One week from the opening of the NFL's negotiating window for free agents, the marketplace is as unsettled as any in recent memory.
There is still no final number for the 2021 salary cap, which is expected to fall from a record $198.2 million in 2020 to around $185 million because of a revenue shortfall last season related to COVID-19. A rash of veteran cuts is underway and will continue through the start of free agency (March 17) and beyond, flooding the market with players who won't count against clubs that then sign them in the compensatory draft pick formula. And the big spike from new TV contracts may not come until 2023, complicating how new multi-year deals are structured.
The expectation continues to be that the first wave of a couple dozen free agents will get paid as they always would. Then the bottom may fall out, with many second- and third-tier players looking at one-year deals that send them back to an uncertain market in 2022. And unlike most years, when teams and agents routinely meet at the NFL Scouting Combine -- an event that was significantly altered by the pandemic, losing the in-person gathering in Indianapolis -- sources say there is far less clarity for anyone involved about who may land where, or for how much.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith has already implored agents to "collude," communicating with one another and union officials to avoid getting strong-armed into low deals that affect markets for years to come. But with roughly $800 million less in the 2021 marketplace that teams were budgeting for prior to the pandemic, it's unavoidable the middle class is going to get squeezed to some degree, and teams are already getting creative with voidable years, salary conversions and other mechanisms as they restructure existing deals just to get by when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET two Wednesdays from now.
With all that said, here's a look at some pending unrestricted free agents who might end up getting more money than you think:
There are a lot of headliners at receiver -- Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller and JuJu Smith-Schuster, among others -- though that group figures to get thinned out via potential tags for Robinson, Godwin and/or Golladay. A less-heralded name to watch is Davis, the No. 5 overall draft pick in 2017 whose strong fourth season (65 catches for 984 yards and five TDs in 14 games) puts him in position to cash in on the Titans' decision to decline his fifth-year option.
The belief is the Giants will re-sign or tag (again) emerging star Leonard Williams, leaving his 27-year-old teammate Tomlinson -- who has started every game since New York drafted him in the second round in 2017 -- as a premier player in the UFA market (assuming he doesn't get tagged himself). The 2021 draft class is considered very weak for defensive tackles, which could recession-proof the FA interior group to a degree -- even in the second wave, where the likes of Denver's Shelby Harris, Tennessee's DaQuan Jones, Chicago's Roy Robertson-Harris, Cleveland's Larry Ogunjobi and New England's Adam Butler should do well.
The big-ticket TE item is the Chargers' Hunter Henry, who could end up getting franchise tagged again -- this time for $12.73 million -- if the sides can't strike a long-term deal. But with executives seeing a relatively thin tight end group in the '21 draft, look for some other veterans to cash in, too. The 25-year-old Smith, coming off a career year for the Titans with 41 catches and nine total touchdowns, is in line to strike it big. Also, look for a nice payday for Everett, a rotational player throughout his career with the Rams who has a rare athletic skill set.
Perhaps if he had a less anonymous name, Johnson would get has much recognition outside NFL circles as he does inside. That may change once he signs a new deal after four productive seasons with the Rams. With Justin Simmons already tagged in Denver as the sides try to work out a long-term deal and the Jets' Marcus Maye probably heading that way, as well, Williams -- who has started 60 games over four seasons and is still only 24 -- is another in good position to cash in.
It's a lean year for free-agent offensive linemen, especially with Carolina tackle Taylor Moton and perhaps Washington guard Brandon Scherff (again) headed for franchise tags. But expect a few players to command monster deals near the top of the market for their positions: Linsley, the All-Pro center last season with the Packers who's still only 29; Thuney, 28, who played on the franchise tag with the Patriots last season; and Williams, 32, who returned from a year off, played well in 14 starts for the 49ers and now is widely expected to become one of the NFL's highest-paid tackles, again.
It's also a lean year for outside corners beyond Seattle's Shaquill Griffin and Cincinnati's William Jackson, who both are in line for lucrative contracts. That should benefit the likes of Darby, who's still only 27 and rebounded from three injury-riddled years in Philadelphia to start every game -- and play well -- last season for Washington. Hill started every game last season and is on the short list of guys who can play inside and outside.
Even at age 31, Lavonte David remains one of the NFL's best true off-ball linebackers and figures to get a strong deal after helping the Bucs to a Super Bowl win -- potentially staying in Tampa. But don't be surprised if there's also a big payday somewhere for Milano, who's undersized and played just 10 games (five starts) for the Bills in 2020 because of injuries, but has been productive when he's on the field.