Ranking the Top-20 Free Agents of 2021 (Fantasy Football)
We’re not even past the Pro Bowl of the current season, but it’s never too early to start planning ahead. Some big names should be available on the open market in 2021, and where they sign will have a lasting impact on the fantasy landscape for years to come.
Here are my top-20 free agents of the 2021 class:
1. Dak Prescott (QB – DAL)
Last year’s offseason was dominated by talk over Dak’s contract extension with Dallas (or lack thereof) before the anticlimactic ending was revealed to be a franchise tag. Dallas’ signal caller got off to a blistering start to the season, with 1,690 passing yards, a 9/3 TD/INT ratio, and three additional rushing scores. He was head-and-shoulders the best fantasy quarterback in the early goings of the season, and he posted two of the top-eight fantasy quarterback performances on the season despite appearing in only four full games before a devestating leg injury ended his campaign prematurely.
Cowboys fans should be prepared for another franchise tag in 2021 if no long-term deal is completed, but after Dak’s tremendous start and Dallas’ disappointing end to the season, it’s possible Jerry Jones buckles and pays the man. By contract or tag, it seems the most likely that Dak will remain with the Cowboys in 2021, but make no mistake about it, he’s still the top free agent of this class.
2. Allen Robinson (WR – CHI)
A-Rob just finished the final season of his 3-year/$42 million deal with the Bears and averaged a healthy 85/1,050/6 line while in Chicago. He’s succeeded with poor quarterback play throughout his career, and if he decides to take his talents to another city with a more talented signal-caller, it’s possible the best is yet to come.
3. Aaron Jones (RB – GB)
Just 26 years old and finished with the final year of his rookie deal, Jones will look for a big payday on the open market. Over the last two seasons, there have been few backs as productive as Jones, who averaged 3,017 scrimmage yards and 30 TDs in that span.
4. Kenny Golladay (WR – DET)
Kenny G appeared in just five games last season due to a lingering hip injury. It was disappointing considering his production in 2019 when he led the league in TDs with 11 and went 65/1,190/11. He’s averaged 16.8 yards per catch since entering the league as a premier deep-threat option and offers plenty of upside for any team that signs him. Just like Jones, he’ll look to cash in for his first big payday following his rookie deal.
5. JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR – PIT)
Aside from a disappointing 2019, Smith-Schuster has been a rock-solid wideout since entering the league to much fanfare out of USC four years ago. He caught 97 balls in 2020 and turned nine of them into touchdowns, but the season was certainly an outlier, as he racked up a meager 831 receiving yards (8.6 yards per reception). In four years with the Steelers, JJSS averaged a 77/931/6.5 receiving line, and he should have teams lining up to vie for his services in free agency. Will he choose to leave his home at Heinz Field with the likely possibility of someone like Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins throwing him the ball?
6. Chris Godwin (WR – TB)
Godwin failed to live up to expectations in 2020 after breaking out in 2019, but he was far from underwhelming. He’ll turn 25 this season, and there should be plenty of productive years ahead. Across his last three seasons, the Bucs’ wideout has averaged 70/1,005 and scored 23 touchdowns.
7. Jameis Winston (QB – NO)
Winston played sparingly in his first (and possibly only) season with the Saints, but Winston’s landing spot in 2021 will have plenty of fantasy impact – make no mistake about it. The fantasy outlooks of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are tied to New Orleans’ signal-caller – whether it be Taysom Hill or Winston. Winston’s final season with Tampa Bay in 2019 highlighted his enormous ceiling and poor decision making. He led the league in pass attempts (626), passing yards (5,109) and interceptions (30) picks while throwing 33 touchdowns.
The 2015 No. 1 overall pick signed a one-year deal with New Orleans, and it’s not yet known if he’ll remain with the team to compete for a starting role with Taysom Hill or look for success outside the Big Easy. Has he matured and learned better decision-making under Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Sean Payton? Can he make good on his draft pedigree with a productive second act, or will he forever be a No. 1 pick who failed to meet expectations?
8. Chris Carson (RB – SEA)
Across his last three seasons, Carson has averaged over 1,000 scrimmage yards and nine total touchdowns. He’s gone for 75 scrimmage yards per game and developed into a reliable pass-catching back, particularly on a per-game basis in 2020. The seventh-rounder hasn’t made a fortune in the NFL – not by a longshot. Ready to hit the open market, he should be able to score a nice payday in 2021.
9. Corey Davis (WR – TEN)
Selected No. 5 overall in 2017, expectations were sky-high for Davis, but he underwhelmed in his first three seasons – flashing in spurts but never tying it all together for a full season. He was an afterthought in 2020 fantasy drafts, but Davis responded with a 65/984/5 receiving line that saw him set career highs in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns while matching a career high in receptions. He should be an affordable free agent this season, and whatever team lands him will likely do so at a discount.
10. Will Fuller (WR – HOU)
With DeAndre Hopkins out the door, the Notre Dame product set career highs in receptions (53), receiving yards (879), and receiving touchdowns (8) in 2020. He provided some huge games for fantasy managers, and expectations were soaring, but Fuller once again missed time, as he ended the season on suspension for PEDs. Fuller has now appeared in just 53 of a possible 80 games across his five years in the league, and this lack of consistent availability should give fantasy managers pause. Is it possible his clean bill of health throughout this season was due in part to PED use? It’s definitely something to consider ahead of 2021.
11. Kenyan Drake (RB – ARI)
Drake’s 2020 season didn’t quite live up to the billing he set when he went for 814 scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns in his eight games with the Cards in 2019. Still, he went for over 1,000 scrimmage yards for the third straight season and set career highs in rush yards (955) and rushing touchdowns (10). Chase Edmonds cut into his production with heavy involvement in the passing game and occasional goal-line work. Will Arizona choose to move ahead with Edmonds in control of the backfield or sign Drake to a new deal? If he leaves the desert, Drake shouldn’t have trouble finding a new home.
12. Hunter Henry (TE – LAC)
Henry played last season on a 1-year, $10.6 million deal and will look to make more dough as a free agent in 2021. He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2016, securing eight touchdowns on just 36 receptions. He followed that up with a relatively productive 2017 and missed all of the 2018 season with a torn ACL. Henry finished 2020 with a career-high 60 receptions, though he only found the end zone four times. Henry has finished inside the top-16 TEs in all four healthy seasons he’s played, though he’s been a TE1 only once (2019). The dearth of reliable options at the position should make Henry an attractive free agent, and if he lands in the right situation, he could easily finish as a top-5 fantasy TE.
13. Antonio Brown (WR – TB)
The future Hall of Famer provided some solid, if unspectacular numbers in 2020, going 45/483/4 across eight games with Tom Brady throwing him the ball. Brown’s off-the-field issues are an enormous concern, but his talent and ability on the field shouldn’t be questioned. Is it possible the guidance and structure provided by Brady have kept Brown on the straight-and-narrow? If so, will his off-the-field issues and locker-room troubles rear their ugly head again? Brown could opt to stay in Tampa Bay with Brady to compete for a Super Bowl. With fellow wideout Chris Godwin also a free agent, more opportunities could be available for Brown if he chooses to remain with the Buccaneers in 2021.
14. Marvin Jones (WR – DET)
With Kenny Golladay out for most of the season, Jones posted career highs in targets and receptions while racking up the second-highest career receiving yards total and his fourth season with at least nine touchdowns (76/978/9). He’s been a huge downfield threat with tons of touchdown upside throughout his career, and he should be in line for a fat new contract in free agency.
15. Curtis Samuel (WR – CAR)
Samuel broke out in 2020 thanks to his work as a receiver and running back. The versatile wideout went 77/851/3 through the air and added 200 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries on the ground. All of his numbers were career bests aside from his touchdowns, and the soon-to-be 25-year-old has explosive abilities, big-play potential, and versatility that teams should be clamoring for in 2021.
16. Leonard Fournette (RB – TB)
Fournette was expected to handle a significant workload for Tampa Bay in 2020, but instead, he ceded a lot of work to Ronald Jones, who led the backfield throughout the year. He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards in two of four seasons, and he even caught 76 passes in 2019, his final year in Jacksonville. Fournette’s still got top-15 upside if he lands in the right situation, but it’s entirely possible he chooses to stay in Tampa Bay and compete for a Super Bowl rather than look elsewhere for a new deal or a lead role.
17. Phillip Lindsay (RB – DEN)
In his first two seasons as Denver’s lead back, Lindsay rushed for 2,048 yards, caught 70 passes, and scored 17 times. His numbers understandably took a tumble this season while sharing time with Melvin Gordon, but there’s no reason to believe Lindsay can’t produce at a high level if given lead-back duties on a new team. He’ll only be 27 with three years under his belt when the new season starts, and he should come at a friendly discount in fantasy drafts.
18. Marlon Mack (RB – IND)
From 2018-2019, Mack rushed for 1,999 yards, but his 2020 was cut short due to a torn Achilles suffered in the first game of the season. If he’s looking for a lead role in 2021, it’s sure to come elsewhere after Jonathan Taylor piled up 1,468 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns as a rookie. Taylor should be the unquestioned top dog in Indy’s backfield next season, and Mack’s fantasy value will be entirely dependent on where he signs in free agency.
19. James Conner (RB – PIT)
Conner earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2018 behind 1,470 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns, but he hasn’t sniffed that level of production in two seasons since. Pittsburgh’s rushing attack has been pedestrian as of late, and Conner hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Across his last three seasons, Conner has appeared in just 35 of 48 possible games, but when on the field, he’s averaged a healthy 86.7 scrimmage yards per contest. Conner’s dual-threat abilities as a rusher and receiver should make him a quality signing for RB-needy teams, but health will obviously be a huge concern.
20. Jeff Wilson (RB – SF)
Wilson was part of another injury-prone San Francisco backfield in 2020, and he appeared in just 12 games. Still, he had several big performances and made the most of his opportunities, finishing with career-best stats across the board that included a 126/600/7 rushing line and a 13/133/3 receiving line. He ended the season on a high note with 292 yards and three total touchdowns in Weeks 16-17. He’ll be just 25 years old when the season starts, and Wilson has just 247 career NFL touches. If he finds the right home in 2021, there’s a path to top-20 production.
Honorable Mention: T.Y. Hilton (WR – IND)
Hilton didn’t belong on fantasy rosters through the first 11 weeks of 2020, but he finished the season on quite a high note, as he went 27/435/5 from Weeks 12-17. The deep-play threat has racked up five 1,000-yard seasons, four Pro Bowls, and one receiving total in nine seasons, and at just 31, he should still have something left in the tank to contribute meaningfully for whatever team he plays for in 2021. Hilton could see more success with a quarterback willing to throw the ball downfield a bit more.
His quarterback Philip Rivers finished 26th in Intended Air Yards per Attempt (IAY/PA) in 2020 (7.2), and a new signal-caller could revive Hilton’s fantasy value. If he returns to Indy on a new deal, he could have someone like Matthew Stafford tossing him passes. Stafford’s 8.7 IAY/PA was fifth in the NFL.
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