Many things go into free-agent signings, including team need, contract cost and player preference — and all factors must be carefully considered by NFL franchises in order to determine the potential consequences an addition will have on the entire roster.
We’ve already seen a massive trade (Russell Wilson) and a potential draft-shaping franchise tag (Cam Robinson). More quarterbacks figure to be on move — oh, and the best signal-caller of all time retired.
With the salary cap officially set at $208.2 million per team for the 2022 season, it’s a good time to play matchmaker, right before the free agency frenzy kicks off next week. Where would some of the bigger names on the open market fit best — as in, where could they add the most wins? That’s what I set out to find.
My win-share model, as explained here, is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense. With that data in hand, I matched the free agents with all the teams carrying needs at their respective positions. Using each franchise’s current roster (and what’s missing from it), this model maximizes where each free agent would add the most victories in 2022, also taking into account scheme fit and cap space (per Over The Cap).
Like I said, there are a LOT of considerations in free-agent signings. This is just one lens to look through — where some of the biggest free agents project to add the most wins in 2022, given what we know right now. While I purposefully kept this exercise simple, a team could use a model like this, in conjunction with other tools, to help evaluate the overall free agency landscape and create a strategy for targeting optimal players at a cost that works for its cap situation.
Projected to add: 4.21 wins
Due to Winston’s experience with Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and Carmichael’s familiarity with the quarterback’s strengths (ability to extend plays, downfield passing) and weaknesses (decision-making), Winston’s win-share projection for 2022 is highest with this team, especially with Michael Thomas presumably returning. Next Gen Stats shows that on passes outside the tackle box (min. 100 such attempts) since 2016, Winston ranks first in passer rating (117.3) and completion percentage over expected (+10.8), third in passing yards per attempt (8.6) and fourth in touchdowns (31). Pro Football Focus also ranks Winston in the top 30 in passing grade (89.9) on throws of 20 or more air yards downfield since 2015.
Projected to add: 1.60 wins
One major assumption in my model is that each player returns for his “healthy number of snaps,” meaning I factor in age, injury type, snaps prior to injury and regular rates of injury and recurrence. NGS shows that Armstead’s 444 snaps in 2021 were his second-fewest in a season since 2016, and his Pro Football Focus grade last season (75.9) was also his second-lowest during that span. Armstead will be 31 when the 2022 NFL season begins in September and returning from knee surgery, but he has 93 starts over nine seasons at tackle. Computer vision shows that Armstead’s pass-pro metrics (response rate, leverage wins, pocket-integrity rating) all rank in the top seven in the league over the past three seasons. He rates higher in CV when his team has dialed up the pass, but the run metrics also rank highly, with none falling out of the top 10 over the past three seasons. This includes last season, when he was playing with an injury. In addition to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Miami, Chicago and New Orleans also project to net more than 1.52 win shares by adding Armstead.
Projected to add: 1.55 wins
Only Terron Armstead has a higher figure in win shares added for a non-QB, which means that Jackson’s value to any CB-needy team is substantial. In other words, he’s very likely to get PAID. Jackson was my No. 4 corner by win share in 2021, and no matter how I sort, he adds at least 1.39 wins. He led the NFL with 15 passes defensed as the nearest defender in coverage on throws of 10-plus air yards in 2021, per Next Gen Stats. His 24.0 percent ballhawk rate as the nearest defender in coverage was second-best and his eight pass deflections in press coverage ranked fifth — especially noteworthy, given Stephon Gilmore‘s departure from New England.
Projected to add: 1.54 wins
NGS shows that Jones had five turnovers created by pressure n 2021, which was tied for the most in the league. His 12.0 QB pressure rate in 2021 was his second-highest in a season since NGS started tracking in 2016. This season, his 3.5 percent run stuff rate was an increase from his 2.3 average from 2016 to 2020. Computer vision shows that his burst (how fast he was able to travel in his first 3 yards when the ball is snapped) actually increased in 2021, which is not typical for players over 30. Eight teams net at least 1.5 wins by adding Jones. Despite excellent results when J.J. Watt wasn’t on the field last season, Jones forecasts to be most impactful paired with another proven pass rusher.
Projected to add: 1.49 wins
I excluded the Jets in this sample, as I paired them with J.C. Jackson above. However, they would come up as No. 1 here (1.5 wins), should Jackson not be available. My models show some interesting notes on Davis, who missed seven games last season but is also only 25 years old. The two aspects that stand out most since 2020 are his ability to get his hips toward the ball and how he increases his pursuit speed at a top-10 rate (and remember, he had a quad injury in 2021). Davis’ results against No. 1 wideouts have improved in each season since 2018. Thirteen additional teams that would increase their win share by at least 1.33 games by adding Davis. Squads that use two-safety shells would be smart to add him, especially in the AFC, where top QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow have experienced a little more difficulty in navigating zone looks.
Projected to add: 1.11 wins
Other teams that come up as interesting landing spots for Mathieu include the Colts, Ravens and Bears. When I played around in a completely non-cap world, the Cowboys also popped up because my models really value versatility, as it has proven to correlate with success. Mathieu has shown productivity playing deep, in the box and covering the slot — and according to Pro Football Focus, he’s taken at least 200 snaps in each area since joining the Chiefs in 2019. NGS shows that Mathieu had a -7.4 percent completion rate over expected allowed as the nearest defender in coverage in 2021 (ranking eighth among players with a minimum of 450 snaps in coverage). However, PFF shows that his 47.4 grade in run defense was his second-lowest in a season, and his 55.9 pass-rush grade was the lowest of his career.