NFL News & Analysis

Most improved, unimproved position groups from 2022 NFL free agency

Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Cincinnati Bengals offense huddles during the first half against the Tennessee Titans during a AFC Divisional playoff football game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is the time to attack areas of need. The NFL draft is for value. 

All 32 NFL teams entered free agency with roster holes, whether they stemmed from prior poor roster construction, cap casualties or impending free agents who walked away. Some teams plugged those weak spots with big signings, while others ignored their flaws or made questionable signings in meager attempts to address them.

Below are some of the most notable positional unit improvements across the league in free agency, along with some groups that managed to end up in worse shape than before.

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MOST IMPROVED

Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Line

Additions: T La’el Collins, G Alex Cappa, G/C Ted Karras
Departures: C Trey Hopkins

Cincinnati massively upgraded its interior offensive line early in free agency by signing Cappa to take over at right guard and Karras at center. Cappa ranked ninth among right guards in PFF grade last season, while Karras slotted into the top three among all guards in grade on true pass sets. 

And most recently, the Bengals locked up Collins. While he wasn’t wanted by the Dallas Cowboys, Collins is capable of producing at a top-10 level relative to other right tackles. In fact, he ranks fifth at the position in PFF grade since 2019. He missed all of 2020, but he played 1,743 combined snaps in 2019 and 2021. 

By bringing in Collins to pair with Cappa and Karras, Cincinnati has the most improved offensive line in the league. That unit ranked 30th in pass-blocking grade last season.

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Miami Dolphins: Offensive Line

Additions: T Terron Armstead, G Connor Williams
Departures: None

Miami’s left tackles since 2018 have combined to post the lowest PFF grade of the 32 NFL teams by a sizable margin. In that same timeframe, Armstead has been the third-highest-graded left tackle in the league for the New Orleans Saints, behind only Trent Williams and David Bakhtiari. Needless to say, this is one of the biggest positional upgrades in the entire NFL. Armstead is a technician, one who has produced a top-10 pass-blocking grade for seven straight seasons now. 

Before making that splash signing, the Dolphins brought in one of the most underrated interior offensive linemen available in Connor Williams. Yes, his penalties are an issue. He committed an NFL-leading 17 in 2021 and was benched for a short stretch during the season. But even with all of those plays baked into the PFF grading system, Williams still finished as a top-10 guard for the 2021 season with his 75.2 grade. He has been one of the NFL's 15 most valuable guards in back-to-back seasons. The penalties should regress in 2022, as they weren't an issue before.

New York Jets: Secondary

Additions: CB D.J. Reed Jr., S Jordan Whitehead
Departures: S Marcus Maye

Losing a defensive back like Maye — who has produced at a top-10 level for multiple seasons in his five-year career — isn’t easy, but he is coming off a torn Achilles, and the Jets managed to still get better despite the departure. In response, the team signed safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback D.J. Reed Jr. 

Whitehead is much better when playing closer to the line of scrimmage, while Maye was better when roaming around at deep safety. The Jets needed the former in their defense, and they will certainly get a quality run defender in the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Whitehead’s 78.9 run-defense grade in 2021 was the eighth-best among safeties, while his 18 run stops in regular-season action tied for the fourth most. 

Last year’s crop of Jets outside cornerbacks was brutal. The unit ranked 29th in coverage grade among the 32 NFL teams. To help overhaul that group, the team added Reed, who was a top-10 cornerback by PFF grade with the Seattle Seahawks in 2021. He spent a short stint in San Francisco with Robert Saleh and fits his defense like a glove.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to further improve the secondary in the 2022 NFL Draft, but this was a good start for New York.

Buffalo Bills: Defensive Line

Additions: Edge Von Miller, DI Tim Settle, DI DaQuan Jones
Departures: DI Harrison Phillips

Buffalo made one of the biggest surprise moves of free agency by poaching star edge defender Von Miller away from the Los Angeles Rams. The long-time Denver Bronco still produced at an elite level in his Super Bowl run with the Rams this past season. His 91.2 PFF grade ranked third-best at the position, behind only Myles Garrett and Maxx Crosby. It was also Miller’s ninth season out of 10 in which he produced an elite 90.0-plus PFF grade.

He showed up when it mattered most in the postseason, producing the highest grade of any defender partaking in the playoffs — 93.0. Miller may be past his dominant prime, but he makes up for it by being one of the most technically refined players at the position. His down-to-down pass-rush plan is masterful, making him a must-watch for any aspiring NFL pass-rusher at the collegiate and high school levels. 

The only returning interior defender on Buffalo’s roster to earn a PFF grade above 55.0 in 2021 is Ed Oliver. Harrison Phillips eclipsed that mark with ease, but he’s now a Minnesota Viking. Buffalo signed DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle to offset that, though. While neither is a top-tier player at the position, their signings do help ease the loss of Phillips and improve the unit overall.

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Los Angeles Chargers: Defensive Line

Additions: Edge Khalil Mack, DI Sebastian Joseph-Day, DI Austin Johnson
Departures: Edge Uchenna Nwosu

Last year’s Chargers defensive line was a one-man show: edge defender Joey Bosa. His 85.8 PFF grade was a top-10 mark at the position, but not a single other Los Angeles defensive linemen earned a PFF grade above 65.0. To fix that, the team made a big trade with the Chicago Bears for star edge defender Khalil Mack.

The former Raider and Bear was the NFL’s highest-graded edge defender in 2020 before his injury-hindered 2021 campaign of just 315 snaps. In that season with the Bears, Mack generated 0.79 PFF wins above replacement (WAR) — the most at the position. Mack had generated at least 0.39 WAR in each of his NFL seasons before last year’s injury. For reference, that’s more than any defensive player on the Chargers' roster last season outside of Bosa. 

While Joseph-Day isn’t an elite player, his ceiling is far higher than that of any of Los Angeles' other interior defenders. Back in 2020, he earned a 76.8 PFF grade while tallying the second-most defensive stops at the position (38).


MOST UNIMPROVED

Indianapolis Colts: Cornerback

Additions: CB Brandon Facyson
Departures: CB Rock Ya-Sin, CB Xavier Rhodes

Ya-Sin, Rhodes and Isaiah Rodgers helped the Colts' cornerbacks post a top-10 outside coverage grade in 2021. But instead of retaining that group, the Colts traded Ya-Sin to the Las Vegas Raiders for edge defender Yannick Ngakoue and Rhodes is a free agent who is unlikely to return. The Colts signed Brandon Facyson — who played for Gus Bradley in Las Vegas in 2021 — to help staunch the bleeding, but he has borderline liability play on his resume. He earned a 42.5 coverage grade and ranked fifth-to-last in yards allowed per coverage snap (1.67) in 2021.

Green Bay Packers: Receiving Unit

Additions: None
Departures: WR Davante Adams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown

Without Adams, Green Bay is left with Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Juwann Winfree and Malik Taylor in its wide receiver room. That group combined for 0.21 PFF WAR in 2021 — nearly a quarter of Adams' individual WAR total. Of that group, Cobb is the only player to have earned a single-season receiving grade above 70.0, but there’s no denying he is far from his prime. For reference, a 70.0 receiving grade was around the position average for the 2021 season. Adams, on the other hand, was the highest-graded wide receiver in the 2020 and 2021 regular seasons.

Yes, the Packers still have back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers, but the departure of Adams — who was targeted at the highest rate of any player in the NFL over the past two seasons — is going to limit Rodgers' chances of replicating his recent passing efficiency.

The position is in such bad shape right now that Green Bay should strongly consider taking a wide receiver with both of its first-round picks.

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Atlanta Falcons: Receiving Unit

Additions: None
Departures: WR Russell Gage, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Calvin Ridley (suspended for at least 2022 season)

Last year’s Atlanta passing attack ranked 25th in expected points added (EPA) per pass, and that unit has now lost its highest-graded wide receiver, Russell Gage, to the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To add insult to injury, the Falcons traded quarterback Matt Ryan to the Colts. Any hope of a Calvin Ridley return was also squashed after he was suspended for at least the 2022 season due to gambling on games.

The next Falcons starting quarterback will have Olamide Zaccheaus and Frank Darby as his top wide receivers. Zaccheaus ranked 84th of 103 wide receivers in 2021, and Darby has just 12 career routes in the NFL to his name. Needless to say, this is currently the worst wide receiver room in the league.

Chicago Bears: Offensive Line

Additions: C Lucas Patrick
Departures: G James Daniels, G Alex Bars, T Jason Peters

New general manager Ryan Poles has made it clear that he’s going to properly rebuild the team instead of trying to salvage the mess that was left behind. That's the right path, and Bears fans should be encouraged by that. Still, there was hope that the offensive line would be an immediate focus after the sheer amount of pressure quarterback Justin Fields dealt with as a rookie.

The former Ohio State Buckeye was under duress at the second-highest rate in the league (42.8%). So far, the Bears have seen their two highest-graded offensive linemen from 2021 — James Daniels and Jason Peters — depart. Daniels is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Peters is still a free agent, but it’d be a surprise if he re-signed. Chicago did sign center Lucas Patrick, who worked with new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy in Green Bay, but he earned just a 57.5 PFF grade in his lone season starting at the position in 2021.

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