Analysis

2022 NFL free agency matchmaking: One fit for each AFC team

NFL free agency officially begins with the arrival of the new league year at 4 p.m. ET on Wed., March 16. As we head toward the open market, Marc Sessler explores one fun free agency fit for each AFC team.

NOTE: All cap figures and projections cited below come from Over The Cap, unless otherwise noted. As with Gregg Rosenthal's Top 101 NFL Free Agents of 2022, each player's listed age represents how old he will be on Sept. 8, when the 2022 NFL season is poised to kick off.

With Don “Wink” Martindale exiting stage left, Baltimore's new-look defense under Mike Macdonald -- the league's youngest coordinator -- is on the hunt for pass-rushing help. The reliable and productive Ogbah would help fill the void left by Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell. Coming off back-to-back nine-sack seasons in Miami, he's established himself as a quarterback nuisance after a nomadic start to his pro career. He's sturdy against the run, creates havoc inside and out and vibes as an upward-trending player set to mesh with John Harbaugh's team-first culture. That’s So Raven

Today’s Bills are in the unusual place of joining the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers as AFC clubs building annually off a proven winning culture. While losing operations can overpay for talented players who generate their share of in-house headaches, Buffalo's in the business of adding pieces that fit the scheme and embolden a locker room burning for an AFC title. I’m adding Campbell to the fold because I fell asleep for 25 minutes writing this article and had something bordering on a vision of the 6-foot-8 behemoth celebrating with Josh Allen and friends as Buffalo brass lifted the Lamar Hunt Trophy skyward. Why ignore said dreams to pen a wayward paragraph about the front office adding Russell Gage to the air attack?

No reason to veer too cute with an exercise like this. The Bengals offer one of the league’s most crystal-clear list of needs as they stroll to the open market: find extremely beefy men hell-bent on keeping Joe Burrow upright. After absorbing a league-high 51 sacks in the regular season, the star passer bravely shrugged off an outrageous 19 takedowns during Cincy’s magical playoff journey. When owner Mike Brown finally talked about seeking help for his "tough as nails" centerpiece, you know it’s in the mail. Scherff is coming off consecutive franchise tags with the Commanders and would give the Bengals one of the game's top all-around guards. Durability has been an issue -- he’s missed 14 starts over the past three campaigns -- but Scherff would imbue this Bengals front with a dark dose of nastiness. 

I give Jarvis Landry a 40 percent chance of sticking with the Browns. They clearly want him to chop his $16.4 million cap number, but the 29-year-old didn’t sound overly cozy with the concept in a string of late-February tweets. If they part ways -- and even if they don't -- Cleveland's wideout room desperately needs a lift. With Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz as the only additional faces under contract, the search is on for a true No. 1. Robinson is eye-of-the-beholder material: everything you’d like in a lead guy on paper, but something of a mystery after playing with low-grade quarterbacks his entire career. Baker Mayfield is no Otto Graham, but Robinson would be given the chance to shine with the Browns. Pair him with an early draft pick, and Cleveland’s positional woes would drift into the ether. 

Denver's offseason will be graded on one task alone: pinpointing an answer under center. The football universe awaits to find out if Aaron Rodgers -- capping a ponderous, elongated melodrama -- stays put in Green Bay or ultimately forces a trade west to join Nathaniel Hackett's Broncos. I’m assuming Rodgers remains with the Packers, leaving Denver sifting through lesser rubble for answers post-Teddy Bridgewater. Beyond that search, Hackett must look for pass-rushing help to juice up a front still angling to fill a Von Miller-sized void. Gregory's off-field issues and injury history make him a boom-or-bust figure, but his potential is juicy. A two-year deal would fortify the position across from Bradley Chubb (often a ghost himself). 

You could make the case for almost any free agent as a tangible fit for Houston, a club in need of aid all over the map. Everything we know about Lovie Smith suggests a roster built around a bullying defense propped up by trusty vets. Hicks would arrive as a versatile lineman who can slam the door on enemy ground games and cause problems in the pocket. The 32-year-old would add a dose of leadership at an affordable price. He might not loom as the sexiest name on this list, but Hicks paired with a flurry of new blood would help silence the endless stream of Texans jokes on this side of the ball. 

When the Around the NFL Podcast spoke with Zak Keefer of The Athletic, the plugged-in Colts reporter said of Carson Wentz: “He’s moving on. He’s not coming back.” The problem for Indy, though, is a low-grade quarterback market riddled with middling figures. Outside of general manager Chris Ballard chasing after Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson (the Colts already gave away this year's first-round pick for Wentz), the next best option is Teddy. While seen as the "safer" game-manager, Bridgewater threw nine fewer touchdowns and just as many picks (seven) as Wentz in three fewer starts. A new face would equal Frank Reich's fifth starter in as many years. Not an ideal table-setting for a franchise with playoff aspirations, but Bridgewater is beloved by teammates and coaches and would furnish Indy with a one-year answer before starting all over again in 2023. 

The world is wide and large, and the odds say JuJu will wind up somewhere other than Duvall, but why not suggest it in writing? Doug Pederson’s offense demands more support around second-year arm Trevor Lawrence. Smith-Schuster is coming off an injury-slammed 2021 but remains a player who can bolster an air game. Dot-connecting suggests free-agent tight end and Pederson disciple Zach Ertz is a candidate to land in Jacksonville, too, but JuJu would serve as an experienced wideout to lift the club’s young quarterback.

The Chiefs spent last offseason rebuilding a withered offensive line that doomed them in Super Bowl LV. Unless they'd like to repeat the process, the first order of business is putting a ring (a massively sized one) on the finger of bookend Orlando Brown. The front office has no other choice after handing Baltimore a 2021 first-, third- and fourth-rounder, along with a 2022 fifth-round selection, in exchange for the left tackle and a pair of 2022 picks. Sensational in the run game, rarely beaten in pass protection and without a missed start since 2018, Brown is the central push of K.C.'s springtime business agenda. 

Derek Carr and Davante Adams can verbally flirt with the concept of playing in the same uniform, but Green Bay isn’t about to let that unfold. Gallup is a versatile wideout who would immediately amplify a Raiders offense that sorely missed Henry Ruggs III down the stretch. He is coming off a torn ACL, but a revived Gallup can play the X or Z position and go punch-for-punch with the game's top cover men. The timing of his injury complicates matters, but he looms as a diamond in the rough for the right team. 

Perhaps it's dull to click into a low-grade think-piece as a Bolts fan only to see this typist attaching a current Charger to the roster. The safest free-agency moves, though, boil down to re-signing known quantities and one's own talent. Bringing back Williams is a raging no-brainer for an offense that must surround Justin Herbert with everything he desires and more. Williams is coming off a career year for catches (76) and yardage (1,146) as a Big-Play Droid who fries corners downfield. If he lacks the short game to call himself a complete NFL wideout, the Chargers know exactly how he fits into an attack that thrives off his downfield magic.

Newly minted coach Mike McDaniel is a disciple of Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone run scheme, which hinges on top-shelf offensive line play -- something the Dolphins sorely lacked this past autumn. Tomlinson, a draft-day miss for the Lions, evolved in San Francisco and would bolster a Miami front five needing help across the board. The durable guard has logged 1,000-plus snaps in all seven of his pro campaigns and would give the Fins a mauler in the ground game. Building around Tua Tagovailoa with weapons is one approach, but providing the hot-and-cold passer with a better cast of protectors is the fastest way to turn Miami's attack into something that resembles what McDaniel was brought on board to construct. 

Talks between Jackson and Foxborough's money men have gone quiet, with the talented corner recently lamenting: "I guess they feel like they don't need me. I guess I can't be that important to them. I know I am, but they're not showing me." The franchise tag remains an option, but I'm lobbying for New England to re-sign one of the AFC's top man-to-man menaces. Jackson is rarely beat deep, finished second in the league with eight picks and already looms as an ideal scheme fit. Bill Belichick might blanch at the big contract, but a nice four-year deal would keep one of the game's top cover men around until the coach turns 74. 

Mathieu has been heart-and-soul material for the Chiefs, but Kansas City has yet to float an extension. The Jets have operated as a Bermuda Triangle for free agents, with pass rusher Carl Lawson and wideout Corey Davis seeing 2021 wiped away by injuries. Perhaps the landing spot would scare off Mathieu, but the Jets also represent a brilliant opportunity. The Honey Badger would be given the chance to lead a Robert Saleh-designed defense that regularly milked the most out of players in San Francisco. With Marcus Maye out the door, Tyrann would step in as one of the game's most versatile safeties and a locker-room favorite. 

Let's start here: I don't buy a syllable from departing general manager Kevin Colbert when he waxes poetic about shoving Mason Rudolph onto the field as an opening-week starter for the Steelers. If that happens, it doesn't matter whom I float to Pittsburgh in this early March word storm. None of the free-agent quarterbacks would do much to help, though, which might be Colbert's overarching point. I'm handing the Steelers defensive assistance in the form of Williams. The former Rams cover man benefited playing across from ace Jalen Ramsey, but his quickness and ball skills make him an attractive add-on for a defense waving goodbye to Joe Haden after letting go of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson an offseason ago.

The Titans boast one of the AFC's grittier rosters, but the cupboard is bare at tight end. Even if Tennessee brings back one of its three pending free agents -- Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt -- the offense could use a pass-catcher with showier bona fides. Ryan Tannehill would pair well with Schultz, whose 78 grabs ranked third at the position in the NFL during his breakout 2021 campaign. Placed into an attack starring A.J. Brown, Derrick Henry and Julio Jones, Schultz wouldn't be asked to save society on his own. While not a downfield burner, he's proven a steady all-around target and capable blocker. Pairing Schultz with a draft pick -- this year's class is rich with tight ends -- would galvanize a position of need. 

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