An early look at the 2022 free agent class has no headliners at quarterback, unlike a year ago. It will be nearly impossible to find help in the interior lines on offense or defense. But there are plenty of enticing pass catchers and defensive backs, especially at safety.
Many of the top names on the list below won't make it to free agency because of the franchise tag. Some of them (T.J. Watt) could be signed in the next few weeks. A quick glance back at my top-25 list at this point last year shows that only five (!) of those players changed teams, with most getting big new contracts to stay put. The NFL rules make it so that free agency is rarely free.
Here goes nothing!
NOTE: Current ages listed at publishing.
The list of the best defensive-front draft picks over the last decade starts with T.J.'s brother in 2011, goes to Aaron Donald in 2014 and then probably leads right here. I'd be shocked if Watt doesn't have a new contract with the Steelers before Week 1.
Always a great route runner, Adams is tying his latest voyage to free agency with the recognition that he may be the best receiver in football. He's a lot more likely to get his new contract in Green Bay than Aaron Rodgers.
Armstead making the "Top 100 Players" list on NFL Network for the first time this year at No. 79 is a reminder that few players have been more criminally underrated, even by his peers. Only injury woes could prevent him from becoming the highest-paid tackle in football.
A top-10 wideout who can excel everywhere -- especially deep down the field -- Robinson may prove so valuable to Justin Fields' development that the Bears simply can't let him walk away even if they have to use the franchise tag on him again.
Even if Sutton's numbers go down in a crowded Broncos offense this year, prospective teams should consider it a good thing his first year post-ACL surgery will be out of the way before hitting the open market.
The Honey Badger can roam anywhere -- although at this point, I'd hate to see him divorced from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who knows just how to unlock his magic. Turning 30 next May, Mathieu is a rangy, heady player in the mold of Devin McCourty, a safety who has excelled into his mid-30s.
The Chiefs are under pressure to re-sign Brown after giving up a first-round pick for him. There are some questions how he'll hold up as a pass protector with Patrick Mahomes dropping back 40-plus times per game, but Brown is established as one of the nastiest run blockers in football.
His numbers went down in the transition from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady, but once the playoffs started, Godwin emerged as the Bucs' most important target.
I'm glad Jamal Adams signed an extension because I kept going back and forth on whether he or Bates should be ranked higher. Deep-coverage safeties like Bates feel more valuable than ever in today's NFL and there aren't many great ones.
There's no doubting the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year's body of work, but he will turn 32 years old next season and is coming off a serious torn quad surgery that has kept him off the field for seven months and running.
It is so hard to find a quality blindside protector, and Brown is still so good at it, even at age 35. He appears to be on the Andrew Whitworth/Jason Peters left tackle plan of excelling at the position into your late 30s. Don't be surprised if he gets a raise before Week 1.
A few ill-timed playoff drops aside, Andrews has every skill in the toolbox to make the jump to a top-five tight end this season. (If he's not there already.)
UPDATE: The Ravens and Andrews have agreed to terms on a four-year, $56 million extension, Ian Rapoport reported on Sept. 6.
A dearth of interior O-line options helps Scherff's market value, but he's obviously a standout player, considering this is his second straight season on the franchise tag. Pretty extraordinary for a guard.
No better current NFL example of Bill Parcells' "Planet Theory." There just aren't many humans walking the Earth with Mailata's combination of size and movement skills. While this ranking admittedly projects another big step from the former rugby player who only picked up football in 2017, his rapid ascension as part of the International Player Pathway Program indicates the left tackle can still get a lot better.
Drafted in the fifth round by the Bills in 2018, Teller's career changed with a trade to Cleveland, especially once Bill Callahan showed up last season as the Browns' offensive line coach. PFF and OL experts alike believed he was one of the best guards in football in 2020. If he backs that up again, this ranking will go even higher.
Quality safeties don't get the respect in the open market they deserve, but the Saints made a telling show of faith in Williams when they gave him the franchise tag during an offseason in which they were slashing salary everywhere else. He's a plus starter in his prime -- those are rare in free agency.
I struggled to assess Lattimore. His traits are obvious and his rookie year was sensational. Since then, he's been up-and-down while asked to cover the opposition's best, and his March arrest on a weapons charge is a red flag. The training camp buzz is that he's gearing up for a big year in 2021.
This ranking figures to go way up or possibly way down after this season. Jones missed most of 2020 with a torn biceps, but the injury came after one of the worst months of play in his career. Was that evidence of decline or a misleading small sample size?
Jackson is a gambler, incredibly competitive and has great ball skills. He could be prone to streaky play away from Bill Belichick's scheme and -- more importantly -- away from the protection playing opposite Stephon Gilmore provides.
Outside receivers who can make plays deep down the field get paid a lot more in free agency than chain movers. Gallup can do it all, and the Cowboys may not be able to afford him because of their star-filled offense.
It means a lot that Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles treat Davis as their CB1. He's competitive and physical and should have a long career as a starter.
Year 1 in Carolina proved Anderson is not just a deep threat. He's a versatile speedster in his prime who can fit in any offense.
UPDATE: The Panthers and Anderson have agreed to terms on a two-year, $29.5 million extension that includes more than $20 million fully guaranteed, Rapoport reported Tuesday.
The Eagles should want to re-sign Jordan Mailata and/or Goedert ASAP because they are both set up to see their value explode. Every team needs a tight end like Goedert, who can do it all and is just entering his prime.
Clowney impacts the game when healthy -- as long as you don't expect 15 sacks -- but he just hasn't been fully healthy in two years. Still just 28, the former No. 1 overall pick set himself up for one more long-term contract by joining the Browns to play opposite Myles Garrett for a season.
It would just feel wrong for Miller to not make this list. When we last saw the surefire Hall of Famer, his pass-rush speed had fallen off, but he was still a great No. 2 defensive end with ferocious run-stopping ability.
JUST MISSED: Marcus Maye, S, New York Jets; Brian O'Neill, OT, Minnesota Vikings; Will Fuller, WR, Miami Dolphins; Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings; Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots; Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers; Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings; Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants; Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys; Kyle Fuller, CB, Denver Broncos; Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins; D.J. Chark, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars, Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers.