2022 NFL Free Agency Look Ahead - Defense
We covered the offensive free agents in part one of this article so get ready for the defense in this one.
Unlike the offensive players such as QBs, receivers, and linemen, the defense usually has players you can actually get that will help turn a team around (except, of course, the HOF-bound players).
Just a reminder, the number in parentheses next to a player's name is their age as of the start of the 2022 season.
Since the invention of the forward pass, getting to the quarterback and either sacking or at least interrupting their reading of the defense has been paramount. It’s only become more important as the decades have progressed and finding a premier pass-rusher has become as important as finding a tackle to stop them.
There are more than a few very good pass-rushers available, but with just a few exceptions, the best of the lot are all on the wrong side of thirty. Chandler Jones (32 years old), Jason Pierre-Paul (33), and newly-minted Champion Von Miller (33) are all available and you might be able to sign them to a short term contract that is team friendly.
If you’re looking for a player under 30 that can be maybe be a starter for a while or take over when someone retires, you have former #1 Overall pick Jadeveon Clowney (29) who managed nine sacks opposite Myles Garrett in Cleveland last season.
You could also take a look at either Charles Harris (27) who did a good job of resurrecting his career in Detroit while switching from 4-3 DE to 4-3 OLB leading the Lions in sacks with 7.5, a total that more than doubles his career totals.
As far as depth players this free agent class has players who were, at one time, looked at as potential franchise cornerstones, now they’re merely ok players who can still bring something to the table. Dante Fowler Jr. (28), Takkarist McKinley (26), and Derek Barnett (26) are all former first round picks who will be available for a reasonable contract.
Since not everyone can rush the passer and someone has to play the run, here are the top ends and tackles not listed as EDGE players. It’s not as star laden as the above list but these guys are the muscle and bones a defense is built on.
At the top of the list you’ve got D.J. Jones (27) and Akiem Hicks (32) who are at very different points in their career. Jones at only 27 by the time the 2022 season kicks off is looking at the first big(ish) contract of his career coming off of a career year. Hicks is at the end and probably only looking for a three or four year deal for reasonable money if it’s coming from a contender.
After those two you’ve got B.J. Hill (27) also coming off of a career year/”prove it” deal with Cincy; does he take a little less to stay on an up-and-coming young team or go for the payday? Calais Campbell who offers some flexibility as he can play both DE and on the interior, but turns 36 during the season next year. Raiders Quinton Jefferson (29) and Solomon Thomas (27) are also available but it feels that at least one will return to the Sin City.
After that you have the players who are talented but time is running out on them like Sheldon Richardson (31), Linval Thomas (33), and Ndamukong Suh (35).
You also have the younger and “merely” solid like Jarran Reed (29), Folorunso Fatukasi (27), and Larry Ogunjobi (28). Ogunjobi spent the bulk of the Bengals playoff run sidelined with a foot injury but had a career-high seven sacks for the AFC Champion.
Some of the top linebackers have already been covered in the EDGE section of this article but there are still plenty of outside ‘backers who can provide a boost to your defense.
At the top you’ve got Ju’Whaun Bentley (26) who may or may not return to the Patriots, either way he’s due a bump in pay and has several years ahead of him. After him there’s Christian Kirksey (30), Kenny Young (27), and Reggie Ragland (28), who, if he were to sign elsewhere would be on his fourth team in four seasons.
At the ILB/MLB spot you’ve got some very good options at the top in De’Vondre Campbell (29) and Dont’a Hightower (32). It’s possible that Campbell could return to the Packers, but between the salary cap situation and the Rodgers/Adams situation. . . well, they’ve got some numbers to crunch. Hightower may be moving on from the only NFL team he’s ever known, though the Patriots are a team that likes to hold onto its lynchpins.
After those two on the inside, there’s a considerable drop-off and depending on what you’re looking for you may be better off drafting someone. If it’s a star you’re after you’re out of luck, but if you’re after a depth player or someone to compete for a starting spot, there’s not much available. Foyosade Oluokun (27) had a career year inside for Atlanta tallying almost 200 total tackles and at 27 you should be able to get another five years of high production. After him it’s a lot of JAGs (Just A Guy) who are backups and not much more.
At the back end of the defense we’ve got the safeties, the guys who are either mashers like Ronnie Lott or playmakers like Ed Reed. There’s no one in this free agent class who is the caliber of either of those players, I’m sure that when his time comes, “Honey Badger” will have his supporters.
Speaking of which, Tyrann Mathieu (30) is the top Free Safety available in this class. After winning a ring with the Chiefs three years ago the question is this – what means more? Cash or another ring? If it’s cash look for Mathieu to head to the Jets or Jags, both teams with cash to spare and need of a safety. If it’s a ring he could return to KC or maybe Baltimore.
Marcus Williams (26) is younger and almost as good but the cap-strapped Saints will have a hard time retaining him. Jessie Bates III (25) is another good option except for two things a) he may well be tagged by the Bengals (either Franchise or Transition) and b) he had the worst season of his career (statistically speaking) after three years of being (debatably) the most reliable defender on the roster.
At Strong Safety Quandre Diggs (29) is at the top and likely gets a significant raise to stay in Seattle after making consecutive Pro Bowls.
Jayron Kerse (28) not far behind and has been a big (and cheap) contributor for the Cowboys, the question is, can a team with so many other free agents pending as well as being $21M over the cap, retain him?
Xavier Woods (27) of Minnesota played every single defensive snap of 2021 but Minnesota is also possibly losing their top three corners so how will the Vikings prioritize their pending free agents?
Depending on your preference either Colton Davis (25) or J.C. Jackson (26) is the top corner of this class. The downside is that it’s likely that neither Davis nor Jackson see free agency this go-round as their teams (Tampa and New England, respectively) will probably tag them with the intention of working out something long term.
As for cornerbacks who may be available, Stephon Gilmore (32) is a capable CB who was traded mid-season from New England to Carolina, it’s unlikely the Panthers choose to bring him back though unless it’s a very team-friendly contract.
Darious Williams (29) of the Rams is set to hit FA, but is also coming off of the worst season (statistically) of his career, add the Rams salary cap issues to that and it’s likely that Williams is headed elsewhere to continue his career.
After those two, you have a lump of very good options, most of whom have flaws. First up is Casey Hayward (32) who, like Gilmore above, is old as NFL corners go, but also continues to play at a high level. Steven Nelson (29) who played a ton of snaps for the Eagles but also had a serious drop-off in performance. Next up Donte Jackson (26) is young and productive but also stuck behind a pair of former First Round picks in JayCee Horn and C.J. Henderson, could he be convinced to stay as a backup/nickel corner? Lastly we have Bryce Callahan (30) who is very effective. . . when he’s on the field. Callahan has missed a total of 28 games (of a potential 49) during his three years in the Mile-High City.