Ranking the top 50 NFL free agents: Who could be headed toward a big payday?

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We’ve arrived at that time of year when most of the NFL is deep into offseason analysis. Some teams are trying to hire a head coach. Others need to find a new general manager. All but four, however, know they won’t have a meaningful game for nearly eight months.

So as they analyze and evaluate their rosters, one of all the teams’ top priorities is determining which pending free agents they want back. Then they determine how. Will they make a new contract offer? Extend the franchise or transition tag? Or will they let the player seek employment elsewhere and then use the salary-cap space to sign an outside free agent of their own?

What follows is ESPN’s annual January ranking of the top 50 players who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency if they aren’t retained before the market opens March 16, either because their contracts are expiring or the remaining years on their deals are set to automatically void. We don’t include restricted or exclusive free agents, for whom the original teams have the right of first refusal. And yes, this list will look much different when the market opens, as teams keep some players and terminate other players’ contracts over the next two months.

As always, our ranking is skewed toward players coming off their first contracts — at the free-agent sweet spot of about 26 years old — and keeps in mind that some positions are much more valued on the open market than others. Let’s jump in, starting with one of the game’s top receivers.

Jump to the top-ranked …
QB | WR | TE | OL
Edge | ILB | CB | S

2021 team: Green Bay Packers | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Adams can stake a unique and legitimate claim if he reaches the open market: He’s one of the top two or three players at his position, a standing built in part on eight years of learning the nuances of the pro game, and yet he’s still at an age where several more elite-level years can reasonably be projected. In the past two seasons, Adams has led the NFL in receptions (238) and touchdown catches (29) and is second in receiving yards (2,927). With that said, it is also reasonable to expect that Adams will strongly favor staying with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers next season, wherever that might be.

2021 team: New Orleans Saints | Age entering 2022 season: 31

We don’t tend to include many 31-year-olds in these initial free-agent rankings, especially ones who missed more than half of the previous season and are planning to undergo offseason knee surgery. But if even a serviceable left tackle is available — and Armstead is well above that baseline, when healthy — he will be heavily pursued. The final year of Armstead’s contract automatically voids, so he will be eligible for free agency if the Saints don’t first re-sign him.

2021 team: Los Angeles Chargers | Age entering 2022 season: 27

Williams had the best year of his career as quarterback Justin Herbert continued his development, getting a career-high 129 targets on the way to a 76-catch, 1,146-yard season. The Chargers will need to decide whether to commit to Williams to ensure the presence of a younger high-end receiver as Keenan Allen nears his 30th birthday. Williams’ rookie season was largely derailed by injury, but he has missed only three games over the ensuing four seasons.

2021 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Age entering 2022 season: 26

For most of the history of NFL free agency, a late-season knee injury while playing on the franchise tag would have been a massive blow to market value. Now, it is a significant but not necessarily insurmountable obstacle to securing a lucrative deal. The most recent example is Titans linebacker Bud Dupree, who signed a five-year deal with $33.7 million fully guaranteed in 2021 while rehabilitating a torn ACL. (His three-sack season could also give some teams pause, though.) Fully healthy, Godwin would be one of the stars of this class. But even with a torn ACL and sprained MCL, he is an attractive option.

2021 team: Cincinnati Bengals | Age entering 2022 season: 25

The Bengals elected not to sign Bates to a contract extension after his strong 2020 showing (three interceptions and 15 passes defended), and they’ll be right back in the same spot this spring. Bates’ 2021 season might not have matched his previous performance (one interception), but he remains among the better young safeties in the game and would certainly have a strong market if he doesn’t re-sign with the Bengals.

2021 team: Kansas City Chiefs | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Brown acquitted himself well after engineering a trade from the Ravens to the Chiefs in order to play left tackle, earning a spot on the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster, and now he’s in line for a major payday. It would be really surprising if the Chiefs didn’t retain him in some fashion after sending the Ravens four draft picks to get him, including their first-round selection in 2021. High-end left tackles rarely see the market, especially at Brown’s age.

2021 team: New Orleans Saints | Age entering 2022 season: 25

Williams played last season on the franchise tag for the cap-strapped Saints, an indication of how important they thought he was to their defense. A starter for all of his five years in New Orleans, with comparable skills against both the run and pass, Williams was named a second-team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus this season.

2021 team: Denver Broncos/Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2022 season: 33

You’re not going to find many (soon-to-be) 33-year-olds on an initial list of top NFL free agents, and Miller’s age is a big reason the Broncos decided to trade him at midseason. But he went on to have the kind of impact teams would hope to have from a veteran situational pass-rusher, with five sacks over 414 snaps and ranking No. 12 in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric (20.9%) over eight games.

2021 team: Kansas City Chiefs | Age entering 2022 season: 30

Mathieu has been named to the Pro Bowl in all three of his seasons with the Chiefs and was named an All-Pro as recently as 2020. He has played out his $42 million deal and is young enough to get another payday, even if his best years are behind him. His 13 interceptions over those three years are tied for the fifth-most in the NFL over that period.

2021 team: Cleveland Browns/Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Beckham technically signed a five-year deal with the Rams at midseason, but the final four automatically void, so Beckham will be available on the open market barring a franchise tag or pre-market extension with the Rams. There is plenty of baggage and history, and many teams won’t consider him a fit, but Beckham’s brief stint with the Rams has shown that his ball skills remain intact. He caught five touchdowns over eight regular-season games with L.A., and he has another one through two playoff games.

2021 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Age entering 2022 season: 25

A quadriceps injury limited Davis to 10 regular-season games in 2021, but he would be one of the most attractive cornerbacks on the market if he gets that far. You would think the Buccaneers would at least consider the franchise tag for him, though. He has 48 passes defended over the past three seasons, along with six interceptions.

2021 team: Tennessee Titans | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Landry has been a reliable defensive playmaker throughout his four seasons with the Titans, amassing 31 sacks and missing only one game in his NFL career. He put up a career-high 12 sacks in his contract year. Although he ranked No. 34 among edge rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (13.8%), his record of on-field availability will also factor into the overall evaluations.

2021 team: Washington Football Team | Age entering 2022 season: 30

After two years on the franchise tag, earning $33 million over that period, Scherff figures to get some kind of longer-term resolution this spring. It would cost Washington nearly $26 million to tag him a third time. He was an All-Pro in 2020 and earned his fifth Pro Bowl invitation this season, but he has always had trouble staying on the field. Scherff missed six games in 2021 and hasn’t played a full season since 2016.

2021 team: Chicago Bears | Age entering 2022 season: 29

During his four seasons with the Bears, Robinson’s quarterbacks combined for a 45.2 Total QBR, the seventh-worst in the NFL over that period. That he made 293 receptions over that period, No. 19 among all pass-catchers, is quite an accomplishment. Many of them were pure skill. According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson led the NFL with 71 contested catches while with the Bears. The team kept him under the franchise tag in 2021, but it’s hard to imagine it doing so again, and it’s reasonable to think he would seek a fresh start elsewhere.

2021 team: Dallas Cowboys | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Five suspensions and a total of 54 missed games delayed Gregory’s first chance at free agency by four years. Even after probably his best season and amid indications he has moved past the off-field issues that would have ended most players’ careers, it’s difficult to assess how much interest he would generate on the open market. At his best, Gregory is the kind of high-end pass-rusher whom teams spend years looking for.

2021 team: Arizona Cardinals | Age entering 2022 season: 32

Teams evaluating Jones will have to decide what to make of his past two seasons. His 2020 season was cut short after five games because of a biceps injury, and after roaring back with five sacks in the Cardinals’ Week 1 victory over the Titans this season, he managed only 5.5 more the rest of the way. There is plenty of precedent for elite pass-rushers to be in demand well into their 30s, but he’ll have to find the right fit.

2021 team: Cleveland Browns | Age entering 2022 season: 29

An annual addition to this list, Clowney has changed teams three times in the past three seasons. His nine-sack performance for the Browns in 2021 was his best since 2018 and ensured that he will be in demand this spring, as well. Going year-to-year in the NFL isn’t for everyone, but Clowney has earned nearly $36 million in his path from Houston to Seattle to Tennessee to Cleveland — with more to come.

2021 team: New England Patriots | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Brown hit a huge payday during his 2019 entry into free agency, signing a four-year, $66 million deal with the Raiders, but he made it only two years before being traded back to the Patriots. He managed to play nine games this season, and prospective suitors will have to assess why he has changed teams three times in seven years, but a veteran tackle of most any background is going to be sought after on the open market.

2021 team: New England Patriots | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Jackson made himself some money in 2021 while playing under his restricted free-agent tender, following up a nine-interception season with eight more picks. No NFL player has more interceptions than Jackson since he entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2018 (25). Interceptions aren’t always the most reliable metric for cornerback play, but at the very least, Jackson has demonstrated a consistent ability to be around the ball and make plays when he gets the chance.

2021 team: Carolina Panthers | Age entering 2022 season: 27

Reddick signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Panthers after his 12.5-sack season with the Cardinals in 2020 — and more or less proved it. He finished the season with 11 sacks in 16 games, showing exceptional efficiency as a pass-rusher. His 23.5 sacks in the past two seasons rank No. 5 in the NFL over that period, and he did it in 728 pass-rushing snaps — fewer than anyone ahead of him on the list.

2021 team: New England Patriots/Carolina Panthers | Age entering 2022 season: 31

When the Patriots decided against signing him to a significant contract extension, Gilmore got himself traded to the Panthers. He was largely buried in the Panthers’ second-half swoon, but in the right environment, he would provide a veteran anchor who can still play press-man coverage for a defensive backfield.

2021 team: Jacksonville Jaguars | Age entering 2022 season: 25

A fractured ankle ended Chark’s 2021 season after four games, but the injury occurred early enough that he is expected to be at full strength by training camp at the latest. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 2019 with career-highs in receiving yardage (1,008) and touchdowns (eight). We should grade any Jaguars free agent — especially in the passing game — on a statistical curve. It should also be pointed out that Chark has never played a 16- (or 17) game season in four years with the Jaguars.

2021 team: Dallas Cowboys | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Only three NFL tight ends caught more passes during the past two seasons than Schultz: Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and Darren Waller. Schultz was also among the most efficient during that period, catching 74.2% of passes thrown in his direction, fifth-highest in the league. At the moment, he is part of a big tight end class that would test the demand for pass-catchers at the position.

2021 team: Seattle Seahawks | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Diggs was the Seahawks’ best defensive player in 2021 before suffering a broken fibula and dislocated ankle in the fourth quarter of their final game. He is expected to make a full recovery, although any team that signs him would have to take into account an extended recovery. When healthy, he is one of the NFL’s best playmaking safeties. He intercepted 13 passes in 38 games with the Seahawks after being acquired in a 2019 trade with the Lions.

2021 team: Los Angeles Chargers | Age entering 2022 season: 25

Nwosu was a part-time player behind Melvin Ingram III for the first three seasons of his career before making 15 starts in 2021. He had a career-high five sacks and showed the kind of edge speed that teams covet on the free-agent market. He won’t turn 26 until December and is a high-upside prospect.

2021 team: Miami Dolphins | Age entering 2022 season: 26

In the past three seasons, Gesicki ranks sixth among NFL tight ends in catches (177) and fifth in receiving yards (2,053), despite playing for an offense that ranked No. 25 in offensive expected points added (EPA) over that period. The pursuit of matchup-exploiting tight ends is a baseline of NFL free agency. The open-market deals that 2021 free agents Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith signed with the Patriots, which netted them more than $12 million annually, are instructive.

2021 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Age entering 2022 season: 31

Jensen has played out the four-year, $42 million deal he signed after moving to Tampa Bay from the Ravens in 2018, one of the better free-agent signings in recent memory. He hasn’t missed a start, was named to the Pro Bowl this season and should have several highly productive years remaining in his career.

2021 team: Chicago Bears | Age entering 2022 season: 24

Daniels produced in a strong return from a torn pectoral muscle that limited his 2020 season to five games. Overall, he has started 48 games in four seasons. You might not have heard much about him, but Daniels is the kind of young, big body that teams rarely see on the open market.

2021 team: Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Williams has been a starter on a really good defense for the past three seasons but has missed some time for injuries, most recently an ankle ailment that cost him three games during the 2021 regular season. He got plenty of action opposite Jalen Ramsey and held up well enough for teams to consider him as a possible replacement starter.

2021 team: Kansas City Chiefs | Age entering 2022 season: 26

In his third season as a starter, Ward was a significant part of the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround during the regular season. He is big enough to play press-man coverage and was an excellent tackler during the regular season, missing only 5% of his attempts, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the lowest rate for a cornerback since 2019.

2021 team: Baltimore Ravens | Age entering 2022 season: 27

The eventual successor to Ryan Jensen in Baltimore, Bozeman has started for three consecutive seasons. He ranked No. 2 among centers in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric in 2021 (97.2%) and No. 7 in run block win rate (71.5%). The Ravens will try to find a way to keep him, but if he hits the open market, he would make a big impact on his new team’s offensive line.

2021 team: Jacksonville Jaguars | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Robinson played the 2021 season on a franchise tag. The Jaguars weren’t ready to commit long-term, but they didn’t give up on the No. 34 overall pick of the 2017 draft. He arguably had his best season, but he still ranked No. 48 among NFL tackles in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric (86.1%). His age and experience at the left tackle position, however, will guarantee him interest around the league if he doesn’t re-sign with the Jaguars.

2021 team: Dallas Cowboys | Age entering 2022 season: 25

Williams led the league with 13 offensive holding penalties and ranked second with 15 total flags in 2021. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he’s a still-young interior lineman who has been a starter for four seasons. Williams has developed into a top-25 guard in the NFL, based on ESPN’s run and pass block win rate metrics, and he has plenty of room left to grow.

2021 team: Jacksonville Jaguars | Age entering 2022 season: 30

The Jaguars restructured Norwell’s contract last year to cut a year away from their initial commitment of a monster five-year, $66.5 million deal in 2018. But he played well enough in 2021 to be more than a serviceable option. He ranked No. 7 among guards in ESPN’s run block win rate metric (73.2%) and No. 15 in pass block win rate (93.8%).

2021 team: Green Bay Packers | Age entering 2022 season: 28

Douglas made his way from the Cardinals’ practice squad to the Packers’ starting lineup in a matter of weeks, and he proved to be quite a ball hawk with five interceptions and 13 passes defended. His two defensive touchdowns tied for second-most in the NFL. Every team had a chance to sign him this season, and there are probably some prior judgments out there, but Douglas showed what he can do in the right system and should have several more years of productive play ahead of him.

2021 team: Miami Dolphins | Age entering 2022 season: 28

Ogbah put up nine sacks in each of the past two seasons after signing a two-year, $15 million deal with the Dolphins, and he is still young enough to merit another financial commitment. Over that period, he ranked No. 19 among edge pass-rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric (16.3%).

2021 team: New Orleans Saints | Age entering 2022 season: 28

NFL teams have done such a good job locking down their quarterbacks that Winston — who is recovering from a torn ACL that limited him to seven games in 2021 — is the best of the available group. In a relatively short stint as the Saints’ starter, Winston showed he could avoid the turnovers that plagued him in Tampa Bay. He threw three interceptions and lost one fumble in 359 snaps.



Marcus Spears breaks down what the future free agent market holds for Saints’ QB Jameis Winston.

2021 team: San Francisco 49ers | Age entering 2022 season: 30

Tomlinson turned himself into a fixture of the 49ers’ offensive line after being traded by the Lions just before the start of the 2017 season. He has played through the resulting three-year contract extension he signed and is still young enough to see a second significant payday. He has missed only one start since joining the 49ers and is the type of reliable steady hand that qualifies as a free-agent gem.

2021 team: Arizona Cardinals | Age entering 2022 season: 25

Kirk’s numbers jumped to career-highs in his fourth season with the Cardinals, coinciding with the retirement of Larry Fitzgerald and injuries to teammate DeAndre Hopkins. He led the team with 77 receptions for 982 yards while playing a full season for the first time in his career. Kirk was also among the league’s most efficient receivers, catching 75.5% of throws he was targeted on, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.

2021 team: Dallas Cowboys | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Talk about bad timing. A calf injury and later, a torn ACL, limited Gallup to nine games in his contract year. He is now two seasons removed from his best performance — a 66-catch, 1,107-yard effort in 2019. It remains to be seen how much the injuries will affect his market, but barring any complications, Gallup can be projected as a deep threat for several more years to come.

2021 team: Denver Broncos | Age entering 2022 season: 29

Bridgewater has started 29 games in the past two seasons — for the Panthers and Broncos — proving himself to be a gritty competitor but a borderline choice as an unquestioned starter. He threw 18 interceptions and took 62 sacks over that period, and his Total QBR (52.7) ranked No. 18. But other than Jameis Winston, he’s probably the best option available for a team seeking a backup-level quarterback who could start for a spell if needed.

2021 team: Pittsburgh Steelers | Age entering 2022 season: 25

If Smith-Schuster was disappointed with the interest he received on the market last offseason, what will he think now after a shoulder injury limited him to five games? He is now three seasons removed from his lone 1,000-yard season and has averaged 8.6 yards per reception over the past two years. On the other hand, he is still young for a player who has been in the league for five seasons, and his low production should be considered in the context of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s declining downfield arm strength.

2021 team: Green Bay Packers | Age entering 2022 season: 29

It remains to be seen how the market will view an aging journeyman linebacker who produced one of the NFL’s most surprising performances of 2021. A starter for five seasons in Atlanta and Arizona, Campbell signed a one-year deal with the Packers and was named to the All-Pro team after making 146 tackles and holding together an injury-ravaged defense. Linebackers who aren’t necessarily pass-rushers don’t tend to generate big-money offers, but Campbell proved how important he can be to a defense.

2021 team: Seattle Seahawks | Age entering 2022 season: 37

It’s certainly unusual to include on this list, a player who will be 37 when the season begins, but Brown remains a very good player at a position where the NFL experiences an annual shortage. He has missed only four starts in four seasons since the Seahawks acquired him in 2018, all of which came in 2019, and he would be a strong option for a team seeking a short-term fill-in at the left tackle position.

2021 team: Dallas Cowboys | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Vander Esch slogged through two injury-filled seasons following his promising rookie season in 2018, missing seven games in 2019 and six in 2020. It left the Cowboys little choice but to decline his fifth-year option for 2022. Vander Esch managed to stay on the field for all 17 games in this season, but he was overshadowed by rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and others. No one is going to break the bank for a linebacker who isn’t really a pass-rusher, but Vander Esch would prove a solid contributor for a team looking to re-tool its defense.

2021 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Age entering 2022 season: 33

Yes, he will soon turn 33. And you’re right, it is a near-certainty that he will only play next season if it’s alongside quarterback Tom Brady. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t among the NFL’s top 50 players with expiring contracts. Even though it came in four fewer games, Gronkowski’s pass-catching production increased in 2021 compared to 2020. He has caught 13 touchdown passes among 166 targets over the past two seasons.

2021 team: Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Allen has started 25 games over the past two seasons and has established himself as a solid NFL center with room to grow. Among centers, he ranked No. 14 in ESPN’s run block win rate metric (67.3%) and No. 24 in pass block win rate (91.2%) in 2021.

2021 team: Los Angeles Rams | Age entering 2022 season: 27

Corbett developed into a serviceable starting guard after the Rams acquired him from the Browns in 2019. He isn’t going to change the track of your entire offense, having ranked No. 32 among guards in ESPN’s run block win rate metric (69.5%) and No. 51 in pass block win rate (88.9%), but he can fill a starting role for a needy team.

2021 team: Cleveland Browns | Age entering 2022 season: 26

Njoku’s time in Cleveland has been more about potential than production, especially during the past three seasons as he has battled injuries and uncertainty with the Browns’ changing regimes. From 2019-21, 44 tight ends caught more passes than his total of 60. But because he entered the league at 21, he sits on the brink of free agency with a chance at a fresh start on a team that doesn’t employ as many talented tight ends as the Browns.

2021 team: Pittsburgh Steelers | Age entering 2022 season: 25

Edmunds is not the most well-known of the Steelers’ starting safeties, and he’s not the most talented, either. (Minkah Fitzpatrick holds both of those titles.) The Steelers, in fact, declined Edmunds’ fifth-year option last spring. But he had his best season in 2021, starting all 17 games and setting a career-high with eight tackles for loss. Even so, the Steelers might not be able to clear up much cap space to re-sign Edmunds, assuming they want to re-sign Fitzpatrick next year.

Bonus free-agent names to watch

These players are listed alphabetically.

  • Derek Barnett, DE

  • Bryce Callahan, CB

  • Calais Campbell, DE

  • Alex Cappa, G

  • James Conner, RB

  • Eric Fisher, OT

  • Leonard Fournette, RB

  • Casey Hayward Jr., CB

  • Akiem Hicks, DT

  • Dont’a Hightower, ILB

  • Justin Houston, OLB

  • Jerry Hughes, DE

  • Melvin Ingram III, OLB

  • Donte Jackson, CB

  • Marcus Maye, S

  • Morgan Moses, OT

  • Steven Nelson, CB

  • Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/RB

  • D.J. Reed, CB

  • Robert Tonyan, TE

Source: ESPN

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