GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers extended the contract of outside linebacker Preston Smith on Monday morning. That wasn’t a surprise. By doing so, Green Bay ensured a key player will be part of the long-term future while significantly cutting his cap charge.
The Packers also re-signed linebacker De’Vondre Campbell on Monday afternoon. That was a surprise, and hints that big moves are coming. Soon.
According to Campbell’s agent, Joe Panos, it’s a five-year deal worth $50 million. He will get $16.25 million in Year 1, $21.5 million in Year 2 and $32.25 million by Year 3. It’s a huge deal but, by keeping the base salary low, his cap charge for 2022 will only be about $4.24 million.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Packers started the day about $43.8 million over the salary cap. By extending Preston Smith (saving about $8.25 million), releasing Za’Darius Smith (saving $15.28 million) and releasing Billy Turner (saving $3.36 million for now), the Packers are about $18.3 million over the cap. Adding Campbell will push that to about $21.87 million. (If you are wondering about the math: During the offseason, only the top 51 contracts count against the cap, so Campbell joins the top 51 and knocks a minimum-salary player off.)
They have to get below the cap by 3 p.m. Wednesday, which is the start of the league-year.
Aaron Rodgers’ contract extension – whenever he signs it – will take care of most of what’s left, as it will reduce some of the sting from his upcoming cap charge of $46.66 million. While Rodgers has said reports of a $50 million are inaccurate, let’s use it just for simple math.
To get super-aggressive, the Packers could give him a three-year, $150 million contract with a $50 million signing bonus and a minimum base salary in 2022. With a couple void years tacked on to turn the $16.67 million signing bonus proration into $10 million segments, the Packers could reduce his cap charge to less than $30 million.
By releasing receiver Randall Cobb, who has a cap charge of $9.53 million, and re-signing him to a lesser deal, or restructuring his current deal, the Packers would be below the cap. While they might not have enough money to sign their draft class, they’d at least be in position to give receiver Allen Lazard the second-round restricted tender of $3.986 million before the 3 p.m. Wednesday deadline.
At this point, an extension for cornerback Jaire Alexander, which would create space by getting him off the $13.294 million fifth-year option, does not appear to be in the works. Of course, the Packers will want to get to that at some point to make sure one of the league’s top defensive backs will be in Green Bay for the long haul. But there’s no financial pressure to get that deal done before Wednesday.
Besides, Alexander’s agent, John Thornton, probably is enjoying seeing the likes of J.C. Jackson (five years, $82.5 million by the Chargers) and Carlton Davis (three years, $45 million to re-sign with the Buccaneers) further establish the cornerback market. Any extension for Alexander would create cap savings that could be used for additional moves, whether it’s an in-season extension for offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins or to handle in-season additions.
Given Green Bay’s financial predicament, general manager Brian Gutekunst and his right-hand man, Russ Ball, have done fine work navigating the stormy financial waters. Having to get rid of Turner wasn’t ideal but at least there are options on the offensive line. Za’Darius Smith was a game-changer in 2019 and 2020 but the Packers won without him last year. If the Packers can’t re-sign cornerback Rasul Douglas, at least they’ve got Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes as a starting point for 2022.
Ultimately, keeping Campbell was an overwhelming victory and the best possible outcome this offseason. Considering his brilliance last season and the absolute lack of talent behind him on the depth chart, he was practically irreplaceable. With him under contract through 2026, the Packers won’t have to worry about that for a long time.
Green Bay Packers: Key 2022 Transactions
Extended: QB Aaron Rodgers
The offseason drama is over. Four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers signed a contract extension with the Packers that significantly lessens his 2022 cap charge while tying him to Green Bay through at least the 2024 season.
Re-Signed: LB De'Vondre Campbell
All-Pro linebacker De'Vondre Campbell will return on a five-year, $50 million contract, Packer Central was the first to report. He turned a one-year, $2 million contract into a Year 1 payout of $16.25 million.
Released: OLB Za’Darius Smith
Releasing two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith produced more than $15 million in cap savings. He missed most of last season with a back injury.
Extended: OLB Preston Smith
The Packers extended outside linebacker Preston Smith after he recorded nine sacks in 2021. The upcoming season would have been his final one under contract. The extension resulted in more than $8 million of cap savings and includes sack-based incentives.
Released: RT Billy Turner
The Packers released offensive lineman Billy Turner, who started 43 games at three positions in his three seasons with the team. Elgton Jenkins or Yosh Nijman could wind up in the lineup.
Top 85 NFL Free Agents
Here is a breakdown of the top 85 free agents, and their comings and goings as NFL teams start to throw around wads of hundred-dollar bills.
NFL Free Agent Tracker
Top 5 Quarterbacks
Teddy Bridgewater, Broncos (age 29): Bridgewater went 7-7 for Denver last season. He’s always completed passes (66.5 percent for his career and 66.9 percent in 2021). In 2021, he threw 18 touchdowns vs. seven interceptions, compiled a 94.9 passer rating, and fumbled only once. Teams aren’t going to win games because of Bridgewater, but they’re not going to lose games because of him, either. SIGNING: MIAMI DOLPHINS.
Jameis Winston, Saints (28): With Drew Brees in retirement, Jameis Winston won the starting job. Including Week 1 vs. Green Bay, he went 5-2 in seven starts before tearing an ACL. His 14 touchdowns vs. three interceptions and 102.8 rating stood in stark contrast to 2019 in Tampa Bay, when he threw 33 touchdowns but a league-worst 30 interceptions for an 84.3 rating. Teams that want to stretch the field vertically will covet him more than others. The injury happened on Oct. 31, so he could be ready for the start of training camp.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Commanders (39): His Washington career lasted all of six attempts before a season-ending hip injury. In 2018 with Tampa Bay, he led the NFL in yards per attempt and yards per completion. He started 20 games for Miami in 2019 and 2020, throwing a combined 33 touchdowns vs. 21 interceptions. If you had to win one game with a quarterback on the list, this is your guy. Or he’d throw three picks and you’d lose by 21.
Marcus Mariota, Raiders (28): The No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft by the Titans, Mariota threw 30 passes for the Raiders the past two seasons. In 2018, when Packers coach Matt LaFleur was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, Mariota started 13 games. He went 7-6, completed a career-high 68.9 percent of his passes, but threw only 11 touchdowns vs. eight interceptions. For his career, he’s averaged 6.0 yards per rush.
Mitchell Trubisky, Bills (27): One of the interesting things over the past couple weeks is how Trubisky is being pitched by national media as a potential starting quarterback. Given the holes around the league at the position, that’s possible, but nobody should expect better than what Trubisky provided in four seasons in Chicago. The No. 2 pick in 2017 – infamously ahead of Patrick Mahomes – he completed 64.0 percent of his passes with 64 touchdowns vs. 37 interceptions. He went 1-6 against Green Bay. SIGNING: PITTSBURGH STEELERS.
Top 5 Running Backs
Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons (age 31): It’s not often a 30-plus running back will top the list but Patterson is different because he’s spent most of his career as a receiver and returner and, therefore, avoided the outrageous amount of punishment inflicted on a running back. In his first season with Atlanta, Patterson rushed for 618 yards (4.0 average) and added 52 receptions for 548 yards (10.5 average). That gave him 1,166 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage. Of 50 backs with at least 100 rushes, he ranked 30th in PFF’s elusive rating, a metric that measures success independent of blocking. He has always been an elite kickoff returner (29.4 average and eight touchdowns in nine seasons), though the league continues to make that phase of the game less important.
James Conner, Cardinals (26): Conner has gone from great story as a cancer survivor to a really good player. Conner rushed for 752 yards (3.7 average) and 15 touchdowns and added 37 receptions for 375 yards (10.1 average) and three more scores. That gave him a Pro Bowl season of 1,127 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage. He ranked 16th in PFF’s elusive rating and No. 3 among all NFL players in yards after the catch per catch. Conner caught at least 34 passes the past four seasons with a career-high catch rate of 94.9 percent in 2021. Plus, he’s excellent in protection. RE-SIGNING: ARIZONA CARDINALS
Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (27): There’s nothing flashy about the 230-pound Fournette other than his ability to consistently churn out yards. In 2021, he rushed for 812 yards (career-best 4.5 average) and added 69 receptions for 454 yards (6.6 yards per catch but position-high seven drops, according to PFF). That gave him 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. He ranked 27th in PFF’s elusive rating, and his 3.15 yards per carry after contract ranked 15th – just behind Jones and Dillon.
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks (26): A first-round pick in 2018, Penny’s career was going nowhere fast with 903 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his first 3 2/3 seasons. Then came the final five games of last season. He rushed for 131 yards vs. Houston, 135 vs. Chicago, 170 vs. Detroit and 190 vs. Arizona. He had six touchdowns in those five games. He led the NFL in yards per carry (6.3), yards after contact (4.5) and elusive rating. To say Penny is a one-year wonder wouldn’t be accurate. He’s a part-year wonder. He also has only 23 career receptions.
Melvin Gordon, Broncos (28): A native of Kenosha and a star at Wisconsin, Gordon remains a superb runner. A first-round pick in 2015, he has 6,144 career rushing yards. In 2021, he tallied 918 yards (4.5 average) and 28 receptions for 213 yards (7.6 average) to give him 1,131 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. He ranked 14th in elusive rating and No. 1 among free agents in missed tackles. He’s a liability in both parts of the passing game.
Top 10 Receivers
Allen Robinson, Bears (28): Robinson and the Packers seemed like a potential marriage in free agency in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, he caught 200 passes for 2,397 yards and 13 touchdowns, but was forgotten by the Bears in 2021 (38 receptions, 410 yards and one touchdown). Wrote SI: “He’s strictly a contested-catch receiver – a positive in that he could age well (he’ll be 29 in August) but a negative in that chemistry with his next quarterback will be crucial.” At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, he’s a power player. Of 75 receivers targeted at least 58 times, he ranked 73rd with 2.1 yards after the catch per catch, according to PFF.
D.J. Chark, Jaguars (25): Chark’s had only one big season with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. He caught 53 passes in 2020 and missed most of 2021 with a broken ankle. “Chark may end up being one of the best buys in free agency. His elite athleticism, bullish frame and solid ball-tracking skills were drowned out by the constant schematic mess that was Jacksonville’s offense over the past few seasons,” read the note on Chark as part of SI’s ranking of the top 221 free agents. At the 2018 Combine, he measured 6-foot-4, ran his 40 in 4.34 seconds and posted a vertical jump of 40 inches.
Odell Beckham Jr., Rams (29): Beckham topped 1,000 receiving yards in five of his first six seasons. However, he caught 23 passes for 319 yards in 2020 and 44 passes for 537 yards in 2021. He came up huge in the Rams’ Super Bowl run, however, including nine receptions for 113 yards in the NFC Championship Game vs. the 49ers. He suffered a torn ACL in the Super Bowl and might not be ready for the start of the regular season. It will be fascinating to see how he's viewed. Is he the dominant playoff force? Or the malcontent the Browns dumped at midseason?
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers (25): Smith-Schuster needs a new quarterback. He’ll get one, regardless of where he winds up. A second-round pick in 2017, he had a monster second season with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2020, he averaged just 8.6 yards on 97 receptions. He also averaged 8.6 yards per catch in 2021, which was limited to five games by a shoulder injury. “While he might never be more than a complementary pass-catcher as a big slot, he also brings value as a blocker. A chance to play in a more aggressive passing offense could allow him to recapture his early-career form,” noted SI.
Christian Kirk, Cardinals (25): A second-round pick in 2018, Kirk set career highs with 77 receptions, 982 yards and a 74.8 percent catch rate last season. He’s primarily a slot receiver. Surprisingly considering how he played at Texas A&M, he tied for 62nd with 3.1 YAC per catch, the lowest mark of his career. He has a modest history as a punt returner (6.5 average on 51 runbacks). At 5-foot-10 3/8, he’s got 4.45 speed in the 40. SIGNING: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
Jarvis Landry, Browns (29): In the wake of the trade for Amari Cooper, the Browns released the five-time Pro Bowler. A second-round pick in 2014, he had more than 80 receptions in each of his first six seasons, including a league-leading 112 grabs in 2017. He caught 72 passes in 2020 and 52 in 12 games in 2021. He’s not an explosive player (no 50-yard gains the past two seasons) and never been a big-time scorer of touchdowns (only one season of more than six) but he’s crafty and generally sure-handed (two drops; 3.7 percent in 2021). A lot of his work has come from the slot.
Michael Gallup, Cowboys (26): A third-round pick in 2018, Gallup caught 66 passes for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Injuries limited him to nine games in 2021, when he gained a career-low 7.2 yards per target, and he suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 so might not be available for the start of 2022. His career catch rate is only 55.5 percent and he forced only one missed tackle in 2021. He had an appalling 13 drops in 2019 but seven in 2020 and three in 2021. RE-SIGNING: DALLAS COWBOYS.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers (27): After leading the league with a 20.9-yard average and scoring a career-high six touchdowns in 2020, bigger and better things seemed on the horizon after an excellent training camp. Instead, injuries limited him to 11 games and he caught only 26 passes for 430 yards (16.5 average) and three scores. At least he didn’t drop any passes after dropping 15 the previous three seasons. At 6-foot-4 and with 4.37 speed, he’s a premier deep threat. Aaron Rodgers was kicking himself at times for not taking advantage often enough. More than likely, a source said Valdes-Scantling has priced himself out of Green Bay.
Cedrick Wilson, Cowboys (26): A sixth-round pick in 2018, Wilson emerged last season with 45 receptions for 602 yards and six touchdowns. Most of that production came from the slot. He posted 100-yard games against Las Vegas and Philadelphia. While Wilson has done next to nothing as a punt returner (3.8 average on 18 runbacks), he’s 5-for-5 for 111 yards and one touchdown as a passer. He ran a 4.55 at 6-foot-2 1/4. SIGNING: MIAMI DOLPHINS.
Keelan Cole, Jets (28): An emerging receiver during four seasons with the Jaguars, Cole caught only 28 passes for 449 yards and one touchdown last year for New York. Four passes thrown his way were intercepted – probably more of an indictment on the Jets’ quarterbacks than Cole, obviously. Perhaps the most noteworthy play of his career was a 91-yard touchdown on a punt return at Green Bay in 2020 when he made JK Scott look a bit foolish. He went undrafted out of Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017.
Top 8 Tight Ends
Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers (32): Arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history is still going strong as he approaches his 33rd birthday. He had 55 receptions for 802 yards and six touchdowns last season, a 14.6-yard average. He forced 16 missed tackles, third-most at the position, according to Pro Football Focus. His 2.09 yards per pass route is by far the best among this year’s free agents. Gronkowski needs 712 yards to reach 10,000 for his career and eight touchdowns to reach 100. “There’s no denying that the lighter, sleeker Gronk of the past two years was moving better as a receiver than he was in his late-Patriots days,” wrote Gary Gramling in SI.com’s huge free-agent preview. “And while he’s not the sixth offensive lineman he was in his prime, he’s still one of the most complete tight ends in football, and a potentially big upgrade at a thin position.”
C.J. Uzomah, Bengals (29): A fifth-round pick in 2015, Uzomah flourished last season with career highs of 49 receptions, 493 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-foot-6, he is a traditional tight end who can line up in-line and win routes and blocks. Of 35 tight ends to be targeted 40 times in the passing game, he ranked 10th with 6.1 YAC per catch and eighth with 10 missed tackles. He dropped four passes (7.5 percent). He missed most of 2020 with a torn Achilles. SIGNING: NEW YORK JETS.
Robert Tonyan, Packers (27): The former Indiana State quarterback and receiver was a breakout star in 2020 with 52 receptions for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Of the 34 tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times in the passing game, Tonyan was No. 1 in catch percentage (89.7), drop percentage (0.0) and passer rating (148.3), according to PFF. He was just starting to get rolling last season when he tore an ACL. In eight games, he caught 18 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
Evan Engram, Giants: The 23rd pick of the 2017 draft hasn’t been the game-changing weapon so many visualized after he ran an eye-popping 4.42 40 at the Scouting Combine. Of course, some of that is because of subpar quarterback play and all-around dysfunction. He caught 46 passes for merely 408 yards last year, an 8.9-yard average. He forced only two missed tackles and averaged 4.3 yards after the catch per catch. Officially, he’s a tight end. In reality, he’s a big slot receiver (position-high 69.5 percent of his routes from the slot). SIGNING: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
Zach Ertz, Cardinals (31): Ertz is one of the great pass-catching tight ends in NFL history. Highlighted by his 116 catches in 2018, he’s topped 70 receptions six of the past seven seasons. Last year, his season split between Philadelphia and Arizona, he caught 74 passes for 763 yards and five touchdowns. He’s not great after the catch (4.8 YAC) but he’s sure-handed (three drops; 3.9 percent) and knows how to get open. More than half his routes came from the slot. He’s not going to move too many defenders in-line. RE-SIGNING: ARIZONA.
O.J. Howard, Buccaneers (27): The 19th pick of the 2017 draft hasn’t been the star that everyone envisioned. In five seasons, he has 119 receptions for 1,737 yards and 15 scores. Buried on the depth chart, he caught only 14 passes last year. He’s still 6-foot-6. He still has 4.51 speed in the 40. He still blocks. In an obviously small sample size, he averaged 5.9 YAC and didn’t drop any passes in 2021. Getting out of Tampa Bay would get him away from Gronkowski, which could allow his career to reach its immense potential.
Mo Alie-Cox, Colts (28): Undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth, Alie-Cox has become a solid all-around player at the position. He caught 31 passes for 394 yards in 2020 and 24 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns in 2021. Of 35 tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times last year, he ranked seventh with 6.4 YAC per catch. He had two drops (7.7 percent). More than a receiver, Alie-Cox also is an excellent blocker.
Tyler Conklin, Vikings (26): A fifth-round pick in 2018, Conklin thrived as defenses focused on Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. His 61 receptions for 593 and three touchdowns blew away his combined production from his first three seasons. Conklin had one drop (1.6 percent), tops among this year’s free agents. A traditional, in-line tight end, he averaged 5.4 YAC and provided decent blocking, as well.
Top 5 Offensive Tackles
LT Terron Armstead, Saints (30): Armstead earned Pro Bowl honors in 2018, 2019 and 2020. When healthy, he’s one of the three or four best offensive tackles in the NFL today and one of the most athletic offensive linemen of all-time. The problem has been health. He played in only eight games in 2021, has started no more than 10 games five times and has yet to start every game in his nine seasons. When he’s on the field, a healthy Armstead isn’t too far below a healthy David Bakhtiari or a healthy Trent Williams. He’s allowed 20 sacks in his career, including one last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
LT Duane Brown, Seahawks (36): The best days might be behind Brown. In starting all 17 games, he allowed seven sacks and was penalized five times. Of the 54 offensive tackles who played half the snaps, he ranked 35th in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency, which weighs sacks, hits and hurries per pass-protecting snap. Wrote Gary Gramling in SI.com’s huge free-agent preview: “Brown can thank Andrew Whitworth for what should be a robust market despite his advanced age (he’ll be 37 in August:. Plenty of teams across the league are looking for “good enough” at left tackle as opposed to another Trent Williams, and Brown can still hold his own in pass protection.”
RT Morgan Moses, Jets (31): There are no durability concerns with Moses, who has started 16 games at right tackle for each of the past seven seasons. Of 54 offensive tackles with 50 percent playing time, Moses ranked 41st in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency with four sacks and 49 total pressures. On the other hand, he’s one of the best run-blocking tackles in the NFL.
LT Eric Fisher, Colts (31): A two-time Pro Bowler in nine seasons, Fisher ranked 51st out of 54 offensive tackles in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency with seven sacks and 41 total pressures. That’s more sacks than the previous two seasons (five in 23 games) combined. He remains an excellent blocker, especially in the zone game.
OT Joseph Noteboom, Rams (26): A third-round pick in 2018 after running a 4.96 in the 40, Noteboom has 17 starts under his belt. It’s not his fault; he’s been stuck behind a couple of veteran tackles for most of his career. But there’s a lot of potential, which he’s shown in limited duty. Noted SI in its free-agent preview: Noteboom “held up very well starting in place of Whitworth in the Rams’ playoff victory in Tampa Bay. With so many teams desperate for competent tackle play, Noteboom could be in for a surprisingly big contract in free agency.” RE-SIGNING: LOS ANGELES RAMS.
Top 6 Guards
G Brandon Scherff, Commanders (30): The fifth-pick of the 2015 draft has been picked for the Pro Bowl in five of his seven seasons, including three in a row. When he plays, he’s as good as it gets at the position However, he’s missed 22 games the past four seasons due to injuries. He started 11 games in 2021 and didn’t allow a sack, according to Pro Football Focus. SIGNING: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
G Connor Williams, Cowboys (24): A second-round pick in 2018 after playing left tackle at Alabama, Williams has 51 starts under his belt. He’s an athletic fit for a zone scheme. Of 61 regular starting guards, Williams ranked third in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-protecting snaps. PFF charged him with one sack and 13 total pressures. Plus, he takes care of business in the run game. However, he was penalized 15 times, second-worst among guards.
G/C James Daniels, Bears (24): A second-round pick in 2018 with experience at guard and center, Daniels missed most of 2020 due to injury but returned to Pro Bowl-caliber form with 17 starts in 2021. At his age, he is an ascending player who thrives in a zone scheme. PFF charged him with three sacks and 40 total pressures, placing him 43rd in pass-blocking efficiency. He was penalized nine times.
G Laken Tomlinson, 49ers (30): A first-round pick by Detroit in 2015, the was shipped to the 49ers in 2017. Last year, he earned his first Pro Bowl honors. A rock, he’s started every game the past four seasons. According to PFF, he allowed two sacks and 24 total pressures to finish 17th in pass-blocking efficiency. He’s a terrific blocker in the zone game. Noted Orr SI.com’s free-agent preview: “With nearly half the league running a version of Kyle Shanahan’s offense right now, Tomlinson’s ability to win at the snap and position himself against the play side of the defensive tackle is notable.” SIGNING: NEW YORK JETS.
G Austin Corbett, Rams (26): The first pick of the second round in 2018 by the Browns, Cleveland gave up on him in 2019. Their loss was the Rams’ gain. He’s been really good in starting every game the past two seasons in the McVay-Shanahan-LaFleur offense. According to PFF, he allowed three sacks and 34 total pressures to finish 33rd in pass-blocking efficiency. He was penalized only twice. SIGNING: CAROLINA PANTHERS.
G Alex Cappa, Buccaneers (27): A third-round pick out of Humboldt State, Cappa started all but three games the past three seasons. According to PFF, he allowed five sacks and 32 total pressures to finish 22nd in pass-blocking efficiency. He was penalized only once; only Green Bay’s Jon Runyan (zero) had fewer. Noted Gary Gramling in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Wiith Ali Marpet retiring and the team either needing to break in an unproven passer or look outside for a veteran option, Cappa would seem to be an important building block.” SIGNING: CINCINNATI BENGALS.
Top 2 Centers
C Ryan Jensen, Buccaneers (31): A sixth-round pick in 2013, Jensen was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2021. He’s started every game the past five seasons. According to PFF, he allowed two sacks and 21 total pressures to finish ninth in pass-blocking efficiency. His four penalties on passing plays were the most among centers. Noted Conor Orr in SI.com’s huge free-agent preview: “While offensive line value when playing with Tom Brady can get inflated given how quickly Brady got rid of the football and kept himself out of harm’s way, Jensen had some of his best years blocking for the erratic Jameis Winston.”
C Ben Jones, Titans (32): Jones has missed just one game the past eight seasons. According to PFF, he allowed one sack and 26 total pressures to finish 22nd in pass-blocking efficiency. He’s one of the best zone-blocking centers in the league. RE-SIGNING: TENNESSEE TITANS.
Top 10 Defensive Linemen
D.J. Jones, 49ers (27): A sixth-round pick in 2017, Jones started 11 games in 2019, 14 games in 2020 and all 17 games in 2021, when he had two sacks and a career-high 10 tackles for losses. Of 75 interior defenders with at least 250 pass rushes, he ranked 40th in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. Of 75 interior defenders with at least 200 snaps on run defense, he ranked No. 1 in run-stop win rate, a metric that mirrors Green Bay’s win-loss grading. For instance, a solo tackle on first-and-10 that limits the play to 3 yards or less is a run stop (or win); a tackle that holds the play to 4 years is not a run stop. Wrote Conor Orr in SI.com’s huge free-agent preview: “If you’d like a mobile up-front presence who can shift and chase like a middle linebacker, Jones is your man. While the veteran defensive tackle market is almost always a mess, Jones looks like a late bloomer worth gambling a multi-year deal on.”
Akiem Hicks, Bears (32): Hicks’ days as a dominant player are behind him. He had 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses in 2018, (somehow) his only Pro Bowl season. He posted a total of eight sacks and 13 tackles for losses the past three seasons. Injuries haven’t helped; he played in only five games in 2019 and in nine games in 2021. Of the free-agent defensive linemen, Hicks ranked No. 1 in PFF’s pass-rush win rate.
Larry Ogunjobi, Bengals (27): Ogunjobi went from 2.5 sacks and five tackles for losses in 2020, his final season with Cleveland, to seven sacks and 12 tackles for losses in 2021 with the Bengals. He’s started all but three games the past four seasons. He ranked 46th in PFF’s pass-rush win rate but 23rd in run-stop percentage. SIGNING: CHICAGO BEARS.
Folorunso Fatukasi, Jets (27): Fatukaski is right out of Central Casting at 6-foot-4 and 318 pounds. He started 15 games last season. The stats (zero sacks, five tackles for losses in 2021 and two sacks and 18 TFLs in four seasons) hardly speak to his impact. He ranked 11th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. Wrote Gary Gramling in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “He’s a two-down player, but Fatukasi is dominant against the run, and his work on the nose frees up his teammates. With the power run game coming back into style, Fatukasi is hitting the market at an ideal time.” SIGNING: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
B.J. Hill, Bengals (26): A third-round pick by the Giants in 2018, he started 12 games as a rookie and only seven games since – including two starts in 2021, his debut season with Cincinnati. He matched his career high with 5.5 sacks, and his 12 quarterback hits were only one off his career total. Mostly used as a pass rusher, he ranked 27th among interior defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. RE-SIGNING: CINCINNATI BENGALS.
Sebastian Joseph-Day, Rams (26): Joseph-Day missed the second half of last season with a torn pectoral. In seven games, he had a career-high three sacks and was on his way to obliterating his career high for tackles. Even with a decent number of sacks in limited action, he would have ranked 65th in pass-rush win rate had he played 250 pass-rushing snaps. SIGNED: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS.
Calais Campbell, Ravens (35): Campbell is a six-time Pro Bowler and potential Hall of Famer with career totals of 93.5 sacks and 161 tackles for losses. While he had only 1.5 sacks in 15 games for the Ravens, he still produced 12 quarterback hits, his 11th consecutive season hitting double figures. He ranked 32nd among interior defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. Had he played enough run-defending snaps to qualify, he would have ranked fifth in run-stop percentage. If your team needs a long-term solution on the defensive line, keep looking. If you need an immediate boost, Campbell is a strong fit.
Ndamukong Suh, Buccaneers (35): Like Campbell, if you’re looking for a one-year rental, Suh is your guy. He is the defense’s version of Adrian Peterson – without the off-the-field issues. He’s just an ageless wonder. No, he’s not the dominant player he was in 2016, when he was voted to his fifth and final Pro Bowl team. But he’s impervious to injury. He’s missed two games in his 12-year career – and those missed games were in 2011. In 2021, he recorded six sacks for the second consecutive year. He’s had at least a dozen quarterback hits in 11 of 12 seasons. He ranked only 59th among interior defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate and was third-to-last in run-stop percentage. Suh played 718 snaps last year, an average of 42.2 per game. That’s the fewest snaps of his career.
Harrison Phillips, Bills (26): A third-round pick in 2018, Phillips started a career-high eight games in 2021. His 51 tackles, one sack, four tackles for losses and six quarterback hits weren’t great but they equaled (or close to equaled) his combined totals from his first three seasons. He ranked 19th in PFF’s run-stop percentage but rarely played on passing downs. At the 2018 Combine, he muscled up 42 reps on the 225-pound bench press. SIGNED: MINNESOTA VIKINGS.
Linval Joseph, Chargers (33): Joseph earned Pro Bowl honors for the Vikings in 2016 and 2017. In his prime, he was a run-stuffing, quarterback-pressuring defensive tackle. Now, he’s a massive run-stopper and merely a pocket-pushing tackle. He had one sack and three tackles for losses in 14 games (12 starts) in 2021. While he rarely put his fingers on the quarterback (one sack, one hit), he tied for 16th in PFF’s pass-rush win rate and 20th in run-stop percentage.
Top 10 Outside Linebackers
Chandler Jones, Cardinals (32): Pro Bowl Voting Is Stupid, Exhibit A: Jones has been picked for only four Pro Bowls in 10 seasons, even though he’s eclipsed 10 sacks on seven occasions and ranks second among active players with 107.5 career sacks and first with 33 forced fumbles. Wrote Conor Orr SI.com’s huge free-agent preview: “While teams were able to take advantage of a depressed market last year to grab elite pass rushers at bargain-basement prices, Jones will provide a fascinating litmus test as to how much teams will be willing to spend. As one GM put it: He’s older, but he’s elite, and there’s an exceptional draft class coming down the pike. On one hand, this could make for the value buy of the offseason. On the other, Jones is smart enough to know his worth and could cost a pretty penny if win-now clubs aren’t interested in developing an edge from scratch.”
Von Miller, Rams (32): Miller, who will turn 33 on March 26, had 9.5 sacks last season – 4.5 in seven games with Denver to start the season and 5.0 in eight games after being acquired by the Rams for second- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft. In four postseason games, he recorded four sacks, six tackles for losses and one forced fumble. He is No. 1 among active players with 115.5 sacks. Is Miller really available, considering all the hints he’s dropped about returning to Denver?
Haason Reddick, Panthers (27): The 13th pick in 2017 recorded 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2020 and 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2021. Nonetheless, of 74 edge defenders with at least 250 pass-rushing snaps, he ranked only 49th in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. He’s an underrated run defender. Wrote Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Reddick is an interesting test case for where the market is headed. He fit in well with the blitz-happy Panthers, who tried to create exotic looks and manufactured pressure to compensate for their lack of a secondary. But where does he fit in an NFL that is increasingly trying to hang back and accentuate coverage? Quarterbacks are getting better at handling the blitz every waking second. Can Reddick, who has a career completion percentage allowed in the mid-70s but the speed to drop into zones and obscure passing lanes, justify big dollars as a backfield chaos agent?” SIGNING: PHILADELPHIA EAGLES.
Za'Darius Smith, Packers (29): Green Bay released Smith on Monday.
Emmanuel Ogbah, Dolphins (28): Ogbah really has blossomed into an underrated pass rusher. In 2020, he set a career high with nine tackles and 21 quarterback hits. In 2021, he had nine sacks and 24 quarterback hits. He ranked 41st out of 74 edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. Ogbah played all 33 games the past two seasons. He’s spent all six seasons as a 4-3 end. RE-SIGNING: MIAMI DOLPHINS.
Jadeveon Clowney, Browns (29): Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowler, made some money this season. After recording three sacks in 11 games for Seattle in 2019 and zero sacks in eight games for Tennessee in 2020, he bounced back with nine sacks in 2021 for Cleveland. He ranked 28th out of 74 edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. More than just a pass rusher, he will set a physical edge.
Derek Barnett, Eagles (25): A first-round pick in 2017, Barnett has 21.5 sacks and 36 tackles for losses in five seasons. He had only two sacks in 16 games in 2021. He’s spent all five seasons as a 4-3 defensive end. He ranked 43rd out of 74 edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. As Orr noted, Barnett played alongside premier defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and “never managed to dominate, despite an NFC East poor in offensive line play, which also happened to be a quarterbacking black hole.” He is one of the top run defenders in the league, though.
Uchenna Nwosu, Chargers (25): A second-round pick in 2018, Nwosu got his first chance to start last season and responded with career highs of five sacks, 17 quarterback hits and eight tackles for losses. Nwosu ranked 51st out of 74 edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. He’s expendable now that the Chargers traded for Khalil Mack. If the Packers had the money, he’d be exactly what they’re looking for in terms of an edge rusher who is comfortable in coverage.
Randy Gregory, Cowboys (29): The greatest ability is availability, a wise man (Mike McCarthy) liked to say. And therein lies the problem with Gregory. His greatest ability is rushing the passer. His greatest liability is being unavailable. A second-round pick in 2015 by Dallas, he started only one game in his first six years as a professional. In 2021, he played in 12 games with 11 starts and matched his career high with six sacks and set a career high with 17 quarterback hits. He ranked 20th out of 74 edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush win rate. However, he was suspended for 14 games in 2016, all 16 games in 2017, two games in 2018, all 16 games in 2019 and the first six games in 2020. In 2021, he went on IR with a calf injury, then had offseason knee surgery. How much money will a team be willing to spend for sacks or flush down the toilet?
Wrote Gary Gramling in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “He’s a prototypical edge rusher hitting the market at a time when everyone is blitzing less and banking on four-man pass-rush dominance; Gregory could be this year’s Trey Hendrickson. However, multiple suspensions over the course of his career, issues as a run defender and the fact that he’s never played more than 457 snaps in a season mean he is a huge risk on a multiyear deal.”
Jerry Hughes, Bills (33): On one hand, Hughes had seven sacks in 2018, 4.5 sacks in 2019 and 2020, and two sacks in 2021. His seven quarterback hits and one tackle for loss were his lowest marks in a decade. On the other hand, Hughes has missed all of one game over the past 10 seasons and he ranked 10th in PFF’s pass-rush win rate among the 74 edge rushers with at least 250 pass-rushing snaps. He’s played in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes.
Top 9 Inside Linebackers
LB Bobby Wagner, Seahawks (31): Wagner was released last week after 10 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons in the middle of the Seahawks’ defense. He was a first-team All-Pro for five consecutive seasons – including Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 – before being merely a second-team All-Pro last year. He led the NFL in tackles in 2016 and 2019 and solo tackles in 2017. In 2021, he started 16 games and tallied a resounding 170 tackles.
LB De’Vondre Campbell, Packers (28): Campbell finished seventh in the NFL with 145 tackles. He added six tackles for losses, six quarterback hits, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Before sitting out the finale, he led the NFL with 101 solo tackles. Of the 34 players with at least 107 tackles, Campbell and Washington’s Cole Holcomb were the only players with at least one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. His missed-tackle rate of 3.0 percent ranked second among NFL starters. RE-SIGNING: GREEN BAY PACKERS.
Wrote Conor Orr in SI.com’s huge free-agent preview: “Campbell controlled games from the defensive side of the ball this season, almost like a basketball savant can completely alter the course of a game against less-heady talent. Campbell was in on almost every play, was incredibly deft when dodging big blockers and could dictate the offensive game plan by jamming himself into the A-gap and deciding whether to storm the backfield. Without hyperbole, it’s safe to call him one of the best free agent values of the last decade as a member of the Packers last year. His next team (or current one) will have to pay handsomely for the privilege now.”
LB Foyesade Oluokun, Falcons (26): A sixth-round pick in 2018, Oluokun started 10 games his first two seasons before emerging as a real star. In 2020, he tallied 117 tackles and four forced fumbles. In 2021, he led the NFL with 192 tackles and added two sacks, three interceptions and six passes defensed. Coming out of Yale, he ran his 40 in 4.48 seconds. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, he could hardly look more different than the rangy Campbell. SIGNING: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS.
LB Alexander Johnson, Broncos (30): Johnson was a part of the 2015 draft class but went undrafted after being indicted for sexual assault. He was acquitted in July 2018 and signed as an undrafted rookie with the Broncos a couple weeks later. Johnson started 12 games in 2019 and all 16 games in 2020 but missed most of last season with a torn pectoral. He had 124 tackles in 2020. Wrote Gary Gramling in SI’s free-agent preview: “Johnson has emerged as an explosive, sure-tackling linebacker at a time when the league has few of them. There are limitations in coverage, though a team that asks him to blitz more often might have itself one of the NFL’s better three-down ’backers.”
LB Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys (26): A first-round pick in 2018, Vander Esch piled up 140 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defensed during an All-Pro rookie season. Injuries limited him to nine games in 2019 and 10 games in 2020. Healthy again, he had only 77 tackles last season. It will be interesting to see if he gets a long-term contract or settles on a one-year, prove-it deal in hopes of resurrecting his career like Campbell.
LB Anthony Barr, Vikings (29): Barr, who will turn 30 next week, was voted to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2015 through 2018. However, he missed 14 games in 2020 and six games in 2021. He tallied 72 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a career-high three interceptions and five passes defensed last season. He remains a solid, do-it-all linebacker but there’s no reason to believe he’s going to return to Pro Bowl form.
LB Cory Littleton, Raiders (28): You’ve got to think if the Packers lose Campbell that Littleton will be Plan B. The Packers wanted him in free agency a couple years ago but he was signed by the Raiders. Vegas gave up on him after two so-so- seasons. In 2021, he played in 17 games (13 starts) and had 98 tackles (11 misses) and four passes defensed. His best season came in 2019 with the Rams, when he posted 134 tackles (one miss), 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes defensed. His position coach? Joe Barry.
LB Kyzir White, Chargers (25): White, who will turn 26 in a couple weeks, played safety at West Virginia but moved to linebacker with the Chargers. In 2021, he started all 17 games and finished with 144 tackles, seven tackles for losses, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. At 216 pounds, he obviously needs help from the guys up front to keep blockers off him. When he gets it, he’s incredibly good at getting to the ball and making the play (missed-tackle rate of 5.3 percent ranked ninth).
LB Anthony Walker, Browns (26): A fifth-round pick in 2017, he’s started the past four seasons. Even while missing four games due to injury, he recorded 113 tackles in 2021 – his third season topping 100 stops. He has three career interceptions, highlighting his excellent coverage skills. Critically, he’s improved his tackling after missing ball-carriers left and right in 2019.
Top 8 Cornerbacks
CB Carlton Davis, Buccaneers (25): A second-round pick in 2018, Davis lacks J.C. Jackson’s flash but is the more consistent player. He had four interceptions in 2020 and three consecutive seasons of double-digits deflections. According to PFF, his 54.8 percent catch rate ranked 14th out of 90 corners with 50 percent playing time. For a player with his size and talent, he misses too many tackles. Somehow, he has not been a Pro Bowler. Wrote Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Thick enough to battle some of the league’s better nonburner wideouts, Davis is a potential No. 1 for a secondary that might be devoid of playmakers. While he is, at times, susceptible against straight linear speed (who isn’t without adequate safety help?), Davis is physical and doesn’t get lost in bunch and trip formation plays that seem to pin down a lot of good cornerbacks in legal traffic.” RE-SIGNING: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS.
CB J.C. Jackson, Patriots (26): An undrafted free agent in 2018, Jackson has 25 career interceptions. He picked off nine passes with 14 passes defensed in 2020 and had an encore season of eight interceptions and a league-leading 23 passes defensed in 2021. According to PFF, his 51.0 percent catch rate ranked fifth out of 90 corners with 50 percent playing time. Wrote Conor Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “We seem to get caught in the following cycle: Bill Belichick coaches up a player whom all 32 teams passed on multiple times, helps him become a star and then, at the end of the contract, starts the process over while clubs pay heavy sums of money to sign the player. We’re not saying Jackson is bad, but we are saying that he plays for one of the most detail-oriented coaches in football.” SIGNING: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS.
CB Charvarius Ward, Chiefs (25): An undrafted free agent in 2018, Ward started the past three seasons with four interceptions and 26 passes defensed. According to PFF, his 50.0 percent catch rate ranked third out of 90 corners with 50 percent playing time. He’s also an excellent tackler. Wrote Gary Gramling in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Ward was constantly tasked with holding up in single coverage playing under Steve Spagnuolo, and he held up admirably in that role. Boundary corners who can hold their own without safety help are few and far between, and at 26 he is just entering his prime.”
CB Donte Jackson, Panthers (26): A second-round pick in 2018, Jackson has steadily produced his 12 interceptions and 38 passes defensed. That includes two interceptions and 10 passes defensed even while playing in only 12 games because of a groin injury. He has missed 10 games the past three years. Wrote Gramling: “One of the fastest players in the NFL, Jackson would seem to have some untapped ability when it comes to man coverage (the Panthers have collected young cornerbacks, but have failed to develop any yet.” He’s got 4.32 speed.
CB Stephon Gilmore, Panthers (31): When the Patriots announced they were ready to part ways with the perennial Pro Bowler, the Packers were interested. Instead, Gilmore went to Carolina and the Packers got Rasul Douglas. Funny how things work out. He had two interceptions and two passes defensed in nine games, a far cry from his league-leading six picks and 20 passes defensed in 2019. Wrote Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “At one time the best cornerback in the NFL, Gilmore succeeded before playing under Belichick and played well after. Despite the league becoming a young man’s game at the position, Gilmore’s performance against the Kyle Pittses of the world bodes well for the near future. Years of mastery simply don’t go to waste the older one gets.”
CB Darious Williams, Rams (29): At 5-foot-9, the Packers won’t be interested but it is interesting to note that he went undrafted – making him the third coveted corner on this list. He had four interceptions in 2020 and is an excellent tackler. Wrote Gramling: “Undrafted and then cast off by Baltimore early in his career, Williams developed into a rock as the Rams’ second corner. He’s undersized and benefitted from a lot of safety help while playing across from Jalen Ramsey and in a scheme heavy on split-safety looks, but Williams is quick, instinctive and rarely gave up big plays in L.A.”
CB Casey Hayward, Raiders (32): A second-round pick by Green Bay in 2012, Hayward had six interceptions during a prodigious rookie season. He missed most of 2013, had three picks in 2014 and zero in 2015. So, Ted Thompson let him go – only to see Hayward intercept seven passes during his first season with the Chargers. Playing for the Raiders last season, he had one interception and nine passes defensed. According to PFF, his 54.5 percent catch rate ranked 12th out of 90 corners with 50 percent playing time. He’s played in every game seven of the past eight seasons.
CB Rasul Douglas, Packers (27): Douglas had a legendary season. Cut twice in training camp and languishing on Arizona’s practice squad, Douglas saved the day with Alexander out with a shoulder injury. In 12 games (nine starts), he had five interceptions and 13 passes defensed. He had only five interceptions in 60 games his first four seasons. According to PFF, his 50.8 percent catch rate ranked fourth out of 90 corners with 50 percent playing time. Studious and instinctive, the ball seemed to find him. He also was good against the run and excellent on special teams.
Top 7 Safeties
S Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals (29): An All-Pro and/or Pro Bowler the past three seasons, Mathieu is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. In his three seasons with the Chiefs, he produced 13 interceptions and 27 passes defensed. He’s missed only three games the past five seasons. Wrote Conor Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Whenever Mathieu is available, it’s puzzling as to why there is not a line out the door. Now fully transformed from the red-flag-laden “Honey Badger” misnomer of his past, Mathieu is simply an elite safety who can play anywhere, do anything or help anyone. Mathieu has played at least 94 percent of his teams’ snaps each year since 2017 and seems to be evolving as a from-anywhere pass rusher in addition to his sturdy coverage abilities.”
S Marcus Williams, Saints (25): A second-round pick in 2017, Williams has 15 interceptions and three forced fumbles in five seasons. Wrote Orr in SI.com’s free-agent preview: “Perhaps the most enticing prospect in free agency not named Davante Adams, Williams checks all the boxes as a franchise building block. He’ll enter next year in his age-26 season, coming off his best year against the pass – an opposing quarterback completion percentage under 50 percent – and one of his best seasons as a tackler. Williams has perfected the art of center fielder in Dennis Allen’s offense but also adds a certain thickness as a front-seven defender if he has to crawl into the box.”
S Marcus Maye, Jets (29): A second-round pick in 2017, Maye has been excellent when healthy. However, he missed 10 games in 2018 due to a litany of injuries and 11 games in 2021 due to a torn Achilles. In five seasons, he has six interception and four forced fumbles. He had four tackles for losses during his abbreviated 2021. Wrote Orr: “Maye represents a potential low-dollar, high-value signing for a team that could buy in on a safety who was considered among the league’s best just a year ago. It wasn’t that long ago that we were finger-wagging at GM Joe Douglas for low-balling Maye on a long-term deal before ultimately franchising him.”
S Jordan Whitehead, Buccaneers (24): Whitehead has five interceptions, 25 passes defensed and two forced fumbles while starting 55 games the past four seasons. His hard-hitting style was most evident in the 2020 NFC Championship Game, when his hit on Aaron Jones forced a critical fumble that resulted in a broken rib. He’ll turn 25 next week.
S Jayron Kearse, Cowboys (28): A seventh-round pick in 2016, Kearse started five games in four seasons with Minnesota and seven games in one season in Detroit before finding his home in Dallas. In 16 games (15 starts), Kearse was really good with two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He also had 101 tackles, including nine for losses. At 6-foot-4, he’s a coverage weapon.
S Justin Reid, Texans (25): Reid has seven interceptions, 23 passes defensed and two forced fumbles since entering the league as a third-round pick in 2017. However, he missed three games in 2020 and four games in 2021. He was fairly mediocre in 2021, which won’t help his value.
S Xavier Woods, Vikings (26): A sixth-round pick in 2017, Woods has been productive with eight interceptions, 29 passes defensed and five forced fumbles in five seasons. He had career highs with three picks and 108 tackles with Minnesota last season. He can do a little bit of everything in the secondary. SIGNED: CAROLINA PANTHERS.