With Super Bowl LVI in the record books, we turn toward the many decisions that will be made across the NFL this offseason -- and a flurry will be connected to the free agency market. Before free agency opens on March 16, I thought I'd identify one free-agent-to-be that each AFC team should keep, either with a new contract or by using the franchise tag.
Note that this list is based more on what I think should happen than what is likely to happen. Note also that I am not necessarily listing each team's best free agent, though there is often overlap.
I could see an argument for retaining a veteran defensive linemen (Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams or Justin Houston) on a short-term deal, or trying to extend linebacker Josh Bynes. But Bozeman was in a groove in 2021, earning the 11th-best offensive grade among centers from Pro Football Focus and the fifth-best offensive grade on the team. In fact, he was one of the few reliable elements on both the offensive line and the roster in general in a year when Baltimore was beset by injuries and inconsistency. It makes sense to cement the 27-year-old's place in front of Lamar Jackson.
Despite dealing with a knee injury, Phillips put up his strongest year as a pro, earning the fifth-highest defensive grade on the team from PFF. He also tied for second among Bills players with 13 run stuffs, per Next Gen Stats, and he managed double-digit pressures (18), second-most among interior Buffalo linemen. The 26-year-old could anchor the defensive front in Western New York for years to come.
Bates stood alone as the bright spot on several lackluster rosters in the early portion of his rookie contract. And while he didn't have the greatest 2021 season, he was a major part of Cincinnati's run to Super Bowl LVI, logging the third-most defensive snaps on the team in the regular season and packing his postseason full of personal highlights. The 24-year-old is a face-of-the-franchise-type player, someone who should help define this competitive window for however long it remains open.
(UPDATE: The Bengals placed the franchise tag on Bates.)
Njoku has been far from perfect in his five NFL seasons, but he was one of the few semi-productive elements in a passing game that needs fixing for 2022. He was one of four players in Cleveland with 20-plus targets to also post a positive catch rate above expectation (2.9%), per NGS. He recorded a helpful passer rating when targeted (113.3). And he was the only Brown to log more than three receiving TDs (four). Regardless of who's at quarterback next season, Njoku would be a source of potential juice on an offense lacking in pass-catching playmakers.
(UPDATE: The Browns placed the franchise tag on Njoku.)
Acquired via trade with the Rams in October, Young only appeared in six games with Denver before being waylaid by a concussion. But in that span (Weeks 8 through 14), he logged 29 tackles, fourth-most on the team, and forced a fumble. Decisions loom at quarterback, but the 27-year-old should have the chance to keep a good thing going.
According to Aaron Wilson of Pro Football Network, the Texans could be moving on from Martin -- but I think that would be a mistake. The 26-year-old put up a positive performance in an otherwise dreary 2021, leading Houston in pressures (38) and turnovers caused by pressure (three), according to NGS. The Texans figure to be in for another year of rebuilding, and it's never a bad thing for a team in that situation to hang on to promising young talent with growth potential.
Whether the Colts stick with Carson Wentz (who, I should note, is guaranteed $15 million in 2022) at QB or turn elsewhere, maintaining cohesion up front should be a goal, especially considering how important the run game was to Indy's success last season. Glowinski ranked in the top 20 in both offensive grade and run-blocking grade, per PFF, among NFL guards with 800-plus snaps in 2021. Retaining him would be a win, especially with left tackle potentially in need of attention, as Eric Fisher also heads for the market.
Jacksonville already used the franchise tag to retain Robinson in 2021. But he earned the best pass-blocking grade from PFF of any Jaguar last season, surrendering just one sack in 539 snaps. The Jags are projected to have plenty of cap space, per Over the Cap, and I'd think strongly about extending Robinson or even using the tag on him a second time. I know 2021 second-rounder Walker Little is on the roster, and the team may yet decide to select a tackle with the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But Trevor Lawrence will have enough to think about as he transitions to the second coaching staff of his young NFL career, and I'm not sure he needs to also break in a new starting left tackle in 2022.
This one is a no-brainer -- you know it, I know it and Chiefs general manager Brett Veach seems to know it. The Chiefs paid big to land Brown via trade last offseason. He might not have been the top left tackle in 2021, having earned the 15th-best offensive grade at his position from PFF, but that's still plenty encouraging, especially considering this was Brown's first full season at left tackle in the NFL. He's also just 25. Kansas City has a chance to secure Patrick Mahomes' blind spot for the foreseeable future.
For as long as they have him, the Chargers must do what they can to keep Justin Herbert happy -- and the QB would surely be tickled to hear that Williams is returning for 2022 (and, ideally, beyond). Per NGS, Herbert and Williams combined to post the fourth-best total EPA among QB-WR duos in 2021 (68.8). L.A. might have to pay a slight premium for an upper-echelon deep threat squarely in his prime at 27 years old, but the more important calculation is whether Herbert has what he needs.
Hankins finished third among Raiders players in run stuffs (10), per NGS. And, perhaps more importantly, he'll have familiarity with new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who was Hankins' position coach during Hankins' final season with the Giants in 2016, when he recorded three sacks and eight tackles for loss. The connection could motivate Las Vegas to keep the 29-year-old Hankins around, provided he and the team can come to agreement on a reasonable contract.
If new coach Mike McDaniel's mission in Miami is to get the most out of Tua Tagovailoa, then there should be a place for Gesicki, the only other Dolphins player besides Jaylen Waddle to log 100-plus targets (112), 50-plus catches (73) or 700-plus yards (780) in 2021. Those totals represent career highs for the former second-rounder, indicating he's headed in the right direction.
Last year, the Patriots went on an unexpected spending spree to bring free agents to town. This year, they should open the purse strings to keep Jackson from leaving. New England's first post-Tom Brady trip to the playoffs was driven in large part by its defense, which ranked second against the pass, fourth overall and second in points allowed. Retaining the 26-year-old Jackson, who finished third in targeted EPA (-27.1, among those with a minimum of 20 targets, per NGS) and second in interceptions (eight) would go a long way toward preserving that strength.
I understand those who might be scared off by Crowder's injury history (he's missed nine games over the past two seasons) and age (28). But stability is so important for developing quarterbacks. In Zach Wilson's rookie season, Crowder ranked second on the Jets in targets (71), and he led in catches (51) and catch rate (71.8 percent, among those with 30-plus targets). He also recorded just two drops. While Crowder might not be the Jets free agent with the highest upside, familiarity has value, too.
Smith-Schuster's gushing over Dallas and wistful social media post would seem to point toward his exit. The team might not be in a hurry to prioritize keeping a veteran who missed most of 2021 with injury when it's got a gaping hole to fill at quarterback. But Smith-Schuster is also perhaps the outbound Steeler with the best chance to make a real difference for Pittsburgh in 2022, if he can stay healthy and return to form. And this roster isn't exactly doomed to the AFC North cellar, provided the right signal-caller can be located. Smith-Schuster is a known quantity to the coaching staff. He could help ensure Ben Roethlisberger's replacement is able to hit the ground running and keep Pittsburgh competitive.
The Titans are projected to be low on cap space and already have $19.2 million allocated to 2021 signee Bud Dupree. Landry's pressure rate (10.9%, 35th among players with 350-plus pass-rush snaps) is also less than inspiring. But he's the first Tennessee player since Jason Babin in 2010 to reach 12 sacks in a season, and he provided the pass-rushing juice that Dupree failed to bring, helping the Titans log their best finish in sacks (tied for ninth), yards allowed (12th) and points allowed (sixth) in the past three seasons. Keeping Landry with rising star Jeffery Simmons is worth the risk of overpaying for Landry's contract-year breakout, with the franchise tag as a failsafe.