The start of the new league year is right around the corner and with it comes the carousel that is free agency. During this offseason, the star-powered wide receiver market and possible reshuffling of some top-tier quarterbacks will likely capture a majority of the headlines, but don't sleep on a number of key names in the secondary. There are a handful of young Pro Bowl-caliber defensive backs that are on the verge of hitting the free agent market in just a few weeks and could prove to be a key piece in a team making a massive leap in 2021.
Below, we're going to take a bird's-eye view of cornerback and safety groups that are set to hit free agency and highlight some of the premier names. We'll also determine how their markets may shake out once they are able to start speaking freely with interested clubs.
(Note: The most notables are ranked by projected market value, if available -- courtesy of Spotrac.)
Top free agent cornerbacks
Most recent team: Seattle Seahawks
Market value: $11 million
Griffin has proven to be a solid find for Seattle, which selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of UCF. Last season was an up-and-down campaign for the 25-year-old, but he's not far removed from a Pro Bowl season in 2019, where he allowed a completion percentage under 58. Given Seattle's cap restraints, it's unlikely he sees the franchise tag placed on him and that quite possibly results in him playing for another club in 2021. Given his age, upside, and the NFL always looking for quality starting-caliber cornerbacks, Griffin should be very popular on the open market.
Most recent team: Arizona Cardinals
Market value: $10.4 million
It's hard to imagine Peterson in anything but a Cardinals uniform. The eight-time Pro Bowl corner has spent his entire career in Arizona since being the fifth overall pick back in 2011 out of LSU. While there still remains a chance that he returns to the desert, contending teams will also be clamoring for his services. Peterson isn't the same player he once was, but he could be an ideal addition to a team looking to get over the hump and in need of a veteran presence to stabilize things in the secondary. The 30-year-old totaled 61 tackles in 2020 to go along with eight passes defended and three interceptions. Spotrac's market value for Peterson sees him fetching a three-year deal that pays him more than $10 million annually.
Most recent team: San Francisco 49ers
Market value: $9.9 million
Richard Sherman's time in San Francisco is all but over due to the team's salary cap situation and the corner has even admitted as much. The 32-year-old doesn't plan to hang up his cleats and retire any time soon, noting recently that he still feels like he has two more years left in him before he decides to "shut it down." Sherman was limited to just five games last season due to injury but was able to total 18 tackles and an interception over that stretch. He's also not far removed from a Pro Bowl season in 2019 where he played 15 regular-season games and totaled 61 tackles, three interceptions, and 11 passes defended. When healthy, he clearly still has talent left in the tank to help a contending team get over the hump.
Most recent team: Dallas Cowboys
Market value: $8.5 million
Awuzie has overall been a serviceable addition to Dallas' secondary over the course of his tenure. The Cowboys selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft and has evolved into a starting-caliber player in their secondary when healthy. The 25-year-old's best campaigns came in 2018 and 2019, where he recorded double-digit pass defenses and more than 70 tackles. However, 2020 saw him take a bit of a step back in his production as a member of a secondary that overall played poorly. When targeted, Awuzie allowed quarterbacks to complete 60% of their passes and had a passer rating of 103.5. Part of that could have been due to a hamstring injury that limited him to start the season along with a COVID-19 diagnosis in December. If teams look more toward his '18-19 seasons, and determine that 2020 was an outlier in his trajectory, he should still have clubs buying into his upside.
Most recent team: Cincinnati Bengals
Market value: $8.4 million
After a four-year stint in Minnesota to begin his career, Alexander inked a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals worth $4 million last offseason. The 27-year-old did struggle a bit in the 13 games played in 2020, allowing nearly 70% of passes thrown his way to be completed for an average of 10.2 yards per catch allowed. Alexander also had a missed-tackle percentage of 13% last season after missing none of his tackles in 2019. All of those figures are the lowest totals dating to 2018. However, 2020 was a hectic year for everyone -- especially Alexander -- so teams may not shy away from a dip in his stats too much, especially when you look at his overall résumé as a quality slot corner.
Most recent team: Seattle Seahawks
Market value: $8.1 million
Dunbar's first season in Seattle didn't exactly live up to expectations. After he was acquired by the Seahawks for a fifth-round pick in a deal with Washington, Dunbar was arrested for his alleged involvement in an armed robbery back in May. Those charges were eventually dropped and he didn't miss any time due to that off-the-field issue. However, Dunbar was limited to just six games for Seattle throughout the 2020 season due to a knee injury. That quick six-game glimpse of Dunbar didn't leave much to be desired as he allowed a 111.0 passer rating and 14 yards per completion. That being said, Dunbar has shown to be a lockdown corner in the league in the past, which will certainly have teams knocking on his door once the market opens up.
7. Mike Hilton
Most recent team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Market value: $7.8 million
Hilton is looked at as one of the better nickel corners in the NFL and has been a strong piece to Pittsburgh's secondary since arriving in 2016. In 12 games played last year, Hilton allowed just a 60.2 passer rating when targeted, to go along with three interceptions. He also posted 51 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three sacks, showing that he is a true do-it-all type of weapon on the defensive side of the ball. He has shown the ability to play man and zone and should be a sought-after piece on the free agent market given his versatility and youth.
8. Desmond King II
Most recent team: Tennessee Titans
Market value: $6.8 million
After spending three and a half seasons with the Chargers, King was traded to the Titans in November of last year to help solidify the nickel spot in Tennessee's secondary. While playing almost exclusively in the slot for the Titans, King allowed a 70.6 completion percentage when targeted over his nine games in Nashville to go along with three touchdowns, and a passer rating of 117.5. Those were by far the worst totals of his career. This rough stretch in Tennessee is, of course, a small sample size and he has more strong football on his résumé than bad, which will still make him an attractive piece on the free agent market. Teams will just need to make the determination of whether or not King is more like the player we've seen over the course of the two seasons prior to 2020.
Most recent team: Cincinnati Bengals
Market value: $6.3 million
Jackson has been one of the bright spots across Cincinnati's defense and put together a solid 2020 season. He allowed just 51.4% of his targets to be completed while defending 11 passes and recording an interception. He's not at the level of being a legit No. 1 corner that can shut down a team's top option on a weekly basis, but he's as solid as they come, a quality starter, and still relatively young. That's still a valuable asset in the NFL. The Bengals will likely make a push to keep him in Cincy but it also wouldn't be surprising to see multiple teams interested in bringing Jackson aboard.
10. Troy Hill
Most recent team: Los Angeles Rams
Market value: $6.3 million
For the Rams last season, Hill started in all 16 regular-season games, posted three interceptions, two defensive touchdowns, and 10 passes defended to go along with his 77 tackles. When targeted, quarterbacks also had an 89.8 passer rating against Hill. His future in Los Angeles is a bit murky with the Rams currently being hamstrung by the salary cap, which could open Hill up to other clubs with more money to throw around. The Rams do have a need at corner, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them try to retain either Hill or fellow cornerback Darious Williams (RFA), but they'll have the make the money work.
Other free agent corners: Xavier Rhodes, Colts; Darious Williams, Rams (RFA); J.C. Jackson, Patriots (RFA); Jason Verrett, 49ers; Brian Poole, Jets; Ronald Darby, Washington; Cameron Sutton, Steelers; Artie Burns, Bears; Nickell Robey-Coleman, Eagles; Bashaud Breeland, Chiefs; A.J. Bouye, Broncos; D.J. Hayden, Jaguars; Jason McCourty, Patriots.
Top free agent safeties
Most recent team: Denver Broncos
Market value: $15.4 million
Simmons could be facing a second straight franchise tag by the Denver Broncos, but as things stand currently, he's arguably the top defensive back out of this entire soon-to-be free agent group. The 27-year-old is coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2020 where he notched a career-high five interceptions to go along with 96 tackles (three for a loss), and nine passes defended. Simmons' coverage stats weren't as impressive as they were in 2019 when he allowed a 43.6 passer rating when targeted, but he's still looked at as a key piece to what Denver does defensively and it seems like the Broncos will do whatever it takes to keep him at Mile High. In the event that he shakes loose, he'll be heavily sought after.
Most recent team: Minnesota Vikings
Market value: $14 million
Harris is another defensive back that was looking like he was going to hit free agency last year before the Vikings hit him with the franchise tag. A year later, Harris is once again on the doorstep of free agency and it wouldn't be too surprising to see him get there this time around. The 29-year-old did see a dip in his production in 2020 following a 2019 campaign where he allowed just a 44.2 passer rating when targeted, six interceptions, and zero touchdowns. Last year, Harris recorded no picks, had seven passes defended and a 118.1 passer rating when targeted. The 58.3 completion percentage when targeted was encouraging, but the four touchdowns allowed weren't great. Still, Harris is an extremely talented safety but he may not be cashing in as handsomely as he would have last year due to that dip in production and the dip in the salary cap this year.
Most recent team: New Orleans Saints
Market value: $13.5 million
Williams is a former second-round pick of the New Orleans Saints back in 2017 out of Utah, who has blossomed into a strong piece of their secondary. In 14 games played in 2020, he totaled 59 tackles, seven passes defended, and three interceptions. He's also allowed 61.5% of his targets to be caught over the previous two seasons. Given the Saints' salary cap problems, the every-down safety could shake loose and hit free agency. If Simmons is ultimately tagged by the Broncos, there's a case to be made that Williams is the top safety on the market given his age, potential and experience.
4. Marcus Maye
Most recent team: New York Jets
Market value: $13.2 million
Maye could end up being tagged by the Jets in the coming days. New York is one of the rare teams in the league that has plenty of cap space and could easily fit Maye in under the tag as they work toward a long-term team (the deadline for tagged players to sign an extension is July 15). The soon-to-be 28-year-old came into his own in 2020 after the Jets traded Jamal Adams to Seattle. In 16 games played last year, Maye totaled 88 tackles, defended 11 passes and had two picks. He also allowed just 58.7% of his targets to be completed and quarterbacks had an 80.4 passer rating against him. No matter if it's New York or somewhere else in free agency, Maye is going to get paid.
5. John Johnson III
Most recent team: Los Angeles Rams
Market value: $8.3 million
Johnson joined the Rams in 2017 after he was selected in the third round, making him one of the first picks of this era under Sean McVay. When healthy, he's proven to be a weekly starter in Los Angeles' secondary and put together a 2020 season where he totaled 105 tackles, defended eight passes and recorded an interception over 16 regular-season games. Quarterbacks recorded a 71.9 passer rating when targeting Johnson and completed 69.1% of their passes last year. As we've noted earlier, the Rams have a tight salary cap this offseason, making it rather difficult to fit in all of their pending free agents, including Johnson.
Other free agent safeties: Karl Joseph, Browns; Xavier Woods, Cowboys; Malik Hooker, Colts; Keanu Neal, Falcons; Jaquiski Tartt, 49ers; Tre Boston, Panthers; Jalen Mills, Eagles; Duron Harmon, Giants; Tashaun Gipson, Bears; Daniel Sorensen, Chiefs; Rayshawn Jenkins, Chargers; Ricardo Allen, Falcons.