2021 NFL Free Agency: A way-too-early look at the top players in next year's class

Free agency hasn't even wrapped up yet with high-profile players like Cam Newton, Jadeveon Clowney, and Jameis Winston still unsigned. Extensions for superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson could materialize in the months to come. We still don't know for certain if the upcoming season will be able to start on time due to a global pandemic. A lot can and will change between now and next March.

So, with all that in mind, it might be way too early to already look ahead to the 2021 free agent class, but as the news begins to slow between free agency and the draft, this dead period (relatively speaking) is an opportunity to look ahead to what next March will bring. Further down below, you'll find 10 notable players at every position group who are scheduled to become free agents next year.

But first, before we get to the list, a couple of notes about the list.

  1. Many of these players will not actually hit free agency. Many of them will reach long-term extensions well before next year. The ones who don't could still be franchise tagged next year. Just because they're on this list doesn't mean they will actually become free agents in a year. This story could've been called: A list of players who could sign contract extensions within the next 12 months.
  2. When it comes to contract options for the 2021 season, I tried my best to make judgement calls. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are technically scheduled to become free agents next year, but we know that won't happen. They'll likely sign long-term deals before that day comes. And the Chiefs and Texans will almost certainly exercise their fifth-year options, which means nobody should expect Mahomes and Watson to actually hit free agency next year. Obviously, if the Texans are going to get rid of Watson, they'll trade him for a running back DeAndre Hopkins style. So, I left both of them off the list. But on the other hand, I did include someone like Mitchell Trubisky, who belongs to the same draft class as Mahomes and Watson, because there's a real chance the Bears won't use the fifth-year option on him. Players with contract options for 2021 are marked with asterisks.
  3. When it comes to current free agents -- like Jadeveon Clowney, Jameis Winston, and Cam Newton -- I decided to include them since there's a real chance they could sign one-year deals this offseason and hit free agency again in a year. Obviously, at any point now, those players could sign long-term deals that would take them off the market a year from now. Current free agents are also marked with asterisks.
  4. Not every player is listed. I tried to rank the top-10 players at every position group. Think of the list below as a teaser, not the main course. For the entire list, head on over to Spotrac, because it'll continue to change over the coming months.
  5. A quick thank you to Spotrac for their invaluable contract data. Making this list would've been nearly impossible without their information.

Ok, let's get to the list.

Quarterbacks

  1. Dak Prescott
  2. Philip Rivers
  3. Jameis Winston*
  4. Cam Newton*
  5. Andy Dalton
  6. Ryan Fitzpatrick
  7. Jacoby Brissett
  8. Tyrod Taylor
  9. Mitchell Trubisky*
  10. Taysom Hill 

I did not include Mahomes or Watson for obvious reasons. Prescott is undoubtedly the best quarterback on this list, but don't expect him to hit free agency. Even if he plays this year under the franchise tag without signing a long-term deal, the Cowboys can just franchise tag him again next year. If Prescott does eventually hit free agency, it likely won't happen until 2022. 

Behind him is an intriguing group of quarterbacks. Rivers could always retire depending on how his upcoming season with the Colts goes. Winston and Newton haven't yet landed with a team, so their status next year is also unknown. Dalton's value is going to fluctuate after he presumably moves on at some point this offseason. Trubisky has a fifth-year option the Bears could pick up soon, but it's not a certainty. Finally, Hill appears to be in line to take over for Drew Brees. I'd bet he remains with the Saints through the 2021 season, because Sean Payton seems to love him.

Running backs

  1. Christian McCaffrey*
  2. Alvin Kamara
  3. Derrick Henry
  4. Dalvin Cook
  5. Aaron Jones
  6. Phillip Lindsay 
  7. Joe Mixon
  8. Leonard Fournette*
  9. Kenyan Drake
  10. Kareem Hunt

It's difficult to imagine McCaffrey, who has a fifth-year option, leaving Carolina before the 2021 season. If the Panthers wanted to move on from him, this offseason would be the best time because his value is at its highest after an awesome 2019 season. Fournette is coming off the best season of his career, but with the Jaguars in utter disarray, they could decide to part ways with the running back they never should've drafted in 2017. They should have bigger priorities. 

Otherwise, it's a deep list of running backs. Henry, who has been franchise tagged by the Titans, is the best pure runner on this list. If Hunt can stay out of trouble off the field and maintain his production on the field, he could shoot up the list. Kamara, Cook, and Jones are all studs. Mixon is coming off a disappointing season, but he could bounce back if Joe Burrow is everything he's made out to be. It's worth noting that Lindsay, who went undrafted before emerging as the Broncos' best runner, will be a restricted free agent.

The biggest names to just miss the cut? Adrian Peterson (who will turn 36 next March), Todd Gurley (whose value will depend on his stint with the Falcons in 2020), and James Conner (who needs to stay healthy in 2020).

Fullbacks

  1. Kyle Juszczyk
  2. Anthony Sherman
  3. James Develin 
  4. Patrick DiMarco 

I actually skipped the fullback position when I wrote this same article a year ago, but I can't skip it entirely this year. I have to mention that Juszczyk, the best fullback in football who can contribute in a multitude of ways, is scheduled to hit free agency in a year. As long as Kyle Shanahan remains in San Francisco, it's difficult to see him letting Juszczyk walk in free agency. They're a perfect match. But it wouldn't be shocking if another team offered him big-time money. He's not like other fullbacks. He's a legitimate weapon.

Wide receivers

  1. Chris Godwin
  2. Keenan Allen
  3. Allen Robinson
  4. Cooper Kupp
  5. Kenny Golladay
  6. JuJu Smith-Schuster
  7. Mike Williams*
  8. A.J. Green
  9. Marvin Jones
  10. T.Y. Hilton

This is an absolutely loaded bunch of receivers, most of whom probably won't hit free agency. Godwin, 24, is coming off a 1,333-yard, nine-touchdown season. I don't think the Buccaneers will let him walk before Tom Brady's second season in Tampa Bay. I'd like to think the Bears will extend Robinson, but given their treacherous salary cap situation, it wouldn't be shocking if they had to let him walk, even if it'd be a mistake. Allen is one of the league's top receivers when healthy -- and he's managed to play in all 48 possible games over the past three seasons. Kupp and Golladay are two of the best young wideouts in all of football. Hilton is getting up there in age, but if he bounces back in 2020 after a rough 2019 season, he'll be desired by contenders in need of pass catchers. Green's situation is fluid after getting franchise tagged by the Bengals. For all we know, he could get traded at any point now. I have him at No. 8 because the 2021 season will be his age 33 season. 

Williams has a fifth-year option the Chargers can use, which they should. The touchdowns dried up for him in 2019, but he caught 49 passes for 1,001 yards, which means he averaged an insane 20.4 yards per catch.

The best receivers who didn't make it onto the list? Larry Fitzgerald, who seems destined to finish his Hall-of-Fame career in Arizona, and Will Fuller, who could explode in a Hopkins-less offense if he can stay healthy for once.

Tight ends

  1. George Kittle
  2. Hunter Henry
  3. O.J. Howard*
  4. Evan Engram*
  5. Jared Cook
  6. Gerald Everett
  7. David Njoku*
  8. Vance McDonald*
  9. Greg Olsen
  10. Jonnu Smith 

The 49ers aren't going to let Kittle, the best tight end in football, walk, but technically, as of April 1, he's scheduled to hit free agency next year. I'd wager the 49ers will sign him to a long-term deal before the upcoming season. At worst, they can franchise tag him. Speaking of the tag, Henry was tagged by the Chargers this offseason, so his long-term future remains in limbo. If he were to hit free agency next year, he'd be highly desired barring another injury-ruined season. When healthy, he's one of the league's top tight ends because he can contribute as both a receiver and run blocker. 

I do want to touch on Howard and Engram, because their situations will be fascinating to monitor. Both of them still have plenty of upside, but neither first-round pick has entirely put it all together. Still, given their age and pedigree, they'd be coveted if they were to hit the open market.

Offensive linemen

  1. Laremy Tunsil
  2. Ronnie Stanley 
  3. David Bakhtiari 
  4. Trent Williams
  5. Taylor Decker
  6. Joe Thuney
  7. Alejandro Villanueva
  8. Brandon Scherff
  9. Larry Warford 
  10. Corey Linsley

Tunsil should re-up with the Texans at some point. They didn't trade two first-round picks for him just to let him go. Stanley is coming off the best season of his career and given his importance to the Ravens' offense, I expect him to return for the 2021 season. After losing right tackle Bryan Bulaga this offseason, I don't think the Packers can afford to lose Bakhtiari next year. Williams is seeking a trade, so his circumstances could change here shortly. Elsewhere, Scherff and Thuney have been franchise tagged by the Redskins and Patriots, respectively. The back half of the list is filled with productive veterans who would be desired on the open market.

One veteran who missed out? Alex Mack, but only because he'll be 34 in November.

Edge rushers

  1. T.J. Watt*
  2. Myles Garrett*
  3. Joey Bosa
  4. Yannick Ngakoue
  5. Von Miller*
  6. Melvin Ingram
  7. Shaq Barrett
  8. Jadeveon Clowney*
  9. Matt Judon
  10. Bud Dupree 

I do not expect T.J. Watt or Myles Garrett to hit the open market. Both should have their fifth-year options picked up. But I still decided to include them on this list. Out of all the players on this list of very good pass rushers, I think Bosa has the best shot to actually leave via free agency -- that said, the Chargers could very well just hit him with the franchise tag next year, which could lead to a very interesting standoff (it wouldn't be the first time). Bosa isn't the only Chargers edge rusher approaching free agency -- so is Ingram. The Chargers can't afford to lose both. 

Ngakoue's situation requires monitoring as he seeks a trade that frees him from the Jaguars this offseason. Otherwise, he'll likely play the upcoming season on the tag. Clowney's situation is also in flux. He's still without a team. Finally, Barrett's future will be tied to his 2020 season after he broke out for 19.5 sacks in 2019 -- he had 14 total sacks with Denver from 2014-18.

Just missed the cut: Everson Griffen, Justin Houston, and Ryan Kerrigan (all for age-related reasons).

Defensive linemen

  1. Chris Jones
  2. Kenny Clark 
  3. Cameron Heyward
  4. Leonard Williams
  5. Ndamukong Suh
  6. Solomon Thomas
  7. Sheldon Rankins
  8. Tyrone Crawford 
  9. Andrew Billings
  10. Jonathan Allen

I have no doubt the Chiefs would prefer to keep Jones around for the long haul. He's their best defensive player, the kind of defensive lineman who can generate pressure from the interior of the line. But their cap situation is precarious. They have to budget for a big Mahomes extension. As of now, Jones is expected to play out the upcoming season on the franchise tag. Jones is the leader, but there are some quality players behind him filing out the list. Keep an eye on Williams, who was franchise tagged by the Giants this offseason.

One player who just missed the cut? Daquan Jones of the Titans.

Linebackers

  1. Dont'a Hightower
  2. Demario Davis
  3. Avery Williamson 
  4. De'Vondre Campbell
  5. Leonard Floyd
  6. Lavonte David
  7. K.J. Wright
  8. Denzel Perryman 
  9. Todd Davis 
  10. Jarrad Davis*

It's a less stacked linebacker group. Hightower is a good player and given the Patriots' policy of not overpaying for free agents, it wouldn't be surprising if he walked in a year. And if he did walk, one would assume that a coach from the Bill Belichick coaching tree would scoop him up -- Detroit, with Matt Patricia, and Miami, with Brian Flores, both appear to be willing to pay former Patriots in free agency. It's worth noting that I included Floyd with the linebackers and not the edge rushers. In Chicago, he was often tasked with doing more than just rushing the passer, even if he fits the edge mold. On the topic of former first-round picks, Davis hasn't developed into the player the Lions thought they were getting, so it'll be interesting to see if they decide to exercise his fifth-year option. The reason David and Wright ranked on the back half? Their age. They're both on the wrong side of 30.

Cornerbacks

  1. Jalen Ramsey
  2. Patrick Peterson
  3. Richard Sherman
  4. Marlon Humphrey*
  5. Joe Haden
  6. Shaquill Griffin
  7. Quinton Dunbar 
  8. Chidobe Awuzie
  9. Adoree' Jackson*
  10. J.C. Jackson

The Rams just gave up two first-round picks for Ramsey, so it'd be malpractice for them to let him leave in free agency. But Peterson and Sherman, two great cornerbacks getting up there in age, could conceivably hit free agency the same way Chris Harris did this year. Younger options with upside exist behind them in both Jacksons and Awuzie. 

It's worth noting that Tre'Davious White, who has a fifth-year option that can be exercised, wasn't included. I can't imagine the Bills won't pick up that option.

Safeties

  1. Jamal Adams*
  2. Justin Simmons
  3. Anthony Harris
  4. Budda Baker
  5. Malik Hooker*
  6. Desmond King
  7. Kareem Jackson*
  8. Marcus Williams
  9. Jabrill Peppers*
  10. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

The Adams situation is interesting. He's too good of a player for the Jets to let go. They should pick up his fifth-year option. But the relationship between the player and team has been shaky. Simmons and Harris were tagged this offseason, so their situations are in flux. King could be classified as a cornerback, but in order to fit him somewhere in this story, I picked safety. Side note: The Chargers have a lot of quality defensive players hitting free agency next year. Jackson fell to the back half of the list due to his age; the 2021 season will be his age 33 season. Williams has 10 interceptions through his first three seasons. Clinton-Dix appears to be living in one-year contract territory after signing his second straight prove-it deal. As for Hooker and Peppers, they could have their fifth-year options picked up this offseason.

Kickers and punters

  1. Robbie Gould*
  2. Matt Prater
  3. Brandon McManus
  4. Zane Gonzalez
  5. Aldrick Rosas
  6. Younghoe Koo 
  7. Andy Lee
  8. Kevin Huber
  9. Dustin Colquitt
  10. Dustin Hopkins

As long as the 49ers remain in win-now mode, they shouldn't let Gould go. Prater could conceivably hit free agency because the Lions are truly terrible and have bigger priorities. As for the rest of the lot, well, they're kickers and punters. Their value will fluctuate based on their performances in 2020. The ones who do become free agents in a year shouldn't command big contracts. That's just the reality of the positions they play.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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