With the 2023 NFL season right around the corner, which top-tier players are in a contract year? Well, here's my way-too-early ranking of the top 50 free agents in 2024.
Now, obviously this list will look completely different by next March. New long-term contracts will be signed, franchise tags will be applied and, of course, the 2023 campaign will impact player value.
With that in mind, a few guiding principles helped me make the preliminary list below.
- I vastly prefer players headed for their second NFL contract, rather than their third. It's a rare breed that makes it to the end of a third contract.
- Positional value matters. That's why Kirk Cousins is relatively high on this list, why some cornerbacks get pushed up and why some running backs/safeties rank lower despite their talent.
- Market dynamics matter, too. There are a lot of edge rushers and running backs available for the list at this stage. That hurts the value of mid-tier defensive ends that usually would be pushed up (guys like Marcus Davenport) and RBs in general.
- Older veterans still have value on short-term deals. One or two years of quality-starter play is worth a lot!
Alright, enough preamble. To the list!
Bosa is currently holding out of 49ers training camp. I fully expect a contract that guarantees more money than any other defensive player before the start of the season.
Ready for his third bite at the contractual apple, the league's best defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald should get a new deal before the '23 campaign kicks off.
Wilkins has improved every season and is now one of the best interior defenders in football. New Dolphins DC Vic Fangio should only further his progression.
Hunter scored a massive win by earning a hefty one-year raise from the Vikings on a July 30 and a promise they won't tag him in 2024. He's the most likely player to be No. 1 on my list by the time free agency actually begins and could reset the edge market if he's coming off a strong 2023 season.
Burns would be a few spots higher on this list if he weren't coming off offseason ankle surgery.
Sweat's combination of raw strength and a fast first step is a blast to watch. Only six edge rushers had more combined sacks and quarterback hits in 2022, per Pro Football Focus.
In a timing offense that should suit Ridley's excellent quicks and route running, the former Falcon could put his gambling suspension behind him for good with a 1,000-yard season in Jacksonville.
A great development success story for the Packers, Gary played at an All-Pro level in 2021 before tearing his ACL last season
Turning 35 years old this month, Cousins will be a risky long-term signing. He still has a ton of value, however, until he stops performing at an above-average level.
Whether Pittman is a No. 1 or a No. 2 receiver is irrelevant. He's a young boundary wideout who can make plays at the catch point in a league that needs more of them. Think of him as a younger, poor man's Mike Evans.
There's that man! It's always risky to give an over-30 receiver a huge third contract, but Evans' consistency (SEE: 1,000-plus yards in each of his nine pro seasons) is impossible to ignore.
Somewhere between Pro Bowler and above-average starter, Allen is a consistent pass rusher coming off his most complete season.
I'm less interested in the never-ending RB-value debate when evaluating Barkley and more interested in whether he can stay a consistent difference-maker given his boom-or-bust five seasons thus far.
Big plays are big plays no matter what position they come from. Taylor just has to prove he can still make them coming off an ankle injury.
Above-average starting cornerbacks just entering their prime are awfully hard to find in free agency; Fulton qualifies despite his low name recognition.
More than any player on this list, Young could rise a ton or fall off based on his 2023 play. He hasn't looked the same since his knee injury.
I know he's getting old, having just turned 35, but Tannehill has held up better than anyone has given him credit for behind a truly miserable offensive line over the last few years.
Dugger is that Everything Everywhere All at Once safety that most teams are looking for, with a penchant for big plays.
SEE: Kyle Dugger's blurb. While "Ceedy Duce" didn't get the free-agent deal he wanted this past offseason, his versatility in coverage is highly valuable.
Jacobs can make you miss on the ground and excel on passing downs. Like Saquon Barkley -- and to a lesser degree, Jonathan Taylor -- he just hasn't been as consistent on a year-to-year basis as you want an elite back to be.
While Mooney lacks ideal size, he has the routes, deep speed and hands to make up for it. Playing in Chicago has depressed his numbers, but the skill set is there to be a quality starter.
If Beckham plays in Baltimore like he performed during the 2021 season with the Rams, he'll be ranked higher on this list come March.
Few players are faster off the ball than Uche, who is primed for a big contract year after rounding out his game during his rookie deal.
Onwenu's been a top-five guard over the last two years, per PFF's rankings, but it's hard to imagine the Patriots giving him top-five-guard money.
Williams has made it to the end of a massive second contract, which says it all about how consistent he's been.
Awuzie was a great value signing from the Bengals, although his recovery from a torn ACL clouds his status entering this season.
Someone will probably fall in love with White in free agency. He can do it all and makes big plays, but is too often in the middle of giving up big plays for my taste.
The depth of quality safeties could hurt Chinn's market value, but he's a playmaker who can line up at safety, linebacker and nickel back.
I struggled with where to rank Johnson. He showed impressive skills as a rookie and has been inconsistent since, like a lot of cornerbacks. The ceiling is high here.
One of the league's leading rushers down the stretch last season, Dobbins has vision and instincts that are hard to teach.
The real heads know. Watch any Dolphins tape, and Sieler shows up repeatedly as an ascending player who does a lot of the dirty work.
This ranking is not an indictment of Ekeler's incredible production throughout his career, but his next contract will be his third after a few years of heavy workload.
Madubuike's role and production have increased every season in Baltimore.
It sounds like Hockenson could get a deal before the season starts. He has proven to be a quality starter, if not a true difference-making top-10 pick.
It takes a while to develop interior defensive linemen, so rotational players with upside (like Tart) are great targets in free agency.
One of the better slot receivers since he entered the league, Boyd figures to be low on the Bengals' priority list, with contracts for Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and possibly Tee Higgins coming up.
Perhaps Henry is really a cyborg who can defy all trends at his position, but the 29-year-old has more value to the Titans than anyone else. He's led the league in carries in three of the last four years.
Lapses in concentration aside, Brown offers rare speed and likely would've posted a second straight 1,000-yard season in 2022 if not for a broken foot that cost him five games.
It will be fascinating to see if the Cowboys lean on Pollard more despite the back coming off ankle surgery. He was plenty valuable already in his old role.
One of the most underrated interior defenders of the last few years, Stewart should still have good football left in him into his 30s.
The arrow has been pointing down for Smith over the last two seasons when he's been on the field. Health will determine the 32-year-old's free-agent value.
You had to watch Samuel's 2022 season to realize how effective he was when he got the ball in his hands. He'll still be pretty young when he hits free agency again.
The Bengals' defense is drastically worse when Reader misses time. That sentence helps explain his value and his considerable risk as a free agent.
McKinney appeared to lose his mojo last season under coordinator Wink Martindale; before that, he was one of the most promising young safeties in football.
I'll rank Gilmore as if he's suffered some big decline when that actually happens, but to this point, he's remained a sturdy option.
Thomas' availability is anyone's guess, but he's too talented to ignore.