NFL free agency 2022: Ranking top 22 available players as market prepares to open

Nate Davis

The NFL free agent market doesn't officially open its doors until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, which also marks the beginning of the 2022 league year. Unofficially, players with expiring contracts can begin negotiating with other teams starting at noon ET on Monday.

Yet, effectively, it feels like a personnel frenzy is well underway. Tuesday was the deadline for teams to use franchise tags on pending free agents – eight of them did so –and also brought Aaron Rodgers' long-awaited decision to remain with the Green Bay Packers. That catalyzed more movement, namely the Seattle Seahawks' trade of Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos, and Indianapolis Colts' flip of Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders. Neither deal can become official until Wednesday, which is also when star pass rusher Khalil Mack is expected to leave the Chicago Bears for the Los Angeles Chargers. Other players, like Chargers WR Mike Williams and Tennessee Titans OLB Harold Landry, have already reached extensions rather than shopping their services.

Phew. There's more?

Yep. Though it seems like the primary dominoes have fallen, free-agent news will start flowing furiously, and more surprising releases and transactions, like the Mack move, will doubtless surface. Who should you be keeping an eye on? With the salary cap ballooning to a record $208.2 million per team, here's our list of the top 22 available free agents for the 2022 season – which does not include franchised players (Packers WR Davante Adams, Bengals FS Jessie Bates III, Chiefs OT Orlando Brown, Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki, Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin, Browns TE David Njoku, Jaguars OT Cam Robinson and Cowboys TE Dalton Schultz):

1. CB J.C. Jackson

He's gotten steadily better since the New England Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018. Since he entered the league, Jackson's 25 interceptions are the most in the NFL. His 23 pass breakups topped the charts in 2021, when he earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Fairly surprising the Pats didn't tag a 26-year-old who can play out wide or in the slot, but they also don't have nearly as much cap space as they did a year ago. But another team will benefit, and Jackson will become a very rich man. 

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CB J.C. Jackson should be one of the most coveted NFL free agents in 2022.

2. OLB Von Miller

He turns 33 later this month, but he was as good as ever in 2021, a year removed from an ankle injury that wiped out Miller's entire 2020 campaign. The Super Bowl 50 MVP's value was underscored anew during his half-season hitch with the Los Angeles Rams, which was punctuated by four playoff sacks – two in the Super Bowl 56 defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals. Miller appears very open to returning to LA or the Denver Broncos, who drafted him in 2011 but traded him in November. Yet his market promises to be far more robust, which might help him land something more than a two-year deal if he desires more security.

3. LT Terron Armstead

A knee injury cost the three-time Pro Bowler half of his final season with the New Orleans Saints. A draft flush with blue chip O-line prospects could also put a dent in Armstead's market. But there's no denying he's been one of the league's proven and dominant blind side protectors for the balance of his nine-year career, and that value should be handsomely reflected by the 30-year-old's next contract.

4. OLB Chandler Jones

At 32, he's one year younger than Miller but has perhaps shown sign more signs of a slowdown. A torn biceps cost Jones all but five games of the 2020 season. He celebrated his 2021 return with a five-sack performance in Week 1 ... yet managed only 5½ more in his 15 other appearances. Since Jones was drafted in 2012, his 107½ sacks are more than any player in the league, including Miller (104). His experience playing in multiple fronts could make him more attractive to teams that utilize base four-man lines. 

5. FS Marcus Williams

Just 25, he has been among the steadiest safeties since entering the NFL in 2017. With a modest 15 interceptions over five seasons and not much of a blitzer, Williams doesn't typically flip a game the way, say, Pittsburgh's Minkah Fitzpatrick can. But he's remarkably consistent defending the pass and supporting the run.

6. CB Carlton Davis

The Bucs' best defensive back the past few seasons, he was hampered by a quadriceps injury that cost him seven games in 2021 and has missed 14 contests in his four-year career. Still, Davis is only 25 and very good in coverage, breaking up 48 passes since 2019.

7. DE Emmanuel Ogbah

The 28-year-old pass rusher figured things out during his two years in Miami, leading the Dolphins with nine sacks in both 2020 and 2021. And the only guys who generally command more money than those who get to the quarterback are the quarterbacks themselves. Ogbah, who also has 45 QB hits since 2020, should do very well.

8. WR Christian Kirk

Taking advantage of DeAndre Hopkins' extended absence in 2021, Kirk, 25, put together his best season – putting up 982 receiving yards by way of 77 receptions, 44 of them producing first downs. He only has 17 TD grabs in four seasons but does have the ability to hit the home run.

9. CB Stephon Gilmore

A Pro Bowler the past four seasons – even with a torn quad limiting him in 2020 and 2021 – Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, remains among the best at his premium position even as he approaches his 32nd birthday. A solid showing in last year's half-season with the Panthers should get Gilmore another solid payday. 

10. DB Tyrann Mathieu

Another guy who's seemingly been around forever but won't actually be 30 until May. The "Honey Badger" – he's OK if you still call him that – helped herald in the era of the multi-faceted defender who could toggle between safety, slot corner and maybe even play a little linebacker in sub packages. Arguably the linchpin of Kansas City's defense over the past three seasons, Mathieu – who's also grown into a fiery leader – should still have some productive years ahead of him.

11. WR Allen Robinson

He dealt with hamstring and COVID-19 issues as part of a disappointing 2021 season in Chicago, where he was never the beneficiary of great quarterback play. Despite that, Robinson totaled 200 catches for 2,397 yards and 13 TDs in the preceding two years. Just 28, the 6-2, 220-pounder should remain among the league's better possession targets, though it's worth wondering if this year's receiver-rich draft will depress his market.

12. LB Bobby Wagner

It would be an upset if the recently released six-time All-Pro isn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer. However he will be 32 in June, and his 2021 season was cut short by a sprained knee. Still, Wagner is a savvy veteran who diagnoses offenses as well as any defender in the league. He'll be an upgrade to some defense even if his range isn't what it once was.

13. QB Jameis Winston

Quarterbacks hardly need to be unrestricted free agents to influence the landscape – Rodgers, Wilson and Wentz evidence of that. But Winston seemingly headlines the small cluster of passers available for nothing more than the price of a new contract. His ups and downs – encapsulated by his 5,109-yard, 33 TD, 30 INT 2019 campaign in Tampa – are well documented. Yet he's only 28 and seemed to be on the upswing in 2021, when he probably would have guided the Saints into the playoffs had he not torn an ACL amid a 5-2 start. The tutelage from Sean Payton and Drew Brees clearly seemed to help Winston, who had the best touchdown pass rate (8.7%) and lowest interception frequency (1.9%) of his seven-year career. He could be a very enticing, cost-effective addition.

14. RB James Conner

Impressive bounce-back season in 2021, when he played a career-high 15 games, posted 1,127 yards from scrimmage in a split backfield and scored 18 touchdowns, third most in the league. Whether as a lead back or platoon player – and Conner can also function well on third down, averaging 40 receptions over the past four seasons – he'll fill a valuable role.

15. DE Jadeveon Clowney

He could be joining his fifth team in the past five seasons, and durability is often an issue for a guy who's finished a full season once in his eight-year career. Yet the talent of the No. 1 draft pick in 2014, still only 29, remains undeniable. And the numbers showed up in 2021, when he had nine sacks for the Browns, albeit playing opposite Myles Garrett. Clowney's run defense has always been an underappreciated aspect of his game.

16. G Brandon Scherff 

Washington's franchise player the past two years, the only real knock on the five-time Pro Bowler is his inability to stay healthy. Scherff has missed 22 games over the past four seasons but remains an elite performer when he's on the field.

17. OLB Haason Reddick

A first-round selection by Arizona in 2017, Reddick spent his first three seasons out of position before moving to the edge and leading the Cardinals in sacks with 12½ in 2020. He came to Charlotte and paced the Panthers with 11 more last year. And 27-year-olds who can consistently apply pressure are generally pretty hard to find.

18. CB D.J. Reed Jr.

At 5-9, 193 pounds, he didn't make you think "Legion of Boom" during his two seasons with the Seahawks. But Reed played well outside and in the slot and should quickly find a lucrative job in a league that can't get enough DBs.

19. LB De'Vondre Campbell

After five workmanlike seasons, he blossomed into an All-Pro last season with the Packers. His best market might be in Green Bay given the one-year wonder turnabout, but Campbell should most definitely command more than the $2 million he received in 2021.

20. RB Leonard Fournette 

"Playoff Lenny" is arguably coming off his best season after leading the Buccaneers with 1,266 yards from scrimmage to go along with 10 TDs. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Fournette's game is what a reliable receiver he's proven to be, catching 69 passes in 2021 – two years after he had 76 receptions in Jacksonville. He has to go into the right situation, but Fournette, 27, has displayed a lot more maturity over the past year.

21. QB Mitch Trubisky

If you want to remember him as Nickelodeon's Valuable Player from the Bears' playoff loss after the 2020 season, then fine. Trubisky didn't have any business being the second pick of the 2017 draft – infamously selected ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. But he was a core element of two playoff teams in Chicago – yes, you can easily argue those Bears editions would have gone further with better QB play – did get a Pro Bowl nod and was respected in the locker room. The physical gifts of Trubisky, 27, remain, and many around the league seem to think a year spent in Buffalo holding a clipboard behind Josh Allen might have been a valuable apprenticeship. He could be a low-risk, high-reward gamble and could push for significant snaps in 2022.

22. RB/WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson

If the Hall of Fame had kick returners, he'd be a shoo-in. But amazingly, he served predominantly as a running back in 2021 for the first time in his nine-year career. Patterson responded by performing as the fifth-best one in the league, according to the analytics site Pro Football Focus, and his 1,166 yards from scrimmage were more than double his previous career high. And Patterson's background as a receiver makes him a very intriguing weapon. He turns 31 Thursday, yet given the relatively light offensive usage over the balance of his career, Patterson has plenty of tread on his tires.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.