NFL's top 12 free agents of 2021: Latest rumours, reports

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott celebrates scoring a touchdown on a running play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

The first big-name NFL free agent is off the board.

J.J. Watt broke his own news on Monday, tweeting out his destination: the Arizona Cardinals.

Unexpected? Maybe a little, at first. As much as we kind of wanted to see a family reunion in Pittsburgh, anticipated a one-two punch with Myles Garrett in Cleveland, or envisioned a Wisconsin homecoming for the former Badger in Green Bay, the defensive end opted for an up-and-coming club in the desert with one of the game’s most dynamic young quarterbacks in Kyler Murray and his old pal from Houston, DeAndre Hopkins.

Ultimately his decision makes a lot of sense: He’s familiar with Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who was Watt’s defensive backs coach in Houston his rookie year, has an elite teammate in fellow pass-rusher Chandler Jones, and gets to contribute to a real contender.

Because Watt was released by the Texans, he was able to officially sign his Cardinals contract ahead of the opening of the new league year on March 17.

Now that we know where Watt’s headed, let’s turn our attention to the rest of the names on our list of top free agents, many of whom are strong candidates for the franchise tag designation. The window for tagging a player opened last week and closes March 9, with the designation often serving as a tool to allow teams extra time to negotiate a new long-term deal with their UFA-to-be.

Check back weekly for updates on this year's crop of top NFL free agents, which includes No. 1 quarterback Dak Prescott, a deep class of wide receivers, and some guy named J.J. Watt a pair of reigning Super Bowl champs.

1. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Age: 27
2020 cap hit: $31.409 million (Exclusive franchise tag)

It feels like we've been talking about contract negotiations between the Cowboys and the face of the franchise for years now ...

Probably because we have.

The saga continues, with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson stirring things up and setting the rumour mill spinning when it was reported that he would entertain the possibility of a trade if it meant going to one of these four teams: the New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders, Chicago Bears, and… yup, the Dallas Cowboys.

According to Cowboys reporter Jane Slater, the idea of Wilson headed to Dallas is “laughable” and the club’s top priority remains re-signing Prescott.

So, about those negotiations: Last week, ESPN's Jeff Darlington reported that "it does not sound as if any progress has been made.” Darlington indicated it's likely Prescott will get tagged again while talks continue.

Prescott hasn’t been tagged yet – or paid. According to Slater, he’s looking to become the second highest-paid QB behind Patrick Mahomes, who earn $45 million a year. Behind him is Texans QB Deshaun Watson, at $39 million (signed just prior to the 2020 season), so anywhere between those numbers could be what Prescott’s eying.

Prescott started last season under the franchise tag when the marathon of contract talks failed to result in a long-term deal, with term reportedly being the biggest point of contention. Signing the franchise tag again isn't really a suitable solution for the Cowboys – it puts a huge dent in Dallas's salary cap (to the tune of $37.7 million) and provides exactly z-e-r-o relief when it comes to any kind of certainty for the future, essentially rolling out the red carpet for Prescott to become a free agent next year.

A brutal ankle injury cut Prescott's 2020 campaign short and gave Dallas a glimpse into life without him... and as we all know, it wasn't pretty.

General manager Jerry Jones admitted Prescott holds all the leverage during a radio appearance in January.

2. Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears
Age: 27
2020 cap hit: $15 million

The top wide receiver in what is a deep free agency class at the position, Robinson has been one of the most consistent producers for the inconsistent Bears. Even in the roller-coaster season that was 2020 in Chicago, Robinson hit elite numbers: He was the third-most targeted wide receiver in the league (151) behind Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, and he finished the season sixth in receptions (102) and ninth in receiving yards (1,250). That the sure-handed receiver – per Pro Football Focus, his 2.2 per cent drop rate since 2017 is the league's second-lowest – had such a strong year without a true No. 1 quarterback and on a team that lacked much offensive firepower makes his stats look all the more impressive. Just imagine what he could do if placed on a real contender.

According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Robinson and the Bears spoke throughout the season about a long-term deal but those talks didn't lead to any breakthroughs.

The Bears are in the messy middle in many senses – draft order, assets, between QBs – and cannot afford to let Robinson go, but does he want to stay? Rumours of a trade request back in September were quieted, but it's worth wondering if he might resurface that request if tagged, considering his open disdain for that designation and desire to sign a long-term pact.

3. Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Age: 24
2020 cap hit: $2.331 million

The newly crowned Super Bowl champion Buccaneers are an intriguing team this off-season, with their hopes of running it back for another title with Tom Brady very much depending on whether they can re-sign their long list of pending free agents to keep this whole crew together. Considering Chris Godwin is a key part of Brady's one-two offensive punch alongside fellow WR Mike Evans, he's not going anywhere. Whether that means he'll be playing the 2021 season with a freshly-inked long-term deal or under the franchise tag is the big question.

Godwin told M.J. Acosta-Ruiz during an NFL Network interview last week that his focus is on staying in Tampa Bay:

“Obviously we all want to have long-term security, we all want to be able to take care of the people that we love. That’s the ideal situation, but a franchise tag is not something that I can control. So, if that’s what keeps me here then that’s what it is, and I’d play on it and go back to war with my guys,” he said. “I love it here in Tampa. I love what we have building. I would love to stay.”

After the club tagged elite pass rusher Shaq Barrett last year, Godwin is a strong option for that designation in 2021 should the two sides not be able to agree to anything with a longer term. Playing under the franchise tag would bring a sizeable pay raise (about $15 million for the 2021 season) for Godwin, which is reasonable for a player of his position and calibre and would allow Tampa a little more time to reload the rest of its roster. That also gives Godwin another chance to up his worth alongside Brady even more.

4. Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
Age: 32
2020 cap hit: $12.5 million

Thanks to the Buccaneers, who reminded the Kansas City Chiefs – and everyone watching the Super Bowl – about the importance of a strong offensive line, the stock of an O-lineman has perhaps never been higher than it is right now. (It feels like that's a lesson we re-learn every year, doesn't it?)

Williams is priority No. 1 for the 49ers to keep in-house, only their salary cap situation makes that... unlikely – especially with other teams eying the tackle and able to shell out more cash to lure him away from the Bay Area.

Another key here is that the club contractually cannot retain him for another year with the franchise tag designation. Williams sat out the 2019 season with Washington, holding out for a new deal and informing the club he wanted out, and upon landing in San Francisco last April the 49ers restructured the final year of his deal and signed a clause that disallowed them to place the franchise tag on him in 2021.

So, here we are. Let the bidding begin.

5. Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Age: 27
2020 cap hit: $2.313 million

With longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford headed to L.A., a new era is beginning in Detroit. Is Golladay part of it? According to Rapoport, he is... for now, anyway.

That doesn't rule out a tag-and-trade scenario, or a sign-and-trade, if new Lions GM Brad Holmes is hunting for assets to truly put his stamp on this perpetually rebuilding team.

Golladay was limited to just five games this season due to injury but was excellent in those appearances, registering two touchdowns and twice tallying more than 100 receiving yards. Back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before last year saw him break into the elite WR tier, leading all receivers in touchdowns (11) in 2019.

Complicating things further is the fact nearly all of the Lions' receivers are headed toward free agency. If new QB Jared Goff has any hopes of succeeding in Detroit, he'd better hope the club hangs on tight to Golladay.

6. Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Football Team
Age: 29
2020 cap hit: $15.03 million (Franchise tag)

According to Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post, both player and team are looking to sign long-term. The club placed the franchise tag on him last year and could do it again this spring but it would likely just be a time-buyer for negotiations to continue.

Should a long-term deal be signed, reports indicate it could reset the market for guards. (Philadelphia's Brandon Brooks, who earns $14.1 million yearly, currently holds that bar.)

Scherff ranked among the top guards in run- and pass-block as Washington surprised a lot of people this year, emerging from what ended up being a horrendous NFC East and putting up a good fight against Tom Brady's Buccaneers.

7. Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
Age: 27
2020 cap hit: $11.441 million (Franchise tag)

Simmons was tagged last year, and it's very possible – likely, even – that the Broncos hit that franchise button again. But the Broncos have made it clear, per Rapoport, that their preference is to lock him up long-term now.

The going rate for a top safety these days is consistently within the $14-million window – only $750,000 separates fourth-highest paid Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu from the top-paid guy, Budda Baker. It feels likely Simmons lands within that, though it'll be tough considering the financial toll COVID-19 has brought to teams' payrolls.

Simmons collected five interceptions in 2020, which tied him for fourth in the league, and he hasn't missed a game since 2017.

8. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
Age: 26
2020 cap hit: $2.183 million

To pay, or not to pay... that is the question when it comes to running backs, and with every individual case comes new challenges. The last team to write a monster cheque to their RB1 was the Tennessee Titans, whose investment in Derrick Henry continued to pay dividends in another rushing title in 2020. Jones isn't quite the game-changer Henry is, but you cannot deny his importance in Green Bay – especially when the top story throughout all of last season was Aaron Rodgers's lack of offensive weapons – and his earning potential should he hit the open market. On Tuesday, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said the team could “certainly” tag him:

Jones carried the ball 201 times in 2020, finishing fourth in rushing yards (1,104) and leading all RBs in runs of 40-plus yards (four) while also racking up 355 receiving yards as a key part of Green Bay's offence.

Fellow packers RB A.J. Dillon developed nicely over the course of last season, and if Green Bay can hang on to Jones – either via franchise tag or a longer deal – they'd have themselves a nice dynamic duo to complement Rodgers as that window remains open.

9. Shaq Barrett, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Age: 28
2020 cap hit: $15.828 million (Franchise tag)

Barrett was worth every penny of his franchise price tag, and more than earned himself a long-term deal to stay in Tampa as a key part of this team's core front four that wreaked havoc on opponents all year.

He’s made it clear he wants to stay:

But he knows his worth:

"I'm most definitely looking forward to getting a long-term deal done..." Barrett said during a radio appearance earlier in February, adding that he wants to remain in Tampa. "I feel like it's time for me to break the bank now, and I most definitely want to do that to be able to set my family up better and most definitely going to keep producing, so it's not like anything is going to fall off. I still think I got a lot left in the tank. I'm still getting better, actually. I'm still learning, like just still learning, like week in, week out. And there's like, as you can see as the season progressed like ... I ended the season playing the way that I wanted to play. And you can see that I did progress throughout the season, and I'm still progressing."

Barrett is one of the NFL's best current success stories, going from undrafted free agent signee in Denver who couldn't break into the regular rotation to recording a whopping 19.5 sacks as a bargain pickup for Tampa Bay in 2019. His performance this past post-season en route to the Super Bowl win only solidified his place in Tampa lore... and on the payroll.

10. Leonard Williams, DT, New York Giants
Age: 26
2020 cap hit: $16.126 million (Franchise tag)

A $19-million franchise tag is a hefty price to pay to keep Williams in New York, but can the Giants really afford not to keep him?

The defensive lineman has been incredibly durable for the Giants, who acquired him in a cross-town trade with the Jets in 2019, and he really broke out last season. His 11.5 sacks marked a career-high by a mile, and his 30 QB hits and 14 tackles for loss were also personal bests.

Another interesting part of this to keep an eye on:

11. Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints
Age: 24
2020 cap hit: $1.986 million

The Saints have been able to work around the cap to keep their strong core intact these past few seasons, but this year feels particularly tough to navigate thanks to COVID-19's financial implications and the long list of players due new deals – not to mention, an even stronger group of players barrelling toward free agency next year.

Saints sack leader Trey Hendrickson, whose breakout season saw him register 13.5 sacks for second-most league-wide, also looks poised for free agency. Of course, there's also the matter of franchise QB Drew Brees, who could possibly return for one more season instead of retiring just yet. Lots of unknowns here.

While Hendrickson likely won't be tagged – it would cost the Saints nearly $18 million – Williams could be a more reasonable candidate for that designation (around $11 million this year). He’s reportedly the Saints’ top priority this spring:

12. Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Age: 28
2020 cap hit: $15.828 million (franchise tag)

It feels like almost every player on this list is a likely candidate for a franchise tag – at least for now – but it looks like that won’t be the case here.

During a media availability last month, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said it’s “doubtful” the team would be using the franchise tag on anyone this off-season. Considering two of the team’s top candidates for the designation are Dupree and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, you can see why – the cap-strapped Steelers simply can’t afford to take that cap hit.

Colbert indicated there’s a desire to keep Dupree, who is an important part of the Steelers’ defence and a major reason why they hit double-digits in wins faster than anyone last year. Dupree was having a strong season before suffering an ACL injury in December, tallying 8 sacks in 11 games.

Other notable free agents to keep an eye on: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT); S Anthony Harris (MIN); WR Will Fuller (HOU); LB Lavonte David (TB); TE Hunter Henry (LAC); DE Yannick Ngakoue (BAL); DE Trey Hendrickson (NO); QB Cam Newton (NE); DE Jadeveon Clowney (TEN); OT Taylor Moton (CAR); QB Jameis Winston (NO); CB William Jackson III (CIN); OG Joe Thuney (NE); CB Richard Sherman (SF)

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