NFL free agency is approaching, and several teams will look to improve a great deal by signing some of the biggest names on the 2022 open market. Who will sign where? Who are the top free agents? Which teams should be watched closely over the next few weeks? And where will the quarterbacks land?
The legal negotiation period is opening on Monday, and plenty of players will have agreed-upon new homes by midweek. Our NFL team has you covered with everything you’d ever want to know for the free-agent frenzy on deck. That includes a preview of what to expect, a recap of the franchise-tag window, a look at the best players available, a roundup of the signal-callers and receivers who could sign in new places, a breakdown of perfect player-team fits and a evaluation of how deals could impact April’s NFL draft. We dive in on the free agents primed to earn big contracts, settle for prove-it deals or sign at great value. We preview teams that are ready to spend and teams that might stay dormant as they navigate salary-cap concerns. And finally, we wrap it all up with a handful of predictions for what could happen.
In all, more than a dozen of our NFL experts weigh in on one of the wildest weeks of the offseason. It’s all here in a handy one-stop cheat sheet. (Salary cap figures are via Over The Cap.)
Preview | Top names | Franchise tags
Quarterbacks to watch | Bank-breakers
Spender teams | Cap-concern teams
Best fits | Receivers to know | Sleepers
Prove-it candidates | Draft outlook | Predictions
What can we expect in free agency, and when does it start?
The NFL’s 2022 free agent period officially starts Monday, March 14 with two days of legal negotiations. Deals can be formalized as soon as Wednesday, March 16. Teams use early contract extensions and the franchise tag to prevent their best young players from reaching the market, knowing that bidding wars and unfettered leverage will push costs higher.
Ultimately, the most important question is not where free agents will sign but who will get to the market. Eight top players received the franchise tag this week, and two other pending free agents — Chargers receiver Mike Williams and Titans pass rusher Harold Landry III — signed new contracts. For the time being, that leaves a list topped by two Saints players (left tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams) leading a class that includes an unusually high number of talented tight ends and some big-name veteran pass-rushers.
For the 2022 market, teams will have to comply with a $208.2 million per team salary cap. Teams with the most cap space as of this week include the Chargers ($54 million), Dolphins ($53 million) and Jets ($50 million). — Kevin Seifert
Who are the top free agents available?
The ideal NFL free agent is coming off of his first contract and is about 26 years old, but teams work hard to either re-sign those players or use the franchise tag. So the most impactful free agents in this class are veteran pass-rushers, including four of the top 10. None are younger than 29. — Seifert
1. Terron Armstead, OT
2. Marcus Williams, S
3. Von Miller, OLB
4. Tyrann Mathieu, S
5. Carlton Davis, CB
6. Brandon Scherff, G
7. Allen Robinson II, WR
8. Randy Gregory, DE
9. Chandler Jones, OLB
10. Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Who got franchise-tagged?
Franchise tags: Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin, Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, Browns tight end David Njoku, Jaguars offensive tackle Cam Robinson.
Three of this year’s eight franchised players are tight ends, mainly because they’re relatively cheap to franchise. The other five each have relatively specific reasons, including the Packers trying to placate Aaron Rodgers, the Bucs still hoping Tom Brady comes back and the Jags’ ongoing infatuation with Robinson. You get the idea. Most interesting to me: Zero pass-rushers were tagged. I thought Harold Landry III (he ultimately signed an extension) and Chandler Jones were strong candidates. But it means a lot of good choices are out there if you need a pass-rusher in free agency this year. — Dan Graziano
Read more: Franchise tag tracker
Who are the top quarterbacks on the market?
Jameis Winston: With the Saints, Winston made great strides to clean up problems in his game during a season cut short by an ACL tear. He has put in the work to return from knee surgery, and let’s not forget that the former 30-30 man (33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions during the 2019 season) can make all the throws. As always, Winston’s potential is intriguing. — Jason Reid
Marcus Spears breaks down what the future free agent market holds for Saints’ QB Jameis Winston.
Teddy Bridgewater: A classic “game manager,” Bridgewater won’t hurt you with mind-numbing turnovers. Instead, he often takes the check down. Obviously, fewer turnovers is a good thing, but Bridgewater is so risk-averse that there’s just not much potential upside with him. On the other hand, most organizations wound rather have stability over sizzle. — Jason Reid
Best of the rest: Never forget why teams eagerly go to extremes to retain — or trade for, as we just saw with Russell Wilson to the Broncos — franchise passers. In a quarterback-centric, 32-team league, there just aren’t enough top-notch signal-callers to go around. Once again, this year’s class of free-agent passers reminds us of that fact. The list includes veteran game managers and others who have shown potential in spurts. But for organizations in search of game-changers at professional sports’ most important position, well, those guys aren’t in this group. Other names to know include Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cam Newton and Jacoby Brissett. — Jason Reid
Read more: NFL execs on the free-agent QB class
Which free agents will break the bank?
Terron Armstead, OT: Premium skill at a highly sought-after position makes Armstead a prime target for multiple teams. Good left tackles rarely become available. — Seifert
J.C. Jackson, CB: Opinions are mixed on his cover skills, and it’s worth wondering why the Patriots are letting him approach the market. But his playmaking (25 interceptions since 2018) is undeniable. — Seifert
Carlton Davis, CB: Despite an injury that limited him to 10 games last season, Davis is young and versatile, and he has no obvious holes in his game. In free agency, that’s a win. — Seifert
Marcus Williams, S: His statistics aren’t flashy, but Williams is one of the NFL’s best safeties. He has equal skills against the run and pass, and he will be only 25 years old when the 2022 season begins. — Seifert
Brandon Scherff, G: After earning $33 million over 2020-21 on consecutive franchise tags from Washington, Scherff is the best guard on the market and is still young enough at 30 years old to play several more high-level seasons. — Seifert
Tyrann Mathieu, S: Named to three consecutive Pro Bowls, Mathieu is one of the top safeties and perhaps the best leader on the market. And despite being 30 years old when the 2022 season begins, he should have several more productive years left. — Seifert
Which teams could be active in free agency?
Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati hit on several free agents last offseason, and with $35 million in cap space and intentions of making another run to the Super Bowl, the Bengals will look at all options to improve the offensive line. — Fowler
Los Angeles Chargers: Los Angeles is evaluating potential upgrades at cornerback and defensive tackle — musts for one of the league’s worst run-stopping teams. It has more than $40 million in cap space. — Fowler
Detroit Lions: This is a team with a lot of holes that must be addressed, starting with wide receiver and spilling onto the defensive side of the ball. — Fowler
Carolina Panthers: It wouldn’t shock if the Panthers secure one of the top quarterbacks in the free agency class, and improving the offensive line is a must. — Fowler
Which teams could be quiet in free agency?
New Orleans Saints: New Orleans currently projects to be around $45 million over the salary cap. Once again, they will need to focus on restructuring current deals rather than being active in free agency. — Mike Tannenbaum
Green Bay Packers: The Packers are right there with the Saints after placing the franchise tag on Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers deciding to return. But they are in a more precarious situation. They’ll have decisions to make both in terms of cutting players and adding void years to contracts. — Tannenbaum
Dallas Cowboys: As reported, look for the Cowboys to cut receiver Amari Cooper in order to re-sign some of their own unrestricted free agents. Specifically, Randy Gregory and Michael Gallup could earn new deals, but DeMarcus Lawrence is another player they should try to keep. Dallas also placed a tag on tight end Dalton Schultz. — Tannenbaum
New England Patriots: Following some poor drafting, the Patriots were uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency to revamp their roster last March. Though it helped lead them to a playoff appearance, the Pats will likely be quieter in free agency this time around. — Tannenbaum
Los Angeles Rams: The defending Super Bowl Champs would like to bring back midseason acquisitions Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. The issue? They project to be more than $20 million over the cap. — Tannenbaum
What are some of the best free-agent fits?
J.C. Jackson, CB with the Arizona Cardinals: Jackson has the upper-tier coverage traits and ball skills to elevate the Cardinals’ secondary. It’s an easy transition here to Vance Joseph’s defensive scheme, where we would see more man coverage and pressure with Jackson in the mix. — Matt Bowen
Chandler Jones, OLB with the New England Patriots: At this stage of his career, Jones would benefit from a system with schemed matchups and stunts. And he’d get that in a return to Bill Belichick’s defense, where he could be deployed from multiple alignments opposite of Matthew Judon. — Bowen
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR with the Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles need a slot target to compliment the vertical speed in the wide receiver room. Smith-Schuster has the physical traits, plus the catch-and-run ability, to fill that role in Nick Sirianni’s offense. — Bowen
Who are the names to know in the wide receiver class?
The free-agent wide receiver class is led by a handful of stars, but the group is not without its question marks. The likes of Odell Beckham Jr. (ACL), Michael Gallup (ACL), Will Fuller V (finger), DJ Chark Jr. (ankle) and Smith-Schuster (shoulder) had their 2021 season cut short by a major injury, and Allen Robinson II is coming the worst season of his career.
An interesting name to keep an eye on is Christian Kirk. The former second-round pick is in his prime at age 25, and unlike most of the aforementioned names, he’s coming off a career year in terms of both availability and production. Though his reported impending release is not yet official, Cooper could soon be added to this list. — Mike Clay
Dianna Russini details the Tampa Bay Buccaneers placing the franchise tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Which free agents are flying under the radar?
Bradley Bozeman, C: Second among centers to only rookie phenom Creed Humphrey in pass block win rate, Bozeman would represent a strong upgrade at center for plenty of teams. He finished in the top 10 in run block win rate, too. — Seth Walder
Casey Hayward Jr., CB: He will be 33 in September, but Hayward is exceptional at deterring targets. He recorded the lowest target rate as the nearest defender among outside corners in two of the past three seasons, per NFL Next Gen Stats. — Walder
Rashaad Penny, RB: Penny was quietly one of the most efficient backs in football last season. He led all running backs with at least 50 carries in rush yards over expectation per carry (plus-2.1) and amassed the third-most total rush yards over expectation despite only racking up 119 attempts. — Walder
Morgan Moses, OT: He was above average in pass block win rate last season, is only 31 years old and has started 16 games in seven consecutive seasons. Teams looking for stability at tackle ought to look Moses’ direction. — Walder
Derek Barnett, DE: The sacks weren’t there last year, but Barnett has an elite pass-rush get-off, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and ranked in the top 10 in pass rush win rate at edge last season. — Walder
D.J. Reed, CB: Among outside corners with at least 300 coverage snaps last season, Reed trailed only stars A.J. Terrell and Tre’Davious White in completion percentage over expectation allowed, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He was top 10 in yards per coverage snap allowed, too. — Walder
Which players could be in line for a prove-it deal?
Allen Robinson II, WR: Setting aside the season in which he was limited to just one game, Robinson had career-lows in 2021 in catches, receiving yards, yards per catch and touchdowns. But inconsistent quarterback play, injuries and a low target share all impacted his stats. There’s no doubt Robinson is still a very good player. — Field Yates
Marcus Maye, S: Timing is everything, and Maye’s torn Achilles last season was a crushing blow for him. He played on the franchise tag last year and may crave long-term security, though a one-year deal to show that Achilles will not hinder his future performance could be more likely. — Yates
Ronald Jones II, RB: There are likely a few running backs who could explore this short-term deal path, but Jones is a logical candidate because while he has an obvious skillset, his opportunities were limited this past year while Leonard Fournette emerged as the go-to back in Tampa Bay. — Yates
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR: Smith-Schuster could opt for the one-year route again after taking a deal to stay in Pittsburgh last season. Given the current uncertainty with the Steelers’ quarterback situation, a change of scenery could help buoy his production. — Yates
What are the biggest draft implications in free agency?
Now that the Jaguars have placed the franchise tag on Robinson again, it creates an interesting dynamic for the franchise at the No. 1 overall pick. After weeks of speculating that offensive tackles Ikem Ekwonu (NC State) and Evan Neal (Alabama) were the two leaders in the clubhouse for the top pick, the odds quickly swung in the favor of Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson because of the logjam that the team now has at offensive tackle.
So what happens next? Team needs will change a good deal over the next two weeks, but the first domino centers around which teams with high picks need offensive tackle now that Jacksonville is likely looking a different direction. — Jordan Reid
What are some predictions for how the free-agency frenzy will unfold?
The Cincinnati Bengals will sign guard Brandon Scherff. Want to help quarterback Joe Burrow avoid getting sacked by Aaron Donald again? The Bengals need to address the offensive line — which had the second-worst pass block win rate in 2021 (48.8%) — and the best interior lineman available is Scherff. Cincinnati has over $30 million in cap space, which means it has no excuses to not grab the five-time Pro Bowl blocker. — Jamison Hensley
Linebacker Foyesade Oluokun will land a big-bucks contract. I’m thinking it could be as rich as $10 million per season, making people ask “Who is that?” A sixth-round pick of the Falcons out of Yale in 2018, Oluokun has steadily risen from role player to impact tackling machine, operating mostly under the radar because the Falcons have had such limited prime-time exposure and haven’t qualified for the playoffs in his career. But disruptive, dynamic and durable is usually a good combination when you’re 27 years old and hitting the free-agent market. Oluokun wasn’t invited to the NFL combine in 2018, but he’s about to be invited to the negotiating table and rewarded for his perseverance. — Mike Reiss
Wide receiver Christian Kirk will get an above-market deal in free agency. In his final season in Arizona, he posted his best season to date and has always shown high-end traits dating back to his time at Texas A&M. Kirk could be a real asset for a playoff contender. — Ben Baby
Quarterback Jameis Winston will sign a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are in prime position to draft Malik Willis at No. 20 and have him develop under Winston for at least one season. Before he tore his ACL in Week 8 last season, Winston was well on his way to resurrecting his career by leading the Saints to a 5-2 record with a 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Unlike his time with the Buccaneers, Winston won’t have to shoulder a massive load, given the strength of Pittsburgh’s defense and the breadth of weapons he’ll have around him. — Courtney Cronin