clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2021 NFL Offseason: My Ten Favorite Free Agents

You only get ten.

Los Angeles Chargers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

When we are online, interacting with humanity’s great mistake, the electronic collective consciousness, the NFL offseason is a bombardment of signings, rumors, what in the worlds, what are they thinkings, and of course, the YES-YES-YES I love its. Every fan of every team releases an outburst of 0s and 1s into the cave once a player is rumored to their favorite team. Every whimper, every inkling of a move, is a move they absolutely love. No matter if they have watched this player or not, no matter what his ProFartBall Focus grade is, this player is incredible, that signing is genius, and all of the sudden he has elevated himself to a level he has never played at, because now, now he is attached to their favorite team.

This needs to change. There is a better way to live. There’s a new sheriff in town. There is a new rule. Everyone only gets ten free agent targets they can love. No more, no less. That’s it. It’s a very simple constitution. You can pick the de facto best player at every position. You can pick a charcuterie of discount signings and relatively unknown depth players to prove that you are a real football fan. Whatever is in your heart let it out, as long as you only let out ten.

Not every signing is incredible or awesome or spectacular. Nothing means anything when everything means everything. This slight change, this one requirement, will prevent constant protrusion into the realm of the hyperbolic where everything becomes sordid.

With that being said, here are my ten:

1. JAMEIS WINSTON

If you are constantly worried about if a player is good or not, or constantly arguing about whether a team is bad or not, you are losing the point of the game itself. The game isn’t really about wins and losses from a fan’s perspective. It’s about the enrichment of one’s life. Let the losers who “study” football—disgusting—waste their lives with this discourse. Watch the game. Savor it. Enjoy the entirety of it.

The people who miss doing homework, who long for the days when their hand was up first to deliver the right answer, lose sight of how beautiful life can be. Don’t transfer this demonic desire onto the game itself. Because if you do, you won’t be able to appreciate how incredible players like Jameis Winston really are. By screaming about sacks taken, interceptions thrown, DYAR this, and DVOA that, you’ll lose what the truth is, that Jameis Winston is a three true outcomes quarterback, who throws the ball far downfield, turns the mundane into ridiculous, and most of all, absolutely rocks.

Last summer I wrote a guest post at Football Outsiders about exactly this. I went back through every quarterback season since sacks were an official statistic, combined sacks taken, touchdowns, and interceptions, and ranked the top quarterbacks in the history of the game. Winston finished first with a total of 1110.

In 2019 he threw 33 touchdowns.

30 interceptions.

And took 47 sacks.

Last year Jameis took a laser to his eyes to correct his vision, he followed Teddy Bridgewater’s career path and attended the Sean Payton school of misfit quarterbacks, and he watched and learned and played the good citizen. This was traumatic. A whole season of eyes closed immaculate deep heaves, zany sacks, multiple interceptions thrown to the same defender in the same place on the same route, were lost to us, because Jameis decided to backup Drew Brees, instead continuing to be the cowboy.

Hopefully this changes this year. Hopefully Jameis is able to find himself a starting job. The current rumor is that he wants to stay in New Orleans and compete with Taysom Hill. SHOO! GO! LEAVE! Payton is going to play Hill. Jameis needs to find a new place to invoke his black magic onto the league. Houston, San Francisco, Denver, somewhere, anywhere has to give Jameis the chance to start and intermingle our Sundays with his again. I need him. I miss him. And you should too.

2. MARLON MACK

Week 17 2017. Where were you? I was driving back from the desert in the middle of an ice storm and listening to a completely inconsequential and meaningless Texans game on the radio. I returned home, watched it condensed, and there was a play from this game that hasn’t left my memory since.

Indy was in the redzone. They motioned the tight end over. They ran flex wing wing lead. Jadeveon Clowney stacked and swam over the down blocking tight end. Free to inflict pain on the running back. Mack bounced the run wide, and unleashed a devastating stiff arm into Clowney’s cranium. He then hurdled over a nauseating and lazy Kevin Johnson tackle attempt, and ended the run by spinning past the first marker. I’ve loved Marlon Mack ever since.

That was back in his rookie season. Since then he’s proved himself as a number one running back,who can carry an offense’s pass and run game. He had a top ten DVOA finish despite having 195 carries in 2018, and finished 18th in 2019 with 247 carries and zero semblance of a real passing game backing him up.

Last year disaster struck. He tore his Achilles and missed the entirety of the season. Rather than play dueling stiff arms with Jonathan Taylor, he sat on the bench, and watched as Taylor’s mind eventually caught up to his body and tore the league up down the stretch.

Who knows if Mack will be able to recover from his injury and be the same caliber of back. But the past was beautiful, and hopefully the future will be too. He can attack any front and run through any blocking scheme. This is a midzone run he hits off the weakside once Myles Jack (#44) loops to the strong side.

It’s split midzone. He bounces it wide, gets to the edge, and stampedes for 18 yards.

It’s Duo. He cuts away from Vince Williams (#98), leaves him spinning, and follows his second level block for a successful chunk.

It’s Duo again. This time he cuts back and dances around and past the Steelers open field defenders.

Mack may take a one-year deal with Indy to play the second back if offers don’t arrive. Someone should stop this from happening. He’s worth a risk or a flyer on. He’d be a perfect complementary back, but it would be be even better if he gets the chance of winning a first running back position in training cap this year.

3. CAM SIMS

Is Cam Sims a precise route runner? No. Is he a sharp cutter? No. Does he consistently get cornerbacks to turn and open their hips? No. There are a lot of things Sims isn’t, but there’s one thing that he is. He’s an enormous possession receiver who can get yards after the catch. Maybe that’s more than one thing.

It’s a simple slant. His cut is broad and sloppy. It opens the door for the cornerback to splash down and sniff the ball. He’s unable to because Sims is a shield. His body walls him from the defensed pass. What was easy becomes complicated and becomes easy again.

This is a similar reception. The Seahawks play cover three buzz. Sims never gets the corner to really turn and run to sell the vertical before cutting off to the comeback. Yet, his body prevents the cornerback from making a play. It’s an easy gain.

The banal is important to consistently stay on the field. Easy throws and receptions and yards are what an offensive system is all about. Sims can provide this through size alone, but his body can also sing the electric.

In the short game he’s a demon after the catch. The Giants play cover one. OUR Football Team is running mesh. Sims makes the catch, suffocates the defender into the dirt, and then casually makes three more miss on his way to a 33 yard gain.

Pittsburgh plays double bracket man. Sims is left with an easy slant route against the outside cornerback. He tosses him over his back, stiff arms another, and runs from one sideline to the other to pick up 30 yards.

In the screen game, he not only has speed, but he has vision as well. What is dark inky nothingness for most, is an opportunity for him. On this tunnel screen, he picks up as many yards as he can, before cutting back inside and around the herd stampeding in front of him. 31 yards on a simple screen.

It doesn’t look like it when the ball is in his hands, but Sims is 6’5” tall. He can evaporate and create chunks on the ground after the catch, and trapeze over defenders to create big plays through the air.

Off the ball, Sims is able to sell the seam, and trick the cornerback into turning up field. With his back to him, Sims turns the seam into a fade, swerves to the sideline, and there, perched above the wide receiver, he brings in a disgusting one handed reception. Receptions like these are what a breakout future could be built upon.

Occasionally both these worlds collide into one. The Giants play cover two. Sims catches the post in front of the safety, hits him with a stiff arm, and turns enormous into titanic.

Sims is a undrafted free agent from Alabama. He hasn’t played enough reps to perfect his game. He is the perfect flier wide receiver. There’s potential, that sultry devious thing, that he can take another step and be a starting outside wide receiver. And if he isn’t, you can always let him play fetch a few times a game to try and fabricate a big play, feed him some screens and drags, and occasionally he’ll turn a creek into a river.

4. HUNTER HENRY

The seam is an underutilized portion of the field. Most teams in the NFL don’t have the athletic talent at the tight end position to torch linebackers, split the safeties, and hit the easiest vertical pass available. They’re stuck slinging rocks along the sidelines without the quarterback play available to hit such passes. Their vertical passing game doesn’t exist. The offense plays in a prison. Points are hard to come by.

This throw is even more important in the postmodern NFL. Teams are playing more and more cover four and cover seven. They can bend easily and hide their cornerbacks from the embarrassment of man coverage. Big plays are limited. Coverage lasts long enough for the four man rush to get there. This is a middle of the field open coverage though, which opens the door for tight ends and slot receivers to catch quick vertical passes to attack it.

Henry is an escape from intermediate middle failures. He is a perfect seam stretching tight end who can catch easy vertical passes against a wide variety of coverages. This reception against Kansas City is the perfect example. Henry bends wide around the edge. Immediately looks for the ball. Makes the catch right in front of the safety.

From this position, Henry can turn break this into the post or the corner as well.

Whether it’s zone or man, against a linebacker or a safety, from the tight end or the wide receiver position, Henry can attack the middle of the field in different ways.

The other skill Henry has, which is probably his best skill, is his ability to slip and slither and finds hole in the zone coverage to creates easy catches and first downs and keep things moving for the offense. His ability to do so is Travis Kelceish. He’s a source of easy offense; the red button from a commercial you watched back in 2013.

At age 27, Henry is entering his peak. This is usually the time when the complications that arise from having to learn both the run and pass game smooth out, and the tight end can take over the game. He’s one of the few top free agents who will be worth the contract he receives this offseason.

5. JERMAINE ELUEMUNOR

Eluemunor had a strange season in New England. He was their starting right tackle. Then a sprained ankle against Denver took him off the field for the majority of the year. He eventually returned back to the starting lineup, starting four of New England’s final eight games, even getting a start at left tackle.

At his heart, Eluenumor (#72) is a brutal run blocker. He can easily move the first level, escape at the perfect time, and latch onto the second level. Combo run blocks execute both their requirements, move the first, and hit the second.

This is his best skill. He can also do more than just this. The Patriots were able to use him as puller to pick off alley defenders in the redzone, and set up their quarterback read power run game.

He’s decent at blocking the midzone and outside zone run games. He’s a little slow at the playside, and his better at cutting defenders from the back side.

The pass game is more of an unknown. Because of the Patriots offense, he didn’t get many true one v. one reps against outside pass rushers. He was capable when he did with some issues with his hands being the one thing holding him back. Chops and chop-rips were able to beat him too often.

Meeting defenders at the point of attack wasn’t a problem though. Something surprising for his archetype. Inside moves and bullrushes don’t work against him.

He’s going to be a discount starting caliber offensive linemen with risk attached to it. The pass blocking is a concern. Over the course of more and more snaps this could become a gruesome issue. Yet, he’s worth taking a shot on for a team needing competition at the tackle position, and most importantly, runs a power run offense.

6. ROMEO OKWARA

Romeo Okwara (#95) v. Carl Lawson (#58) is a fun game of choose your fighter. Okwara is entering his age 26 season and is coming off a season where he had 10 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for a loss, and 31 pressures. Lawson is also entering his age 26 season, and had 5.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, 4 tackles for a loss, and 44 pressures last season.

Both players are hitting their primes as pass rushers. Both players don’t have the typical draft pedigree of top edge rushers, and each has different games.

Lawson is all about the long arm. He’s one of the rare players where his inside move is the core of his game. The inside moves aren’t a counter, but the engine that gets his pass rush moving. His long arm is one of the best pass rushing moves in the league, the type that stands among others like Yannick Ngakoue’s leaping chop rip, or Deforest Buckner’s bullrush.

Personally, I’m an Okwara guy myself. There’s just more layers to his game. He doesn’t rely on one single move as much as Lawson does. He has a wide repertoire, creates havoc in multiple ways, and can string together moves like a boxing glove wearing fighting kangaroo.

On his sack of Kyler Murray, Okwara punches, lifts the tackle, long arms him, drives to even the plane, and then swims over the top.

Here he breaks out the ghost rip against Ryan Ramcyzk.

Here he chop-rips and bends the edge against Cam Robinson.

And here he bullrushes Morgan Moses and Laremy Tunsil.

He can even utilize the same long arm that Lawson uses.

So, now I turn to you loyal reader, who is your fighter?

Poll

Choose Your Fighter

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Carl Lawson
    (9 votes)
  • 64%
    Romeo Okwara
    (16 votes)
25 votes total Vote Now

7. DAWUANE SMOOT

It’s difficult finding defensive linemen who have the strength to play as a three technique, and the quickness to play as five technique. The players who can do this are paid a tremendous amount; a premium paid for versatility. The Jaguars former third round pick, Dawuane Smoot, offers both interior an exterior play at a discount rate.

For the first two years of his career Smoot provided nothing to the Jaguars. This has changed the last two seasons. He’s had 11.5 sacks the past two seasons, and last year, he was the Jaguars best pass rusher as he picked up 5.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 5 tackles for a loss, and 31 pressures.

Smoot’s (#94) best move is his inside move. His inside rip is great, and is effective in both the run game, especially against individual blockers, and in the pass game.

With his size, power, and off snap burst, he’s difficult to deal with whenever he correctly takes on half the defender.

He has more up his sleeve than just this. Yannick Ngakoue rubbed off on him some. Here he is executing Ngakoue’s leaping chop-rip to force Matthew Stafford to climb the pocket.

And here, against Laremy Tunsil, he fakes the long arm, chops his punch, and bends the edge to sack Deshaun Watson. Smoot is more than just a typical three down defensive end.

He’s good in stunts, and has the power to be the hammer to open the door for others. In this role he can even create trauma on his own alone, instead of merely working for the collective.

Smoot was the best player on a bad pass rush and a bad pass defense. A new team, or even a non-tanking version of his current team, and better talent around him, will open the door for an increase in production. Entering his age 26 season, this is the exact type of player to bet on.

8. ERIC WILSON

There are a lot of things to not like about Wilson. He’s a limited athlete, he struggles at tackling, he doesn’t make a lot of big plays, his blitzes don’t amount to much, and his range is limited. That being said, teams are asking more and more from their linebackers. Teams are playing more Nickle, requiring linebackers to cover more field in the short middle passing game, and zone coverages, like cover 3, which requires linebackers to cover the seam, and cover 4, which requires linebackers to pass crossing routes off while being able to chase down the flat, all put more stress on this position.

Wilson was the Vikings starting linebacker once Anthony Barr went down. In his role he collected tackles, and did a great job playing coverage. He didn’t give up catches because of mental mistakes. He knew where to go. His body is what slowed him down.

The brain is faster than the football though. Because of this, Wilson made plenty of plays in the passing game.

Wilson (#50), lines up in the ‘A’ gap to show presnap pressure. The Vikings send Harrison Smith screaming into the secondary to roll from a cover three to a cover four shell. Wilson, as the short middle defender, covers the drag and the hook at the same time.

On this man-match rep, Wilson looks for the slant, when it doesn’t arrive, he quickly moves to the drag. He defends the pass and forces the punt.

In cover three, he passes the drag to other linebacker, sits in his zone, and picks off the throw going to the receiver behind him.

Cover four becomes cover one. Wilson covers the wheel against Chris Carson. He squeezes him out of bounds, turns, and collects the easy interception.

In the run game, his fits are good too. He isn’t guessing, looping away from the ball, running himself out of plays, or opening the door for the back to take advantage of his mistakes. He does what he is coached to do. He’s never a net negative.

After spending the past year watching game after game of linebackers failing to get depth in coverage, losing receivers, chasing the wrong man, and committing every coverage sin imaginable, Wilson’s intelligent coverage is a glowing light. Teams will pay for competency and making the correct decision. Wilson’s body let’s him down, but his brain doesn’t.

9. MIKE HILTON

Hilton is if God made man by breathing into a NO FEAR t-shirt instead of into the clay of the Earth. He’s a slot cornerback that turns Nickle defenses into a base defense because of his physicality and tenacity.

The Broncos run midzone right. The Steelers turn their Nickle into a 4-3 by walking Hilton down to the end of the line of scrimmage. He takes on the outside half of the tight end, beating him with arms and leverage, sits, and swallows the running back when he attempts to bounce this run.

On first down, with the tight end lined up right, Hilton knows the run is coming. He blitzes the run. Just barely misses the enormous tackle for a loss.

Usually, backs aren’t this lucky.

This same madness can crush quarterbacks too. Hilton’s pass rush angles are crisp and sharp. He takes the shortest possible path. When he reaches the quarterback he usually finishes the job and slings him down.

Hilton can control the screen game entirely on his own. He can torch wide receivers, too cowardly to deliver real blocks, and can even beat tight ends, like Logan Thomas, to play the ball.

Hilton also just makes plays. Whether it’s sticking a fresh catch off a RPO, or catching a wounded duck pop fly interception, he’s all over the field, and is tremendous at seeking and attacking the ball. This is vital. Like David Culley always says, the most important part of the football is the football.

I don’t really care about his pass coverage. He’s perfectly good in this regard. He’s intelligent, understands his coverage assignments, and where he has help. We can skip all of that. The only thing I care about are the impact plays he makes in the slot. Kenny Moore shouldn’t be the only player used like this. The Colts shouldn’t be the only team who gets impact performance like this from their slot cornerback.

10. KEANU NEAL

Neal is the box safety of your dreams. He’s a a third linebacker, down around the line of scrimmage, smashing and chasing, delivering brutal purple hits on running backs.

Neal doesn’t tackle. He runs through ball carriers. Whether it’s a minuscule slot receiver, or an enormous running back, he doesn’t grab and pull, he runs right through. The range is infinite. Like Hilton, he turns any defense into a base run stopping defense because of his attacking ability.

There is more left here to uncover as a blitzer. He times the snap well. He attacks secondary pass protectors. Quarterbacks have nothing to do except stumble in fear.

The coverage is a problem though. He was beat plenty of times downfield last year. On this deep reception he allowed to Amari Cooper, he’s the deep second half safety in cover two. He guesses the corner. The route becomes the post. His wrong turn leads to a wide open one handed catch.

It’s reasonable to expect he’d be better on a better defense. He was better in the second half of the season, once he was placed around the ball more in Rahim Moore’s defense, than in Dan Quinn’s. He’s the perfect strong safety for a cover three defense, and he won’t cost two first round picks to acquire him. Just get him around the ball, and let him commit murder.