In 2021 Patrick Peterson will hit free agency for the first time in his 10-year career. The cornerback has spent his entire career with the Arizona Cardinals. Coming off a 2020 season in which Peterson posted his worst coverage grade since 2011, along with a league-high 11 penalties, the market for the player is a curious one. Despite an inconsistent year, Peterson remained the Cardinals’ top cornerback, leading the team in interceptions with three. The peak of the season came in Week 6, wherein Peterson held 2020 breakout D.K. Metcalf to only two passes for 23 yards in the win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Peterson’s archetype is that of a pure man-to-man cornerback. He excels in one-on-one matchups, often drawing the opposition’s best receiving option. At 6’1″ and 218 pounds he is well suited to the physical aspect of press coverage, with ample coverage speed to shadow the league’s top players. Peterson’s 28 career interceptions are a testament to his exemplary ball skills. At 30, coming off a below-average season, Peterson is not one of the top available cornerbacks in this year’s free-agent class. However, as one of the best in the game for the past decade, Peterson still offers any team a viable option as a starting cornerback in the NFL, as well as a veteran presence in the locker room.
Top Destinations for Patrick Peterson in 2021
If Patrick Peterson is to leave Arizona, then where better suited for the career Cardinal than Arizona 2.0. When Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians came out of retirement, he got the band back together in Florida. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were both part of Arians’ staff during his tenure in Arizona. If Peterson is looking for familiarity, then the Buccaneers offer just that. Similarly, hailing from Pompano Beach, Peterson is also a Florida native.
The Buccaneers have a promising young secondary, with Sean Murphy-Bunting and Antoine Winfield Jr drawing particular praise. However, the most experienced of the team’s top cornerbacks is Carlton Davis III, who in 2021 will head into just his fourth year in the league. Peterson adds a veteran presence to a talented defensive backfield that could see the unit become one of the league’s best in 2021. Peterson’s age is likely of little concern to the Bucs, after recently signing ageless wonder Tom Brady. Furthermore, given that, as long as Brady is on the roster, the Buccaneers are in win-now mode, a short-term deal with Peterson could greatly benefit the team.
Unfortunately, general manager Jason Licht‘s priorities likely lie elsewhere. Stars such as Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barrett are all scheduled to hit free agency in 2021. Godwin in particular is ranked by PFF as the number two overall free agent available. The front office also has to figure out what to do with the Brady bunch of Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Familiarity makes Tampa Bay a good fit for Peterson. However, the Buccaneers are likely to concentrate on retaining the core of their team going forward, which will occupy much of the team’s cap space in 2021.
In recent years, the Cleveland Browns have taken advantage of Baker Mayfield‘s rookie contract by adding veteran talent via trades and free agency. Last season saw the team spend big to bring in tight end Austin Hooper. Another team in win-now mode, the experience of Patrick Peterson could go a long way towards the team remaining a playoff contender in coming years.
Denzel Ward has repeatedly justified why the Browns took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, Wild-Card Weekend saw the Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers without the former Ohio State man. Although the Browns mauled Pittsburgh in their first playoff appearance for 17 years, Ben Roethlisberger still managed to throw for over 500 yards on the day. Cleveland ended the regular season as the 11th-worst passing defense in the NFL, allowing an average of 247.6 yds/gm. With Ward struggling with injury and 2019 draft pick Greedy Williams missing the entire 2020 season, the lack of depth in the secondary became evident. The Browns, much like the Bucs, have a host of unrefined talent in the secondary that could benefit from Peterson’s leadership. Peterson also shares an LSU connection with Greedy Williams and 2020 draft pick, safety Grant Delpit.
Defensive back is a big off-season need for the Browns, but the linebacking corps needs significant work. The direction the front office chose to go in with regards to the secondary could also depend on Terrance Mitchell, a free agent in 2021. Looking ahead, 2021 will also be the final year of Baker Mayfield’s rookie deal. If the team intends to continue with Mayfield, then some cap space may need to be hoarded for when the time comes to resign.
Many thought the 2020 New York Jets would go 0-16. However, two late-season wins had the unfortunate side effect of delivering Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars on a silver platter. With the Jets sliding to the second pick, their draft strategy has become a little more complicated. A franchise in complete turmoil, the team needs veterans like Peterson to steady the ship in a difficult transition period for New York.
The fifth-worst passing defense in the 2020 regular season, the team needs a completely revamped defensive backfield. The departure of Jamal Adams to Seattle left a gaping void on defense. With the team expected to go offense at number two in the draft, although dependent on the future of Sam Darnold, the team could look to free agency to improve their defense. Surprisingly, the Jets finished at 12th overall in run defense in 2020, so the focus is clearly on a better coverage unit. A projection to have the third-most cap space in the NFL certainly offers the ability to add talent in free agency.
The team is currently without a head coach or defensive coordinator, so schematically it is difficult to predict how Patrick Peterson might fit with the Jets. However, it does leave the door open. The team might be reluctant to move on Peterson given his age and the number of younger, albeit more expensive, defensive backs available. It is also hard to envision New York as an attractive free-agent destination. A more stable franchise might be preferable to Peterson at this stage of his career. Nevertheless, the Jets are in absolute disarray. Adding talent immediately, even if not the best move for the future, might be necessary in order to prevent two throw-away seasons.
Patrick Peterson’s car collection is well documented. Rumored to be worth around $3 million, a move to the Motor City might be a match made in petrolhead heaven. Peterson could help to jumpstart a new era in Detroit.
Much like the Jets, the Lions allowed their best defensive back to leave prior to the 2020 season. Without Darius Slay Jr, the Lions ended 2020 with the third-worst pass defense in the league. Facing Aaron Rodgers twice a season indicates the necessity of a competent secondary unit. Top 2020 draft pick Jeff Okudah struggled, enduring a torrid time in his rookie season. However, the young star is still expected to improve, and Patrick Peterson’s tutelage could influence that. The presence of Peterson could also take the pressure off Okudah while he continues to develop in the league. Schematically, Peterson also fits well with the Lions, who played the second-most snaps in man coverage under Matt Patricia.
Unfortunately, Matt Patricia was jettisoned midway through 2020, so the future of Detroit’s defensive scheme is up in the air. Furthermore, the Lions have very limited cap space for 2020. Retaining wide receiver Kenny Golladay is expected to be the first priority. With only Geronimo Allison and Quintez Cephus signed through 2021, receiver has to be the focus for the Lions in free agency and the draft. This leaves little space for a big free-agent addition like Peterson.
Patrick Peterson’s legacy belongs in the desert. In the decade since the Cardinals took him fifth overall, Peterson has repaid their faith by becoming one of the best in the game. A team captain, Peterson has repeatedly said that he would prefer to spend the rest of his career in Arizona. Wanting to play for at least another six years, Peterson’s aspirations with the Cardinals likely align him with Larry Fitzgerald as an icon in franchise history.
Vance Joseph‘s defense is built on aggressive man-to-man coverage on the outside, the kind of scheme Peterson excels in. With Dre Kirkpatrick expected to move on, retaining Peterson offers continuity in the secondary. Many expect the team to draft a cornerback at No.16 in the 2021 NFL Draft. Peterson would be vital in developing that prospect should Arizona go in that direction. Heading into the third year of the Kingsbury/Kyler era, the team likely expects to make the post-season in 2021. On Kyler Murray‘s rookie contract, the Cardinals are in win-now mode. It is also worth noting that the franchise has a history of resigning veteran players, despite a drop-off in production, such as Larry Fitzgerald.
The 2021 off-season will be a difficult one for general manager Steve Keim. Several pieces of the roster are set to hit free agency. One such is Haason Reddick, who stepped up in 2020 after the loss of Chandler Jones. The extension of DeAndre Hopkins last year ate up a lot of the salary cap. Similarly, Chandler Jones heads into the final year of his contract in 2021, so provisions have to be made for a potential extension. Furthermore, an alternative reading of the Cardinals’ draft plans might suggest the team intend to replace Patrick Peterson, rather than pair him with a young prospect.
Wild-Card pick: New England Patriots
If any team has a history of getting the best out of aging players, it’s New England. Although still reeling from the departure of the GOAT, the Patriots are still viable contenders in the AFC East. A resurgent Peterson could give one of the league’s best pass defenses an even better chance of slowing down the charge of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.
Bill Belichick’s defenses play the most man coverage in the NFL. The man coverage played in Detroit is a direct result of the Belichick coaching tree. Patrick Peterson is schematically the perfect fit for the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Although the team already has talented players in the secondary, recent unrest about the future of Stephon Gilmore begs the question of if the team will move on from the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. If Gilmore leaves New England, sliding Peterson into his spot is a change that needs minimal adjustment. The team also has the cap space to add several players in the upcoming offseason.
If Gilmore was to stay, it would slam the door on a move for a top cornerback. Even without Gilmore though, the Patriots are confident in players like J.C. Jackson going forward. In addition, the focus this year is expected to be on offense. With the team unlikely to bring back Cam Newton, the Patriots will be hunting for a new quarterback, as well as a few receivers to compliment him. A move to New England is schematically and culturally perfect for a player like Patrick Peterson. However, given the current state of the Patriots secondary, it is unlikely the team chooses to improve the unit further.
Patrick Peterson’s history with the franchise makes re-signing with Arizona the most likely outcome for Peterson’s upcoming free agency. PFF expects Peterson to sign a two year deal with the Cardinals and at least commit some of his future towards seeing out his outstanding career under the desert sun.
#1: Arizona Cardinals
#2: Cleveland Browns
#3: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
#4: Detroit Lions
#5: New York Jets
Wild-Card: New England Patriots