The 2021 NFL free-agent negotiating window began Monday amid an unprecedented environment. For only the second time in its history, the league has lowered its salary cap number from the previous season. Lower revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a reduction from $198.2 million to $182.5 million. So after seven consecutive years of $10 million increases, each team will have about $16 million less space this year to re-sign its own players and otherwise fill out its roster.
What won't change, however, is the degree to which teams can remake their short-term fortunes with prudent and targeted decisions. So as discussions officially begin, and the expectation for news of agreements rises, we've updated our list of the NFL's top 100 free agents. The ranking is weighted to reflect the approach we often see in free agency. Teams always will prefer younger players coming off their rookie contracts. Running backs usually are devalued because of their shorter career peaks and the continuing shift toward the passing game, and pass-rushers are always sought, regardless of their past productivity.
One shift in league thinking is also reflected here: Players coming off serious injuries aren't necessarily fated to low valuations. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is the latest example; he agreed to a new four-year, $160 million deal last week even as he continues to recover from a compound ankle fracture and dislocation. Here are the top 100 free agents for this offseason, with updates on where they are signing.
1. Trent Williams, OT
Re-signing with: San Francisco 49ers | Age entering 2021 season: 33
News: 49ers, Williams agree to a six-year, $138 million deal.
Williams revived his career in 2020 after finally engineering a trade away from Washington. He started 14 games for the 49ers and reminded most observers why he has been considered one of the game's top left tackles. But his age and injury history will be a factor.
2. Hunter Henry, TE
Signing with: New England Patriots | Age entering 2021 season: 26
News: Henry will head to the Patriots on a three-year deal.
Henry caught a career-high 60 passes under the Chargers' franchise tag in 2020, eighth most among NFL tight ends. In two years since returning from a torn ACL, Henry has proved to be a productive player whose potential for growth is unclear. Could he approach the productivity of a Travis Kelce or Darren Waller if he were in a system that allowed for it? Or is he a second-tier receiving tight end? In either event, many teams would cherish the mismatches he would bring to their offenses.
3. Yannick Ngakoue, Edge
Signing with: Las Vegas Raiders | Age entering 2021 season: 26
News: Ngakoue will sign a two-year deal with the Raiders.
An intense desire to leave Jacksonville last summer led Ngakoue to Minnesota and finally Baltimore during the course of the season. He had eight sacks, finishing below double digits for the fourth time in his five seasons. But young and even modestly effective edge rushers are always among the most sought-after free agents, and Ngakoue will have plenty of suitors.
4. Bud Dupree, Edge
Signing with: Tennessee Titans | Age entering 2021 season: 27
News: Dupree's deal with the Titans will net him more than $16 million per year.
Since the start of the 2019 season, Dupree has more sacks (19.5) than all but seven players in the NFL -- and that's despite missing the final five games of last season because of a torn ACL. A significant injury in a contract year isn't ideal, but it's also not the market buster that it once was. Assuming there are no reported complications, a pass-rusher like Dupree is going to find significant interest on the open market.
5. Kenny Golladay, WR
News: Golladay, New York Giants agree to four-year, $72 million deal
Golladay's contract year was a bust, as injuries forced him to miss 11 games. When healthy, however, Golladay showed that he can be a big-time downfield No. 1 receiver. He combined for 17 touchdown receptions in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, tied for the NFL's seventh most over that span.