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Simulating NFL free agency 2021: Who signs where, and why the Patriots are the big winners

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Why Yates would avoid paying Aaron Jones top dollar (1:41)

Field Yates breaks down the most underrated and overrated players in free agency, suggesting to avoid paying Aaron Jones top dollar and consider paying Carl Lawson. (1:41)

The franchise tag window has closed, which means 2021 NFL free agency is just around the corner. How will it all play out, and who will sign where? We mocked how offers and deals might go down for 19 of the top names at multiple positions.

Our NFL Nation reporters served as GMs for their teams and made offers for key free agents while trying to stay within that team's salary-cap restraints. The object wasn't to "win" but rather to accurately reflect how a team might approach negotiations. For instance, the cap-strapped Saints, Chiefs and Rams didn't throw around many offers here, but the Patriots, Jaguars and Jets all had money to spend -- and it showed. Once the offers were all in, national NFL reporter Dan Graziano played the role of player rep, mulled the proposals and "signed" each of the playmakers to a new deal.

So who is headed to a new team, and who re-signed for another go with his current franchise? Who earned the big bucks on the open market? Let's predict this offseason's free agency, which officially opens on March 17. Here are some hypothetical offers and landing spots for 19 of the open market's best players.

Jump to:
QB | RB | WR | TE | OL
Edge | CB | S

Jameis Winston, QB

2020 team: Saints | Free-agent rank: 44

Saints' offer: Two years, $12 million ($6M guaranteed and up to $18M in incentives based on starts, wins and achievements) ... This opportunity to replace Drew Brees in one of the NFL's top offenses is why you came here last summer, and we have shown that we genuinely believe in your potential. -- Mike Triplett

Chargers' offer: Two years, $8 million ($8M guaranteed) ... We need a good backup for Justin Herbert, and you're the guy we're targeting. Come join an up-and-coming roster in Los Angeles. -- Shelley Smith

Texans' offer: One year, $12 million ($12M guaranteed) ... We don't know if Deshaun Watson will be playing for us in 2021, so here's a chance to win the starting quarterback job and make this your team. -- Sarah Barshop

The decision: Winston picks the Texans

Man, this is a tough call between New Orleans and Houston. (Sorry, Chargers. I don't want to be a backup again.) Houston is giving more guaranteed money, and if Watson really won't play there again, this is a chance to start for a year and hit the market again next year while I'm still under 30 years old. But what happens with Watson is the big pivot point here. -- Dan Graziano

Aaron Jones, RB

2020 team: Packers | Free-agent rank: 8

Packers' offer: Three years, $28.5 million ($9.5M guaranteed, $8M signing bonus and $1.5M base salary) ... It's more money in 2021 than if we had used the franchise tag ($8.6M) but less of a salary-cap hit for us since we can spread out that signing bonus. You might have a hard time finding a lot of guaranteed money for an undersized running back, so why not stay where you have had all of your success? -- Rob Demovsky

Cardinals' offer: Two years, $13 million ($9M guaranteed and incentives for hitting 1,000 yards rushing, making the Super Bowl or getting a Pro Bowl nod) ... Come to Arizona and be the No. 1 back of the Cardinals' running game. Our offense runs the ball quite a bit while utilizing its running backs in the passing game, and we fully expect to get to the playoffs. -- Josh Weinfuss

Dolphins' offer: Three years, $27 million ($16M guaranteed and $1M incentive each year for being a first-team All-Pro) ... We're a young team that is just a few pieces away from becoming a serious contender. You'd be the clear No. 1 running back, won't have to deal with income tax and would be trading those cold Lambeau games for year-round warm weather. -- Cameron Wolfe

The decision: Jones picks the Dolphins

Part of the Packers' pitch is that I wouldn't get a ton more guaranteed money elsewhere, but that's exactly what Miami's offering. So I'll head south and cash in as much as a running back can in this league these days. -- Graziano

Kenny Golladay, WR

2020 team: Lions | Free-agent rank: 5

Colts' offer: Three years, $60 million ($28M guaranteed) ... Our Super Bowl window is wide open, and there's a spot to be our new No. 1 wideout for Carson Wentz. Our culture is strong, and you'd be a massive part of our offense. -- Mike Wells

Giants' offer: Four years, $60 million ($30M guaranteed) ... It's tough to make huge money when you are coming off an injury-plagued, 338-yard receiving year. But here's $15 million per year! We think you have an opportunity to blow up as a bona fide No. 1 receiver in New York. -- Jordan Raanan

Patriots' offer: Five years, $105 million ($50M guaranteed) ... We are on the prowl for a No. 1 wide receiver, and we believe you are the piece to build around. -- Mike Reiss

The decision: Golladay picks the Patriots

Wow, Patriots! You know how to get a guy's attention. For that kind of money, I don't even care who ends up being the quarterback. I'll throw it to myself if you need me to. -- Graziano

Corey Davis, WR

2020 team: Titans | Free-agent rank: 11

Cardinals' offer: Three years, $36 million ($19M guaranteed, $12M signing bonus in first year, $4M roster bonus in second year, $3M roster bonus in third year and a voidable fourth year added on for cap reasons) ... Being a complementary receiver to DeAndre Hopkins will allow you to showcase your skills. And playing with a quarterback like Kyler Murray doesn't hurt. -- Josh Weinfuss

Ravens' offer: Four years, $52 million ($25M guaranteed) ... Become the No. 1 target for Lamar Jackson, score plenty of touchdowns for the highest-scoring offense in the NFL over the past two seasons and turn into a superstar for a team set to go on a Super Bowl run. -- Jamison Hensley

The decision: Davis picks the Ravens

Both of these offers are strong, but give me the extra year, the extra money and the chance to be a real No. 1 wideout like I was drafted to be when the Titans selected me. -- Graziano

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR

2020 team: Steelers | Free-agent rank: 17

Cardinals' offer: Three years, $40 million ($23M guaranteed, $3.3M base salary in first year with $10M signing bonus, $5M guaranteed in second year at signing and $8M guaranteed in third year on third day of the league year) ... We're a piece or two away from making a Super Bowl run. Pair up with DeAndre Hopkins and Kyler Murray -- and maybe Larry Fitzgerald -- to make us one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL, all while getting your share of catches and one-on-one matchups. -- Josh Weinfuss

Jets' offer: Five years, $87.5 million ($37.5M guaranteed) ... This is a chance to be a high-volume wide receiver in a proven offensive system. And there's this: You might be reuniting with your college quarterback Sam Darnold from your USC days. Fight on! -- Rich Cimini

The decision: Smith-Schuster picks the Jets

Hey, it worked out so great for Le'Veon Bell, right? I kid, I kid. Where do I sign? In my eyes, these offers aren't comparable, so I'll take the big payday to play with Darnold again or have the chance to be Zach Wilson's top pass-catching option. -- Graziano

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1:28

How committed are the Jets to Sam Darnold?

Chris Canty says the Jets fielding phone calls for Sam Darnold proves they are not fully committed to him as their franchise quarterback.

Will Fuller V, WR

2020 team: Texans | Free-agent rank: 21

Texans' offer: Two years, $25 million ($20M guaranteed and $1M incentive for hitting 1,000 yards) ... You've put up career numbers in Houston. Come back and prove you can stay on the field and have another shot in free agency at age 28. -- Sarah Barshop

Cardinals' offer: Two years, $12 million ($8M guaranteed) ... Come pair up with your former Texans teammates DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt again. With a better team around you, and in a better offense, you'd help us not just get to the playoffs but also possibly get to the Super Bowl. -- Josh Weinfuss

Eagles' offer: Two years, $16 million ($10M guaranteed) ... This is a chance to return to your hometown and cement yourself as a No. 1 receiver in a major market. -- Tim McManus

Jets' offer: Three years, $27 million ($15M guaranteed) ... We're committed to building up the offense, and you'd see plenty of targets in a proven offensive system with a new coaching staff. -- Rich Cimini

Packers' offer: Three years, $30 million ($15M guaranteed as signing bonus spread out and a back-loaded base salary) ... We tried to trade for you at the deadline last fall, and now we want to sign you. You'd thrive with Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. -- Rob Demovsky

The decision: Fuller picks the Packers

Thanks for all the love here, but Green Bay has the roster, and it has Rodgers. I like it. Houston's offer is enticing, but it's two years again, and I don't want to have a big year only to be under team control for one more season. -- Graziano

Hunter Henry, TE

2020 team: Chargers | Free-agent rank: 2

Chargers' offer: Two years, $22 million ($17M guaranteed) ... You saw what Justin Herbert can do in 2020. How about two more years of that? He will make you a star. -- Shelley Smith

Jaguars' offer: Three years, $36 million ($24M guaranteed) ... You'll be an important piece of an offense that includes some good young receivers. Oh, and you'll be catching passes from one of the best quarterback prospects since John Elway in Trevor Lawrence, and we'll be competing for the playoffs and the division title no later than next season. -- Michael DiRocco

Panthers' offer: Three years, $30 million ($12M guaranteed) ... Our plan is to upgrade the talent at quarterback, but even if Teddy Bridgewater remains the starter in 2021, the one missing piece from making this offense elite is an elite tight end. We believe you're that guy. -- David Newton

The decision: Henry picks the Jaguars

Jacksonville is offering the most money, a solid guarantee and no state income tax. And I know who my quarterback is going to be. -- Graziano

Jonnu Smith, TE

2020 team: Titans | Free-agent rank: 6

Titans' offer: Four years, $32 million ($24M guaranteed) ... You carved out a niche with us as one of Ryan Tannehill's favorite pass-catchers, especially in the red zone. Why not continue that with Tannehill on a fair market offer that allows you to become a free agent once again before you turn 30 years old? -- Turron Davenport

Bills' offer: Four years, $37 million ($12M guaranteed and back-loaded base salary) ... This offense is missing a starting-caliber running back and a playmaking tight end. You'd fill one of those voids for a team that was one game away from a Super Bowl appearance last season. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

Patriots' offer: Four years, $42.5 million ($25M guaranteed) ... Since Rob Gronkowski left, we've struggled to fill the No. 1 tight end role and greatly missed a real red zone presence. That's why we've targeted you with a life-changing contract. -- Mike Reiss

Washington's offer: Four years, $45.5 million ($26M guaranteed) ... Come play in a high-profile market closer to your native Philadelphia and in an offense that would highlight your position flexibility. Just look what this offense did for Logan Thomas last year (career-best 72 catches), and his skill set is not the same as your high-end toolbox. -- John Keim

The decision: Smith picks the Patriots

It's really close between New England and Washington. I know Washington is offering a bit more, but playing for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels intrigues me. And, hey, I could end up their No. 1 or 2 receiver option. -- Graziano

Trent Williams, OT

2020 team: 49ers | Free-agent rank: 1

49ers' offer: Four years, $82 million ($40M guaranteed, $28M signing bonus and fully guaranteed base salaries in the first two years) ... OK, your first season in San Francisco didn't go as hoped, but it was clear you were happy to be back with coach Kyle Shanahan. With an offseason to continue building the roster and get healthy, we offer the right combination of comfort and contender status. Come get paid and have a shot at a Super Bowl title. -- Nick Wagoner

Jaguars' offer: Four years, $80 million ($45M guaranteed spread out over the first three years and $25M signing bonus) ... Come protect quarterback Trevor Lawrence and help us take over a division that's not exactly loaded. Oh, and have we mentioned there's no state income tax in Florida? -- Michael DiRocco

The decision: Williams picks the 49ers

It was a really a tough call. The Jaguars' offer is better on its face, and there's that whole state income tax thing. But I like all the money upfront and want to stick with Shanahan. -- Graziano

Joe Thuney, G

2020 team: Patriots | Free-agent rank: 12

Bengals' offer: Four years, $60 million ($15M guaranteed, $4M roster bonus on fifth day of league year in 2022 and $2M roster bonus on fifth day of league year in 2023) ... Come play on a deal with a large chunk of guaranteed money on the front end while we build a winner around quarterback Joe Burrow. -- Ben Baby

Ravens' offer: Four years, $60 million ($35M guaranteed and $250,000 Pro Bowl incentive) ... You can become the final piece to a dominant offensive line, block for a top playmaker in Lamar Jackson and win your third Super Bowl with a team primed to make a run in 2021. -- Jamison Hensley

The decision: Thuney picks the Ravens

Give me the extra $20 million upfront and the chance to chase another ring right away. Sometimes decisions are easy. -- Graziano

Corey Linsley, C

2020 team: Packers | Free-agent rank: 10

Dolphins' offer: Four years, $46 million ($25M guaranteed) ... You're the missing piece -- the hopeful leader and linchpin of our young offensive line -- and we believe you can help Tua Tagovailoa and your fellow offensive linemen win a Super Bowl or two within the next four years in a much warmer place to play. -- Cameron Wolfe

Jets' offer: Four years, $44 million ($28M guaranteed) ... Keep it in the LaFleur family, going from Packers coach Matt to brother Mike, our new offensive coordinator. -- Rich Cimini

Ravens' offer: Four years, $43 million ($13M guaranteed, $10M signing bonus and $250,000 Pro Bowl incentive) ... Become the top free-agent addition to a prime Super Bowl contender, play alongside a talented playmaker in Lamar Jackson and serve as the final piece to what should a dominant offensive line known for its physicality. -- Jamison Hensley

The decision: Linsley picks the Dolphins

Miami's offering the most money, and the difference between their guarantee and the Jets' guarantee isn't as big as it looks, given that there's no state income tax in Florida. -- Graziano

Yannick Ngakoue, Edge

2020 team: Ravens | Free-agent rank: 3

Jets' offer: Three years, $45 million ($24M guaranteed) ... We want to give you a chance to play your natural 4-3 defensive end position, joining up with Quinnen Williams as a fantastic inside-outside tandem. -- Rich Cimini

Patriots' offer: Four years, $60 million ($30M guaranteed) ... We have loved your game since your Jacksonville days, and after you bounced around last year in Minnesota and Baltimore, we envision stability and coach Bill Belichick's brilliant defensive mind bringing out the best in you. -- Mike Reiss

The decision: Ngakoue picks the Patriots

The Patriots seem to be in a spending mood and are simply offering more here. Not much else to say. Let's go to New England. -- Graziano

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1:09

Are the Patriots a QB away from competing in the AFC East?

Dan Graziano and Marcus Spears insist the Patriots could win the AFC East with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.

Bud Dupree, Edge

2020 team: Steelers | Free-agent rank: 4

Browns' offer: One year, $10.5 million ($10M guaranteed, $1M incentive for 10-plus sacks and $125,000 per game on the active roster/workout bonus) ... Come play opposite Myles Garrett on a budding franchise with a chance to stick it to your old team, compete in the playoffs and get back on the market when healthy and the cap rises as new rights deals roll in. -- Jake Trotter

Eagles' offer: Three years, $33 million ($18M guaranteed) ... Rejoin former Steelers teammate Javon Hargrave on a line that also features Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. That's a group that can do some serious damage with your addition. -- Tim McManus

Giants' offer: Four years, $64 million ($42M guaranteed, with some guarantees running into Year 3) ... Don't turn down the chance to be a star in New York on an ascending team while being paid $40 million guaranteed over the first two years of the deal. -- Jordan Raanan

The decision: Dupree picks the Giants

Yeah, the Giants' offer just blows away the other two. Getting guaranteed money in the third year of an NFL contract is rare. I thought about the Browns' offer because it gives me a chance to cash in next year when I'm not coming off a major injury, but New York just makes sense. -- Graziano

Trey Hendrickson, Edge

2020 team: Saints | Free-agent rank: 7

Saints' offer: Three years, $26 million ($15M guaranteed) ... We can't offer top dollar, but we can offer the chance to compete for Super Bowls in the system where you developed into a breakout player last year. -- Mike Triplett

Lions' offer: Four years, $45 million ($20M guaranteed, $7M signing bonus and $500,000 incentives for making the Pro Bowl or leading the NFL in sacks each year) ... Help Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn establish a culture in Detroit while being a foundational piece for our future. -- Michael Rothstein

The decision: Hendrickson picks the Lions

These offers are very close, and while I appreciate the Saints' attempt to fit me into their delicate cap situation, I'm going with Detroit. I like the extra year and the more robust guarantee, and I know coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn well from their time in New Orleans. -- Graziano

Shaquil Barrett, Edge

2020 team: Buccaneers | Free-agent rank: 9

Buccaneers' offer: Four years, $74.5 million ($30M guaranteed) ... You said that Tampa Bay is now "home." The fans have stood by you, and we want you to be yourself. And you get to continue playing in Todd Bowles' scheme that just shut down the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. -- Jenna Laine

Colts' offer: Four years, $74 million ($32M guaranteed with sack-total incentives) ... This defense is for real, and we're chasing a Super Bowl. Come join Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner to form a dominant front seven. -- Mike Wells

Jaguars' offer: Four years, $72 million ($28M guaranteed) ... We are building here in Jacksonville with coach Urban Meyer, and within three years we'll be competing for the Super Bowl. Want to be the second player in NFL history to win Super Bowls with three different teams? -- Michael DiRocco

The decision: Barrett picks the Buccaneers

These offers are all basically identical, but I just won the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, and I see nothing elsewhere to convince me to give all that up and move. -- Graziano

play
1:53

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Dianna Russini and Tedy Bruschi break down the Buccaneers' offseason moves.

Carl Lawson, Edge

2020 team: Bengals | Free-agent rank: 36

Bengals' offer: Three years, $60 million ($40M guaranteed and $10M signing bonus) ... Sign with the team that you are already building with. We're on the verge of making a playoff push under second-year QB Joe Burrow, and we want you to be part of it. -- Ben Baby

Browns' offer: Four years, $56 million ($20M guaranteed) ... Join a budding young core, play opposite Myles Garrett, rack up sack numbers, compete in the playoffs and contribute to a Super Bowl contender. -- Jake Trotter

Vikings' offer: Four years, $63 million ($30M guaranteed, $1M bonus for 10-plus sacks in 2022 and $100,000 workout bonus every year) ... We have produced high-end pass-rushers under coach Mike Zimmer's guidance for seven seasons. You would have the opportunity to start opposite Danielle Hunter and consistently log double-digit sacks. -- Courtney Cronin

The decision: Lawson picks the Bengals

This is pretty straightforward. The Bengals' offer is by far the best, and I get to stay home. -- Graziano

Shaquill Griffin, CB

2020 team: Seahawks | Free-agent rank: 20

Seahawks' offer: Three years, $39 million ($25M guaranteed, $1M per-game roster bonuses with $500,000 available in both 2022 and 2023, $2M in additional incentives for making the Pro Bowl and interception totals) ... Look, we can't offer as much in terms of annual salary as other teams with loads of cap space, but we can offer familiarity, strong guarantees and a shorter-than-usual deal that positions you to get back to the market at age 28, potentially under more ideal salary-cap circumstances. -- Brady Henderson

Jaguars' offer: Three years, $48 million ($28M guaranteed) ... You played at UCF and are from St. Petersburg, so why not come back home to Florida? You'd be the No. 1 cornerback opposite CJ Henderson to give us one of the best duos in the NFL. Plus, yes, we have no state income tax. -- Michael DiRocco

The decision: Griffin picks the Jaguars

Sorry, but the Jags just outbid the Seahawks by too much. I'll take that offer and head to Jacksonville. -- Graziano

John Johnson III, S

2020 team: Rams | Free-agent rank: 23

Cowboys' offer: Three years, $33 million ($20M guaranteed) ... You can be the difference-maker on a defense both on the field and in the locker room while playing in a division that is winnable for years to come, guaranteeing playoff appearances. -- Todd Archer

Lions' offer: Five years, $50 million ($22.5M guaranteed) ... Besides reuniting with your former position coach, Aubrey Pleasant, going to Detroit would give you a chance to be a long-term building block and foundational piece. -- Michael Rothstein

Raiders' offer: Four years, $50 million ($25M guaranteed) ... Come play in a state-of-the-art stadium for a team on the rise, while settling a young but hungry secondary amid the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas -- where there are opportunities to win on the field and market yourself off it. Plus, there's no state income tax in Nevada. -- Paul Gutierrez

The decision: Johnson picks the Raiders

It's just more money all the way around, so there's not too much to consider here. -- Graziano

Anthony Harris, S

2020 team: Vikings | Free-agent rank: 26

Cowboys' offer: Four years, $44 million ($21M guaranteed) ... We have avoided spending on a safety in free agency and neglected the position early in the draft for too long. You may not have had an interception last season, but we didn't forget about the six you had in 2019. You'd be a central figure in the remake of a defense that has a new coordinator in Dan Quinn -- someone who knows how important the position is to his scheme. -- Todd Archer

Eagles' offer: Three years, $31 million ($14M guaranteed) ... New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon -- whom you played under in 2015-17 when he was Minnesota's assistant defensive backs coach -- is expected to prioritize the secondary and would hand a starring role over to you. -- Tim McManus

The decision: Harris picks the Cowboys

Again, it's just more money. A lot more, actually, when you factor in the lack of a state income tax in Texas. It's a no-brainer for me. -- Graziano