NFLTR Review: Top 25 “Realistic” 2022 Free Agents

December is here and it’s only natural to start to peek ahead a little to the offseason. In this issue:

  • Which players might actually be available in free agency in 2022?
  • Bad news: it’s a weak class…
  • Puzzling out the issues with both LA teams

Top 25 “Realistic” Free Agents

One of the hard parts of looking ahead to any “Top 2022 NFL Free Agents List” — like ours for instance — is that a decent chunk of these players will either be re-signed or franchise tagged. If you’re trying to figure out what options will be available to your team in March, the picture will look dramatically different, like a black and white photo that has yet to be colorized. 

Luckily we’re here to try and help. There are six games left in the season, plus playoffs, so a lot is obviously going to change. But because we cover the entire league, including all 32 cap situations and comments from coaches and players, we can start to connect the dots and put the puzzle together a little bit. 

Here is what a potential top 25 free agents could look like in 2022: 

1 – Bears WR Allen Robinson

Robinson has had his worst season as a professional since his rookie season in Jacksonville this season. He’s battled injuries and has never been able to catch up to get on the same page with any of Chicago’s quarterbacks since his holdout. The Bears put the tag on Robinson because they weren’t close on a long-term deal, and it’s hard to think that this season has changed things for either side. A second tag would be more than $21 million. While the Bears can’t exactly afford to let talented receivers walk out the door, that’s a prohibitive amount to saddle their cap with, and at this point, Robinson probably prefers to test unrestricted free agency again. 

2 – Saints LT Terron Armstead

Armstead is one of the best left tackles in the league but the Saints have backed themselves into a corner due to their restructuring strategy. They added void years to Armstead’s deal, which gave them more spending flexibility in the short term but also took away their ability to use the franchise tag on Armstead to keep him from free agency. Armstead could probably do as well as 49ers LT Trent Williams on the open market and Williams is the league’s highest-paid offensive lineman. Either the Saints have to match that or Armstead has to decide to take a hometown discount. Most of the time it’s smart to give the edge to the money. 

3 – Rams OLB Von Miller

The two sides talked about a long-term deal in the immediate aftermath of the blockbuster deadline deal that sent Miller to Los Angeles. But how much does Miller want and how high are the Rams willing to go? Miller should still do quite well for himself should he test unrestricted free agency. 

4 –  Saints S Marcus Williams

Lots of people were shocked when the Saints tagged Williams this past offseason. It’s a good reminder that if New Orleans decides a player is important, they’ll move heaven and earth to keep them (Taysom Hill is another good example of this). Still, this team has much bigger uses for its limited cap space than a top-dollar safety contract. 

5 – Washington G Brandon Scherff

Washington has tagged Scherff in consecutive offseasons. A third would be well over $20 million and is not an option. The veteran guard will still become a very wealthy man in free agency, probably resetting the market again. 

6 – Miami DE Emmanuel Ogbah

Oghab’s had a strong two seasons in Miami, with nine sacks in 2020 and six so far this season. He’s a borderline franchise tag option but if he wants to test the open market, there’s a decent chance he’ll be able to do so. 

7 – Browns OLB Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney’s quest to secure the bag continues. The Browns would like him back, as he’s been productive for them in 2021. It all depends on the check, though, as it has for Clowney the past few seasons. Hard to imagine Clowney won’t at least peek at free agency. 

8 – Cowboys DE Randy Gregory

It’s been a long time coming for Dallas and Gregory, as they’ve stuck by him through multiple suspensions and are finally reaping the benefits this year. Gregory has five sacks in just seven games. However, Dallas has a tight cap situation and already has big money dedicated to DE DeMarcus Lawrence. First-round LB Micah Parsons’ ability as an edge rusher could also allow the Cowboys to prioritize their dollars differently. 

9 – Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu

Kansas City has said they just want to wait until the offseason to talk a deal with Mathieu given how tight cap space was last year. The veteran hasn’t always sounded the most positive note on talks, however. It’s worth watching. 

10 – Falcons WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson

2021’s biggest out of nowhere breakout has been the 30-year-old Patterson. Falcons HC Arthur Smith has finally unlocked Patterson’s dynamic potential as both a runner and a receiver. That has value but Patterson’s stock has also never been higher. Financially, striking while the iron is hot is good business sense. 

11 – Rams CB Darious Williams

The No. 2 corner in Los Angeles typically gets a workout each week as teams try to avoid Jalen Ramsey, and Williams has held up well for the Rams. The team used a first-round tender to try and keep him but they probably will have a tough time being competitive with what Williams could get in free agency. 

12 – Cardinals WR Christian Kirk

Arizona has a long list of free agents and a decent amount of cap already tied up in DeAndre Hopkins at receiver. Kirk and veteran A.J. Green are both pending free agents. 

13 – Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz

The former fourth-round pick out of Stanford has made himself a nice chunk of money with his steady performance in 2021. Dallas has a long list of free agents and limited flexibility, so the presence of Blake Jarwin on the roster could mean they allow Schultz to walk, especially if other teams are offering more. 

14 – Dolphins WR Will Fuller

Fuller signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Dolphins that has just not been able to get off the ground. He missed the first game serving out the remainder of a suspension, then missed Week 2 due to a personal matter. He returned in Week 3 but in Week 4 he suffered a severely broken finger that has taken months to heal. The speedster probably will have to take another one-year deal this offseason. 

15 – Jets S Marcus Maye

A potential suspension from a DUI and his age (29 in March) will probably depress Maye’s market but it’s hard to see him back with the Jets. Some other team will get a solid starting safety. 

16 – 49ers G Laken Tomlinson

Tomlinson has played pretty well for San Francisco but they’ve been drafting younger interior linemen for a couple of years now. He might also want to get a final bite at the apple before he turns 30. The two sides should be able to work out an extension if there’s mutual interest but it’s not guaranteed. 

17 – Raiders CB Casey Hayward

He’s not the lockdown corner he was in his prime but Hayward has shown the tank isn’t empty this year. Nearly everyone in Las Vegas’ future is up in the air depending on if there’s a new coaching staff. 

18 – Seahawks LT Duane Brown

Brown was agitating for a new deal before this season and the Seahawks were hesitant to give it to him. Things are even less settled in Seattle these days, and if the team hits the rebuild button, it’s hard to see how a 37-year-old tackle fits in. 

19 – Titans OLB Harold Landry

Landry has cracked double-digit sacks in 2021 and is in the midst of a career year. Ordinarily, he’d be a slam-dunk candidate for the franchise tag but Tennessee already has one edge rusher at a $19 million cap hit in 2022 in Bud Dupree. A tag for Landry would also eat up nearly all of their available cap space, although they can free up a fair amount with restructures. 

20 – Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

One of the surprises of free agency last year was when Smith-Schuster spurned the Ravens and Chiefs to return to the Steelers on a one-year, prove-it deal. The market might not be much kinder to Smith-Schuster coming off a season-ending shoulder injury but he should have options again. And his best chance to showcase himself again in 2022 probably is outside of Pittsburgh. 

21 – Jaguars WR DJ Chark

A fractured ankle ended Chark’s season early, meaning there’s a good chance he’ll be asked to sign a prove-it deal elsewhere if he doesn’t sign an extension in Jacksonville. Chark was already in prove-it mode with Jacksonville’s coaching staff entering the season as well. 

22 – Cowboys WR Michael Gallup

There’s a consistent theme with Dallas’ pending free agents where they might not have the money to keep everyone. In this case, Dallas already has Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, so a second contract for Gallup would be a luxury. 

23 – Saints QB Jameis Winston

A torn ACL unfortunately cut Winston’s audition short. The Saints were 5-2 before he went down but Winston was completing less than 60 percent of his passes and the team clearly was trying to limit his involvement in the offensive gameplan. He’s only 27 though and some team will be desperate enough to give him a shot if they can’t find anything better, including potentially the Saints. 

24 – Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater

Bridgewater’s in a similar boat to Winston. Denver will be looking for an upgrade but someone else will find some use out of Bridgewater. 

25 – Panthers CB Donte Jackson

Carolina has a wealth of options at cornerback, including this year’s first-rounder Jaycee Horn, C.J. Henderson and Keith Taylor on rookie deals, plus veteran A.J. Bouye under contract in 2022 as well. Unless Jackson’s market bottoms out, it’s hard to see there being room for him with the Panthers. 

Closing thoughts

As you can see, this is a weak class that thins out quickly. After we project tags and extensions, the top of this class doesn’t measure up to what we’ve seen in recent years. There’s also a clear tier break after five players where we start to get into more middle-tier options. There’s some depth in that middle tier but we’re short on guys who could really move the needle. 

Here’s who we’re taking out of our Top 100 to create our realistic projected top 25: 

  • Packers WR Davante Adams (Actual rank 1): Green Bay probably tags him
  • Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (2): An extension feels like a high priority for Tampa Bay 
  • Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones (6): The two sides tussled over his contract this past offseason but Jones is a strong candidate to be tagged at $17.4 million
  • Panthers CB Stephon Gilmore (7): His wife is from Rock Hill and he grew up a Panthers fan. That should help give them a tiebreaker if they can be competitive financially
  • Chiefs LT Orlando Brown Jr. (8): Kansas City didn’t trade for him to let him go. He’ll be tagged
  • Bengals S Jessie Bates (10): Also will be tagged if no extension materializes
  • Chargers WR Mike Williams (11): Even if he’s slowed down, he’s on pace for a career year. Los Angeles has the cap flexibility to tag him and negotiate a long-term deal
  • Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis (14): Best player at a need position. They’ll make him a priority, as will Tom Brady in his recruiting efforts
  • Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki (15): The tight end tag is pretty reasonable if they can’t agree on a long-term deal
  • Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (19): Brady loves Brown, which carries weight, but it’s hard to say one way or another on anything when it comes to Brown
  • Panthers OLB Haason Reddick (22): Proved it in a prove-it year. Big deal coming probably from Carolina
  • Browns TE David Njoku (26): Talking extension with Browns already
  • Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski (31): He’s only playing with Tommy
  • Ravens DL Calais Campbell (32): The word is he might retire

More teams should have financial flexibility than last year when the brunt of the pandemic’s impacts on the salary cap were felt. It’s on its way back up now, if still not where it was originally supposed to be. The lack of prized free agents to spend on, though, could make for an interesting dynamic. 

There are some areas in which this year’s class of free agents is stronger than usual, however, notably wide receiver and tight end. Even with deals for the Broncos duo of Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick and taking out Adams, Godwin, Williams and Brown, there are 11 more wideouts in our top 100. We’re starting to see the effects of how deep the receiver position has been in the draft for a few years running, now. 

At tight end, the 2017 class that included three first-rounders is about to hit the market with Njoku, Giants TE Evan Engram and Buccaneers TE O.J. Howard all finishing out their fifth-year options. Because of how hard it is to transition to the pros at the position, we’ve seen a lot of tight ends really come into their own on their second contract. Greg Olsen, Jared Cook and Eric Ebron are some recent examples. Howard, Engram and Njoku could redeem what have been disappointing careers so far. 

Beyond those three, you’ve got Cardinals TE Zach Ertz potentially getting a chance at free agency. We’ve discussed Schultz in Dallas, but Packers TE Robert Tonyan and Colts TE Mo Alie-Cox are also in our top 100. And there are also some intriguing options who haven’t made our top 100 so far, like Seahawks TE Gerald Everett, Ebron and Falcons TE Hayden Hurst

We tweak this list as the season goes on and updates will be a lot more frequent as free agency draws closer. Some names you probably will see rise include Patriots CB J.C. Jackson, who is second in the NFL with seven interceptions. Landry will probably climb the list as he adds more sacks, though that also increases the likelihood he’ll be tagged. Texans S Justin Reid is an interesting name, as it’s clear he’s not a good fit with the current coaching staff in Houston. He played at a really high level his first two years, though, and clearly needs a fresh start. 

This Week In Football

  • Unfortunately, injuries don’t slow down as the season progresses. In fact, it’s the opposite (see below). And the damage from this past week was particularly bad:
  • We’re nearing the start of the coaching cycle and compared to past years it’s going to be relatively dull. The NFL has experienced a torrid rate of change for years and it was inevitable for that to slow down. There’s already one vacancy with the Raiders and at this point it’s widely expected that the Bears will fire HC Matt Nagy at the end of the season. His position in Chicago is starting to feel untenable. There’s a report indicating the Bears are already looking at hiring another offensive coach to replace him. The good news for the Bears is if there aren’t a lot of vacancies, they should have close to their pick of candidates. Bills OC Brian Daboll, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels and Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich specifically were mentioned. 
  • On the general manager side of things, it appears likely that Giants GM Dave Gettleman is just playing out the string for the rest of this season. This will be New York’s fourth losing season in Gettleman’s four years in charge and they don’t look appreciably better than when he took the job. What’s more interesting at this point is what direction the Giants go to replace him, as it will have massive implications on the next era for one of the league’s most storied teams. 
  • It’s not an NFL season without a crazy Antonio Brown story it seems. Turns out the private chef who said Brown stiffed him of $10,000 was telling the truth about the receiver’s search for a fake vaccine card. The NFL slapped Brown with a three-game suspension after concluding its investigation and also nabbed two of his teammates — S Mike Edwards and WR John Franklin, though Franklin is a free agent now. Brown was already set to miss the next two games with an ankle injury that’s taken longer than expected to heal. But I don’t think the consequences of this are completely over. Forging a vaccine card is a federal crime and it remains to be seen how HC Bruce Arians handles this. I don’t think Brown is cut but Arians would be well within his rights to. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

With defenses going to nickel as a base defense to match up against speedy receivers, pass-heavy offenses and option football, you’re starting to see teams bulk up to take advantage. The Patriots, Titans, Colts and Ravens (before they lost all their running backs) all have built bully ball offenses, with mauling offensive lines and big backs who are nimble enough to break off chunk gains. You can add the other Shanahan system offenses (49ers, Packers, Vikings) as groups trying to zag while the league is zigging…

More on a similar topic. It’s fascinating to peel back the layers on this, including the original post and all the responses…

It’s interesting to look at Chargers QB Justin Herbert’s stats in the midst of the team’s offensive slump. Herbert’s average depth of target of 7.0 ranks 30th in the league and has brought OC Joe Lombardi under fire. At a glance, Herbert’s ADOT last year was 7.4 and ranked 25th, which isn’t a huge drop. And his completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and YPA are all virtually identical. But dig deeper, including into the location of each pass, and the story becomes clear…

What’s also interesting is the last time Lombardi called plays for an offense he received similar criticisms for neutering a big-armed, precocious young quarterback, in this case Matthew Stafford. Source: Dan Orlovsky, Stafford’s backup at the time…

Cam Newton was a nice shot in the arm for a couple of weeks. And hopefully the bye week helps him get in sync with the offense. But right now, Carolina is just not a good football team. The offensive line is bad. The defense is the strength of the team but it’s not good enough to carry them. And well-coached teams don’t lead the NFL in penalties…

People have literally been saying “the bill will come due” for the Saints for most of the past decade…

A lot of the same things are said about the Rams, who are even more aggressive about borrowing from the future for the present than the Saints have been. A key difference, though, is that while the Saints were mortgaging cap space under the correct assumption the cap would continue to grow, you only get one first-round draft pick a year…

The Rams basically use a stars and scrubs philosophy, with the idea they can get production out of the “scrubs” and do better than other teams in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft by narrowing what they ask from those players. The problem is, per an analysis by 538, the Rams actually aren’t better than the rest of the league in that area…

The other problem is that the big star player who was supposed to elevate the Rams, Stafford, hasn’t actually played that well the past three weeks. Maybe there’s an injury or three to blame, but that opens up a whole different can of long-term implications when you bring in the phrase “chronic back pain”…

There’s also this. It’s becoming an annual tradition for teams to get enough tape on Sean McVay by this point of the year and for him to be unable to adjust…

Mark is probably referencing this discussion from NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah…

There’s a big difference between receiver money and tight end money. If the production is similar, like it is for some of these tight ends, we could see that narrow in the coming years…

Great insight from former Panthers LB Luke Kuechly here. Whenever he’s had enough fishing, he’s going to make a heck of a coach or analyst…

Chase Claypool’s comments on practice, and the response by former Steelers players, teammates and coaches, are the latest example of how the second-year wideout just seems to be a bad culture fit. Claypool caused a similar stir with some of his social media activity as a rookie. It’s hard enough to get a second contract as a receiver in Pittsburgh. I can’t help but wonder if Claypool will last through the end of his current deal…

One interesting trend to know this year is how home-field disadvantage has completely disappeared. In 2018 and 2019, road teams had win percentages of .395 and .475. In a pandemic year without fans in 2020, that moved up to .494. In 2021 so far, road teams are an astounding 90-85-1 with a .511 winning percentage. It’s a disadvantage to be at home this season, which would be notable if it continued into the playoffs…

Takeaway: winning the Super Bowl is as much about luck and attrition as it is talent…

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  1. With what cap space are the packers going to tag Adams? Even with significant cuts they still have to make up for a large number… and if Rodgers wants out he will demand a trade

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