2021 NFL free agents: Another season is in the rearview mirror and now 32 teams shift their focus towards the 2021 NFL Draft and NFL free agency. While this offseason will once again be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, influencing when players sign and the size of their contracts, plenty of talented players will find new homes this offseason.
Much of the focus, once again, will center on Dak Prescott. Unfortunately for all the quarterback-needy teams across the league, the Dallas Cowboys aren’t letting him go. The retirement of Philip Rivers also dealt a blow to the QB market, but don’t let that discourage you from free agency being a disappointment. One thing is for certain, impact talent can be added this offseason.
As we see every spring, teams love to shop in the bargain bin. Landing the prized free agent is great, but there is arguably nothing a general manager loves more than finding great value. Whether a player’s stock has fallen due to injuries, off-field issues, or inconsistency the prior season, asking prices are brought down because of it. In a year where the 2021 NFL salary cap will dip for the first time in ages, even more value can be found.
Let’s take a look at some of the most underrated 2021 NFL free agents available this offseason.
2021 NFL free agents: Most underrated talent available
Jameis Winston, quarterback
There’s a reason Sean Payton is so high on Jameis Winston. The New Orleans Saints targeted the former No. 1 overall pick last season, confident he could be a project for them and a potential successor to Drew Brees. As we wrote in April, this was also an opportunity for Winston to revitalize his career. While Taysom Hill might have made those starts when Brees went down, Winston could be the Saints or another team’s starting quarterback.
We recognize this is the same quarterback who threw 30 interceptions and seven pick-sixes in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he also had some bright moments. Winston posted a 97.1 quarterback rating on deep passes in 2019, via PFF, had the 10th-highest quarterback rating (124.1) on play-action passes and a 98.6 quarterback rating in a clean pocket. Meanwhile, according to Player Profiler, he led the NFL in deep passes (113), ranked 14th in pressured completion rate (37.2%) and had the eighth-most money throws (19). Given how cheap Winston will be, this is a quarterback we’d gladly take a chance on after he spent a year learning from Payton and Brees. Quite frankly, New Orleans is the perfect fit.
Shelby Harris, defensive tackle
Shelby Harris is one of the most underrated 2021 NFL free agents; he also deserved a spot on the list the last offseason. The Broncos brought him back after the 290-pound defensive tackle found a quiet market, resulting in him signing a one-year deal for $2.5 million. Unsurprisingly, even with so many injuries to starters around him, Harris kept producing.
He finished as PFF’s No. 6 interior pass rusher this past year, thanks to his 16 quarterback hurries, eight hits and three sacks. Interior pressure is crucial to stopping the passing attack and Harris excels in that regard. He isn’t just a situational player. Harris also received a top-20 grade from PFF among defensive tackles against the run. Let’s hope this is finally the offseason when Harris cashes in because he earned the payday.
John Johnson III, safety
The Los Angeles Rams had an elite defense this past season. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and new Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley received a majority of the credit. Donald and Ramsey are among the best players in the NFL, while Staley has a brilliant defensive mind. With that said, John Johnson III played an underappreciated role in that unit’s dominance.
He was the No.3-graded strong safety by Pro Football Focus in 2020. But we’re not just talking about a one-dimensional box safety. Johnson recorded 29 stops, eight pass deflections and received high marks against the run and dropping back in coverage. The versatility he brings to the position is impressive to begin with, but he thrives in both facets of his game. For teams needing a do-it-all SS, Johnson can be the answer for years to come.
Will Fuller, wide receiver
Coming into the 2020 season, it was injuries that many expected to derail Will Fuller’s hopes for landing a huge contract. After playing in 18 combines games from 2018-’19, everything seemed to come together for him last year. He and Deshaun Watson had beautiful chemistry, connecting for 879 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 53 catches. Fuller was averaging a career-high 79.9 yards per game, coveted by the Green Bay Packers and living up to his big-play potential.
It all came crashing down on Nov. 30, when the NFL suspended Fuller six games for violating the league’s PED policy. The 26-year-old cited medication recommended to him by a professional, the same advice Denver Broncos corner A.J. Bouye received. Both sat out the final five games in 2020 and must miss Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.
With so many great receivers available this offseason, Fuller finds himself in a difficult spot. Ultimately, given the circumstances and his age, a one-year deal to rebuild his value might be the best choice. Betting on himself could lead to a huge contract next offseason and it could allow him to choose the perfect spot. Fuller could be a steal for teams with a quality quarterback and a need for a deep threat.
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Jadeveon Clowney, edge rusher
Yes, Jadeveon Clowney is an underrated 2021 NFL free agent. He overrated himself last offseason, waiting for a market-setting contract offer that was never going to come. Plus, with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing teams from meeting with him and the edge rusher recovering from another surgery, the market for him crashed. He eventually landed with the Tennessee Titans, only after the NFL blocked a sign-and-trade that would have sent him elsewhere. Once again, he didn’t quite meet expectations in Tennessee.
Clowney underwent surgery in December to repair a torn left meniscus. It’s another issue in a career riddled with injuries. With all of that acknowledged, he is still an underrated player. He is outstanding against the run, one of the few 3-4 edge rushers who excels at sealing the outside and blowing up running backs in the backfield. While he doesn’t record double-digit sacks, he creates pressure. Clowney recorded 48 total pressures for the Seattle Seahawks in 2019 and hit 28 pressures in eight games while playing through a knee issue last season. For a team that appreciates him for what he is, Clowney can be an excellent defender.