1 Player Each NFL Team Should Want to Re-Sign in Free Agency
NFL teams don't waste time with priority signings, specifically in-house players with expiring contracts.
Free-agent classes typically feature several top-tier players and unheralded gems until clubs start to re-sign starters and key contributors before they test free agency in March.
Once an unrestricted free agent hits the open market, he decides his future with the ability to field offers. Clubs have the first right of refusal with restricted free agents who sign offer sheets from other suitors.
For every team, we'll highlight one impending free agent (unrestricted or restricted) who's an absolute keeper primarily because of his production. The selections below will take other factors into consideration such as a club's depth or lack thereof at specific positions, along with a player's positional value, age and injury history when compared to other potential priority options.
Arizona Cardinals: Edge Chandler Jones
The Arizona Cardinals have a chance to make a run in the playoffs because of their balanced roster. They rank eighth in scoring and fifth in points allowed.
Quarterback Kyler Murray's growth has elevated the Cardinals, but the front office should make a concerted effort to retain its best defender in Chandler Jones. The 31-year-old is second on the team in quarterback pressures (29), sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (nine).
Though fellow edge-rusher Markus Golden leads the Cardinals in all three of those categories, Jones has shown more pass-rushing consistency throughout his career. He had five straight double-digit sack campaigns between 2015 and 2019.
Jones requested a trade this past offseason amidst a contract dispute, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, but he reported for a full training camp. Even at his age, he's going to command a large salary in free agency. Arizona should accommodate him to keep a key cog in its top-five defense.
On pace for his seventh double-digit sack season, Jones proved he's still a premier playmaker who deserves a high-end contract.
Atlanta Falcons: LB Foyesade Oluokun
While Cordarrelle Patterson deserves mention because of his team-leading 565 rushing yards and 524 receiving yards, he's easier to replace than Foyesade Oluokun.
The Atlanta Falcons shouldn't rely on Patterson to handle a heavy rushing workload in his age-31 season. They can draft a running back for that role. With the emergence of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts and the eventual return of wideout Calvin Ridley, Patterson would become the third option in the passing game.
On the other hand, the 26-year-old Oluokun will hit the market in the prime of his career while playing his best football. He's recorded a league-leading 152 tackles, three for loss, three pass breakups, two sacks, nine quarterback pressures, a forced fumble and an interception.
Between Oluokun and Deion Jones, the Falcons have one of the best off-ball linebacker duos in the league.
Two years ago, Atlanta's previous front office signed Jones to an extension. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot may have to restructure a contract or two to keep Oluokun in the fold, but he's worth it, having played 98 percent of the team's defensive snaps this season.
Baltimore Ravens: CB Anthony Averett
The Baltimore Ravens lost cornerback Marcus Peters (torn ACL) for the season back in early September, but Anthony Averett has filled in well on the boundary.
Averett leads the Ravens in interceptions (three) and is second with 11 pass breakups, trailing only All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey. With the latter out for the remainder of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle, the former will likely finish the year as Baltimore's most productive cover man.
Because of Humphrey's ability to play in the slot, the Ravens can re-sign Averett and line him up on the outside opposite Peters for a strong cornerback trio.
If the front office prefers to move on from Peters, who will look to bounce back from a significant injury in a contract year with a $15.5 million cap hit, Averett can replace him on the boundary. With only one full season as a starter, he would have a lower cap hit than the two-time All-Pro.
Buffalo Bills: CB Levi Wallace
Levi Wallace isn't a big name, even though he's played a primary starting role in the Buffalo Bills secondary opposite of star cornerback Tre'Davious White for the past three seasons.
In Week 12, White tore his ACL, so Wallace may receive a little more recognition if the Bills' pass defense continues to stifle aerial attacks. Regardless, he deserves praise for his solid performances on the perimeter, having logged at least two interceptions and eight pass breakups for each of the last three campaigns.
This season, Wallace has allowed a 56.7 percent completion rate and a 71.7 passer rating in coverage.
Working his way up the ranks from an undrafted free agent out of Alabama in 2018, Wallace has become a solid cornerback in a stingy pass defense. Without any notable accolades, he isn't going to break the bank. General manager Brandon Beane shouldn't have any issue re-signing him.
Carolina Panthers: CB Stephon Gilmore
The Panthers acquired Stephon Gilmore from the New England Patriots weeks before the 2021 trade deadline, but he needed time to recover from surgery on his quad.
Since his return to action in Week 8, Gilmore has allowed an 80.2 passer rating while in coverage. He logged interceptions in his first two outings with the team, and then quarterbacks had second thoughts about throwing in his direction. Opposing passers have targeted him only 16 times through seven games.
Still performing at a Pro Bowl level, Gilmore can cut the field in half for the Panthers pass defense. If rookie first-rounder Jaycee Horn recovers from a broken foot and becomes a star on the boundary, Carolina could field an elite pass defense for years to come.
Gilmore, who's a two-time All-Pro, former Defensive Player of the Year (2019) and Super Bowl champion, would serve as a great example for Horn. Together, the two South Carolina products can shut down aerial attacks in a pass-heavy league.
Chicago Bears: WR Allen Robinson II
Aside from a competitive contract offer, the Chicago Bears may have to convince Allen Robinson II that he's a fit within the offense.
This season, Robinson hasn't served as a primary option in the Bears' aerial attack. He's third on the team in targets (56), receptions (32) and receiving yards (353), and he has scored only one touchdown. The eighth-year pro is averaging a career-low 11 yards per reception for a passing offense that's accumulated the fewest yards leaguewide.
However, the Bears have a rookie quarterback in Justin Fields who needs high-end weapons to aid his development. While his rapport with Robinson isn't strong right now, the two can work on their connection in the offseason.
If Fields and Robinson build some chemistry, the former might significantly grow as a passer in his second season.
Because Robinson is currently playing under the franchise tag, the Bears front office should push to sign him to a long-term deal rather than pay him an increased amount on another one-year tender.
Cincinnati Bengals: S Jessie Bates III
In his first three campaigns, Jessie Bates III flashed signs of promise, logging 31 pass breakups and nine interceptions. Last year, he made a case for a Pro Bowl appearance with three interceptions and 15 pass breakups but missed the cut.
Despite Bates' standout 2020 term, the Cincinnati Bengals didn't sign him to a long-term deal and allowed him to play out the final year of his rookie deal, which may have affected his performance on the field. He talked about his contract situation with reporters:
"I think it kind of goes into everything. 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."
Through 12 games, Bates has recorded only three pass breakups and one interception while allowing an 80.0 percent completion rate and a 124.3 passer rating in coverage.
Bates will likely command a sizable deal because of his overall resume, but he may have to temper his contract expectations after his least productive season. That would work out in the Bengals' favor at the negotiating table. They might be able to re-sign a budding safety at a good value.
Cleveland Browns: TE David Njoku
The Cleveland Browns haven't seen much return from their four-year, $42 million investment in tight end Austin Hooper, who has caught 33 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns through 14 contests. On top of that, they released wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in November.
The Browns should keep David Njoku on their roster as they develop young wideouts in Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie third-rounder Anthony Schwartz to balance their offensive attack, which seems like the plan.
According to Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns had previous discussions with Njoku about an extension, and he wants to stay in Cleveland.
"The Browns really like Njoku and have engaged in some early extension talks," Cabot wrote. "... Njoku finally bought into the program during the offseason and wants to be here long-term. The feeling is mutual, and the Browns will try to extend him before he becomes a free agent in March."
In 2018, quarterback Baker Mayfield's rookie campaign, Njoku caught 56 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns. With some holes to fill in the pass-catching group, the Browns can feature the athletic tight end as a prominent target in their aerial attack.
Going into Week 16, Njoku ranks third on the team in receptions (30) and second in receiving yards (436) with three touchdowns.
Dallas Cowboys: LB/S Jayron Kearse
Jayron Kearse might've found the ideal scheme for his versatile skill set. After five seasons in a backup role for the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions, he's having a career year as a starter under Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Through 14 contests (13 starts), Kearse has recorded 94 tackles, eight for loss, nine pass breakups and two interceptions, all of which are career highs.
Most importantly, Quinn has fully tapped into Kearse's capabilities, lining him up in the box, center field, on the defensive line and as the slot defender. In a hybrid linebacker-safety role with an ability to roam around the field, he's outplayed his one-year, $1.1 million deal.
Looking ahead to next offseason, Dallas could lose safeties Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker in free agency. At that position, Donovan Wilson remains under contract through the 2022 season.
Even if the Cowboys re-sign Kazee or Hooker, Kearse can fill a void at linebacker with Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal on expiring deals. Both have missed several games over the past few seasons.
Because of Kearse's limited production as a starter, he projects as a cost-effective signing for a team that may allow safeties and linebackers to hit the open market.
Denver Broncos: OLB Malik Reed
In November, the Denver Broncos traded pass-rusher Von Miller to the Los Angeles Rams, which opened up a spot opposite Bradley Chubb. Malik Reed can slide into that position for the long term and tag-team with Chubb to generate pressure on the edge.
When Miller missed all of last season with a dislocated peroneal tendon, Reed showcased his potential, recording a team-leading eight sacks with 33 quarterback pressures (tied for 16th leaguewide) in 16 contests, which included 13 starts.
This season, Reed has started in 10 out of 11 outings and remains a solid pass-rusher with five sacks and 20 quarterback pressures. Over the past two years, he's exhibited the ability to take on a three-down role and push the pocket with consistency.
The Broncos can re-sign Reed with a qualifying tender because of his restricted-free-agent status. They'll likely have to exercise their right of first refusal because the 25-year-old edge-rusher should draw interest from multiple clubs.
Detroit Lions: LB Alex Anzalone
This past offseason, Dan Campbell accepted the Detroit Lions' head coaching job and brought Alex Anzalone along with him. They spent four seasons together with the New Orleans Saints between 2017 and 2020.
During a late October press conference, Campbell noted that Anzalone had reached his peak in a featured position on defense.
"Anzalone is playing the best that I've ever seen him, with more confidence and energy," Campbell said. "He's our bell cow on defense."
Through 14 outings, Anzalone has recorded career highs in tackles (78) and pass breakups (seven) with an interception. He's clearly the Lions' top inside linebacker on the roster.
If Anzalone can avoid injuries, which have plagued him since his collegiate years at Florida, he can help a young Lions defense mature in the coming years.
Green Bay Packers: WR Davante Adams
If the Packers and Rodgers patch up their differences from this past offseason and re-sign Adams, they would keep arguably the franchise's best-ever quarterback-wide receiver tandem intact.
In the event that Rodgers requests a trade and the Packers grant his wishes, Adams would help second-year quarterback Jordan Love's development.
Coming off his first All-Pro campaign, Adams has established himself as one of the league's best wide receivers. He led the NFL in both receiving yards per game (98.1) and touchdowns (18) last year.
Turning 29 years old on Friday, Adams is a franchise building block, and the Packers shouldn't allow him to walk out of the door.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
General manager Nick Caserio should view the 2022 offseason as the second phase of the Houston Texans' rebuild.
In his first year, Caserio tore down the roster, parting ways with key defenders such as J.J. Watt, Benardrick McKinney, Bradley Roby and Charles Omenihu. Now, he must decide who's worth a spot for the long haul.
Over the past four seasons, Justin Reid has put his coverage skills on display, logging 23 pass breakups and seven interceptions. He's allowed a 41.7 percent completion rate and a 57.8 passer rating in coverage through 11 games this season.
Reid still needs work on his tackling, though. He's missed on at least 14.4 percent of his tackles in each of the last two seasons, but the 24-year-old plays his best in a free safety role farther away from the line of scrimmage. The Texans can also match him up against pass-catchers lined up in the slot.
Despite a dispute with head coach David Culley that resulted in a one-game ban for disciplinary reasons, Reid can become a leader for a revamped defense. The fourth-year pro handled the suspension like a professional and fully supported his team from a distance as opposed to causing a rift amid a lost 3-11 season.
Indianapolis Colts: DE Al-Quadin Muhammad
The Indianapolis Colts might have whiffed on second-round defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu in the 2018 and 2019 drafts, respectively. The former has recorded a career-high five sacks in a contract year, but he's battled injuries, which hurts his value on the open market.
With rookie first-rounder Kwity Paye and second-rounder Dayo Odeyingbo in line to play a majority of the snaps at defensive end moving forward, the Colts might choose between Turay and Al-Quadin Muhammad to fill out the rotation on the edge.
In 2021, Muhammad moved into a starting role, notching 37 tackles, six for loss, five sacks, 14 quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. In his first year as a full-time starter, he looks the part of a solid contributor in case Odeyingbo doesn't pan out.
In an ideal situation, Muhammad would fill the gaps behind Paye and Odeyingbo. Paye's ability to slide inside also allows defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to field all three simultaneously on obvious passing downs for a strong pass rush.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR DJ Chark Jr.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have multiple starting offensive linemen on expiring contracts. Tackle Cam Robinson and guards Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann could test free agency.
Perhaps the club should reconstruct the front line for quarterback Trevor Lawrence's sake. The unit is tied for ninth in pressures allowed per dropback (24.7 percent).
Other than hiring the best candidate to take over for former head coach Urban Meyer, general manager Trent Baalke can help Lawrence by re-signing wide receiver DJ Chark Jr.
In Week 4, Chark fractured his ankle, which ended his season. While an abbreviated campaign will likely impact his market value, the 2018 second-rounder still has a ton of potential.
At 6'4", 198 pounds with 4.34-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Chark can open up the field. Though he played only a few games with Lawrence, the LSU product averaged 22 yards per catch this season. In 2019, he earned a Pro Bowl nod with 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns.
Fellow wideout Marvin Jones Jr. will turn 32 in March and is heading into a contract season in 2022. He won't be a part of the Jaguars' long-term future. However, Chark can complement wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. for a solid one-two combination in the passing game.
Kansas City Chiefs: OT Orlando Brown
After giving up multiple draft picks for left tackle Orlando Brown, the Kansas City Chiefs will likely aim to keep him beyond one season.
The Chiefs traded a first-, third- and fourth-round pick from this year's draft along with a 2022 fifth-rounder for Brown, a second-rounder in the 2021 draft and a sixth-round selection in 2022. They moved premium assets to acquire him, so it makes sense to retain him.
Brown has gone through his ups and downs with the Chiefs, committing seven penalties and allowing four sacks, per Pro Football Focus. However, the 25-year-old could eventually develop into a premier left tackle.
In his first two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Brown played right tackle. He then filled in for Ronnie Stanley on the left side last year.
With some seasoning, Brown can add some accolades to his two-time Pro Bowl resume. The Chiefs may hesitate to make him the league's highest-paid tackle, but they invested enough draft capital in him to re-sign him even with his high market value at a premium position.
Las Vegas Raiders: CB Casey Hayward Jr.
Although the Las Vegas Raiders have given up 32 or more points in four of their last six games, Casey Hayward Jr. is performing like a top-tier cornerback.
Going into Week 16, Hayward hasn't surrendered a touchdown in coverage. He's recorded only five pass breakups and zero interceptions, but the 32-year-old cover man is allowing a mere 50 percent completion rate and a 70.0 passer rating when targeted.
In a division with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert leading top-five passing attacks, the Raiders shouldn't let an established starting cornerback walk in free agency.
Hayward is slightly past his prime in age, but the 10th-year veteran can be a great on-field example for the young cornerbacks on the roster and whomever the team may add to succeed him. The Raiders should aim to lock him up on a short-term deal.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams
The Los Angeles Chargers selected Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft. Though he hasn't lived up to that draft pedigree, the 6'4", 218-pounder plays a key role in the team's fifth-ranked passing offense.
Williams is tied with running back Austin Ekeler for a team-leading seven touchdown receptions. He also ranks second among the club's pass-catchers in receptions (64) and receiving yards (964).
Williams is the Chargers' No. 2 receiving option behind Keenan Allen, but together, they're one of the league's top wide receiver tandems. That duo has helped quarterback Justin Herbert's development.
The Chargers added wide receiver Josh Palmer in the third round of this year's draft, but the rookie hasn't done enough to suggest that he's ready to move up the depth chart yet. The Tennessee product has hauled in 21 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns through 14 outings. Wideout Jalen Guyton provides big plays, averaging 16.8 yards per catch, but he needs to show more consistency (23 receptions for 386 yards and three touchdowns).
The Chargers shouldn't break up a top-five wide receiver duo when they'll have approximately $72.8 million in cap space and a quarterback on the third year of his rookie deal in 2022.
Los Angeles Rams: CB Darious Williams
The Los Angeles Rams acquired two big names last month in edge-rusher Von Miller and wideout Odell Beckham Jr. The former will go into his age-33 campaign next year, while the latter has missed 12 games over the past two seasons.
Among possible re-signings, Los Angeles should direct its initial focus toward cornerback Darious Williams, who isn't going to break the bank because he's still an unheralded player without Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades.
Williams was better last season, allowing a 54.2 percent completion rate compared to his 60.3 percent completion rate this year. He recorded four interceptions last year, but he didn't have any heading into Week 15 this season.
Williams performs at the level of a solid No. 2 cornerback, which is important for a team in a division with the Arizona Cardinals' potent passing attack (ranked eighth) and the Seattle Seahawks' top-notch wide receiver duo in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
While Williams nursed an ankle sprain on injured reserve, Donte Deayon flashed in an expanded role, but he isn't a reliable starting cornerback yet. David Long Jr. played well against the Cardinals in Week 14, but the team benched him earlier in the season. He still has to show some consistency.
Williams is the most trustworthy option opposite Jalen Ramsey.
Miami Dolphins: DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Emmanuel Ogbah is nearing the end of a two-year contract that allowed him to raise his stock value with the Miami Dolphins.
Last year, Ogbah finished with a career-high nine sacks and 36 quarterback pressures. He's followed up with another productive campaign as a disruptive force on passing downs, logging seven sacks and 31 quarterback pressures (ranked 18th leaguewide).
Ogbah isn't just a one-dimensional defender, though. He's recorded 14 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups over the last two terms.
Teams typically sign complete three-down defensive ends before they hit the open market, so Ogbah may not have a chance to test free agency. If that isn't the case, Ogbah should be a top priority over tight end Mike Gesicki because of the value of his position.
Behind quarterback and some offensive tackles, pass-rushers rank atop the free-agency priority list for most teams.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Patrick Peterson
Though Patrick Peterson has missed four games because of a hamstring injury and a short stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, he's still a solid cover man when on the field.
Peterson has allowed a 59.2 percent completion rate and a 94.2 passer rating in coverage. He's no longer an All-Pro cornerback, but the 31-year-old can stabilize the Minnesota Vikings secondary on the boundary.
The Vikings need a proven player opposite of cornerback Cameron Dantzler, who's shown promise but is still in the early stages of his career with only 15 starts in 23 games.
Minnesota released 2020 first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney in August after a grand jury indicted him on felony domestic assault charges. On Saturday, the Vikings released Bashaud Breeland after he had an altercation with coaches and teammates during practice, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport.
Peterson can serve as a starter while the Vikings develop quality depth at the position.
New England Patriots: CB J.C. Jackson
The New England Patriots shouldn't overthink this decision.
Barring an early extension, J.C. Jackson would go into the 2022 offseason as the top cornerback available in free agency. He's one of the league's best ball hawks with 24 interceptions and 50 pass breakups over the past four seasons.
This season, Jackson has a case for an All-Pro nod. He's snagged seven interceptions and leads the NFL in pass breakups (20). He's also allowing an impressive 50.6 percent completion rate and a 40.8 passer rating in coverage.
Before the 2021 trade deadline, the Patriots sent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers. After dealing their most established cover man, they will probably lock Jackson into a massive long-term deal.
Thanks in large part to Jackson's ball-tracking skills, the Patriots give up the third-fewest yards and touchdowns through the air. He's the cornerstone of a stingy secondary.
New Orleans Saints: OT Terron Armstead
Per Over the Cap, the New Orleans Saints are $60.4 million over the cap threshold, so they would have to do some financial house cleaning to re-sign Terron Armstead.
The Saints have done a great job with cap-space gymnastics to retain or extend players; just take a look at the conditions of quarterback Taysom Hill's four-year, $40 million extension (via Spotrac).
Because of the unclear future of their quarterback situation, the Saints may continue to invest in their offensive line. They signed All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk to a five-year, $96 million contract this past offseason. Armstead should be next in line for a massive deal.
This season, Armstead has allowed just one sack through 468 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. On top of that, he's a solid run-blocker who helps spring running backs on the edge, which raises his value despite a slightly concerning injury history. Since 2019, the ninth-year veteran has missed nine games. Yet, when healthy, he's one of the best overall players on the roster.
New Orleans should create cap space to retain a top tackle who's barely over the age of 30 and coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns.
New York Giants: DT Austin Johnson
The New York Giants will have a projected $3.5 million in cap space next year. Though teams can make cuts and restructure deals, Big Blue may not do that for tight end Evan Engram, who's had a disappointing run with the team despite his 2020 Pro Bowl campaign. And even in that standout year, he had 11 dropped passes.
After splurging on free agents last offseason, the Giants may have to take a conservative approach in 2022, which is why Austin Johnson makes more sense as a roster keeper than Engram.
Johnson plays a position that's usually low in priority across the league. Because of that, the Giants would have a fair shot at re-signing him after his best pro season.
In 14 starts, Johnson has 61 tackles, six for loss, 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback pressures. The Giants may have found a high-end starter in a player who had a backup role for most of his first five seasons.
Alongside Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, Johnson can solidify the Giants' defensive front.
New York Jets: RT Morgan Moses
While safety Marcus Maye seems like the no-brainer choice, we should remind ourselves that general manager Joe Douglas traded Jamal Adams after his All-Pro season at the same position.
On top of that, Maye faces charges from a DUI arrest in February and suffered a torn Achilles in November. With his agent, Erik Burkhardt, fanning trade flames before this year's deadline, the New York Jets will probably shift their in-house focus elsewhere during free agency.
The Jets should go back to the negotiating table with Morgan Moses' camp. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Gang Green offered him a two-year deal, but he wanted to get back on the open market again in 2022.
The Jets have Mekhi Becton and George Fant under contract beyond the 2022 campaign, but the former has missed 15 games in two seasons.
Because of Becton's absences, Douglas needs to stock up on offensive tackles in case the 6'7", 363-pounder has a perpetual problem with his knee. Moses brings reliability in his availability, suiting up for every game since 2015. He's a solid run-blocker who's decent in pass protection, allowing three sacks through 866 offensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Jordan Howard
Midway through the campaign, the Philadelphia Eagles changed their offensive approach, shifting toward a run-heavy game plan that uses multiple tailbacks to complement quarterback Jalen Hurts in run-pass option designs.
Between Weeks 8 and 11, Jordan Howard recorded 51 carries for 274 yards, but he missed two games with a knee injury before he's expected to return to action Tuesday against the Washington Football Team. The sixth-year pro averages a team-leading 68.5 rushing yards per game.
While the Eagles found an offensive identity, Howard revived his career as a key part of the team's ground attack. He could hold the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Miles Sanders.
Rookie fifth-rounder Kenneth Gainwell has made his best contributions in a pass-catching role, which isn't Jordan's strong suit. They can complement each other in a rotation. Running back Boston Scott will become a restricted free agent in March and lacks the ideal size (5'6", 203 lbs) to handle a significant rushing workload.
At 6'0", 224 pounds, Howard seems fit to take on a short-yardage role and split early-down touches with Sanders, who's missed seven contests over the past two years.
Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Ahkello Witherspoon
In September, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded a 2023 fifth-round pick to Seattle Seahawks for Ahkello Witherspoon. The low-risk, high-reward gamble on the 2017 third-rounder could pay off in the long run.
Over the past month, Witherspoon has made his presence felt in the Steelers secondary. In Week 13, he moved into a starting role and then put together a standout performance in his second showing with the first unit against the Minnesota Vikings, logging three pass breakups and two interceptions.
When cornerback Joe Haden missed time with a foot injury, Witherspoon filled in as a viable replacement. As a result, the Steelers may allow the former to walk in free agency.
Second-year cornerback James Pierre hasn't played a defensive snap since Witherspoon carved a sizable role on the boundary three weeks ago. Clearly, the former Seahawk earned the trust of his new coaching staff, and now the Steelers should extend his stay.
San Francisco 49ers: LB Azeez Al-Shaair
In September, Dre Greenlaw underwent core-muscle surgery, and he's played just two games this season. In his absence, Azeez Al-Shaair has played well in an expanded role.
Statistically, Al-Shaair's production compares closely to All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner's numbers in multiple categories, recording 96 tackles, nine for loss, 1.5 sacks, five pass breakups and an interception.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan praised Al-Shaair after the third-year pro's strong performance in a matchup with the Minnesota Vikings in Week 12:
"He's just getting more and more confident of where to be, what to anticipate and he's just playing at a real high level right now. And that's why he got his hand on the ball twice, one with the pick, which was an awesome job keying that quarterback. And then just being around after [DL] Kevin [Givens] got that strip. Azeez, he's been playing at a high level all year, whether he's inside or outside. I expect it to continue."
The 49ers can comfortably use three off-ball linebackers in rotation once Greenlaw fully recovers from the lingering effects of surgery. More importantly, San Francisco should retain Al-Shaair because of his inside-outside versatility at linebacker. He possesses a coveted skill set as defensive coordinators try to combat an increasing number of pass-catching running backs and tight ends.
Seattle Seahawks: DE Rasheem Green
Rasheem Green's numbers won't blow anyone away. Yet, he's shown notable improvement in his fourth year with the Seattle Seahawks.
As a full-time starter since Week 2, Green has fared well with his increased time on the field. He's tied with Darrell Taylor for a team-leading 17 quarterback pressures to go along with 35 tackles (20 solo), three tackles for loss and four pass breakups.
Keep in mind, Green has multiple responsibilities because he lines up in different spots across the Seahawks' front line. The 6'4", 279-pounder can attack the quarterback from the edges or move inside to fortify the run defense in sub-packages.
Green may never lead the Seahawks in splashy statistics such as sacks or tackles for loss, but his ability to plug holes in various spots across the front seven has great value. He's a valuable glue guy for this defensive unit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin
Though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reinstated Antonio Brown after he used a fake COVID-19 vaccination card, the club may decide to let him walk in free agency next offseason.
After the Buccaneers signed Brown in October 2020, head coach Bruce Arians expressed zero tolerance.
"He screws up one time, he's gone," Arians said to NBC Sports' Peter King.
Because wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin exited Sunday's game with injuries, Arians likely had to soften that stance for this season, but the Buccaneers might not re-sign Brown after his latest misstep at 33 years old.
Though Godwin will miss the remainder of the 2021 campaign with a torn ACL, the Buccaneers can invest in him for the long term. At 25 years old, he's young enough to bounce back gracefully from a significant injury.
Keep in mind, tight end Rob Gronkowski's contract voids at the end of the term. If he chooses to retire again, quarterback Tom Brady may have to rely on his wide receivers more than he did in previous years.
In 2021, Godwin racked up 105-plus receiving yards in five of his 14 games while playing with the franchise tag. One way or another, he's going to see a decent salary bump, and the Buccaneers should make a strong push to retain him. Going into Week 16, he's their leader in catches (98) and receiving yards (1,103) for the season.
Tennessee Titans: OLB Harold Landry
The Tennessee Titans have yet to see Bud Dupree at full strength this season as he shakes off the lingering effects of a torn ACL, meaning they don't know if he'll fulfill expectations on a five-year, $82.5 million deal.
In order to maintain a consistent pass rush, the Titans should re-sign their current sack leader in Harold Landry, who's having his best season so far.
Through 14 starts, Landry has recorded 11 sacks, 42 quarterback pressures (tied for third leaguewide) and 13 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (7.5 sacks) and defensive end Denico Autry (seven sacks) have pushed the pocket from the interior, but they've likely benefited from opposing offensive linemen paying attention to the fourth-year pass-rusher on the edge.
With 30 sacks in 61 games, Landry seems like a lock to stay in Tennessee, especially with Dupree's gradual recovery. According to The Athletic's Dan Pompei, the Titans have already discussed an extension with him.
Washington Football Team: OG Brandon Scherff
After playing with the franchise tag in consecutive seasons, Brandon Scherff should secure a big-money extension. Though he's missed 13 games over the last three seasons, which gives the Washington Football Team cause to pause before opening the checkbook, the 29-year-old earned an All-Pro nod in 2020.
Furthermore, Washington can afford to gamble on a high-caliber player with durability concerns. Perhaps the front office shaves off a few million on an offer to Scherff because of his injury history. Nonetheless, the club will have approximately $61.7 million cap space next year.
All-Pro guards seldom land on the open market in the prime of their careers. Scherff isn't likely to go down that rare path. Until the Football Team sorts out their quarterback situation and tabs a long-term starter, they must field a strong offensive line to elevate the passer.
According to Pro Football Focus, Scherff has allowed zero sacks through 575 offensive snaps. He comes with question marks about his health, but the four-time Pro Bowler is worth the risk.
Player contracts courtesy of Over the Cap unless otherwise noted.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.