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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The NFL’s 2022 free-agency class promises to be a good one. With big-name players like Davante Adams, Chandler Jones, Terron Armstead and Orlando Brown scheduled to hit the open market, free agency could dramatically shift the 2022 playoff landscape.
Some free-agency fits are obvious. The Cleveland Browns, for example, need a No. 1 receiver and have the cap space needed to chase a pass-catcher like Adams.
Other potential pairings are less evident, either because teams don’t have clear needs at a position, an overwhelming amount of cap space or are viewed as a prime destination for players with their choice of employment.
Here, we’ll focus on the latter group. We’ll examine the top 10 players in Pro Football Focus‘ latest free-agent rankings and pair each of them that might not jump out as an obvious landing spot. We’ll dive into both why these teams are dark horses and why these hypothetical signings would still make sense.
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The Denver Broncos aren’t the likeliest destination for Davante Adams. With players like Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Noah Fant, the Broncos aren’t exactly short on pass-catching talent.
Here’s something to keep in mind, though: A lot will change if Denver is somehow able to land Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The reigning MVP was unhappy this past offseason, and according to Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, Green Bay has agreed to trade Rodgers after this year if he still wants out.
Rodgers is at the top of Denver’s wish list, according to Mike Klis of 9 News Denver.
“The Broncos are looking at Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson. I think there’s a ‘Big Four.’ Those two, with Rodgers being head-and-shoulders Plan A, Wilson Plan B, [Jimmy] Garoppolo and [Kirk] Cousins in that next group, also,” Klis told 104.3 The Fan (h/t Chad Jensen of Mile High Huddle).
If the Broncos can somehow land Rodgers, Denver suddenly becomes a lot more attractive for Adams. Rodgers would presumably love to have his longtime top target with him in a new home. With a projected $47.6 million in cap space, the Broncos could make it work.
There are a lot of “ifs” here—if Rodgers wants to be traded, if the Packers eschew the franchise tag with Adams—but a dream scenario of Rodgers and Adams joining Denver cannot be ruled out.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead will be one of the most coveted linemen on the market when it opens on March 16. He made three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances before missing nine games this season with a knee injury.
According to Nick Underhill of NewOrleans.Football, Armstead will undergo knee surgery in the offseason.
The Los Angeles Rams don’t seem like a prime suitor for Armstead because they are short on cap space. With a projected $3.4 million available, it would take a lot of creative financial work to make Armstead a fair-market offer.
However, we’ve seen L.A. be aggressive on the free-agent and trade markets over the past few years, and we’ve seen general manager Les Snead find ways to make the financials work.
While current Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth is under contract through next season, he’s also 40 years old. If the four-time Pro Bowler decides not to return in 2022, the Rams will need a replacement on Matthew Stafford’s blind side.
It’s worth noting that if Whitworth does depart, it would clear $13.5 million from the 2022 books.
With no selections before the fifth round, the Rams aren’t likely to find an immediate starter in the 2022 draft. If Whitworth retires, Armstead could quickly become a Rams target—even if it seems financially implausible right now.
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Alex Menendez/Associated Press
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin is coming off a torn ACL but should still be one of the most coveted offensive players in free agency. A dynamic downfield threat when healthy, Godwin amassed 1,103 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games before suffering the injury.
The Tennessee Titans might not leap out as the sort of receiver-needy team that chases Godwin. They have a young star in A.J. Brown, and they traded for Julio Jones this past offseason.
However, the trade for Jones hasn’t quite paid off as the Titans might have hoped.
Jones spent time on injured reserve with a hamstring injury and only appeared in 10 games. He finished the regular season with a mere 31 receptions, 434 yards and one touchdown. He provided a passer rating of just 83.2 when targeted.
Tennessee could use a more explosive option opposite Brown, and Godwin certainly fits the bill. While the ACL injury is a concern, taking an injury gamble would not be an unprecedented move by the Titans.
This past offseason, Tennessee made a five-year, $82.5 million bet on pass-rusher Bud Dupree, who was coming off his own torn ACL.
Jones probably isn’t going anywhere, as releasing him would save only $1.1 million in cap space. However, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Tennessee further upgrade its receiving corps this spring.
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Darryl Webb/Associated Press
Chandler Jones will likely be the top pass-rusher on the free-agent market this offseason. The Arizona Cardinals standout was just named to his fourth Pro Bowl after a season with 10.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hits and 36 quarterback pressures.
Would a return to the New England Patriots make sense for Jones? At first blush, perhaps not. The Patriots traded Jones to Arizona in 2016. New England also has a star pass-rusher in 2021 free-agent prize Matt Judon.
However, Jones has no ill will toward Patriots coach Bill Belichick for dealing him away.
“There were no hard feelings at all. I understood it’s a business and it was what was best for the team,” Jones said, per The Athletic’s Jeff Howe.
Belichick also has a history of bringing back former players he believes can help the team. This past offseason, it was linebacker Kyle Van Noy, linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and offensive tackle Trent Brown.
Pairing Jones with Judon would give New England arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the league. While forging it might seem like a long shot for New England, especially after last offseason’s spending spree, it’s not entirely impossible.
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Ralph Freso/Associated Press
Von Miller is the other top pass-rusher set to reach the free-agent market. Though Miller is 32 years old, he still has plenty left in the tank. In eight games since being acquired by the Rams, Miller has produced five sacks, nine quarterback hits and 14 quarterback pressures.
Presumably, the Rams will make a strong play to keep Miller. If he gets loose, though, the Las Vegas Raiders could become a dark-horse candidate to chase him.
Las Vegas has a fine pass-rushing duo in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. However, the Raiders still only produced 35 sacks as a team, tied for 20th in the NFL. Adding a third pass-rusher to the rotation could go a long way toward improving the Raiders defense.
The Raiders haven’t been a prime destination for free agents recently, but after making an appearance in the postseason, that could change. Miller has also gone on the record to discuss his respect for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
“He’s one of my favorite quarterbacks in the league. He’s a hell of a player, I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Miller said in October, per Rachel Gossen of the Raiders’ official website.
Would Miller return to the AFC West to join forces with a former rival? Don’t rule it out.
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Chandler Jones and Von Miller are terrific players, but Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson might be the best defender headed to market.
The 2018 undrafted free agent has become a premier cover corner and was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2021. This season, Jackson logged a league-high 23 passes defended and eight interceptions while allowing an opposing passer rating of only 46.8 in coverage.
The Baltimore Ravens aren’t an obvious suitor because they have two standout cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. It’s worth noting, though, that Peters (ACL) and Humphrey (pectoral) are both coming off of season-ending injuries.
Peters could be a potential cap casualty as well. He’s 29 years old, entering the final year of his contract and could generate $10 million in cap space if released.
Replacing Peters with the 26-year-old Jackson could be a tremendous long-term move for Baltimore. Even if the Ravens keep Peters for the final year of his contract, adding Jackson could be a wise defensive decision.
Teams can never have too many good defensive backs, as Baltimore discovered in 2021. After losing both Peters and Humphrey, the Ravens went on to finish the year ranked dead last in passing yards allowed.
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David Becker/Associated Press
Los Angeles Chargers wideout Mike Williams is a young, up-and-coming pass-catcher who will likely earn a hefty long-term deal on the open market. He finished the 2021 season with 1,146 receiving yards and nine touchdowns while playing opposite Keenan Allen.
The Kansas City Chiefs probably don’t seem like a team that will be in the market for a high-end No. 2 receiver. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is already throwing to Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and tight end Travis Kelce. With 568 yards and five touchdowns, Byron Pringle has emerged as a nice complementary option, too.
However, the Chiefs have been searching for receiver help, which is why they took a flier on Josh Gordon this season. Additionally, Pringle, Gordon and receiver Demarcus Robinson are all scheduled to reach free agency along with Williams.
The Chiefs see Williams twice a year and know exactly what he brings to the field. At 6’4″, he’s a big downfield target who would perfectly complement speedy weapons like Hill, Kelce and Hardman.
While receiver isn’t a massive need for Kansas City, adding Williams could make the Chiefs offense borderline unstoppable. It would be foolish to dismiss Kansas City as a potential landing spot here.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams played on the franchise tag in 2021. Assuming the Saints aren’t willing to tag him again, he should be the top safety on most teams’ wish lists this offseason.
Williams finished the season with 74 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defended while allowing an opposing passer rating of 85.5 in coverage.
The NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons could use a safety of Williams’ caliber. Duron Harmon was serviceable in 2021—he allowed a passer rating of 99.3—but he’ll be a free agent as well. As a team, the Falcons ranked 25th in yards per pass attempt allowed.
What makes Atlanta a dark horse is its lack of cap space. The Falcons are projected to be $3.3 million over the cap.
However, Atlanta could conceivably free up cap space by reworking the contract of quarterback Matt Ryan. Atlanta’s longtime starter is set to carry a cap hit of $48.7 million in 2022 and has only two seasons remaining on his deal.
It’s not uncommon for teams to create space by transferring salary to bonuses via contract extensions. Atlanta’s decision-makers will presumably look for other ways to create cap room.
“They’re also looking for possible cap casualties, doing everything they can to help general manager Terry Fontenot execute his plan for free agency,” Scott Bair of the team’s official website wrote.
It’s a long shot, but it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Atlanta find room and poach a tremendous and much-needed player from a division rival.
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Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press
Kansas City’s Orlando Brown will be a hot commodity if he reaches the open market. Having been a Pro Bowler at both right and left tackle, Brown brings as much versatility to the position as any player who will be available.
The Cincinnati Bengals have 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams at left tackle, which makes them a bit of a dark horse for Brown’s services. Brown has been quite open about his preference to play on the left side.
However, Williams hasn’t exactly been an anchor on Joe Burrow’s blind side. According to Pro Football Focus, he was responsible for four penalties and eight sacks allowed during the regular season. As a unit, the Bengals line allowed a whopping 55 sacks.
No quarterback was sacked more in 2021 than Burrow (51 times).
The Bengals should at least consider upgrading at left tackle. With Riley Reiff set to be a free agent, Cincinnati could also use a new right tackle. While Brown may be opposed to moving back to right tackle, Williams might accept an audition there.
Cincinnati is on the cusp of being a perennial contender—if it isn’t already there—but the Bengals have to do a better job of protecting Burrow. Whether it also means replacing or repositioning Williams, signing Brown could be one way to do that.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson II didn’t have the most prolific of 2021 seasons. He finished with only 410 receiving yards and one touchdown. In 2019 and 2020, though, Robinson put together back-to-back seasons with 1,100-plus receiving yards.
Robinson can still be a No. 1 receiver for the right team. The Jacksonville Jaguars wouldn’t appear to be that team at a glance. Robinson left Jacksonville in 2018 free agency, and after a disastrous 2021 season, the Jaguars aren’t likely to be a huge free-agent draw.
However, a return to Jacksonville could make sense for Robinson. The Jaguars don’t have a true No. 1 receiver on their roster, but they do have a talented young signal-caller in rookie No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
Marvin Jones Jr. was Lawrence’s top target in 2021, finishing with 832 yards and four touchdowns. Laviska Shenault Jr. (619 yards) was the only other Jaguar to top 500 receiving yards. Robinson could be the sort of go-to target that Lawrence currently lacks.
A lot will hinge on whom the Jaguars hire as their next head coach and whether they can erase the stink of the Urban Meyer era. Jacksonville was a mess under Meyer’s guidance this season—things were bad enough that fans dressed as clowns en masse for the season finale.
Robinson has never benefited from elite quarterback play, but he did have a Pro Bowl campaign (1,400 yards, 14 TD) with the Jaguars in 2015. If Robinson is convinced Lawrence can develop into the sort of top-tier quarterback he’s never experienced, he could be tempted to return to familiar grounds.