It’s never too early to start looking ahead to free agency, with the first day of the 2023 NFL calendar now just four months away. This list will be updated throughout the 2022 season, with more players added and moved around as circumstances change.
We kick things off with an early top 25 free agent rankings list, headlined by three quarterbacks who all got to this point via completely different paths.
1. QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Who else but the 2019 MVP and most electrifying player in the NFL? No one produces more must-see TV than Jackson, and the facade that a quarterback can only win with a certain play style is slowly fading.
Jackson is not just the league’s most electrifying open-field runner at the quarterback position. His 5.1% big-time throw rate since 2019 is a top-15 mark among qualifying quarterbacks, and he boasts a 92.5 passing grade on throws 10-plus yards downfield in that same span.
The Ravens once again elected to largely neglect the wide receiver position this offseason, which doesn’t get discussed enough when people criticize Jackson’s game, as they seemingly love to do. Jackson will never be a pure dropback passer, but the belief this is necessary to win in 2022 needs to disappear, because that’s just not the era of football we’re in anymore.
2. QB Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks
Imagine before the season began, mired in a quarterback battle with Drew Lock in Seattle, that we’d have Geno Smith as a top free agent target across the NFL just halfway through the 2022 campaign. It’s not often you hear about the age-32, Year 10 breakout, but that’s exactly what we’re witnessing this season from Smith.
Nothing about what he’s doing is fluky or excessively bolstered by things like play action, an outlier performance in unstable metrics like passing grade against pressure, or any other method you use to try to poke holes in his production this season. Smith’s 85.9 overall grade and 89.1 passing grade from a clean pocket rank fourth. His 11 passing touchdowns on throws of 20-plus yards is three more than the next-best quarterback, and his 6.7% big-time throw rate ranks third.
There’s still a lot of football left this season, but no current indication we should expect some massive regression. Smith’s 84.0 passing grade against middle-of-field-open coverage further illustrates he’s not benefiting in an outsized fashion from loaded box counts that free up his receivers in an effort to sell out against the run. We can go on and on, but the fact of the matter is that Smith has played like a legitimate top quarterback in the NFL this season.
While it remains unclear whether Brady wants to run it back for his age-46 season in 2023, one thing is crystal clear: He’s still among the elite throwers of the football in the NFL today. Many scoffed at the notion Tampa Bay would become immediate contenders when signing him in 2020 free agency at the tender age of 43, and all he did was win a Super Bowl in his first season with the team and follow that up with a 13-win 2021 campaign in which he nearly mounted a miraculous comeback in the divisional round against the Los Angeles Rams.
Brady has an argument to be the top player on this list, but given he may very well retire, we'll let the young bucks go ahead of him this time around. Brady’s 77.9 passing grade ranks eighth on the season, and the 18 drops by his wide receivers are the third-most on the year. Granted, he has thrown a league-leading 427 passes this season, averaging over 48 attempts per game from Week 3 to Week 9.
Brady’s 2.3% turnover-worthy play rate is the sixth-lowest among qualifying quarterbacks, further illustrated by his streak of 399 consecutive passes without an interception that ended in Germany when Seattle Seahawks linebacker Cody Barton picked him off over the middle. This was the second-longest streak in NFL history, just three attempts behind the record of 402 set by Aaron Rodgers in 2018.
Even at 45, Brady is still among the league’s best. Just don’t line him up out wide and throw him the ball. Otherwise, things should continue to go quite well.
Hargrave moved from western Pennsylvania over to the East Coast during 2020 free agency and has been a force in Philadelphia, blossoming into one of the elite interior pass-rushers in the NFL over the past few seasons. Since 2020, Hargrave’s 91.8 pass-rush grade trails only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones, with his 19.2% pass-rush win rate also ranking third.
Hargrave will be 30 years old for the 2023 season, but we’ve seen many interior defenders maintain longevity well into their 30s recently. Hargrave is also intriguing, as different responsibilities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have led to interesting splits as a run-defender or pass-rusher. His run-defense grades were much better in his first stop, but it seems he can excel at whatever is asked of him, which is good to know for interested teams that likely don’t frequently deploy a five-man front and do a lot of the other exotic things Philadelphia is doing up front of late.
5. OL Elgton Jenkins, Green Bay Packers
The beauty of signing a player like Elgton Jenkins in free agency is that he makes sense as an addition no matter where a team needs reinforcements along its offensive line. Returning from a torn ACL suffered in 2021, Jenkins has a 69.4 grade on the season despite shifting from right tackle to left guard over the past few weeks.
Jenkins has graded above 65.0 for his career at center, left guard, left tackle and right tackle, and while right guard just happens to be the only spot he hasn’t received significant snaps, it’s not like he’s been bad there. He was in the midst of what appeared to be a third-year breakout in 2021, earning an 82.1 overall grade before his injury, and is a smart bet to return to form once fully healthy again.
The Chicago Bears with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy coming over from Green Bay this past offseason could not be a more ideal fit for his services, and they happen to have roughly $125 million in projected 2023 cap space at their disposal. If the Packers don’t work out an extension or place the tag on Jenkins, expect them to throw a literal bag at one of the league’s most versatile offensive linemen.
It appears far more likely Bates will reach unrestricted free agency this time around after Cincinnati placed the franchise tag on him last offseason and never made a serious multi-year offer.
While his 71.1 PFF grade through Week 10 is only 27th-best at the position, his 80.9 run-defense grade is a top-10 mark. Bates is also on track to play his fifth 900-plus-snap season in five years as an NFL player, pairing his above-average skill set with remarkable reliability. He ranks behind only Kevin Byard in regular-season snaps played among safeties since 2018.
7. CB Jamel Dean, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Fellow Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis returned to the team this offseason on a three-year, $44.5 million contract that could serve as something of a benchmark to clear for Dean wherever he potentially ends up. Dean carries some injury history but has outperformed Davis since entering the league in 2019, earning coverage grades above 75.0 in every season thus far:
|Player||Coverage Grade||Yds/Cov. Snap Allowed||Run-Defense Grade||Open-Target %|
Dean takes some risks attempting to jump routes that at times can lead to explosive receptions over the top, but his size, athleticism and physicality at the line of scrimmage enable him to disrupt opposing wide receivers' releases and will have a lot of teams interested. He doesn’t have great ball skills — though he does have two interceptions on the year — and can be a bit stiff in the hips, but we’re nitpicking here with a guy who can match up well with a lot of the top big-bodied wide receivers across the NFL.
One of the best off-ball linebackers of his generation, David is still playing at an extremely high level and may benefit from New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis and Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner playing very good football well into their 30s on recently signed contracts of their own. Potentially losing a step or two with age can be negated by elite play recognition and instincts, both of which David has in spades.
David’s 86.5 coverage grade through Week 10 ranks third among off-ball linebackers this season, and his elite 92.9 mark over the past four seasons is the top mark at the position.
After every big-name wide receiver in the 2019 NFL Draft class who was set to hit free agency this offseason signed monster extensions before the year began, Meyers found himself as the top free agent at a position that is growing in importance (and value) every single week. Meyers was an undrafted free agent find of the Patriots in 2019 who has blossomed into a very good player, returning to New England in 2022 on a restricted free agent tender and comfortably outperforming all the other major investments the team made at the position over the past two offseasons.
New England may certainly try to keep Meyers around, likely letting Nelson Agholor reach free agency at the least, but they’ve also made it a habit of letting players walk after their rookie contract value is gone, notably with another former undrafted free agent in cornerback J.C. Jackson last offseason.
Meyers is predominantly a slot receiver but is certainly not just that, logging about one-third of his snaps out wide. What he lacks in physical tools — his 4.63-second 40-yard dash ranks in the 14th percentile among wide receivers in PFF’s database — he more than makes up for with sharp route running and great hands. Over the past three seasons, his 3.6% drop rate is 12th among qualifying wide receivers, and at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he can use his frame to make contested catches. His 69% contested catch rate is the top mark among all wide receivers over the past three seasons.
10. OT Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco 49ers
McGlinchey hasn’t quite lived up to his top-10 pick billing coming out of the 2018 NFL NFL Draft, but he is a quality starter at right tackle who has returned to form after suffering a torn quadriceps in 2021. He’s dealt with various minor injuries over the years but has done well to avoid missing much time overall.
McGlinchey is a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s wide-zone rushing attack, with his 86.0 run-blocking grade since he entered the league a top-10 mark among tackles. He still has room to grow as a pass-protector but has notably dropped his pressure percentage allowed from 6.1% over his first three seasons to 5.2% over the past two.
11. OT Orlando Brown Jr., Kansas City Chiefs
After threatening to hold out for the 2022 season following a franchise-tag saga that didn’t culminate in a long-term deal, Brown has turned a slow start into a strong second half protecting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Over the Chiefs' past five games since Week 7, Brown’s 82.7 pass-blocking grade ranks sixth-best among left tackles.
He may not become one of the game’s true top tackles given his much-maligned athletic limitations, but he’s a very reliable blindside protector who has succeeded in two diametrically opposed offensive schemes.
12. DI Daron Payne, Washington Commanders
Payne showed early in his NFL career that he could be a stout run-defender from the nose tackle position, with his 86 defensive stops against the run the most in the NFL from 2018-20. And he has now continued to build on his pass-rush arsenal to the point where he’s now a problem for interior offensive linemen trying to keep their quarterback upright. Payne has 80 quarterback pressures since the start of 2021, 10th-most among interior defenders, with his 11.9% pass rush win rate a very respectable figure on the inside.
Payne still needs to put all his tools together for a complete season where he’s a positive factor in both facets, and he’s shown he has the talent to do just that.
13. LB Roquan Smith, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens traded for Smith at the deadline, giving up second- and fifth-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. And so far, he has been the same up-and-down player, which makes him a difficult evaluation at the top of the market. Smith will always be around the football, with his 430 defensive plays making first contact with the ball-carrier the most of any linebacker in the NFL since 2018, his 63 tackles for loss or no gain second and his 17.5 sacks and seven interceptions both top five at the position.
However, he’s also been top 20 among linebackers in missed tackles over that span. The athletic ability as a true three-down player who can run sideline to sideline and hold up well in coverage makes him a good fit for the modern game, but limiting the negative plays will be how he truly lives up to the massive contract he’s expected to sign this offseason.
14. LB David Long, Tennessee Titans
The Titans ask a lot of their off-ball linebackers, and Long can do it all. His 90.3 run-defense grade so far in 2022 is second-best at the position, with his 12 tackles for loss or no gain tied for the second-most. Long plays a downhill, attacking brand of football that helps him blow up a lot of plays but also makes him particularly susceptible to over-committing on play-action passes and missing tackles when he takes a poor pursuit angle. Nevertheless, he is clearly an ascending young player contributing immensely to Tennessee’s defense that currently ranks top five in expected points added per rush allowed on the season.
The 2022 season is Long’s first as a full-time starter at middle linebacker, but he’s made the most of opportunities in the past. Over the past three seasons, his 19.7% pass-rush win rate and 23.5% pressure rate are both the third-best marks among off-ball linebackers with at least 100 pass-rush snaps over the span.
15. RB Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Jacobs became just the 11th player in NFL history to amass 300-plus yards from scrimmage in a single game, capping an overtime victory in Week 12 with an 86-yard touchdown dash. His 303 yards are tied for the eighth-most ever and stand alone as the fourth-most by a running back. He’s been carrying this Raiders team all year long.
Jacobs’ 93.4 rushing grade in 2022 is the top mark at the position, and his cumulative 93.4 rushing grade over his first four seasons also leads the pack, with his 241 missed tackles forced over the span second and his 108 explosive rushes fourth. All the while, he's picking up 72.0% of his rushing yards after first contact — a top-20 figure among qualifying running backs.
While he’ll never be known as a receiver or pass-blocker, he’s a net positive in both facets for his career, giving him true workhorse value like we’ve seen this season in Las Vegas. Jacobs has been a major beneficiary of his fifth-year option for 2023 not being exercised by this new regime.
16. RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
When healthy, there is no question Barkley is a difference-maker on the ground and through the air. That may be understating things, as he’s effectively been the Giants' offense so far this season. Barkley has accounted for over 30% of New York's total yards on offense in 2022. His usage appears to have caught up with him in recent weeks but that illustrates how much he does for the team in every conceivable way.
While we’re a few years and injuries removed from Barkley’s historic rookie campaign in 2018, during which he racked up more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and a staggering 91 receptions, Barkley will be just 26 for the 2023 season and has a very high floor wherever he ends up. His 24 explosive rushes are tied for the fourth-most in the NFL, and while the upside of him breaking off a big gain is where a lot of his value lies, it’s also notable he’s dropped his rate of stuffed runs down to 7.1% in 2022 compared to 9.2% over his three healthy seasons when he tried to bounce too many runs outside instead of trusting his blocking.
17. DI Dalvin Tomlinson, Minnesota Vikings
Tomlinson has been shuffled around on the interior after playing mostly nose tackle with the New York Giants to start his career, with Minnesota lining him up more as a three-technique when playing alongside Michael Pierce or Harrison Phillips. Tomlinson had never missed five tackles in a season prior to 2022, with his 83.0 run-defense grade since 2017 a top-15 mark at the position, but already has five in the seven games he’s played.
Unfortunately, Tomlinson has been out with an injury since Week 8. He's still on pace for a career-best 80.7 pass-rush grade and a sixth straight season to start his career grading above 74.0 overall. He’s a better fit as a zero- or one-technique, with his 51 tackles for loss or no gain since 2017 the third-most among interior players and with his pass-rush upside better deployed as an added benefit but not the primary feature.
18. OT Jack Conklin, Cleveland Browns
If injuries weren’t a major factor for Conklin, he’d rank even higher on this list. A series of injuries required him to take a pay cut for the 2022 season and have caused him to miss a little time. Since 2019, just 13 total tackles have earned pass-blocking and run-blocking grades above 75.0, including Conklin.
The former top-10 pick will be entering his eighth NFL season in 2023 and will turn just 29 right before the year begins. Teams will take on a known risk with his injury history, but the surplus value potential is sky high on a great player when healthy.
19. CB James Bradberry, Philadelphia Eagles
We wrote earlier this year about potential candidates for extensions before the 2022 season concluded, and Bradberry found himself on that list because of a great start to the year. His 45.7% completion percentage allowed is the fourth-best mark among cornerbacks, and his 13 forced incompletions lead the NFL through Week 12.
Bradberry is likely best as a No. 2 after years of proving himself as a reliable No. 1, but there should be a huge market for his services nonetheless, as he’s proven to be adaptable, reliable and available throughout his NFL career. He’s on pace for his fourth consecutive season with 1,000-plus snaps.
20. CB Cam Sutton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Sutton has quietly continued to excel in a coverage unit that has otherwise been very exploitable this season in Pittsburgh, with 2022 just his second season as a full-time starter on the outside. Sutton signed a two-year, $9 million deal in 2021 that he has outplayed thus far, earning a 72.7 coverage grade and allowing just 284 receiving yards in 2022 — the fifth-fewest among cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps on the season.
Sutton’s versatility as a defensive back who can still line up in the slot when called upon provides added value for interested teams, as well.
21. CB Patrick Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson’s 82.8 grade through Week 12 would be the highest-graded season of his illustrious 12-year career, an impressive accomplishment this far down the road. Peterson has intercepted 6.5% of passes thrown into his coverage, the third-best mark in the NFL, but his value is seen outside of just the turnovers. Peterson’s 85.9 coverage grade trails only New York Jets rookie phenom Sauce Gardner, with his 0.79 yards per coverage snap allowed also a top-10 mark.
The Vikings' cornerback situation outside of Peterson this season has been a struggle almost every week, and his consistent performance is a major reason they’ve been able to win close games despite not looking like a true top team based on various underlying metrics.
22. S Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
Poyer was seeking an extension before the 2022 season and his performance thus far has gone a long way in proving why he was worthy of a new deal, but various injuries have also illustrated perhaps why Buffalo was wary of committing to the 31-year-old beyond 2022. That said, Poyer logged 950-plus snaps in every season from 2017-21, so his toughness and willingness to play through ailments cannot be questioned.
Poyer is in the midst of his fourth consecutive season earning coverage grades and overall grades above 70.0, with a lot of turnover in the Bills' secondary throughout the season, most notably with his safety partner Micah Hyde lost for the year. Poyer’s 91.5 coverage grade since 2020 is the best among safeties. He still has good football left to be played.
23. DI Dre'Mont Jones, Denver Broncos
Jones still has room to round out his game, but the value of an interior pass-rusher has never been more apparent than during the 2022 season, and that’s exactly where Jones wins. Since he entered the league in 2019, Jones’ 130 quarterback pressures are tied for the 17th-most among interior defenders, with his 14.7% pass rush win rate 11th-best over the span.
Jones is on pace to set career highs in snaps played, pass-rush win rate, quarterback pressures and sacks this season. Players with his skill set don’t hit free agency too often, and teams looking for a 3-4 defensive end will be very interested in bringing him aboard this March.
24. TE Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys
Schultz had a very slow start to the year, perhaps in part due to residual frustration over the lack of extension negotiations following his franchise tag, but has really come on over the Cowboys’ past five games. Since Week 7, his 83.5 grade is the third-best mark among tight ends, including a 76.8 receiving grade and an 82.5 run-blocking grade to go along with 2.11 yards per route run (fourth), 230 receiving yards (fifth), three contested catches (tied fourth) and three touchdowns (fifth).
Schultz’s ceiling may not be the highest, but he’s a reliable pass-catcher who can find soft spots in zone coverage and a plus run-blocker in a league that has very few of them at the tight end position. He could turn into a good value as a second-tier signing a bit below the top of the market.
25. EDGE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
Injuries have once again derailed Davenport’s season before he could truly get it off the ground, but he’s a remarkably effective pass-rusher off the edge when healthy, and his talent alone could be worth the gamble in free agency — especially given the relative lack of edge rushers available. Since he entered the league in 2018, Davenport’s 17.5% pass-rush win rate and 14.0% pressure percentage are both top-20 marks among edge defenders, and he’s also earned a very respectable 81.1 run-defense grade for his career, which ranks 16th over the span.
Davenport has five straight seasons grading above 70.0. The issue is that he’s yet to log 600 snaps in a single season. At the end of the day, top-20 edge defenders against the pass and run don’t reach free agency often, and while his injury list is long, it doesn’t include any devastating ligament tears.