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 control, these would be the players we keep — one for each team as determined by the NFL Wire staff.

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The Patriots’ list of must-retain free agents is extremely long, from Jackson to Trent Brown to Dont’a Hightower (and so many others). Jackson has been a tremendous contributor to the Patriots defense (playing at every level that a cornerback can), and the Patriots would not be successful without him. Whether they franchise tag him or extend him, the Patriots need Jackson back in 2022. — Henry McKenna, Patriots Wire

Democrat and Chronicle

It’s been some ride for Harrison Phillips. Phillips’ rookie contract is up, but injuries have hampered his career. Phillips even has a PCL issue. Despite that, he is finally rounding into top form, which it looked like he was achieving before tearing his ACL in 2019. Phillips is a valuable asset as a run-stopper. He can even chase the quarterback from the middle of D-line. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 13th best DT in the league, but this will come down to dollars vs. injury. What is the Bills willing to pay for someone who has injury concerns? They did it for LB Matt Milano last offseason. Nick Wojton, Bills Wire

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. The timing is perfect, too, because the veteran backup has set himself up to receive a nice paycheck. As Jamison Crowder is likely to be resigned, it’s unlikely that they will sign another free agent, starting slot receiver Jamison. If Berrios returns, he’ll have even more room to grow in 2022. — Gary Phillips, Jets Wire

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For the Dolphins, there should be two players at the top of their priority list to retain. Ogbah is just inches away from Mike Gesicki at this point. 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. He is a formidable edge rusher because of his explosiveness and strength. Ogbah Phillips and Jaelan Phillips could be a deadly combination over the years. With the Dolphins having the largest projected cap space, the Dolphins have the resources to make it happen. — Mike Masala, Dolphins Wire

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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 consistent play at the center position in a while, and Bozeman has made it possible. It’s not easy to find centers of quality at the NFL level. While the Ravens may have to spend a little money to keep Bozeman, it is absolutely worth it for someone who has demonstrated his ability to play at a high level as well as being a vital part of Baltimore’s community. — Kevin Oestreicher, Ravens Wire

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While Cleveland didn’t reach their goals this season, Clowney was a constant contributor on the defensive line. The Browns must bring back Clowney, who was the top draft pick to Myles Garrett to provide 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

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The Bengals have a few noteworthy free agents to retain, but none more important than Bates. He is a rare type of coverage safety that can play in the deep middle. He was rated as one of the NFL’s top players a season ago, but his performance on the field has been slowed. 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

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With it unlikely that cornerback Joe Haden returns, the Steelers can’t let Witherspoon leave. Witherspoon, who was inactive the first few weeks of his time with the Steelers, has shown a great nose for football. The Steelers would be able to keep Witherspoon around, which would eliminate one of their most pressing offseason issues. Witherspoon, who has two starts in eight games, leads the team with three interceptions. — Curt Popejoy, Steelers Wire

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The Colts have their starters in Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon but the latter will be coming off of a torn Achilles. Odum, who has been a solid safety-room backup and has had an All-Pro impact on special teams for the Colts, has proven to be a viable option. While depth in the secondary is a necessity this offseason, there is no reason to give Odum a contract. — Kevin Hickey, Colts Wire

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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. Houston is rebuilding and will need a cornerstone player like Grugier-Hill to help young players prepare for the game while also giving meaningful production on the field. — Mark Lane, Texans Wire

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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. Landry is the Titans’ most dominant edge rusher, and should be No. 1. 1)Mike Moraitis, Titans Wire

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The Jaguars are coming up on an offseason in which they need to reinforce their receiver corps. Jacksonville could be in a position to sign DJ Chark Jr., with potential free-agents like Chris Godwin and Michael Gallup having ACL tears. Chark Jr. was a player that the Jags had high hopes of before breaking his ankle in Week 4. Their new coaching staff may want to bring back a target who is familiar to Trevor Lawrence. Jay Johnson, Jaguars Wire

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Mathieu first joined the Chiefs during Steve Spagnuolo’s 2019 defensive overhaul. Mathieu is a prominent player on the defensive side of football, with strong leadership qualities, off-field contributions, and strong leadership. Mathieu leads the team in interceptions since 2019 by a mile, with 13 interceptions during the regular season. Since joining the team, Mathieu has been selected for two Pro Bowl selections as well as two First-Team All Pro selections. It’s obvious that he should be brought back and it’s not surprising that the team hasn’t done so yet. — Charles Goldman, Chiefs Wire

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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. Hayward must be brought back by the Raiders to ensure their secondary is viable without any other outside cornerbacks. 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

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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 inside linebacker against the running this season. He’s also younger and has more upside than his fellow linebackers Alexander Johnson

who will be free agents in March. — Jon Heath, Broncos Wire

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The Chargers always had a talented player in White, but he rarely got to show his true colors in his first three seasons. White lost his way in the shuffle, whether it was because of injuries or because his role in Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme was not clear. White was an important part of the defense in Brandon Staley’s system that perfectly suited his strengths as a player. White’s combination of play speed and burst and instincts has made him a valuable player on the defensive side of the ball. He has 137 tackles, seven for loss, three passes defended, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a sack. White’s signing would ensure that the defense is successful for the future. — Gavino Borquez, Chargers Wire

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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. Gregory is now able to play full and worry-free football since the NFL stopped allowing marijuana use to be suspended. 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 speed has increased to match his incredible bend and blazing speed. KD Drummond, Cowboys Wire

(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 decides to go with Jalen HUTS as its franchise quarterback, then Nick Sirianni’s run-first approach would be the best for the dual-threat signal caller. 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

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Had this question been asked 24 hours ago, the answer would have been LT Charles Leno. Leno accepted Wednesday night a three-year extension. Leno isn’t a better player that Brandon Scherff but he plays a premium position. Scherff’s back-to-back franchise tags are another problem. Is he willing to stay in Washington? Scherff recently turned 30 and has missed several games again in 2021. This is a problem. He’s still one of the best five NFL guards when he is healthy. Washington’s record with Scherff is a perfect example. Washington’s record without Scherff is a dismal six-game skid. 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

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The truth is, there aren’t many noteworthy impending free agents the Giants should re-sign. Engram wins over Jabrill Peppers due to the team’s safety depth. Lorenzo Carter could possibly be argued for. That’s it. The Giants will need to address another issue if Engram leaves. Joe Judge loves Engram and believes he has talent. But, it’s up to him and the Giants to figure out how best they can use that talent. — Dan Benton, Giants Wire

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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. isn’t posting these numbers and continues to have health problems. Conklin may not be the star the Vikings were expecting, but he is the one they need. — Jordy McElroy, Vikings Wire

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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. It’s crucial to ensure that Bilal Nichols remains a part of the defensive line. Fifth-round steal for General Manager Ryan Pace, Nichols has been an integral part the defensive line and was awarded a contract extension. Nichols is just 25 years old and has managed to stay healthy while also providing production on the field. We’ll be watching to see if Nichols is included in the Bears’ future plans, given the uncertainty surrounding their organization. — Alyssa Barbieri, Bears Wire

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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. Walker’s all-around abilities would make it difficult to replace him at a safety spot that has been a problem for so long. To be a good defense, Glenn needs smart, versatile safety players. Detroit has Walker as its only available. This team cannot afford to make more holes. — Jeff Risdon, Lions Wire


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. If Rodgers leaves Green Bay, Adams must be retained for Jordan Love (or any other quarterback). — Zach Kruse, Packers Wire

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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). The Saints should be able to meet his asking price and avoid another franchise tag. It’s not an easy task with other starters such as left tackle Terron Arstead, quarterback Jameis Winston and linebacker Kwon Alexander. Williams. — John Sigler, Saints Wire

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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. He’ll be returning from a season-ending injury to his knee, but Godwin, who is an NFL-leading receiver, will still be a key part of 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


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 for a defense that could be sending off cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Donte Jackson, and breakout linebacker Frankie Luvu. Even Cam Newton, the quarterback, might be able to stay put considering the team’s limited resources under center. Reddick is the team’s top pass rusher. 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

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The Falcons have 28 players entering free agency and not nearly enough cap space to sign them all. Foye Oluokun (a former sixth-round selection from Yale) has shown great promise over the second half. Oluokun is currently leading the NFL in tackles, and he has been a better fit for Dean Pees’ 3-4, than Deion Jones. Although Oluokun is out of Atlanta’s budget, Atlanta can’t afford not to have his production. While the team should retain RB Cordarrelle Patton and K Younghoe Koo should also be considered, Oluokun should be number one. 1. — Matt Urben, Falcons Wire

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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. They don’t have enough offensive linemen to allow one to go. They need to find both a right tackle and a right guard, so adding a left guard to the mix will only make it more difficult for them to find an effective offensive lineman. Second, Tomlinson is a solid player in San Francisco’s five seasons. 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

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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. The Seahawks have a great defense that limits explosive plays and tightens up in the red zone. The Seahawks’ outstanding performance is due to Diggs, who anchors their defense and keeps everything in check. Diggs is the team’s best ballhawk. Although there is a case for Rashaad Penny’s late-blooming star runningback, Diggs is more reliable and valuable. — Tim Weaver, Seahawks Wire

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The Rams’ list of pending free agents could probably field a pretty good team, including Odell Beckham Jr., Darious Williams and Sony Michel. Miller’s impact at defense is a reason why he should be considered a priority for this offseason. 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. He is a strong pass rusher and helps the Rams keep the ball away from quarterbacks. — Cam DaSilva, Rams Wire

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The Cardinals have a number of free agents, including Chandler Jones, A.J. Green, James Conner, and Chase Edmonds are all available free agents. McCoy, however, is the one they should bring back due to his impact on Kyler Murray as well as because he can provide the Cardinals with starting-level quarterback play. He was great in two of the three games that he played this year, going 2-1. It is difficult to find a reliable, experienced backup quarterback in the league. Steve Keim, the general manager, has already stated that McCoy’s re-signing will be a priority. — Jess Root, Cards Wire

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