2021 NFL free agency: Best fits for T.Y. Hilton, Jadeveon Clowney and more

After the first wave of NFL free agency, there are a number of impact players still on the open market. Where could they be headed? Nick Shook reveals best team fits for seven notable remaining free agents.

Miami reportedly pursued Clowney in 2020 but ultimately couldn’t agree on a salary figure that suited the edge rusher, which led to his prolonged free agency and eventual signing in Tennessee. Nearly a year later, Clowney’s unimpressive lone season with the Titans has deflated his value, making an affordable signing possible in Miami. In what appears to be ideal timing, the Dolphins need an edge presence in their 3-4 scheme, and Clowney seems to be a good fit. A one-year, prove-it deal that can fit inside Miami’s estimated $10.5 million in space doesn’t seem outlandish, and it would add an athletic talent to an already scrappy unit.

Tennessee released Dennis Kelly last week in a cap-saving move that may have surprised some, considering its need to identify a quality starter to man the right tackle position. The Titans added veteran Kendall Lamm via free agency, but while Lamm has experience playing both tackle positions, his best fit is likely as a backup swing tackle, not a dependable starter on the right side. With the Titans also needing an answer at receiver and nose tackle, this shouldn’t be their last addition, but the draft can help them answer at least one of those positions. After the abject failure of first-round flameout Isaiah Wilson, the Titans can ill afford to put their hopes in the hands of another rookie with their window for contention remaining open in the immediate future. Adding Schwartz, who recently underwent back surgery to address an injury that shortened his 2020 season, would be a slam dunk move that would shore up the offensive line and help the Titans return to opening big holes for Derrick Henry.

The Panthers let Curtis Samuel walk in free agency and while they did add scrappy veteran David Moore, there’s no reason the Panthers should stop there. Carolina has become a younger team that could use a veteran presence like Hilton, and though its current fluid situation at quarterback might not be the most attractive option for a veteran with a finite amount of football left ahead of him, he’d be a valuable add for the Panthers. Carolina would just have to convince Hilton that an instant contender isn’t a better destination for him — an effort that could easily see some help from additional dollars.

The Colts have a ton of cap space to spend — the second-most in the league, per Over The Cap — and Dunlap has yet to find a home despite proving in Seattle he still has some juice left in him, as evidenced by his five sacks in 2020. The Colts found similar success last season with veteran additions Xavier Rhodes, who was thought to be over the hill but played very effectively with them in 2020 and just re-signed as a result, and Justin Houston, whose departure created this need. Why not add another veteran and put him on the same defensive line as DeForest Buckner?

If Bashaud Breeland heads elsewhere as is expected, the Chiefs can find a veteran replacement with championship-level experience in Butler, whose production, like Breeland’s, has been up and down but also consistently makes key plays in important moments. The Chiefs still need to figure out their situation at tackle and appear to be waiting out Austin Reiter‘s market to answer their lingering question at center, but on the defensive side of the ball, Butler makes plenty of sense. L’Jarius Sneed proved he can handle a larger role, but a veteran presence wouldn’t hurt a team aiming for another Super Bowl run. 

If we’ve learned anything in this unusual offseason, it’s that the salary cap seems to be more of a myth than a restrictive, even oppressive (to personnel executives) measure for teams. I had Jones as a fit for the Cardinals in our pre-free agency NFC primer and I’m sticking with it, even if the money might require significant gymnastics to make it work. Jones has long gone overlooked for his contributions in the middle, but he can round out a defensive front that carries its star power on the edges with Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt. Adding Jones along the interior would make for a painful weekly poison-picking ritual for opposing offenses and would also help shore up Arizona’s run defense, which finished 22nd in the league last season.

With the aforementioned salary cap lesson in mind, let’s toss aside Las Vegas’ lack of available space (roughly $3 million, per OTC) and add a player the Raiders could definitely use on the back end of their defense. Woods had his worst year in the NFL in 2020, but it came as part of a Mike Nolan defense that floundered because of scheme as much as personnel. When at his best, Woods is a hard-hitting safety who’s been solid in coverage and effective against the run. He would provide an aggressive nature matched by Johnathan Abram that could help turn the Raiders’ defensive personality from one lacking punch to a unit to be feared. While Las Vegas needs to be better at getting after the passer, it could also use a boost in the secondary. Woods could bring that and fill a glaring hole.

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