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2021 NFL free agency: 5 players the Jaguars should target

2021 NFL free agency begins on March 17, and the Jaguars will have plenty of cash to land some key targets within the class.

New York Giants v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

With NFL free agency for the 2021 campaign just a few short weeks away, it is time to take a look at some key free agents the Jaguars could look to target starting March 17 at 4:00 p.m. ET., the time when free agency will officially begin.

It should be noted that while free agency will begin on the 17th of March, there will be a three-day period in which teams may negotiate with agents prior to signing starting on March 15th.

The Jaguars will enter free agency with the most cap space available, according to OverTheCap.com, at a staggering $82,022,150 in usable space. Jacksonville has made sure to rid itself of large salary cap hits over the past few years, most recently trading quarterback Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears prior to last year’s free agency.

As such, the Jaguars will have plenty of room to go around even during this year’s cap-strapped year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While it shouldn’t be expected for the Jaguars to fill all of its holes in free agency, it will behoove the team to fill at least some in order to get the team over the hump from a talent perspective in Urban Meyer’s rookie year as an NFL head coach.

With that said, who are five players the Jaguars should ultimately try to target this year?

1. DT Leonard Williams (New York Giants)

History:

Williams, first selected sixth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, has spent his entire career in New York, but for two different teams.

After posting 286 tackles (143 solos), 34 tackles-for-loss, 17 sacks and 106 quarterback hits through the first 4.5 years of his career with the Jets, Williams was traded to the New York Giants for a third-round pick (2020) and a fifth-round pick (2021).

Williams was set to become a free agent following the year, however, the Giants opted to franchise tag the young defensive tackle.

Since joining the Giants, the 6-foot-5, 302-pound defensive tackle has had plenty of production. In 2020, Williams tallied 57 tackles (29 solos), 30 quarterback hits and 11.5 sacks, his best season.

Overview:

The Jaguars are in serious need of help at the defensive tackle position, regardless of scheme. Williams is collectively thought of as one of the best free agents this year, and the Giants would have to bite the bullet by franchise tagging him yet again, or figuring out a way to resign the massive defensive tackle.

To franchise tag Williams again, it would cost the Giants $19.4M, fully guaranteed. That is a 20% rise from last year’s franchise tag at a cost of $16.1M. Williams is also still awaiting a resolution on the grievance he filed with the NFL Players Association last year, insisting that he is paid as a defensive end, rather than a defensive tackle.

That change would account for pay raise of $1.7M from last year’s franchise tag, thus making this year’s franchise tag $21.4M if he were to win.

Final thoughts:

Williams’ impending free agency is all but certain, and the Jaguars certainly have the cap space to pay the 26-year-old almost anything he’d ask for. With Jacksonville undergoing wholesale changes both offensively and defensively, the team could use a franchise player on the defensive line.

The Jaguars selected Taven Bryan with the 29th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, however, he has produced just 3.5 sacks thus far in his career and was benched in favor of undrafted free agent rookie Doug Costin just last season.

Signing Williams likely wouldn’t come cheaply, but with the team’s cap space, it shouldn’t be an issue for the rebuilding Jaguars.

2. WR Curtis Samuel (Carolina Panthers)

History:

Samuel, originally selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. Entering the draft, Samuel was thought of as a swiss-army knife receiver, able to run the ball as a running back and catch passes as a true wide receiver. He would attempt to do the same as he entered the NFL.

In college, Samuel played for the Urban Meyer-led Ohio State Buckeyes, catching 107 passes for 1,248 yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing 172 times for 1,286 yards and 15 touchdowns. He didn’t have a breakout season until his junior year with the Buckeyes, rushing 97 times for 771 yards and eight touchdowns, while catching 74 passes for 865 yards and seven touchdowns.

Following his junior campaign, Samuel decided to enter the NFL Draft. Since being selected by the Panthers, Samuel has had an up-and-down career. In his first three seasons in Carolina, he would run the football just 31 times for 278 yards and three rushing touchdowns, a major difference in rushing production from his years in college.

Use more as a receiver in his first three seasons, Samuel hauled in 108 receptions for 1,236 yards and 11 touchdowns. He played in just nine games, starting four as a rookie while missing three games during his second season, starting eight.

In 2020, Samuel would see his role increase, while being targeted less overall than in his third season. Targeted 97 times (compared to 105 in 2019), Samuel caught 77 passes for 851 yards and three receiving touchdowns, while running the football 41 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

Overview:

While it is certainly not the Jaguars’ most-pressing need, adding a wide receiver of Samuel’s caliber should be something the team takes a look at this offseason. While there are receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft that could provide a similar skill set, there are none as pro-ready as Samuel is, certainly, and there is a chance the team double dips, adding one via the draft, to begin with.

The Jaguars are also already familiar with the soon-to-be-former Panthers receiver; Meyer coached him for three years while he was the head coach at Ohio State, understanding exactly how he is to be used.

While Samuel is seen as a swiss-army knife of a receiver, similar to current Jaguars WR Laviska Shenault, like Shenault, Samuel has showcased plenty of skills as a route runner and an ability to find an open field on third downs. He had 18 third-down conversions, tied for the 13th most in 2020.

Final thoughts:

The Jaguars will want to upgrade its depth at the receiver position this offseason. With DJ Chark Jr. entering the final year of his contract and uncertainty regarding the status of soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Keelan Cole, the Jaguars only have second-year receivers Laviska Shenault and Collin Johnson to rely on.

With the familiarity of Meyer on staff, the rookie head coach can bring in one of his own, allowing for an easier transition with presumed No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence coming to town.

3. S Justin Simmons (Denver Broncos)

History:

Simmons, 27, is set to enter free agency for the first time in his career after being franchise-tagged by the Denver Broncos last season. He was selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft and was voted second-team All-Pro in 2019 while earning a Pro Bowl bid this past season for his performance in 2020.

The young safety out of Boston College is thought to be one of the best in the NFL, a true ball hawk in the defensive backfield. He has played in and started all 16 games for the Broncos over the past three seasons, and has seen his production climb in nearly every year since being drafted.

His best season would come in 2019 when Simmons made 93 tackles (65 solos), two tackles-for-loss, 15 pass breakups and four interceptions. According to Pro Football Reference, he allowed just 28 completions that year for 288 yards and one touchdown.

In his career, Simmons has tallied 385 tackles (288 solos), 11 tackles-for-loss, 37 pass breakups and 16 interceptions, nine of which came over the past two seasons.

Overview:

The Jaguars have been in desperate need of help at safety for years now. While the team certainly saw an improvement at the position last year with the rise of safety Jarrod Wilson as one of the team’s defensive captains, there was still plenty to want from a production standpoint out of the position group as a whole.

The Jaguars attempted to solve its issue at strong safety last year, bringing in former Green Bay Packers safety Josh Jones, trading former third-round pick safety Ronnie Harrison to the Cleveland Browns. Jones, however, did not live up to expectations, failing to provide the team with much more than a solid run-stuffer in the box.

Simmons would bring a fantastic blend of both to the team’s defensive backfield. Able to play as a rover in the deep middle third of the field, while playing near the line of scrimmage as a run blocker on obvious rushing owns, he is likely the team’s best option at this juncture in the offseason.

For now, however, it is unclear whether or not the Broncos plan to franchise tag the productive young safety for a second-straight season. The Denver Posts’ Ryan O’Halloran says the easiest thing for the team to do would be to gain control of Simmons for a second year, working out a long-term deal during the offseason.

I think the easiest thing on Justin Simmons is going to be to extend that tag for a second straight year,” O’Halloran told Jacobs on the Stokley and Zach show on 104.3 The FAN with guest host Dan Jacobs. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to play on it. At least put him under your control and try to work out a long-term deal.”

Final thoughts:

It is unlikely the Jaguars will be able to sign Simmons. The Broncos certainly want to retain the young defensive back, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that he will make it to the open market.

If the Broncos opt to pay Simmons on the franchise tag for a second-straight year, they will owe him around 20% more than the team paid for his services last year ($11.4M). The Broncos would be smart to retain one of its best defenders.

On the Jaguars’ end, Simmons doesn’t have to be the safety they target in free agency, but he would certainly be the best option at safety that they could target in free agency.

4. OT Trent Williams (San Francisco 49ers)

History:

Williams, 32, is one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and has been that since entering the draft, selected fourth overall by the Washington Football Team in 2010. He is an eight-time Pro Bowler, and was a Second-team All-Pro in 2015.

Williams would spend 2010-19 as a member of the Washington Football Team, however, he was forced to sit out the 2019 season due to a medical emergency, which ultimately led to the end of his career in Washington. Last year, Williams was traded to the 49ers in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2020 and a third-round pick in 2021.

Due to landing on the COVID-19 list and suffering an elbow injury, Williams played just 14 games for the 49ers last year.

Overview:

Williams’ situation with the San Francisco 49ers is intriguing. The team signed him following a trade by the Washington Football Team with the promise to not franchise tag him. That means he will absolutely be hitting the open market come March. 15. It is the first time the veteran offensive tackle will become a free agent in his career.

In January, Williams indicated just that, however, he did state San Francisco would be a “leading candidate regardless.”

“So even if it does make it to free agency, it won’t be because I’m trying to go somewhere else. It may be simply because I want to see my value. It’s been 11 years in this league, and I have yet to see a franchise left tackle go to the open market. I think it would be interesting to kind of see what [my] value holds.”

It is very likely that Williams would want to become the highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL. This would be his last “big money” deal in his career, and Williams certainly deserves it.

The Jaguars are in a sticky situation at left tackle currently. Cam Robinson, the team’s starting left tackle since 2017, is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Thus far, the team has yet to place the franchise tag on him, indicating that he could hit the open market.

If Jacksonville allows Robinson to enter free agency, there will be a hole at the position, forcing them to upgrade. Williams is the best of the bunch, and likely would be able to play many more years at a high level.

Final thoughts:

When Williams enters free agency, and if the Jaguars do not franchise tag or sign Robinson to a long-term deal, the 32-year-old should become the team’s top priority. With Lawrence coming to town, stability at the position is of the utmost importance and Williams brings just that.

5. TE Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans)

History:

Smith, a former third-round pick out of Florida International University in 2017, is expected to hit unrestricted free agency after spending four years with the Titans. Listed at 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Smith plays with plenty of size and speed to take advantage of today’s tight-end friendly offenses that the NFL has transitioned to.

In his career, Smith has caught 114 passes for 1,302 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Titans’ run-heavy system. Even while not having as many opportunities as other tight ends around the league have had, Smith has made the most of his with a yards-per-reception average of 11.4 through the first four years of his career.

This will be the first time the veteran tight end will be able to test free agency. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has hauled in 10 touchdowns in the red zone since 2019, ranking fourth among tight ends in the NFL. He has had zero drops in the redzone during that same timespan.

Overview:

The Jaguars have been in search of a pass-catching tight end since the team released veteran Marcedes Lewis unceremoniously following the team’s playoff run in 2017. With the team expected to decline the second-year option for tight end Tyler Eifert, the team will be nearly bare at the position.

Smith offers an instant upgrade at the position at just 26 years of age. Historically, while Meyer has not used tight ends to the degree that the NFL, or even some collegiate football teams have, has seen production out of the position.

While he was the Florida Gators’ head coach, one of Meyer’s tight ends would go on to catch 68 passes for 850 yards and five touchdowns during his junior campaign. A safety blanket, Smith would be great for Lawrence as he enters his rookie campaign.

Final thoughts:

The Jaguars will certainly be looking to upgrade the tight end position this offseason whether in the draft or through free agency. With Smith being one of the top tight ends in the NFL to enter free agency potentially, he will be the team’s first shot at doing just that.

Under a new tight ends coach in former Penn State coach Tyler Bowen, the Jaguars will want to impress him with a shiny new player two. Don’t be surprised to see the team double dip this year, signing a free agent tight end along with drafting one. The player to watch in the NFL draft is former Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth.