NFL News & Analysis

One 2024 free agent each NFL team can't afford to lose

2TA4CY9 Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson (33) in action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023 in Minneapolis. Chicago won 12-10. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

• Bears should look to retain the NFL's highest-graded CB: Jaylon Johnson finished 2023 with a 90.3 PFF grade — the best mark among cornerbacks in the regular season.

• Jets have one of the league's most underrated pass rushers set to hit the market: Bryce Huff ranks behind only Myles Garrett in pass-rush win rate over the past two seasons.

• Draft and trade for yourself: Try PFF's Mock Draft Simulator — trade picks and players and mock for your favorite NFL team.

Estimated Reading Time: 16 minutes

We’ve begun mapping free agent fits for all 32 NFL teams, but before we get there, we wanted to identify the pending free agent each team should do their best to retain before they hit the open market.


ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

Arizona Cardinals: WR MARQUISE BROWN

Brown's time with the Cardinals has been a bit of a journey, and he lands on this list in part because Arizona also doesn’t have much outgoing talent. Retaining Brown to be the No. 2 receiver with the No. 4 overall pick used to select either Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. or LSU’s Malik Nabers makes a lot of sense. The connection to quarterback Kyler Murray is a factor here, as well. We’re not giving up on Brown righting the ship and staying healthy and productive over the next few years.

When healthy, Brown still has explosive ability and a bigger catch radius at the intermediate level than you’d expect, given his size, and the narrative on him has gone too far in a negative direction.


Atlanta recruited the ageless Calais Campbell over from the Baltimore Ravens last offseason, and despite the departure of defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta should work to keep Campbell in the fold.

Campbell’s 9.2% run-stop rate was one of the top marks across the league in 2023, and an anchor along the defensive line as the Falcons continue to add talent across the unit would provide a solid foundation, especially as Grady Jarrett recovers from an injury.


The Ravens witnessed career years from virtually every player on the defense under the stewardship of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, but Madubuike’s ascension makes him the most irreplaceable.

Madubuike’s 85.7 pass-rush grade on true pass sets and 14.4% pass-rush win rate in 2023 vaulted him into the echelon of the league’s best at the position, and his 64 total pressures were more than double that of the next-highest Ravens interior defender.

Buffalo Bills: DI DAQUAN JONES

The Bills got a lot out of rotational defensive linemen this year, with a handful of guys stepping up at critical points throughout the season, but the lack of interior defensive line depth alongside Ed Oliver makes Jones' return all the more important

Edge defenders Leonard Floyd and A.J. Epenesa also stepped up in 2023 in the absence of Von Miller, and Floyd, in particular, performed well on his one-year flier. But the lack of interior defender depth led to late-season additions like Linval Joseph playing meaningful snaps for Buffalo. Before getting hurt, Jones had the highest pressure rate among all interior defenders through Week 4 (20.8%).

Carolina Panthers: EDGE BRIAN BURNS

The Panthers moved on from vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman in a restructuring of their front office, and the new lead negotiator needs to make it a priority to work through an extension for Burns.

Burns has logged at least 800 snaps in three consecutive seasons with at least 40 quarterback pressures, eight sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 30 defensive stops.


The Bears and Johnson went back and forth all year via the media with quotes about optimism regarding an extension, followed by a trade request and now back to more optimism.

Johnson’s 90.8 grade in 2023 led all cornerbacks, as did his 0.39 yards allowed per coverage snap.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR TEE HIGGINS

Cincinnati has a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, but retaining Higgins should remain the top priority even after a bit of a down year marred by minor injuries.

Higgins earned a 99.1 receiving grade against single coverage over 2021-22 and averaged two yards per route run despite operating as the Bengals' No. 2 wideout.

Cleveland Browns: EDGE ZA’DARIUS SMITH

Cleveland traded for the veteran defensive lineman before the 2023 campaign, and while his sack production dipped from past seasons, Smith’s pass-rush acumen is still very apparent. He can win lined up all across the formation.

Smith’s 90.1 pass-rush grade over the past two seasons ranks seventh among edge defenders, and his 16.6% pressure rate ranks ninth.

Dallas Cowboys: T TYRON SMITH

Smith is on the back nine of his career and can be expected to miss a game or two in any given season, but he’s been a remarkable value for Dallas going on a decade at this point. The Cowboys shouldn’t let him take a snap in another uniform if he wants to keep playing.

Smith’s 847 snaps played in 2023 were his most since 2019, and his 3.6% pressure rate allowed was third-lowest among tackles across the league.


Denver spent a lot in free agency last year to add right tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Ben Powers, and right guard Quinn Meinerz is in line for a huge extension this offseason. But Sean Payton has never shied away from investing a ton of resources into the offensive line.

Cushenberry’s 2.3% pressure rate allowed in 2023 was the fifth-lowest mark among centers, and he earned a run-blocking grade of 70.0 or better on both gap and zone rushing plays.


Detroit is set up well going forward, with pending free agents largely coming at positions of strength — for example, with defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and fellow guard Jonah Jackson. But we like the veteran Glasgow due to his positional versatility and cheaper price tag, as Detroit has a big decision coming on quarterback Jared Goff and needs to extend star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown this offseason.

Glasgow posted an 85.5 run-blocking grade on zone runs in 2023 and still moves well to the second level as he enters his age-32 season.

Green Bay Packers: CB KEISEAN NIXON

The Packers also have former first-round pick Darnell Savage up for a new deal, and their safety room is arguably the least talented unit in the NFL. Nixon took on a role as the starting nickel cornerback in addition to his special teams prowess as a return man and held up fairly well this season.

Nixon’s 31 defensive stops were the sixth most among cornerbacks in 2023, and he averaged 27.5 yards per kick return with a long of 73 after averaging 28.8 in 2022 with a 105-yard touchdown scamper.


Houston very quickly has a bunch of important free-agent decisions, and Greenard emerged in 2023 as the strong No. 2 edge opposite Will Anderson Jr.

Cornerback Steven Nelson and linebacker Blake Cashman are also good answers here, with the savvy veteran Nelson playing very well opposite ascending star Derek Stingley Jr. and Cashman emerging as a great fit under linebacker guru head coach DeMeco Ryans.

Greenard’s 19 stops against the run were a top-20 mark among edge defenders, and he broke out as a pass rusher under Ryans' tutelage, setting career-high marks with a 12.4% pass-rush win rate, 53 pressures and 12.5 sacks.

Indianapolis Colts: WR MICHAEL PITTMAN JR.

This is an easy answer. Pittman took his game to another level for the Colts this season, offering one of the higher floors as a big-bodied possession receiver who rarely drops the football and looks like the perfect safety net as Anthony Richardson develops at the NFL level.

Pittman’s 413 targets over the past three seasons are the sixth most in the NFL, and he put up a career-best 2.04 yards per route run in 2023 after a quarterback switch early in the season from the rookie Richardson to Gardner Minshew.

Jacksonville Jaguars: EDGE JOSH ALLEN

Allen’s underlying metrics have always been strong, and the Jaguars should probably be kicking themselves for not extending him last offseason before Nick Bosa blew the roof off the edge defender market. Sure enough, Allen’s sack numbers in 2023 reflected how good of a down-to-down rusher he has been for a while now, and Jacksonville has to pay him whatever it takes to return.

Allen’s 89 quarterback pressures were the fifth most in the NFL, his 16.5 sacks were tied for fourth and his 20.5% pass-rush win rate ranked eighth.

Kansas City Chiefs: DI CHRIS JONES

Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has taken his game to another level in 2023 and has been one of the top outside cornerbacks in the NFL after primarily operating from the slot in recent seasons, with his elite tackling ability and prowess on the occasional nickel blitz making him a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. However, this is just how Kansas City operates. They draft multiple defensive backs seemingly every year in the third-to-sixth-round range and let good players like cornerback Charvarius Ward sign elsewhere.

Chris Jones had a second consecutive season with a pass-rush grade above 90.0 and at least 75 quarterback pressures, with 11 sacks and 18 more quarterback hits, and he continues to win with speed to power and/or legitimate bend operating as a five- and seven-technique edge rusher.

Las Vegas Raiders: C ANDRE JAMES

Turning the center position over to James and trading stalwart veteran Rodney Hudson to the Arizona Cardinals turned out to be a remarkable bet from the Raiders, and Las Vegas should keep James in the fold to help Aidan O’Connell or whoever is under center as the future franchise quarterback in Las Vegas.

James earned career-best marks as both a pass protector and run blocker in 2023, grading out above 70.0 in both facets with proficiency on zone and gap rushes, as well. James will be just 27 years old when he signs his second veteran contract, and he offers a very high floor with room for more growth.

Los Angeles Chargers: TE GERALD EVERETT

The Chargers and their new regime are in for an offseason of major contraction, with so many potential cut or trade candidates. But we’ll get to that later. For now, retaining a solid tight end who has good chemistry with Justin Herbert makes sense.

Everett’s 28 forced missed tackles over the past two seasons are the second most among tight ends, and Herbert was never afraid to look his way in high-leverage moments down in the red zone and on third downs.

Los Angeles Rams: G KEVIN DOTSON

The Rams' trade for Dotson from the Pittsburgh Steelers before the season should have served as a signal about the change in rushing scheme McVay was adopting, and Dotson was a picture-perfect fit as Los Angeles pivoted to an inside-zone/gap-heavy attack on the ground with great success.

Over the past two seasons on different teams, Dotson’s 77.2 pass-blocking grade is a top-10 mark among guards and his 3.2% pressure rate allowed ranks sixth.


Wilkins was the odd man out of the 2019 first-rounders who signed marquee extensions this past offseason, and he used that as motivation to have the best pass-rush season of his career. He has always been one of the best run defenders in the NFL and could push the pocket to free things up for other rushers, but his own pass-rush production came in 2023 to the tune of 58 pressures, nine sacks and 16 quarterback hits.

Edge defender Andrew Van Ginkel could also be a great selection here, although an unfortunate injury at the end of the season cut his phenomenal run short. Miami has a lot of top-of-market players already on the roster, and really good rotational pieces like Van Ginkel will be key as they go forward.


Minnesota’s defense led by defensive coordinator Brian Flores dramatically outperformed its collective talent level, and Hunter was the one true difference-maker that everything else orbited around.

Over the past two seasons, Hunter’s 150 quarterback pressures rank seventh and his 89 defensive stops rank second. He’ll still be 29 for the first month of his ninth NFL season.

New England Patriots: OL MICHAEL ONWENU

The Patriots moved Onwenu all over the offensive line from right tackle to both guard spots, and no matter where he lined up, he performed well as a big, physical mauler in the run game who absorbs power rushers really well.

From Week 7 on once Onwenu moved back to right tackle, his 4.9% pressure rate allowed was a top-20 mark among all tackles. He has earned run-blocking grades above 70.0 in each of his NFL seasons.

New Orleans Saints: WR MICHAEL THOMAS

The Saints don’t have a ton of pending free agents, with more difficult decisions coming on players like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who recently reworked his contract to make a trade more palatable for all parties. We went with Thomas here despite the consistent injury issues. Chris Olave is now the No. 1 in this offense, and speedster Rashid Shaheed continues to carve out a bigger role with young pieces like A.T. Perry emerging late, as well. But retaining Thomas as a possession receiver for Derek Carr makes sense.

Through Week 8 before he got hurt, Thomas ranked in the top 20 among wide receivers in receptions and had at least 40 receiving yards in every game.


McKinney illustrated this season why he was an early second-round pick, flashing athleticism at all three levels of the defense, but there was some friction with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who pushed his way out of the organization after the season.

McKinney was an elite coverage player in 2023 in effectively every subset of play. He earned a 91.2 overall grade and top-seven coverage grades among safeties when the defense did not get pressure and on passes in under three seconds. He also tallied three interceptions to go along with three more pass breakups.


The Jets' lack of a push in getting an early extension done with Huff is interesting, and perhaps notable, as he carried over his insane pass-rush productivity from 2022 to 2023 with a role that increased a bit on early downs. Huff also held off first-round rookie Will McDonald IV, who wins in a similar manner, for snaps. Perhaps that succession plan is more what the Jets view as their preferred direction.

Nonetheless, for a team in the midst of an all-in window with Aaron Rodgers, a mid-rate deal for a designated pass-rushing specialist who can make game-changing plays in high-leverage moments would make a lot of sense.

Huff’s 23.8% pass-rush win rate over the past two seasons trails only the great Myles Garrett, and he made strides as an early-down run defender as his role grew.

Philadelphia Eagles: DI FLETCHER COX

The Eagles' collapse to close out the 2023 season was one of the more bizarre developments over the second half of the year, but veteran leader Fletcher Cox enjoyed a bounce-back campaign in Philadelphia with a massive role despite recent draft additions Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis and Milton Williams.

Cox’s 43 total pressures and 18 combined sacks and quarterback hits were his most since 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers: DI ARMON WATTS

Pittsburgh has very few pending free agents of note, which is generally a good thing, but Armon Watts was quietly a very effective rotational interior defensive lineman with the ability to push the pocket and work off Cameron Heyward, rookie Keeanu Benton and Larry Ogunjobi. With Heyward entering his age-36 season and Ogunjobi a potential cap casualty, retaining Watts on a lower-cost deal would make a lot of sense.

Watts recorded a pressure rate above 10% on the interior, and his 73.8 run-defense grade was a career high by more than 10 grading points.

San Francisco 49ers: EDGE CHASE YOUNG

Young is our choice here not just because of the sunk cost fallacy associated with sending a pick in the No. 100 range for his services at the deadline, but also because of the enticing upside following a full offseason working with 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.

Young’s 15.2% pass-rush win rate in 2023 was a top-30 mark, and he set career highs with 66 pressures and 7.5 sacks.

Guard Jon Feliciano has been huge for San Francisco down the stretch, and edge defender Clelin Ferrell is yet another career revival story for Kocurek, but if Young can round back into form and return to playing the run with tenacity like he did in his first few seasons, he could elevate this defensive front in 2024 and beyond.


As we mentioned above with Chase Young, Williams is not our pick here solely because of the fact Seattle traded second- and fifth-round picks for his services at the deadline. Williams was arguably the best player on Seattle’s defense from the trade deadline and on, and he still has plenty of good football left as he enters his age-30 season in 2024.

From Week 9 on, Williams’ 32 pressures were a top-10 mark among interior defenders and his 21 stops were tied for seventh.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S ANTOINE WINFIELD JR.

Winfield was arguably the top safety in the NFL in 2023. He offers as much versatility on the backend as any defensive back, coming down in the box to make plays in the run game coupled with outstanding ball production in coverage.

Winfield’s 16.3% forced incompletion rate ranked seventh among safeties on the season, and his 26 defensive stops were a top-15 mark on the year.

Tennessee Titans: LB AZEEZ AL-SHAAIR

The Titans don’t have many pending free agents to be overly concerned about losing as they undergo the rebuild they should have jump-started last offseason, but executive vice president/general manager Ran Carthon was wise to recruit Al-Shaair to follow him from the San Francisco 49ers to Tennessee last offseason.

Over the past two seasons, Al-Shaair’s 78.3 run-defense grade is a top-25 mark among off-ball linebackers and his 9.6% run-stop rate placed in the top 15.

Washington Commanders: S KAMREN CURL

Washington’s new regime, spearheaded by new general manager Adam Peters, has a franchise-defining offseason ahead with five top-100 draft selections, including the No. 2 overall pick. There are also a few interesting decisions in the secondary, with cornerback Kendall Fuller up for a new contract.

Over the past two seasons, Curl’s 58 defensive stops are the fourth most among safeties.

Curl is good at everything but doesn’t have one defining great trait, with very little ball production since his rookie campaign. Furthermore, second-round rookie Jartavius Martin came on at the end of the season and could, in theory, take over the starting job in 2024. Nevertheless, retaining a homegrown seventh-round draft pick who offers an extremely high floor makes sense for a team with the most cap space in the NFL, not that this should ever be the lone motivating factor for a contract.


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