NFL Players Who Will Earn Major Paydays in 2022 Free Agency

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2021

NFL Players Who Will Earn Major Paydays in 2022 Free Agency

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The 2022 NFL free-agent market will feature droves of players who sign eye-popping contracts.

    Fans know the big hitters. Davante Adams, Allen Robinson II, Chris Godwin, Brandon Scherff, Akiem Hicks and Chandler Jones are some of the guys about to top the list.

    But what about lesser-known names? How about unexpected big performers in contract years? Think Bud Dupree, who looked like a mid-tier free agent until an 11.5-sack outburst in 2019 earned him a franchise tag before an $82.5 million contract over five years a season later.

    These are similar soon-to-be free agents who have saved their best performances for last.

Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Over his first three seasons, Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki never came close to hitting the stratospheric ceiling onlookers expected of the second-round pick who checks in at 6'6" and has superb athleticism.

    But Gesicki has rewritten the narrative in 2021. After posting 703 yards and six touchdowns last year on 53 catches in 15 appearances, he is already up to 30 catches for 342 yards and a score in just six games. He's averaging 11.4 yards per catch and a career-high 57 yards per game.

    Most impressive, though, is the fact he's leading the Dolphins in receiving and has already generated eight plays of 20-plus yards with 18 first downs. His career bests are 10 and 36, so he's going to shatter those marks.

    Part of Gesicki's inevitable big payday is another team's projecting he can be even more productive in a better passing offense.

De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Green Bay Packers

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Not many people had a De'Vondre Campbell breakout on their bingo cards this year.

    But the veteran linebacker is doing just that during his first season with the Green Bay Packers after four solid years with the Atlanta Falcons and one with the Arizona Cardinals. He was a fourth-round pick in 2016.

    Through six games, Campbell has earned a stellar 84.7 Pro Football Focus grade (placing him on the cusp of the "Pro Bowler" category) by way of a team-high 55 tackles with two interceptions and three passes defended. He's PFF's highest-graded inside linebacker. Prior to this year, he had never graded at even 70.0.

    Some of his success is situational. Campbell gets to play behind an elite presence in Kenny Clark and alongside Preston Smith. But the Packers and other contenders will seek this production, even on a lucrative short-term deal as Campbell nears the age of 29.

Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers understandably exercised their fifth-year option on 2017 first-round wideout Mike Williams.

    Williams, after all, had shown glimpses of greatness with 10 touchdowns over 16 games as a sophomore and a 1,001-yard campaign over 15 games in 2019. But he hadn't shown enough to suggest he'd nail down a massive long-term deal, especially after this year's market wherein only a select few cashed in while a player such as JuJu Smith-Schuster found muted offers.

    But that's about to change.

    Williams has already caught 33 passes for 498 yards over six games; his career high is 49. His 83.0 yards per game is a personal best, and he's already matched his 100-yard games mark with two. He's scored six receiving touchdowns—no other Charger has more than three—and his eight plays of 20-plus yards and 23 first downs are team highs.

    Everything came together for Williams—his development, Justin Herbert's talent behind a better offensive line and the removal of Hunter Henry from the target share—and he'll reap the benefits on the open market.

Haason Reddick, Edge, Carolina Panthers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    It turns out last year wasn't a fluke.

    That's the storyline for Haason Reddick, a 2017 first-round pick who flirted with the bust label over four years with the Cardinals, who didn't necessarily use him correctly or often enough. He played more than 65 percent of snaps just twice and made multiple position changes.

    Reddick erupted in a contract year last season, though, posting a career-high 12.5 sacks from his new home on the edge after never posting more than four. Arizona had declined his fifth-year option and drafted linebacker Isaiah Simmons with the No. 8 pick.

    The Carolina Panthers took the risk to the tune of a one-year pact worth $6 million. Reddick has responded with 6.5 sacks over six games, while one other player has more than one (Brian Burns with three). He's made eight tackles for loss, forced one fumble and been a key cog in a top-six defense that is surrendering just 20.2 points per game.

    Reddick is playing more than ever and set to shatter most of his career bests, showing last year was not an aberration.

Harold Landry III, Edge, Tennessee Titans

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Elsewhere on the "pass-rushers about to cash in" front is Harold Landry III, a second-round pick in 2018 who never jumped off the page or film consistently over his first three seasons.

    Landry has played well in a contract year, though, tallying 6.5 sacks in six games, including 23 pressures and 10 hurries. His prior career highs? Nine sacks over 16 games in 2019, 18 hurries in 2019 and 2020 and 34 pressures in 2020. By Pro Football Focus' count, he's the only player with five-plus pressures in each game.

    This after Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said Landry was on the field too much last year. But he's played 93 percent of snaps, and the results speak for themselves.

    Whether he's a late bloomer, being used better or feasting because of improved surroundings (with Bud Dupree in the fold and Jeffery Simmons becoming a force) doesn't really matter—teams desperate to counter opposing offenses will see his athleticism and numbers and want Landry to be a part of said effort.

Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Few should have been comfortable predicting a breakout season for Jameis Winston in seemingly his last chance, which featured his stepping into the void left by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints.

    Not only was Winston facing immense pressure, but also the Saints were trying to straddle the rebuilding-competing line—and doing it without star wideout Michael Thomas and with Sean Payton's strange usage of Taysom Hill.

    Yet Winston has responded like a No. 1 pick over five games, completing 60.3 percent of his passes for 892 yards and 12 touchdowns against three interceptions. He's on his typical pace but has dramatically reduced his turnovers.

    Winston has still been a roller coaster in some regards, such as blowing away a contender in Green Bay 38-3 but being unable to lead the Saints to a win over the 1-5 New York Giants. But his leading receivers are undrafted players Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway, and he's already suffered from seven drops (or 6.3 percent, his highest mark). His 71.8 Pro Football Focus grade is his best since 2017, his 108.1 passer rating is a career high by far, and his eight touchdowns under pressure are the most by any player.

    Given that this is Winston, it could all blow up at any time. But it seems unlikely, especially if Thomas returns as a No. 1 wideout. And if that's the case, the Saints may have backed in to a top-end passer, a 27-year-old who can keep their championship window open longer than expected. That means a big payday for Winston after a one-year, prove-it deal.

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