Preparations for the 2023 NFL season are in full swing with training camp ongoing and the preseason getting started with last weekend’s Hall of Fame Game. Despite this, there are still a few talented veterans lingering on the open market.
Time is running out for teams to pick up these potential impact players and get them integrated before the new campaign kicks off next month. These players already have a short amount of time to learn the playbook and get familiar with a new system compared to those who signed in the spring,
With that in mind, here are six of the top free agents who need to be signed immediately.
No defensive capability is more desired in the modern NFL than pass rushing. A strong edge defender can help neutralize opposing quarterbacks and win games. Because of that, it’s a bit strange that a solid pass-rusher like Jadeveon Clowney is looking for a new home with less than a month to go before the 2023 season.
He may not have lived up to his billing as the top overall pick in 2014, but Clowney still had a solid run with the Houston Texans between 2014 and 2018. He’s now firmly in the mercenary stage of his career, having played for three different teams in the four seasons since he left Houston after making the last of three consecutive Pro Bowls.
Clowney most recently suited up for the Cleveland Browns, participating in 26 games over the last two years. He started his tenure with that club on a high note, recording nine sacks while augmenting superstar edge-rusher Myles Garrett. He came back down to earth in 2022, however, and only notched a pair of sacks while missing five contests due to injury. While Clowney is clearly declining now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, he can still be an asset for many defenses. The 6’5″, 250-pounder is not only a viable pass-rusher, but he’s also one of the more standout run-stoppers at the position.
Clowney was recently spotted working out near his home in Houston. When asked about potentially returning to the Texans, the South Carolina product said he would be open to a reunion (per Mark Berman of Fox 26 Houston):
“It would be nice. All my family is here. Friends here. The guys I work out with can help me take care of my body a lot better being right up under them. … You never know. You never know what will happen. You never know what’s in front of you. I see what they’ve got here. They’re putting the pieces together.”
The Texans have over $12 million in cap space and a need for more veterans to complement the young prospects littering this roster. Pairing Clowney with Will Anderson Jr.—the prized edge-rusher the team just selected at No. 3 overall—could help Houston make a leap into contention as early as the 2023 season.
It’s relatively shocking that Dalvin Cook remains a free agent exactly one month after his release by the Minnesota Vikings. Cook—a salary-cap casualty following four consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns—is not only the clear-cut top running back on the open market, but the best overall free-agent available at this juncture.
There is no shortage of franchises linked to the running back, including the entire AFC East. The Miami Dolphins were one of the first clubs to offer a contract to Cook. The New England Patriots were also “intrigued” by Cook after the release of James Robinson left their backfield devoid of quality options outside of Rhamondre Stevenson. Cook himself said it’s “not out of the picture for me to go play” with the Buffalo Bills, a move that would reunite him with younger brother James Cook.
While those clubs and others have all expressed some form of interest in Cook, The MMQB’s Albert Breer said recently on The Rich Eisen Show that the back prefers to land with the New York Jets. Cook didn’t feel an urgent need to sign anywhere shortly after his release and could be patiently waiting for Gang Green to put a strong offer on the table.
Cook, who was due to make $14 million before his release, is seeking approximately $10 million for the 2023 campaign and is “unlikely” to even consider offers in the $5 million range, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. He’s also made it clear he wants to win a Super Bowl ring, which could vastly reduce the number of viable landing spots.
The Jets have a shade under $13 million in available cap space. They may not want to tie up a lion’s share of that in a running back—especially not with Breece Hall expected to be back at full strength this season—but getting Cook to agree to a deal worth around half of that cap room could be a fair compromise. It’s a move New York needs to make sooner than later, however, as getting him into the mix for the remainder of training camp to learn the offense will help the club’s chances of winning in 2023.
There are many offensive lines around the league that could still benefit from an upgrade ahead of the 2023 season. Quality offensive linemen are hard to find at any point in free agency, especially this late in the offseason. A club that wants to beef up the interior of the offensive trenches would be wise to shell out for Dalton Risner—the best available guard on the open market—before he’s finally snapped up.
Risner is coming off a respectable four-year run with the Denver Broncos, the club that selected him in the second round of the 2019 draft. He emerged as a regular starter at left guard as a rookie and went on to appear in all but four games during his tenure in the Mile High City. The 28-year-old may not be a perennial Pro Bowler, but he’s a capable interior pass-protector and run-blocker who has never allowed more than four sacks in a season despite logging nearly 4,000 career offensive snaps.
While the Broncos were an offensive disaster last year, Risner still fared relatively well given the circumstances. His 61.1 PFF grade doesn’t jump off the page, but he only was flagged for a single penalty across 967 offensive snaps and was responsible for allowing just three of the league-worst 63 sacks Denver’s quarterbacks took in 2022.
9News.com’s Mike Klis reported in June that as many as seven teams were interested in signing Risner. The guard doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to ink a new deal, even with his market value estimated to be upward of $10 million, according to Spotrac. He did recently visit the Minnesota Vikings, and while the Star Tribune‘s Ben Goessling noted that there “could be a deal at some point,” Risner left the Twin Cities without signing.
Risner’s lengthy free agency could be attributed to a cool guard market as well as the controversy surrounding his shove of backup quarterback Brett Rypien during a Christmas Day game last year. Regardless, Risner is still the top offensive line talent available and should be signed well before training camp concludes.
Melvin Ingram, Edge
Melvin Ingram may be in the twilight of his career, but he’s still showing up every year and offering positive contributions. He did that for the Miami Dolphins last season, catching on with the club on a one-year deal and tallying a respectable six sacks while appearing in all 17 games.
That resurgent performance—which came on the heels of a down campaign, one in which he tallied just two sacks across 15 games with the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers—showed that Ingram still has something left in the tank at age 34. He won’t be a Pro Bowler, but this veteran can be a difference-maker as a rotational edge-rusher.
Bryce Callahan, CB
A quality corner can be tough to find at this point in the offseason, but Bryce Callahan is still available for those clubs that need one. At age 31, he’s clearly lost a step and is injury-prone, but he’s coming off his most healthy season as a pro. The cornerback suited up for 15 games with the Los Angeles Chargers and started 11 of those contests.
Callahan was also arguably his most productive, recording three interceptions to go with 47 tackles, six pass defenses and even scoring a touchdown. He’ll be a nice addition to a secondary that could use an experienced veteran both on the field and in the locker room.
Ben Jones, C
Almost every team could benefit from having a proven interior offensive lineman on its roster. Ben Jones has seen plenty of NFL action during his tenure in the league, participating in 172 contests and starting 151 over 11 years. He just wrapped up a half-decade with the Tennessee Titans that culminated with the first Pro Bowl nod of his career.
While Jones’ PFF grade isn’t eye-popping—he scored a 71.9 from the site—he’s still clearly playing at a high enough level at the age of 34. He has the potential to be a plug-and-play starter for almost any team and should be snapped up by a club that needs a center as soon as possible.