The NFL salary cap is smaller than what was expected before the pandemic, which means when the final number comes in, it will spell trouble for a lot of high-priced veterans.
That, in turn, means the free-agent market will be robust — even if the star talent is limited.
One problem: There won't be a lot of teams that have money. Nearly half the league is up against or over the projected cap, which should be around $180-$185 million. That's not good for the pending free agents or veterans who will be released.
The top free agent on the market, and No. 1 on my list of the best 2021 Top 100 free agents, is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. He topped this list last year, and then was given the franchise tag by the Cowboys before suffering a season-ending ankle injury that limited him to five games.
The Cowboys would love to lock up Prescott before the open of free agency, but if not they will surely put the franchise tag on him again, which would mean his salary and cap figure would be 120% over the $31.4 million he made last season, giving him a salary of $37.8 million, a huge hit to the cap.
Because of that, Prescott has a lot of leverage. It doesn't hurt that the Cowboys imploded without him last season.
He is the best of this class, one of the true stars in it. Even without star power, there are a lot of really good players who will hit the market. Smart teams will use free agency to supplement their roster, not make it.
Remember, the best age for free agents is between 26- and 28-years old. Those are usually the ascending players. Getting players going up is a lot better than paying for players going down — even if they appear to be good players right now.
NFL careers can fall off a cliff quickly. That's why age matters in free agency, or at least it should.
Games over names.
Dak Prescott Dallas Cowboys QB
Agreed to terms on four-year contract with Cowboys.
Leonard Williams New York Giants DE
Giants placed franchise tag.
Chris Godwin Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR
Bucs placed franchise tag.
Brandon Scherff Washington Football Team OG
Washington placed franchise tag.
Trent Williams San Francisco 49ers OT
At 33, age is a concern. But he is coming off another impressive season at left tackle. He would solidify any team's line and probably could play at a high level for another good three years.
Shaquil Barrett Tampa Bay Buccaneers OLB
For the past two seasons, he has been a productive edge rusher, and teams always crave those types of players. Tampa Bay would love him back, but Chris Godwin is the likely priority.
Allen Robinson Chicago Bears WR
Bears placed franchise tag.
Justin Simmons Denver Broncos FS
Broncos placed franchise tag.
Taylor Moton Carolina Panthers OT
He has been a rock at right tackle for the Panthers , making him one of the most underrated players in this class. The Panthers would be wise to make sure he comes back, and they could tag him.
Kenny Golladay Detroit Lions WR
There is a chance the Lions could tag him, but the new regime didn't draft him. That could lead to his being on the market. He battled injuries last season.
Joe Thuney New England Patriots OG
The Patriots put the franchise tag on him last year, and could do that again, although the price goes up. He's a good player who will command a nice deal if he hits the market.
Hunter Henry Los Angeles Chargers TE
He had a career-high 60 catches playing on the franchise tag last season. Henry played in all but two games, which is big since injuries have been the thing that held him back. He also could get tagged. He is only 26.
Marcus Williams New Orleans Saints FS
He is coming off a good season playing on the back end for the Saints . With the Saints having cap issues, it's hard to imagine him coming back. Teams looking for an upgrade at safety will surely look at Williams.
Lavonte David Tampa Bay Buccaneers ILB
Age is the only concern, but he remains a playmaker at the linebacker position. He is finally getting the long-term due he deserves and should help a young group of linebackers if he were to leave.
Jonnu Smith Tennessee Titans TE
This pass-catching tight end should see a robust market as teams look to add weapons in the middle of the field. He's also improved as a blocker, which will help.
Corey Linsley Green Bay Packers C
He's one of the best centers in the league, a perfect fit in the Green Bay offense. But he will have options on the market for teams looking to upgrade in the middle.
John Johnson Los Angeles Rams FS
The Rams likely won't be able to keep him, which means a good, young safety will hit the market. Johnson is on the upward slope of his career, which will help his value.
Carl Lawson Cincinnati Bengals DE
This is a young edge rusher who played well last season. The Bengals would be wise to make sure to keep him. Letting guys with an upward trend go from the edge spot isn't wise.
Curtis Samuel Carolina Panthers WR
He has speed that teams crave. He can do a lot of things with that speed, which is why he will be intriguing -- even if his numbers haven't been that great.
William Jackson Cincinnati Bengals CB
After an injury forced him to miss his first season, he looked like a star in the making early in his career, but he hasn't quite lived up to that in recent years. Even so, you can see the talent and he is more than capable as a cover player.
Romeo Okwara Detroit Lions DE
He is a young pass rusher who is coming off his best season with 10 sacks and 61 pressures. He is 25, so his best football is in front of him. That will make him enticing to teams, even if his name isn't well known by most.
Aaron Jones Green Bay Packers RB
Jones is a productive back who can run it and catch it, which is why the Packers should bring him back. He is the type of player who can create matchup issues in the passing game.
Bud Dupree Pittsburgh Steelers OLB
He is coming off a torn ACL, which will drop his value some. But he's a good edge rusher who also plays well against the run. There is value in that.
Anthony Harris Minnesota Vikings FS
He played on the franchise tag last year, but his play wasn't as good as the year before. He will likely hit the market this time around, which means another player in a deep market at safety.
Melvin Ingram Los Angeles Chargers DE
He is coming off a down year that will hurt his value. He didn't have a sack and ended the season on the IR. He's also 31, which is a concern. But you can still bet there will be pass-rush needy teams who will make a push to sign him.
Trey Hendrickson New Orleans Saints DE
He is coming off a career year with 13.5 sacks after having 6.5 in his previous three seasons. He just turned 26 in December, so the target age is perfect for a team in need of pass-rush help. But was it a one-year aberration?
Corey Davis Tennessee Titans WR
After a slow start to his career, Davis is coming off his best season at the right time. He had 65 receptions with five touchdown catches last season and averaged 15.1 yards per catch.
JuJu Smith-Schuster Pittsburgh Steelers WR
He is a reliable middle-of-the-field receiver. He doesn't have great speed, but he is tough and knows how to get open. His yards-per-catch average of under 10 last year is concerning.
Matt Milano Buffalo Bills OLB
He is a good linebacker, but he is coming off an injury-plagued season. When he's on the field, he excels in coverage, which will make him attractive in this pass-happy league.
Alejandro Villanueva Pittsburgh Steelers OT
He is coming off a down year and age (32) is starting to become an issue. At his best, he is a good, solid left tackle who can help a team in need. He isn't a great run blocker.
Haason Reddick Arizona Cardinals OLB
He had 12.5 sacks last season, but is that enough to warrant a big deal after being a disappointment of sorts in his first three seasons? That pass-rush ability is attractive, but some scouts wonder after moving from inside to the outside if he can do it again.
Marcus Maye New York Jets FS
Maye is coming off an impressive season for a bad team, and the Jets would be wise to keep him. He's also a captain and a good teammate, which will help his value. He's been a four-year starter and can play deep and down near the box.
Matt Judon Baltimore Ravens ILB
After a big 2019 season, he had just six sacks playing on the franchise tag in 2020. He is still a good player and can do a lot of things, but he won't be worth a second tag for the Ravens .
Daryl Williams Buffalo Bills OT
He was a nice addition as a free agent last year and had a good season at right tackle, starting all 16 games. The Bills would be wise to keep him to help maintain stability up front on their line.
Shaquill Griffin Seattle Seahawks CB
He didn't play well early last season, but after missing four games with a hamstring injury he did bounce back to play better down the stretch. He's been a solid starting corner in their scheme, but he might be too expensive for Seattle to bring back, especially with the emergence of D.J. Reed last season.
Rob Gronkowski Tampa Bay Buccaneers TE
After retiring for a year, he came back and did some good things late in the season for Tampa Bay, including scoring two touchdowns in the Super Bowl. He will likely stay in Tampa Bay with his buddy, Tom Brady .
Patrick Peterson Arizona Cardinals CB
His level of play has declined -- especially his tackling -- and that's a concern. Age is also a factor since he turns 31 in July. But he can still show out in the big moments and the big games with his cover skills.
Dalvin Tomlinson New York Giants NT
For teams looking for a good, inside run player, Tomlinson would be a good fit. He turns 27 next week, so he is the right age.
Yannick Ngakoue Baltimore Ravens DE
The Ravens were his third team in a year when they acquired him from Minnesota last year. He's a solid edge player, but he played just 41 snaps in two playoff games. That's concerning. He also isn't a great run player.
Will Fuller Houston Texans WR
Fuller is a big-time deep threat who can run. The problem is he isn't always on the field -- never playing a complete season -- and he's got one game left on a six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy.
Jameis Winston New Orleans Saints QB
He spent last season backing up Drew Brees , but you know he wants to be a starter again. There is a chance that could happen with the Saints, although they are cap-strapped.
Leonard Floyd Los Angeles Rams OLB
He had a career-best 10.5 sacks for the Rams last season, and he's a good run player. He flashed in a big way against Seattle in terms of sacks, but was just OK getting them against other teams. The Rams would love him back, but it's doubtful they can afford him.
Jadeveon Clowney Tennessee Titans OLB
He isn't close to being the player his reputation would lead you to believe. He didn't have a sack last season in eight games for the Titans , a season cut short by injury. He's a good run player, but he's never been a great pass-rusher.
Xavier Rhodes Indianapolis Colts CB
Rhodes had a solid season with the Colts after being let go by the Vikings . That will help his value after signing a one-year deal last season.
Eric Wilson Minnesota Vikings OLB
When Anthony Barr went down in the second week, Wilson stepped in and flashed playmaking ability. He isn't as reliable as Barr in the run game, but he did a lot of impressive things in his first year as a starter.
Sammy Watkins Kansas City Chiefs WR
He continues to be a player who doesn't live up to the hype. He's coming off a down year where injuries limited him to 10 games in the regular season and forced him to miss two playoff games. His speed is what makes him attractive, even if his numbers don't.
Kevin King Green Bay Packers CB
He had a down season after an impressive 2019 campaign, followed by a horrible last game against Tampa Bay. But he's a young corner at 25 who does have starting experience. Maybe new scenery will be good for him.
Austin Reiter Kansas City Chiefs C
He's been a sound player in the middle of their line, especially in pass protection. He doesn't wow you with his run blocking, but he's a good starting center.
Jayon Brown Tennessee Titans ILB
He's a good coverage linebacker who isn't great in the run game. He isn't big, so he can get engulfed at times. Even so, he's been a solid starter and his speed is attractive.
Kenyan Drake Arizona Cardinals RB
The Cardinals kept him last year with a transition tag, and they would love to have him back again, but at the right price. His yards per carry went down from 5.2 to 4.0 last season, which is a concern.
Troy Hill Los Angeles Rams CB
He is a slot corner who has improved greatly the past two seasons. He is 29 years old, somewhat older than the target age for free agents, but he will get a decent deal in a league starved for cover players.
T.Y. Hilton Indianapolis Colts WR
He turns 32 in November, so age is starting to be an issue. He did average over 13 yards per catch last season, which was up, and that's a good sign. In a receiver-deep market, I can't image in he lands a big deal.
Russell Okung Carolina Panthers OT
He is 33 now, so his career is winding down, and he's played just 13 games the past two seasons because of injuries. But for a team looking for a solid player at left tackle, Okung would make sense.
Keanu Neal Atlanta Falcons SS
He is coming off a nice season for the Falcons , after injuries limited him the previous two seasons. He's a big hitter and a good run player who can excel near the line of scrimmage, yet is capable when playing back.
Chris Carson Seattle Seahawks RB
Injuries slowed him some last season, but he did run for over 600 yards and emerged as a nice pass-catching back. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, but he runs violently, which could impact his future.
Nelson Agholor Las Vegas Raiders WR
He had an impressive first campaign for the Raiders last season, catching 48 passes with eight touchdowns. His 18.7 average per catch was the most impressive number of them all.
Gerald Everett Los Angeles Rams TE
He shared the Rams tight end spot with Tyler Higbee , so getting away from that could be a nice thing for him. The Rams almost certainly won't be able to keep him.
Desmond King Tennessee Titans FS
He is a nickel corner who can struggle at times in man coverage. He would be ideal for a zone team, but he didn't play that well last season.
Jared Cook New Orleans Saints TE
At 34, he isn't the player he used to be. But he can still help a team looking for a veteran pass catcher in the middle of the field.
David Andrews New England Patriots C
He is a reliable player in the middle for any team looking for center help. He came back to start 12 games last year after missing all of 2019 with blood clots in his lungs.
Chidobe Awuzie Dallas Cowboys CB
He has 42 starts in his career, including six last season. He turns 27 in May, so age isn't an issue. He doesn't have great man-cover skills, but he is capable in a zone-heavy scheme.
Matt Feiler Pittsburgh Steelers OG
He can play tackle or guard, the latter being where he played last season. Offensive lineman with multiple positions are valuable.
Matt Skura Baltimore Ravens C
He was a reliable center for the Ravens for a few seasons, but then had trouble with the shotgun snaps last year and was benched. For teams looking for a center, he would make sense if he's past those issues.
Cam Robinson Jacksonville Jaguars OT
He is a relatively young tackle (26) with lots of starting experience, which will make him appealing. But he didn't have a good season in 2020, even though it was a contract year.
Richard Sherman San Francisco 49ers CB
He is getting up in the years as he turns 33 in late March, but when healthy he can still help a team -- especially one that plays the Seattle-San Francisco style of defense. He's had some injury issues the past three seasons that have limited him some. He played five games last season.
Denzel Perryman Los Angeles Chargers MLB
He is a nice run player who has improved against the pass. He isn't a big player, which could be a concern, but he's a solid player who was missed when he wasn't there for three games last season.
Aldon Smith Dallas Cowboys DE
He came back to football last season after his off-field issues kept him out for four years. He had five sacks for the Cowboys last season and showed the burst was still there.
Brian Poole New York Jets CB
He has been a reliable slot corner for both the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets. He turns 29 in October, so he has good football left in his body.
Cam Newton New England Patriots QB
He didn't look great in the Patriots offense last season, but some of that had to do with the team around him. Early in the season, he was getting rave reviews, so there is talent still there. It's just not MVP talent anymore.
Mike Hilton Pittsburgh Steelers CB
Hilton has been a productive part of the Steelers defense, both as a cover slot corner and a blitzer. Guys like him have value in a league where offenses are so spread out.
Andy Dalton Dallas Cowboys QB
When Dak Prescott got hurt, Dalton did some good things for the Cowboys. He is a good player to have on a roster because he can be a starter if need be.
Ryan Kerrigan Washington Football Team DE
Kerrigan turns 33 this summer, so age is a factor. But he was still able to get 5 1/2 sacks as a rotational player last season. He can be a nice help for a team in need of more edge pressure.
Xavier Woods Dallas Cowboys FS
He's a solid starter who never really flashed the big-time playmaking ability. He is a capable player in the middle, but is he much more than that? Probably not.
Ronald Darby Washington Football Team CB
He signed a one-year deal with Washington last year and played some of his best football. At 27, he will be attractive to teams looking for corner help.
K.J. Wright Seattle Seahawks OLB
Age is the reason he is down on this list. He's still a good player, even if he doesn't run like he used to in his best days.
James White New England Patriots RB
Teams looking for a third-down back should give strong consideration to White. He can still make plays in the passing game and be a good player in a strong passing attack.
Bashaud Breeland Kansas City Chiefs CB
He has had some moments in his career -- like against the Bills in the playoffs -- where he has the look of being more than just a reliable starter. The problem is that hasn't always been the case.
Mackensie Alexander Cincinnati Bengals CB
For a team looking for a solid nickel corner, Alexander would make sense. In his one season with the Bengals, he was inconsistent. But he does have talent.
Jaquiski Tartt San Francisco 49ers SS
He has been limited by injuries the past two years, starting just seven games last season. But teams looking for a strong safety will be interested in this 29-year-old with 50 starts on his resume.
Shelby Harris Denver Broncos DE
He is a push-the-pocket inside player who could help a team looking for inside pass rush. He had 2 1/2 sacks on a one-year deal last season for Denver, but he missed five games -- some due to COVID-19 protocols -- and one with a knee injury.
James Conner Pittsburgh Steelers RB
After a nice second season for the Steelers, he hasn't had the same type of production. He has 21 starts over the past two seasons, but the Steelers poor run blocking has hurt his yardage numbers. He's not a home-run threat, but more of a grinder as a runner.
Ndamukong Suh Tampa Bay Buccaneers DE
He is getting up in the years, but for a team in need of a good inside player, he makes sense. He can still play a high level -- even if it isn't what it used to be for him -- and help a team's down group.
Jalen Mills Philadelphia Eagles SS
Mills converted from corner to safety last year and really seemed to settle in down the stretch. The transition wasn't smooth early because corner injuries kept him outside, but I think he's a solid safety in this market.
Sheldon Rankins New Orleans Saints DT
This former first-round pick has been slowed by injuries in recent years and has started just one game the past two seasons. He did play in 12 last year, and he is only 26, so there is potential.
Alex Mack Atlanta Falcons C
Teams looking for a veteran center will take a look at Mack. The one major concern is his age since he's 35. But on a short-team deal, he would make sense for a team like San Francisco.
Lawrence Guy New England Patriots DT
He's been one of the better down players in New England the past few years. He's not going to wow you with splash plays, but he's a reliable inside player.
Cameron Sutton Pittsburgh Steelers SS
He is coming off his best season and showed some versatility being able to play inside and in the slot. He's an improving player.
Rashard Higgins Cleveland Browns WR
At 26, he is coming off his best season with four touchdowns on 36 catches. He averaged 16.2 yards per catch, which shows his big-play ability.
Alex Anzalone New Orleans Saints MLB
When the Saints landed Kwon Alexander in a trade, Anzalone saw his play time cut drastically last season but returned to the lineup when Alexander was hurt. Injuries has slowed him some over the years, but he is a versatile young linebacker who can also cover.
Roy Robertson-Harris Chicago Bears DE
He missed the final seven games last season with a shoulder injury, but the former undrafted free agent has developed into a solid rotational player. He turns 28 in August.
Rayshawn Jenkins Los Angeles Chargers SS
He has shown to be a reliable player at safety and also as a dime linebacker. He is coming off a solid season for the Chargers , and he just tuned 27.
Rick Wagner Green Bay Packers OT
They let him go for cap reasons just one year after signing him as a free agent. Wagner is still a capable right tackle, but he started just nine games last year and had issues in the playoff loss to the Bucs.
Malik Hooker Indianapolis Colts FS
Injuries have hurt his career so far, but he is a rangy safety who is still young and could help a team looking for a deep safety. He is coming off a season lost to a torn Achilles tendon.
Ricardo Allen Atlanta Falcons FS
The Falcons let him go for cap reasons, but he is still a reliable player who has done a lot of things in their scheme. He can play safety or slot corner.
Tyus Bowser Baltimore Ravens LB
He is coming off an impressive season as a reserve, which could lead to a starting job and decent contract. He had 14 pressures, two sacks and three picks.
Antonio Brown Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR
He signed with the Bucs and appeared to be a model player. That could help his market, but age is a consideration. The likelihood is he goes back to Tampa Bay, especially with his baggage from the past.
Michael Davis Los Angeles Chargers CB
He had three picks last season and has developed into a solid starting corner. He just turned 26 in January.
Kendrick Bourne San Francisco 49ers WR
He had his best season with 49 catches and 667 yards in 2020, which came at the right time. He is 26 years old and will be attractive as a No. 3 receiver in this market.
Leonard Fournette Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB
If Playoff Lenny showed up every week, he'd be higher on this list. He played well in the postseason for Tampa Bay, but can he do that week in and week out? That's the big question.
Nick Martin Houston Texans C
He was let go by the Texans in part for cap reasons, but he has 62 starts the past four seasons, including 16 in each of the past three seasons. There is value in a player with that type of starting experience.