NFL Free Agency: Predicting Who Could Reset Position Markets Next Year

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    The first wave of the 2022 NFL free-agency signing period has come and gone. With it came some massive contracts for the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby and several others.

    Now that the surge of long-term big-money deals is over, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2023 offseason and the next round of blockbuster signings.

    There are plenty of superstars set to seek a big payday next spring, and with that will come a reset of several positional markets.

    The salary cap rose significantly in 2022 and should continue to climb next year, giving organizations more flexibility to offer mega deals to the top free agents.  

    Most positions are in line to have a market reset, but some may not reach new highs in 2023.

    There is a relatively weak crop of tight ends entering free agency next year and the running back class may have some big names—Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs come to mind—but record-breaking contracts haven’t exactly been paying off for teams at the position.

    Read on to find out which players could pace their positions when they cash in next offseason.    

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Lamar Jackson is far and away the top quarterback able to enter free agency next year.

    Teams desperate for a franchise signal-caller will be willing to give Jackson something close to a blank check if the Baltimore Ravens can’t reach a long-term extension with the superstar before he reaches the open market.

    The 2018 No. 32 overall pick has already made a pair of Pro Bowl appearances and was named NFL MVP in 2019 after a breakout sophomore campaign.

    He’s become one of the most winningest quarterbacks in the last four years, posting a 37-12 record as a starter while leading the Ravens to three playoff trips.

    While Jackson did have a down year in 2021—Baltimore went 7-5 in his starts, and he threw for a meager 16 touchdowns against a career-high 13 interceptions—he still earned a Pro Bowl nod before an ankle injury cost him the final four games of the season.

    Despite the disappointing campaign, there is still a great chance that Jackson will sign his name to one of the biggest contracts in NFL history. His average annual salary should easily eclipse $40 million, with Spotrac projecting his market value at $43.1 million per year.

    Aaron Rodgers recently set the market with an extension that will pay him over $50 million per year. 

    With how weak the 2023 class of free agents at the position looks, Jackson should have little issues negotiating a massive extension with the Ravens and could vastly surpass Spotrac’s estimated value. At worst, he’d earn a fully guaranteed $31.5 million while playing on the franchise tag.  

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The 2023 free-agency class will be defined by the wide receiver position.

    The group includes several bona fide superstars. In a year in which Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, A.J. Brown and Diontae Johnson are all set to hit the open market, DK Metcalf may just be the most valuable of the bunch.

    He has been a consistent force since landing with the Seattle Seahawks as the No. 64 pick in the 2019 draft. He’s hauled in 216 of his 358 targets for 3,170 yards and 29 touchdowns, with 22 of those scores coming in the last two years alone.

    His work hasn’t exactly been recognized in the form of accolades. He earned a second-team All-Pro nod and made his lone Pro Bowl appearance in 2020. But his next contract should speak volumes about his production and upside.

    Metcalf and his contemporaries are all projected to cash in on new deals worth over $20 million per season, but the Seahawks star could have more value than the rest because of his age and ceiling.

    The Ole Miss product won’t turn 25 until late in the 2022 campaign, making him roughly two years younger than McLaurin and Samuel. And he’s been more productive than fellow 2019 second-rounder Brown over the last three years.

    Factor in Metcalf’s unteachable 6’4″, 235-pound frame and blazing speed, and you have someone with the makeup of a transcendent player.

    Tyreek Hill set the market for star wideouts with a contract extension that will pay him $30 million annually. Due to Metcalf’s sheer talent and an extended prime he’s just now entering, he could be the first to eclipse that lofty mark.  

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Interior offensive linemen generally struggle to make as much as their counterparts on the outside, but Quenton Nelson has positioned himself to sign for much more than the average guard.

    The Indianapolis Colts star is likely to become the highest-paid interior offensive lineman in the 2023 class.

    While he did exceptionally well at run-blocking while helping Jonathan Taylor emerge as the NFL’s leading rusher last year, Nelson is more than just a road-grader.

    The three-time first-team All-Pro is a standout pass protector who has only given up four sacks across 4,029 career snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Although his grade at PFF fell to a pedestrian 69.1 last year following back-to-back seasons of scoring 86.2 or higher, he only gave up a single sack despite dealing with lingering injuries and still made the Pro Bowl despite missing four games.

    Unless it becomes a trend, that slight dip in production won’t stop teams from making a record-setting offer for Nelson’s services.   

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Shoring up the left tackle position is right below finding a franchise quarterback on most teams’ to-do lists.

    There won’t be many opportunities to check that off during the 2023 offseason, but whichever organization comes to terms with Orlando Brown Jr. will do so.

    Brown is the No. 1 impending free agent at the position by a wide margin. He’s been one of the league’s best blindside protectors since he moved over from the right side during the 2020 campaign.

    The 25-year-old has made Pro Bowls at both tackle positions, with his third and most recent nod coming during his first year with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021.

    Brown returned to the team that gave up a hefty amount to acquire him last offseason on the franchise tag, and he is positioned to cash in on a multiyear deal next spring.

    Spotrac estimated Brown’s next contract will have an average annual value of around $23.3 million.

    That’s more than Trent Williams made on his historic deal last year and around $8 million more than New England Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn is projected to earn in his next contract following a steady 2021 campaign protecting rookie quarterback Mac Jones.  

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    Matt Durisko/Associated Press

    Roquan Smith is one of the better linebackers in the NFL and will finally get paid as such on his next contract.

    The 25-year-old is on the final year of his rookie deal after entering the NFL in 2018 as the No. 8 overall pick. Since then, the Georgia product racked up an eye-popping 524 tackles, 17 pass defenses, 14 sacks and five interceptions, one of which he returned for a score last year.

    Despite his steady production, Smith has been snubbed for the Pro Bowl every year. He finally earned some recognition with second-team All-Pro nods in each of the last two seasons and is in line to be further recognized with a massive contract next spring.

    Spotrac estimated Smith will make $17.6 million annually on his next deal.

    While the linebacker spot isn’t one that teams generally tend to overspend on in the modern NFL, players of Smith’s caliber can be worth the splurge.

    A franchise looking to shore up the middle of its defense with a sturdy young linebacker won’t find many suitable options outside of Smith next year, meaning he could surpass Darius Leonard as the highest-paid off-ball linebacker.

    Tremaine Edmunds, the athletically gifted but polarizing Buffalo Bills interior linebacker, is the only other player at the position projected to sign a significant long-term contract in 2023.

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Pass-rushers are at a premium in the modern NFL. Top-tier edge-rushers will be even more rare in next year’s free-agent class when Marcus Davenport will be one of a few elite options.

    That scarcity should result in the New Orleans Saints star securing a monster payday.

    Spotrac already estimated that Davenport will ink a deal worth over $23 million per year, approximately $10 million more than Bradley Chubb is expected to get.

    Davenport is coming off a breakout campaign in which he notched a career-high nine sacks, bringing his total to 21 over four years in the NFL. He generated 21 pressures, recording six hurries and five knockdowns to go along with 39 tackles in 2021.

    While the No. 14 overall pick in 2018 has yet to make an All-Pro team or even earn a Pro Bowl nod, his impact is clearly being recognized. He scored an impressive 88.8 grade at PFF last year (85-89 is Pro Bowl-caliber) and has firmly removed any lingering doubts about his abilities following a relatively slow start to his career.

    The Saints pass-rusher may not get Myles Garrett money next spring, but with one more strong season under his belt, Davenport will have a realistic chance of at least matching the Cleveland Browns star due to the dearth of edge-rushing talent projected to be available. 

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward has set himself up to be one of the highest-paid players at his position heading into the 2022 campaign.

    If the 24-year-old continues developing along his current trajectory, he should have little issue signing a new deal worth upward of $20 million per season.

    According to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, former NFL agent Joel Corry believes Ward’s floor is around the $19.4 million AAV that his Ohio State teammate Marshon Lattimore received at the start of the 2021 campaign.

    Although Ward, a two-time Pro Bowler, has missed time each of the last four years with injury, he’s a major asset when he’s on the field. He’s never allowed a completion rate over 60.3 percent in a single season and has already racked up 10 interceptions in 52 games.

    The No. 4 overall pick in 2018 won’t turn 25 until later this month. If Ward can stay healthy and put together another steady campaign in 2022, he’ll surely rake it in on his next contract.

    Jaire Alexander, the standout Green Bay Packers defensive back, will also help determine the cornerback market next year. Spotrac estimated he’ll earn nearly $16 million annually.   

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Despite missing over two-thirds of his second season and his entire third campaign because of injury, Derwin James is poised to become one of the league’s highest-paid safeties in 2023.

    He’s made All-Pro teams in each of his healthy seasons and could sign a record-setting contract if he is able to repeat the feat again during the 2022 campaign, surpassing the $17.5 million AAV that Jamal Adams paces the safety position with.

    James, the No. 17 pick in the 2018 draft, didn’t let a stress fracture in his right foot and a torn meniscus in back-to-back years derail his career. He posted a career-high 118 tackles and seven tackles for loss while adding five pass defenses, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks in 2021.

    He was a standout in coverage, allowing only a 56.7 percent completion rate for just 327 yards and one touchdown.

    Spotrac is estimating James will earn $15.5 million annually on his next deal, even though he won’t be the only elite safety hitting the open market next year.

    The market will further materialize when Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jessie Bates III and Jabrill Peppers all sign the first big contract of their careers. Spotrac believes the deals will fall in the $12-15 million range.


    Contract projections and market values courtesy of Spotrac