Barnwell: 15 NFL free agents who could gain or lose (a lot) in the next six weeks

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

The 2020 NFL season has arguably been the weirdest in league history. Next year will hopefully be something closer to normal, but the league’s pending free agents will be in a bind with the salary cap projected to fall to $175 million. Teams that have relied on steady cap increases will be forced to cut veterans to create space, resulting in a flooded market. The significant cap increases that will come after the league signs its new television deals are still two or three years away.

This is a terrible time to become a free agent, which is why it’s even more important to impress the market with how they perform over the final few weeks of the NFL season. Let’s run through the pending free agents who have the most to gain or lose over the remainder of the 2020 season. I’m leaving out players such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Trey Hendrickson, in part because they likely have done enough to justify significant deals if they’re allowed to hit free agency.

For the 15 players on this list, the difference between a hot finish to the season and a disappointing December could amount to tens of millions in guaranteed money. Let’s start with a player who seemed to be in line to get his opportunity to impress, only to be left on the bench:


Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

Age entering 2021 season: 27

Winston always seems to be on lists like this. This year, it looked like an enormous opportunity might be opening up for the former first overall pick after Drew Brees went on injured reserve, but coach Sean Payton chose to elevate Taysom Hill to the starting job. The 30-year-old was solid in his debut as the Saints’ starter, posting a 68.3 Total QBR in a comfortable victory over the rival Falcons.

At this point, Winston would probably need Hill to fall on his face with a disastrous performance during New Orleans’ three-game road trip to have a shot at the starting job. If Winston were to impress in that role, he could very well end up with a starting opportunity for significant short-term money somewhere else in 2021. If not, he is likely looking at another one-year deal next offseason, possibly as Hill’s backup.

Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

Age entering 2021 season: 31

To understand Peterson’s 2020 season, you have only to look at his two games against the Seahawks. In the first matchup, he took on DK Metcalf and shut down the second-year star. Last Thursday, though, Metcalf caught three passes for 46 yards and a touchdown and drew a 46-yard pass interference penalty against Peterson. The veteran corner still has days in which he looks like the guy who started his career with eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, but he’s not that guy every week.

Peterson’s play over the remainder of the season could define his pay bracket on his upcoming deal. If he excels and helps the Cards make a deep playoff run, he should be able to net something north of the three-year, $50.5 million deal Darius Slay signed with the Eagles. If he struggles, teams might see a cornerback turning 31 with a PED suspension in his past and offer something more like Chris Harris Jr.’s two-year, $17 million pact.

Antonio Brown, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Age entering 2021 season: 33

Brown’s tenure with the Bucs has been relatively uneventful both on and off of the field. The former Steelers star has become a regular in the Tampa offense while playing just over 60% of the offensive snaps, but Tom Brady hasn’t been able to unlock his housemate’s past production. Brown is averaging a middling 8.7 yards per reception and just 6 yards per target, both of which would rank as career lows. AB has taken over the role Scotty Miller was playing in Tampa’s offense, but he has been less effective than Miller.

The seven-time Pro Bowler should improve as he gets his legs back underneath him, but given how he has acted off the field over the past few years, teams aren’t even going to consider Brown unless he’s an impact wide receiver. The Bucs have lost two of Brown’s first three games and have a brutal matchup against the Chiefs this week before their Week 13 bye. Their problems haven’t really been Brown’s fault, but Brady and Bruce Arians aren’t exactly sympathetic figures when things aren’t going well. Brown might be playing for his NFL career over the next two months.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

Age entering 2021 season: 32

Newton essentially has been three different players over the course of his debut season in New England. For three weeks to start the year, he was a force of nature as a runner who threw only when necessary (or when facing the Seahawks and their pass funnel defense). After returning from the COVID-19 list, Newton was a mess in two ugly starts against the Broncos and 49ers, then set the Patriots back with a critical fumble late in the loss to the Bills.

Over the past three weeks, he has turned into something entirely different. The former MVP has run 24 times for just 43 yards while instead making a difference as a passer, as he has completed nearly 72% of his throws while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. He is 10th in the league in Total QBR over that time frame, with his 73.8 mark just ahead of Ben Roethlisberger. Newton’s future as a starter — with the Patriots or another team — likely depends on which version of Cam pops up over the final six games of the season.

Russell Okung, OT, Carolina Panthers

Age entering 2021 season: 32

Nobody doubts Okung’s talent, but the veteran left tackle has had trouble staying on the field over the past two years. In 2019, it was a scary pulmonary embolism; this year, he has been limited to five games by groin or calf injuries.

The league is desperate for competent left tackles, so he will have interest if he wants to keep playing. A healthy stretch to end the year might be the difference between one-year offers and multiyear opportunities this offseason.

Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Tennessee Titans

Age entering 2021 season: 28

This season has been more of the same for Clowney, who continues to look like an impact defender for stretches without staying healthy or producing the numbers we associate with great edge rushers. Clowney was hoping to build off of an inconsistent 2019 season with an impressive 2020, but he has taken a slight step backward. After ranking second in pass rush win rate among edge rushers a year ago, Clowney ranks 20th this season. His three sacks and 13 knockdowns from 2019 have given way to zero sacks and six knockdowns on 425 snaps in 2020.

Most disconcertingly, he is now on injured reserve with a meniscus injury. Concerns about his knee led teams to pass on giving him a multiyear deal this past offseason. If he can return and help spur a pass rush that ranks 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate, he might be able to ride that playoff rush into a big deal. If not, he’s probably looking at a one-year deal and a pay cut from his $13 million salary with Mike Vrabel’s team.

Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings

Age entering 2021 season: 29

Harris was franchise tagged by the Vikings after racking up nine interceptions across 25 games between 2018 and 2019. History tells us gaudy interception totals are difficult to keep up, though, and after tying for the league lead a year ago, he has zero picks this season.

After allowing a passer rating of 44.2 in coverage a year ago, Harris is up to 124.3 this season. At 29, he probably has one shot at cashing in this offseason; some of his 2019 form would help him net a multiyear deal.

Leonard Floyd, EDGE, Los Angeles Rams

Age entering 2021 season: 28

One guy who has broken out this season is Floyd, who took Dante Fowler’s spot on the line for the Rams and appears to be following in his footsteps. The former Bears first-rounder was cut by his former team this offseason, but he has taken advantage of his new digs to rack up seven sacks and 15 knockdowns across the first 10 games. The sacks have come in bunches; Floyd had two in a revenge game against the Bears and three in the 23-16 win over the Rams two weeks ago.

If he cools down over the rest of the season, teams might see his first half as a flash in the pan and look at him for something short of the one-year, $9.5 million deal Beasley signed with the Titans. On the other hand, if Floyd stays on his current pace and finishes the regular season with 11 sacks and 24 knockdowns, the league could reward the Georgia product with something more like Fowler’s three-year, $45 million deal.

Younghoe Koo, K, Atlanta Falcons

Age entering 2021 season: 27

As is the case for many young kickers, Koo struggled in his first stop with the Chargers before succeeding elsewhere. Since joining the Falcons in 2019, he has converted 47 of his 51 field goal tries, which is the third-highest success rate in the league for kickers with 40 attempts or more over that time frame.

The Falcons aren’t in great cap shape, but as an unrestricted free agent, Koo could be able to command north of $4 million per season if he’s able to keep this up for the remainder of the season.

Jason Verrett, CB, San Francisco 49ers

Age entering 2021 season: 30

I wrote about Verrett’s incredible turnaround with the 49ers a couple of weeks ago. It’s incredible to see the former Chargers standout on the field every week, let alone playing at a high level.

Teams are understandably going to be scared of his significant injury history, but with the 49ers otherwise dealing with inconsistent cornerback play and Richard Sherman about to become an unrestricted free agent, Verrett could get a significant deal if he can just avoid injury for the remainder of the season. Few players have persevered through more for their opportunity.

Daryl Williams, OT, Buffalo Bills

Age entering 2021 season: 29

A second-team All-Pro at right tackle with the Panthers in 2017, Williams seemed set to hit free agency after 2018 and earn a massive contract. Instead, he tore his MCL and dislocated his patella over the summer and then suffered another knee injury in Week 1. He went back to Carolina on a one-year deal, but he bore little resemblance to his former self after being forced into starting spots at left tackle and right guard.

As seems to be the case for many former Panthers, Williams found new life with ex-Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Buffalo. He won the right tackle job and has been an above-average starter, ranking 26th among tackles in pass block win rate. If the knee issues don’t pop up again, Williams should be able to find a multiyear deal this offseason.

Garett Bolles, OT, Denver Broncos

Age entering 2021 season: 29

Bolles is a reminder of how it’s tough to give up on even the most frustrating of players. The 2017 first-rounder was flagged for a whopping 34 offensive holding calls from 2017-19, 15 more than anybody else in the league. The Broncos declined his fifth-year option and he won his old job by default after right tackle Ja’Wuan James opted out of the 2020 season. The only positive seemed to be that Broncos fans wouldn’t be allowed into the stadium to boo their oft-frustrating tackle.

And then, in his second season with legendary line coach Mike Munchak, Bolles has figured out some things. He has just three holding calls in nine games and ranks ninth in the league in pass block win rate. Suddenly, he has gone from looking like a question mark to playing like a building block for a young Denver offense. If he continues to keep up this level of play, he’ll put the Broncos in a bind as they pick between a possible franchise tag for Bolles or star safety Justin Simmons. If they try to extend him, Bolles’ deal could look like the three-year, $43.8 million extension D.J. Humphries inked with the Cardinals. Not bad for a guy who looked like he might be struggling for a roster spot in 2021.

Haason Reddick, LB, Arizona Cardinals

Age entering 2021 season: 26

Another 2017 first-rounder who had his fifth-year option declined, Reddick spent his first three seasons with the Cardinals struggling to turn his athleticism into reliable defensive performance. Arizona had moved Reddick around as an off-ball linebacker, but in 2020, it has basically turned him into a full-time edge rusher.

The results have been impressive, as Reddick has five sacks and nine knockdowns, although he hasn’t had a sack in his past three games. With Chandler Jones out for the season, the Cardinals have needed to rely on Reddick as one of their anchors in getting after the quarterback. If he can make noise over the remainder of the season, teams could see the Temple standout as a buy-low option at a position that is perennially tough to fill. Fortunately for Reddick, even buy-low edge rushers typically come in north of $10 million per season.

Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans

Age entering 2021 season: 27

One of the few bright spots in a dismal season for the Texans has been the presence of Fuller, who hasn’t missed a game this season. Outside of the Week 2 loss to the Ravens, where Fuller was in and out of the lineup for stretches with hamstring issues, he has been nearly an every-down player. The Notre Dame product is on pace to post a line with 75 catches for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns, and his 10.4 yards per target rank 10th among qualifying wide receivers this season.

Fuller’s low-floor, high-ceiling profile reminds me of how Sammy Watkins was perceived before the 2018 season. The former Bills and Rams wideout was able to sign a three-year, $48 million deal with the Chiefs, who wanted to surround the inexperienced Patrick Mahomes with as many wideouts as possible. If Fuller can stay healthy over the remainder of the season, a team with a young quarterback (like the Dolphins or Jaguars) will take a similar sort of plunge.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Age entering 2021 season: 26

Conner has been a boom-or-bust back this season, as he has five games with at least 80 rushing yards and five more with 50 rushing yards or fewer. Injuries gave Conner problems in 2018 and 2019, but after going down with an ankle injury in the season-opening win over the Giants, he didn’t miss a start and has been in the lineup every week since.

If you’re a Conner fantasy owner, you’ve probably noticed that he hasn’t been the same sort of force he was in 2018. While his yards per carry and success rate are virtually identical to what we saw during his breakout season, he hasn’t been able to produce as many high-value touches as he did in 2018. Conner has nine carries inside the 5-yard line this season, scoring at a league-average rate, but he has had no role in the passing game.

He is averaging just 14.5 receiving yards per game, down from 38.2 in 2018. While he might be fifth or sixth on the receiving depth chart behind Pittsburgh’s wide receivers and tight end Eric Ebron, he just isn’t going out as frequently; Conner averaged just under 26 routes run per game in 2018, but the fourth-year pro is below 18 routes per game in 2020.

As a between-the-tackles runner, he might have a market. I didn’t think Jordan Howard would have a market last offseason, and while he didn’t last long in Miami, he did take home nearly $4.8 million for 28 carries with the Dolphins. For Conner to net a multiyear guarantee or something north of $5 million per season, though, that passing game role probably has to show up again. Pittsburgh will be in a tight cap situation over the next couple of years, so if Conner impresses for the undefeated Steelers, he’ll likely be earning an opportunity with a new team in 2021.

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