As we officially turn the page to 2022, we once again begin to examine the NFL free agency landscape awaiting us in just a few short months. From the beginning of free agency in March, through the 2022 NFL Draft in late April, and with a second wave of veteran signings in May, the average NFL team makes just shy of 200 transactions.
Each NFL club faces a unique offseason, with big decisions awaiting those such as the Cleveland Browns with quarterback Baker Mayfield. Last offseason, the Dallas Cowboys had to make a nine-figure decision on quarterback Dak Prescott. Returns have been excellent so far, with Prescott ranking seventh among quarterbacks in PFF passing grade through Week 16 (82.5).
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The upcoming NFL free agent class is not super top-heavy at many spots, but there is a ton of depth on both sides of the ball. Several teams have already taken care of important business, including the Baltimore Ravens extending two important pieces of their team, just as they did in 2020.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lead the way in snaps played by pending free agents, with just shy of 5,500 through Week 16. The average NFL team plays roughly 1,000 snaps on either side of the ball in a given season, so this is equivalent to about five and a half offensive starters in snaps.
The Philadelphia Eagles are an impressive outlier on the other end of the spectrum, with almost their entire offense either playing on rookie contracts or being recently extended to multi-year deals. For example, left tackle Jordan Mailata was set to be a free agent after the 2021 season and is now under contract in Philadelphia through 2025 after receiving a four-year, $64 million extension before Week 1. With three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, the playoff-bound Eagles have executed a truly masterful rebuild in short order.
Of course, not all snaps are created equal. The Denver Broncos will have another quarterback decision on their hands in a few months, as Teddy Bridgewater is set to be a free agent once again. The Miami Dolphins may have a quarterback decision of their own, but this number is carried by backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He proved he deserves to be one of the highest-paid backup quarterbacks in the NFL in his six starts this season, earning 70.0-plus grades in four of them. These two teams lead the way in the below chart because of the contributions from quarterbacks.
The average NFL team is expected to lose about 0.6 wins from their 2021 offense in free agents heading into the 2022 offseason. However, there is obviously still time to get extensions done. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams has earned more than that average alone through Week 16, a huge weapon who, per a report from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, appears to be headed for a franchise tag. This may just be the latest tactic in an ongoing contract negotiation as Adams looks to become the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL.
Adams’ franchise tag with Green Bay will be worth $20.145 million, creating an offseason with decisions to be made on key players — such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, edge defenders Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Green Bay currently projects to be roughly $40 million over the 2022 salary cap even before a potential $20 million franchise tag for Adams. There is a path forward, but it won’t necessarily be an easy one. After earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the only first-round playoff bye, it may be difficult for Rodgers and Adams to stick to the “Last Dance” mantra.
Below is a chart illustrating how much each team is currently paying their pending free agents on a per-year basis, and then the projected average annual value for their next contracts.
The two bars side by side are meant to show the surplus value currently being enjoyed by the teams, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs leading the way in surplus value from their pending free agents. This helps us differentiate between teams with more rookie-contract players hitting free agency compared to teams with established players already on veteran contracts looking to hit the market once more.
For the Cowboys, 2018 draft pick wide receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, plus tight end Dalton Schultz, have all been valuable contributors. Will McClay, Dallas' executive vice president of player personnel, continues to be a hot name in general manager conversations even though he appears content at The Star. For the Buccaneers, veterans such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, center Ryan Jensen and running back Leonard Fournette are up for new deals.
To provide specific examples and illustrate just what the above chart looks like on a player-by-player basis, here are the five pending free agents outperforming their current contracts the most, according to unadjusted PFF contract projections. We say “unadjusted” because there are certain factors a model simply cannot account for, so these figures perhaps better serve as a valuation of a player’s production and starting point when projecting a new deal.
|Player||2021 Team||Age||Position||Current AAV||Projected AAV||Projection – Current|
*Restricted free agent tender
We expect all five players here to earn a bit less than these projections indicate, but nevertheless, all of them are providing a ton of surplus value over the 2020-2021 seasons. Franchise tags could realistically be in play for every player on the list, save for Cowboys edge defender Randy Gregory.
Not a good offseason to add on the defensive side of the ball?
The Atlanta Falcons lead the way in snaps from pending free agents, but we’ll discuss below how that may not be a bad thing. The Houston Texans signed 32 vested veteran free agents last offseason, the most of any team, and they are giving snaps to a lot of one-year players as new general manager Nick Caserio completely overhauls the roster. The Los Angeles Rams may not have a ton of snaps from pending free agents on defense, but they could have two big deals awaiting in edge defender Von Miller and cornerback Darious Williams.
Williams and Miller have missed time in 2021, but both figure to receive strong contracts in the near future, particularly after the Rams traded their 2022 second- and third-round picks for a half a season of Miller’s services, barring a new deal. Both rank inside the top 25 of PFF’s top 75 free agents for 2022.
What stands out in the below chart is the contrast between the snaps the Falcons are losing on defense (most in NFL) versus the total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) generated by this group (26th). The Falcons field the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL, and these two charts tell almost the entire story. More draft picks like 2020 first-round cornerback A.J. Terrell — the highest-graded cornerback in the NFL through Week 16 with an 86.3 mark — will go a long way in helping this Atlanta defense return to respectability.
NFL Insider Adam Caplan recently reported that New England Patriots hybrid safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips agreed to terms on a three-year, $12.75 million contract extension that keeps him with the team through 2024. Phillips’ 81.4 overall grade and 85.6 coverage grade through Week 16 are both career highs for a season in which he played at least 300 snaps. Phillips accounts for roughly one-quarter of the total WAR here, and his unadjusted PFF contract projection was for about $6.6 million per year, so New England did a phenomenal job taking care of important offseason business just days before demolishing the Jacksonville Jaguars, 50-10.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are getting below replacement-level play from their pending free agents on defense. Fortunately for them, they may have the first overall draft pick two years in a row, and pairing 2019 top-10 pick edge defender Josh Allen with Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux could go a long way opposite quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
We discussed some of the top pending free agents on defense in our free agency primer, but it is not a good offseason for teams looking to add on that side of the ball. Fortunately for NFL clubs looking to turn their defenses around in a hurry, such as the Jaguars, PFF’s 2022 NFL Draft Big Board highlights some dynamic playmakers along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. DraftKings Sportsbook currently has Hutchinson as the favorite to go first overall at -110, with Thibodeaux right behind him at +110.