After a strange 2020-21 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL is looking to return to normalcy in 2021-22 — at least somewhat, anyway. With teams trying to find ways to compete this time around, while spending money appropriately and responsibly throughout the offseason, there are still more than a few unrestricted free agents currently out on the open market.
A ton of talented, veteran players were released by various teams across the league this offseason while more than a few remain available with the month of July pretty much upon us. Despite the fact that some of these players are no doubt past their respective primes, they can also still help most NFL franchises — especially those in contention for a Super Bowl — as veteran free agents can add a strong presence in the locker room alongside some depth out on the gridiron.
Although the list is quite lengthy in terms of players that will ultimately be picked up before Week 1 of the 2021-22 regular season, there are a handful of unrestricted free agents that shouldn't be out on the open market for too much longer.
NFL Free Agency: 5 Best Players Left
David DeCastro, Guard
Prior to his sudden release last month, longtime Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro had notably spent his entire NFL playing career as a member of the heralded AFC North franchise. Originally selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Stanford, DeCastro ultimately became not only a staple of the Pittsburgh offensive line but of the franchise in general. A two-time first-team All-Pro selection and a one-time second-team All-Pro selection, the 31-year-old DeCastro has also reached six Pro Bowls, all of which came between 2015-16 and 2020-21.
A savvy veteran that exudes toughness and grit, DeCastro can still help just about every team in the NFL at this point in his career. Although DeCastro may come at a steep price as opposed to some other options currently on the free agent market, his presence as a veteran leader on and off the field and his ability to block with the best of them could put a contending team over the top should they elect to sign the longtime Steelers standout.
The only thing that should prevent a team from chasing DeCastro is his presumably high price tag.
Kenny Vaccaro, Safety
With the Tennesse Titans sporting one of the worst defenses on a contending team in recent memory in 2020-21, general manager Jon Robinson elected to part ways with quite a few well known names on that side of the line of scrimmage this offseason. Whether it was cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson or defensive tackle DaQuan Jones or veteran pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, Robinson either released or elected to not resign a slew of key defensive players heading into the upcoming 2021-22. However, one player that the Titans released came as a bit of a surprise as the team notably parted ways with veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had a relatively decent season last year — all things considered in Nashville.
After beginning his career with the Saints and eventually latching on with the Titans a few years back, Vaccaro served as a strong presence on the defensive side of the football for Tennessee, a franchise that has become a perennial playoff contender. Now 30 years old, Vaccaro is no doubt beginning the final stretch of his NFL playing career, but the former Saints and Titans standout surely still has enough left in the tank to add some additional depth to a contending team heading into 2020-21.
Vaccaro could also start on a less than stellar NFL franchise, but one would presume that the free agent defensive back is looking to win at this point in his professional playing career.
Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver
Longtime Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has never suited up for another organization ever since being selected by the NFC West franchise with the No. 3 overall pick all the way back in 2004 out of Pitt. While this should absolutely remain this way until the end of time, it appears as though the Cardinals have moved on from Fitzgerald with the trio of Christian Kirk, DeAndre Hopkins and a newcomer in longtime Cincinnati Bengals wide out A.J. Green. Although it remains to be seen as to whether or not Fitzgerald ultimately chooses to suit up in 2021-22 at the age of 37, every team in the league should be jumping a the chance to sign the future Pro Football Hall of Fame pass catcher.
Granted, Fitzgerald is no longer the talent that he once was considering he is indeed human, his presence in any NFL locker room is simply unmatchable at this point in the offseason — or overall for that matter. There is just no player that can bring to the table what Fitzgerald can in terms of leading, inspiring and teaching up-and-coming players.
Obviously a team like the New England Patriots immediately comes to mind as legendary NFL head coach Bill Belichick could do wonders with the free agent receiver in Foxborough. If not a return to the desert, Fitzgerald absolutely belongs in New England for at least one go-round.
Dennis Kelly, Offensive Tackle
The Tennessee Titans not only changed things up on defense this offseason, but general manager Jon Robinson also made some moves on offense as well. Of course, the Titans acquired Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons while also adding another pass catching threat in former Los Angeles Rams wide out Josh Reynolds. With tight end Jonnu Smith also heading to the New England Patriots in free agency, the Titans offense will look a bit different in 2021-22.
One move that flew under the radar was Robinson's decision to release veteran offensive tackle Dennis Kelly after having him replace current Cleveland Browns right tackle Jack Conklin. Kelly not only served as a reliable back-up blocker for the Titans over the course of the last few seasons but also started at right tackle just a season ago when All-Pro running back Derrick Henry rushed for more than 2,000 yards. If you are capable of blocking for a 2,000-yard rusher, you should probably be on a NFL roster. Period.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers and several other teams a bit light up front after making a few early roster moves this offseason, free agent Kelly should find a landing spot sooner rather than later.
Todd Gurley, Running Back
Despite encountering a slew of significant injury trouble and some serious setbacks since making his way to the NFL, former Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley is still only 27 years old. Although it is unlikely that Gurley sign a significant deal with a NFL franchise as a free agent this offseason, there is no reason that the former Rams standout shouldn't be on someone's roster by Week 1. After a one-year stint with the Falcons while showing flashes of greatness at times, especially when it came to finding the end zone, Gurley may ultimately land on a contending team that just needs a little extra something at the running back position.
I think most across the NFL landscape can agree that Gurley can't carry the majority of the workload in the backfield anymore, but that certainly doesn't mean that he can't be effective as a third down back or as a supplement to a team's starter — especially down in the red zone. Assuming Gurley is fully healthy, a few teams should probably take a chance on him heading into 2021-22. If not by Week 1, though, look for Gurley to replace an injured running back at some point as, unfortunately, the NFL can't avoid offseason and early season injuries.