Clutch Performers

2021 NFL free agency: One offensive free agent each AFC playoff team must keep

Another NFL season has come and gone, and it's once again time to turn the page to free agency and the draft as teams prepare to retool their rosters for next season. This includes the 14 playoff teams. Despite their 2020 success, they will still have personnel challenges to work through, such as determining which players to retain and which to let walk once the new league year starts.

It's nearly impossible, if not impractical, to re-sign every single player on the roster year over year, especially with the 2021 salary cap projected to decrease. Even the Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in this boat (no pun intended ... OK, it was intended!). After examining pending free agents from all 14 postseason teams, I have selected one offensive player due to hit the open market from each playoff team who must be kept. Let's kick off this exercise with the AFC:

Note: Check out the NFC here.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens

Restricted free agent Gus Edwards is likely to return to the Ravens' backfield, but I'm not quite sold on re-upping wide receiver Willie Snead or tight end Eric Tomlinson. Re-signing Fluker is a much smarter move. Like I've mentioned before, Baltimore must use Lamar Jackson's strengths as a mobile quarterback on every snap and fight any temptation to use him as a dropback passer. With the run game the central component to the Ravens' offense, they need a road-grader and mauler like Fluker to pave the way for J.K. Dobbins and Edwards. Keeping center Matt Skura is also an option.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills

I feel pretty strongly that the Bills can replace pending free agents Andre Roberts, T.J. Yeldon, Isaiah McKenzie and Tyler Kroft. However, they need to turn their attention to the offensive line (we saw just how important O-line play is in Super Bowl LV) and re-sign the veteran right guard. Feliciano's strength as a run blocker is crucial to Brian Daboll's offense, which was apparent in the unit's rushing success in the second half of the season after he returned from injury. The 29-year-old Feliciano still has a few more good years in him and can set the tone for the unit.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns

Odell Beckham's future in Cleveland is anything but certain, with the receiver owed zero guaranteed money in 2021 and still working his way back from a torn ACL. To be honest, Kevin Stefanski's offense played well without the star receiver. Higgins earned a lot of playing time in OBJ's absence and recorded career-high marks in receiving yards (599) and yards per reception (16.2), while tying his personal best in TD receptions with four. Named Cleveland's unsung hero by NFL.com's Nick Shook, Higgins proved to be an extremely reliable target for the improved Baker Mayfield, who had a 126.1 passer rating when targeting Higgins. The pending free agent is also a solid blocker in the run game, making him a great fit in Cleveland's run-first scheme.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have several decisions to make this offseason, including a big one at the quarterback position, but they have an easy one in whether to re-sign Hilton. I think the veteran receiver offers the most value of the Colts offensive players set to hit unrestricted free agency -- Marlon Mack, Trey Burton and offensive tackles Chaz Green and Le'Raven Clark. Hilton has already expressed his desire to return, but the price must be right, as GM Chris Ballard pointed out in his end-of-the-season presser. Hilton had an impactful second half of the season after a slow start, and Indy needs his presence opposite Michael Pittman to prevent opposing defenses from loading up the box. Pittman showed promise in Year 1, but he's not yet dominant enough to demand attention away from Jonathan Taylor and the run game. That would likely mean less effective play-action and downfield passing. Hilton, who's entering his 10th NFL season, is instrumental to the Colts' offense taking the next step, assuming they at least replicate last year's production at the quarterback position.


UPDATE: The Colts agreed to send a 2021 third-rounder and conditional 2022 second-rounder to the Eagles for QB Carson Wentz.

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs

Watkins is an under-the-radar force in the Chiefs' offense. With Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill demanding all of the attention, we saw just how much the Chiefs struggled in Super Bowl LV without a healthy Watkins on the field. Sure, he was out there (one catch on one target for 13 yards), but his movement was hampered by a calf injury that kept him sidelined for more than a month leading up to Super Sunday. The Chiefs' beat-up offensive line undoubtedly played a role in the loss, but I believe Watkins' health did, too. When he's 100 percent, or close to it, Watkins is a mismatch advantage for Kansas City -- often lining up against the opponent's third-best cover guy. After taking a pay cut to remain with the Chiefs last offseason, I'd venture to say that offer might once again be on the table.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Surprised James Conner or JuJu Smith-Schuster aren't in this space? Let me explain. Conner has had trouble staying on the field, and even when he was out there this past season, the fourth-year back ranked 25th in yards per rush (4.27) among RBs with at least 125 carries. The Steelers need to seriously reevaluate their entire rushing attack after finishing last in the league in yards per game (84.4). Kevin Colbert and the Steelers' scouting department routinely find great talent and value at wide receiver in the draft, so it's possible Pittsburgh moves on from JuJu, hands the WR1 keys over to Chase Claypool and selects a wideout in the second or third round.


Villanueva, however, has been a staple on the offensive line for years. I know Villanueva is closer to the finish than the start of his career (he'll be 33 by Week 1), and struggled at times last season (especially against the Bengals), but he's still a savvy, reliable bookend tackle. He hasn't missed a single game during the last five seasons and his familiarity and physicality will be critical to Ben Roethlisberger's success if the QB returns for an 18th season. Plus, I think Villanueva and the Steelers could work out a reasonable contract that satisfies both player and team.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans

It's taken Davis a little longer to acclimate to the pro level, but he's coming off his best season to date. Although he hasn't lived up to his draft position since being selected fifth overall in 2017, his 2020 performance suggests there's plenty more in him, especially as a complement to Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown. Some of Davis' untapped potential surfaced this past season, when he operated as a dependable No. 2 receiver on the perimeter. Finding a way to keep Davis in an offense that already features an All-Pro running back, dynamic WR1 and top-10 QB would seemingly benefit everybody.


Follow David Carr on Twitter.

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