As the 2022 NFL Combine is about to begin, free agency moves into full swing before the legal tampering period commences. Here are the latest news and rumors around the league, including information on Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns, the Washington Commanders QB situation, the New York Jets’ plans in free agency, and more.
NFL Free Agency News and Rumors: Browns, Commanders, and Panthers QB situations
People close to the situation tell me it’s by no means a forgone conclusion that Baker Mayfield will be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns next season. Among many things, Mayfield struggled with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, which he had surgically repaired just a few weeks ago.
If the Browns choose to move on from Mayfield and his large salary cap number, it will come via trading for a proven veteran. The team won’t replace him with a rookie quarterback through the draft, as the franchise believes it is built to win now.
The Commanders and Panthers are in the market for a QB
The Washington Commanders are expected to be in the trade market for a veteran quarterback like Russell Wilson or Kirk Cousins. My initial reaction was, “Why would Russell Wilson agree to be shipped to Washington?” The answer was simple — Washington will try to entice a big-name quarterback to the nation’s capital by making him the highest-paid player in the league.
The Carolina Panthers are another team in immediate need of a plug-and-play quarterback. If they can bring one in via trade, they will do it in a heartbeat. Head coach Matt Rhule’s job is on the line, and he must win this season.
I previously documented owner David Tepper’s desire to trade for Deshaun Watson before all the allegations against the quarterback came to fruition. If they can’t make a big move for a signal-caller, I’m told Cam Newton is still an option for the team. The Panthers signed Newton in Week 10 last year, and he went on to start five games, winning none of them.
What are the New York Jets going to do in free agency?
For the fourth consecutive free agency period, the New York Jets will have cash to burn. They are presently a little more than $49 million under the projected salary cap. That amount will be bolstered by cutting some of the veterans currently on the roster.
NFL Free Agent Rankings 2022: Pro Football Network’s Top 50
And I’m told the Jets will be very active in this year’s free agent market. But league sources also tell me New York will likely need every dollar in free agency.
Cap space might not mean splash signings for the Jets
As explained to me by several agents who represent some of this year’s top free agents, the Jets will have to overpay to bring in the better players. As one agent told me outright:
“Every agent wants the Jets to be interested in their guy, but that doesn’t mean every agent wants their guy playing for the Jets.”
The implication is the Jets will have to offer top players contracts higher than market value, which the agent can then use as leverage when bargaining with other teams.
Do the New York Jets need to overpay to sign players in free agency?
So why will the Jets have to overpay in free agency? The reason is twofold.
First is the state of the franchise. The Jets have not made the playoffs in more than a decade, and if the team does not show progress in 2022, ownership could once again clean house. And while head coach Robert Saleh is well-liked by players, any prospect of potentially starting over with a new general manager and head coach does not sit well with players or their representatives.
The second reason the Jets must overpay for top free agents is purely financial. The Jets would have to offer contracts 10% higher than similar franchises also in disarray, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, just to offset the state taxes due on the money paid out on the contract.
Top tax rates in New Jersey equal 10.75%, and New York is 8.97%. Florida? Zilch. Tax rate is one of the prime reasons the New York Giants lost out to the Jaguars for the services of offensive guard Andrew Norwell in 2018.
NFL Free Agency News and Rumors: Jets left tackle George Fant to get an extension?
Last month, I reported that it was likely the Jets would try to extend starting left tackle George Fant’s contract. Fant is in the final year of a three-year deal he signed in 2020.
I’m now told both sides will come together at the Combine with the hopes of getting a deal done. Some in the league tell me the Jets will use the recent three-year, $37.5 million extension the Washington Commanders gave to Charles Leno as their barometer.
If Fant doesn’t get the deal he wants — which I suspect is a bigger contract than Leno’s — expect him to roll the dice and play out the final year of his contract with the hope he plays as well as, if not better than, he did in 2021.
If that happens, Fant will be in line for a deal that pays him in excess of $18 million per season when he hits the open market in 2023.
Fant is about to turn 30 years old
Some Jets fans question handing out a big contract to a left tackle who will be 30 years old this season, but league insiders disagree. Fant is described as a “young 30-year-old” since he really hasn’t played that much football the past eight years.
He was a basketball player at Western Kentucky until his senior year and doesn’t have much wear and tear on his body. Factor in that Fant is a terrific athlete and plays a position that generally has longevity in the NFL, and one understands why the Jets want to get an extension done.
NFL Free Agency News and Rumors: The Packers will need to make a decision on Za’Darius Smith
While everyone is focused on Aaron Rodgers’ future, the Green Bay Packers are likely to lose one of their top defensive players. Pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, an All-Pro in 2019 and 2020 who was sidelined with a back injury last season, will most likely be a cap casualty by the Packers, a team in salary cap hell.
Smith is entering the final year of a four-year deal and carries a $27.7 million cap number in 2022. The Packers would gain $15.75 million in cap relief if they cut him. What happens then?
Several sources tell me Smith would be one of the most sought-after pass rushers in free agency and could come away with the richest contract of any edge rusher.
The top edge rushers on Pro Football Network’s Top 50 Free Agents include Chandler Jones, Von Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, and Randy Gregory. If Smith hits the open market, he would likely vault near the top of that list.
Potential landing spots for Smith if he is cut
Who are the teams most interested at this point? I’m told a return to Baltimore, which drafted Smith in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, is a possibility. Yet right now, sources tell me the smart money is on the Kansas City Chiefs, who will go hard after Smith if he’s cut.
The Chiefs were 29th in the NFL in sacks last season, and the rumor is Frank Clark may get the ax. Plus, there’s still a question as to Melvin Ingram’s future with the team. If one or both are gone, Smith would be a welcome addition.
What Smith lacks as a run defender, he makes up for in exceptional pass-rushing ability. In 2019, he racked up 13.5 sacks, and he followed that up with 12.5 in 2020. If he can return to that form and stay healthy in 2022, he will be worth every penny to whatever team he is on.
Stay up to date with the latest in NFL free agency
As the league transitions into free agency, there will be plenty of news and rumors from around the NFL in regard to your favorite team. That includes chatter about players who will be on the move (or not) in free agency. Stay updated and keep track of Pro Football Network’s Top 50 Free Agent Rankings to better understand the free agent market.