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Take 5: NFL free agents that will have huge impact on 2021 offseason

Could Ben Roethlisberger replace Dak Prescott with the Cowboys?
Oct 11, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) calls a play in the second quarter against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is embarking on an offseason that could change the shape of numerous franchises.

While the league has yet to set the precise salary cap for the 2021 season, it is expected to be around $180 million. Teams can’t engage in discussions with free agents until March 15 and are prohibited from signing them until two days later, but that doesn’t mean franchises and players aren’t aware of what’s looming.

In free agency, a good addition such as when the Colts signed quarterback Philip Rivers, can turn a team coming off a losing season into a playoff contender. Conversely, a poor choice can stunt a team’s growth – for example, the one-year, $20 million deal Arizona gave to oft-injured quarterback Sam Bradford in 2018.

Free agent decisions create a ripple effect throughout the league, with teams left to fill voids and free agents getting a gauge of what their market value is with other signings in their position groups. Franchise and transition tags can also be used on pending free agents between Feb. 23-March 9 and can shape the free agent market.

Related: Top NFL free agents of 2022 – Davante Adams likely to hit market

Star NFL free agents who will shape 2021 NFL offseason

1. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Baltimore Ravens schedule, Dallas Cowboys
Sep 13, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • The Cowboys and their franchise signal-caller have been working on a long-term deal for the past couple years without success. Now, it has likely come to a head.

Before Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in a win over the New York Giants on Oct. 11, he had thrown for 10,643 yards, 61 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, in addition to rushing for 12 scores, in his previous 37 games.

Prescott, who turns 28 in July, played under a franchise tag this past season. If he has to be franchise-tagged again, he’ll make more than $37 million in 2021, which could prevent the Cowboys from adding pieces to their defense, which struggled mightily at times last year.

The Cowboys are among roughly a dozen teams with the quarterback position in flux. Prescott is the headliner of this year’s potential free-agent quarterback class, with a steep drop-off to Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky, Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and New England’s Cam Newton.

Read More: Dallas Cowboys, Dak Prescott ‘not close’ in contract talks entering 2021 offseason

2. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

Aaron Jones contract, Green Bay Packers
Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) breaks away for a large gain against Los Angeles Rams strong safety Jordan Fuller (32) and defensive back Darious Williams (31) in the third quarter during their NFL divisional playoff game Saturday, January 16, 2021, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY NETWORK
  • The Packers star bet on himself this year. Green Bay reportedly offered him a contract before last season that would have made him among the five highest-paid players in the league. But he turned it down because he was unhappy with the deal’s guaranteed money.

Jones was terrific for the second straight season. He made his first Pro Bowl with a career-high 1,104 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in two fewer games and 35 fewer carries than in 2019. Jones also caught 47 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns, continuing to be a valuable check-down target for Aaron Rodgers.

How Green Bay handles Jones, who signed a four-year, $2.601 million deal as a rookie, likely sends a message to Rodgers regarding the team’s offensive philosophy. Jones’ backup, Jamaal Williams, is also a pending free agent, and it’s unlikely both return with 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon also on the roster.

Jones’ situation will impact a free-agent group of running backs that includes Arizona’s Kenyan Drake (955 yards, 10 TDs), Seattle’s Chris Carson (681 yards, 5 TDs), Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette (367 yards, 6 TDs) and Atlanta’s Todd Gurley (678, 9 TDs).

Read More: NFL rumors: Aaron Jones turned down huge contract offer from Green Bay Packers

3. Which marquee receiver will sign first?

Dec 13, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson (12) catches the ball in the second half against Houston Texans cornerback Keion Crossen (35) at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The top tier of free-agent receivers is deep. Chicago’s Allen Robinson II, Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, Detroit’s Kenny Golladay and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster could all hit the market and would command top dollar. But how much?

That’s the biggest question because the receiver who signs first – whether it is with his team or another franchise – could set the market for the others.

Robinson has 200 receptions for nearly 2,400 yards to go along with 13 touchdowns the past two seasons catching passes from Trubisky, Nick Foles and Chase Daniel. Robinson, who turns 28 in August, is also coming off a contract that paid him $42 million over three seasons, with more than $25 million guaranteed.

Godwin, who turns 25 later this month, has 151 catches for nearly 2,100 yards and 16 touchdowns during the same time span. He also had the luxury of playing with Tom Brady this season and alongside premier receiver Mike Evans during his time in Tampa. He’s in line for a huge raise after completing his four-year, $3.284 million contract rookie contract.

Read More: Tampa Bay Buccaneers reportedly determined to bring back Chris Godwin in 2021

Golladay established himself as a go-to receiver with a combined 135 receptions for 2,253 yards and 16 touchdowns from 2018-19. However, he was limited to just 20 catches in five games in 2020 due to a nagging hip injury.

Will a team pay top dollar to the 27-year-old Golladay, who is coming off a four-year, $3.196 million deal?

Smith-Schuster caught 97 passes for 831 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns in 2020 and doesn’t turn 25 until November. He could also be expendable to the Steelers, who are deep at receiver with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Steelers, check out #Steelers rumors, rankings, and news here

Smith-Schuster will be looking for a much bigger payday now that his four-year, $4.195 million rookie contract is over.

The next tier of receivers includes Tennessee’s Corey Davis, Houston’s Will Fuller V, Carolina’s Curtis Samuel and Tampa Bay’s Antonio Brown.

4. What will Baltimore Ravens do with EDGE defenders Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue?

Las Vegas Raiders: Yannick Ngakoue
Nov 1, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (91) rushes during the second half as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) blocks at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens will likely be in the market for one of the above wide receivers to improve a league-worst passing offense (171.2 yards per game in 2020). They also have a major decision to make regarding their premier edge rushers.

Judon, a two-time Pro Bowler who recorded 6.0 sacks this season after recording 9.5 in 2019, played under a $16.808 million franchise tag and could command $20 million annually in his next deal.

So too could the 25-year-old Ngakoue, who the Ravens acquired in an in-season trade with Vikings. He had 8.0 sacks and four forced fumbles combined between the two teams while earning $12 million in 2020.

The free-agent class of edge rushers is fairly deep. It includes Denver’s Von Miller, Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree, Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, San Francisco’s Kerry Hyder, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Ingram and Tennessee’s Jadeveon Clowney.

Read More: Baltimore Ravens draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

5. Does Trent Williams have a future with San Francisco 49ers?

October 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams (71) walks off the field after the game against the Miami Dolphins at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often a premier left tackle hits the open market, but that could be the case with Williams, an eight-time Pro Bowler who returned to dominating form in 2020 after sitting out all of 2019 due to a contract dispute with Washington.

San Francisco gave Washington two draft picks to acquire Williams, but the 49ers will have to give the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder a new contract to keep him. Williams, who turns 33 in July and is coming off a five-year, $68 million deal, is in line for the biggest payday of his career.

If Williams leaves San Francisco, the 49ers could still find a good – but not great – replacement in free agency. Pittsburgh’s Alejandro Villanueva, Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, Jacksonville’s Cam Robinson and Carolina’s Taylor Moton and Russell Okung headline a deep class.

Read More: 49ers rumors: San Francisco hard at work on Trent Williams contract extension

–Jon Gallo, Field Level Media