NFL Draft News & Analysis

How free agency has changed the first-round strategies of 8 teams in the 2022 NFL Draft

Arlington, Texas, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) runs with the ball against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the second quarter during the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Now almost two weeks into NFL free agency, the first and second waves of veteran signings are in the rearview mirror. Teams have made significant investments at positions of need and filled out their rosters before the more chaotic and surprise-filled 2022 NFL Draft takes place April 28 in Las Vegas.

Free agent signings not only illustrate where teams felt they needed to improve most heading into the next season but also how they feel about the crop of incoming college talent.

As each franchise sets its draft board and maps out a strategy of how to best attack the most important three days of the year for roster construction, they work to ensure they have a cohesive approach and consistent philosophy across all offseason moves. We can often learn what a club plans to do come April by how they kick things off in March, and with the info provided by major free agent signings across the NFL over the past 10 days, we set out to update our expectations for Round 1 in just a month’s time.

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Pick No. 1: Jacksonville Jaguars

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Notable free agent signings: T Cam Robinson (franchise tag), G Brandon Scherff, WR Christian Kirk, CB Darious Williams, WR Zay Jones, DI Folorunso Fatukasi, LB Foyesade Oluokun

Notable losses: WR D.J. Chark Jr.

Jacksonville is set at quarterback with 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, so Alabama tackle Evan Neal, N.C. State tackle Ikem Ekwonu and now Michigan edge defender Aidan Hutchinson (-400 to go No. 1 overall on DraftKings Sportsbook) have all spent time as the favorite to be the first pick off the board. 

The Jaguars franchise-tagged left tackle Cam Robinson for the second consecutive offseason, carrying a salary of $16.662 million in 2022. Last year’s franchise tag didn’t prevent Jacksonville from using the No. 45 overall pick in the second round on Stanford left tackle Walker Little, but perhaps the presence of both players prevents another major investment at the position.

A month out from the big day, this pick seems more and more like a lock, with Hutchinson pairing up with Jaguars edge defender Josh Allen along the defensive line. Jacksonville signed seven external free agents for at least $8 million per year, but none of those moves addressed the edge defender unit. Look for the Jaguars to do so when they kick off the 2022 NFL Draft.

Pick No. 6: Carolina Panthers

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Notable free agent signings: G Austin Corbett, C Bradley Bozeman, LB Cory Littleton, LB Damien Wilson, CB Donte Jackson, DI Matt Ioannidis

Notable losses: EDGE Haason Reddick, DI DaQuan Jones

The Panthers have one glaring need remaining on their roster as the offseason game of veteran quarterback musical chairs comes to an end. While a trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seems possible, perhaps the Panthers feel confident they can address the position with a rookie.

It’s entirely possible none are taken before Carolina is on the clock at No. 6 overall, and according to a report from The Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Alexander, the decision would come down to Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.

According to ESPN’s David Newton, Carolina is attempting to recruit longtime Seattle Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown — who crossed paths with Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer for four seasons in Seattle — to solidify the blindside on the team's offensive line. Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross has been the most common pairing in PFF's Mock Draft Simulator, and for good reason. Perhaps Carolina is hoping to continue adding veterans along the offensive line to protect a new franchise quarterback.

Pick No. 9: Seattle Seahawks

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Notable free agent signings: EDGE Uchenna Nwosu, DI Quinton Jefferson, S Quandre Diggs, C Austin Blythe

Notable losses: CB D.J. Reed Jr., T Duane Brown (TBD), T Brandon Shell (TBD)

The Seahawks are undergoing a complete overhaul of their roster after moving on from the decade-long captains of their team in quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner. Seattle’s three largest expenditures of the offseason have been on defense, re-signing safety Quandre Diggs to form the league’s highest-paid safety tandem by over $10 million per year, trading for interior defender Shelby Harris and signing former Los Angeles Chargers edge defender Uchenna Nwosu.

On the other hand, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that New England tackle Trent Brown visited Seattle before ultimately returning to the Patriots. With left tackle Duane Brown taking visits elsewhere after not agreeing on a desired extension before the 2021 season and right tackle Brandon Shell doing the same, the Seahawks are slated to have 2021 sixth-round pick Stone Forsythe at left tackle and 2021 undrafted free agent Jake Curhan at right tackle. Whether it’s the newly acquired Drew Lock under center or any potential rookie, it may not be fair to have them operating behind this young tackle duo.

If one of the most coveted tackles in this class falls to No. 9, Seattle would be smart to upgrade at the position. With Pick Nos. 40 and 41 in the second round, perhaps the Seahawks have a shot at quarterbacks like Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell or Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder.

Pick No. 12: Minnesota Vikings

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Notable free agent signings: EDGE Za’Darius Smith, DI Harrison Phillips, LB Jordan Hicks

Notable losses: iOL Mason Cole, TE Tyler Conklin, CB Patrick Peterson (TBD)

The new Vikings regime led by general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell has continued an organizational emphasis on defense thus far in their tenures but may look to pivot to offense to kick off their first draft class. After selecting center Garrett Bradbury in the first round in 2019 — in particular, because of his fit in the outside zone rushing attack that O’Connell is also expected to deploy — Minnesota has been underwhelmed with the return through three seasons.

The Vikings traded for interior offensive lineman Mason Cole before the 2021 campaign, and he filled in admirably at guard and briefly center when Bradbury was benched, playing his way into a three-year, $15.75 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Is the fact that a new group of decision-makers is willing to use the No. 12 overall pick on a center after a big miss at the position just a few years ago part of the reason they just got hired?

LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. battled in practice with Vikings breakout star wide receiver Justin Jefferson not long ago, and he also makes sense at this pick. However, another wideout could give Minnesota the best three receivers in the NFC North, helping seamlessly replace the soon-to-be 32-year-old Adam Thielen in the near future.

The Los Angeles Rams‘ offense under O'Connell lined up in 11 personnel — three wide receiver sets — on 85% of plays in 2021, by far the highest percentage in the NFL. This isn’t specific to Sean McVay, either, as the last time O’Connell was an offensive coordinator with Washington in 2019, his offense lined up in 11 personnel on 70% of snaps, seventh-most in the league.

Are we overlooking Minnesota as the first team to take a wide receiver this year? Ohio State's Garrett Wilson or USC's Drake London could be the last piece of a dynamic trio that resembles the likes of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed from the late 1990s.

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Pick No. 15: Philadelphia Eagles

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Notable free agent signings: EDGE Haason Reddick, EDGE Derek Barnett, LB Kyzir White, LB T.J. Edwards, WR Zach Pascal, C Jason Kelce

The Eagles re-signed linebacker T.J. Edwards, who is coming off a very strong all-around campaign in 2021 with a 76.3 grade on a career-high 684 snaps. They followed that move up by bringing aboard former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Kyzir White on a one-year deal worth up to $5 million.

While the Eagles may not have invested a ton at the position, it has never been their philosophy to allocate a lot of resources at off-ball linebacker. The team has never paid an off-ball linebacker more than $8 million per year and hasn't used a top-100 pick at the position since selecting Jordan Hicks 84th overall in 2015.

It’s hard to envision Philadelphia using a top-20 pick at the position this season, even with three of them at their disposal. Edge defender now seems less likely after the Eagles signed Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million contract in the first wave of free agency and also brought back their 2017 first-round pick edge defender Derek Barnett on a two-year deal. Wide receiver and cornerback appear more likely at this juncture, with a handful of options likely available.

The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson reported that the Eagles are one of a handful of teams potentially interested in trading with the Miami Dolphins for big-bodied, jump ball wide receiver DeVante Parker. Parker has the second-most contested catches in the NFL since 2019 ( 104), and USC’s Drake London had the second-most contested catches among Power Five wide receivers in 2021 (28), routinely going up over defensive backs and making plays on the ball in the air.

Philadelphia is clearly looking to add a weapon with this skill set to pair with 2021 first-round wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Will they use a first-round pick on a wide receiver three years in a row?

Pick No. 17: Los Angeles Chargers

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Notable free agent signings: WR Mike Williams, DI Sebastian Joseph-Day, DI Austin Johnson, CB J.C. Jackson

Notable losses: LB Kyzir White, EDGE Uchenna Nwosu, DI Justin Jones

The Chargers made significant investments at their three positions of biggest need in free agency, smartly getting an extension with wide receiver Mike Williams done before many other deals at the position pushed the market to new heights, signing cornerback J.C. Jackson to the biggest contract at the position this offseason (five years, $82.5 million) and reuniting nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day with head coach Brandon Staley from their time spent together with the Los Angeles Rams.

Another interior defender or even a right tackle could make sense for the Chargers here, but the draft may play out similarly to the last time they had the No. 17 overall selection in 2018. Star safety Derwin James fell down the board a bit further than originally expected and became too good for the team to pass up. Here, Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean or Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd could be too good to ignore for the Chargers as players at more premium positions go off the board early.

Los Angeles traded up to pick No. 23 in 2020 for linebacker Kenneth Murray out of Oklahoma, with hopes he’d be the long-term answer at middle linebacker for years to come. Things haven’t gone exactly according to plan there. Murray missed most of the 2021 campaign and earned a 34.0 grade on 363 snaps as the team experimented with him on the outside to close out the year. Adding another athletic, productive off-ball linebacker to the position group could be the final piece to round out a vastly improved Staley defense in Year 2.

2022 NFL Draft position rankings:
Top 10 players at every position

QB | RB | WR | TE | iOL | OT | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

Pick No. 23: Arizona Cardinals

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Notable free agent losses: WR Christian Kirk, WR A.J. Green (TBD), EDGE Chandler Jones

Arizona took a step back this offseason after a major push over the past few years to add star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt, with their losses more notable than their additions. While addressing either side of the trenches would make plenty of sense, the Cardinals find themselves quite thin at the wide receiver position, which is problematic for an offense that has lined up in 10 personnel — four wide receivers — on 21.5% of snaps since Kliff Kingsbury became head coach in 2019, by far the most of any team over the span.

Hopkins will be 30 years old in 2022, and while 2021 second-round weapon Rondale Moore is a big play waiting to happen, he’s limited in what he can do as a receiver at just 5-foot-7. The addition of either Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave or Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams, two outside receivers who can take the top off any defense with their speed and ability to make highlight-reel plays in the vertical passing game, could be exactly what Arizona needs to get back on track and keep its offense consistently humming.

Williams ranked fourth among Power Five wide receivers in 2021 with 35 explosive receptions, and Olave’s 57 explosive receptions since 2019 rank third. The Cardinals can't have their season go off the rails with another injury to Hopkins, so they need to start thinking about the future if they wish to continue running Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense effectively.

Pick No. 31: Cincinnati Bengals

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Notable free agent signings: iOL Ted Karras, G Alex Cappa, T La’el Collins, S Jessie Bates III (franchise tag)

Notable losses: TE C.J. Uzomah

Offensive line was the only need listed for the Bengals heading into the offseason, and for good reason. With a handful of strong draft and free agent classes over the past few years, Cincinnati had enough firepower on both sides of the ball to make a Super Bowl run despite one of the league’s worst offensive lines — the unit ranked 29th in 2021 with a 53.1 pass-blocking grade.

However, the Bengals have poured resources into the position group in free agency, which enables them to truly take the best player available at No. 31 overall.

Cincinnati also elected to move on from 2020 offseason signing Trae Waynes, who agreed to a big three-year, $42 million deal to be the team's No. 1 cornerback on the outside. On the flip side, the addition of Chidobe Awuzie has exceeded expectations.

Another outside cornerback makes a ton of sense still, even following the return of Eli Apple on another one-year flier. Apple earned a 57.3 coverage grade in the playoffs while allowing four touchdowns into his coverage. He’s a fine stopgap for the moment, but he's ideally the first outside cornerback off the bench.

Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam measured in at the combine at 6-foot-2 and ran a 4.390second 40-yard dash. He represents the big, physical cornerback that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo covets, with a willingness to shed blocks and make tackles — as evidenced by his 77.1 run-defense grade in 2021.

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