Free agency is always a moving target in the NFL. Some prominent players get last-minute extensions or — much to their chagrin — hit with the franchise tag, restricting their access to long-term deals with huge guaranteed money.
As we sit exactly 75 days from the start of 2023 NFL free agency, here are 11 players who have had huge seasons in 2022 to set themselves up for a big payday in March:
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
First of all, hire an agent, Lamar. Then finalize a long-term deal with the Ravens because they’ll franchise you before letting you out the door. His numbers aren’t at the level of his 2019 MVP season, but injuries have weakened his receiving corps. His passer rating is still over 90 with 17 touchdown passes, and he’s rushed for 764 yards and three TDs.
The offense is not nearly as good without him as we’ve seen the last three-plus games when he’s been out with a knee injury (the Ravens averaged 25 points per game with him and 12 points per game without him). Jackson was 7-4 as the Ravens starter before getting injured in Game 12 on the final play of the first quarter. Despite the lower scoring output, Tyler Huntley has gone 3-1 in the last four games.
Prediction: His injury will not help his bargaining position as he’s likely seeking $50 million per year (Aaron Rodgers’ average that tops all quarterbacks), especially if he doesn’t play great when/if he returns and if the team has a first-round playoff exit. I’m thinking Jackson gets tagged but re-signs in Baltimore for $47 million per year – a hair above what Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray signed for ($46 million per year) but without Watson’s fully guaranteed deal.
Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants
I’ve got two quarterbacks on my list but they don’t include Geno Smith or Jimmy Garoppolo. Both have played well this year but don’t have the sizzle, in Smith’s case, and there’s too much injury history with Garoppolo to attract top-of-market offers.
The underrated Jones gets better every year. The Giants declined his fifth-year option as a former top-10 pick but under coach Brian Daboll’s tutelage, he’s improved his accuracy (a career-high 66.5%)and his passer rating is over 90 for the first time in his career. He’s also a dangerous runner with 617 rushing yards, more than double any prior year.
If Jones had a Justin Jefferson-type No. 1 receiver, I think he’d be a top-10 quarterback. Most importantly, he’s led the Giants to the cusp of a playoff berth. His arrow is pointed up at just 25 years old.
Prediction: I think he’s headed toward an extension with the Giants that will pay him $35 million per year (but for just three more years so he can cash in even more if he continues to elevate his game). Absent that, he’ll get hit with the franchise tag unless the Giants prefer to franchise his running mate, the next name on my list, in which case Jones’ price tag would likely go higher as a true free agent.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
He’s played in every game for the first time since his rookie year of 2018 and his production has been excellent as a dual purpose Pro Bowl back (fourth in the league with 1,254 rushing yards, 10 TDs, plus 55 receptions for 343 yards). The Giants have made major strides this season, and Barkley’s been a huge part of the offense.
Barkley’s situation reminds me of when I somewhat took a leap of faith and signed Robert Smith in Minnesota to a big, five-year contract in 1998. Smith had been hurt a lot early in his career but was coming off a season of 1,266 yards rushing, and I had to match an offer he had received as a transition-tagged player. It paid off as Smith stayed healthy and had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, leading the NFC in rushing in 2000 with 1,521 yards.
Prediction: I think he’ll get a $16.5 million per year deal to slightly surpass Christian McCaffrey’s deal (which is two years old) but it will include significant active roster bonuses so he has to be on the field to max out the deal.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders
He was a 1,000-yard rusher in his first two seasons, but he dropped to 872 yards last year, prompting the Raiders to decline his fifth-year option. It looked like he was headed out the door in 2023, but now it’s going to cost the Raiders extra money to either franchise or extend him since he leads the league with 1,539 rushing yards (and 11 TDs plus 47 catches for 369 yards).
Prediction: Jacobs used the option slight as motivation for a big season, and that’s how it has played out for him. He’s probably going to land a deal on the open market that averages $14 million to $15 million per year, but he may be franchise tagged first.
Evan Engram, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Speaking of wanting to prove people wrong (especially the Giants, his former team), Engram was often labeled an underachiever as a former first-round pick in New York. He is playing under a one-year, $9 million contract in Jacksonville and has achieved career highs in receptions (68) and receiving yards (723) with two regular-season games remaining.
Engram has two 100-yard games in the last three weeks and has been a big part of Trevor Lawrence’s improvement for the playoff-contending Jaguars.
Prediction: He should land near what Hunter Henry got in New England ($12.5 million per year) if he can get a long-term deal after the Jaguars likely put the franchise tag on him.
Orlando Brown Jr., OT, Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes’ blind-side protector has been a Pro Bowl tackle the past four years. He’s having another excellent season after playing under a $16.7 million franchise tag. Other than quarterbacks, teams prefer to commit big money to players in their mid-20s, where the injury risk is usually lessened. Brown at 26 is in a perfect spot in the upcoming offseason.
Prediction: In order to get a more palatable cap number, I think the Chiefs will pay him top tackle money in the range of what the 49ers gave Trent Williams ($23 million average over six years) in 2021.
Javon Hargrave, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
He’s an elite interior pass rusher who had a career-high 10 sacks for the NFL’s top-ranked defense this season. It’s great timing for Hargrave to have his best season rushing the passer when his $13 million per year deal is expiring. He’s also a solid run defender with 50 tackles. He’ll turn 30 in February, but he’s been a durable player for the most part.
Prediction: The Eagles have a lot of key players headed to free agency and cap space will be tight for a premier team, so I expect Philly to avoid the expensive one-year hit with the franchise tag and sign Hargrave long term (four years) for $20 million per.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Washington Commanders
He’s having his best season with 9.5 sacks and 57 tackles and earning every penny of his $8.6 million fifth-year option. The problem for him is the Commanders are paying Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jonathan Allen a well-deserved $18 million per year and they have former No. 2-overall draft pick Chase Young coming up for his second contract in another year or so.
Prediction: Payne likely will have to look elsewhere for a deal in Allen’s range that he surely will be seeking. I think he moves on after this season, but his timing is great to have played so well in a contract year for a team in playoff contention.
Roquan Smith, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Smith was so productive this season (144 tackles and 4.5 sacks through 15 games) that he was selected to the Pro Bowl despite being traded mid-season from the Bears to the Ravens. He has 41 tackles over the last four games as Baltimore’s defense has been forced to carry the team in Jackson’s absence.
It was surprising to see the Bears trade one of their top defensive players, but Smith reportedly was seeking a deal that would make him equal to Fred Warner and Shaquille Leonard ($20 million per year range). The Bears thought that was too much money. He’s making $5.4 million this season, and he’s at a great age (25) for a long-term deal.
Prediction: With Jackson likely to get the franchise tag, the Ravens will try to sign Smith pre-free agency after sending a second- and fifth-round pick to Chicago in the trade. Smith is an every-down linebacker who plays the run and pass well. I think the deal will get done at $18 million per year.
Jordan Poyer, SS, Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ Pro Bowl safety has missed four games this season with various injuries, but he’s still been very productive with 54 tackles and four interceptions. He had 93 or more tackles the previous five seasons, and he’s been consistently excellent against the pass and run. His stats may be down due to the missed games, but he’s a glue player for the Bills’ top-10 defense.
Prediction: At 31 years old, Poyer is finishing a $9.75 million per year deal. He’ll be seeking Harrison Smith’s deal ($16 million per year), but I expect the Bills to sign him for less than that since Smith is a six-time Pro Bowler. I think Poyer will sign a three-year deal in the range of $12 million to $13 million per year.
Greg Joseph, PK, Minnesota Vikings
Playing this season under a restricted free-agent tender of $2.4 million, Joseph has made five game-winning field goals for the 12-3 Vikings, including a franchise-record 61-yarder as time expired to beat the Giants last Sunday.
Joseph missed five extra points earlier this season but has been perfect on PATs since he started kicking from the left hash mark. The reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week is currently on a streak of 20 consecutive kicks made (PATs and field goals) and is perfect on field goals inside of 50 yards this season. He’s an excellent kickoff man and had a solid 2021 season, so teams have a good two-year track record on him. He’s got great timing to hit free agency after a big season (as long as he doesn’t have issues in the playoffs).
Prediction: I expect Joseph to get a three-year extension for $4 million per year plus a nice bonus for honors such as All-Pro and Pro Bowl that he has not yet reached in his five-year career.
Important Dates to Remember
Franchise/transition tag window: Feb. 21-March 7
Early free-agency negotiation period: March 13-15
Start of free agency: March 15
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.