What a Team of Remaining NFL Free Agents Would Look Like
The NFL offseason has entered the dead period before training camp. The majority of key available veterans have signed, and the 2022 draft helped fill leftover holes for most teams.
Remaining free agents are better served to wait to sign and see where they fit best.
That's because preseason injuries can create a glaring need in an instant. Some veterans may also prefer to rest during camp practices, so waiting to ink a deal buys them time until they need to report. Preserving one's body before a grueling 17-game campaign is critical.
We scraped through the list of remaining free agents to build a roster, and did so with the intention of the skill sets meshing. It's not simply a list of the best overall players at each position.
Let's dive into our starters. Leave your thoughts on how well this team would perform if it played a 17-game schedule in 2022.
Starter: Cam Newton
The quarterback market is razor-thin, as the best candidate to start in 2022 is either Cam Newton or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick's season-ending hip injury has put the 39-year-old's career in question.
Newton, at 33 years old, is a highly decorated but also questionable starter. Once a dynamic, powerful athlete who overcame inconsistency with his ability to create big plays, Newton's repeated injuries have left him limited. His touchdown percentage has plummeted to 2.4 over his last two seasons, while his interception rate has swelled to 3.0 percent.
His New England tenure had positives even if the Patriots adopted a run-heavy scheme to limit his responsibilities. Newton was accurate enough to complete 65.8 percent of his passes, and he worked with a terrible crew of pass-catchers. We'll give Newton speed to work with in his receiving corps and hope his downfield throwing benefits.
Starter: Devonta Freeman
The free-agent running back class has numerous familiar names to select from, but most are mere stopgaps or have had significant injuries. There's not a single free-agent back who played more than 48 percent of their team's snaps last year, per Over the Cap. We could take a flier on a younger back such as 27-year-old Darrel Williams, but Devonta Freeman has a better resume.
He enjoyed some success in 2021 when making eight starts for the Baltimore Ravens. He managed 576 yards and five scores for a 4.3-yard average. No longer a threat to break off big gains, Freeman takes what is given on the ground and provides consistency.
He adds a receiving element as well. He caught 34 of 42 targets for 190 yards and one score. Newton will need a checkdown threat in our vertical offense, and Freeman is the best blend of receiver and pass-blocker available.
Starters: Will Fuller, Odell Beckham Jr., Emmanuel Sanders (slot)
The wide receiver market features a number of injured but talented players. There are playmakers of every archetype, including speedy big-play threats, crafty veterans and slot specialists. Because our quarterback Newton and running back Freeman are not reliable creators, we're taking upside swings.
Both Will Fuller and Odell Beckham Jr. are coming off season-ending injuries. Fuller should recover from a broken finger just fine, but Beckham may miss a chunk of the year coming back from a torn ACL. Still, we want the speedy downfield presence Fuller can provide and the potentially impactful receiver Beckham was in Los Angeles last year.
To give us some protection from these two receivers missing significant time and leaving us without a starting-caliber veteran, Emmanuel Sanders would be the ideal addition. The 35-year-old proved he can still play at a high level in Buffalo last year, contributing 42 catches, 626 yards and four touchdowns with a 14.9-yard per-catch average.
This unit gives Newton an impressive blend of savvy, explosiveness and versatility.
Starter: Rob Gronkowski
It's hard to imagine Rob Gronkowski playing with any other quarterback than Tom Brady, but he's yet to make his mind up for 2022 and still is a free agent. So, signing him is a no-brainer. The 33-year-old is coming off a dominant campaign in which he posted 55 receptions, 802 yards and six touchdowns in only 12 games.
Gronkowski is still an immense threat as a receiver and contributor as a blocker. His ability to make plays after the catch at his age is a testament to his conditioning and rare talent. No other free-agent tight end can compare to how well-rounded and dynamic he is.
There are, however, other intriguing options. Jared Cook and Eric Ebron would be respectable pickups. Both are primarily receivers who have drop issues but are plug-and-play veterans with decent skill sets.
Starters: Duane Brown (LT), Quinton Spain (LG), JC Tretter (C), Michael Schofield (RG), Bobby Massie (RT)
Our offensive line might be old, but the fact that enough linemen are available to form a competent starting five is a big win. Left tackle Duane Brown edges Eric Fisher as the best blindside protector for Newton, as we favor his durability and fit into a zone-running scheme.
Left guard Quinton Spain was a decent starter on a bad Cincinnati Bengals line, but he's a powerful downhill blocker who will benefit from his linemates in pass protection.
Center had competition between former Cleveland Brown JC Tretter and former Carolina Panther Matt Paradis. Tretter has long been an elite pass-blocking presence, but knee and ankle injuries forced him to miss most practices despite sitting for just one game since 2016. Paradis tore his ACL in November, so he could miss most of this season.
Things get a bit dicey on the right side of the line. Right guard Michael Schofield earned a decent grade from Pro Football Focus in 2021, as he allowed just two sacks, but it's telling that the Los Angeles Chargers sought an upgrade. Bobby Massie is a quality presence at right tackle, but he hasn't played in more than 13 games since 2018.
This unit isn't a great one, but it has a mixture of powerful run-blockers and decent pass blocking. At least Brown, Tretter and Massie should be starters somewhere in 2022.
Starters: Akiem Hicks, Larry Ogunjobi
There always seems to be a quality veteran defensive tackle available, and this class is filled with aging contributors. We could have opted for Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson or Corey Peters.
But the combination of Akiem Hicks and Larry Ogunjobi has more pass-rushing upside. Hicks is still a quality player despite being 32 and missing eight games last year because of groin and ankle injuries. He produced 3.5 sacks for a terrible Chicago Bears team and would benefit from having more talent around him.
Ogunjobi was set to be his replacement in Chicago but failed his physical before signing. However, we're willing to gamble on Ogunjobi's talent because he's by far the youngest option, as he'll turn 28 in early June. He set a career high with seven sacks last season and has continually gotten after the quarterback effectively throughout his career.
Starters: Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlos Dunlap
The list of available edge-rushers is abysmal. So adding 6'6", 285-pounder Carlos Dunlap, who had 8.5 sacks with the Seattle Seahawks last year and brings needed size for run support, was an easy call. Dunlap might have just turned 33 this offseason, but he's a capable starter.
The rest of our options are limited and coming off down years. Takkarist McKinley is 26 years old but played just 28.5 percent of Cleveland's snaps last season, per Over the Cap. Everson Griffen is a capable pass-rusher but is 34.
Instead we'll roll the dice on former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jason Pierre-Paul. The 33-year-old saw a massive dip from 9.5 sacks to 2.5 sacks in 2021 and missed five games. But he's like Dunlap in that he has great size at 6'5", 275 pounds and impacts the game as a run defender in addition to occasionally pressuring the QB.
This unit may be the weakest on the team, but veteran status should at least ensure competence from the former stars.
Starters: Anthony Barr (OLB), Dont'a Hightower (MLB), K.J. Wright (OLB)
The crown of being the most productive group of veteran free agents left belongs to the linebackers. It was easy to find three quality starters among the off-ball free agents, and we could have included Kwon Alexander as well. However, we went with more known quantities in Anthony Barr, Dont'a Hightower and K.J. Wright.
Both Barr and Wright can be our strong-side linebackers who excel at the point of attack and in coverage. Barr has missed time over the last two years, though, because of a pectoral tear in 2020. Wright played in a reduced role for the first time in his career with Las Vegas last year but still managed 51 tackles in eight starts.
The combination of Barr and Wright brings some versatility and high football intelligence. But it's Hightower who is key, as he played just 58.8 percent of New England's snaps in 2021, per Over the Cap, when Bill Belichick began phasing him out of the lineup. Hightower is a downhill enforcer who will play on early downs or in obvious run situations.
Because this grouping has some limitations as pass-rushers, our secondary will need to bring playmaking and speed to compensate.
Starters: Fabian Moreau, Jackrabbit Jenkins, Chris Harris Jr. (slot)
A handful of big-named veterans are on the market, but our goal was to make a group that complemented the linebackers and safeties. The obvious choice to start was slot corner Chris Harris Jr. The veteran can play inside or outside in a pinch and bother receivers at the catch point thanks to elite mental processing and solid quickness.
The outside cornerbacks were trickier. Joe Haden and Xavier Rhodes are too scheme-dependent for this team's makeup, and taking other older corners such as 31-year-old Desmond Trufant or 34-year-old Josh Norman limits the speed and playmaking. The best starter on the market is, shockingly, Fabian Moreau.
He is only 28 but is coming off an impressive season on a bad Atlanta Falcons defense. He totaled a career-high 61 tackles and 11 pass breakups. He also has six career interceptions, so it's possible he has more upside than the other available names.
Finally, the veteran across from him should be Jackrabbit Jenkins. Jenkins is a 33 but still fast and feisty. He finished 2021 with an average PFF grade and was active in run support. His ball production dropped to just one interception and six passes defensed, but he can be trusted more than Haden and Rhodes to cover receivers downfield without safety help.
Starters: Jaquiski Tartt, Landon Collins
While the NFL is favoring versatile coverage safeties more than ever, the free-agent market offers us zero players who can be anything but a two-high safety with coverage limitations. This is backbreaking for our defensive upside even as we land two productive safeties with athleticism. Ideally, there would have been more of a true free safety available to pair with either Jaquiski Tartt or Landon Collins.
Collins was a no-brainer, as he's coming off an impressive bounce-back season with the Washington Commanders. Even though the team terminated his massive contract afterward, Collins was a capable contributor as a second-level defender. He finished with 81 tackles and two interceptions in 13 games.
Tartt is an impressive downhill athlete at 6'1", 215 pounds but never found the playmaking instinct that the San Francisco 49ers needed. He produced just four interceptions and 18 pass breakups in seven seasons. He is, however, a reliable tackler and capable in some man-coverage assignments thanks to his fluidity.
Both of these players are more one-dimensional than we'd prefer, and each has a history of missing games. This is a tough position to be weak at. An injury to either could be the downfall of an otherwise interesting roster.