1 Player Each NFL Team Can Least Afford to Lose Next Offseason
Most of the books have been settled for the 2021 NFL season.
We'll still likely see some big extensions come through in the weeks and months to come, but the reality is that teams already have an idea of what their priorities might look like next offseason.
So let's speculate on that with a look at one player each squad can least afford to lose in the winter/spring of 2022. It's a list that mainly contains players on track to hit free agency next March, with a few exceptions that will be explained as we go.
Let's dive into the future.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Christian Kirk
By no means is Christian Kirk the top target in the Arizona Cardinals offense, but the Cards have to consider that Larry Fitzgerald is gone (and 37), A.J. Green is 32, and DeAndre Hopkins and Kirk are the only other well-established options for a team that loves to spread the wealth.
The 24-year-old 2018 second-round pick has put up more than 500 yards in each of his first three seasons and is coming off a career-best six-touchdown campaign in which he dropped just two of the 79 passes thrown his way.
However, his rookie deal expires next offseason, and unless Andy Isabella or Rondale Moore explode this year, they'd be smart to try to keep him around.
Atlanta Falcons: OT Jake Matthews
Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews isn't slated to hit free agency next offseason, but the five-year, $75 million extension he signed three years ago is becoming increasingly expensive. It's possible an oft-cap-strapped Atlanta team could be tempted to move on in the event they're rebuilding in 2022.
They certainly have to do something about Matthews' $23.7 million cap hit for that campaign, but he's still just 29 and the shelf life at that critical position is quite long. He gave up just three sacks and took just three penalties last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
That's good enough to qualify as a key part of the next era if the team does decide to move on from Matt Ryan at quarterback.
Baltimore Ravens: TE Mark Andrews
The Baltimore Ravens have bolstered quarterback Lamar Jackson's arsenal this offseason, but now they may want to shift their focus to extending Jackson's deal and keeping the standout tight end who entered the league alongside the franchise signal-caller in 2018.
That'd be Mark Andrews, who has gone over 700 yards and scored at least seven touchdowns in back-to-back seasons and was a Pro Bowler as a sophomore in 2019.
The reliable 25-year-old Oklahoma product is entering the final year of his rookie deal in Baltimore, and the Ravens don't have any other tight ends of that caliber on the roster. They should make sure he's part of the core well beyond 2021.
Buffalo Bills: WR Stefon Diggs
I really had to stretch for a candidate for the Buffalo Bills. Starting edge defenders Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are the only key players hitting free agency next offseason, but both are well into their 30s and Buffalo has several intriguing younger options in that spot.
It's highly unlikely the Bills would bail on Stefon Diggs after just two seasons, especially considering he was a first-team All-Pro with a league-leading 127 catches and 1,535 yards in 2020.
That said, the Bills will probably strongly dislike his $17.1 million cap number for 2022. They'll know they can't afford to give him up, though, and we're likely looking at an extension before that season starts.
Carolina Panthers: OT Taylor Moton
The Carolina Panthers undoubtedly would like to sign standout right tackle Taylor Moton to a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline to do so with franchise-tag recipients. But if that doesn't happen, there's a decent chance the consistent and reliable 26-year-old hits free agency in the 2022 offseason.
That could be extremely problematic for the Panthers, who need to continue to build the offense up around new young quarterback Sam Darnold. There's already a huge question mark at left tackle in Carolina, so the rebuilding team can't afford another blow in pass protection.
Moton edges out intriguing 2021 free-agent addition Haason Reddick, who suddenly broke out late in his fourth season with the Cardinals in 2020. However, he will need to prove that wasn't an aberration on a one-year deal in Carolina.
Chicago Bears: G James Daniels
Chicago Bears guard James Daniels hasn't become a star yet, but the 23-year-old 2018 second-round pick was one of PFF's top-rated pass protectors at that position as a sophomore in 2019 before a pectoral injury derailed his 2020 campaign.
Offensive line continuity is critical when you're bringing along a young quarterback, and Chicago will be doing just that with 2021 first-round selection Justin Fields in the months and years to come. As long as Daniels is able to remain relatively healthy and get back on track in the final year of his rookie contract, the Bears should do everything in their power to bring him back on a new deal in 2022.
Worst case, he could even be a franchise-tag candidate if he excels and Chicago isn't able to make a long-term deal happen by the start of free agency.
Cincinnati Bengals: S Jessie Bates III
Can't imagine there's much debate here. Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III has become one of the brightest young defensive stars in the sport, but the 2018 second-round pick is entering a walk year at the age of 24.
Bates was PFF's highest-rated safety in 2020. Like, in the entire league. Incredibly, he wasn't an All-Pro or even a Pro Bowler, but those accolades should soon come to a player who has recorded 100-plus tackles in all three of his pro seasons.
The rebuilding Bengals quite simply can't justify losing such a high-impact player, and the franchise tag should absolutely be on the table. That said, Cincinnati's track record in free agency is quite daunting when it comes to forecasting Bates' future.
Cleveland Browns: G Wyatt Teller
Two key members of the Cleveland Browns offense are entering walk years, and one (running back Nick Chubb) is a lot more popular than the other (guard Wyatt Teller).
But because offensive line continuity is so critical as quarterback Baker Mayfield comes into his own and because running backs have such short shelf lives, the Browns—who also have Kareem Hunt on the running back depth chart—should prioritize Teller over Chubb.
Teller was the league's highest-rated guard at PFF during a breakout 2020 campaign. He's critical to the team's future and he's still just 26. If he can keep it together in 2021, he's a must re-sign or even a franchise tag candidate.
Dallas Cowboys: G Connor Williams
Yes, another guard. In this case, it's fair to wonder if six-time Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler Zack Martin is getting low on fuel after an injury-derailed age-30 campaign. That, center Travis Frederick's 2020 retirement and a decade's worth of wear and tear for left tackle Tyron Smith puts a lot on 2018 second-round pick Connor Williams.
The 24-year-old is coming off a breakout 16-start third season in which he excelled and improved as a pass blocker, according to PFF. That ceiling is extremely high, and Dallas would be silly to let him escape considering the state of the line.
Have we mentioned that O-line continuity is critical? The Dallas line has gone through a lot in recent years, so keeping Williams around is quite important. And considering the depth at linebacker in Dallas, it's much more important than retaining the talented but unreliable Leighton Vander Esch in 2022.
Denver Broncos: WR Courtland Sutton
The Denver Broncos may or may not have their long-term quarterback option in place right now, but Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock (or whoever steps in if neither is the answer) will stand a better chance of succeeding if top Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton sticks around beyond the final year of his rookie contract.
The 2018 second-round pick missed almost all of the 2020 campaign because of a torn ACL, but he looks to be healthy now and there's little reason to believe he can't get back on a Pro Bowl track in 2021. Remember, he made the Pro Bowl with 1,112 yards despite little help from the quarterback position as a sophomore in 2019.
Denver does have promising young receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler on the roster, but neither has truly taken off yet and there aren't a lot of weapons beyond that at that position. They can't let Sutton escape.
Detroit Lions: S Tracy Walker
The Detroit Lions didn't give us much to work with here. No key young players are on the verge of contract years, and there are no killer potential cap casualties in sight for 2022 right now.
But safety Tracy Walker was a strong starter with more than 100 tackles in 13 games in 2019, and the 2018 third-round selection looked solid again before a knee injury derailed his 2020 campaign. He is by no means a superstar, but if he's healthy, it's easy to buy his proclamation that he's "going to have a good year" in 2021.
The 26-year-old has room to grow inside or outside of the box and should be worth keeping around beyond this season for a Detroit team that isn't exactly deep or talented at that position.
Green Bay Packers: WR Davante Adams
Nope, we're not biting with Aaron Rodgers here. The Green Bay Packers certainly cannot afford to lose their MVP quarterback right now, but it's hard to say if Rodgers will or won't be in the picture a year from now, so let's shift the focus to the team's All-Pro wide receiver.
Davante Adams is entering a contract year in his prime after scoring a league-high 18 touchdowns during his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl campaign in 2020. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the Packers and Adams are trying to work out a "massive" contract extension for the 28-year-old before he hits free agency in 2022.
Regardless of who is at quarterback, the Packers need Adams if they want to remain in contention. But Adams has suggested his future could be cloudy if Rodgers departs, and he has said "it would be a dream" to play with college teammate/current Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. So this is worth monitoring.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
I also tried to give you something fresh here but failed. There's just too much up in the air in general with the dumpster fire Houston Texans right now, and it would be difficult to properly address or even understand the importance of an impending 2022 free agent like Whitney Mercilus or Jordan Akins without knowing what the future holds for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Obviously, Watson is facing 22 lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct. That and his early-offseason trade request work to make this one of the most complicated situations in professional sports.
On the field, can the Texans afford to lose the second-highest rated passer in NFL history? Of course not, but it's a waiting game for now.
Indianapolis Colts: LB Darius Leonard
Next offseason will be a big one for 2018 second-round picks who have lived up to or exceeded expectations. Those are players don't have fifth-year options and will thus become eligible to hit free agency one year before successful first-round picks whose options have been exercised.
We've listed a few of those guys already, and one of the most obvious is Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard.
The 25-year-old playmaker was the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year and has earned two first-team All-Pro honors in three professional campaigns. He's a key member of the core in Indy, and he absolutely must be retained beyond the 2021 season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR DJ Chark Jr.
This could change if promising 2020 second-round wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. can continue to flourish for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but you still need several strong receiving options for young quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
So again, we're looking at a 2018 second-rounder in wideout DJ Chark Jr., who put up more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2019. His numbers dipped as he was hampered by injuries in 2020, and he is now entering the final year of his rookie deal.
It'll be fun to see what Shenault and Chark can do with a talent like Lawrence under center. The Jags owe it to Lawrence to make sure both are around for several seasons to come.
Kansas City Chiefs: OT Orlando Brown
The Kansas City Chiefs recently surrendered the equivalent of a second-round draft pick in exchange for new right tackle Orlando Brown, but Brown is another one of those pesky 2018 Day 2 picks who is slated to hit free agency at the conclusion of his rookie deal next offseason.
Considering the importance of superstar Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and what happened to Mahomes and that offense when the offensive line was in shambles in last season's Super Bowl, it's imperative that the two-time Pro Bowler spends more than just one season in K.C.
While it's hard not to list All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu in this spot as he prepares for a contract year, we're rolling with a younger player with a high ceiling at a more crucial position.
Las Vegas Raiders: LB Nicholas Morrow
Nobody who could realistically get away from the Las Vegas Raiders next offseason is likely to make or break the team's fortunes beyond this season, but the most fitting candidate in this case is linebacker Nicholas Morrow.
The 25-year-old has flashed on and off throughout his four-year career to date. He's actually the longest-tenured Raiders defender, but he hasn't had a full season as a starter to put it all together. The abilty is there, though, and he put up career highs in tackles (78) and sacks (three) in 2020.
If he can continue to improve in 2021, the Raiders might have the luxury of moving on from lucrative contracts belonging to veterans Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski in favor of Morrow.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams
Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams went over 1,000 yards and averaged an NFL-high 20.4 yards per reception in 2019 and has caught 17 touchdown passes the past three years. That explains why the Bolts exercised the 2017 first-round pick's fifth-year option for 2021, but he's still on track to become a free agent next offseason.
The Chargers are clearly building around reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback Justin Herbert, so it would be tough to justify letting go of Williams smack dab in the middle of his prime under those circumstances.
They've got Keenan Allen, but he'll be 30 next offseason, and Williams could wind up playing a larger role than Allen as soon as he steps into the "Michael Thomas role" within new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's system. He needs a long-term deal.
Los Angeles Rams: CB Darious Williams
This is a toss-up between Los Angeles Rams cornerback Darious Williams and center Austin Corbett. Both players landed with the Rams after failing to stick elsewhere as rookies in 2018 but have become important cogs in L.A.
If the Rams have to choose—and they may have to considering their constant cap constraints—the priority right now should probably be given to Williams, who might have stardom in his future after a four-interception breakout campaign in 2020.
Plus, the Rams lost key defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson III this offseason. Even with Jalen Ramsey on board, they can't afford another blow to the secondary.
Miami Dolphins: WR William Fuller V
Walk-year tight end Mike Gesicki makes a lot of sense here for the Miami Dolphins. However, Miami did use a third-round pick this year on Hunter Long, and I've got a feeling they're getting incoming wide receiver William Fuller V at the perfect time.
The speedy 2016 first-round pick led the league in yards per reception last season and was on pace to put up Pro Bowl-level numbers before he was suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. He has said that suspension stemmed from a prescription medication he was using that he thought was permitted.
Fuller's joining the Dolphins on a one-year prove-it contract, but watch for him to excel under those circumstances and for the Dolphins to keep him around for young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's sake.
Minnesota Vikings: OT Brian O'Neill
The Minnesota Vikings are not on track to possess much salary-cap space next offseason (what's new?), which could make things tricky when it comes to deciding what to do with impending 2022 free agents Brian O'Neill, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr.
Who should take priority? We'll go with O'Neill, who has arguably emerged as the team's best offensive lineman and is four years younger than Carr and seven years younger than Smith.
The offensive line has been an issue for the Vikings for quite some time. They'd be silly to let a talented, young second-round pick get away at the tackle position.
New England Patriots: CB J.C. Jackson
Star cornerback Stephon Gilmore's future with the New England Patriots appears to be up in the air, but even if the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year remains on the New England roster in 2021, he'll be 31 when his current contract expires in 2022.
With that in mind, it's critical the Pats hold on tightly to young cover men Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson. Jones is under contract for two more seasons, but Jackson is entering a walk year.
The 25-year-old has a ridiculous 17 interceptions in three pro campaigns. That kind of playmaking ability is extremely tough to find, and Bill Belichick undoubtedly knows that.
New Orleans Saints: OT Terron Armstead
This spot belonged to New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk before the team recently rewarded the steady 27-year-old with a five-year, $96 million extension. Now, it has to go to his bookend buddy at left tackle, Terron Armstead.
Ramczyk had the edge because he's several years younger than the soon-to-be 30-year-old Armstead, but there's no sign that three-time Pro Bowler is slowing down after another strong season in 2020. In fact, he had the fourth-best PFF grade among qualified tackles last year.
As the Saints try to bridge the gap between Drew Brees and their next quarterback, it's important that they keep their pillar tackles on board for several seasons to come.
New York Giants: TE Evan Engram
The debate for the New York Giants is between their 2017 first-round pick entering a fifth-year option season (tight end Evan Engram) and their 2018 second-rounder who doesn't have an option year (guard Will Hernandez).
Assuming Engram keeps improving, it's not a huge debate. Hernandez just hasn't been good enough despite all of his talent, and it's entirely possible he won't start or even remain on the roster in 2021.
Engram hasn't been consistently reliable either, but it's important that young quarterback Daniel Jones has some time with such a skilled target who has still managed to average more than 600 yards per season four years into his career.
New York Jets: S Marcus Maye
The New York Jets have about a week to lock up franchise-tag recipient Marcus Maye to a long-term deal, and if that doesn't happen, the emerging safety will become an obvious must-re-sign candidate for the 2022 offseason.
The 2017 second-round pick was PFF's fourth-highest-graded safety last year. He's really grown into a starring role with Jamal Adams gone, and the rebuilding Jets can't afford to lose him just a couple of years after trading Adams to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Jets have plenty of money to spend and should try to take care of that business now. He might only become more expensive as the cap climbs in 2021.
Philadelphia Eagles: TE Dallas Goedert
The Philadelphia Eagles could have big decisions to make on impending 2022 free agents Zach Ertz (if he hasn't been traded), Anthony Harris, Derek Barnett and Dallas Goedert next offseason. But trade rumors have swirled around the 30-year-old Ertz all offseason, and they used a second-round pick on Goedert just three years ago.
It might be time to see if he can deliver and turn into a star, which is entirely possible considering that he's put up more than 500 yards in each of the last two seasons despite starting fewer than 10 games in both campaigns.
The 29-year-old Harris might be a one-year wonder coming over from Minnesota, and Barnett has yet to live up to expectations as a 2017 first-round pick. So we'll roll with Goedert.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge T.J. Watt
We've got two "duh" blurbs in a row for you with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, both of whom have All-Pro defenders entering contract years in their primes.
We'll start with Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt, who in the last two years has earned a pair of first-team All-Pro nods thanks to 29.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 77 quarterback hits and three interceptions. At 26, he's one of the most dominant players in the sport, and the Steelers must realize he can't get away after his option year in 2021.
The franchise tag would almost certainly be used if Watt doesn't sign a long-term deal in the next eight months. But if a deal does come to fruition, it could make the 2017 first-round pick the highest-paid defensive player in league history.
San Francisco 49ers: LB Fred Warner
The second stop on the "duh" tour comes in San Francisco, where All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner is entering the final year of his rookie deal as a 2018 first-round pick.
Warner doesn't have as much clout or a resume that is as stacked as Watt's, but he's recorded 118-plus tackles in all three of his pro campaigns and he's never missed a start. Amazingly, he's still just 24 years old.
The 49ers will eventually have their hands full trying to keep young star Nick Bosa around, but the priority has to be to take care of Warner in the next eight or so months or settle for the franchise tag. Then they can worry about Bosa, who is under team control through 2023 thanks to the fifth-year option.
Seattle Seahawks: OT Duane Brown
In this case, the Seattle Seahawks could simply be begging a 36-year-old Duane Brown not to retire in 2022. But there's another potential scenario in which Brown escapes as a free agent when his contract expires next offseason.
Either way, that would be a problem for a Seahawks team that is trying to keep superstar quarterback Russell Wilson healthy and happy following a bit of a tumultuous 2021 offseason.
The four-time Pro Bowler might be departing his prime, but he was still the seventh-highest-graded offensive lineman in the NFL at PFF in 2020. They can't lose him on the blind side without an obvious replacement, which is why he beats out standout safety Jamal Adams in this spot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Tom Brady
Eventually, Tom Brady is going to retire. He turns 45 next summer, and that's the target age that's been thrown on the table most often. It's hard to imagine Brady walking away next offseason if he keeps performing the way he did down the stretch for the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020, but you never know.
So while we could have listed impending 2022 Bucs free agents Chris Godwin, Carlton Davis, Jason Pierre-Paul or Jordan Whitehead in this spot, the reality is Tampa Bay won't be much of a factor in 2022 if Brady decides it's finally time to hang 'em up.
That said, because the Bucs have more depth at wide receiver and in the secondary than they do on the edge, the obvious runner-up right now is JPP.
Tennessee Titans: C Ben Jones
Tennessee Titans center Ben Jones is simply a rock, which is pretty critical when you're blocking for the league's most productive running back and an established franchise quarterback. So while he's no spring chicken at 32, the Titans have to make sure he sticks around beyond his 2021 contract year.
The 2012 fourth-round pick was PFF's second-highest-graded center in 2019 before allowing zero sacks in another solid campaign in 2020. He's missed just one start the last seven years, and it's a crime he's never been a Pro Bowler or All-Pro.
The Titans might be tempted to move on before Jones declines, but the window should be open a few more seasons with Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill and that stacked offense. Jones oughta take precedence over front-seven defenders Jayon Brown and Harold Landry III, both of whom are also on track to become unrestricted free agents in 2022 but haven't been major difference-makers.
Washington Football Team: G Brandon Scherff
Fittingly, we leave you with one more interior offensive lineman. But as with Jones, we're not looking at a 2017 first-rounder coming off an option year or a 2018 sub-first-rounder entering a walk year for the Washington Football Team.
Instead, with few other quality options on the table right now, the focus should be on two-time franchise-tag recipient Brandon Scherff, who has just days to sign a long-term deal if he doesn't want to spend a second consecutive season on the tag.
If no deal is reached with the guard by that July 15 deadline, the WFT shouldn't give up on keeping a four-time Pro Bowler in his prime beyond 2021. That said, it's never easy when the tag is essentially off the table.