The start of the NFL free-agent cycle is the best. A year or so out, we can daydream about the list of players whose contracts are set to expire. We can wonder what it would be like to watch teams bid for some of these elite players, as we did last spring with George Kittle, Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey and David Bakhtiari. And then, over the course of the next 12 months, we see most of them are removed from the market, either by signing contract extensions or getting the franchise tag.
Of the top 10 players we listed in March 2020 as the best 2021 free agents, two reached the market. So it's best to view our ranking of 2022 free agents as a preview of the business ahead for NFL teams.
What's notable this time is the dearth of starting-quality quarterbacks. The top two passers of the 2017 draft, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, have already signed second deals, and those in the heralded 2018 class -- including Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson -- are all at least two years away from the end of their rookie contracts.
The 2022 class is flooded with an unusually high number of 2021 class members who signed one-year deals this month because of scarce salary-cap space. We are also starting to see the impact of players who sought shorter second deals in hopes of hitting the market again before they turn 30. The big-ticket prizes, of course, are the ascending players coming off their rookie contracts, and that's where we'll start it off. Here are the top 20 names currently set to be free agents next March.
1. T.J. Watt, Edge
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers | Age entering 2022 season: 27
Since Watt entered the league in 2017, only two players have more sacks: Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones. At the moment, it seems preposterous to think the Steelers would allow a two-time All-Pro edge rusher to depart before his 28th birthday. And it's worth noting that the Steelers have less salary-cap space committed to their 2022 roster than any other team in the NFL ($84.3 million).
2. Darius Leonard, LB
Team: Indianapolis Colts | Age entering 2022 season: 27
You don't often see teams get excited about linebackers who aren't primarily pass-rushers. But Leonard is a special player, an All-Pro twice in his first three seasons, and one who can change the look of a team's run defense and pass coverage. The Colts' conservative approach to free agency in 2021 portends of their effort to re-sign Leonard, among others.