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Eight dark horse NFL free agents to watch in 2021 offseason: Melvin Ingram, Tyus Bowser headline list

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The salary cap remains unknown. The business of football continues to be conducted in unusual ways as this country enters its second year of navigating a pandemic. And in roughly two weeks, the 2021 NFL league year will begin.

It won’t quite be business as usual, but after the coronavirus struck at this time last year, the league is certainly more accustomed to some of the health and safety protocols that will remain in place to start this offseason. And, having been able to complete a full 2020 season in remarkable fashion, the scouting and evaluations for this upcoming free-agent class were essentially the same as they ever were, while there are obvious differences in the access to draft-eligible players this spring unlike any before.

Will those market inefficiencies — the inability to spend time with draft prospects, get them in your buildings and work them out on campus as in a normal year — lead some teams to lean a bit more into veteran free agency to fill voids? Might they prefer the more known quantity and do more volume in free agency, especially with prices in some position groups likely to be stagnant given a lower cap and what could be stark imbalances between supply and demand that could favor the most patient teams?

Things may in fact play out that way. We will find out soon enough.

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Regardless, this will be a fascinating transaction period, with the franchise tag expected to be used liberally and, in particular, with the potential for a record number of players to receive the tag for the second straight year, a phenomenon we have been monitoring here for weeks. The market will undoubtedly expand in the coming weeks as more cap casualties are let go by their teams in order to get under the restricted salary cap. Already, there are a group of players that intrigue me for various reasons; players you won’t find among most lists of the top 50, or in some cases top 100, available free agents, but whom I believe could end up either providing real value on a short-term deal, or perhaps doing far better on the open market than some might anticipate.

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In many of the cases the player carries some injury risk and has not been as available as one would like in recent years, but that is the nature of this demanding game. Some will stay hurt due to a systematic erosion of their body and skills, and others will bounce back, with their injuries proving to be more of an anomaly. It’s an inexact science to say the least.

With that in mind, here are some of the names I will be watching closely in 2021:

It wasn’t that long ago when Melvin Ingram was the most feared pass-rusher on the Chargers and one of the elite edge performers in the NFL. But Joey Bosa was drafted — and then subsequently paid big — and Ingram has had difficulty staying healthy in recent years. But there is still skill to be culled, and in a situation where his reps could be limited, on a short-term deal, someone might hit an absolute home run.

Tyus Bowser has the frame, length, reach and athleticism teams covet and showed an ability to excel in various ways with the Ravens in the hybrid scheme of Wink Martindale. One of the better coverage linebackers around, and just age 25 with ample of room for growth and development. Great eye-hand coordination who can generate pass rush and set the edge when not dropping back in coverage. Have heard evaluators peg him in a wide range — between $8 million to $12 million a year depending on the market — but with execs and coaches who know him well spread across numerous heavy spending teams (Jets, Jags, Texans) with acute need on the edge, this could get very interesting.

Beloved teammate, quality individual and someone who can still pressure the quarterback at this stage of his career. Justin Houston gave the Colts all they could have hoped for as a short-term boost to what had been a sagging pass rush, and as part of a rotation on another contender with a smart coordinator, he could continue to provide ample bang for the buck.

Shelby Harris gets overshadowed by many others on the Broncos who also have pressing contract issues. Von Miller‘s option is all the rage and generating no shortage of headlines. The decision to tag stud safety Justin Simmons a second year in a row seems like a fait accompli. Harris should do just fine on the open market a year after this unit lost another heart-and-soul cog in Derek Wolfe. Harris can generate push and excels at knocking balls down and can set the edge. I was surprised he did not fare better on the open market a year ago and would suspect that changes. Either way, it’s an intriguing scenario for a very well-rounded player.

What has become an annual exercise — Tre Boston on the street again despite showing a great ability to impact the game and play the ball downfield — continues. I can never figure it out. It looked like the rangy defender would finally be in Carolina for a while after inking a three-year deal in 2020, yet he is on the street again. Maybe there is something that doesn’t show up on film to explain him bouncing around, but if he can be had on another one-year deal without breaking the bank — as has been the norm — then count me in.

Sheldon Rankins burst on the scene with the Saints and had the immediate look of a long-tern difference maker. Big body who could move well enough and push the pocket from the inside. Whenever he would return from injury — which happened quite a bit — he would flash again as soon he got his legs under him … only to get hurt again. There is so much untapped potential here, and someone I would be willing to take a risk on as a potential transformative impact player; the Saints still love him but their cap crunch means he is walking.

This kid showed elite ball-skills and coverage instincts in college and looked like he might become the face of a rebuilding Colts defense. There was so much projectable athleticism playing a true free safety spot that has become paramount in defending the modern passing game. But Malik Hooker simply could not stay healthy in 2020 (again) and his days in Indy are over faster than anyone had expected (injuries led to him not getting a fifth-year option executed in the first place). He is still very young, and will come very cheap I suspect coming off another lost season. Could he be productive for good chunk of 2021 for a contending team? I’d be willing to find out.

Tyrell Williams still has a rare-ish combination of size (6-foot-4), speed and athleticism; the stuff that earned him over $11 million a year on the open market just two years ago. He can stretch the field and be a big target. Even if the receiver market does get crowded, he is a buy-low guy I would still be all over. Coming off a 2020 entirely lost to injury, pounce now. Has averaged over 16 yards per catch for his career and could be a bargain No. 2 receiver somewhere.

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