NFL Free Agency 2022: Previewing This Year's Class

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2022

NFL Free Agency 2022: Previewing This Year's Class

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The NFL's inaugural 18-week NFL season has ended. While it's taken a little extra time to get to this point, we're in the same spot we were roughly a year ago. Fourteen franchises still have hopes of winning the Super Bowl, while the rest of the NFL is on to the offseason.

    Free agency, which is scheduled to kick off on March 16, will play a more crucial role than in years past. The New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals helped build playoff squads through 2021 free agency, and teams will inevitably look to copy their formula this year.

    With the NFL salary cap expected to rise—to a projected $208.2 million, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero—we're going to see a flood of activity whether moves yield playoff rosters or not.

    Here, you'll find an initial position-by-position rundown of the top names slated to hit the open market in a little more than two months. Players are listed by last name in alphabetical order.


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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Teddy Bridgewater, Denver Broncos

    Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears

    Nick Foles, Chicago Bears

    Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

    Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Tyrod Taylor, Houston Texans

    Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints


    There's a good chance that your favorite quarterback-needy team will be linked to trade targets in the ole' rumor mill this offseason. This is because the 2022 draft class doesn't have a "can't-miss" quarterback prospect like Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence. It's also because the free-agent class lacks starting-caliber options.

    That New Orleans Saints signal-caller Jameis Winston, who is coming off a torn ACL in Week 8, is likely the top option is all you need to know about this group.

    Cam Newton was more of a gadget and change-of-pace quarterback with the Carolina Panthers this season, while Teddy Bridgewater, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor and Nick Foles are stopgap options or bridge quarterbacks at best.

    The big wild card is Pittsburgh Steelers signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger. The 39-year-old is widely expected to retire in the offseason, but he could provide a veteran presence to an otherwise playoff-caliber squad.

    "He's the same when everybody else gets funny. Everybody else gets a little tight, he's the same guy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after their Week 18 win over the Ravens.

    If Big Ben doesn't call it quits, teams may seek him to steer the proverbial playoff ship—much like the Indianapolis Colts did with Philip Rivers a year ago.

Running Back

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

    Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos

    Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

    J.D. McKissic, Washington Football Team

    Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks


    We may also see trade activity at the running back position this offseason. The Panthers, for example, are willing to "listen to offers" for star Christian McCaffrey, according to Joseph Person of The Athletic.

    The free-agent market is full of complementary backs and question marks. There's talent to be found in free agency, certainly, but there probably isn't a workhorse back among the group.

    Melvin Gordon III rushed for 918 yards and eight touchdowns with the Denver Broncos in 2021, but he also split time with rookie Javonte Williams. James Conner scored 18 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns with the Arizona Cardinals, but he also shared the backfield with Chase Edmonds.

    Marlon Mack was a 1,000-yard back three seasons ago, but he suffered a torn Achilles in 2020 and saw only limited action this year. Leonard Fournette was a Super Bowl hero for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago, and he's averaged a solid 4.5 yards per carry in 2021. However, he's also heading into the postseason with a hamstring injury.

    The two intriguing options are Seattle Seahawks runner Rashaad Penny and Washington Football Team receiving back J.D. McKissic. Penny was largely invisible during his first three-plus seasons. However, he's rattled off 671 rushing yards and six touchdowns over his last five games. McKissic is an underrated receiving threat with 123 receptions over his last two seasons.

    Penny and McKissic could both be tremendous value targets in free agency.

Wide Receiver

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

    Odell Beckham Jr., Los Angeles Rams

    Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Zay Jones, Las Vegas Raiders

    Allen Robinson II, Chicago Bears

    JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers


    This should be an exciting free-agent position group, with a few caveats. Buccaneers wideout Chris Godwin, for example, has legitimate No. 1 receiver potential. However, he's also coming off a torn ACL suffered late in the regular season.

    Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams is arguably the best in the game. He amassed 1,553 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2021 while providing a passer rating of 115.3 when targeted. However, Green Bay may already be looking at using the franchise tag on Adams.

    "Sources say after the Packers and Adams broke off big-money extension talks in late July, there have been no talks whatsoever about a new deal," NFL Networks's Ian Rapoport wrote. "... All of which sets the stage for what several sources believe is an eventuality: The Packers give Adams the franchise tag following the season before attempting to work out a long-term deal."

    There are also question marks about Allen Robinson II—a 1,200-yard receiver in 2020 who fell out of favor in the Chicago Bears offense this season—and Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham, who has scored five touchdowns in eight games since joining the Los Angeles Rams. However, he still doesn't appear to be the same No. 1 target he was early in his career (passer rating of just 84.1 provided).

    Zay Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster are strong complementary pieces when healthy—Smith-Schuster is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury—and help round out an enticing receiver market.

    Los Angeles Chargers wideout Mike Williams has emerged as a high-end top target opposite Keenan Allen. Expect at least one team to view him as a possible No. 1 receiver during free agency.

Tight End

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Eric Ebron, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Evan Engram, New York Giants

    Zach Ertz, Arizona Cardinals

    Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

    Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons

    David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

    Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys


    The 2022 tight end class doesn't have a true superstar like the receiver group. However, it's still loaded with quality high-level receiving talent.

    Zach Ertz has been terrific since joining the Cardinals. In 11 games with Arizona, he has caught 56 passes for 574 yards and three touchdowns. Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski has been even better when healthy. In 12 games, he has caught 55 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns.

    To be fair, though, if Gronkowski returns in 2022 at all, it'll probably be with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

    Eric Ebron, Evan Engram, Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki, Hayden Hurst and David Njoku are all starting-caliber options when playing at their best. However, no one from this tier can be counted on to completely change a team's tight end fortunes.

    Engram, for example, was a Pro Bowler in 2020 but has failed to reach 500 receiving yards in two of his last three seasons. He's worth targeting, but teams should plan to have a complement on the roster.

    Teams aren't going to land a difference-maker like Travis Kelce or Darren Waller in 2022 free agency. They should, however, still be able to upgrade at tight end.

Offensive Line

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints

    Duane Brown, Seattle Seahawks

    Orlando Brown Jr., Kansas City Chiefs

    Trent Brown, New England Patriots

    Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles

    Cam Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Brandon Scherff, Washington Football Team

    Nate Solder, New York Giants


    Teams seeking upgrades along the offensive line could hit the jackpot in 2022. Several high-end linemen worthy of upper-market deals will be available.

    Left tackles Cam Robinson, Terron Armstead and Duane Brown will be near the top of a few wish lists. Robinson, especially, could be in store for a huge payday. He played on the franchise tag this year and allowed only one sack in 856 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Orlando Brown Jr. has been a Pro Bowler at both left and right tackle. However, it's hard to imagine the Kansas City Chiefs letting him go after trading for him this past offseason.

    Brandon Scherff is a five-time Pro Bowl guard, though it's worth noting that he may want to return to Washington this offseason.

    "I'd love to be here and I hope I can end my career here," Scherff told reporters.

    Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce is a five-time Pro Bowler and arguably the top interior lineman on the market. Trent Brown and Nate Solder have been serviceable starting tackles, though neither has found strong success away from the Patriots.

    Expect plenty of money to be thrown at offensive linemen this offseason.

Defensive Line

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Calais Campbell, Baltimore Ravens

    Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears

    Malik Jackson, Cleveland Browns

    Larry Ogunjobi, Cincinnati Bengals

    Ndamukong Suh, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Brandon Williams, Baltimore Ravens


    Teams looking for run-stuffing defensive line help will have options, though they may be looking at the older end of the spectrum.

    The 2022 class of interior linemen is headlined by the likes of Calais Campbell (35 years old), Ndamukong Suh (35), Malik Jackson (32) and Brandon Williams (32). These are all starting-caliber players but perhaps best-suited for short-term bridge contracts.

    This is fine for teams hoping to jump into the playoff conversation in 2022. Rebuilding teams, however, may want to focus on the 2022 draft.

    Looking on the younger side, Larry Ogunjobi stands out in a big way. The 27-year-old spent his first season with the Bengals in 2021 and was even more productive than he was a year ago with the Cleveland Browns.

    Ogunjobi finished the regular season with 49 tackles, seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback pressures. While he has never received a Pro Bowl nod, he is a Pro Bowl-caliber performer. Expect a team—Cincinnati or otherwise—to buy low on Ogunjobi now, signing him to a long-term deal before the individual accolades start rolling in.


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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Jadeveon Clowney, Cleveland Browns

    Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

    Von Miller, Los Angeles Rams

    Emmanuel Ogbah, Miami Dolphins

    Jason Pierre-Paul, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers

    Teams in need of pass-rushing help will have a bevy of options in 2022. Cardinals sack artist Chandler Jones likely tops most lists after notching 10.5 sacks and making his third Pro Bowl in five seasons. Von Miller, though 32 years old, could also warrant a lot of attention.

    In eight games with the Rams, Miller logged five sacks and 13 quarterback pressures.

    Following his second straight season with double-digit sacks, Panthers defender Haason Reddick will also top many wish lists. The 27-year-old hasn't been doing it as long as Jones or Miller, but he's shown consistency over the last two years—and with both the Cardinals and the Panthers.

    Don't be surprised if Reddick gets the longest deal among pass-rushers in this cycle.

    Jadeveon Clowney is another name to watch. He resurrected his career with the Browns in 2021, thriving opposite Myles Garrett and returning to form as a high-level defender. He finished with nine sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 32 quarterback pressures—his best numbers since having a Pro Bowl campaign with the Houston Texans in 2018.

    Jason Pierre-Paul and Emmanuel Ogbah are both solid No. 2 pass-rushers. Both are capable of playing the role Clowney did opposite a player like Garrett—in fact, Ogbah did during his time in Cleveland—but neither is likely to break the bank or jump in as an All-Pro addition.


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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings

    Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

    Christian Kirksey, Houston Texans

    Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys

    Anthony Walker, Cleveland Browns

    K.J. Wright, Las Vegas Raiders


    NFL teams aren't as enamored with true off-ball linebackers as they used to be. While having a stat-racking tackler is nice, teams also want defenders who can bring pressure—see Dallas rookie Micah Parsons as an archetypal example.

    This is why even standouts like Dont'a Hightower and Anthony Barr could see a good, not great, free-agent market this offseason. With only four sacks between them, Barr and Hightower can do a lot well, but pressuring quarterbacks isn't regularly their role.

    The same can be said for tackling machines K.J. Wright and Christian Kirksey. Wright had 51 tackles despite playing only 37 percent of the defensive snaps for the Las Vegas Raiders. Kirksey started 13 games for the Houston Texans and finished with 93 tackles and 55 solo stops.

    Anthony Walker might be the best and most unheralded of this group. He amassed 113 tackles in 13 games with the Browns and won't turn 27 until August. He should see long-term contract consideration from Cleveland and other teams.

    Dallas' Leighton Vander Esch is the wild card. He was a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2018 but has seen his production fall off dramatically since then. Expect a few teams to chase him, hoping a flier can yield high-end production on the cheap.


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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Stephon Gilmore, Carolina Panthers

    Joe Haden, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Chris Harris Jr., Los Angeles Chargers

    J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots

    Patrick Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

    Darious Williams, Los Angeles Rams


    This year's cornerback class features one superstar, a high-end starter, a few aging big names and some nice complementary options. It isn't an overly impressive group, but the top target is likely to make waves on the open market.

    Patriots corner J.C. Jackson sits at the top of the class. He logged eight interceptions, a league-high 23 passes defended and allowed an opposing passer rating of only 43.0 in coverage.

    While Tampa's Carlton Davis wasn't as impactful as Jackson, he's still a quality starter when healthy. In 10 games this season, Davis allowed an opposing passer rating of 85.4.

    Corners like Stephon Gilmore (31), Patrick Peterson (31), Chris Harris (32) and Joe Haden (32) are quality starters but nearing the twilight of their careers. Each should be considered for a short-term deal only at this point.

    Rams cornerback Darious Williams could be a sleeper on the 2022 market. He's only 28 years old and allowed an opposing passer rating of 90.8 in the regular season. Teams, of course, will have to weigh the fact that Williams played alongside stars like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald in Los Angeles.


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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Notable Players:

    Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals

    Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks

    Anthony Harris, Philadelphia Eagles

    Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs

    Marcus Maye, New York Jets

    Keanu Neal, Dallas Cowboys


    While the safety class might not be as deep as it was a year ago—when Justin Simmons, Marcus Williams and John Johnson III headlined a stellar group—it's still loaded with top-end talent. Williams is set to be back on the market too, after playing in 2021 on the franchise tag.

    Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III is one of the game's more underrated back-end defenders, though he was better in 2020 (opposing passer rating of only 70.7) than this past season. Similarly, New York Jets safety Marcus Maye was terrific a year ago but is now coming off a torn Achilles.

    In 2020, Maye compiled 88 tackles, two sacks, 11 passes defended and an opposing passer rating of only 80.4.

    Tyrann Mathieu is a four-time Pro Bowler whose resume largely speaks for itself, while Keanu Neal has found a new role as a hybrid linebacker-safety with the Dallas Cowboys.

    Quandre Diggs is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl campaign and will draw plenty of interest on the open market.

    Teams that are looking to add a starting-caliber safety and are willing to spend on the position will have numerous options in 2022.


    *Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.