 831 yards, 9 TDs
2021 market value: $16.1 million

We’ve looked at one intra-division move — why not another?

Smith-Schuster seems very unlikely to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, given both their cap situation ($6 million of space) and the emergence of two younger, less expensive weapons in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool (both of whom had more receiving yards than Smith-Schuster in 2020).

Believers in Smith-Schuster can point to his 2018 Pro Bowl season, in which his coming out campaign featured 111 catches and over 1,400 yards. But he hasn’t come close to clearing that bar in two seasons since, despite scoring a career-high nine touchdowns this past year.

Simply put, it’s time to find a new home. And he shouldn’t have to wander far, because the Baltimore Ravens are a perfect fit.

The Ravens have a lethal rush attack — first in yards and attempts, third in touchdowns in 2020 — and a viable deep threat in Marquise Brown. What they could use is a steady presence to gobble up catches underneath and over the middle. Smith-Schuster can do that.

We hesitate to call him a “possession receiver,” because that’s just a nice way to say he’s slow, but Smith-Schuster did post a rather ghastly 8.6 yards per catch last year. Insulated in the Ravens’ humming offence, he has a chance to really shine again.

Prediction: Ravens

OLB Bud Dupree

Age: 28
2020 stats: 8 sacks, 31 tackles (23 solo), 8 TFL, 15 QB hits
2021 market value: $18.2 million

Dupree appears to be another cap-crunch victim for the Steelers, who opted not to apply a second franchise tag to their 2015 first-round pick. That tag would’ve cost $18.99 million, which is admittedly pricey for a one-year pact, but Dupree is sure to find a nice payday on the open market.

Prior to tearing his ACL in a Dec. 2 game against Baltimore, Dupree did plenty to show how disruptive he can be as a pass rusher. And though knee surgery recoveries shouldn’t be taken for granted, Dupree did tell ESPN last week he plans to be a full participant in training camp “based on positive feedback from his doctors.”

So where does Dupree go from here? Probably someplace good, where he can complement another strong pass rusher.

One team that sticks out is the Los Angeles Chargers, who are probably ready to move on from longtime edge rusher Melvin Ingram — he was held sack-less in seven games last year and turns 32 in April.

Adding Dupree, which is plenty doable given the Chargers’ $25-plus million in cap room, to work opposite Joey Bosa is, well, a scary thought for whoever is on the other side of that line.

The Browns are another team that fits this mould (almost $25 million in space, a spot open next to Myles Garrett), but we like the Chargers as Dupree’s optimal destination.

Prediction: Chargers

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