The Brandt Report

2021 NFL free agency: Seven intriguing player-team fits

At this time in the NFL calendar, with the promise of free agency still a few weeks away, we remain free to dream about deals that have only the most tenuous relationship with reality. We can still speculate about superstars making exciting moves while ignoring the realities of the salary cap and franchise tag.

I'm not here to do that. Rather, I've put together seven potential team-free agent fits below that stand out both for being intriguing and being viable. I've considered the likelihood that these players will reach free agency, as well as the needs and cap situations of the teams I've paired them with. These are not the seven best free agents, necessarily; think of this as a compilation of interesting matches that could actually happen.

Turning in the card to select Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft will be easy -- ensuring Lawrence has the supporting cast he needs to succeed will be a bigger challenge. D.J. Chark is a quality receiver, and James Robinson is coming off one of the greatest rookie seasons ever recorded by an undrafted running back, but beyond that, upgrades are needed. Inking Samuel, who hit career highs in catches (77), receiving yards (851) and catch rate (79.4%) with the Panthers in 2020, would be a good start, not least because he also has the ability to carry the ball out of the backfield (41 rushing attempts for 200 yards and two scores last season). I can still remember Samuel's impressive pro-day performance, and I'm sure new Jags head coach Urban Meyer, who recruited Samuel to Ohio State when he was coaching the Buckeyes, remembers it well, too. Samuel doesn't turn 25 until August, and his best football is ahead of him.  

The Chargers plucked their new head coach, Brandon Staley, from the Rams' organization, and they should keep raiding the other Los Angeles organization for talent by signing away Floyd, who enjoyed his best professional season to date with Staley as his defensive coordinator in 2020. The former Bears first-round pick -- who I ranked as the 12th-best player coming out of college in 2016 -- broke out with the Rams, logging 10.5 sacks, 19 QB hits and 55 tackles. Melvin Ingram, who is turning 32 in April, is also headed for free agency, and replacing him with Floyd would nicely upgrade the pass-rushing spot opposite Joey Bosa.

Quarterback (and 2020 first overall pick) Joe Burrow was sacked 32 times and hit 72 times before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. Cincinnati has already prioritized the offensive line by re-hiring position coach Frank Pollack, who was with the Jets in 2019 and 2020 but served as the Bengals' O-line coach in 2018, when they ranked 11th in sacks allowed per game (2.3). The Bengals are poised to potentially add a tackle with the fifth overall pick in the draft, but they should keep building up Burrow's protection by signing Thuney, who played 2020 in New England under the franchise tag, garnering Pro Football Focus' 10th-best grade among guards. Thuney would be a perfect fit on the field for Cincinnati, and he'd also add some veteran savvy to a roster that currently doesn't feature a single player with Super Bowl experience. 

Sherman wants to keep playing -- and he knows he won't be doing it in San Francisco anymore. Sherman's old defensive coordinator with the Niners, meanwhile, is trying to change the Jets' losing culture as New York's new head coach. Adding a proven winner like Sherman, who clearly has an affinity for Saleh, can aid that effort in a big way. It's true that Sherman turns 33 in March and hasn't been playing at the same level he did in his Seahawks heyday. But he can still provide an upgrade in leadership on a secondary that could use plenty of help this offseason. 

While the Browns' early free agency focus appears to be on potentially adding J.J. Watt to the defensive front, don't forget that the back end could also use some serious sprucing up. Harris played all 1,016 of the Vikings' defensive snaps last season en route to finishing with a career-high 104 tackles. And while he didn't log a single pick in 2020, he's shown serious ball-hawking skills in the past, snagging nine interceptions combined in 2018 and '19. He is familiar with Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski from their time together with the Vikings, and his addition would allow defensive coordinator Joe Woods to use more three-safety sets in 2021, with Harris, Ronnie Harrison and 2020 second-round pick Grant Delpit, who missed his rookie season with an injury.

Let me say that Fuller might not be the top receiver option for Washington, but he might be the most viable, presuming the Bears use the franchise tag to keep Allen Robinson from the open market and Curtis Samuel, as I suggest above, is signed by the Jaguars. Fuller has a lengthy injury history and will miss the 2021 season-opener as he finishes a suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy, but he's also coming off the best statistical season of his career, even though he only played in 11 games, posting 53 catches for 879 yards (16.6 yards per catch) and eight TDs. When he's healthy, Fuller is something special. His game-breaking skills would serve as the perfect complement to Terry McLaurin, who was essentially a one-man band in 2020, recording more catches by himself (87) than the next three Washington receivers on the stat sheet (Cam Sims, Isaiah Wright and Steven Sims combined for 86). 

Facing a salary-cap mess in 2021, the Steelers probably can't afford to keep Villanueva; among their pending free agents, Zach Banner looks like a potentially less costly replacement at left tackle. The Colts, meanwhile, are in need of a left tackle, with Anthony Castonzo retiring and former No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz set to take over at quarterback. (Cam Robinson would also be appealing, but I expect Jacksonville to either re-sign him or retain him via the franchise tag.) Villanueva has started every game in the past six years and is solid in both the run game and pass protection. Indianapolis will no doubt be driven to protect its investment under center, and adding Villanueva would make a lot of sense.

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