As teams prepare for the stretch run of the season, some pending NFL free agents are going to be in it for themselves. That is to say, those set to hit the open market playing for non-contending teams.
On the other side of the ledger, some soon-to-be free agents on contending teams want to show what they have to offer before hitting the open market come March. That includes a certain New York Giants running back who has returned to pre-injury form this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, we want to see how new Baltimore Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith performs moving forward. He’s shown out since being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bears. These are among the five NFL free agents under the most pressure over the final few weeks of the regular season.
Geno Smith, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
Let’s start out with the headline boy. Seen as nothing more than a career backup heading into the 2022 season, Smith now might be among the most sought-after NFL free agents this coming spring. He’s turned his career around in an absolutely huge way while replacing franchise legend Russell Wilson in the Pacific Northwest.
- Geno Smith stats (2022): 71.5% completion, 3,433 yards, 25 TD, 8 INT, 106.8 QB rating
To put this into perspective, Smith entered the 2022 campaign having thrown 34 touchdowns compared to 37 interceptions after the New York Jets selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Recent reports indicate that Seattle is going to do everything possible to re-sign Smith. However, his market is expected to be somewhere near $34 million annually. A lot of this will depend on how Smith performs moving forward for the playoff contenders. He enters Thursday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers having committed a whopping six turnovers over the past three games and is set to face the NFL’s best defense.
Roquan Smith, linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
An All-Pro with the Chicago Bears over the past two seasons, Smith has a chance to cash in big time as one of the best defensive NFL free agents of the cycle. The former No. 8 overall pick from Georgia continues to prove himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the game.
Since being acquired from Chicago, Smith has registered 36 tackles, two sacks and an interception in just five games. He’s holding quarterbacks to a 68.7 passer rating when targeted, too.
If Smith continues to play at this level over the final month of the season, there’s a chance that he’ll reset the inside linebacker market in free agency. That is to say, north of the five-year, $98.5 million deal Shaquille Leonard is playing under with the Indianapolis Colts.
Josh Jacobs, running back, Las Vegas Raiders
When the Raiders decided against picking up the fifth-year option on Jacobs’ rookie contract this past offseason, it caught a lot of people by surprise. Sure there was a new brass in Vegas. But he had more than proven himself capable of RB1 duties.
This has turned into a major boon for the former Alabama standout and first-round pick, because, he’s in the midst of a career-best season for an otherwise bad Raiders team.
- Josh Jacobs stats (2022): 269 attempts, 1,402 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 346 receiving yards, 1,748 total yards, 11 TD
On pace to put up a ridiculous 2,286 total yards, Jacobs has four more games to prove his worth before hitting the open market. In turn, Vegas has a decision to make. It could opt to place the franchise tag on the star running back, guaranteeing him roughly $14 million for 2023. If not, he’s likely looking at about that amount on a long-term deal with a nice amount of guarantees in free agency.
Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
Here’s another running back who continues to turn heads. The No. 2 overall pick back in 2018, Barkley started his career off strong by putting up 2,028 total yards and earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. After a strong sophomore campaign, the next two seasons were filled with injuries and a lack of production.
At that point, most figured that Barkley would waste away as an injury-plagued enigma. But what he’s done in a contract year has Barkley as one of the top NFL free agents set to hit the market. He’s leading a Giants team that’s currently in playoff positioning and is putting up some otherworldly numbers.
- Saquan Barkley stats (2022): 1,083 rushing yards, 4.3 average, 42 receptions, 261 receiving yards, 1,344 total yards, 8 TD
Unfortunately, the former Penn State star has hit a rut recently. He’s gained 152 yards at a clip of 2.9 yards per rush over the past four games. It’s not a coincidence that the Giants are 0-3-1 during that span. Starting Sunday night against the division-rival Washington Commanders, Barkley must return to earlier-season form to fully capitalize on the open market.
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It seems ridiculous to say that a seven-time Super Bowl champion is under a ton of pressure. Tom Terrific has nothing left to prove in the NFL. With that said, his decision to come back for yet another season has the 45-year-old quarterback under a microscope.
Following Tampa Bay’s blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14, the team sits at under .500. Despite this, it is also in first place in the NFC South and would host a playoff game if the regular season ended today.
For Brady, it’s all about performing at a higher clip than we’ve seen thus far this season. The Bucs are going to be relying on this. More than that, Brady is keeping his options open as he prepares to be the most-talked about among NFL free agents this March. Continued regression would lead to contending teams such as the 49ers showing no real interest in signing to him, creating an ugly situation in which Brady is forced from the NFL despite still wanting to play.