The big whirlwind that was free agency in the NFL has slowed but there are still quality free agents remaining on the market. And these are contributors, not guys just hanging on. So let’s do them, and the franchises we place them with a solid and find them some new homes. Heck, some might even rejuvenate their careers in their new digs.
Remaining NFL Free Agents Can Be Big Pieces for New Teams
Alex Smith – QB
2020 Stats: 5-1 record, 66.7% cmp, 1582 yds, 6 TD:8 INT
That Alex Smith was even able to take the field in 2020 is nothing short of remarkable. After nearly losing his leg to an infection following a gruesome break, Smith missed the entire 2019 season rehabbing. He was never supposed to see the field for Washington but ended up as their best quarterback when all was said and done.
Outlook: Soon to be 37, Smith’s day’s as a starter are long gone, or at least they should be. He’s shown he can still play but there will always be that specter of re-injury; even if Smith isn’t the fearful one. His ideal situation would be backing up one of the top incoming rookies. Even for a young quarterback such as Drew Lock in Denver.
Next Option: Matt Barkley
James Conner – RB
2020 Stats: 169 ru., 721 yds (4.3 YPC), 6 TDs
James Conner entered the league amid much fanfare due to overcoming his battle with cancer. But multiple factors, including the offensive line and scheme, have limited his effectiveness. Not the least of which is health. Conner has missed 15 starts in three seasons as RB1. Oddly, even as Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility deteriorates, Conner’s receiving work has dwindled.
Outlook: It’s a hard-knock life for running backs in the NFL. Conner would have a hard time finding big money on the open market coming off of a good year. Now he will be looking at a complementary backup role. A team like the Arizona Cardinals could use him for short-yardage, goal line, and change-of-pace duties. A return to the Steelers is also a strong possibility.
Next Option: Todd Gurley
Antonio Brown – WR
2020 Stats:45 rec, 483 yds, 2 TDs
Was 2020 enough for Antonio Brown to get back in everyone’s good graces? He caught 45 balls for 483 yards and four touchdowns in eight games (four starts). He added another eight catches, 81 yards, and two scores in the postseason. It was modest production from a once-giant in the game. But he was a functioning member of a championship team. That has to count for something, right?
Outlook: Any contender, provided they have a strong locker room, should look into bringing in Brown after what he did with little time around the Bucs organization. The Baltimore Ravens have a culture strong enough to overcome Brown. Plus there would be the added benefit of playing with his cousin, Marquise Brown. Reports are he and Tamp have mutual interest but the money isn’t close.
Next Option: Golden Tate
2020 Stats: 14 rec, 129 yds, 2 TDs
Jesse James’ stats won’t wow you but no one on the free-agent tight end market is all that exciting. James has two things going for him that most on the list don’t. First, he’ll be just 27 when the season starts. He also played in all 16 games last season. Oh, and he’s 6-foot-7. You can’t teach that.
Outlook: Again, no one in this group is going anywhere to be a “weapon” but James’ profile does fit that of a red zone threat. That wasn’t on full display in Detroit behind T.J. Hockenson but could be elsewhere. Most teams could use a tight end with his height for depth and the scoring area. A team like the Seattle Seahawks, where Russell Wilson makes good use of the position, would make good use of him.
Next Option: Tyler Eifert
Eric Fisher – OT
Reports are that Eric Fisher could be back on the field by mid-August. If true, he’s easily the top offensive lineman on the market. He received an 80.0 grade from Pro Football Focus. He’s also been durable outside of this past post-season and 2018 when he missed half the year. You need to look no further than Super Bowl LV to see the impact of Fisher’s absence.
Outlook: This is easy because several teams could use the services of a Super Bowl-winning, franchise left tackle. But the Los Angeles Chargers stand out from the rest. They have a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert and have already begun building the blocking in front of him. But they have a gaping hole at left tackle. If the medicals check out, Fisher could stay in the same division.
Next Option: Ricky Wagner
Trai Turner – OG
The Chargers cut Trai Turner in a cap-saving move. Last season, the five-time Pro Bowler missed out on the honor for the first time since he was a rookie. He only appeared in nine games as he dealt with a nagging groin injury. But this decision looms large as he was easily their best lineman and they have holes elsewhere.
Outlook: Bengals fans are already making a push for Turner to keep interior pass rushers out of Joe Burrow’s lap. Cincy reportedly has yet to reach out but that is likely just a formality as most of the next wave of deals won’t take place until after the draft. When the time comes, though, Turner donning the stripes would be a good look.
Next Option: Nick Easton
Austin Reiter – C
Another victim of the Chiefs revamping their offensive line, Austin Reiter has the distinction of being currently healthy. That’s something his former linemates who are also looking for work cannot boast. He graded out decent enough from PFF but most will likely remember Patrick Mahomes running for his life in the Super Bowl more than anything.
Outlook: Kansas City has already replaced Reiter but the Steelers and Dolphins both had their centers, twins Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, retire this offseason. Reiter could land with either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Miami Dolphins and be a stabilizing force in the anchor spot.
Next Option: Tyler Shatley
Justin Houston – EDGE
2020 Stats: 25 tackles, 8 sacks, 25 pressures
Yes, Justin Houston will be 33 by the time Super Bowl LVI is played. But it’s also true that the former Indianapolis Colts pass rusher had eight sacks last season; eight more than the next highest ranked free agent. Yes, you read that right. It’s impossible to call Houston over the hill when he’s outperforming guys up to four years younger than him.
Outlook: The Colts are interested in bringing him back. But they will likely have competition for his services. He could land back in the AFC West with the Chargers who are looking for a replacement for Melvin Ingram who profiles similarly to Houston.
Next Option: Jadeveon Clowney
Kwon Alexander – LB
2020 Stats: 57 tackles (39 solo), 3 TFL, 1 sack, 2 FR
Yet another cap casualty, cutting ties with Kwon Alexander saved the Saints $13 million. Sure they just traded for him this past season, but it was for an expiring contract in Kiko Alonso and a conditional fifth-round pick. That’s a pittance in the grand scheme. Still, it can’t feel good to have to cut a productive player for cash reasons.
Outlook: Inside linebacker is in a funky place right now. No one wants to pay top dollar for an off-ball linebacker but ask any team without a certified tackling machine or cover linebacker and see what they say. Alonso can fill both roles. He just needs a home and the Washington Football Team can give it to him. Their leading tackler was Jonathan Bostic but he’ll be 30 by the time the season starts and a free agent after it ends.
Next Option: Avery Williamson
Steven Nelson – CB
2020 Stats: 48 tackles, 2 INTs, 9 PD, 58.2% completion allowed
There might be some more recognizable names than Steven Nelson on the free-agent cornerback market. But they are all older or less effective (and mostly both) than he was for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Remember, this is a defense that finished 2020 ranked third in yards allowed. Nelson’s only had three interceptions the past two years combined but he’s also allowed a sub-60 percent completion in his area the last three years.
Outlook: The Steelers saved $8 million moving on from Nelson but the move likely helped other teams more. Now, Nelson is free to sign with the team of his liking, and the franchise doesn’t have to fork over draft capital to acquire him or pay that exorbitant amount to keep him. The Arizona Cardinals (should) have entered the chat.
Next Option: Casey Hayward
Malik Hooker – S
2019 Stats: 51 tackles (30 solo), 2 INTs, 3 PD, 1 FR
Malik Hooker missed all but two games of the 2020 season with a torn Achilles. It’s just another in a long list of lower-body injuries the fifth-year man out of Ohio State has endured. The Colts declined his fifth-year option last May with his injury history in mind. But when healthy, Hooker provides a rare combination of range, ball skills, and tackling ability.
Outlook: If healthy (and that’s a big if) Hooker would be a great fit anywhere. But imagine he and Derwin James and the versatility they’d give rookie head coach Brandon Staley. Hooker would look good with the Tennessee Titans too. It would be a similar situation as the Chargers with he and Kevin Byard combining to be a menacing duo.
Next Option: Tre Boston