The 2021 NFL free-agency class will hit the market amid an unprecedented environment. For only the second time in its history, the league is expected to lower its salary-cap number from the previous season because of lost revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After seven consecutive years of $10 million increases, teams will have less space to re-sign their own players -- and those who make it to the open market will find less interest in precedent-setting new contracts.
What won't change, however, is the level to which teams can remake their short-term fortunes with prudent and targeted decisions. So as much of the NFL world focuses on the conclusion of the playoffs, now is a great time to start looking at the potential of this class. Our annual January ranking of the 50 best free agents comes with the usual caveat: Many of these players will either return to their incumbent teams or receive a movement-prohibiting tag long before the market opens.
This list is also weighted to reflect the approach we often see in free agency. Teams always will prefer younger players coming off their rookie contracts. Running backs usually are devalued, because of their shorter career peaks and the continuing shift toward the passing game. Potential pass-rushers are always sought, regardless of their past productivity, and no one cares about the age of left tackles.
One recent shift in league thinking is reflected here, too: Players coming off serious injuries aren't necessarily fated to one-year "prove it" deals. There is enough recent history to suggest that teams are better at anticipating full recoveries and will sometimes offer competitive deals. We'll update this list later this spring in anticipation of the scheduled March 17 market opening, but for now, here are the top 50 free agents for this offseason.