With Super Bowl LVII and the 2022 NFL season in the books, it's time to shift our focus to the future. Hope springs eternal for teams when it comes to possible new additions via the draft and free agency -- but retaining certain players whose contracts are running out before they hit the open market can also have a significant impact. Extending a key contributor rewards that player for his performance while also maintaining continuity in the locker room. Plus, the team is already familiar with how the player fits in its system.
We have identified 14 under-the-radar free agents that teams should look to lock up before free agency begins, on March 15, when other teams will have a chance to pursue them. We start with nine players who have the potential to be building blocks and have a multi-year impact. The final five players are bigger names who might be past their physical prime but still have juice left in the tank and provide a veteran presence in the locker room.
Sutton did not become a full-time starter until 2021, his fifth year in the league, after he signed a two-year extension with Pittsburgh, but the Steelers' continued investment in the 2017 third-round pick paid off handsomely this past season. He established a no-fly zone on the right side of the defense in 2022, allowing just 32 receptions on 72 targets. His 44.4 percent completion rate allowed in coverage was the fifth-lowest by any defender with at least 50 targets in a season since 2016. While it will be hard for Sutton to repeat that performance, the Steelers would be wise to shore up their secondary by retaining this homegrown talent.
After a disappointing rookie year with the Raiders in 2018, Key has found his footing in the league as a versatile pass rusher who can move across the line, inking successive one-year deals in San Francisco and Jacksonville. The LSU product recorded a career-high 13.5 percent pressure rate this past season in Duval, providing a dominant Week 18 performance (nine pressures) that helped send the Jaguars to the playoffs. The Jags could build on the late-season performance of their pass rush by bringing back Key, whose 24 pressures trailed only Nick Bosa (25) in the NFL over the final five weeks of the regular season. With his ability to bump inside on later downs, Key can continue to be part of a talented third-down pass-rush front, alongside Josh Allen and Travon Walker.
The top-ranked return specialist of the 2022 campaign by Next Gen Stats, Nixon was a revelation for the Packers over the last half of the regular season. The former undrafted free agent, in town on a one-year deal, gained a league-high +214 kick-return yards over expected and was named a first-team All-Pro in his first year as a starting returner. Nixon turned the much-maligned Green Bay special teams unit from a weakness into a strength. The ability to provide favorable field position for the offense could prove to be even more critical in 2023 for a Packers team whose quarterback situation remains decidedly in flux.
The Jets made a concerted effort to put Huff in a position to pin his ears back and focus solely on getting after the quarterback this season: 147 of his 181 defensive snaps (81.2%) came on third or fourth down. The results were outstanding, as the third-year player generated a 21.3 percent pressure rate as a situational pass rusher, setting a single-season Next Gen Stats-era record (minimum of 150 pass rushes). Without having to worry about run-defense responsibilities, he recorded the quickest average pass-rush get-off of any player over the last five seasons (0.67 seconds). He's a restricted free agent, meaning it will be difficult for someone to sign him away this offseason, but not impossible. Huff has earned the opportunity to prove himself in a larger role next season, and the Jets' coaching staff should pound the table for the chance to continue his development.
The Texans enter the offseason projected to have the fifth-most cap space (around $38 million, per Over The Cap) and a barebones roster that won just three games last season. Suffice to say, they should be looking to build around any young pieces they can. Okoronkwo proved himself to be a Millsap Doctrine candidate last season: Though he drastically increased his play time after signing a one-year deal with Houston (495 defensive snaps) compared to his first four seasons in the NFL with the Rams (503 total defensive snaps), he maintained his elite pass-rush efficiency. The former Oklahoma Sooner generated a 16.4 percent pressure rate in 2022, third-highest in the NFL (minimum of 200 pass rushes). He logged just five sacks -- but that means the time to buy in is now, before his sack production catches up to his underlying pressure efficiency.
Last offseason, the Vikings declined Bradbury's fifth-year option for 2023. After seeing what their lineup looked like without Bradbury over their last five regular-season games of 2022, they might want to reconsider his value to the team. During that stretch, when Bradbury was absent with a back injury, opposing defensive tackles terrorized Minnesota. It began with the Lions' Isaiah Buggs setting a career high with five pressures in Week 14, and it only got worse from there. In three consecutive games, a pair of defensive tackles combined for double-digit pressures against Minnesota: the Colts' DeForest Buckner (nine) and Grover Stewart (five) in Week 15; the Giants' Dexter Lawrence (seven) and Leonard Williams (five) in Week 16; and the Packers' Kenny Clark (seven) and Jarran Reed (four) in Week 17.
To smooth the transition at defensive coordinator from DeMeco Ryans (who left to coach the Texans) to Steve Wilks, the 49ers should try to maintain their dominant pass rush. Ebukam has been the starting edge defender opposite Nick Bosa since signing a two-year pact with San Francisco in 2021, and he held his weight on the defense's right side in 2022. Ebukam generated a 14.8 percent pressure rate last season, seventh-highest among defenders with at least 300 pass rushes. He was able to do this while primarily aligning across from left tackles, allowing Bosa to take advantage of right tackles during his Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Carolina's rough start to the season resulted in Matt Rhule's firing and the decision to trade away former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. But then, the offensive line coalesced, and the Panthers underwent a change in offensive identity that helped revive their season. From Week 7 (the team's first game without McCaffrey) on, Foreman led all running backs with +8 first downs over expected. The veteran back gained +177 rushing yards over expected over that time frame, trailing only Derrick Henry (+193) in the NFL.
Replacing Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson was certainly a tall task, but Jones seized the opportunity, posting a career year in his first season on the outside after six seasons playing primarily in the slot. Opposing offenses lost -15.6 expected points added when targeting Jones in 2022, ranking him fifth-best among outside cornerbacks. The Patriots had a pair of rookie corners and Jalen Mills cycle through the other outside coverage spot over the course of the season. All three are under contract for 2023. Still, New England could retain Jones to step into a leadership role if Devin McCourty finally hangs up his cleats.
The three-time All Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler may have lost a step or two of his elite speed, but he remains adept at erasing receivers when given the chance. Peterson was targeted on just nine of his 111 man-coverage snaps in 2022 (8.1%). He was the only outside cornerback with at least 100 man-coverage snaps to be targeted at less than a 12 percent rate. Last season under Ed Donatell, the Vikings played man coverage on just 20.8 percent of dropbacks, the fourth-lowest rate in the league. But Minnesota will likely undergo a complete philosophical makeover under new coordinator Brian Flores, whose defenses have ranked in the top four of man-coverage rate in each of the last five seasons.
The Philadelphia lifer indicated that he wants to return to the team after the Eagles' Super Bowl LVII loss. Bouncing back from a torn Achilles, Graham recorded double-digit sacks for the first time in his 13-year career and led the NFL with a 4.2 percent sack rate (minimum of 250 pass rushes). Though he transitioned into more of a rotational role, Graham was as effective as ever. He forced four turnovers from pressure (tied for third in the NFL) and generated the fifth-highest pressure rate (15.5%) among defenders with at least 250 pass rushes. His impact went beyond just the pass rush, too; Graham set a seven-season high in defensive stop rate (7.2%). That number ranked him third among edge defenders (minimum of 400 defensive snaps) in 2022.
Another long-tenured veteran who wants to retire with the team that drafted him, David continued to excel in coverage in his 11th NFL season. A centerpiece of the Buccaneers' defense through five coaching regimes, David has allowed just 6.0 yards per target since the Next Gen Stats era began in 2016. That ranks second among linebackers over that time frame (minimum of 200 targets). Last year was no different, as he allowed 6.1 yards per target. David's impact goes beyond his own production, too, unlocking fellow linebacker Devin White to do what he does best: blitz from depth.
After nearly a decade with the Chargers, Ingram struggled to find a new home in 2021, spending half of that season with the Chiefs and half with the Steelers. Based on his production in Miami in 2022, it might be that Ingram prefers the coasts. The edge rusher excelled as more of a situational pass rusher with the Dolphins, generating his highest pressure rate (13.7%) since 2017. With presumably fresher legs, he averaged his quickest pass-rush get-off (0.83 seconds) of his last five seasons. With Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips as the starting edge rushers, the Dolphins could keep Ingram in his rotational role to maximize his efficiency.
The edge rusher showed few signs of his age in his 12th NFL season, leading the Ravens with 36 pressures. Houston maintains his twitchy burst off the ball -- he averaged a pass-rush get-off of 0.75 seconds, the fourth-quickest in the NFL (minimum of 250 pass rushes). That translated into a sack rate of 3.7 percent, a number that trailed only three players: Brandon Graham, Nick Bosa and Haason Reddick.
Keegan Abdoo, Rahul Regula, Conor McQuiston, Katherine Baker and Chace Daskalos contributed to this story.