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1 pending free agent each NFL team should bring back in 2022

NFL contracts not signed beyond 2021 expire at 4 p.m. ET March 16, meaning that teams have from the end of the season until that time to sign their pending free agents to contract extensions. A few will get tagged (the franchise tag period begins Feb. 22), some will get extensions, but it’s a good bet most of the players set to reach unrestricted free agency will do so.

But if we were in charge, these are the players we’d keep — one per team as decided by the NFL Wire staff.

Patriots CB J.C. Jackson

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots’ list of must-retain free agents is extremely long, from Jackson to Trent Brown to Dont’a Hightower (and so many others). Ultimately, the Patriots defense wouldn’t be successful if not for Jackson, who has been an enormously consistent contributor (playing in every game) at the highest level a cornerback can play. Whether they franchise tag him or extend him, the Patriots need Jackson back in 2022. — Henry McKenna, Patriots Wire

Bills DT Harrison Phillips

Democrat and Chronicle

It’s been some ride for Harrison Phillips. As his rookie contract expires, injuries have derailed his career, and Phillips is even playing on a PCL issue this season. Despite that, he is finally rounding into top form, which it looked like he was achieving before tearing his ACL in 2019. Phillips has become an asset as a run stopper that can even get after the quarterback a bit from the middle of the D-line. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 13th best DT in the league, but this will come down to dollars vs. injury. How much will the Bills want to shell out for someone with injury concerns? They did for LB Matt Milano last offseason. Nick Wojton, Bills Wire

Jets WR Braxton Berrios

The Record

Berrios has been the Jets’ most reliable playmaker in the second half of the season, contributing to New York’s passing attack, ground game and return efforts. Perfect timing, too, as the longtime backup has set himself up for a nice payday. The Jets should have no issue being the ones to write that check, as it’s unlikely they re-sign starting slot receiver Jamison Crowder, another impending free agent. If Berrios returns, he’ll have even more room to grow in 2022. — Gary Phillips, Jets Wire

Dolphins DE Emmanuel Ogbah

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For the Dolphins, there should be two players at the top of their priority list to retain. At this point, Ogbah barely inches out tight end Mike Gesicki. The edge rusher has 82 total tackles, 45 quarterback hits, 18 sacks, and 15 passes defended (10 this year) in his almost two full seasons with Miami. His mix of strength and explosiveness makes him a weapon on the edge. Having Ogbah and Jaelan Phillips on opposite sides of the line could end up being a deadly combination for years, and with the Dolphins having the most projected cap space for this offseason, they have the money to make it happen. — Mike Masala, Dolphins Wire

Ravens C Bradley Bozeman

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens have plenty of pending free agents that they’ll have to make decisions on during the 2022 offseason, but Bozeman is arguably the most important one. Baltimore hasn’t had stable play from the center position for a few years, and Bozeman has stepped in and given them just that. It can be hard to find quality centers at the NFL level, and while the Ravens might have to shell out a bit of money to keep him, it’s absolutely worth it for a player who has shown he can play at a high level and has also entrenched himself as a key part of the Baltimore community. — Kevin Oestreicher, Ravens Wire

Browns DE Jadeveon Clowney

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

While Cleveland didn’t reach their goals this season, Clowney was a constant contributor on the defensive line. With no one on the team ready to replace him, the Browns need to bring back the former top pick in the draft to give Myles Garrett an edge partner. Clowney was impactful against both the run and pass in 2021 and was able to stay mostly healthy. He could be in line for a big payday in 2022. — Jared Mueller, Browns Wire

Bengals S Jessie Bates

(Albert Cesare / The Enquirer-Imagn Content Services, LLC)

The Bengals have a few noteworthy free agents to retain, but none more important than Bates. He’s a rarer sort of coverage safety who can operate in the deep middle. After grading as one of the NFL’s best a season ago he’s regressed, but the defense’s performance when he’s off the field dramatically dips. The Bengals have the luxury of top-5 cap space in 2022 while building around a rookie quarterback contract, so franchise-tagging Bates or front-loading an extension are simple solutions. — Chris Roling, Bengals Wire

Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon

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With it unlikely that cornerback Joe Haden returns, the Steelers can’t let Witherspoon leave. After being inactive for his first few weeks with the team, Witherspoon has really stepped up showing an excellent nose for the football. Keeping Witherspoon in the fold would remove one of the Steelers most pressing offseason needs. Witherspoon has appeared in eight games with two starts and leads the team with three interceptions. — Curt Popejoy, Steelers Wire

Colts S George Odum

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts have their starters in Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon but the latter will be coming off of a torn Achilles. Meanwhile, Odum has always proven to be viable depth in the safety room and has given the Colts All-Pro level impact on special teams. Depth in the secondary will be a need this offseason, but there’s no reason to turn Odum away from a new contract. — Kevin Hickey, Colts Wire

Texans LB Kamu Grugier-Hill

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The former Super Bowl LII champion leads the team in tackles (101) and tackles for loss (12), which is a testament to his leadership on and off the field. As Houston works through its rebuild, the team will need cornerstone player such as Grugier-Hill who can show young players how to prepare while also providing meaningful production on the field. — Mark Lane, Texans Wire

Titans EDGE Harold Landry

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A former second-round pick of the Titans, Landry is having his best season as a pro in 2021. His 12 sacks are a career-high and have helped Tennessee turn around a pass-rush and defense that was putrid last season. It has been a long time since the Titans had an edge rusher as dominant as Landry, so he should be priority No. 1 this offseason. — Mike Moraitis, Titans Wire

Jaguars WR DJ Chark Jr

[Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

The Jaguars are coming up on an offseason in which they need to reinforce their receiver corps. With potential free-agent options like Chris Godwin and Michael Gallup suffering from ACL tears, Jacksonville is in a spot where it would probably be wise to re-sign DJ Chark Jr. Prior to breaking his ankle in Week 4, Chark was a player the Jags had high hopes for, and their new coaching staff could want to bring back an target who is familiar with Trevor Lawrence. Jay Johnson, Jaguars Wire

Chiefs DB Tyrann Mathieu

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mathieu first joined the Chiefs during Steve Spagnuolo’s 2019 defensive overhaul. He’s established himself as one of the most prominent player’s on the defensive side of the ball, boasting strong leadership, on-field performance and off-field contributions to the community. Mathieu leads the team in interceptions since 2019 by a mile, with 13 interceptions during the regular season. He’s also earned two Pro Bowl selections and two First-Team All-Pro selections since joining the team. Bringing him back is a no-brainer and it’s questionable that the team hasn’t found a way to do so already. — Charles Goldman, Chiefs Wire

Raiders CB Casey Hayward Jr.

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Hayward signed with the Raiders after the 2021 NFL draft and quickly became the team’s top cornerback. He has been outstanding in Gus Bradley’s defense as he’s allowed only 331 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season. Without any other viable outside cornerbacks on the roster, Hayward is someone the Raiders must bring back in order to keep their secondary afloat. He should see a small pay bump in free agency this offseason, but look for him to return to Las Vegas in 2022. — Marcus Mosher, Raiders Wire

Broncos ILB Kenny Young

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The Broncos got a steal when they traded a sixth-round pick to the Rams in exchange for Young and a seventh-round pick in October, but he’s now scheduled to become a free agent in March. Young has been Denver’s best linebacker against the run this season, and he’s younger with more upside than fellow inside linebackers Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, teammates who are also scheduled to hit free agency. — Jon Heath, Broncos Wire

Chargers LB Kyzir White

Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers always had a talented player in White, but he rarely got to show his true colors in his first three seasons. Whether it was due to injuries that limited him or because his role was never deciphered in former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme, White was lost in the shuffle. However, in Brandon Staley’s system, which perfectly catered to his strengths as a player, White has been an integral piece on the defensive side of the ball. With his combination of play speed, burst, and instincts, White has been impactful against the run, in coverage, and as a blitzer. He has 137 tackles, seven for loss, three passes defended, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a sack. Re-signing White would go a long way to defensive continuity and success for the foreseeable future. — Gavino Borquez, Chargers Wire

Cowboys DE Randy Gregory

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Cowboys once again have a laundry list of free agents to tend to in 2022, but none more important than defensive end Randy Gregory. Since the NFL put their old-school ways behind them when it comes to suspending for marijuana use, Gregory has been able to play a full, worry-free season and has blossomed. With six sacks in 11 games and an obscene number of holding penalties forced (called and not called), Gregory is the perfect complement to DE DeMarcus Lawrence and allows defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to continue to use Micah Parsons as a wild card instead of dedicated edge rusher. Gregory’s power has increased to match his blazing speed and incredible bend. KD Drummond, Cowboys Wire

Eagles RB Jordan Howard

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The initial pick was Jason Kelce, who’ll likely retire at season’s end, but since we’re talking pending free agents, that player has to be veteran running back Jordan Howard. If Philadelphia does choose to roll with Jalen Hurts as the franchise quarterback, then the run-first approach that head coach Nick Sirianni would best help the dual-threat signal-caller continue to develop as an efficient passer. Howard complements Miles Sanders as the teams power back and he’s a viable insurance option as a starter just in case Sanders is traded in the offseason or injured at some point in 2022. — Glenn Erby, Eagles Wire

Washington G Brandon Scherff

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Had this question been asked 24 hours ago, the answer would have been LT Charles Leno. But Leno agreed to a three-year extension Wednesday night. While Leno isn’t a better player than Brandon Scherff, he plays a more premium position. Another issue with Scherff is the back-to-back franchise tags. Does he want to remain in Washington? Scherff recently turned 30 and has missed several games again in 2021. That’s an issue. However, when he’s healthy, he’s one of the top five guards in the NFL. Look no further than Washington’s record without Scherff. The former All Pro has missed six games this season: Washington has lost them all. Washington should make Scherff a strong offer, but be prepared to walk away if Scherff’s agent negotiates a long-term deal based off his current salary ($18 million). — Bryan Manning, Washington Wire

Giants TE Evan Engram

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The truth is, there aren’t many noteworthy impending free agents the Giants should re-sign. Given the team’s depth at safety, Engram gets the nod over Jabrill Peppers. Maybe an argument could be made for Lorenzo Carter. That’s it. If Engram walks, the Giants will have an additional need to address. He’s a favorite of Joe Judge and does have talent, if only he and the team could figure out how best to use it. — Dan Benton, Giants Wire

Vikings TE Tyler Conklin

Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Who doesn’t love an underdog story? Conklin was taken out of Central Michigan in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft and experienced a breakout season in 2021—59 receptions, 587 yards and three touchdowns. Irv Smith Jr. hasn’t posted those kinds of numbers, and health issues continue to be a concern. Conklin might not be the gem the Vikings expected, but he’s definitely the one they need to shine. — Jordy McElroy, Vikings Wire</span

Bears DT Bilal Nichols

Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Sweeping changes are expected to take place on the Bears defensive line, which includes the potential exits of Akiem Hicks in free agency and Eddie Goldman as a cap casualty. Which is why it’s important to keep a fixture of the defensive line in place with Bilal Nichols. Nichols, a fifth-round steal for GM Ryan Pace, has been an integral part of the defensive line and has earned a contract extension. Nichols is just 25 years old and has managed to stay healthy while also providing production on the field. But with the uncertainty surrounding the Bears organization – including a new head coach and potentially a new general manager – we’ll see if Nichols figures into their future plans. — Alyssa Barbieri, Bears Wire</span

Lions S Tracy Walker

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Walker is one of the holdover players on the roster who benefitted the most from the coaching change to Dan Campbell and the defensive scheme change under DC Aaron Glenn. His all-around ability would be tough to replace at a safety position that has been a long-running weakness. Glenn’s defense requires smart, versatile safeties to work well and Walker is the only one Detroit currently has. This is not a team that can afford to create more holes. — Jeff Risdon, Lions Wire

Packers WR Davante Adams


It will cost a small fortune for a team in serious cap trouble, and his future is tied to Aaron Rodgers in many ways, but the Packers can’t let the game’s premier receiver get away in the prime of his career. This is a Hall of Fame-caliber player who only just recently turned 29 years old and has 29 touchdown catches in his last 29 games. Even if Rodgers departs Green Bay, retaining Adams for Jordan Love (or any other quarterback) has to be the top priority. — Zach Kruse, Packers Wire

Saints FS Marcus Williams

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New Orleans’ franchise-tagged player is one of the most important defenders in an elite secondary, and he’s played well enough this season to justify the decision to tag him (if not signing him to a long-term deal sooner). Hopefully the Saints can meet his asking price and avoid a second franchise tag. That’s a tall ask with other starters testing free agency like left tackle Terron Armstead, quarterback Jameis Winston, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and defensive back P.J. Williams. — John Sigler, Saints Wire

Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin

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Honorable mention goes to cornerback Carlton Davis III and center Ryan Jensen, but Godwin is still the most important player the Bucs have to keep this offseason. Yes, he’ll be coming off a season-ending knee injury, but Godwin is one of the NFL’s most complete receivers, and he’s critical to Tampa Bay’s offensive strategy. He’ll still be just 26 years old, and assuming he makes a full recovery, the Bucs should lock him up with a long-term extension after playing the 2021 season on the franchise tag. — Luke Easterling, Bucs Wire

Panthers DE Haason Reddick


General manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule (if he’s still around) will have some tough decisions to make this offseason. Is there enough money to go around for a defense that may be sending off cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Donte Jackson as well as breakout linebacker Frankie Luvu? Heck, even quarterback Cam Newton might find a way to stick around considering the team’s limited options under center. But if we had to pick one guy, it’s the team’s leading pass rusher in Reddick. The 27-year-old has made himself comfy in Carolina—as he currently leads the Panthers in sacks (11.0), quarterback hits (18) and forced fumbles (two). Potentially losing Reddick could also make the job of fellow disruptor Brian Burns much more difficult in 2022 if they’re unable to replace the former first-round pick. Anthony Rizzuti, Panthers Wire

Falcons LB Foye Oluokun

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The Falcons have 28 players entering free agency and not nearly enough cap space to sign them all. Linebacker Foye Oluokun, the former sixth-round pick out of Yale, has come on strong over the second half of the season. Oluokun currently leads the NFL in tackles and he’s been a better fit in Dean Pees’ 3-4 scheme than Deion Jones. While Oluokun may be out of Atlanta’s price range, the team really can’t afford to lose his production. The team should also look to retain RB Cordarrelle Patterson and K Younghoe Koo, but Oluokun should be priority No. 1. — Matt Urben, Falcons Wire

49ers OL Laken Tomlinson

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers have a handful of issues they’ll need to resolve via free agency, but they can’t let Tomlinson get away for a couple of reasons. First, they don’t have enough good offensive lineman to let one walk away. They already need to find a right guard and right tackle, so throwing a left guard into that mix will only make their quest for effective offensive lineman harder. Second, Tomlinson has acquitted himself well in five seasons with San Francisco. He allowed only two sacks and 23 pressures through the first 17 weeks while earning a 74.0 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus. Tomlinson won’t break the bank, but he’s earned a nice payday and the 49ers need to be the team to give it to him. — Kyle Madson, Niners Wire

Seahawks FS Quandre Diggs

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Seattle’s defense has taken the “bend but don’t break” philosophy to the extreme this season, allowing a ton of yards but very few points. It’s mostly worked because the Seahawks limit explosive plays and tighten up in the red zone very well. A lot of that is thanks to the exceptional performance of Diggs, who anchors the back end of their defense and keeps a lid on everything. Diggs is also the team’s top ballhawk by far. There’s a strong case to make for their late-blooming star running back Rashaad Penny, but Diggs is ultimately more consistent and valuable. — Tim Weaver, Seahawks Wire

Rams EDGE Von Miller

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams’ list of pending free agents could probably field a pretty good team, including Odell Beckham Jr., Darious Williams and Sony Michel. But Miller should be a priority this offseason, given the impact he’s had at a critical position on defense. He has 26 pressures since Week 12, which ranks eighth in the NFL – and he’s only getting more comfortable in L.A. as the season has gone on. Keeping him on the defensive front alongside Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd gives the Rams a dominant pass-rushing trio and makes life much easier in the secondary with how quickly quarterbacks are forced to get rid of the ball. — Cam DaSilva, Rams Wire

Cardinals QB Colt McCoy

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals have a number of free agents, including Chandler Jones, A.J. Green, James Conner and Chase Edmonds. However, McCoy is the guy they need to bring back because of the impact he has on Kyler Murray and because he can give the Cardinals starting-level quarterback play. They went 2-1 in the three games he started this year while Murray was out and he was great in those two wins. Having a solid, experienced backup quarterback is one of the hardest positions to find in the league. General manager Steve Keim has already said that re-signing McCoy will be a priority. — Jess Root, Cards Wire



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