7 NFL Players Who Already Look Like 2022 NFL Free-Agent Steals

Alex BallentineSeptember 8, 2022

7 NFL Players Who Already Look Like 2022 NFL Free-Agent Steals

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 28:  New York Jets safety Jordan Whitehead (6) during the first quarter of the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the New York Giants on August 28, 2022 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.   (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jordan Whitehead is already making an impact with the New York Jets. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    When it comes to NFL free agency, value is the name of the game.

    No one exemplified finding value like the Green Bay Packers last season. De'Vondre Campbell came to the team on a one-year contract and delivered an All-Pro season and earned a lucrative extension.

    Rasul Douglas signed a similar deal after a modest campaign with the Carolina Panthers and ended up delivering five interceptions and a career year.

    Those two helped elevate a Packers defense that suffered major injuries to Jaire Alexander (shoulder) and Za'Darius Smith (back).

    While we haven't seen a snap of the 2022 season yet, there are signings who are already looking like they could be steals. Each of these players signed a contract with a value of no more than $10 million annually.

TE Hayden Hurst, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Cincinnati Bengals' Hayden Hurst makes a catch as he participates in a drill during an NFL football practice in Cincinnati, Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
    AP Photo/Aaron Doster

    C.J. Uzomah enjoyed the best season of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021, but when he chose the New York Jets in free agency, he left the reigning AFC champions with a role to fill on offense.

    They may have actually upgraded for cheap when they signed Hayden Hurst.

    The 2018 first-round pick lost his job to Mark Andrews in Baltimore and then went to the Atlanta Falcons, who drafted Kyle Pitts last year. Hurst is never going to be as good as those two, but he's a capable starting tight end.

    He also seems to be fitting right in with what has become one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. Head coach Zac Taylor is prepared to utilize him in a variety of ways.

    "It's fun for Zac being able to move me all around the field," Hurst said, per Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "We get to use different formations and show different looks. I'm out wide one play, in the slot in another. That makes it easier for Ja'Marr [Chase], Tee [Higgins] and Tyler [Boyd]. There's a lot of versatility in what I bring."

    That's great news for the Bengals, who signed Hurst to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. Meanwhile, the Jets gave Uzomah a three-year, $24 million deal.

DT D.J. Jones, Denver Broncos

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    New Denver Broncos defensive tackle D.J. Jones holds up a jersey during an NFL football news conference Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
    AP Photo/David Zalubowski

    The Denver Broncos paid a high price for Russell Wilson that not only included draft picks but also valuable players, including tight end Noah Fant and defensive lineman Shelby Harris.

    While the replacement for Fant was already on the roster, the Broncos had to hit the market to replace Harris. They may have even found an upgrade in D.J. Jones.

    The former 49er came to the Broncos on a three-year, $30 million contract, giving the team a run-stuffer with the versatility to line up in multiple spots on the inside. Jones was the 18th-ranked interior defender out of 108 players at the position on Pro Football Focus.

    His new teammates would agree with that assessment. Specifically, starting center Lloyd Cushenberry raved about his first step.

    "That's the first thing that makes him special, then his strength. He has good leverage, he's kind of short, so he can get up under you. And then he's so strong, he's hard to move. It all starts with his get-off. He just disrupts you as soon as you snap the ball," he told reporters last month.

    Jones isn't the kind of player who is going to get a lot of attention once the season starts. He has just seven sacks over the last three seasons. But his ability to eat up blockers and clog running lanes is going to be instrumental for the Broncos defense and enable the team to continue to get better after giving up a lot for Wilson.

C Ted Karras, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Cincinnati Bengals center Ted Karras (64) participates in drills during practice at the team's NFL football training facility, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
    AP Photo/Jeff Dean

    If the Cincinnati Bengals are to get the most out of the Joe Burrow era, they will need to do everything they can to keep their star quarterback upright.

    They showed they understand that with their 2022 offseason. After watching their quarterback have to routinely throw in the face of pressure in the playoffs, they made major investments in the offensive line with La'el Collins, Alex Cappa and Ted Karras in free agency.

    Karras might be the best value of the bunch. The 29-year-old, who signed a three-year contract worth $18 million, has been rock steady throughout his career. According to Sports Info Solutions, he has only surrendered five sacks over the last four seasons and sported just a 1.9 blown block percentage in 2021.

    That sort of consistency is exactly what the Bengals need to raise the floor of the offensive line on a weekly basis.

    Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic noted that Karras has been named a captain. So not only does he bring a higher level of pass protection but also veteran leadership for a group that should be much better this season.

Edge Arden Key, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Arden Key (49) reacts after making a sack during an NFL preseason football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)
    AP Photo/Kirk Irwin

    The Jacksonville Jaguars made plenty of headlines with their $272.1 million free-agent class. But it's value signing Arden Key who might offer the most bang for the Jags' buck this season.

    The team signed the former Raider and 49er to a one-year, $4 million contract. The move went mostly unnoticed with Jacksonville also adding Travon Walker up front with the No. 1 pick.

    However, Key looks ready to build on his minor breakout in 2021. He set a career high with 6.5 sacks while playing just 35 percent of the defensive snaps on a talented 49ers defensive line last year.

    He registered three sacks in the preseason, winning in a variety of ways. He had success bull-rushing to the inside on a Mitchell Trubisky sack, but he also generated pressure on a stunt with Walker.

    Key's ability to work on the outside and kick inside on passing downs is going to carve him out a role in the Jaguars defense. Don't be surprised if he has a career year.

DT Jarran Reed, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers' Jarran Reed runs a drill at the NFL football team's practice field Wednesday, July 27, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
    AP Photo/Morry Gash

    The Green Bay Packers were kings at finding free-agent steals last season, so it should come as no surprise they appear to have landed another high-value target.

    Outside of Kenny Clark, the Packers' interior defensive line could have been considered a weakness. Green Bay gave up the third-highest yards per carry in 2021. It also didn't offer much pass rush outside of Clark. Dean Lowry, Kingsley Keke and Tyler Lancaster combined for just 7.5 sacks.

    The addition of Devonte Wyatt in the first round of the draft has gotten plenty of attention. But the signing of veteran Jarran Reed on a one-year, $3.3 million contract is one that isn't getting enough love.

    The 29-year-old has started every game over the last two seasons and is capable of adding some punch to the pass rush. He only had 2.5 sacks with the Chiefs last season but is a year removed from 6.5.

    Defensive coordinator Joe Barry already loves the versatility that Reed is bringing to the front.

    "He brings a lot to the table just as not only a veteran but a veteran that's played at a high level. We're going to move him all over. We're going to put him everywhere," Barry told reporters.

    Reed should thrive as another high-caliber player on a defense that has them all over the place.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kansas City Chiefs

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 13: JuJu Smith-Schuster #9 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on against the Chicago Bears during the first half of the preseason game at Soldier Field on August 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    With Tyreek Hill playing in South Beach, there's a massive void in the Kansas City Chiefs offense that will need to be filled.

    No one is going to replace the speedy receiver's production and role by himself. The Chiefs' moves this offseason already indicate that. They didn't just bring in another star. They drafted Skyy Moore and signed both Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    The Smith-Schuster signing already looks like a bargain. It's not hard to envision him putting up elite production because he's already done it. He recorded 1,426 receiving yards with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018.

    Since then, he's saw a huge drop in his average depth of target and his role in Pittsburgh's offense. After averaging 9.7 of depth per target in 2019, it dropped to 5.5 in 2020 and 6.5 in 2021.

    Expect that to change in Kansas City. The result could be a rejuvenated career for a receiver who is still just 25 years old.

    Peter King of Pro Football Talk noted that the Chiefs plan on using Smith-Schuster both inside and outside and that "he loves Patrick Mahomes, and the feeling is mutual."

    The Chiefs are getting the opportunity to see if Smith-Schuster can regain his form in their passing attack for the low, low price of $3.8 million for one season. He'll get way more than that in 2023 if he plays to his potential.

S Jordan Whitehead, New York Jets

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 28:  New York Jets safety Jordan Whitehead (6) during the first quarter of the National Football League game between the New York Jets and the New York Giants on August 28, 2022 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.   (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Jordan Whitehead is not the typical player who winds up on the free-agent market. He's at the peak of his powers at 25 years old. He's coming from a winning organization in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he was a consistent starter there.

    So it was a big coup for the New York Jets, who are in the middle of a rebuild, to get him on the roster this spring on a two-year, $14.5 million deal.

    Head coach Robert Saleh seems to understand how fortunate the team was to sign him.

    "He's not normally a guy that you see exiting a building that they were drafted in. He is absolutely phenomenal. His mental makeup, his leadership, the way he prepares every day, his play style. He really is a total package and I'm just thankful that he's here," Saleh told reporters last month.

    Whitehead isn't going to light up the box score. He's never had more than two interceptions in a season and he isn't the kind of safety who's going to rack up over 100 tackles.

    He is, however, good in coverage. He only allowed a 62.6 passer rating when targeted last season and didn't give up a single touchdown.

    That combined with his big-game experience and leadership are going to be huge assets for a franchise that is trying to improve from a 4-13 record during Saleh's second season at the helm.

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