2022 NFL Free Agency: Ranking the Top 9 Players Set to Hit the Market
The draft is the lifeblood of NFL roster-building, but free agency can help a team complete its lineup. Over the last two offseasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots went big in free agency and have gotten significant on-field returns from their investments.
Which big-name free agents could pay similar dividends next year? That's what we're here to lay out.
Age plays a significant factor in determining the top free agents, since the goal of free agency is to pay players for what they will do next, not what they've already done. Plus, free agents are typically meant to be a part of a franchise's long-term plans, not just short-term solutions. Positional value also factors into the mix, as does each individual's previous production and expected long-term contributions.
None of the players listed here will be 30 or over at the start of next season. That means the likes of Brandon Scherff, Terron Armstead, Tyrann Mathieu, Stephon Gilmore, Chandler Jones and Duane Brown aren't included. Furthermore, the most appealing free agents are unrestricted, which means they're free to sign wherever they please.
The following nine players will be the most sought-after unrestricted free agents once the new league year begins in March.
9. S Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints
A player's career shouldn't be defined by one play, especially when it comes to New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams.
The Saints' 2017 season ended because Williams missed a crucial tackle attempt that led to the "Minnesota Miracle." Williams lowered his head when trying to knock down Minnesota Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs, but he completely whiffed. Diggs raced to the end zone as time expired to push the Vikings past the Saints into the NFC Championship Game.
Since then, Williams has established himself as a top defensive back.
He entered this season as the game's second-highest-graded safety since 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons received the highest grade, and he signed a four-year, $61 million contract extension this offseason with $35 million, which is the most ever for the position.
Williams' market should be robust. The 25-year-old is a prototypical free safety who excels playing over the top. His coverage skills make him one of the game's best safeties.
Unlike others such as Jamal Adams and Landon Collins, who signed large deals because of their splash plays, Williams' importance is often underappreciated. His one career pick-six belies his range and ability to erase mistakes along the backline.
8. WR Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
Mike Williams would bring three significant traits to any wide receiver corps.
First, his size makes him a mismatch against any defensive back. At 6'4" and 218 pounds, Williams has a large wingspan and bodies off defenders well.
Second, he's an immediate vertical and red-zone threat. The 2017 first-round pick has averaged more than 16 yards per reception throughout his career. His 14.9 yards per catch this season ranks fourth among receivers with 50 or more receptions.
Third, the 27-year-old target brings a certain toughness to the position. He's currently dealing with a bothersome knee, but he has yet to miss a game.
The Chargers are currently projected to have the most available salary-cap space next offseason, per Spotrac. They figure to prioritize re-signing Williams.
If he doesn't return, he can go elsewhere and be an offense's No. 1 target. Williams should top 100 targets for the first time this season—he currently has 86 with six games left to play—although he's second on the team to Keenan Allen in that regard.
7. S Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III hoped to sign an extension before the season, according to Geoff Hobson of the team's official site, but the two sides couldn't agree to terms.
Bates told Hobson that his contractual uncertainty weighed on him at the start of the year:
"I feel like I'm at a better headspace now than I was at the beginning of the season. So caught on to proving the wrong people right and the main thing I should be focusing on is proving the right people right as far as my coaches, my teammates, my family and not worry about all of the other stuff. I know that's going to work out, I know what type of player I am, that stuff's going to work out regardless. But like I said I've got to be better for this team, so I'm excited for it."
Last year, Bates was named a second-team All-Pro. He led all safeties in combined interceptions plus pass breakdowns, and he finished second in overall grade among defensive backs, per Pro Football Focus.
A slow start to the 2021 season shouldn't hamper Bates' value when he becomes a free agent in March.
6. WR Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Whenever the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense gets discussed, a mention of Mike Evans either precedes or follows Chris Godwin's name.
"Evans is still that guy," an NFC executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "He's still such a matchup problem with size and speed ... [he] can overpower you. And Godwin is having a better year. They both play tough and physical, which helps in big games."
Evans holds an edge over Godwin in touchdown receptions since the start of the 2019 campaign, because the 6'5" vertical threat is a phenomenal red-zone target. Otherwise, Godwin has 31 more receptions and 121 more receiving yards despite playing three fewer games during that span.
The Buccaneers placed the franchise tag on Godwin this past offseason. The 25-year-old may look for a new home in March where he can be the clear WR1 while maximizing his earning power.
"I want to be in Tampa. But I want to get paid, too," Godwin said this past offseason, according to Pro Football Focus.
Godwin is eventually going to get his bag, whether he remains in Tampa Bay or signs elsewhere.
5. LT Orlando Brown Jr., Kansas City Chiefs
Top-tier offensive tackles rarely hit the free-agent market. Teams realize the dearth of talent at that position across the league and how much of a detriment unreliable linemen can be to an offense.
Some team might invest in the likes of Brandon Scherff, Terron Armstead or Duane Brown next offseason. But all three are already on the wrong side of 30, and they're each likely to demand a hefty payday.
Orlando Brown Jr. is a rare exception, particularly for the left tackle position.
The Kansas City Chiefs acquired Brown from the Baltimore Ravens after he requested a trade in February. Kansas City sent first-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Ravens in exchange for Brown, a second-round pick and a sixth-rounder.
Brown struggled initially, but he has gradually improved with each passing week. After adjusting to a new situation, a different system and a full-time position switch, the fourth-year blocker is set to go into free agency as the best available offensive linemen under 30.
Kansas City didn't trade for Brown just to let him go, but he has yet to reach an agreement on a new contract. Until he does, he'll be a sought-after free-agent target.
4. Edge Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers
Through his first three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Haason Reddick couldn't find a position at which he could produce. The Cardinals bounced him between inside and outside linebacker, and they even benched the him on a few occasions.
Everything clicked in 2020, though. Reddick thrived as a true edge-defender with the chance to consistently chase opposing quarterbacks, and he notched a career-high 12.5 sacks as a result.
Despite that production, Reddick entered free agency last year for the first time with little fanfare. He wound up signing a one-year, $6 million deal to join the Carolina Panthers.
The rest of the league seemingly wasn't sold on his performance in a contract season. But Reddick has backed it up with another outstanding performance.
The 27-year-old edge-defender is tied for sixth leaguewide with 10.5 sacks. He already tied last year's effort with 16 more quarterback hits, per Pro Football Reference. Reddick is also tied for third in pass-rush win rate among edge defenders, according to ESPN Analytics.
"He has some assets that give big people problems blocking him," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said.
Reddick is long, lean and explosive. Now, he's produced for two straight seasons. His performance can no longer be considered a fluke with free agency looming for the second time in two years.
3. Edge Harold Landry III, Tennessee Titans
The ability to create pressure on a consistent basis is football's most valuable defensive trait. Sacks are awesome, but they only tell part of the story.
Tennessee Titans edge-rusher Harold Landry III is currently tied for eighth leaguewide with 10 sacks. But his productivity extends far beyond that.
Through 12 weeks of play, Landry has already set a career high with 19 quarterback hits, per Pro Football Reference. He's among the league's best at creating multiple pressures throughout each game.
Landry's production has slowed a tad recently, but he was tied for second in overall pressures through the first nine weeks of the season, per Pro Football Focus.
The 25-year-old wins with an explosive first step and outside bend. Dating back to his collegiate days, Landry showed elite flexibility to turn the corner against bigger, longer and stronger offensive tackles. Since the start of the 2019 campaign, Landry has tallied 24.5 sacks and 49 quarterback hits.
The Titans front is exceptional with Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry playing alongside Landry. But the latter has been a consistent edge-rusher for three seasons now. Considering the Titans signed fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million contract this past offseason, they might not prioritize re-signing Landry.
2. Cornerback J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots already had arguably the best cornerback in the game, but they traded Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers in October. Despite that, they still have arguably the league's best cornerback with J.C. Jackson shutting down opposing receivers and creating turnovers.
How good has Jackson been this season? Since Week 9, the 26-year-old has surrendered only four receptions, per Doug Kyed of Pro Football Focus. During that same timeframe, he snagged four interceptions.
Jackson currently ranks second leaguewide with seven interceptions. His also finished second last season with nine picks.
"I'm very confident because we've been creating turnovers every week," Jackson told reporters after Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. "Like I said, we talk about it each and every week in practice. We're prepared for it and, when it's time to play, we're executing and we get it done."
The reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month is a premier performer in his prime at a premium position. He has the type of ball skills that defensive coordinators obsess over in an offensive-driven league.
In October 2019, the Los Angeles Rams traded a pair of first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to acquire Jalen Ramsey. Jackson may not be Ramsey, but he could very well reset the cornerback market by becoming a free agent at the right time and playing a highly sought-after position.
1. WR Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers will enter a rather precarious position this offseason.
During an interview on The Herd in May (h/t Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams), Adams suggested his future in Green Bay could be tied to Rodgers:
"That's my guy. That's the only guy I've had other than that 2017 season when he got hurt. That’s the only guy that I've played with. We've built up a special connection over the years that has put us both in really good positions in our careers. Not that he needed me to come along for it, because he was already in that spot.
"We've established a lot together. It would change a lot, man. It doesn’t mean I'd be gone, but I’d definitely have to do some extra thinking if my guy wasn't here."
Adams ranks second leaguewide with 1,083 receiving yards. In the past three seasons, the 28-year-old averaged 103 receptions, 1,252.3 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing seven games.
Both the draft and free-agency classes are loaded with pass-catchers. But Adams will be the crown jewel of free agency as the best at his position.
All statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.