Surprise NFL Free Agents Who Could Go Unsigned Heading into Training Camps

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2022

Surprise NFL Free Agents Who Could Go Unsigned Heading into Training Camps

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    We're at an interesting point in the 2022 NFL offseason when a second flurry of free-agent signings could transpire. Teams have needs that weren't filled during the draft, and several quality free agents remain unsigned.

    Plus, players signed now—after 4 p.m. ET on the Monday after the draft—won't count against next year's compensatory formula. It's a big reason the market slowed before the draft and could pick up again.

    The New Orleans Saints, for example, waited until Wednesday to sign star safety Tyrann Mathieu and won't risk missing out on a potential compensatory pick for a departed player like Terron Armstead or Marcus Williams.

    However, while we're likely to see the market pick back up, several notable veterans could remain on the market all the way into training camp. The following eight players can be key contributors in 2022 but could remain available when camps open thanks to factors like age, health, projected role, positional value and other player-specific reasons.

    We'll dive into both the upside these players can provide and the reasons they could still be available in August. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

K Michael Badgley

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    Kicker Michael Badgley lasted just one game last season with the Tennessee Titans, who released him after he missed a field goal and an extra point in Week 1. However, he landed with the Indianapolis Colts in October and had a solid, if unspectacular, season.

    In 12 games with Indy, Badgley made 85.7 percent of his field-goal attempts and all 39 of his point-after tries. While he didn't convert a field goal longer than 50 yards, he was reliable enough to make his way onto a roster in 2022.

    However, Badgley might remain unemployed until just before the season. Teams are likely to let their kicking competitions play out while viewing Badgley as a veteran fallback option. The 26-year-old can be serviceable, but teams will prefer a younger and cheaper option with a bigger leg—Badgley is 3-of-10 on attempts longer than 50 yards in his career—if they can get it.

    Badgley didn't sign with the Titans until September last year, and he could face a similar timeline in 2022. Expect him to fill a role that isn't solidified during camp and the preseason.

OT Bryan Bulaga

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    Like Badgley, offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga is likely to join a roster as a late-offseason insurance option. The former Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Chargers vet has been a reliable starter at right tackle but has struggled to stay on the field recently.

    Bulaga started 30 games for the Packers in 2018 and 2019. However, his 2017 campaign was cut short by a torn ACL, and the 33-year-old only appeared in 11 games over the past two seasons. A back injury cost Bulaga six games in 2020, while back and groin injuries limited him to a single start in 2021.

    Because of his injury history, teams may not want to risk overworking Bulaga in OTAs and early training camp. He has 122 career starts and shouldn't need much time to get up to speed by Week 1.

    Bulaga played well in his first season with the Chargers in 2020, logging no penalties and two sacks allowed in 10 appearances, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Because of his injury history and age, he also probably has little interest in joining a program early. A late-camp signing would be a win-win for both Bulaga and his next team, which might not put pen to paper until after evaluating its tackle needs in the preseason.

TE Jared Cook

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    Tight end Jared Cook is another aging veteran who probably doesn't want to battle in the summer heat any more than he has to. The two-time Pro Bowler is 35 years old and has a long history of stepping into new situations and being productive.

    Cook, a 2009 third-round pick of the Titans, has played for six different franchises. He topped the 500-yard mark in at least one season for five of them. Last season with the Chargers, Cook caught 48 passes for 564 yards and four touchdowns.

    The South Carolina product can be a reliable low-end starter—he's missed only four games in the past five years—but he isn't likely to be a team's first choice. Cook is likely a one- or two-year option at best, and teams will opt for youth and upside if they can get it.

    However, Cook has shown time and time again that he can step into a new offense and be a key cog in the passing attack. He's the best pass-catching tight end left on the market, and if a team isn't happy with its internal options by the start of the preseason, it will give Cook a call.

QB Nick Foles

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    The Chicago Bears released quarterback Nick Foles last week, which leaves a former Super Bowl MVP on the open market. The 33-year-old is an enticing depth or bridge option, though he may have to wait until the preseason to get his next opportunity.

    Teams know what Foles is at this point in his career. He helped the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl in 2017 and was a Pro Bowler in 2013, but the 10-year veteran is nothing more than a spot starter or high-end backup.

    Foles' last significant opportunity came in 2020 when he made seven starts for the Bears but didn't play well enough to keep Mitchell Trubisky on the bench. Teams that need a starter won't rush to sign Foles, especially since Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo are looming as potential cut casualties.

    Teams in need of a backup quarterback probably won't hurry to sign Foles either. Veteran journeymen of his ilk aren't bargain-basement cheap—Andy Dalton inked a one-year, $3 million deal with the Saints this offseason—while career backups and incoming rookies are.

    Expect a team to sign Foles only after evaluating what it has at quarterback. That might not happen until the preseason is underway, though an injury could speed up the process.

CB Joe Haden

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    Cornerback Joe Haden might be 33 years old and coming off a down season—he allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 100.1 in 2021—but the three-time Pro Bowler is respected by his peers. Buffalo Bills pass-rusher Von Miller, for example, tried to recruit Haden to his new team.

    "We definitely talked about Buffalo, we definitely talked about him coming here. I don't know what the holdup is," Miller told reporters.

    The "holdup" is likely a two-pronged entity. At his age, Haden probably isn't interested in battling for a roster spot in minicamps and OTAs. He won't be viewed as a long-term answer either, which means teams will assess what they have in younger players, including rookies, before turning to someone who's likely nearing the end of his career.

    It's also worth noting that several younger veteran cornerbacks—including Trae Waynes (29), Kyle Fuller (30), Vernon Hargreaves III (26) and Mackensie Alexander (28)—are still available. Moving on Haden won't be a priority because the market isn't bone-dry.

    However, it will be a major surprise if Haden isn't picked up during early training camp. He has 148 career starts—including 11 in 2021—and can start in 2022.

Edge Jerry Hughes

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    Jerry Hughes is now a complementary pass-rusher, albeit a valuable one. He only logged two sacks with Buffalo last season but produced 26 quarterback pressures while playing 52 percent of the defensive snaps.

    The 12-year veteran, who will turn 34 in August, has drawn interest this offseason. The Cleveland Browns, for example, have eyed Hughes, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Browns, though, will presumably try to re-sign free-agent pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney before turning to an aging vet like Hughes.

    Clowney is 29 years old and is coming off a nine-sack season.

    The presence of guys like Clowney, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib and Melvin Ingram on the market means a team has little reason to immediately move on Hughes. He can be a significant contributor, but other edge-rushing options are available.

    Expect Hughes to land with a team only after in-house talent is further vetted and after the veteran pass-rusher market picks back up.

WR Julio Jones

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    If not for his age (33) and injury struggles, there's virtually no chance receiver Julio Jones would still be available. The seven-time Pro Bowler is a future Hall of Famer but has been limited by hamstring injuries over the past two seasons.

    In the Titans' run-oriented offense, Jones had just 434 yards and a touchdown in 10 games in 2021.

    Because Jones has struggled to stay healthy, his next team won't be incentivized to work him in camp or play him in the preseason. It will want the 11-year veteran as healthy and as fresh as possible for the games that matter.

    There isn't much need to get Jones under contract before camp. Even as a late addition, he will carry some injury risk. Expect a team to move on Jones only after concluding that its receiving corps isn't deep or talented enough.

    Still, it will be a major shock to not see Jones play in 2022. Two years ago with the Atlanta Falcons, he only played in nine games but finished with 771 receiving yards and three touchdowns while providing a passer rating of 126.5 when targeted.

DT Larry Ogunjobi

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    If not for injury, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi wouldn't be available. The Bears offered Ogunjobi a three-year, $40.5 million deal at the onset of free agency but voided the deal after a failed physical.

    Ogunjobi suffered a foot injury that required surgery early in the Cincinnati Bengals' surprising postseason run.

    Before the injury, though, he was a breakout star. While he had four promising seasons with the Browns before joining Cincinnati, the 27-year-old was a difference-maker with the Bengals. He finished the 2021 season with 49 tackles, seven sacks and 24 quarterback pressures. If healthy, he'll be an instant-impact starter wherever he lands.

    Ogunjobi will land on a 2022 roster but might not join a team until training camp. The more recovery time he is afforded, the more likely he is to clear any medical checks a new contract will require.

    In Ogunjobi's case, teams are likely to play the waiting game. In theory, a franchise can give him three more months of recovery and still make him an early-camp addition. That franchise might even be Chicago, which hasn't ruled out trying again to sign the five-year veteran.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.