Patriots

The top 6 remaining NFL free agents as season begins

Patriots

We are only one game into the 2021 NFL season, but injuries are already in the headlines. 

The Baltimore Ravens’ backfield has been hammered, as J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill are all done for the season with knee injuries. In addition, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters is out for the year with a torn ACL. 

As the season goes along, injuries are bound to happen. But that means teams will be keeping an eye on the available free agents to bring in as replacements if needed. The Ravens have already been busy, signing Le’Veon Bell, DeVonta Freeman and Lativius Murray to their practice squad.

 

Even with the Ravens scooping up those running backs, there are other notable veterans who remain unsigned. Here are some of the top free agents who are still on the market. 

Cam Newton, quarterback

Bill Belichick created the biggest story during cut day when the New England Patriots released Cam Newton, making rookie quarterback Mac Jones the starter. Newton started each of the Patriots’ three preseason games, but the team reportedly became frustrated with him after a “misunderstanding” with COVID-19 protocols kept him away from the team for five days last week.

Newton threw eight touchdowns, ran for another 12 and tossed 10 interceptions during his first season in New England, which ended with a 7-9 record. The former NFL MVP could be an enticing option for a team seeking an experienced backup signal caller.

Olivier Vernon, defensive end

Olivier Vernon would have surely been signed this offseason, if not for tearing his Achilles in the final regular-season game with the Cleveland Browns in 2020. As a result, the 30-year-old is without a team to start the season, as he continues to rehab his injury. 

Vernon spent time with the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants before being included in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade to the Browns. In two seasons in Cleveland, Vernon racked up 12.5 sacks, including nine last year, playing opposite of Myles Garrett on the D-line. He is a resourceful player when healthy, and could offer a spark late in the season for a team if he recovers in time. 

Mitchell Schwartz, offensive tackle

A back injury prior to Week 6 eventually landed Mitchell Schwartz on the reserve/COVID-19 list by the end of November last season. The former Kansas City Chiefs tackle underwent back surgery in February, and the team waived him in March. 

 

Now that he’s on his way to 100% health, he could provide a team with help on the right side of the offensive line. The 32-year-old has been one of the best in the business at right tackle, with a first-team All-Pro selection and three second-team honors. Once he’s cleared, he could be a boost to a team in need of protection from the edge.

Russell Okung, offensive tackle

A first-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks back in the 2010 draft, Russell Okung has bounced around a bit the last few seasons. After six seasons with the Seahawks, Okung has spent the last five with the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers. Over the last two seasons, he’s only played in 13 games as he’s dealt with injuries. 

Okung said in July he’s waiting for a “satisfactory offer”, which clearly did not come to fruition given his free agency status. He made $13.5 million last season with Carolina and his last Pro Bowl season came in 2017, so it's unclear what Okung views his value at. But playing the long game may work in Okung’s favor if a team suffers injuries along the line. It also may provide another opportunity for Okung to invest a contract into Bitcoin, a play that certainly benefited the tackle last season. 

Todd Gurley, running back

It has been a long fall from grace for Todd Gurley. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, the Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and helped bring the Los Angeles Rams to Super Bowl LIII. But by the 2020 offseason, his knees had diminished his production and he was released by the Rams. 

 

He signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons last year, rushing for a career-low 678 yards and nine touchdowns. The 27-year-old no longer provides the offensive explosiveness he once displayed and certainly will not be able to handle a full workload. But given the rest of the options, if a team is in desperate need for help at running back, it may be worth taking a flier on the former Georgia Bulldog. 

Quinton Dunbar, defensive back

It’s been an … eventful year and a half for cornerback Quinton Dunbar. Dunbar started his career with the Washington Football Team, signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He had five fairly productive seasons in Washington before being traded to the Seahawks in 2020. That summer, he was arrested for armed robbery and was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. He was reinstated before the beginning of the season, as the charges were dropped. But Dunbar played just six games with Seattle before being shut down with a knee injury. 

Dunbar signed with the Detroit Lions in August, but spent less than a week with the team before he was released. He had talks with the Seahawks as well about a return before he signed with Detroit. A return to the Northwest could remain an option, but the 29-year-old may have to look elsewhere for another opportunity.