The beginning of free agency is one of the most highly anticipated points on the NFL calendar. This is when teams scour the free-agent pool to find the game-changing players who will help take them to the next level.
Whether a team is looking for a superstar playmaker or a special teams ace who can make the difference at the lower end of the roster, all 32 NFL franchises will be preparing to make moves when the window opens on March 16, 2022.
Some teams have a mammoth amount of cap room with which to operate in free agency – they’ll likely be eyeing the best players available. Others, meanwhile, must cut players just to get under the cap, and thus add talent to the free agent pool.
Squawka NFL looks at 10 of the best free agents who are set to hit the market and discusses potential landing spots. We are also running down the teams with the most (and least) salary cap space ahead of the 2022 offseason.
RB Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The running back position has become one of the least valued in the NFL. Once the league’s premier non-QB stars, running backs are now seen high risk players who are likely to decline more quickly than those at other positions, due to the constant physical punishment required of the position.
Teams in recent years have switched to a ‘running back by committee’ approach, in which backfield options are substituted in and out based on game situation. Which brings us to Leonard Fournette.
Drafted #4 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Fournette has had modest success to this point, with just two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his five-year career.
After a three-year spell in Jacksonville, the 26-year-old – who turns 27 prior to 2022 free agency – was waived by the Jags and picked up on a one-year deal by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ahead of the 2020 season.
The former LSU back has carried the ball just 236 times in the past two seasons for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns. This light workload suggests there should be plenty of tread left on his tyres.
At a powerful 6”0 and 228 lbs, Fournette should have options in free agency. His best bet may well be to stay put in Tampa, with Tom Brady and a Super Bowl-calibre roster. However, a cross-state trip to Miami could be an option, where the Dolphins have both cap room and need, as they rank second to last in the NFL in rushing thus far in 2021.
WR Davante Adams (Green Bay Packers)
One of the best wide receivers in the NFL is set to become a free agent. If Davante Adams chooses to leave Lambeau Field, there will be a lengthy list of suitors ready to pounce. Adams, who turns 29 in December, is, year-in-year-out, is one of the top five players at the wide receiver position.
The 6”1, 215-pound Adams has amassed 618 receptions, 7,547 yards and 67 touchdowns so far in his eight-year NFL career. He holds the Packers franchise record for receptions in a single game (14) and a single season (115), and led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2020 with an impressive 18. Adams has added another 63 receptions, 820 yards and eight touchdowns in the playoffs. He is a truly remarkable talent who uses his lateral quickness and route running, and not blazing speed, to create separation.
Adams’ rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers could be a deciding factor in where the wideout ends up. Rodgers made it abundantly clear last offseason that he wants to leave the Green Bay, and may walk away from the Packers after this season. However, the Packers will likely do everything in their power to ensure that Adams doesn’t leave the building, which makes him a prime candidate for the franchise tag.
Teams with the cap room, who are either contenders looking to make a splash or a team with a need, include the Indianapolis Colts, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Washington Football Team.
TE Zach Ertz (Arizona Cardinals)
Tight end Zach Ertz faces the prospect of being in Phoenix for just half a season after his trade from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Arizona Cardinals, who lost their starting tight end TE Maxx Williams – himself a free agent in March – to a season-ending injury, moved swiftly to acquire Ertz to fill that gap, but have yet to sign him to a long-term deal. At 6”5 and 250lb, Ertz is an offensive mismatch who has thrived since his move to the desert. Though he’s not a game-breaking talent like George Kittle, Ertz consistently gain separation from defenders and moves the chains.
Selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, the 31-year-old Ertz is in his ninth NFL season. A top-five pass-catching tight end throughout his career – just a notch below game-changers Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski – Ertz has amassed some 601 receptions, 6,336 yards and 41 touchdowns. All-time, Ertz ranks #15 in receiving yards for a tight end, #19 in touchdown receptions and #7 in yards per game (51.1). If he keep up that type of production for another few seasons, Ertz will receive some serious NFL Hall of Fame consideration.
If Arizona chooses not to retain him, enticing destinations for Ertz include the Los Angeles Chargers and the Tennessee Titans . he might also think about the Indianapolis Colts, where he could reunite with QB Carson Wentz, with whom he thrived in the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl season.
OG Brandon Scherff (Washington Football Team)
Investment in the offensive line is a must for any successful NFL franchise. To that point, if Washington’s offensive guard Brandon Scherff hits free agency, he will not be short of suitors.
At 6”5 and 319 pounds, Scherff is a powerhouse of an offensive lineman who has started all 85 NFL games in which he has appeared. However, one issue which could put some teams off is the lineman’s injury history. The seventh-year man has failed to play a full season since his second year in the league, and has missed 18 games over the past four seasons.
In terms of talent, however, Scherff is a standout. The 29-year-old, who was picked #5 overall in the 2015 draft, has been named a Pro Bowler four times in six seasons, and earned his first All-Pro selection in 2020.
WFT faced a similar decision last offseason, when Scherff was set to hit free agency. At that time they decided to slap the non-exclusive franchise tag for a second consecutive year. A third successive tagging could upset their star, who’s likely going to be seeking more long-term security.
If he hits free agency, Scherff will garner interest from teams who are desperate for offensive line help. The Cincinnati Bengals, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans could all be in the mix, with teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens also looking to bolster in the trenches.
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OT Terron Armstead (New Orleans Saints)
Offensive tackle Terron Armstead is scheduled to be a free agent in March, and with the New Orleans Saints currently $60m over the cap, the likelihood of the former Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lion remaining in the Big Easy is slim to none.
Armstead, who drafted in the third round (#75 overall) in 2013 NFL Draft, entered the NFL as the fastest offensive lineman in draft combine history, having run a 4.71 40-yard dash. Eight years later, Armstead is a three-time Pro Bowler with 96 NFL starts under his belt.
One potential issue for the 30-year-old ninth-year man is that he has yet to start 16 games in an entire NFL season. The injury issues seemed to be behind him as, after missing 21 of 48 games between 2016 and 2018, Armstead was on the field for 29 of 32 games in 2019 and 2020 – though he’s missed five of Saints’ (thus far) games this season. Regardsless, based on his awesome talent and the number of teams in need of offensive line help, Armstead is in line for one final NFL payday.
The 6”5, 304-pounder will likely have a substantial list of suitors including OL-needy teams such as the Bengals, Dolphins, Seahawks and Texans.
LB Chandler Jones (Arizona Cardinals)
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones, who turns 32 prior to next season, will be a coveted defensive playmaker once March 16 hits – should the Cardinals choose not to keep him around.
Drafted #21 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, Jones was traded to the Cardinals ahead of the 2016 season. In an exceptional ten-year (and counting) career, Jones has recorded 451 tackles, 105.0 sacks, 30 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, 24 pass deflections and an interception. The NFL’s 2017 sack leader and 2010’s All-Decade Team member has been named an All-Pro twice and a Pro Bowler three times, and won both the Butkus Award (best linebacker)and the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
Advancing toward the end of his career, Jones will certainly be eager to sign with a Super Bowl contending team. To that end, remaining in Arizona not out of the question. Other options include Indianapolis (though in a solely pass-rushing role) and a return to New England, where he won a Super Bowl in 2014.
DE Derek Barnett
The #14 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Derek Barnett has not quite lived up to that billing for the Eagles and will likely depart Philadelphia this offseason.
The former Tennessee Volunteer has enjoyed modest success with the Eagles. After a promising rookie campaign, in which he recorded five regular season sacks and vitally recovered a fumble in the Super Bowl in 2018, Barnett’s performance has fallen off.
That the Eagles chose to hand a three-year, $40-million deal to 2018 fourth-rounder Josh Sweat rather than pay Barnett – who’s managed just 21.5 sacks over his five-year career – strongly suggests the edge rusher will be moving on.
Given his youth and the promise of his potential Barnett might even be in for a long-term deal. The 6”3, 259-pound 25-year-old certainly has the room to grow and will be a target, both for teams that emphasise the pass rush in their game plans, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings, as well as for teams bereft of pass rushing talent, like the Houston, the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons.
CB Stephon Gilmore (Carolina Panthers)
Traded during the 2021 season by the New England Patriots to the Carolina Panthers, Stephon Gilmore is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason for the second time in his career. The first earned him a five-year, $65-million contract with the Patriots.
At age 31, Gilmore is moving into the latter stages of his NFL career and will likely look to sign with an immediate contender. He is thus unlikely to remain with the Panthers, though Carolina could choose the franchise the 10th-year cornerback.
The 6”1, 202-pound playmaker is not far removed from the peak of powers, having earned three of his four Pro Bowl selections, both of his All-Pro nods and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award (2019) over the past three season. Over his career, Gilmore has amassed 415 tackles, 28 interceptions and 116 pass deflections. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered his 2021 campaign – he has yet to make a start and has appeared in just two games heading into Week 13.
Nevertheless, his talent, if healthy, could see contending teams offer him a one-year deal to play in 2022. Tampa Bay and Dallas – if the latter can clear enough cap space – could have Gilmore on their radars, with Arizona and Cincinnati also in the mix.
FS Marcus Williams (New Orleans Saints)
Another casualty of the New Orleans Saints’ perilous cap situation is likely to be safety Marcus Williams. Currently playing under the franchise tag, 25-year-old playmaking safety, who has been both incredibly durable (71 starts and just four games lost to injury/illness) and productive (297 tackles, 15 interceptions and 37 pass deflections) over his first four-plus seasons will be one of the hottest free-agents this offseason.
The 6”1, 195-pounder was drafted #42 overall by New Orleans in the 2017 NFL Draft and will be in line for a long-term (and quite lucrative) deal, with the Baltimore Ravens (currently the AFC’s top team and owners of a whopping $27,029,025 in cap space) representing intriguing option. Other teams with plenty of cap space that could be inclined to move for Williams include the New York Jets, the Detroit Lions and the ,Washington Football Team, which has a track record of spending big money on free-agent safeties.
SS Quandre Diggs (Seattle Seahawks)
Another safety prospect for free agency is Seattle’s Quandre Diggs. Over nearly seven NFL seasons, the former Diggs has 372 tackles, 17 interceptions, 42 pass deflections and a pair of touchdowns to his name.
The 28-year-old was drafted in the sixth round (#200 overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, with whom he spent over four seasons before a midseason trade to the Seahawks in 2019. A solid player when he was acquired, Diggs has continued to improve in Seattle, starting all 32 since his arrival, recording 11 of his 17 career interceptions, and earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2020.
The type of shrewd acquisition that helps turn a underachieving and basement-dwelling teams into contenders for playoff football, Diggs’ list of suitors is likely to resemble Marcus Williams’, with the Ravens, Jets, Texans and Washington all candidates to make a splashy move for the former Texas Longhorn.
Teams with most cap space (based on $208,200,000 2022 Salary Cap)
Los Angeles Chargers ($76,132,294)
Miami Dolphins ($75,459,461)
Jacksonville Jaguars ($71,814,909)
Washington Football Team ($61,842,782)
Cincinnati Bengals ($61,630,128)
Teams with least cap space
New Orleans Saints ($-61,727,233)
Green Bay Packers ($-33,850,193)
Dallas Cowboys ($-12,115,086)
Minnesota Vikings ($-10,140,728)
Los Angeles Rams ($4,624,002)