Another Super Bowl has come and gone, but the beauty of the NFL season as that it never really ends. One season seamlessly blends into the next, and even as the Los Angeles Rams continue to bask in the glow of defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 56, football fans of all 32 teams are readying themselves for the next big NFL spectacle: Free agency.
March 14 is the first day of the “legal” tampering period, where prospective 2022 free agents can begin negotiating with teams, and that day is just around the corner.
And while most of the attention will go to the glamour positions on offense, this year’s class of free agents on the defensive side of the ball is as star-studded as any in recent memory. Let’s break down the top five defensive free agents
5. Jessie Bates, Safety
Bates had a terrific free-agency audition in the playoffs for the Cincinnati Bengals, recording a pair of interceptions and racking up 20 tackles over four games. He is a candidate for the franchise tag, but if the Bengals decide his mediocre regular season carried more weight than a solid postseason, they could let him walk.
He will not command the type of salary someone like J.C. Jackson or even a veteran safety like Tyrann Mathieu should expect to receive in free agency, but he could be a difference-maker for a team with a younger profile, like the Detroit Lions.
4. Marcus Williams, Safety
It has now been five years since Jackson’s cringe-worthy matador impersonation against Stefon Diggs in the 2017 NFC Divisional Round Playoff game that resulted in a crushing defeat for the New Orleans Saints. To Williams enormous credit, he did not let the blunder derail his career. Instead, he has become one of the top safeties in the league, and should hit the jackpot in free agency.
Williams was franchised in 2021 and set a career high in tackles. He also played nearly every down for the Saints, and that durability will only enhance his resume for potential suitors. He’s only 25 and entering his career prime.
3. J.C. Jackson, Cornerback
There is little question that should Jackson hit the free agent market, he is the top cornerback available by a wide margin. The question is, will the New England Patriots allow Jackson to test that market in 2022, or beyond?
It seems increasingly likely that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to Jackson at around $18 million for 2022 to at least ensure they get one more season out of the first-time Pro Bowler in 2021. And that buys the Patriots another year to try and finesse a long-term deal that makes sense for them under the salary cap. They already extended safety Adrian Phillips and are likely to lose Devin McCourty. Keeping Jackson is almost certainly Plan A in Foxboro.
2. Chandler Jones, Edge
Jones had a bounce-back season in 2021 for the Arizona Cardinals, totaling 10.5 sacks, although it should be noted that he collected about half of that number in a five-sack performance in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. Still, Jones, at age 31, had 36 quarterback pressures and 26 QB hits.
It is unlikely that the Cardinals will franchise Jones, who wanted an extension before entering the final year of his five-year deal last season and didn’t get it. He will be another year removed from the biceps injury that cut his 2020 season short and should be motivated to make good on what is probably going to be the final big contract of his career.
1. Von Miller, Edge
There was a time shortly before his trade from the Denver Broncos to the Los Angeles Rams when it seemed maybe Miller’s best days were behind him. That was clearly not the case, as Miller became a huge catalyst on defense as the Rams closed in on a Super Bowl title.
The 32-year-old edge rusher collected four sacks in the Rams’ three postseason games, giving him nine total over the 11 games he played for Los Angeles in 2022. He still has a lot to offer, and if the Rams decide to let him go in a bid to clear salary cap room, Miller could be a steal for the right suitor.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference