Analysis

Top 25 NFL free agents in 2022: Prospective class loaded with pass catchers and defensive backs

An early look at the 2022 free agent class has no headliners at quarterback, unlike a year ago. It will be nearly impossible to find help in the interior lines on offense or defense. But there are plenty of enticing pass catchers and defensive backs, especially at safety.

Many of the top names on the list below won't make it to free agency because of the franchise tag. Some of them (T.J. Watt) could be signed in the next few weeks. A quick glance back at my top-25 list at this point last year shows that only five (!) of those players changed teams, with most getting big new contracts to stay put. The NFL rules make it so that free agency is rarely free.

Here goes nothing!

NOTE: Current ages listed at publishing.

Rank
1
T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB · Age 26

The list of the best defensive-front draft picks over the last decade starts with T.J.'s brother in 2011, goes to Aaron Donald in 2014 and then probably leads right here. I'd be shocked if Watt doesn't have a new contract with the Steelers before Week 1.

Rank
2
Davante Adams
Green Bay Packers · WR · Age 28

Always a great route runner, Adams is tying his latest voyage to free agency with the recognition that he may be the best receiver in football. He's a lot more likely to get his new contract in Green Bay than Aaron Rodgers.

Rank
3
Terron Armstead
New Orleans Saints · OT · Age 30

Armstead making the "Top 100 Players" list on NFL Network for the first time this year at No. 79 is a reminder that few players have been more criminally underrated, even by his peers. Only injury woes could prevent him from becoming the highest-paid tackle in football.

Rank
4
Allen Robinson
Chicago Bears · WR · Age 27

A top-10 wideout who can excel everywhere -- especially deep down the field -- Robinson may prove so valuable to Justin Fields' development that the Bears simply can't let him walk away even if they have to use the franchise tag on him again.

Rank
5
Courtland Sutton
Denver Broncos · WR · Age 25

Even if Sutton's numbers go down in a crowded Broncos offense this year, prospective teams should consider it a good thing his first year post-ACL surgery will be out of the way before hitting the open market.

Rank
6
Tyrann Mathieu
Kansas City Chiefs · S · Age 29

The Honey Badger can roam anywhere -- although at this point, I'd hate to see him divorced from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who knows just how to unlock his magic. Turning 30 next May, Mathieu is a rangy, heady player in the mold of Devin McCourty, a safety who has excelled into his mid-30s.

Rank
7
Orlando Brown
Kansas City Chiefs · OT · Age 25

The Chiefs are under pressure to re-sign Brown after giving up a first-round pick for him. There are some questions how he'll hold up as a pass protector with Patrick Mahomes dropping back 40-plus times per game, but Brown is established as one of the nastiest run blockers in football.

Rank
8
Chris Godwin
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · WR · Age 25

His numbers went down in the transition from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady, but once the playoffs started, Godwin emerged as the Bucs' most important target.

Rank
9
Jessie Bates
Cincinnati Bengals · S · Age 24

I'm glad Jamal Adams signed an extension because I kept going back and forth on whether he or Bates should be ranked higher. Deep-coverage safeties like Bates feel more valuable than ever in today's NFL and there aren't many great ones.

Rank
10
Stephon Gilmore
New England Patriots · CB · Age 30

There's no doubting the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year's body of work, but he will turn 32 years old next season and is coming off a serious torn quad surgery that has kept him off the field for seven months and running.

Rank
11
Duane Brown
Seattle Seahawks · OT · Age 35

It is so hard to find a quality blindside protector, and Brown is still so good at it, even at age 35. He appears to be on the Andrew Whitworth/Jason Peters left tackle plan of excelling at the position into your late 30s. Don't be surprised if he gets a raise before Week 1.

Rank
12
Mark Andrews
Baltimore Ravens · TE · Age 25

A few ill-timed playoff drops aside, Andrews has every skill in the toolbox to make the jump to a top-five tight end this season. (If he's not there already.)


UPDATE: The Ravens and Andrews have agreed to terms on a four-year, $56 million extension, Ian Rapoport reported on Sept. 6.

Rank
13
Brandon Scherff
Washington Football Team · OG · Age 29

A dearth of interior O-line options helps Scherff's market value, but he's obviously a standout player, considering this is his second straight season on the franchise tag. Pretty extraordinary for a guard.

Rank
14
Jordan Mailata
Philadelphia Eagles · OT · Age 24

No better current NFL example of Bill Parcells' "Planet Theory." There just aren't many humans walking the Earth with Mailata's combination of size and movement skills. While this ranking admittedly projects another big step from the former rugby player who only picked up football in 2017, his rapid ascension as part of the International Player Pathway Program indicates the left tackle can still get a lot better.

Rank
15
Wyatt Teller
Cleveland Browns · OG · Age 26

Drafted in the fifth round by the Bills in 2018, Teller's career changed with a trade to Cleveland, especially once Bill Callahan showed up last season as the Browns' offensive line coach. PFF and OL experts alike believed he was one of the best guards in football in 2020. If he backs that up again, this ranking will go even higher.

Rank
16
Marcus Williams
New Orleans Saints · S · Age 24

Quality safeties don't get the respect in the open market they deserve, but the Saints made a telling show of faith in Williams when they gave him the franchise tag during an offseason in which they were slashing salary everywhere else. He's a plus starter in his prime -- those are rare in free agency.

Rank
17
Marshon Lattimore
New Orleans Saints · CB · Age 25

I struggled to assess Lattimore. His traits are obvious and his rookie year was sensational. Since then, he's been up-and-down while asked to cover the opposition's best, and his March arrest on a weapons charge is a red flag. The training camp buzz is that he's gearing up for a big year in 2021.

Rank
18
Chandler Jones
Arizona Cardinals · OLB · Age 31

This ranking figures to go way up or possibly way down after this season. Jones missed most of 2020 with a torn biceps, but the injury came after one of the worst months of play in his career. Was that evidence of decline or a misleading small sample size?

Rank
19
J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots · CB · Age 25

Jackson is a gambler, incredibly competitive and has great ball skills. He could be prone to streaky play away from Bill Belichick's scheme and -- more importantly -- away from the protection playing opposite Stephon Gilmore provides.

Rank
20
Michael Gallup
Dallas Cowboys · WR · Age 25

Outside receivers who can make plays deep down the field get paid a lot more in free agency than chain movers. Gallup can do it all, and the Cowboys may not be able to afford him because of their star-filled offense.

Rank
21
Carlton Davis
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · CB · Age 24

It means a lot that Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles treat Davis as their CB1. He's competitive and physical and should have a long career as a starter.

Rank
22
Robby Anderson
WR · Age 28

Year 1 in Carolina proved Anderson is not just a deep threat. He's a versatile speedster in his prime who can fit in any offense.


UPDATE: The Panthers and Anderson have agreed to terms on a two-year, $29.5 million extension that includes more than $20 million fully guaranteed, Rapoport reported Tuesday.

Rank
23
Dallas Goedert
Philadelphia Eagles · TE · Age 26

The Eagles should want to re-sign Jordan Mailata and/or Goedert ASAP because they are both set up to see their value explode. Every team needs a tight end like Goedert, who can do it all and is just entering his prime.

Rank
24
Jadeveon Clowney
Cleveland Browns · DE · Age 28

Clowney impacts the game when healthy -- as long as you don't expect 15 sacks -- but he just hasn't been fully healthy in two years. Still just 28, the former No. 1 overall pick set himself up for one more long-term contract by joining the Browns to play opposite Myles Garrett for a season.

Rank
25
Von Miller
Denver Broncos · OLB · Age 32

It would just feel wrong for Miller to not make this list. When we last saw the surefire Hall of Famer, his pass-rush speed had fallen off, but he was still a great No. 2 defensive end with ferocious run-stopping ability.

JUST MISSED: Marcus Maye, S, New York Jets; Brian O'Neill, OT, Minnesota Vikings; Will Fuller, WR, Miami Dolphins; Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings; Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots; Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers; Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings; Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants; Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys; Kyle Fuller, CB, Denver Broncos; Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins; D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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