Kenny Golladay figures to have many suitors as the most attractive wide receiver on the market
The franchise tag deadline has come and gone, and one of the most unique and dramatic periods of free agency is set to unfurl across the NFL. While there's not a Tom Brady-caliber name or player on the market this year, that doesn't mean there are not a ton of quality options available for teams to pony up for as the missing piece to elevate their team.
So, what players top every franchise's wish list? And where might they really wind up when pen meets paper?
With all that in mind, here are the top 25 NFL free agents in 2021 and which teams could land them:
1. Shaq Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barrett's value was on full display in the Bucs' run to the Lombardi Trophy, but he's been among the best players off the edge each of the past two seasons since making the move to Tampa (27.5 sacks combined). Given the dearth of true superstar impact players at his position in free agency and in the draft, some team is set to back up the Brinks truck for him.
Possible landing spots: Jacksonville, New York Jets, Tampa Bay
Prediction: Bucs GM Jason Licht wants to keep the team's Super Bowl-winning squad together and has been making the necessary moves to make sure that includes Barrett despite the price tag.
2. Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Golladay's hip injury could be a concern for some but assuming that gets the all-clear, he's far and away the top wideout on the market and will provide a huge boost to whatever passing game can land him. He brings size and speed to get down the field and is bound to make some QB very happy for the 2021 season.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, New England, New York Jets, Washington
Prediction: Adding weapons for Sam Darnold (or Zach Wilson? Justin Fields?) will be a top priority for the Jets, and they fight off — and likely overpay — to land a new No. 1 wideout in the Big Apple.
3. Joe Thuney, OL, New England Patriots
It's not often you see a team use the franchise tag on a guard, but that's just what the Pats did last year. Thuney is a workhorse in the trenches and can help quickly turn around the fortunes of a woeful offensive line with plenty of good years left since he's just 28.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, Seattle
Prediction: Bill Belichick rarely ponies up to keep his own free agents, so Cincinnati likely becomes the favorite to bring the Ohio native back to the Midwest.
4. Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
Williams would be atop this list if you didn't factor in his age (33), given how good he was in his return to the field with San Francisco. He could still set the new yearly rate for left tackles either way since he's a Pro Bowler looking at a market with no peer even close to his caliber available.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, San Francisco
Prediction: A reunion with the 49ers is widely expected, but the Colts have the cap space and glaring need to make Williams a $20 million per year player.
5. Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
Coming off an All-Pro season, Linsley is set to cash in with what could be the richest deal for a center in the league.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Green Bay, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami, Minnesota, New England, New York Jets
Predictions: There will be no shortage of suitors for the top center in the game, but a pressing need, cap space, and a young QB to help could make Miami the favorite to land his services.
6. Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
His exit from Duval didn't quite go as planned in 2020, but Ngakoue's productivity (at least eight sacks a year) still figures to land him a hefty contract for the next few years. In addition to his impact off the edge, the fact that he's the youngest (26) premier free agent at his position should lead to plenty of suitors fighting for his signature.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, New England, New York Jets, Tampa Bay, Tennessee
Prediction: Cleveland has been searching for a complement to Myles Garrett getting after the signal-caller, and Ngakoue fits the right age profile for a team whose contention window is here and has some cap space to play with.
7. Matt Judon, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
Judon didn't quite take advantage of a contract year (six sacks) as much as he could have, but he's still someone who can get after the quarterback. The market could work in his favor, especially if teams think his best days are ahead of him.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Detroit, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Seattle, Tennessee
Prediction: New Jets head coach Robert Saleh needs some juice off the edge to help turn around Gang Green's defense, and Judon fits the bill. Don't discount GM Joe Douglas leaning on his contacts with the Ravens in getting good background info either.
8. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Some of his social media antics have gotten rival fans riled up, but he's still just 24, put together numerous productive seasons, and has superb instincts at attacking the middle of the field. While he might not be the top wideout on teams' boards, he'll have a chance to make an instant impact in any passing game.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, New England, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, Washington
Prediction: It feels like Smith-Schuster would be a perfect addition to what Miami has been building and could turn into Tua Tagovailoa's new best friend.
9. Leonard Floyd, EDGE, Los Angeles Rams
Hard to believe Floyd is still just 28 and seems to have taken to a brief stint on the Rams to truly live up to his early billing (10.5 sacks last season). Teams may be a bit cautious of him being somewhat of a one-year wonder after playing next to Aaron Donald, but the amount of pass rush-needy defenses will nevertheless allow for a robust bidding war.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, New York Jets, Seattle, Tennessee
Prediction: Floyd blossomed under Brandon Staley, so it makes for a quick and easy move across LA if the Chargers still have enough left over after fortifying their offensive line. Given the amount of passing that is prevalent just in the AFC West, a Joey Bosa/Leonard Floyd tag team coming at opposing QBs could be quite terrifying.
10. Bud Dupree, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
Dupree was having a fantastic season last year prior to his ACL injury and has been steadily progressing as an integral part of that Steelers' defense. His ability to line up in a variety of fronts will also help expand his attractiveness to teams thinking about a long-term deal provided there are no issues with the knee.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Detroit, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tennessee
Prediction: A one-year deal to return to the Steelers could make sense for both sides by showing he can be healthy and allow for a big payday when the cap rises the year after. That said, don't overlook Indianapolis and division rival Cleveland as options either.
11. John Johnson III, DB, Los Angeles Rams
While Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey garner all the attention on the Rams' defense, Johnson has flown under the radar as one of the best players you've rarely heard about. His ability to play all over the backend enhances his versatility and in today's passing league, few will be as valuable to teams acquiring defenders as this safety.
Possible landing spots: Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, New England, Philadelphia, San Francisco
Prediction: The easiest move for Johnson would be to change locker rooms at SoFi Stadium and play for his DC this past year, but something says this is just the kind of versatile coverage guy that lands in a revamped secondary at the Rams' division rival 49ers.
12. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
Go ahead and debate the merits of paying a running back in this day and age, but if any in this class is worthy of a quality deal, it's the guy who has more than 3,000 total yards the past two seasons.
Possible landing spots: Chicago, Green Bay, Miami, New England, Pittsburgh, San Francisco
Prediction: The running back market could be depressed quite a bit with a shrinking cap, but Jones should have a number of teams after him. A return to the Packers makes plenty of sense, but the opportunity (and money) in Miami might be tough to pass up.
13. Trey Hendrickson, EDGE, New Orleans Saints
Hendrickson finished second in the league in sacks last year and seemed to finally put together the all-around campaign the Saints were expecting. That big impact in a contract year certainly will lead to more than a few oversized offers, especially given his size is hard to find in edge players who firmly line up with their hand in the dirt.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, New England, New Orleans, New York Jets
Prediction: It would truly be some voodoo magic if the Saints re-worked the cap enough to keep him, but Jacksonville seems like the easiest landing spot as Urban Meyer looks to generate some sort of pass rush in Duval.
14. Shaquill Griffin, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Griffin checks a lot of boxes in what teams are looking for in corners nowadays and, despite being a regular in Pete Carroll's defense, is flexible enough to fit pretty much any scheme out there. It's safe to say he'll ink a massive deal if the Seahawks can't keep him in the Pacific Northwest.
Possible landing spots: Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, New England, New York Jets, Seattle, San Francisco
Prediction: This one may come down to a tussle between AFC East foes with loads of cap space in the Jets and Pats. Robert Saleh could make for a seamless transition for Griffin, though, and would be a nice early salvo at the folks in Foxborough looking to re-tool their own secondary.
15. William Jackson III, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Jackson should compete with Shaquill Griffin to see which corner gets the better deal, and you can't help but think there's plenty of upside left for Jackson to reach. He's already a quality corner but could really take the next step locking opponents down with a better defense around him.
Possible landing spots: Arizona, Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Minnesota, New England, New York Jets, San Francisco
Prediction: The Colts have the cash to throw at Jackson if they want an upgrade on Xavier Rhodes, but one can't completely rule out the Bengals coming back around to find a long-term solution.
16. Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
Davis was largely underperforming his draft slot until this past year, where he emerged in a big way for the Titans at just the right time to cash in. Several teams think he could be a late bloomer whose best years are ahead.
Possible landing spots: Indianapolis, Miami, New England, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Washington
Prediction: The Pats will be linked to just about every skill position player out there, but don't overlook Washington giving him the option of slotting into the starting lineup first.
17. Alejandro Villanueva, OL, Pittsburgh Steelers
Villanueva's age and 2020 tape work against him somewhat, but the lack of left tackles you can drop in a lineup and be comfortable with give him a boost. Despite playing in the tough AFC North, he's held up well against a variety of rushers and hasn't missed a game as a starter.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle
Prediction: Because his price tag should be a tad lower than Trent Williams, there will be a ton of teams lined up to get a meeting with Villanueva. The Colts should be able to match any offer out there, though, and that would avoid the tricky situation of playing the Steelers twice a year if he signed with the Bengals.
18. Carl Lawson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals
Lawson has quietly developed into an underrated pass rusher in Cincinnati and is still just 26. While he doesn't have the ceiling of some of the others off the edge, his floor is extremely high given the production he's displayed so far in affecting QB throws.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, Seattle
Prediction: The Bengals didn't use the tag on Lawson but still manage to keep him in town despite the best efforts of others.
19. Jayon Brown, LB, Tennessee Titans
Brown suffered a tough elbow injury to cut short his 2020 campaign, but for teams looking for an athletic linebacker that fits a variety of roles, Brown will be a hot commodity. He's basically how you draw up a modern linebacker in today's game and can get to the QB as easily as he can cover RBs out of the backfield.
Possible landing spots: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New England, New York Jets, Tampa Bay, Tennessee
Prediction: While the Patriots figure to get a number of big names back on their defense for 2021, Brown seems like the kind of athletic and versatile upgrade that Bill Belichick would love to add with an eye beyond 2021. Still, the Titans will do their very best to retain him, and he'll likely look at a reunion with Dan Pees in Atlanta too.
20. Matt Milano, LB, Buffalo Bills
Injuries struck at just the wrong time for Milano, whose value on that Bills defense showed when he was out of the lineup. He can stay on the field for all three downs and is just what a number of contenders are looking for in a smart veteran who can make a difference with a young defense.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, New York Jets, Tennessee, Washington
Prediction: Buffalo will do their best to retain him, but Cleveland makes too much sense given their cap room and status as a fellow AFC contender.
21. Haason Reddick, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals
Reddick took a while to find his footing in the league but turned into a key cog in an underrated Cardinals defense last season. His versatility may have hampered his development early but could turn into an asset in free agency given where he can line up and get after the quarterback.
Possible landing spots: Arizona, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Seattle, Tennessee
Prediction: The Seahawks have been searching for a difference-maker rushing the passer since they traded Frank Clark, and poaching Reddick from a division rival could be just the kind of move that would really help Pete Carroll's defense.
22. Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings
With Marcus Williams off the market and John Johnson III likely to command the biggest deal, Harris figures to be a must-call to teams with needs at safety. While his play dropped last season, he's still just 29 and would be an upgrade for all but a handful of secondaries.
Possible landing spots: Dallas, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New England, New York Jets, San Francisco
Prediction: Cleveland has a glaring need at the position, plenty of cap room, and one of Harris' former coaches in Kevin Stefanski.
23. Jonnu Smith, TE, Tennessee Titans
Outside of trading for Zach Ertz, the tight end market seems a bit soft this year in both free agency and the draft (well, beyond Kyle Pitts). That could work out well for somebody like Smith, who turned into a high-impact target with the Titans early last season and may just be scratching the surface at what he could do in a more open offense given his athleticism.
Possible landing spots: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers, New England, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tennessee, Washington
Prediction: There will be no shortage of suitors for Smith, but he seems like just the kind of target Trevor Lawrence will love throwing to over the middle in Jacksonville.
24. Antonio Brown, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brown still has the ability to change games on the field but how he is viewed around the league will be quite different with each franchise based on his off-the-field issues (including a pending lawsuit). He's got his ring with Tampa and seems to have helped rehab his image somewhat with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians, but could still be looking for one last payday from a franchise that needs a new No. 1 wideout.
Possible landing spots: Baltimore, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, Seattle, Tampa Bay
Prediction: The lawsuit he's involved with will continue to scare teams off even if he's not as radioactive as he once was. His relationship with Brady seems real, though, and likely will keep him with the Bucs for another Lombardi run.
25. Jason Verrett, CB, San Francisco 49ers
File Verrett away as somebody's under-the-radar signing that could pay off big in 2021. His injury history is well documented, but he finally was healthy in San Francisco and was one of the better corners in the league as a result. The talent is undeniable and several contenders could bring him in on a short-term deal with tons of incentives.
Possible landing spots: Arizona, Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minnesota, New England, New York Jets, San Francisco
Prediction: The 49ers will do their best to keep him, but following Robert Saleh to the Jets to continue his development could also be the move for Verrett.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.