The NFL’s 2021 free agent class wasn’t necessarily a star-studded group, yet more than three weeks after the market officially opened its doors, there are still some very familiar names who remain unsigned.
At this point, as the league’s annual draft draws ever nearer and some teams operate with only enough salary cap space to sign their rookie classes, it’s probably unlikely that many of the available veterans will leap at a deal in the next few weeks.
“(A)pparently we got to wait ’til the draft happens before anything else shakes out, because everybody has their hopes and dreams in the draft, which is understandable,” said unsigned cornerback Richard Sherman on “The Cris Collinsworth Podcast featuring Richard Sherman.”
“You turn 33, and then it’s like, ‘We’ll wait until we get a young pup, and if we can’t get a young pup, we’ll take an old fool.’ So that’s where we’re sitting.”
Pretty much. Yet why sign a contract in this relatively late stage of free agency when you can let the draft chips fall into place, determine which clubs might wind up more desperate for your services in May and beyond … all while relaxing poolside or on the golf course as opposed to attending OTAs?
With that in mind, here are my top 10 free agents still on the board:
1. DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney: The No. 1 overall pick in 2014 is only 28, though an assortment of injuries have slowed him in recent seasons – meniscus surgery cutting short a 2020 campaign in Tennessee when he didn’t collect a sack. Clowney has never been an elite pass rusher but is occasionally a dominant all-around edge defender – especially effective against the run – who can handle any scheme. He’s already paid a visit to Cleveland, and why not investigate an opportunity to play opposite an All-Pro pass rusher like Myles Garrett? But, as he did last year, don’t be surprised if Clowney takes his sweet time before making a decision. Good fits: 49ers, Browns, Panthers, Jets, Ravens
2. LT Alejandro Villanueva: A two-time Pro Bowler, the 32-year-old West Pointer may not be the dominant force Trent Williams is. But there aren’t many 6-9, 320-pounders lying around who can so capably protect a quarterback’s blind side, and Villanueva remains one of the league’s better pass blockers. Good fits: Chargers, Chiefs, Colts, Panthers, Steelers
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3. LT Eric Fisher: The two-time Pro Bowler and No. 1 overall pick in 2013, he was in the midst of another strong season for Kansas City until suffering an Achilles injury in the AFC title game. Though Fisher, 30, may not be ready for opening day, he could still be a short-term or below-market investment who provides a nice dividend … or perhaps just a smart pickup for the long haul. Good fits: Chargers, Chiefs, Colts, Panthers
4. WR Antonio Brown: After essentially sitting out two years for issues that had nothing to do with on-field performance, AB returned in 2020 and had quite a productive half-season for the Buccaneers – his numbers projected over 16 games equating to 90 catches for 966 yards and eight TDs … and Brown only started four times. Of course, he comes with ample baggage and, per reports, hasn’t re-upped with Tampa Bay in hopes of getting more money from the Bucs or another team. Good fits: 49ers, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Patriots
5. DE/OLB Justin Houston: He’s scheme-versatile, a good leader and productive – totaling 19 sacks in two years as a defensive end for the Colts. Houston is 32 but has only missed five games in the past four seasons, none since leaving Kansas City in 2019. Good fits: Browns, Jaguars, Jets, Steelers
6. DE/OLB Melvin Ingram: He was a Pro Bowler every year from 2017 through 2019. But in 2020, injuries limited Ingram to seven games with the Chargers, and he didn’t register a sack while finishing with five QB hits. Still, he’s another experienced, versatile defender who can man the edge regardless of scheme. The biggest question could be the health of Ingram’s knee. Good fits: Chargers, Chiefs, Jaguars, Panthers
7. C Austin Reiter: He spent the past two seasons as the Chiefs’ primary center. And though Kansas City’s O-line disintegrated last year, don’t blame Reiter, who didn’t give up a single sack or hit on QB Patrick Mahomes and didn’t even commit a penalty. Good fits: Broncos, Jets, Packers, Ravens
8. CB Casey Hayward: Long one of the league’s more consistent corners, he was undermined by back and groin problems last year while toiling on a Chargers defense that was generally beaten up physically. Hayward may no longer be a No. 1 cornerback but certainly seems capable of starting for numerous squads. Good fits: 49ers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Jets
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9. QB Alex Smith: He’s never going to be the same physically in the aftermath of his horrifying 2018 leg injury. But even while battling drop foot during his triumphant 2020 comeback player of the year return, Smith won five of six starts to spark Washington’s unexpected drive to the NFC East title. And he’s long been lauded for his willingness to be a mentor to young quarterbacks, most notably in Kansas City, where he turned the keys over to Mahomes. Good fits: Bengals, Broncos, Jets, Texans
10. CB Richard Sherman: He’s dealt with quite a few injuries over the past four seasons, missing 11 games for San Francisco in 2020 with a calf issue. Sherman’s 2017 campaign – his final one with Seattle – was ended prematurely by a ruptured Achilles. But Sherman, 33, was a Pro Bowler for the NFC champion 49ers in 2019 and remains a cagey presence who so often wins his battles thanks to film study and sharp instincts. He can still help quite a few clubs, and Sherman, who serves as his own agent, will surely wait to let the market crystallize before signing his next deal. Good fits: Cowboys, Jets, Saints
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.