With Super Bowl LVI in the record books, we turn toward the many decisions that will be made across the NFL this offseason -- and a flurry will be connected to the free agency market, which officially opens March 16.
On Thursday, I looked at one free-agent-to-be that each AFC team should keep, either with a new contract or by using the franchise tag. Below, you'll see one player that each NFC team should hang on to.
As with the AFC list, this list is based more on what I think should happen than what is likely to happen. Note also that I am not necessarily listing each team's best free agent, though again, there is often overlap.
Five of Jones' 10.5 sacks came in one game, but he still led Arizona in total pressures (49) and tied for the NFL lead in turnovers caused by pressure (five) last season, along with fellow Cardinal Markus Golden. Jones is 31 years old, and the franchise sacks leader will likely command a significant salary -- but Arizona doesn't exactly have a surplus of pass rushers waiting in the wings to replace him, given that only Jones and Golden (11 sacks) logged more than four sacks for the seventh-ranked pass defense of 2021.
Sure, Patterson's late-career breakout season -- he broke 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time at age 30 -- might pump up his price tag. But with so much uncertainty swirling around Atlanta in the final phase of the Matt Ryan era, and with Calvin Ridley's status with the team up in the air, the Falcons might as well go in for more multi-category fun with the resurgent Patterson.
Re-inking Haason Reddick, who made good on his one-year contract by putting up an 11-sack season, should also be a priority. But Gilmore played extremely well after being traded to the Panthers from New England in October, recording two picks and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 76.9 passer rating when targeting him in his eight appearances with Carolina's second-ranked defense (fourth against the pass).
The former second-rounder missed most of 2020 with a torn pectoral, but he bounced back with a strong season in the final year of his rookie deal, earning the best offensive and pass-blocking Pro Football Focus grades of his career thus far while starting in all 17 contests. Re-signing Daniels will make life easier for Justin Fields.
The Cowboys are in for a tight cap situation and have 12 defenders headed for free agency, including three safeties (Kearse, Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee). But Kearse stands apart after providing exceptional production on a one-year deal in 2021. Kearse led the team in tackles (98) and was the only Dallas defender with 400-plus snaps to rank in the top five in PFF grades in defense (third), run defense (second), pass rush (third) and coverage (first). He was also one of just three players to top 900 defensive snaps last season. Dan Quinn would surely welcome him back with open arms.
A first-round pick by the Dolphins in 2017, Harris finally broke out in Detroit last season, registering a career-high 7.5 sacks, 16 QB hits and 65 tackles, including 10 for loss. He also tied for the third-most pressures (45) by a Lions player in any season since the Next Gen Stats era began in 2016. He clearly clicked in Detroit with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn; the Lions should give the 26-year-old Harris a chance to be a central element of their rebuild.
Few free agents would change their team more by leaving than Adams. Even if Aaron Rodgers stays, an Adams-less Packers offense would be diminished. If Adams and Rodgers both head out of town, the Packers go from Super Bowl contention to potential rebuild territory.
The three-time All-Pro got off to a bit of a slow start after being traded to the Rams from Denver, but he finished the year on a white-hot run, notching one or more sacks in seven of his last eight games, including two in Super Bowl LVI. Los Angeles is projected to be over the cap, but there is every reason for both sides to ensure the 32-year-old Miller gets a chance to "run it back" with Aaron Donald in 2022.
New head coach Kevin O'Connell is coming from a Rams offense that makes good use of tight ends, as Tyler Higbee (who finished second in catches in Los Angeles last season with 61) can attest. Conklin broke out last season in the wake of Kyle Rudolph's departure and Irv Smith's absence with a knee injury, racking up 61 catches for 593 yards and three scores on 87 targets. Even if Smith, a former second-round pick, ends up as the No. 1 tight end this year, Conklin has shown he's good to have around.
The Saints are headed into unknown territory, with Sean Payton having followed Drew Brees out the door. New Orleans is also facing a dire cap situation. Williams' youth (25) and pedigree (he was PFF's seventh-ranked safety in 2021) will make it difficult to keep him -- but he's also exactly the kind of player who can serve as a rock for Dennis Allen while the former defensive coordinator attempts to steer the franchise through these rocky waters.
Engram still has yet to match his rookie-year highs in targets (115), catches (64), receiving yards (722) or receiving TDs (six). There isn't much good to take from the Giants' dreadful offensive efforts in 2021, but Engram did lead the team in scoring grabs (three), and he was the only player on the roster to post a passer rating when targeted in the triple digits (132.3) on red-zone plays last season, although the sample size there (four targets) was small. The Giants have plenty of players bound for free agency, including multiple starting offensive linemen, but Brian Daboll figures to find a way to put Engram to good use as he tries to spark the offense under Daniel Jones.
The Eagles' crop of free agents doesn't present many no-doubt return candidates. McLeod is 31, but he ranked second on the team in targeted EPA (-9.5), per NGS, and had two picks, making him one of two Philadelphia players to log more than one interception on the season (joining Darius Slay, who had three). He's a good fit as a veteran presence on a defense that ranked 10th overall and 11th against the pass in 2021.
With the Trey Lance era about to begin, the Niners would do well to keep things as steady as possible around him. Tomlinson has been the picture of steadiness since arriving in San Francisco via trade in 2017, missing just one start in that span. Tomlinson tied his career-low with three sacks allowed in 2021, per PFF, and the 30-year-old should be a cinch to sign his second contract with the Niners.
If Russell Wilson stays in Seattle, Pete Carroll and John Schneider will be under pressure to produce a winning roster after a disappointing 7-10 finish. Bringing Diggs back would be one of the more straightforward moves they could make in that effort. Since being traded to Seattle in 2019, Diggs has piled up 13 interceptions and 20 passes defensed. There are multiple defensive backs hitting the market, and an argument could be made for inking cornerback D.J. Reed, who broke out in his first season as a full-time starter in Year 4 and bested Diggs in catch rate over expectation (-11.9 for Reed, -0.3% for Diggs). But if I had to choose, I'd go with the more proven Diggs, even with the caveat that he's coming off a broken fibula and dislocated ankle suffered in Week 18.
The Tom Brady era is over, and Godwin is recovering from a major knee injury. But he remains a player worth investing in, a rising young star receiver who could help elevate whoever takes the QB reins.
Scherff missed significant time for the fourth straight season, losing several games to a knee injury in 2021. Having been franchise tagged two seasons in a row, he'll also surely be aiming to secure a hefty paycheck. But the Commanders are projected to have cap space, and he was still their eighth-best offensive player last season, according to his PFF grade, and would make life easier on whomever ends up playing QB.