• Lamar Jackson, Geno Smith, Tom Brady among priorities to re-sign: The Ravens, Seahawks and Buccaneers, respectively, should look to keep their signal-callers around above all else.
• Giants should retain Julian Love above Barkley, Jones: While many want New York to prioritize Daniel Jones or Saquon Barkley in free agency, safety Julian Love has proven to be an important piece on the backend.
• Tony Pollard establishes himself as Cowboys' top free agent: Look no further than the divisional-round loss to the 49ers to see the value of Pollard in this Cowboys offense, with his absence in the second half leading to major struggles in consistently moving the ball. And beyond that one game, Pollard’s explosiveness is something no offense wants to lose.
Estimated Reading Time: 22 mins
We’re well underway here projecting the best fits on offense and defense for all 32 teams in free agency for this upcoming NFL offseason, but we wanted to take a brief step back here.
Before teams turn their attention to available players from the 31 other rosters, they should work to keep their key contributors in the fold, ideally getting them signed before free agency begins in mid-March. We take a look at the pending free agent each team should try to avoid losing this offseason.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
The Cardinals made the tough but sharp decision to let edge defender Chandler Jones walk in free agency last offseason, but they have to keep the younger Allen in the fold following J.J. Watt‘s retirement.
Allen earned his first run-defense grade above 60.0 and first pass-rush grade above 70.0 this season to go along with a career-best 35 quarterback pressures and 8.3% pressure rate.
Atlanta declined McGary's fifth-year option for 2023 but shouldn’t let that stop them from bringing him back now, even if it requires a much pricier franchise tag to initiate extension conversations — a tag projected to be around $18.25 million. The Falcons rank second in projected cap space after completely gutting their roster the past two seasons, so they can comfortably carry that large number through the 2023 season if ultimately necessary.
McGary’s 91.2 run-blocking grade in 2022 ranked second among tackles, and his 89.1 mark on outside zone runs ranked sixth. He still can become a more consistent down-to-down player and improve as a pass protector, but Atlanta could have its left tackle, right guard and right tackle spots solidified for the next several years as quarterback Desmond Ridder develops.
This Ravens simply live and die by Lamar Jackson on offense. In seven games to end the season without Jackson under center, the Ravens never once reached 20 points, with their -0.158 expected points added per play over the stretch ranking 26th. Through Week 12, the offense ranked eighth in EPA per play, at .028.
It’s typically smart to ignore most offseason commentary from head coaches and general managers, but Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta seemed genuine with their remarks at an end-of-season press conference, emphatically stating Jackson is the future of this franchise.
The Bills came up short once again in 2022 and have several tough decisions ahead of them. But, fortunately, they don’t have a ton of key free agents hitting the market. Poyer had been the consistent presence on the backend of this Bills defense prior to an injury-derailed 2022 campaign, logging 5,018 snaps from 2017-21 — fifth most among safeties — with a 93.9 coverage grade over the span that also ranked fifth.
Poyer was not himself to close out the 2022 campaign, battling through injury to be out there. Perhaps he can be convinced to return for one or two final runs at a price tag lower than the one he presumably wanted on an extension before the season began.
The Panthers had the fewest snaps in 2022 played by pending free agents, resembling one positive the team can build on heading into 2023. A good chunk of those snaps came from Bozeman once he became the full-time starter in Week 7. Bozeman’s return would be particularly helpful because the loss of right guard Austin Corbett to a torn ACL in Week 18 will likely knock him out for a portion of the 2023 season.
Bozeman’s 53.3 pass-blocking grade in 2022 was a career low since his rookie season, but he snapped the ball to three different starting quarterbacks over 11 weeks and earned his fourth straight overall grade above 63.0, buoyed by a 67.3 run-blocking mark. Even if Bozeman returns as a depth option at center, he’s shown he’s a reliable backup who could perhaps settle in if he does earn the starting job and works primarily with one signal caller.
The Bears got ahead of a pending free agent situation at off-ball linebacker by trading Roquan Smith to the Baltimore Ravens at the deadline, and they will be doing a whole lot more adding than subtracting this upcoming offseason. Realistically, they can afford to lose anyone because they can also afford to add anyone.
That said, they can’t spend big at every single position, and while off-ball linebacker may resemble the deepest position in all of free agency, Morrow is a solid all-around player who can play at the Will or Mike spots in Matt Eberflus’ defense. Morrow logged a career-high 1,086 snaps and earned his second consecutive coverage grade above 60.0 this past season. He could be a nice depth piece with starting potential on a cheap deal, a familiar face on a roster that is about to have very few in two months' time.
Hurst was a home-run acquisition by the Bengals this offseason as a player looking to get his career back on track with a one-year, prove-it deal for $3.5 million. Look no further than the divisional-round matchup with the Buffalo Bills, who extended tight end Dawson Knox on a four-year, $52 million deal before the season. While Knox is a good bit younger and a better athlete, the two had the same amount of targets in 2022, and Knox had as many drops on the year as Hurst has in his five-year career.
With other priorities across the roster, Cincinnati may lose several key contributors, including safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell plus linebacker Germaine Pratt, but Hurst could potentially not price himself out of town, adding a physical dynamic to this Bengals offense.
Center Ethan Pocic could be the answer here, as well, but the Browns already have two of the highest-paid guards in the NFL on the interior, so they could continue to cycle through centers and let offensive line coaching savant Bill Callahan work his magic. On defense, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is an exciting young foundational piece, and he got off to a hot start to the 2022 season alongside Walker before the latter went down with a season-ending injury.
Cleveland can’t afford to spend much on defense outside of perhaps investing in their interior defensive line, which makes Walker a solid option here coming off his torn quadriceps tendon injury. His 85.9 coverage grade over the past two seasons ranks third among off-ball linebackers, and while he can stand to improve against the run — as is the case with almost the entire Browns defense — those improvements are more likely to come via the aforementioned interior defensive line additions and a change in philosophy under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Look no further than the divisional-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers to see the value of Pollard in this Cowboys offense, with his absence in the second half leading to major struggles in consistently moving the ball. Beyond fixating on one game, Pollard’s explosiveness is something no offense wants to lose. Over the past two seasons, his 48 rushes of 10 or more yards rank eighth, despite his 323 rushing attempts ranking 24th.
Ezekiel Elliott may be back in 2023 on a $10.9 million salary, but that’s likely more than a potential franchise tag for Pollard — projected around $10.1 million — for a far less explosive player. If Dallas views this as an either/or situation, and if Pollard’s injury is not viewed as a long-term issue, this is a fairly easy decision.
Denver will be looking to make a few additions along the offensive line this offseason, but the first order of business should be to take care of in-house business and bring back Risner. He earned his second consecutive pass-blocking grade above 70.0 to go along with a 65.7 pass-blocking grade on true pass sets that ranked 22nd among guards.
He offers a very high floor as a pass protector, and while he can stand to improve in the run game, his consistency in keeping his quarterback clean can't be understated.
Detroit Lions: EDGE John Cominsky
Cominsky brought versatility and physicality to the Lions' defense in his first season in Detroit, becoming a more consistent pass rusher with his 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame that also enabled him to kick inside. He and rookie first-rounder Aidan Hutchinson both demonstrated positional flexibility along the defensive line, which could help Detroit construct different looks and manufacture pressure on opposing quarterbacks if he’s kept around for 2023 and beyond.
Cominsky became an official starter in Week 11, and his 31 quarterback pressures from that point through the end of the regular season tied for eighth among edge defenders.
The Packers will once again be very busy this offseason, as rumors abound that quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be traded — in particular, to the New York Jets — further following Brett Favre’s career path. If that does come to fruition, it changes everything else about Green Bay’s offseason thereafter.
Here, we’re operating under the notion that Rodgers will be back, and reliable blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis is an important part of the veteran group on this team. Over the past three seasons, Lewis’ 75.9 run-blocking grade ranks fourth among tight ends, and he’s shown few signs of slowing down entering his age-39 season in 2023, which would be his 18th NFL campaign.
Safety Adrian Amos is the other potential answer here, especially with former first-round safety Darnell Savage benched this season before moving to slot cornerback. But with Green Bay keeping defensive coordinator Joe Barry on staff, it doesn’t seem to matter how many investments they make on defense.
Houston made a few savvy, cheap moves at edge defender this past offseason that resulted in far more production than their price tags would indicate, certainly including Okoronkwo. After a slow start heading into the team’s Week 6 bye, Okoronkwo exploded out of the gate from Week 7 on, with his 88.5 pass-rushing grade ranking sixth among edge defenders from that point on.
Okoronkwo’s 22.9% pass-rush win rate ranked seventh and his 17.5% pressure percentage ranked eighth among edge defenders over the same span, and he became a starter for the first time in his career in Week 11 without a dropoff in down-to-down efficiency. He may not be a 1,000-snap player, but the value of 500-700 snaps at the NFL level is quite high.
Linebacker Bobby Okereke makes a lot of sense here, as well, but the Colts have a ton invested in Shaquille Leonard at the position already. On offense, Michael Pittman Jr. could join the $20 million-plus per year club this offseason as an early extension candidate, which could make a cheaper pure slot receiving option a smart piece to keep around.
Campbell’s production in 2022 outpaced his three-year cumulative totals from 2019-21 in nearly every statistical category now that he was finally healthy, with nine games of at least 40 receiving yards on the year. A one-year flier where Campbell can take yet another step — a decent bet if the Colts' offense doesn’t once again rank dead last in EPA per dropback — makes sense for all parties.
Key had a career year while playing on a one-year, $4 million flier, with his 81.3 overall grade his top mark for a season by more than 10 grading points. Over the past two seasons, Key has 80 quarterback pressures on 546 pass-rush reps en route to a 14.6% pressure rate, good for 17th among edge defenders over the span.
Key generated at least three quarterback pressures in each of Jacksonville’s final five regular-season games and both playoff games, repeatedly stepping up big when it was do-or-die time.
The choice here was a tossup between Key and tight end Evan Engram, but with wide receiver Calvin Ridley coming into the picture in 2023, Key’s inside-outside pass-rush versatility could stand to make a larger impact, all things considered.
Brown’s 2022 season got off to a rocky start after a lengthy franchise tag dispute, but he finished the season quite strong. From Week 7 on, his 81.6 overall grade ranked eighth and his 86.1 pass-blocking grade ranked seventh.
Brown could further cement his value near the top of the tackle market with a good showing in the conference championship round against the Cincinnati Bengals, and perhaps in the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers. All three teams have strong pass-rush units, and if Kansas City is somehow able to overcome Patrick Mahomes’ high ankle sprain, you can bet that’s in part due to good performances from his blindside protector.
Running back Josh Jacobs is the obvious answer here, but head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler come from a New England Patriots organization that all but refuses to extend running backs to significant veteran contracts, much less deals at the top of the market — which is what Jacobs should be commanding.
Eluemunor reunited with this duo after time shared together in New England in the past, and he enjoyed a career year as a starter at right tackle. After a slow start, Eluemunor came into his own following the team’s Week 6 bye. From Week 7 through the end of the season, his 83.1 pass-blocking grade ranked fourth among right tackles, with his 4.0% pressure rate allowed on true pass sets also the fourth-best mark at the position.
With big contracts at wide receiver, tight end and left tackle, a high-floor player with familiarity like Eluemunor who won’t break the bank is exactly what the Raiders need, outside of upgrading at quarterback.
The Chargers went on a spending spree last offseason and aren’t slated to lose many key contributors this offseason, but keeping around return specialist/depth wide receiver DeAndre Carter makes a lot of sense. Carter’s 16 missed tackles forced on punt returns over the past two seasons rank fifth, and he averaged more than 10 yards per return despite a long of just 28 yards.
This is in no way intended as a slight, but ideally, Carter is WR5 or WR6 in 2023 and not WR4. Still, he clearly has the trust of quarterback Justin Herbert and fills in admirably when called upon, bringing a speed element the team doesn’t currently have on the roster otherwise, an area they must improve in 2023. Carter hauled in a career-high 46 receptions with just two drops on 64 targets and is certainly worth keeping around going forward if he doesn’t cash in elsewhere.
Rapp finally had the type of season the Rams were hoping for when they selected him in the second round out of Washington back in 2019, but the flashes were always there. Rapp earned career-high grades against the run (82.3) and in coverage (72.9) and missed just six tackle attempts en route to 70 tackles and 14 defensive stops in 2022.
The Rams may not want to spend more in the secondary, letting safety John Johnson III walk two years ago, in which case a cheaper deal for fellow safety Nick Scott perhaps is more appealing, but Rapp has developed into a reliable player on the backend.
If interior offensive lineman Coleman Shelton elects to opt out of the remaining year of his contract signed last offseason, a right he earned this season via playtime, he becomes the Rams’ top priority as a reliable pass protector in 2022 at center and guard on an interior that needs more consistency.
Van Ginkel would be a rotational player for this Dolphins defense behind edge defenders Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb — and Melvin Ingram III if he returns — but he brings a different skill set weighing about 40 pounds less than those guys. He had a career year as a pass rusher in 2021 with 45 pressures, including a 14.9% pressure rate that ranked 14th among edge defenders, but was delegated to more of a reserve role in 2022. Perhaps this provides the impetus for Van Ginkel to push for a larger role elsewhere, but if not, he’d be a solid player to bring back for Miami.
Despite his lack of size, he’s also a solid run defender on the edge, with his 81.6 run-defense grade over the past three seasons the ninth-best mark at the position. It’s good to create different assignments for opposing offensive linemen, who, in turn, have to deal with speed, power and finesse from guys with different styles and body types.
Minnesota has a lot to figure out on defense going forward, especially with free agent Patrick Peterson set to turn 33 in 2023, but they should see what they have in Duke Shelley next year as they work to develop 2022 second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. and others.
The Vikings made Shelley the starter at left cornerback in Week 15, and over the last four regular-season games plus the wild-card round against the New York Giants, his 90.4 coverage grade ranked fourth among cornerbacks. Because of Shelley’s lack of size, his drafting team — the Chicago Bears — put him in the slot, but that was never his game in college. He’s a scrappy player who makes up for his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame on the outside with good instincts and a knack for timing his jumps well to battle at the catch point.
Minnesota’s salary cap situation is an underrated nightmare going forward, but getting meaningful snaps out of a player like Shelley could certainly help.
In recent offseasons, New England signed Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, traded for DeVante Parker and traded up in the second round in 2022 to draft Tyquan Thornton out of Baylor. And through all of that, Meyers remained the best wide receiver on the team's roster.
Since 2020, Meyers has dropped just 3.1% of targets, a top-20 mark among qualifying wide receivers, and at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he uses his frame to battle for contested catches. Meyers’ 63.2% contested catch rate ranks fourth best among wide receivers over the past three seasons, as well.
Realistically, the Patriots can afford to lose Meyers because of the aforementioned investments at the position, so the question becomes whether they should, to which the answer is probably no.
Davenport has struggled to stay on the field throughout his five years with the Saints, but if he leaves in free agency, they’ll have very little talent to speak off on the edge outside of a 34-year-old Cameron Jordan on the final year of his contract, with 2021 first-round pick edge defender Payton Turner a healthy scratch for much of his second season.
Over the past three seasons, Davenport’s 19.0% pass-rush win rate ranks 14th and his 14.2% pressure rate ranks 17th among edge defenders. The Saints simply cannot give up that level of pass-rush productivity because he’s played only about 475 snaps a season — that is, unless his asking price takes him out of consideration, which is entirely possible.
Not quarterback Daniel Jones, not running back Saquon Barkley, but do-everything defensive back Julian Love is our answer here. Jones had a much improved 2022 campaign that he finished out well through the wild-card round — before he was completely flummoxed in the divisional round against the Philadelphia Eagles — but Giants general manager Joe Schoen has been here before with Tyrod Taylor in 2017 on the Buffalo Bills.
The similarities are actually quite uncanny. Taylor earned a slightly higher passing grade in 2017 than Jones did in 2022, with a 76.4 mark compared to Jones' 76.0. Taylor had 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions, whereas Jones had 15 and five, respectively. Lastly, Taylor threw for 6.7 yards per attempt to Jones’ 6.8. But we digress.
Love earned a career-high 71.5 coverage grade in 2022 and lined up everywhere, with 271 snaps down in the box, 154 in the slot and 494 at free safety. He’s a Swiss Army knife on the backend who rarely misses a tackle. Among 43 safeties with at least 150 tackles over the past three seasons, Love’s 13 missed tackles are the second fewest.
The Jets dealt with injuries all over their offensive line throughout 2022, but McGovern brought consistency and a high floor for whoever was under center. Those are qualities that a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers could perhaps appreciate if he finds his way to The Big Apple in 2023.
McGovern has logged around 1,000 snaps in five straight seasons, with his 74.7 grade over the past two seasons ranking 13th among centers, his 69.8 pass-blocking grade 16th and his 76.9 run-blocking grade 13th. If the Jets do make a big splash and acquire someone like Rodgers, they may feel the need to go cheaper at center, but a trusted relationship between a veteran signal-caller and his center could go a long way.
The Eagles have pending free agents all over their defense, with the second-most defensive snaps played in 2022 by players on their way out, barring new contracts. More important than them all is bringing back interior defender Javon Hargrave, especially as Philadelphia showed throughout 2022 they felt inadequate up front by signing multiple veterans in-season.
Since 2020, Hargrave’s 92.2 pass-rush grade trails only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones among interior defenders, with his 18.8% pass-rush win rate also ranking third. Philadelphia needs to keep Hargrave in the fold and figure the rest out later.
Pittsburgh traded for cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III in recent years, and both players finished the 2022 season with grades in the 40s. They’ve continued to throw darts at the position without much success but would be smart to bring back a known commodity in Sutton.
Sutton earned a career-best 72.2 grade in 2022, allowing just 0.76 yards per coverage snap, which ranked 11th among cornerbacks with at least 200 coverage snaps on the season. With big contracts already handed out to edge defender T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and interior defender Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh likely isn’t looking to splurge more in the secondary as they look for offensive improvement. Sutton won’t break the bank yet offers familiarity in Mike Tomlin’s defense.
Ward’s versatility was on full display down the stretch of the 2022 season, as he became the primary slot cornerback for the 49ers with Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr. at safety. All he did was earn top-five grades both in coverage and as a run defender since Week 8 when aligning in the slot, with his 76.7 coverage grade fifth and his 91.3 run-defense grade tied for second among players with at least 100 snaps in the slot over the span.
The 49ers aren’t set to lose a ton to free agency, which is crucial considering the roster is already loaded with big contracts and may soon add a $30 million per year pact for edge defender Nick Bosa to the ledger.
Smith’s last outing of the 2022 season, a playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, aged quite well just a week later with Dak Prescott struggling mightily against the same defensive unit. In the first half of the wild-card showdown, Smith went 9-of-10 for 104 yards and a touchdown with one big-time throw to zero turnover-worthy plays, arguably the best half of playoff football played against the 49ers defense. Smith’s 84.1 PFF passing grade was the highest of any quarterback in a half of playoff football against the 49ers since 2019, with his 10.4 yards per attempt second.
On the season, Smith’s 76.9 passing grade ranked ninth, and his 15 touchdown passes on throws 20-plus yards downfield were three more than the next best quarterback. In a very improbable and bizarre way, the Seahawks found their quarterback of the next few years. Now, they just have to find middle ground on a new multi-year deal after a likely franchise tag to begin the offseason.
Looking beyond the football field at first, Brady signing elsewhere in 2023 would leave the Buccaneers with a $35.1 million dead cap charge, as the team is currently projected to be around $55 million over the 2023 salary cap, second worst in the NFL behind the New Orleans Saints.
On the field, anyone suggesting Brady has dramatically fallen off is telling on themselves. He certainly isn’t mobile in any way, shape or form, but his 79.3 passing grade ranked seventh, his 31 big-time throws were the fourth most and his 2.29-second average time to throw was the fastest in the NFL. It was far from one of Brady’s best years, but Tampa Bay will be hard-pressed to upgrade at the position nonetheless.
The Titans' offensive line was a major weakness throughout the 2022 season once left tackle Taylor Lewan went down with an injury, but Davis was a rare bright spot, earning a career-high 66.8 pass-blocking grade. The last thing Tennessee should be doing is letting solid offensive linemen walk, especially as they work out their quarterback situation going forward.
Linebacker David Long Jr. is another good option here, but Tennessee may need to save money on defense with two big edge defender contracts, two big safety contracts and a pending extension for interior defender Jeffery Simmons that should comfortably surpass $20 million per year.
Washington has an elite interior defender already signed to a big multi-year deal in Jonathan Allen — a deal that will look like a total steal after the pending market explosion at the position this offseason — so that will certainly soften the blow here. Edge defenders Montez Sweat and Chase Young are also in the fold, so if any team could overcome the loss of a player like Payne, it’s the Commanders.
All of that said, Payne’s 48 quarterback pressures in 2022 ranked ninth among interior defenders, as he’s developed into a solid pass rusher over his first five seasons. At the least, Washington should place the franchise tag on Payne and either field trade offers or let things play out again in 2024.