NFL free agency 2021: Cam Newton, Todd Gurley highlight 11 big names still available on open market

The NFL season is just under a week away, with teams finalizing their initial 53-man

The NFL season is just under a week away, with teams finalizing their initial 53-man rosters ahead of their season openers. As a new wave of free agency hits, veteran players find themselves on the open market in favor of young talent — joining other veterans who are still looking for a job. 

Some of these players will find work sooner rather than later, even if most of the high-profile free agents are in their 30s. These players may be on the backend of their careers, but they still have some gas left in the tank to contribute to an NFL roster in 2021. 

Of the high profile free agents, here are the most notable as the season approaches: 

Newton, recently released by the New England Patriots earlier this week, is the top free agent in the league. The 2015 NFL MVP has thrown for 31,698 yards and 190 touchdowns in his career while rushing for 5,398 yards and 70 touchdowns — the latter of which are the most for a quarterback in league history. 

The only signal-caller to reach double-digit touchdowns in three separate seasons, Newton can still run with the best of them. Newton led the league with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2020, even though he ranked 34th out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in touchdown percentage (2.2) and 21st in yards per attempt (7.2).

If Newton wants to be a backup, he won’t be unemployed for long. But all the starting quarterback jobs are filled — for now.

One of the best running backs remaining in free agency, Peterson still has plans to play a 15th season, even if he hasn’t found a new team yet. He was productive in 2020, rushing for 604 yards on 156 carries and seven touchdowns in 16 games for the Detroit Lions at the age of 35. 

Peterson has 14,820 career rushing yards, leaving him just 450 yards short of passing Barry Sanders for fourth on the all-time list. His 118 rushing touchdowns are fourth in league history, just six away from passing Marcus Allen for third (123). He has the most 50-yard touchdown runs (16) and 60-yard touchdown runs (15) in NFL history. He’s tied with Chris Johnson for the most 70-yard touchdown runs in NFL history (seven).

Peterson holds the NFL record for rushing yards in a game with 296, one of six 200-yard rushing games in his career (tied with O.J. Simpson for the most in league history). His eight 1,000-yard seasons are tied for sixth-most in NFL history, and his eight seasons of 10-plus rushing touchdowns are tied with Emmitt Smith for second-most in league history. 

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One of the underrated tackles in the NFL for years, Schwartz is still a free agent after playing just six games last season because of a back injury. Schwartz has contemplated retirement, but has been rehabbing in hopes of a comeback. 

Schwartz has allowed just eight sacks in his last 2,269 pass-blocking snaps (54 games) dating back to 2017. The former first-team All-Pro selection could be an option for Kansas City, even if the Chiefs have depth at tackle entering the year. 

Sherman was one of the top free agent cornerbacks available prior to an arrest in July. The former All-Pro cornerback was charged with five misdemeanors — including driving under the influence, endangering roadway workers, resisting arrest and domestic-violence-related counts of malicious mischief and criminal trespass. Sherman can sign with any team but may face discipline from the league. 

Sherman spent the past three years with the San Francisco 49ers before becoming a free agent this offseason. With the 49ers, Sherman made second-team All-Pro and his fifth Pro Bowl appearance in 2019 as San Francisco made it all the way to Super Bowl LIV. 

Sherman is best remembered for his time as one of the captains of the “Legion of Boom” during his seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. The elite defensive unit even led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVIII win over the Denver Broncos to cap the 2013 campaign. A member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, Sherman has been selected as a first-team All-Pro three times in his career. 

Sherman — limited to just five games last season with a calf injury — allowed just a 57.1% completion rate and a 56.3 passer rating as the primary defender. 

Bell may have played his way out of the NFL just four years after being arguably the league’s best back. Bell amassed 4,476 rushing yards in his final four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2014 to 2017), which ranked third in the NFL amongst running backs, and first in receiving yards at his position with 2,261.

Since then, Bell’s career has taken a turn for the worse. After a one-year holdout, Bell cashed in with the New York Jets in 2019 but became arguably the worst running back in football. In Bell’s one-and-a-half seasons with the Jets, he recorded just 863 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns while averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry — all last in the league among the 16 running backs that have logged more than 240 carries since Bell started with the Jets — up until his release from the team in October 2020. 

Bell ended up with the Kansas City Chiefs, finishing with 63 carries for 254 yards and two touchdowns (4.0 yards per carry) in nine games. He has failed to record a run of more than 20 yards since Christmas Day 2017 with the Steelers. 

After criticizing Andy Reid this offseason, it may be difficult for Bell to find another NFL job any time soon. 

Offseason Achilles surgery hindered Vernon’s chances of landing a huge payday in free agency. Vernon was a force on the Cleveland Browns defense in 2020, finishing with nine sacks (the second-highest total of his career), 16 quarterback hits, 28 pressures and 12 hurries. 

Some team will be more than pleased with Vernon, whose nine sacks came over his final eight games. The only downside with signing Vernon is that he may not be ready to play until late-September at the earliest, as Achilles injuries usually take nine months to recover. 

Still, Vernon is good enough to help a playoff contender.

Gurley still remains on the open market after training camp, which is a bit of a surprise. Knee issues have played a role in Gurley not being able to find a job, limiting his ability to be a featured back again. Of the 10 running backs with 400-plus carries over the last two years, Gurley is last in yards per carry (3.7) and rushing yards (1,535). He is fourth in rushing touchdowns (21) during that span. 

Gurley can still provide a red zone threat for any team that signs him. He led the NFL with 48 rushing touchdowns from 2016 to 2019, which were eight more than Ezekiel Elliott. His 67 rushing touchdowns since his rookie year in 2015 lead the league.

It’s hard to envision Gurley staying unemployed all year. He can help out a contending team. 

Gore is open to playing a 17th season, but hasn’t found a team yet. The odds are against Gore recording a carry at age 38, but he’ll make history if he does. No running back has ever recorded a carry at the age of 38 (with records first kept in 1950). The most rushing yards for a back age 38 or older is fullback Tony Richardson, who finished with five carries for 13 yards in his age-38 season (2010).

If Gore does play, there’s a good chance he breaks that mark. Gore finished with 187 carries and 653 yards and two touchdowns in 2020, as he was the No. 1 running back for the Jets at 37. 

Gore won’t be asked to carry the load much in 2021 if he signs with a team, but there will be plenty of firsts if he plays at age 38. He’ll be the first running back to carry a football and rush for any yards at that age, an impressive feat given the brevity of running backs in this league. 

Fitzgerald isn’t sure at the moment if he’ll return for an 18th season in the NFL, but it is expected to be with the Arizona Cardinals if he does. Fitzgerald is coming off a 54-catch, 409-yard, 7.6-yard-per-reception, one-touchdown campaign — all of which were career lows.

Fitzgerald has caught 1,432 passes for 17,492 yards and 121 touchdowns in his Hall of Fame career, all with the Cardinals. He’s second only to Jerry Rice in receptions and receiving yards and sixth all-time in receiving touchdowns. Fitzgerald holds 24 NFL records and 40 franchise records, etching himself as one of the greatest players in NFL history. 

Perhaps Arizona making a potential playoff run will change Fitzgerald’s mind in a few months, but the urge doesn’t seem to be there for him at the moment.

Atkins is on the market now, but the eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro should find a new team soon. Atkins had a visit with the Seattle Seahawks this week — one month after being cleared from offseason shoulder surgery. 

A late start to free agency shouldn’t affect Atkins much, as he’s looking for a bounce-back campaign after playing in just eight games and recording one tackle in 2020. The shoulder injury didn’t help, as Atkins was ineffective dealing with the issue all year. 

Atkins is still a good rotational piece for a team that needs help on the defensive line. 

Brown entered free agency after requesting his release from the Raiders. He still is a big-play threat that averaged more than 14 yards per catch in three of the last four years, and he is just two years removed from racking up 1,060 yards with the Buffalo Bills in 2019.

Brown had 33 catches for 458 yards and three touchdowns last season after hauling in 72 catches in 2019. Teams could use Brown’s big-play ability in their offense, especially teams that need veteran receiver depth.