A lot of the top NFL free agents of 2022 will be off the market once the new league year opens next March. Teams will pick up fifth-year player options on rookie deals here soon.
In no way does this mean there won’t be a ton of top-end players available as the NFL salary cap increases in 2022.
Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher and top-end NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt is among them. We’re also intrigued to see if the Green Bay Packers find a way to retain star wide receiver Davante Adams ahead of NFL free agency.
Below, we look at the top-20 NFL free agents of 2022 with updates throughout the year regarding contract status and the like.
Note: Players who have fifth-year options likely to be picked up for 2022 are not included in this list. This includes the likes of Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield. None of them will end up being free agents.
1. T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
After picking up the 2021 option on his rookie deal for north of $10 million, it seems unreasonable to believe that Pittsburgh isn’t going to place the franchise tag on the three-time Pro Bowler next March. A first-round pick back in 2017, Watt has morphed into an elite-level pass rusher. Over the course of the past three seasons alone, the Wisconsin product has recorded 98 quarterback hits, 42.5 sacks and an absurd 16 forced fumbles. If he hits the NFL free agent market, look for roughly $25 million annually.
2. Davante Adams, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
After re-signing one of the top NFL free agents from this cycle, running back Aaron Jones, and with the Aaron Rodgers’ situation up in the air, there’s absolutely no telling what the Packers plan to do with Adams. What we do know is that the 28-year-old former Fresno State star is one of the top-three receivers in the game. Last season saw Adams record 115 receptions for 1,374 yards while hauling in a league-high 18 touchdown catches and coming down with 77% of his targets. Green Bay must think long and hard about an extension before the 2021 season.
3. Fred Warner, linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
Aaron Rodgers called Fred Warner the best linebacker in the game recently. And in reality, it’s hard to counter that point. Still only 24, the former third-round pick from BYU was brilliant during an All-Pro performance in 2020. That season saw him record 125 tackles, seven quarterback hits, six passes defended and two interceptions while showing himself to be the best sideline-to-sideline back in the game. San Francisco is attempting to sign Warner to a long-term extension this offseason. If not, the franchise tag is a likelihood.
4. Saquon Barkley, running back, New York Giants
According to Giants general manager David Gettleman, it appears that Barkley’s future in New Jersey is up in the air after he suffered a torn ACL two games into the 2020 season. New York has yet to make a commitment regarding the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Right now, it’s trending in the direction of the team declining said option — enabling Barkley to be among the best NFL free agents of 2022. The former No. 2 pick from Penn State recorded a combined 3,469 yards with 23 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019. He’s a new generation of back, one that would draw a ton of interest on the open market.
5. Darius Leonard, linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
Back in 2018, Leonard jumped on to the scene big time for the Colts after they made him a second-round pick that year. The small-school product from South Carolina State recorded a league-high 163 tackles (111 solo), 12 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, seven sacks and four forced fumbles en route to earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro honors. He’s played at nearly the same level in each of the past two seasons. Should Leonard hit NFL free agency, he’d net a record-breaking contract for a linebacker.
6. Orlando Brown Jr., offensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens
Orlando Brown is one pending star NFL free agent unlikely to hit the open market next March. The young 24-year-old two-time Pro Bowler has requested a trade from the Ravens after he excelled as Lamar Jackson’s blindside protector while replacing an injured Ronnie Stanley last season. Brown has yet to hit his prime. He’s already an elite-level pass protector. Any team that acquires the Oklahoma product will likely make him the second-richest tackle in the NFL behind Trent Williams. If not, Brown’s market during NFL free agency next March is going to be absolutely insane.
7. Allen Robinson, wide receiver, Chicago Bears
The 27-year-old Robinson’s future in Chicago is in doubt after they placed the franchise tag on him earlier this offseason. Robinson wants out of dodge. A trade and potential extension with an acquiring team could be in the cards. If not, we fully expect this Pro Bowl performer to leave the Bears once NFL free agency opens next March. The Penn State product has been stellar over the past two seasons, recording a combined 200 receptions for 2,397 yards with 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
8. Nick Chubb, running back, Cleveland Browns
The 25-year-old Chubb could very well be among the best-skill position NFL free agents come next March. Despite missing four games to injury this past season, he was still able to put up a whopping 1,217 total yards and 12 touchdowns for the Browns. That came after a sophomore campaign in which the former second-round pick from Georgia gained nearly 1,800 total yards. While running backs don’t tend to see big markets in NFL free agency, Chubb could be an exception to the rule in 2022.
9. Jamal Adams, safety, Seattle Seahawks
Coverage limitations? Sure? More of a hybrid/safety combination? Sure. An absolute playmaker? Without a doubt. After three drama-filled seasons with the Jets, Adams was dealt to Seattle ahead of the 2020 season. He responded by putting up 83 tackles, 14 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and three passes defended. That came after the former top-six pick from LSU earned All-Pro honors in his final season with the Jets. Don’t overthink scheme fit or position. Adams is a playmaker and will get paid like it.
10. Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
Earlier this offseason, there was some thought given to the idea that Ben Roethlisberger could be playing in another city after the two-time Super Bowl champion spent his first 17 NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. That did not happen after the two sides came to terms on a new contract. Even then, Big Ben is 39 years old and the Steelers apparently have a starter in waiting, Mason Rudolph. Could this lead to the future Hall of Famer leaving following the 2021 season? We’ve seen stranger things.
11. Chris Godwin, wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Chris Godwin’s situation is a bit different than the aforementioned Allen Robinson. He helped lead Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title last season and saw the franchise tag placed on him earlier this offseason. However, there’s no rift between the star receiver and his organization. In no way does that mean the Buccaneers are going to be able to retain the 25-year-old Pro Bowler beyond the 2021 campaign. Over the course of the past three seasons, Godwin is averaging 70 receptions for north of 1,000 yards and nearly eight touchdowns. If he hits NFL free agency, the Penn State product will receive $20 million annually — at the very least.
12. Brandon Scherff, guard, Washington Football Team
One of the best NFL free agents of the past two cycles, Scherff didn’t hit the open market either time. Rather, Washington opted to place the franchise tag on him both times — guaranteeing the All-Pro guard north of $33 million combined. That won’t be the case come 2022. Washington would have to pay him $25 million to franchise the four-time Pro Bowler again. It won’t happen. Once he hits the open market, Scherff will get that long-awaited big-time contract.
13. Mike Gesicki, tight end, Miami Dolphins
A second-round pick back in 2018, it took Gesicki only one year to prove his worth in the NFL. The Penn State product has recorded a combined 104 receptions for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past two years. He’s a sure-handed threat at tight end and a plus-level blocker. That type of dual-threat ability is important in today’s NFL, and has netted similar tight ends huge paydays in the past. If he hits the open market, Gesicki will be the next in line.
14. Jonathan Allen, defensive tackle, Washington Football Team
It was surprising to see the imposing Allen fall to the 17th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft after a dominating career with Alabama. It was a lesser surprise to see Washington pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal for the 2021 season. The 300-pound defensive tackle is a force rushing the pass and stopping the run. Over the past three seasons, Allen has recorded 44 quarterback hits, 21 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. He might not be Aaron Donald 2.0, but some team will likely pay the 26-year-old defensive tackle like that should he hit NFL free agency.
15. JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
It was an absolute shock to see Smith-Schuster have to settle for a one-year, $8 million contract to return to the Steelers this offseason. While the USC product struggled back in 2019 without Ben Roethlisberger in the mix, he was among the best possession receivers in the NFL in 2020 — recording 97 receptions and catching 76% of his targets. Still only 24, Smith-Schuster is banking on himself in 2021. Should he perform up to expectations, he will be among the highest-paid NFL free agents come March of 2022.
16. Tyrann Matthieu, safety, Kansas City Chiefs
“Honey Badger,” as he is known, is among the best ball hawks in the entire NFL. In two seasons with the Chiefs after being a surprise release of the Arizona Cardinals, this former LSU standout has dominated. He’s earned an All-Pro appearance each year, tallying a combined 21 passes defended and 10 interceptions. Shockingly, Mathieu is still only 28-year-old. This could lead to an absolutely huge payday on the NFL free agent market next March.
17. Terron Armstead, offensive tackle, New Orleans Saints
A small-school product from Arkansas-Pine Bluff back in 2013, Armstead looked the part of a franchise left tackle out of the gate. He’s been a full-time starter since his sophomore campaign and is coming off three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances as Drew Brees’ blindside protector. If Armstead is able to continue at this level protecting the likes of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in 2021, he’s looking at north of $20 million annually as one of the top NFL free agents next March. That’s not even in question.
18. Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals
Prior to missing all but five games a season ago, the 31-year-old Jones was right up there with new teammate J.J. Watt as the most-productive pass rusher in the game. From his rookie season of 2012 to 2019, this former first-round pick recorded a combined 162 quarterback hits, 105 tackles for loss, 96 sacks and a whopping 27 forced fumbles. If Jones is able to recapture this with Watt as his running partner in the desert this coming fall, he’s going to get that one final payday next March. Take that to the bank.
19. Jameis Winston, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
A lot of the talk in New Orleans has surrounded the likelihood that Taysom Hill replaces the aforementioned Brees under center with the Saints in 2021. Honestly, it seems like the tea leaves are blowing in a different direction. Winston should earn the starting job during training camp. If so, the former Pro Bowler and No. 1 overall pick will have an ability to prove himself as a starter-caliber quarterback heading into free agency. With the Saints’ coaching and skill-position talent on offense, I wouldn’t put it past Winston to have a career-best season.
20. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, New England Patriots
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year back in 2019, Gilmore regressed a tad this past season. He recorded just three passes defended and an interception in 11 games. Gilmore also yielded a 90-plus quarterback rating when targeted. Even then, we’re talking about a two-time All-Pro performer who has more left in the tank. In what is a weak class at cornerback, Gilmore will be one of those NFL free agents to get paid next March.