Ranking top 23* available players as market prepares to open

Monday, at noon ET, NFL players with expiring contracts can begin negotiating new deals with other teams ahead of the official opening of the free agent market, which occurs at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

This week’s passage of the franchise tag deadline, which effectively (maybe?) took six* players off the market – including Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard, Jacksonville Jaguars TE Evan Engram, Las Vegas Raiders RB Josh Jacobs, New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley and Washington Commanders DT Daron Payne – further shaped the league’s upcoming spending options as none are going to surrender two first-round picks to sign those listed above.

NFL FRANCHISE TAG WINNERS, LOSERS: Which players, teams made out best at deadline?

POST-COMBINE MOCK DRAFT: Bidding war begins for QBs Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud

But that might not be the case for another superstar* as we look ahead to free agency in 2023 and what we believe to be the 23 best players available:

1. QB Lamar Jackson*

Why all the asterisks? Because the Baltimore Ravens superstar and 2019 league MVP should be the rare talent teams should be fighting to sign despite the $32.41 million non-exclusive franchise tag attached to him. Surrendering two first-round picks for a young – Jackson is 26 – proven, multi-dimensional threat like Jackson is a veritable bargain given what it costs to pry a franchise quarterback loose in the modern NFL. For whatever reason – the inability of Jackson, who serves as his own agent, to strike a deal with the Ravens, the massive (guaranteed?) contract he’s seeking or the need to entirely rebuild your program around him – reports quickly surfaced Tuesday that several QB-starved organizations would not engage with Jackson. But let’s give it time. Per usual, there definitely appears to be more teams in need of a quarterback, whether a veteran or highly touted draft prospect, than there are high-quality options available.

2. OT Orlando Brown Jr.

The four-time Pro Bowler can play right tackle but proved to be a reliable performer on MVP Patrick Mahomes’ blind side the past two years for the Kansas City Chiefs. And, make no mistake, Brown, 26, views himself as a left tackle and will be seeking commensurate compensation. Bit of a surprise K.C. didn’t franchise him for the second straight year – and Brown did tell USA TODAY Sports following Super Bowl 57 that he expected to return to the team – but he should have several lucrative offers to sift through.

3. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Longtime 49ers teammates Jimmy Garoppolo (10) and Mike McGlinchey could find themselves on new teams in 2023.

Longtime 49ers teammates Jimmy Garoppolo (10) and Mike McGlinchey could find themselves on new teams in 2023.

Does he have limitations? Sure … and so does almost every other quarterback. Has he been named to a Pro Bowl? No … though Garoppolo has also had his fair share of injury-interrupted seasons. But it’s also not fair to divorce his success from San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who rarely won games without Garoppolo on the field prior to the emergence of rookie Brock Purdy in 2022. Still, Jimmy G. is going to (usually) make good decisions, get the ball out fast, play efficiently – his 103.0 passer rating in 2022 was the best of his career as a starter – earn the respect of the locker room – and win, his professional record now at 44-19, playoffs included. Oh, and he’s still just 31.

4. S Jessie Bates III

Another 26-year-old, he’s been one of the league’s most reliable safeties since entering the league in 2018, though the Cincinnati Bengals also opted not to give Bates a second franchise tag. Bates is a solid run defender and plays a nice center field with 14 career interceptions, including a career-best four in 2022. He also consistently made big plays in the postseason during the Bengals’ drive to Super Bowl 56. Bates will certainly be a reliable final line of defense wherever he goes.

5. LB Bobby Wagner

Even at 32, a guy who could well be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he’s finished continued to play at that level – graded as the league’s No. 1 off-ball linebacker by Pro Football Focus in his only season with the Los Angeles Rams. Even if he only commands a two- or three-year deal, little reason the six-time All-Pro – and instant defensive captain – shouldn’t cash in again in the coming days.

6. DT Javon Hargrave

He showed out in a big way during his 2022 contract year, recording a career-best 11 sacks for one of the most productive defensive lines in league history and a major reason the Philadelphia Eagles reached Super Bowl 57. Interior pass rushers this large (6-2, 305) are a rarity in the NFL, and Hargrave – a Pro Bowler in 2021 – had 23 sacks and 42 QB hits during his three seasons in Philly. But he did benefit from playing on such a deep and talented front and recently turned 30, factors that could reduce his ultimate price tag … if only slightly.

7. OT Kaleb McGary

The 2019 first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons had a breakthrough 2022 campaign, rated as the league’s best right tackle by PFF, ahead of more-established peers like Lane Johnson and Tristan Wirfs. McGary is a better run blocker than pass protector, but that’s no minor attribute given the steady return to a reliance on the ground game elsewhere in the NFL. Though 28, he should have several stellar years ahead of him if he can link up with the right team.

8. LB Tremaine Edmunds

The two-time Pro Bowler has been a linchpin of a Buffalo Bills defense ranking first or second in points allowed in three of the past four seasons. An athletic freak at 6-5, 250 pounds with 4.5-second 40-yard-dash speed, he also won’t turn 25 until May. You might also get some bonus players by signing Edmunds as his brothers, Trey (a running back) and former first-rounder Terrell (a safety), are no longer under contract to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

9. CB James Bradberry

Another member of the NFC champion Eagles, Bradberry hasn’t exactly been consistent year over year but is coming off a strong 2022 season. Again, it didn’t hurt playing in front of Philly’s fleet of pass rushers or opposite perennial Pro Bowl CB Darius Slay. But though Bradberry will turn 30 before next season and maybe tugs on a receiver’s jersey at the most inopportune time, he plays a premium position and is a quality defender – especially in a CB2 role.

10. WR Odell Beckham Jr.

OBJ’s cost/benefit analysis was never better encapsulated than in Super Bowl 56, which he began with an MVP-worthy performance before suffering another torn ACL in the second quarter. It was probably never realistic to expect him to play in 2022, but he should be ready next season. He hasn’t been a Pro Bowler since 2016 but is plenty capable of being a dominant WR2 with the right team. Now 30, he’s available to sign immediately and might get a little extra cash in a year where there doesn’t appear to be a dominant receiver available in the draft. And he wants you to know the knee is good.

11. RB Jamaal Williams

He displaced D’Andre Swift as the Detroit Lions’ starter in 2022, and the fiery Williams responded with his first 1,000-yard rushing season and led the league with 17 touchdown runs. Williams turns 28 next month but only has 1,075 touches in six NFL seasons and should have plenty of juice left in his legs.

12. CB Jamel Dean

His age (26) and durability might make him more attractive for some teams than Bradberry. Dean’s 6-1, 206-pound frame is another plus, and he’s only allowed completions on slightly more than half of the 243 times he’s been targeted in his four-year career.

13. TE Mike Gesicki

He was a horrid fit in the Miami Dolphins’ new-look offense in 2022, which makes you wonder why they franchised him in the first place. But for teams in search of an athletic move tight end who can get downfield – Gesicki, 27, had more than 700 receiving yards in 2020 and 2021 – this could be their guy. Just don’t expect much blocking and be prepared to endure a terrible Griddy when he reaches the end zone (OK, that’s a plus).

14. RB Miles Sanders

A Pro Bowler for the first time in 2022, when he established career highs with 1,347 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs. Sanders is also just 26 and wasn’t even heavily used at Penn State, save one season, while serving as Saquon Barkley’s backup. Still – and we don’t mean to pick on Eagles players – Sanders did benefit greatly from operating behind Philly’s offensive line and alongside QB Jalen Hurts, a frequent runner who took extra defensive attention off of him.

15. DE Zach Allen

Playing opposite J.J. Watt the past two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, Allen, 25, has developed into a plug-and-play end for teams that prefer odd fronts. He’s improved as a pass rusher, notching career highs with 5½ sacks and 20 QB hits in 2022, and should be a stabilizing force for years to come.

16. WR Allen Lazard

Another who could benefit from a thin receiver market and draft class, he reached personal bests with 60 receptions and 788 yards for the Green Bay Packers in 2022, Lazard’s first season without Davante Adams. His athleticism and build (6-5, 227 pounds) make Lazard, 27, a matchup nightmare, especially for a team that can slot him opposite an established WR1.

17. DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson

He’s feisty. He’s versatile, able to line up at safety, in the slot or out wide. He tied for the league lead with six interceptions in 2022 despite missing five games. And he’s only 25. He’ll be a valuable piece somewhere, as he was for the Eagles in 2022.

18. OT Mike McGlinchey

The 28-year-old cousin of Matt Ryan started 69 games over the past five seasons for the San Francisco 49ers. He might enjoy playing right tackle somewhere where pass rushers won’t eagerly line up opposite him to avoid going against Trent Williams.

19. LB Bobby Okereke

He had an exceptional season in 2022 despite the absence of running mate Shaquille Leonard or a passable offense to take pressure off what was an otherwise solid Indianapolis Colts defense. And there’s usually a market for athletic off-ball backers who can run and tackle, and Okereke, 26, certainly did a lot of that in 2022 – ranking 10th in the NFL with 151 stops.

20. WR Jakobi Meyers

For what it’s worth, he led the New England Patriots with 804 receiving yards and six TD grabs among 67 receptions in 2022. Meyers can play in the slot or wide, and his background as a quarterback provides one more dimension to his versatility – he’s completed all four of his NFL passes, two going for scores.

21. S Jordan Poyer

Yes, he’s almost 32. But he’s long been one of the league’s most reliable safeties, even if the wider acclaim only arrived the past two years when he was finally recognized as a Pro Bowler (2022) and All-Pro (2021) for the first time. It sounds like his time could be up with the Buffalo Bills, but Poyer should be a boon to other teams on the cusp of the Super Bowl.

22. TE Dalton Schultz

He leveraged a career year in 2021 (78 catches for 808 yards and 8 TDs) into a franchise tag with the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for Schultz, he couldn’t wrangle a longer deal out of Jerry Jones nor replicate his production in 2022. He’ll be a nice pickup somewhere, though a deep tight end draft class could hurt his market.

23. G Nate Davis

With apologies to LB T.J. Edwards, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Marcus Peters, All-Pro KR Keisean Nixon and others, no chance this stud was getting left off the list. Say what you want about the value of right guards, but Nate D., 26, has been reliably consistent over his four-year career and one of the major reasons for RB Derrick Henry’s unfailing production in Tennessee. Pay the man.


Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL free agency 2023: Lamar Jackson, Jimmy Garoppolo among top players

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