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The NFL's best remaining free agents – Touchdown Wire

NFL free agency…wait…the NFL’s legal tampering period is well underway.
While the league year does not begin until Wednesday, when deals can be signed for players moving to a new team, that does not stop reports of agreements from leaking out during this period of time.
Moves began last week, as teams were able to apply franchise or transition tags, on players facing free agency. But reports of new contracts and players switching teams began to swirl shortly after noon Eastern Standard Time on Monday, with the news that Alex Cappa was headed to Cincinnati as part of the Bengals’ “Operation Protect Joe Burrow.”
As the dust begins to settle, and the off-season moves on, here are the best remaining free agents for teams to sign as curated by Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield.
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
About halfway through the 2021 season, the Rams — a team never afraid to make a splashy trade to help on the field — brokered a deal with the Denver Broncos to bring more edge to Los Angeles’ edge rush. Mission accomplished. Overall, and at age 32, Miller tied with Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett for sixth in the NFL with 76 total pressures, and in 121 games with the Rams this season, he amassed seven sacks, five quarterback hits, and 37 quarterback hurries. From Week 10 through Super Bowl LVI, only Maxx Crosby and Nick Bosa had more total pressures than Miller’s 48.
Then, Miller hit his second Super Bowl, and as was the case in Super Bowl 50 when he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, all hell broke loose around him, and because of him. Miller had two sacks, six total pressures, and two stops in the Rams’ win over the Bengals.
With 2 sacks last night, @VonMiller tied Charles Haley for the most sacks in Super Bowl history with 4.5 in his career!
One of the best to ever do it 💯
— NFL (@NFL) February 14, 2022

And as his 45 stops last season (his most since 2016) would indicate, Miller is also a terror for opposing backs when they try to hit the edge — no matter how effective the run game. Miller turned 33 on February 10, which may lead him to a shorter “prove it” deal, but he certainly had no trouble proving it in the 2021 season — especially when he got around Aaron Donald and all his friends.
(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
It seemed that in the Chiefs’ 2021 season, Mathieu was more famous for expressing his displeasure with the coverage abilities of teammate Daniel Sorensen than he was for anything he did on the field himself.
I went back and found all the plays where Tyrann Mathieu was visibly pissed off at Daniel Sorensen
— alex 💙💛 (@highlghtheaven) October 11, 2021

Well, Mathieu had a point. Several, in fact. As for his own 2021 performance, Mathieu was named the Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas MVP Award winner, and he allowed 39 catches on 51 targets for 397 yards, 241 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 93.3. Mathieu’s value to a defense is about more than just metrics, though — he’s the guy who can play credibly everywhere from the line to the box to the slot to free safety, and can erase quarterbacks and receivers with his range, quickness to the ball, and diagnostic skills.
The Chiefs agreed to terms with former Texans safety Justin Reid on a new deal on Monday, so that’s probably them moving on. If so, some defensive coordinator is going to get himself one of the NFL’s best shot-callers.
As long as that defensive coordinator doesn’t put Mathieu anywhere near a safety who can’t cover.
PICK SIX IN THE FIRST MINUTE!#ChiefsKingdom | @Mathieu_Era
📺: NBC
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) September 20, 2021

Tyrann Mathieu interception #2 of Lamar Jackson 🏈🔥.#Ravens #KCvsBAL #BALvsKC
— TimeoutSPORTS__ (@TimeoutSPORTS3) September 20, 2021

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
When Brandon Thorn talks offensive line, I listen. And you should too. And in recent days, Brandon has been talking about the rare occurrence of a true game-changing tackle reaching free agency. But with Terron Armstead about to become a free agent, the New Orleans Saints facing some difficult financial decisions given their current cap space, and any number of teams looking to rebuild their offensive lines, there should be no shortage of teams interested in acquiring the left tackle should he indeed hit the open market.
Armstead suffered a knee injury in the Saints’ season opener and eventually underwent surgery, appearing in just eight games. But despite being less than 100%, he allowed just one sack and nine quarterback hurries in those eight games, and put plays like this on film:
Armstead molly-whopping dudes. Rare to have a legit elite LT hitting the market this off-season…game-changer (this is significantly below 100% health btw).
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) February 23, 2022

If you are a fan of a team that needs an elite left tackle, just work through those clips and imagine what could be next season.
(Rob Schumacher/The Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK)
Jones requested a trade before the 2021 season, and he found himself on the Reserve/COVID list in October, but when healthy, Jones proved once again to be one of the NFL’s better edge disruptors — and this was especially true when he completely demolished the Titans for five sacks in the season opener, including an NFL-record three in the first quarter.
Chandler Jones demolishes Titans’ offense with historic first quarter
Way to start the season off right. In 2021, Jones made his fourth Pro Bowl after a season in which he totaled 10.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, 21 quarterback hurries, and 30 stops. Jones might want to stay in the NFC West, given what he does to the Seahawks on the regular, but wherever he goes (probably on a shorter-term deal at age 32 when the 2022 season starts), he’ll add a lot from the edge.
Chandler Jones has never played a game for the Seahawks, but is now 10th all-time in sacks at Lumen Field…
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 21, 2021

All hail the king.
Chandler Jones has passed Freddie Joe Nunn as the franchise’s all-time sacks leader 👑
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 7, 2021

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Change is in the air in the Pacific Northwest. Russell Wilson was part of a trade to the Denver Broncos, one that will become official when the league year begins on Wednesday. But he is not the only veteran the Seahawks are moving on from, as the team also released linebacker Bobby Wagner.
While the linebacker might have lost a step or two, he remains a solid option for teams looking for a second-level defender that can contribute in zone coverage as well as help stop the run. Wagner’s feel for zone coverage remains at a high level, evidenced on plays like this against the San Francisco 49ers last season:
Wagner basically takes Jimmy Garoppolo’s first two options away from him, carrying the vertical route for a bit before sliding under the dig. When the quarterback checks the football down, Wagner flies downhill to make the tackle.
He might not be the elite player he once was, but Wagner is a solid option for teams looking for experienced help on the second level.
(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
From the first half of the 2021 regular season (Weeks 1-9) to the second half (Weeks 10-18), the Kansas City Chiefs saw their defensive DVOA rise from 31st to 10th. From the first half of the 2021 regular season to the second half, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw their defensive DVOA drop from 11th to 18th.
Not that the November trade from the Steelers to the Chiefs of Melvin Ingram was all the difference… but Ingram certainly took his best work to Kansas City. The first thing that transaction allowed defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to do was to move Chris Jones back inside, and Ingram became a force multiplier on the edge. From Week 9 (Ingram’s first game) through the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs had just 25 sacks, but only the Buccaneers and 49ers had more total pressures than Kansas City’s 220.
Spagnuolo’s assertion that the Chiefs had played “angry” since Ingram became part of the defense is kind of an intangible. What the tape shows is that with Ingram, that defense played far more in concert from front to back. Wherever Ingram goes in 2022 should reap similar benefits.
Chris Jones and Melvin Ingram meet at Derek Carr on a stunt. Steve Spagnuolo recently said that his defense is playing "angry" ever since Ingram arrived.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 12, 2021

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
In 2020, Williams looked like the NFL’s next great cornerback, allowing 38 catches on 78 targets for 578 yards, 174 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 55.4. Williams didn’t put up quite the same metrics in 2021, but he was still an integral part of the Rams’ Super Bowl defense, giving up 67 catches on 106 targets for 807 yards, 269 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 95.9.
No, those stats don’t measure up, but interception luck doesn’t always last from season to season. What the tape shows is a player who can get it done against some of the NFL’s better receivers. His work against DeAndre Hopkins in Week 14 was of specific interest to this observer.
Interceptions (or lack thereof) aren't the perfect indication of defensive performance. Darious Williams didn't have any picks last season, but he showed a lot with positioning and deflections.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 23, 2022

Darious Williams impecable todo el partido,pero esto es un reflejo de su técnica. Primero con el mirroring a D-Hop eye2eye y segundo ,en el momento que Hopkins gira cabeza Williams se vuelve a localizar el balón. La velocidad de ejecución es 🔝
— Jorge (@JEduFernandez) December 14, 2021

If you’re looking for a quality cornerback who can get sticky through the route, you could do a lot worse than Williams.
After Jaire Alexander suffered a shoulder injury in Week 4 of the 2021 season, the Packers went on the lookout for cornerback help. It went far better than they could have expected. On October 6, they signed Douglas off the Cardinals’ practice squad, and Douglas went right to work as the defense’s best and most productive cornerback.
From Week 6 through the divisional round, Douglas allowed just 34 catches on 66 targets for 360 yards, 114 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions (including the two pick-sixes shown below), and an opponent passer rating of 46.3. Douglas was as important as anybody on that defense regarding the Packers’ 2021 success, and they got him for a $990,000 base salary.
Matthew Stafford throws a pick six for the third straight game, and Rasul Douglas scores his first career touchdown.
The avalanche is beginning in the Tundra.
— Matt Reynoldson (@Matt_Reynoldson) November 28, 2021

Back-to-back games with a pick six for new Packer Rasul Douglas #GoPackGo
— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) December 13, 2021

It’s safe to say that Douglas will make more than $990,000 in 2022 and beyond. The only question teams may have is which version of Douglas they get — the guy who was pretty good early in his career with the Eagles, the guy who allowed eight touchdowns and had no interceptions for Philadelphia and Carolina in 2019 and 2020, or the guy who blew up last season. If this is the Rasul Douglas we get from now on, he could be a shutdown cornerback at a relatively inexpensive rate.
There was much rejoicing last spring when the Chicago Bears drafted Justin Fields in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, as it led many to wonder if Allen Robinson would finally get a chance to play with a quarterback who could hold up his end of the bargain. After all, dating back to his Penn State days with Christian Hackenberg, Robinson has been catching passes from some shaky quarterbacks during his playing days. Unfortunately, that failed to materialize.
The Bears opened the season with Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback, and Robinson posted his least productive season since 2017, when he played in only one game. Chicago tried moving him around and even using him out of the slot, and Robinson did miss time due to a hamstring injury as well as a stint on the COVID-19/reserve list, but questions about regression have taken hold.
Still, when healthy, Robinson is a dangerous vertical receiver with solid ball-tracking skills, and could be a complementary option to a team with another upper-tier receiver to jumpstart the passing game.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
After his departure from the Cleveland Browns, Odell Beckham Jr. joined the Los Angeles Rams was quickly incorporated into their passing game. Early on, Beckham served as the backside dig option for Matthew Stafford, in a role he was used for during his time in Cleveland, but now with a quarterback willing to make those throws. As his time wore on with the Rams, Beckham found more ways to be utilized in the Los Angeles passing game, and his touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI is a prime example.
Odell Beckham Jr. just caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and Drake won $850,000 because of it.
What a time to be
— Joe Pompliano (@JoePompliano) February 13, 2022

Sean McVay aligned Beckham as the inside receiver in a trips formation and worked him vertically on a wheel route, getting him isolated against Mike Hilton for the game’s first touchdown. While Beckham suffered an ACL injury in the Super Bowl, which might delay his availability for the start of the 2022 season, his time with the Rams showed his value to an NFL offense and that there are still more productive years ahead of him in the league.
(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
When the Green Bay Packers made the decision to re-sign pass rusher Preston Smith, that opened the door for the departure of running mate Za’Darius Smith. Smith burst onto the scene back in 2019, when he recorded a career-high 13.5 sacks for the Packers. He followed that up with another 12.5 sacks during the 2020 campaign.
Last season, however, was a different story. Smith missed nearly the entire season with a back injury, playing just 18 snaps in the regular season. He was activated for the Divisional Round game against the San Francisco 49ers, and managed to get to Jimmy Garoppolo for his only sack of the entire year:
On this passing situation, Smith kicks inside in a two-point stance and fights his way to the quarterback, tripping up Garoppolo and forcing a punt.
With his length, explosiveness and ability to play on the edge or even slide inside as a situational pass rusher, Smith is a solid option for teams looking to bolster their pass rushing corps.
(AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Well, this was weird. The Patriots were going to release Gilmore last October, but they hung onto him because the Panthers were willing to send along a 2023 sixth-round pick. So, Carolina then had the guy who had been the NFL’s best cornerback not too long ago, and was now past a contract dispute and a quadriceps injury. Gilmore was then sidelined by a groin injury and a trip to the Reserve/COVID list.
When he did get on the field for eight games and three starts, Gilmore allowed 15 catches on 22 targets 155 yards, 39 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, two interceptions, an opponent passer rating of 80.7, and a pick against his former team in which he read Mac Jones like an airport novel.
Stephon Gilmore in 2021:
🔹 2 games
🔹 2 Interceptions
— PFF (@PFF) November 7, 2021

The recent injury history is disconcerting, and Gilmore will turn 32 in September. That’s not to say that his days as a top-tier cornerback are done for sure, but we may have seen the last of the guy who absolutely erased every receiver he faced in man coverage in 2019. Gilmore will likely have to accept a shorter, smaller deal than he may have expected as a result of that reality.
(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Maye saw just six games in the 2021 season due to an ankle injury and a torn Achilles tendon, and that was a shame for both Maye and new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, who certainly could have used Maye’s presence in the deep third. So, when evaluating Maye’s future prospects, we have to rewind back to 2020. He allowed two touchdowns to the 49ers in Week 2 of the 2020 season, but other than that, he was on lock, and he was a major part of the Jets’ upset of the Rams in Week 15. His deflection on Jared Goff’s fourth-down attempt to tight end Gerald Everett — the Rams’ last offensive play of the game — was a definitive statement.

“I got everything we wanted, threw a ball out there and Maye made a good play,” Goff said after the game. “I mean, he made a great defensive play and we weren’t able to convert on it.”
Whether it’s with the Jets or some other team next season, if you put Maye in a system designed for consistent deep coverage, he has the tools to make it work. Health will be a factor in contract negotiations, but if completely recovered from that torn Achilles, Maye could be one of the best bargains in this free agency class.
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
The Seahawks have struggled to put forth a comprehensive cornerback picture in the post-Legion of Boom era, but one thing they got very right was the decision to claim former 49ers cornerback D.J. Reed off waivers in August, 2020. When Quinton Dunbar was unable to take the field that season due to injury, Reed found his way into the starting rotation and never looked back. As a slot and outside defender in 2020, he allowed 36 catches on 57 targets for 414 yards, 138 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 76.2.
And in 2021, as an established starter, Reed gave up 35 catches on 68 targets for 383 yards, 114 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 66.0. Reed doesn’t fit the supposed Pete Carroll profile at 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, but he’s proven to be a true stopper on a defense with a ton of question marks around him. Should he find his way out of the Emerald City (and if the Seahawks are smart, he won’t), any team would benefit from his attributes.
D.J. Reed is an underrated opportunist.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 23, 2022

(AP Photo/Danny Karnik)
During his first season in Atlanta with the Falcons, Cordarrelle Patterson showcased the kind of ability as a matchup nightmare, offensive weapon style of player that many NFL teams are trying to find on both sides of the football. Patterson had 153 carries for 618 yards and six touchdowns, while catching 52 passes for 548 yards and another five scores. The Falcons used him primarily out of the backfield, as over 60% of his snaps came as a running back, per charting data.
In the run game, Patterson was used mostly on runs to the edges, but he also showed an ability to help in pass protection as a blocker, before releasing as an outlet for Matt Ryan. As a receiver, Patterson was explosive on vertical routes, both from a receiver’s alignment as well as operating starting out of the backfield.
Teams with some creativity on the offensive side of the football, who appreciate the fact that Patterson forces defenses into making some difficult decisions presnap in terms of whether to treat him as a WR or a RB, will carve out a role for him in their systems.
(Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
Throughout his NFL career, which began when the Packers selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft, Hayward has been a fine cover cornerback when healthy. He signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Raiders in 2021, a move that reunited him with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who filled that same role with the Chargers from 2017-2020, where Hayward was as well.
Hayward was just fine in Bradley’s preferred single-high coverages, allowing 18 catches on 36 targets for 338 yards and a touchdown in Cover-1 and Cover-3 concepts. Hayward’s one interception last season came against the Chargers in the regular-season finale before Justin Herbert and his guys nearly came back for a thrilling win.
Casey Hayward on the interception!
The former Charger throwing haymakers! 👊👊👊
— Raider Nation (@RaidersNationCP) January 10, 2022

Hayward still has value as a zone-based cornerback who can read the field and limit big plays.
(Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports)
One of the greatest tight ends to ever play the position hits the market, as Rob Gronkowski is on the cusp of free agency for the second time as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After his first season in Tampa Bay, Gronkowski briefly considered signing with the Buffalo Bills last season, before returning to the NFC South for another ride with Tom Brady. But with his quarterback now backing out of retirement, will Gronkowski follow suit?
While his return to the field last year saw Gronkowski slowly round into form, the 2021 version looked much more like his old self. Gronkowski caught 55 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns, and looked to have more power as a blocker and energy as a route-runner:
He would be TE1 for a vast majority of NFL teams even at this point in his career, so if he decides to return to the field teams should line up for his services, but whether he decides to return or not is perhaps the biggest question. Perhaps Tom Brady’s return provides the answer.
(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
After throwing for 30 interceptions two seasons ago, his final in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers, Jameis Winston joined the New Orleans Saints and earned their starting quarterback job out of training camp. Winston was taking much better care of the football through his first seven games with the Saints, having thrown for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions, but a knee injury cut his season short with the Saints holding a 5-2 record when he went down.
Winston is one of a few veteran quarterback options available in free agency that could get the benefit of a shaky rookie class. With questions about the incoming group of passers perhaps forcing teams to give veteran options a second look, Winston might be an option for teams whether they draft a rookie, or want to roll the dice with a veteran and kick the quarterback decision to 2023.
A one-year, “prove it” deal either back with the Saints or with another team facing a quarterback decision — including the Buccaneers — could be in the mix.
(Sam Greene/The Enquirer-Imagn Content Services, LLC)
Hicks, who will turn 33 in November, had a frustrating 2021 season in which he played just nine games, and had the rest wiped out with various maladies and COVID concerns. It was the second season in the last three in which Hicks missed serious time (he played just five games in 2019), but when Hicks is healthy… well, watch the heck out.
You don’t need to tell Kirk Cousins twice, as Hicks was a rolling ball of butcher knives against the Vikings’ offensive line in Week 15, putting up two sacks and all kinds of pressure.
Akiem Hicks had injury issues and COVID concerns in 2021. But when he was healthy? Well, ask Kirk Cousins and the Vikings' offensive line how that went. Dude can still wreck things.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 23, 2022

Hicks might be more of a rotational force than an every-down disruptor at this point in his career, but there’s a lot of value in that when you can eradicate offensive lines as he has proven to do.
(Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Brandon Scherff and Laken Tomlinson are not the only guards who could hit the open market in the next few days. Connor Williams is also a free agent, but is coming off an up-and-down season with the Cowboys. He appeared in all 17 games for Dallas, but was benched midway through the season in place of Connor McGovern. At the time, head coach Mike McCarthy referenced the penalty flags as a reason:
Cowboys LG Connor Williams was flagged three times Sunday, pushing his penalty count to an NFL-high 13 on season (10 accepted). Mike McCarthy: “Connor clearly understands the way he performed. We have a very competitive offensive line room, so we’ll see what the future brings.”
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 15, 2021

When he was in the lineup, Williams handled pass protection responsibilities well, allowing just a single charted sack this season according to Pro Football Focus, along with just 11 quarterback hurries. Given his youth and potential, teams are probably going to be willing to sign him should he hit the open market. He projects well to a zone-heavy blocking scheme, and one cannot help but wonder if the Miami Dolphins, a team looking to solidify their offensive line under new head coach Mike McDaniel, might be one of those teams that get in line.
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Houston Texans, Duane Brown is still chugging along having finished his 14th NFL season. While the 2021 campaign showed perhaps a bit of regression, as Brown allowed eight sacks — the most sine his rookie campaign — he started every game for the Seahawks and still has the power and anchoring ability that made him a consistent performer at left tackle.
At this point in his career, Brown might not be viewed as a top-flight option at left tackle, but organizations looking for a solid performer are going to appreciate what he still offers at the position. He projects best to a zone-heavy offense, and organizations that rely heavily on such designs and feel they are just a piece or two away might look to him to shore up their group up front. A team looking for a plug-and-play contributor at left tackle should be giving him a call if he hits the market.
(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
Offensive line was certainly a weak link in Chicago last season, as the Bears’ group up front struggled to protect Andy Dalton and Justin Fields, and also struggled to open up holes in the running game. But young guard James Daniels did what he could. The former Iowa Hawkeye started all 17 games for Chicago, allowing just three sacks and four quarterback hits during his time on the field according to Pro Football Focus. Perhaps what finally allowed Daniels to put together a solid season was positional consistency. As a rookie in 2018 he saw over 750 snaps at left guard, then in 2019 he split time between center and left guard.
A torn pectoral muscle cost him a large part of 2020, and then last season he played every single snap at right guard, allowing him to finally get his bearings in the NFL. Daniels is also very young by NFL standards, as he is goin to be 24 when Week 1 of 2022 rolls around. Some consistency in terms of his position, and his relative youth, point to him continuing to improve over the next few seasons.
He does project best to a zone blocking system, given his experience in college and in the NFL, so scheme fit will play a role in finding him a spot for 2022. Still, you better believe a team is going to place a bet on his continued development this off-season.
(Phil Masturzo/ Beacon Journal)
Clowney absolutely benefited from the Myles Garrett Factor during his one season with the Browns, but he was also capable at times of wreaking absolute havoc as a pass-rusher without anybody’s help. This was especially true late in the Browns’ season, when he put up 5.5 of his 9.0 sacks in his last three games against the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals. When he’s on, as he was with this sack of Ben Roethlisberger, Clowney is a nightmare for any offensive tackle to deal with.

The problem with Clowney, and the reason he’ll be on his fifth team in five seasons if he doesn’t re-sign in Cleveland, is that he blows hot and cold as much as anybody at his position. That’s not just about sacks — there was a four-game stretch in the middle of the 2021 season in which he tallied just three total pressures. This eclipses the fact that he’s also an outstanding run defender, but it does show up on tape, and it’s the ultimate caveat emptor when evaluating Clowney’s value to a team.
If you need an edge defender who can get consistent disruption regardless of scheme and concept, he’s not your ideal. If you have nearly everything else in place, and you’re looking for that one guy to take you over the top? Well, he can do that — from time to time.
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Last off-season JuJu Smith-Schuster tested the free agency waters before returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a short-term deal. After finding the market for his services rather soft a season ago, it is hard to imagine that market has improved given his 2021 campaign. Smith-Schuster missed the bulk of the 2021 season with a shoulder injury, and caught only 15 passes this past year. When healthy, as he was in 2020, Smith-Schuster fits the mold of a bigger slot receiver.
In 2020 when he caught 97 passes for 831 yards and nine touchdowns — a career high — he operated primarily out of the slot. As a route-runner, Smith-Schuster brings a lot to the table, giving the Steelers a varied route tree including in-breaking routes such as digs, slants, posts and overs, while also offering something in the vertical part of the playbook out of the slot. This play against the Indianapolis Colts from 2020, as he splits the safeties in a two-high coverage, illustrates what he offers in the downfield passing game as well as his willingness to work over the middle of the field:
While the market for Smith-Schuster could again be soft, given the injury history and the incoming class of slot receivers, teams looking for a veteran at the position should be inquiring about his availability.
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
D.J. Chark is a few seasons removed from his 2019 campaign, that saw him catch a career-high 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns and earned him a Pro Bowl selection. Since then he has appeared in just 17 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and his 2020 season was cut short due to a fractured ankle. However, Chark is another prototypical X receiver in this free agent class, with the size, speed and release game to operate on the boundary and be effective in the downfield passing game. That size and frame showed up last season before his injury, on plays like this one against the Houston Texans:
His injury history might soften the market a bit, but as we have seen receivers that can win on the outside against press and without the benefit of the two-way go from the slot are valued heavily, so Chark’s skill-set might still open some doors should he hit the open market.
(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
An undrafted free agent, Johnson signed with the Broncos for the 2018 season and didn’t see much time outside of special teams. That changed in 2019, when Johnson started 12 games and got 731 total snaps out of nowhere. Johnson has proved to be one of the NFL’s most versatile young linebackers in the last few seasons, and the Broncos responded in 2021 by placing a second-round restricted free-agent tender on him. Johnson suffered a torn pectoral muscle in October, which cost him the rest of his 2021 season, but in six games and 323 snaps, Johnson had eight total pressures, two sacks, 24 tackles, and allowed 12 catches on 23 targets for 180 yards, 116 yards after the catch, one touchdown, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 92.7.
(Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
Eric Fisher suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the 2020 AFC Championship game, yet still commanded a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts worth over $8 million. That speaks to how he is viewed in the league, and to how starting left tackles do not grow on trees. After rehabbing this past off-season Fisher was still able to step into the starting lineup for the second week of the season, and while he allowed seven sacks — tying his previous career-high — he did that without the benefit of a regular off-season program.
The other options available in free agency, as well as the relative strength of the incoming tackle class in comparison to other positions in the draft, might impact his market. But a team willing to bet on him returning to form with the benefit of a traditional off-season program might be very glad they made such a bet.
(AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Kearse’s splash play of the 2021 season was this sideline interception, where he was the on-the-spot guy after Micah Parsons somehow followed slot receiver Kenny Stills 30 yards up the chute to make an incredible play.
.@Jayronkearse8 secured that! 💯
📺: #DALvsNO on @NFLonFOX
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 3, 2021

Well, we already know that Parsons is an alien. As for Kearse, in 2021, he allowed 44 catches on 65 targets for 463 yards, 315 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 85.6. Kearse defends well everywhere from free safety to the box to the slot, and could be one of the better and more underrated signings of this free agency period. Though he might want to stick around to excel in, and benefit from, Dan Quinn’s playbook for a while.
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Here’s what I wrote about Joseph last May, when I named him the NFL’s most disruptive defensive lineman from the 2i gap.
The 2i lineman generally has a one-gap role, as he’s aligned to the inside shoulder of the offensive guard. If he’s double-teamed, which will happen often, it may be his role to soak up blockers so that other defenders can make plays. If you can penetrate from that alignment and through the double-team, as Joseph did here against the Buccaneers in Week 4 with center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet (a fairly impressive duo), you can make Tom Brady nervous with what has been that rare Kryptonite throughout his career — interior pressure. Joseph didn’t have any sacks from the 2i alignment last season, but nobody had more total pressures than his 14.

Joseph didn’t have quite as many snaps in 2021 — 550 from 726 in 2020 — but he was still a disruptive force when on the field. Both as a block magnet and as a force against the pass and the run, he’s a great rotational player for any team’s interior defensive line.
It’s been a while since I watched DT Linval Joseph, and it seems like not much has changed. Wide base, difficult to move, very good at controlling the middle of the LOS and keeping others clean.
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 17, 2022

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
When the Washington Commanders made the decision to release veteran offensive tackle Morgan Moses, a number of teams lined up for his services. The New York Jets won that bidding war, signing the tackle and looking to bolster their offensive line depth. But when Mekhi Becton went down early in the season, Moses was pressed into action at the right tackle spot. Moses started all but one game last season and appeared in all 17 for the jets, allowing four sacks and 35 pressures last season according to charting data from Pro Football Focus.
He might not offer the kind of upside that a Terron Armstead or Orlando Brown Jr. brings to the table, but as he showed last season Moses can still be relied upon as a solid contributor at the right tackle spot. Teams looking for depth pieces, with starter potential, should be calling about his availability.
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
The Ageless One returns.
Campbell was selected by the Cardinals in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Miami, and his six Pro Bowl berths tell you how his career has gone so far. Campbell also made the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2010s team, and he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America and the Sporting News. But Campbell wasn’t resting on his laurels for the Ravens in 2021 — the 35-year-old defensive lineman totaled 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 19 quarterback hurries, and 24 stops in 615 snaps. As a rotational force along a varied, multi-gap defense, Campbell still has a lot of value as a massive block-soaker and playmaker.
Tyus Bowser records the mean strip-sack on Fields followed by 35-year-old Calais Campbell — playing in his 14th NFL season — hitting the deck all-out for a loose ball.
That’s Baltimore #Ravens defense.
— Bobby Trosset (@bobbywbal) November 21, 2021

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
The Seahawks signed Witherspoon, the former 49ers cornerback, to a one-year, $4 million deal last March. Witherspoon never saw the field for Seattle, and the Seahawks traded Witherspoon to the Steelers in early September. He was able to thrive in a Pittsburgh defense in need of cover corners, allowing 17 catches on 35 targets for 266 yards, 115 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 48.0. Two of those interceptions came against Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in Week 14, and the only debit for Witherspoon here is that he didn’t have enough gas in the tank to take this to the house.

From Week 10 of the regular season through the postseason, no other cornerback had a lower passer rating allowed than Witherspoon’s 29.7. That should be of some value somewhere in the NFL — and oof, Seahawks.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
When available, Antonio Brown remains a big-play threat at the wide receiver spot, and is a scheme fit in almost any offense. He still has the speed and ball-tracking skills to be an effective weapon in the downfield passing game, but his short-area quickness and ability after the catch make him a threat in West Coast or horizontal offensive systems.
The problem? The availability factor. After seeing him walk off the field against the New York Jets last season in the middle of the game, and now seeing him continued rage against his former team on social media, teams might be a bit reluctant to give him a look in free agency. Perhaps an incentive-laden deal? But even that might look unappealing to another franchise, given that is how the Buccaneers constructed his contract when signing him two seasons ago. Still, the draw of his potential might see some teams calling…
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Now that the draft is over, there’s still a lot of talent on the open market. Here are the NFL’s best remaining free agents.
Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Luke Easterling of Draft Wire and Bucs Wire discuss Kayvon Thibodeaux, free-agent fits, and the new (…)
With most of the 2022 NFL free-agent class signed, here are the best player bargains so far.
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