The official start of 2021 NFL free agency is just around the corner. Dozens of big names are set to hit the open market, and while a handful will be locked up (at least temporarily) with franchise tags, plenty more will get the chance to explore new homes around the league. With a reduced salary cap in order after 2020's pandemic-related losses, how much can we expect the top free agents to command? We decided to look back at the top earners from every position last offseason, then forecast this year's market based on supply, demand and recent contract precedents.
In doing so, we excluded the following players from 2021 projections because they're widely expected to receive the franchise tag: QB Dak Prescott, WR Allen Robinson, WR Kenny Golladay, OT Taylor Moton, DE Carl Lawson and S Justin Simmons. We also sorted top contracts from 2020 by average money per year rather than total money. For example, Teddy Bridgewater got more total money ($63 million) than Philip Rivers ($25 million) in 2020, but the latter averaged more per year. One final note: Only players who actually entered free agency's legal tampering period without a contract are included in our review of the top 2020 deals.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Tom Brady ($25 million), Philip Rivers ($25 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitchell Trubisky
Projected market value: $5 million-$10 million per year
This may be an unprecedented offseason in terms of QB movement, but it is most definitely not a good one if you're looking to add a starter in free agency. Even in the event Winston or Fitzpatrick finagles a team for a two- or three-year gig with starting upside, the peak QB deal this year shouldn't come close to those earned by the old (but lucrative) winners of 2020. That's because not a single 2021 free agent here is deserving of an unquestioned starting job.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Melvin Gordon ($8 million), Todd Gurley ($5.5 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Leonard Fournette
Projected market value: $10 million-$15 million per year
Unlike the 2020 market, where outcast starters struggled to get close to $10 million per year, there's a solid crop of younger, multipurpose backs this time around. Jones should pace them all and coax close to $15 million out of the top bidder if he escapes Green Bay, roughly matching stars like Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott. Carson could conceivably hit the Dalvin Cook/Derrick Henry range of $12 million.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Amari Cooper ($20 million), Robby Anderson ($10 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Chris Godwin, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Will Fuller
Projected market value: $12 million-$20 million per year
If there's one group that could blow the numbers out of the water, it's WR, where (including tag candidates) we could see upwards of eight or nine guys top $10 million per year. Godwin may well get tagged, but the Buccaneers have others to pay, too. Smith-Schuster, Fuller, Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel could all clear $12 million as high-upside starters. T.Y. Hilton, Nelson Agholor, Marvin Jones and Antonio Brown might all be bargains just because of the quantity here.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Austin Hooper ($10.5 million), Jimmy Graham ($8 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Rob Gronkowski
Projected market value: $9 million-$11 million per year
Neither of 2020's top deals look particularly great, with Hooper looking just so-so and Graham likely on his way out of Chicago. There's a bit more promise this time around, albeit in a top-heavy group, with both Henry and Smith capable of fetching more than $10 million per year as No. 1s. Gronk seems like a sure bet to re-up in Tampa Bay with another one-year pact in the range of $9-10 million.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Jack Conklin ($14 million), Graham Glasgow ($11 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Trent Williams, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney
Projected market value: $13 million-$20 million per year
Quality blockers are always in high demand, and this year, there's actually a solid group of plug-and-play starters at each position -- Williams at tackle, Scherff and Thuney at guard, and Corey Linsley at center. Contenders with money to spend could easily dish out close to $20 million for a blind-side starter like Williams, while both Scherff and Thuney are Pro Bowl-caliber interior men.
Top 2020 free agent earners: D.J. Reader ($13.25 million), Javon Hargrave ($13 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson
Projected market value: $12 million-$20 million per year
This might be one of the biggest boom-or-bust groups in terms of how much money it'll command. Williams' stock seems to keep rising as he approaches the market, and someone will inevitably talk themselves into buying his Chris Jones- or Fletcher Cox-level upside at the price of $17 million-$20 million per year, unless the Giants do so.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Dante Fowler Jr. ($15 million), Robert Quinn ($14 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree, Yannick Ngakoue
Projected market value: $15 million-$20 million per year
Teams have paid a pretty penny for pass rushers for a long time, which is why they easily have the highest monetary floor of any position group. Barrett could be tagged, but if he isn't, he'll want to rival the average salaries of guys like Cameron Jordan ($17.5 million), Frank Clark ($20.8 million) and Demarcus Lawrence ($21 million). Neither Dupree nor Ngakoue are necessarily elite on their own, but like others in this class (Trey Hendrickson, Matt Judon, Leonard Floyd), they'll almost certainly get top-25 edge rusher money.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Cory Littleton ($11.75 million), Joe Schobert ($10.75 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Lavonte David, Matt Milano, Jayon Brown
Projected market value: $10 million-$14 million per year
We tend to overlook off-ball linebackers in today's NFL (well, maybe not after what Tampa Bay's defense did in the Super Bowl). But the trio of David, Milano and Brown -- each of whom brings a real tenacity to the middle of the field -- could surprise with the deals they get. David, in particular, makes a ton of sense as a one- to three-year bet for a contender.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Byron Jones ($16.5 million), James Bradberry ($14.5 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Shaquill Griffin, William Jackson III
Projected market value: $9 million-$14 million per year
A year after Jones set the stage for free agent corners in Miami, it'll be hard for anyone to match, let alone top, him in 2021. Griffin is a much streakier starter coming out of Seattle, and while Jackson has youth on his side, even a Trae Waynes-level overpay in his favor isn't likely to crack $15 million per year. Needy teams might be better off looking for smaller gambles like Xavier Rhodes or Chidobe Awuzie.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Logan Ryan ($10 million), Jimmie Ward ($9.5 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye, Anthony Harris
Projected market value: $11 million-$15 million per year
A year after battered or older veterans led the market at the back end of the secondary, the 2021 safety class is chock-full of up-and-comers. Williams, Maye and Rams vet John Johnson III could all ink lucrative deals with a handful of cap-loaded teams on the hunt for new defensive starters. Harris may be looking for one last major payday after playing 2020 on the tag.
Top 2020 free agent earners: Stephen Gostkowski ($2.75 million), Greg Zuerlein ($2.5 million)
Projected top 2021 free agent earners: Younghoe Koo, Ryan Succop, Zane Gonzalez
Projected market value: $3 million-$4.5 million per year
Koo could be in line for something close to the extension Graham Gano ($4.66 million per year) got with the Giants late in 2020 thanks to his performance in Atlanta. Otherwise, it's business as usual here, with most teams preferring the waiver wire or undrafted rookie pool.