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One free agent each team can't afford to lose

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs with the ball as Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano (58) defends during the first half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The first major decisions to think through on the eve of NFL free agency aren’t which players around the league you plan to offer deals to, but which players on your team you’d like to retain. You have better intel and insight than anyone on how this player will fit in with your organizational culture, locker room, and, of course, on the football field. 


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Retaining key players early on can also help teams focus their efforts elsewhere, perhaps something the Denver Broncos considered when extending wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to four- and three-year extensions, respectively.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS

EDGE CHANDLER JONES

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 71.7 (30th of 127)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 75.6 (6th of 32)

Jones returned after missing the 2020 season due to injury and immediately recorded seven pressures and five sacks in Week 1. He finished the season with an 89.8 pass-rush grade and played a full workload. Arizona should do everything in its power to get an extension done.

ATLANTA FALCONS

RB CORDARRELLE PATTERSON

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 82.0 (7th of 64)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 71.8 (16th of 32)

The Falcons were simply a different offense with and without Patterson on the field, as new head coach Arthur Smith finally maximized Patterson’s size and speed en route to a career-high 91.4 receiving grade and an impressive 7.3 yards after the catch per reception.

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BALTIMORE RAVENS

DI CALAIS CAMPBELL

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 80.8 (9th of 148)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 67.3 (7th of 32)

Campbell is still playing at a high level, earning an 80.8 grade in his age-35 season, but not quite at his usual pace, as he posted four straight 90.0+ season grades from 2016-19. He is still an interior presence for Baltimore and commands attention away from young players such as rookie edge defender Odafe Oweh. It’d be great to keep Campbell around until he decides to retire, and maybe the Ravens could even convince him to stick around as a coach/scout in the same vein as what long-time Ravens safety Anthony Levine Jr. announced on Wednesday.

BUFFALO BILLS

CB LEVI WALLACE

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 65.2 (55 of 134)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 69.5 (12th of 32)

The Bills lost star cornerback Tre’Davious White for the season with a torn ACL in Week 12, and Wallace played a big part in their defense maintaining a high level of play down the stretch, earning a 68.5 coverage grade on 993 snaps. Wallace has played at least 400 snaps in every season since signing as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) in 2018 and has never earned a grade below 60.0 — a strong floor at a volatile position like outside cornerback.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

CB STEPHON GILMORE

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 77.1 (14th of 134)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 64.7 (19th of 32)

The Carolina Panthers traded a 2023 sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots for cornerback Gilmore and paid him roughly $6 million for the second half of the season. Gilmore was immediately tasked with covering the opposing team’s top players and rose to the challenge with a 79.4 coverage grade and zero missed tackles. With a young secondary that includes 2020 first-round cornerback C.J. Henderson and 2021 first-round cornerback Jaycee Horn, Gilmore could be a great veteran mentor for both.

CHICAGO BEARS

G JAMES DANIELS

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 71.5 (20th of 90)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 69.8 (12th of 32)

Daniels is simply too young and too versatile for new Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles to let out the door without a new deal. Daniels, just 24 years old, will look to take the next step after starting his career with four straight season grades above 65.0 in addition to back-to-back run-blocking grades above 70.0 as Chicago transitioned to more of an outside-zone running scheme. 

Poles is a former offensive lineman and, according to former Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, has always had an eye for offensive line talent. His first big decision awaits.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

S JESSIE BATES III

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 56.2 (82nd of 98)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 62.6 (25th of 32)

Bates did not have his best season in 2021 after finishing the 2020 season as PFF’s No. 1 rated safety with an elite 90.1 grade. Despite regressing from that high during the regular season, Bates has shown why he deserves to be among the highest-paid safeties in the NFL through two playoff games. Bates earned an 85.6 grade and accrued two pass breakups against the Las Vegas Raiders in the wildcard round and an 84.1 grade with an interception in the divisional round against the Tennessee Titans.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

TE DAVID NJOKU

2021 Player Grade/Rank: 70.9 (11th of 44)
2021 Team Position Grade/Rank: 68.3 (9th of 32)

Njoku has had an up-and-down journey from draft day in 2017 to finally reaching unrestricted free agency coming off his fifth-year option season. Njoku’s 70.0 receiving grade in 2021 is his best mark since his rookie season, and his 7.0 yards after the catch per reception and 1.56 yards per route run were both career-high marks. Cleveland runs too many two- and three-tight-end sets to not bring Njoku back.

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