NFL free agency can be an old man's game. Just ask Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, who at 42 and 38, respectively, earned lucrative contracts as the headliners of 2020's open market. But the most ideal kind of free agent acquisition is one that can pay dividends in the short and long term. There's a reason, after all, that young superstars are such a rarity in unrestricted free agency. They're exactly the kind of players teams rush to lock up! Tight finances dictate, however, that a few slip through the cracks.
As 2021 free agency fast approaches, here's a look at 10 of the best and youngest players set to be available. Headlining the list of free agents 25 and under is a starter familiar to anyone who tuned in for Brady and the Buccaneers' Lombardi Trophy run:
10. Chidobe Awuzie (Cowboys)
Dallas had a bad defense in 2020, and Awuzie played a hand in that before landing on injured reserve and missing half the year. His market shouldn't be red-hot. But the rest of his résumé warrants him a look. In 2019, for example, as a full-time starter, he racked up 79 tackles to go along with 14 pass deflections, one pick and one forced fumble. The floor may be low, but the reward for a return to form is a competent starting corner, which isn't nothing in today's NFL.
9. Jonnu Smith (Titans)
He's not exactly Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but if you're looking for a starting tight end, you can do a lot worse. In fact, there's a case to be made that Smith still has yet to fully break out. In 2020, he started hot before becoming something of a passing-game afterthought. But with two straight seasons of at least 35 catches, 435 yards and three scores, he's got the makings of a No. 1. As a bonus, he's got lots of experience as a blocker thanks to his role in the Titans' bruising ground game.
8. Curtis Samuel (Panthers)
He might never be a true No. 1 wideout, but Samuel's always been an intriguing athlete, and Carolina finally put him to more use in 2020, giving him 118 touches as a runner and receiver. More of a gadget and mid-area specialist than big-play threat, he's still just 24 and could thrive amid an even better supporting cast. His numbers as a pass catcher have also improved for three straight seasons, despite the notion that he's failed to fully explode. You don't want to break the bank here, but the talent is there.
7. Shaquill Griffin (Seahawks)
Quality starting cornerbacks can be hard to find in a league increasingly catered to the offense, and Griffin was pretty erratic in 2020, serving as a hit-or-miss piece on one of the NFL's most porous defenses. But he's also got three other solid seasons on his résumé, including a 2019 Pro Bowl campaign that saw him allow an opposing completion percentage of under 58. With six career interceptions, he's also had some opportunistic stretches. As a high-upside outside man, he's worth a decent gamble on the open market.
6. Carl Lawson (Bengals)
The former fourth-round pick could probably even be higher on this list, although his value as a full-time starter is debatable considering he's been more of a rotational piece in Cincinnati. Lawson has never posted gaudy numbers, logging a career-high 8.5 sacks as a rookie and then posting five in each of the past two years. But he's been a steady source of pressure for the Bengals, combining for 54 quarterback hits between 2019-2020. Someone looking for a high-upside edge presence will be intrigued.
5. John Johnson (Rams)
He doesn't have a ton of name recognition league-wide, but in Los Angeles, he's heralded as one of the most important recent pieces of the Rams' highly touted defense. Limited to six games in 2019, the former third-rounder returned in full force for Brandon Staley's unit in 2020, logging 105 tackles, eight pass deflections and a pick. A reliable tackler with a knack for the ball (Johnson also had four picks in 2018), he could be a plug-and-play hybrid defensive back for just about anyone who comes calling.
It's unfortunate that most of the JuJu headlines center on the young wideout's off-field antics, some of which he invites, because as a receiver, he's flashed both big-play ability and short-area reliability. On one hand, Smith-Schuster has failed to replicate the heavy-volume playmaking he showcased in 2018 opposite Antonio Brown. On the other, his 2020 efficiency and big body type makes him a rugged option over the middle. You can't rely on him to be a star No. 1, but as a No. 2, he's got plenty to like.
3. Yannick Ngakoue (Ravens)
It's fair to wonder whether there's something to the fact that Ngakoue has now played for three teams in two years, with both the Jaguars and Vikings trading him in 2020. He also didn't exactly light up the stat sheet upon moving to Baltimore. But we're still talking about a guy who's posted 45.5 sacks and 18 forced fumbles in five seasons. Elite pass rushers don't grow on trees, and Ngakoue has shown, at least at times, that he can be one. Put him in the right situation, and you're talking about a potential difference-maker.
2. S Marcus Williams (Saints)
You don't want to overpay at the safety position unless you've got a dynamic, rangy ballhawk such as Tyrann Mathieu on your radar. Williams isn't quite on that level, but in terms of upside and track record, you're not going to do much better in free agency. Opposite Malcolm Jenkins, the former second-rounder starred on New Orleans' feisty defense in 2020 with three picks and seven pass deflections. In his four seasons, he's intercepted 13 passes and forced another three turnovers. The kid can make plays.
1. WR Chris Godwin (Buccaneers)
The surest thing set to hit free agency in his age group, Godwin can be one of the NFL's best all-around wideouts when healthy. The former third-rounder was quiet in Super Bowl LV, but he's been a big-play threat for his entire career, averaging 14.5 yards per catch since 2017 and scoring at least seven touchdowns in three straight seasons. Capable of running every route and playing inside and outside, he should draw a ton of interest -- and then break the bank -- if the Bucs can't lock him up before free agency begins.