NFL Free Agency 2022: Best Potential Bargain at Every Position

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2022

NFL Free Agency 2022: Best Potential Bargain at Every Position

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    With players like Davante Adams, Chandler Jones, J.C. Jackson and Zach Ertz slated to hit the open market, the 2022 edition of NFL free agency will be chock-full of big names and even bigger contracts. This doesn't mean, however, that teams must spend heavily to walk away a free-agency winner.

    Because of the NFL's hard salary cap, finding bargains in free agency can be even more valuable than landing the most notable players.

    Last offseason, for example, the Arizona Cardinals signed running back James Conner to a modest one-year, $1.75 million deal. Conner responded with 1,127 scrimmage yards and 18 touchdowns while helping deliver a playoff berth.

    While it will be hard for players to outperform their price points to the extent Conner did in 2021, some wonderful potential bargains are headed to market.

    They might not be the biggest names in free agency, but they're not going to garner the biggest contracts, either. These players have some combination of past production and upside that suggests they can significantly outpace their contracts in 2022.

    They are the biggest potential bargains at each position in 2022 free agency.

Quarterback: Jacoby Brissett

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Teams looking for a starting quarterback in 2022 free agency have few options. Jameis Winston, who is coming off a torn ACL, and Teddy Bridgewater headline an underwhelming group. Teams looking for a high-end backup, though, can land a tremendous bargain in Jacoby Brissett.

    Brissett has never been a high-end starter, but he's been serviceable in spot duty. He went 2-3 as a starter with the Miami Dolphins last season and 7-8 with the Indianapolis Colts in 2019. Teams could do far worse than relying on the 29-year-old dual threat as an understudy, and Brissett can likely be had for a reasonable price.

    Pro Football Focus projected a two-year, $12 million deal for Brissett.

    Brissett would be a perfect insurance option for the Las Vegas Raiders. New head coach Josh McDaniels coached Brissett during his rookie season in New England, and current backup Marcus Mariota is set to hit free agency.

    Raiders starter Derek Carr isn't exactly injury-prone—he hasn't missed a game since 2017—but it's always wise for a playoff team like Las Vegas to have a strong insurance policy at the game's most important position.

    Best Fit: Las Vegas Raiders

Running Back: Duke Johnson

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    Teams regularly find running back value late in the draft, which has kept the market price for the position relatively low. Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter Leonard Fournette, for example, has a projected market value of $6.1 million annually, per Spotrac.

    Teams looking for a bargain-basement steal at running back should take a long look at Duke Johnson. The 28-year-old has long been a high-end receiving back and an underrated ball-carrier.

    In seven pro seasons, Johnson has amassed 311 receptions and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

    This past season, Johnson spent time on the practice squads of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins before being called up by Miami for good in December. He played five games with the Dolphins and tallied 330 rushing yards, three touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry.

    Johnson played on a one-year, $990,000 deal in 2021. He isn't likely to command much more than that on the market this offseason, but he remains a high-end complementary back at worst.

    A return to Miami would be logical, especially with Mike McDaniel coming in as head coach. As the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, McDaniel frequently used multiple backs, and Johnson could be an asset even if Miami attacks the position early in the draft.

    Best Fit: Miami Dolphins

Wide Receiver: Cedrick Wilson

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Cedrick Wilson had a breakout campaign in 2021 while spending much of the season as the team's third option behind CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper.

    Michael Gallup was on injured reserve early with a calf strain and ended the year on IR with a torn ACL. Wilson, meanwhile, played 16 games and finished with a career-high 45 receptions, 602 yards and six touchdowns.

    Wilson provided a quarterback rating of 130.6 when targeted.

    Teams should view Wilson as a high-end slot receiver and a potential free-agent steal—he has a projected market value of $6.4 million annually, per Spotrac.

    Wilson would be a wonderful addition for the Jaguars, who have their quarterback in Trevor Lawrence but an underwhelming supporting cast. Marvin Jones Jr. led Jacksonville with only 832 receiving yards, while the Jaguars ranked 27th in pass yards per attempt.

    In Jacksonville, Wilson could be exactly the sort of reliable slot target who can aid Lawrence's development and add some potency to the passing game.

    Best Fit: Jacksonville Jaguars

Tight End: Robert Tonyan

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan represents a classic risk-reward option in free agency. He suffered a torn ACL in late October and might not be at 100 percent to start the season. He also has just one year of high-end production on his resume.

    However, Tonyan was impressive in both 2020 and in 2021 before the injury. He finished the 2020 season with 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 204 yards and two touchdowns in eight games the following year. In 2020 and 2021, Tonyan provided a quarterback rating of 147.6 and 106.1 when targeted, respectively.

    Pro Football Focus projected a one-year, $5.5 million "prove-it" deal for Tonyan.

    Another run with Green Bay and (maybe) quarterback Aaron Rodgers would make sense for Tonyan, but it might not be financially feasible. The Packers are projected to be $28.3 million over the cap and have a tough decision looming with impending free agent Davante Adams. Re-signing Adams could cost north of $25 million annually.

    Tonyan could instead follow former Packers passing game coordinator Luke Getsy to the Chicago Bears, where he now serves as the offensive coordinator. In Chicago, Tonyan could pair with budding standout Cole Kmet to give second-year quarterback Justin Fields a pair of potent young pass-catching tight ends.

    Best Fit: Chicago Bears

Offensive Line: Mark Glowinski

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    Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

    Finding bargains along the offensive line can be difficult, as even low-level starters tend to get paid on the open market. Twenty-six offensive tackles and 12 guards currently make $10 million or more per year.

    However, Colts guard Mark Glowinski is set to be a solid starter available at a below-market price.

    While Glowinski is a better run-blocker than a pass protector, he was responsible for only two sacks allowed and two penalties in 2021, per Pro Football Focus. PFF projects a deal worth $6.25 million annually for Glowinski.

    While a return to the run-heavy Colts would make plenty of sense, Indianapolis will likely invest heavily in Pro Bowl guard Quenton Nelson, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

    "Quenton's a Colt," general manager Chris Ballard said, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star. "We want him to be a Colt long-term."

    Nelson will likely reset the guard market with his extension, and Indy may not want to do that deal and pay Glowinski in the same offseason. Therefore, he could be available for a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers to snatch.

    The Steelers offensive line was a liability in 2021, and Pittsburgh ranked just 29th in yards per carry—despite having a good young back in Najee Harris. Replacing impending free agent Trai Turner with Glowinski at right guard would be a logical move for Pittsburgh, and it shouldn't be a particularly costly one.

    Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Line: Larry Ogunjobi

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was one of the best value additions in 2021 free agency. The Cincinnati Bengals landed him with a one-year, $6.2 million deal. Ogunjobi rewarded the Bengals with a tremendous campaign.

    Ogunjobi started 16 games—Cincinnati rested its starters in the season finale—and finished with 49 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 24 quarterback pressures. He was great as both a run-stuffer and an interior pressure man, and he was sorely missed in Super Bowl LVI when a foot injury suffered in the Wild Card Round landed Ogunjobi on injured reserve.

    We can expect Ogunjobi to again be a budget option in 2022. Despite being a solid on-field producer, he doesn't receive a ton of attention—he isn't even listed on PFF's top 200 free agents list.

    A return to Cincinnati would be beneficial for Ogunjobi. He thrived alongside D.J. Reader in coordinator Lou Anarumo's defense, producing career highs in both sacks and tackles for loss.

    The Bengals are projected to have $48.8 million in cap space and should have no trouble signing the Pro Bowl-caliber interior defender to a deal worth $6-7 million annually.

    Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals

Edge-Rusher: Arden Key

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders made former LSU pass-rusher Arden Key a third-round draft pick in 2018. However, Key never quite emerged as a prolific sack artist with the Raiders. He had only three sacks in three seasons and was released last offseason.

    Key landed in San Francisco and became a valuable rotational edge-rusher, particularly late in the season.

    Despite playing only 35 percent of the defensive snaps, Key finished with 6.5 sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. All of his sack production came in his final 10 games. Though Key proved this past season that he can indeed be a valuable rotational piece, Pro Football Focus projects a modest two-year, $12.5 million deal for him in free agency.

    Key would be a fine addition for the New York Jets, who are trying to build a defense similar to the playoff-caliber unit that head coach Robert Saleh oversaw as San Francisco's defensive coordinator. Under DeMeco Ryans, Key played in a similar scheme to the one Saleh ran for the 49ers.

    The Jets, meanwhile, could use an influx of pass-rushing talent. New York is expected to have Carl Lawson back from his ruptured Achilles, but it didn't get more than six sacks out of any one defender in 2021.

    The Jets aren't hurting for cap space—they're projected to have $44.7 million available—but that doesn't mean they have to overspend to upgrade their pass rush.

    Best Fit: New York Jets

Linebacker: Anthony Walker Jr.

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    There are a few solid off-ball linebackers headed to free agency this offseason, including De'Vondre Campbell, Leighton Vander Esch and K.J. Wright. However, Cleveland Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. could set the bar from a pure value standpoint.

    Walker played on a team-friendly one-year, $3 million deal in 2021. He finished with 113 total tackles, 69 solo stops and two passes defended. A tremendous second-level run-defender with the speed and athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs, the 26-year-old is a clear-cut starter.

    Yet, Walker is projected to earn just $4 million annually, per Pro Football Focus. That's a steal for just about any starting-caliber defender, and the Steelers should be eager to jump on Walker if he's available at that price.

    No team was worse against the run—both in yards and yards per attempt allowed—than Pittsburgh.

    Walker could help Pittsburgh improve its run defense while also bringing experience against AFC North rivals like Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow to the table—and he could do it at an affordable rate.

    The Steelers are projected to have $29.6 million in cap space available but have multiple needs and should be thrilled to land as many bargains as possible.

    Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers

Cornerback: Sidney Jones IV

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Still only 25 years old, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Sidney Jones IV is just entering his prime—and he was quite good in 2021.

    In his first season with Seattle, Jones finished with 66 tackles, 10 passes defended and an opposing passer rating of just 84.3 in coverage. At 6'0" and 181 pounds, Jones has the size, length and proven production to be a starting perimeter corner. Jones only started 14 games in his first four seasons before starting 11 in 2021.

    Despite all of this, Pro Football Focus projected a below-market one-year, $4.25 million deal for Jones in free agency.

    The Kansas City Chiefs should take a long look at adding Jones to their defensive lineup. Kansas City is projected to have only $11.5 million available, while cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes are headed to free agency.

    The Chiefs also ranked just 26th in yards per pass attempt allowed and 27th in passing yards surrendered this past season.

    Signing Jones could help Kansas City improve its secondary while working within the confines of its cap situation.

    Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs

Safety: Jayron Kearse

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Safety Jayron Kearse was far from the biggest name on the Cowboys' turnover-inducing defense in 2021. However, he was a solid starter who played on a team-friendly one-year, $1.1 million deal.

    Kearse provided tremendous value at that price, finishing the year with 15 starts, 101 tackles, 10 passes defended, two interceptions and an opposing passer rating of only 77.5. Kearse is likely to again be a bargain in 2022, as Pro Football Focus projects him getting a deal in the three-year, $15 million range.

    A contract of $5 million per year is low for a good box safety with above-average coverage skills.

    A return to Dallas would make the most sense for Kearse, provided the Cowboys can improve their cap situation—the team is projected to be $21.2 million over the cap. Kearse had a career year in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's system in 2021, and he's thrilled to see Quinn remaining in Dallas.

    "Getting Quinn back was a huge win, and it was one that was much needed, just to try your best to keep this group together," Kearse told 105.3 The Fan (h/t David Helman of the team's official website).

    In an effort to keep their defense together, the Cowboys can start by retaining Kearse at a reasonable price.

    Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys


    Cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.