Top Free-Agent Options for Teams Who Miss Out on Major Needs in 2022 NFL Draft
The 2022 NFL draft is just over a week away, and it figures to be the focus of the football world for the rest of the month.
However, many quality free agents are still out there, and if they remain available after the draft, they'll likely be gobbled up as fallback options.
Because of factors like age, upside and price point, most teams will look to fill their major needs in the early rounds. Some will inevitably miss out, though.
Drafting for need only makes sense to a certain degree. Teams cannot afford to take third-round talents on Day 1 simply because they're the best prospects available at the biggest hole on their rosters. At some point, it is ideal to maximize draft value and turn back to the free-agent pool.
Who are the best options still available? That's what we're here to examine, with the caveat that some of these players will probably be signed before the draft, which runs from April 28-30 in Las Vegas. We'll examine the top-ranked player at each key position on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's big board and identify the unsigned veteran who most closely matches his skill set.
These vets obviously don't carry the same long-term potential as their rookie counterparts, but they represent reasonable insurance options for teams that miss out on their top targets.
Top Quarterback: Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Best Fallback Option: Ryan Fitzpatrick
While Liberty's Malik Willis and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett have been getting most of the predraft attention, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder is the top-ranked quarterback on the Bleacher Report big board. He's an athletic pocket passer with mobility, great vision and plenty of arm talent.
Ridder has also impressed during the predraft process.
"I've heard very good things about Ridder's exchanges with teams over the past month," one general manager recently told Pro Football Talk's Peter King.
Ridder finished the 2021 season with 3,334 passing yards, 355 rushing yards, 36 combined touchdowns and just eight interceptions while leading his Group of Five squad to the College Football Playoff. He's a four-year starter with the polish and the skill set needed to be an early starter at the pro level.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is likely to be traded or released, is probably the best veteran alternative. However, he's not a free agent yet. Ryan Fitzpatrick is, and if he's fully recovered from last year's hip injury, he could be a Week 1 starter.
The 39-year-old Fitzpatrick isn't anything more than a stopgap option, but he's the best option readily available. He still possesses some scrambling ability and can push the ball downfield.
When Fitzpatrick was healthy in 2020, he passed for 2,091 yards, rushed for 151 yards and had a 95.6 quarterback rating. He went 4-3 as a starter with the Miami Dolphins.
Top Running Back: Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State
Best Fallback Option: Melvin Gordon III
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III has the potential to be a dangerous workhorse runner and receiver at the next level. The Wake Forest transfer didn't see a ton of receiving work in college, but he's dangerous with the ball in his hands.
"Once Walker plants his foot, he gets north and flies through the hole. At the second level, he's able to make defenders miss in open space with his agility. He is able to sharply cut and quickly accelerate to create even more yards for the offense," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
Last season, Walker rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns while catching 13 passes for 89 yards and an additional score.
Free agent Melvin Gordon III is the best running back still available, and while he might not be a true every-down back, he can still be a big-time contributor. With the Denver Broncos last season, he amassed 918 rushing yards, 213 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while splitting time with Javonte Williams.
Gordon is a two-time Pro Bowler and remains a starting-caliber back at 29 years old. If a team cannot land Walker—or is uninterested in drafting a running back early—snagging Gordon will be a great backup plan.
Top Wide Receiver: Drake London, USC
Best Fallback Option: Julio Jones
This year's receiver class is interesting because it features several potential first-rounders, including USC's Drake London, Ohio State's Chris Olave and Arkansas' Treylon Burks, with very different skill sets. Teams are unlikely to have the same receiver rankings on their draft boards.
London is the consensus top receiver on the B/R board, and he appears to be the complete package. He's big (6'3 ⅞", 219 lbs), can make the difficult catch and has enough speed and route acumen to find spaces in coverage.
"He is able to run a varied route tree that asks him to throttle down, which is even more impressive given his large frame. He has enough long speed to threaten defenders vertically but is able to sink and stay tight on his route breaks," Tice wrote.
An ankle injury limited London to eight games in 2021, but he still finished with 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns on 88 receptions.
If a team cannot get London, Julio Jones would serve as a terrific veteran alternative provided he can put last year's hamstring issues behind him. In his first and only season with the Tennessee Titans, he finished with just 31 catches for 434 yards and one touchdown over 10 games.
In 2020, though, Jones tallied 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games with the Atlanta Falcons (again, largely because of hamstring injuries).
Jones might not be available for all 17 games in 2022, but the 33-year-old is still a complete perimeter threat when healthy and can be a No. 1 receiver for a team that doesn't already have one.
Top Tight End: Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State
Best Fallback Option: Kyle Rudolph
This year's tight end pool isn't overly impressive. Ohio State's Jeremy Ruckert is the top-ranked tight end on the B/R board and the 49th overall prospect.
However, Ruckert does possess the athleticism, blocking ability and versatility needed to be a future starter in the NFL.
"Jeremy Ruckert aligned both in-line and split out in Ohio State's offense, and he projects as a three-down Y tight end in the NFL thanks to his blocking ability and overall athleticism," Tice wrote.
Ruckert finished the 2021 season with 26 catches, 309 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end still unsigned, but we're excluding him here. If he plays in 2022, it will be for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"The Buccaneers' situation is just too good if I decide to go back and play. Like I said, I love all my teammates there," Gronkowski told Debbie Emery of SB Nation.
Kyle Rudolph is the best realistic option for teams that miss out on a tight end in the draft. He's been a role player for the past few seasons, but he's a capable receiver and a willing in-line blocker.
Prior to Irv Smith Jr.'s 2019 arrival with the Minnesota Vikings, Rudolph was a top receiving threat. He was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and had 634 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2018. Last season, he started 13 of 16 games for the New York Giants.
At 32 years old, Rudolph should still have plenty left in the tank.
Top Offensive Tackle: Evan Neal, Alabama
Best Fallback Option: Duane Brown
The 2022 class is much deeper at offensive tackle, and we're likely to see several linemen go on opening night. Alabama's Evan Neal tops the B/R big board at the position and is the second-ranked prospect overall.
A mammoth 6'7 ½", 337-pound prospect, Neal should be a Day 1 starter on a quarterback's blind side.
"Neal's blend of physical traits, polish despite limited time at one position and youth make him an immediate-impact starter at either left or right tackle with Pro Bowl potential if he can play with better overall posture and hand placement in the run game," Brandon Thorn of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
Finding a starting-caliber left tackle this late in free agency isn't always easy, but Duane Brown is still there.
At 36 years old, Brown isn't a long-term answer, but he's a reliable starter coming off a Pro Bowl season even though he allowed eight sacks in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus.
Brown started all 17 games for the Seattle Seahawks last year, and he started all 16 the previous season. If a team cannot land a starting-caliber left tackle early in the draft, Brown is the most logical veteran alternative.
Top Interior Lineman: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
Best Fallback Option: JC Tretter
Teams targeting an interior lineman early could be in luck. Prospects like Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum are expected to be pushed down the draft by runs at other positions.
"One source I spoke to this week expected notable names to be available 'into the teens' as quarterbacks and wide receivers dominate the top 15," ESPN's Matt Miller wrote earlier this month. "Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum is the consensus top center in this class, but the same source told me that mock-draft scenarios have been run in which Linderbaum is available in Round 2."
Linderbaum is the top-ranked interior lineman and 12th-ranked prospect in the B/R big board, and he projects as an instant starter. If a team can't land him, JC Tretter should be Plan B.
While Tretter has never been a Pro Bowler, he's consistent and amazingly durable. Over the past five seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he missed only one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He also played 100 percent of the snaps when active with the Browns.
At 31 years old, Tretter can still be a long-term option for contenders and rebuilding teams alike. Signing him before the draft would actually make sense for a lot of franchises.
While a team might be able to snag Linderbaum early on Day 2, it could instead land Tretter and address other needs in the draft.
Top Defensive Lineman: Jordan Davis, Georgia
Best Fallback Option: Larry Ogunjobi
Versatile Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis is quickly being overshadowed by teammate Travon Walker, who has shot up boards during the predraft process. NFL Media's Lance Zierlein even recently mocked Walker to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 1 overall.
The B/R Scouting department, though, has Davis ranked 20 spots higher than Walker as the sixth overall prospect. Simply put, Davis does a little bit of everything well, which will appeal to prospective NFL employers.
"Davis is a rare prospect based on his measurables alone. There aren't many 6'6", 340-pound players period, let alone those as athletically gifted as he is," Derrik Klassen of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "Davis gets out of his stance with power and snaps right onto opposing linemen, giving him the immediate upper hand on almost every block he takes on."
Free agent Larry Ogunjobi carries some concerns after suffering a foot injury in the playoffs and failing a physical with the Chicago Bears. However, the 27-year-old has a tremendous blend of youth, upside, playmaking ability and proven production.
Last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Ogunjobi finished with seven sacks, 49 tackles, 20 solo stops and 24 quarterback pressures.
As long as Ogunjobi checks out medically, he can be an instant-impact starter and a long-term building block in virtually any scheme. He's a player teams should be quick to evaluate should they miss out on a top defensive lineman in the draft.
Top Edge-Rusher: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon
Best Fallback Option: Jadeveon Clowney
Walker and Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson are trending as the two pass-rushers most likely to come off the board first. However, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux is the top-ranked pure edge defender on the Bleacher Report big board.
Thibodeaux may be a bit raw, but he possesses the sort of rare athletic upside needed to become a perennial All-Pro defender.
"It may take a year or two for Thibodeaux's technique and pass-rushing plan to catch up to his talent, but the fact that he has been as effective as he has to this point while only showing adequate hand usage is a testament to all the other tools he has," Klassen wrote. "Thibodeaux can be a good player in any scheme right out of the gate and has the long-term potential to be an All-Pro."
Last season, Thibodeaux totaled 49 tackles, seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Jadeveon Clowney came into the NFL as a similar prospect, tremendously gifted but unpolished. He's now a three-time Pro Bowler who returned to form with the Browns in 2021.
Clowney finished with 37 tackles, nine sacks and 32 quarterback pressures in 14 appearances. He's arguably the best defender still available at any position, and he should be an easy top choice for teams that can't find an early-impact edge in the draft.
Top Linebacker: Nakobe Dean, Georgia
Best Fallback Option: Joe Schobert
We have another Georgia defender atop the linebacker rankings in Nakobe Dean. The 22nd-ranked prospect on the B/R big board, Dean has the potential to be an immediate contributor, especially in the open field.
Though a bit undersized at 5'11 ¼" and 229 pounds, Dean is impressively quick when closing on opposing ball-carriers.
"Nakobe Dean has the best speed among linebackers in this class," Klassen wrote. "Not only does he have easy sideline-to-sideline range, but he also has the explosiveness to fire downhill with great speed and the smooth hips to redirect himself in space, making him capable of finding the ball-carrier no matter the angle."
Last season, Dean compiled 72 tackles, six sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown.
While not as valuable as a pass-rusher, Joe Schobert is a similar sideline-to-sideline defender. He's also coming off another productive season, this one with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 28-year-old linebacker tallied 112 tackles, 70 solo stops, six passes defended, one forced fumble and one interception. He was also serviceable in coverage, allowing an opposing passer rating of 90.0 in 2021.
Schobert has topped 100 tackles in all five of his campaigns as a full-time starter. He's still in his playing prime and can be a long-term alternative for a team that doesn't get its off-ball linebacker on draft weekend.
Top Cornerback: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Best Fallback Option: Bryce Callahan
LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. carries some injury concerns after being limited to just three games in 2021 by a foot injury. However, he has amazing upside.
In 2019, he was one of college football's most dominant defenders. He finished that season with 31 solo tackles, 15 passes defended, six interceptions, a fumble recovery and one tackle for loss. He has the physical tools needed to be a difference-maker at the next level.
"Stingley has the ideal length teams are looking for in cornerbacks. Paired with his elite athleticism, ball skills and scheme flexibility, he should be an early pick for the cornerback positions," Cory Giddings of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
Free agent Bryce Callahan doesn't possess the same physical profile or upside as the 6'0 ¼", 190-pound Stingley, but he's more than serviceable and versatile enough to play multiple roles in the secondary.
Callahan was limited to 11 games by a knee injury in 2021 but produced 29 tackles, a sack and four passes defended. In 2020, Callahan totaled 42 tackles, five passes defended and two interceptions while allowing an opposing passer rating of just 47.8.
Though he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his pro career, never playing more than 13 games in a season and missing all of 2019 following foot surgery, Callahan can be an immediate starter in the slot or on the perimeter.
Top Safety: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
Best Fallback Option: Tyrann Mathieu
Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton is the top-ranked safety in this year's class largely because of his physical upside and versatility.
"Hamilton is a rare athlete who has the frame of a linebacker and the movement skills of a defensive back. He is a long strider who covers a lot of ground, no matter if he is playing as a deep safety or down in the trenches," Giddings wrote.
Last season, Hamilton racked up 34 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes defended and three interceptions in seven games. Hamilton suffered a leg injury and opted to sit out of his team's bowl game, with his status as a first-round pick already secure.
Teams don't view veteran Tyrann Mathieu as having much upside left. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported on SportsCenter in early April that "the concern from some teams I talk to is that maybe Mathieu has lost a step."
However, Mathieu is a similarly versatile safety who can move around the field and will impact games. He finished last season with 76 tackles, six passes defended, three interceptions, a sack and a pick-six. He allowed an opposing passer rating of 88.1 in coverage while earning a third Pro Bowl nod.
Mathieu is best suited for the strong safety role, but if he's available post-draft, he'll be a wonderful consolation prize for a team that misses out on Hamilton or another top safety it is targeting.
*Advanced statistics via Pro Football Reference.