The NFL offseason is underway and we are merely weeks away from the start of the new league year, which, of course, ushers in free agency. This year, there is a fascinating group of defensive backs that is set to hit the market. Corners like J.C. Jackson and Carlton Davis will likely garner plenty of attention across the league given their age and talent level, but several veterans could also be attractive to contenders for the 2022 season. No matter what you're specifically in the market for, there is plenty of talent in the secondary this go-around.
Below, you'll find a rundown of the top defensive backs who are set to hit free agency, along with some possible landing spots and a projected average annual salary to their next deal.
Note: DBs' listed ages are as of September 2022, the start of next season.
1. J.C. Jackson
Age: 26 | Last team: Patriots
When you look at the numbers, J.C. Jackson has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL over the last few seasons. In 2021, he became New England's No. 1 cornerback in the aftermath of Stephon Gilmore's departure and kept his high level of play going. He led the league with 23 pass breakups while also totaling eight interceptions, and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 49.1% of their passes in his direction.
Given his play and the fact that he's only 26 years old, Jackson could be in line for a top-of-the-market type of contract if/when he hits free agency. To this point, the Patriots have not placed the franchise tag on Jackson, which would signal that other teams will get a shot at signing him. The New York Jets would be a spicy pairing given that he'd be playing his former team twice a year. The club does have the fifth-highest amount of cap space as well, so New York will be a team worth keeping an eye on, especially after they ranked dead last in the NFL against the pass in DVOA. If joining a ready-made Super Bowl contender is part of Jackson's requirements, the Chiefs and 49ers also make sense.
Age: 26 | Last team: Saints
Marcus Williams looks like he'll finally reach the open market after playing the 2021 season on the franchise tag. The safety once again put together a strong season for New Orleans, breaking up eight passes while tallying a career-high 74 tackles. He was also a terror for opposing quarterbacks as they only completed 48.8% of their targets thrown at Williams. Similar to Jackson above, the fact that Williams is playing at an extremely high level and only in his mid-20s, he should see a very lucrative deal.
If he does depart New Orleans, the Dallas Cowboys would be a fascinating pairing. After all, the club could lose both Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker this offseason, so there will be a hole to fill at safety. The one snag in that potential pursuit is the Cowboys cap situation as they are currently around $21 million over the projected salary cap. They would certainly need to shed some significant money off the books to go after Williams, but it'd be quite the splash to pair him with a blossoming defense that consists of linebacker Micah Parsons and corner Trevon Diggs.
3. Jessie Bates
Age: 25 | Last team: Bengals
Jessie Bates could be a prime candidate to be hit with the franchise tag by the Bengals before the March 8 deadline. That said, he's gone on record saying that he hopes to avoid that tag and ink a long-term deal with either Cincinnati or another club. If Bates hits the open market, he could be looking at a very lucrative deal after being one of the key pieces to the Bengals run to Super Bowl LVI this past season. In the playoffs, Bates totaled 20 tackles, had six pass breakups, and hauled in two picks. His regular season wasn't up to the same level as it has been in the past, but that shouldn't preclude him from inking a sizable contract this offseason.
The Bengals will likely emphasize keeping Bates around, but other teams like the Chargers could also be an interesting fit. Los Angeles has the second-highest amount of cap space this offseason and has a secondary that ranked 19th in DVOA against the pass. He'd also be joining a team on the rise with the Chargers, who also have a promising young quarterback in Justin Herbert.
4. Carlton Davis
Age: 25 | Last team: Buccaneers
Carlton Davis' free agent status will be worth watching as he could be tagged by the Buccaneers. If he isn't and makes it to the open market, he could find himself in a very similar situation to J.C. Jackson and see a massive contract be thrown his way. Davis is only 25 years old and already has a Super Bowl ring on his finger and four years of starting experience under his belt. His physical style of play in man coverage gives him all the makings of a No. 1 corner. While he was limited to 10 games this year due to a quad injury, he only allowed 57.1% of the passes thrown his way to be completed.
Again, he could be a franchise tag candidate for the Buccaneers, so any talk about his free agency could become a moot point in the near future. That said, he could cast a wide net in free agency if he gets there. Naturally, the Chiefs and Chargers could be contenders that are vying for his services, but Davis is young enough that teams like the Jets and Jaguars could also be logical suitors as they build towards contention with their young quarterbacks.
Projected AAV: $19.6 million (via Spotrac)
Logical fits: Buccaneers, Chargers, Jaguars, Jets, Colts, Chiefs
5. Stephon Gilmore
Age: 32 | Last team: Panthers
The 2021 season was topsy-turvy for Stephon Gilmore. After a quad injury cut his 2020 campaign short, that injury along with a contract dispute with the Patriots resulted in him landing on PUP to start the year. Before he was able to get back onto the field for New England, he was traded to the Carolina Panthers where he'd play out the rest of the 2021 season. In those nine games played with the Panthers, he recorded two interceptions. While Gilmore's past couple of years have been clunky, he should still be considered a quality top corner in any defense when healthy. After all, we are not too far removed from when Gilmore was the NFL's Defensive Player of the year in 2019.
The Las Vegas Raiders could be an interesting landing spot for Gilmore, although the club does need to proceed carefully with the cap as they have roughly $20 million to spend this offseason. The arrival of Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler to the Raiders does present some familiarity to Gilmore and the club could use help in the secondary after ranking 21st against the pass in DVOA last year. Gilmore also makes a lot of sense for a team like the Chiefs, who are within their Super Bowl window and would welcome a boost to the secondary.
Age: 30 | Last team: Chiefs
Tyrann Mathieu has been a versatile weapon in the secondary and arguably the face of Kansas City's defense during this latest Super Bowl window under Patrick Mahomes. The 29-year-old ability to play in the back end of the secondary as a traditional safety, line up in the slot or situate himself in the box will surely make him a sough-after piece in the free-agent market and someone the Chiefs could prioritize retaining as well. Not only has Mathieu been a steady figure in the secondary, but he's also been a reliable presence. playing at least 94% of the defensive snaps over the last three seasons.
If he doesn't stay in K.C., a pairing with the Ravens could make sense for Mathieu. Baltimore has a rich history of getting the best out of versatile safeties like Mathieu and that position has been a weak spot for them as they ranked 30th in DVOA against the pass last season. Plugging in a player like Mathieu should help stabilize that unit going forward, especially once they get cornerback Marlon Humphrey back healthy.
Projected AAV: $14.8 million (via Spotrac)
Logical fits: Chiefs, Ravens, Jets, 49ers, Colts
Age: 33 | Last team: Raiders
Casey Hayward was a cap casualty with the Chargers last offseason and ultimately inked a one-year deal with the Raiders. There, he put together another solid season where he allowed quarterbacks to complete just 57.1% of their throws against him while tallying nine pass breakups in 17 regular-season games played. Hayward can certainly still play in the league, but given that he'll be 33 years old around the start of next season, he could be best served as a short-term option for a veteran team in the midst of a playoff window. Naturally, the Chiefs come to mind as a possible fit along with the Bills and 49ers. If the Patriots lose J.C. Jackson in free agency, New England would also have a need at corner, which Hayward could be the short-term fix to.
Projected AAV: N/A
Logical fits: Raiders, Chiefs, Bills, Patriots, 49ers
Age: 28 | Last team: Rams
It's a good time to be Darious Williams. The cornerback is fresh off a Super Bowl title with the Rams and is now on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Last offseason, L.A. placed a first-round tender on Williams, which showed that he was held in high regard by the organization. While on that tender, Williams allowed quarterbacks to complete 62% of their throws against him while putting up 71 tackles. In the midst of the Rams Super Bowl run, Williams had three pass breakups and 24 more tackle. His speed has been an attractive trait throughout his career, but his size -- stands 5-foot-9 -- could limit his ceiling for how much he could fetch on the open market and leave him under what the likes of J.C. Jackson and Carlton Davis are projected to haul in.
The Patriots could make sense for Williams if they lose Jackson in free agency as he'd likely come at a cheaper cost and New England would need to fill that hole at corner in some capacity. The Steelers also could be an interesting landing spot as corner Joe Haden is also set to hit the free agent market.
Projected AAV: $14.6 million (via Spotrac)
Logical fits: Rams, Patriots, Chargers, Jets, Steelers
Age: 29 | Last team: Seahawks
Quandre Diggs is coming off his second-consecutive Pro Bowl season for the Seahawks and has proven to be a ball hawk over the course of his career. The safety has 10 interceptions over the last two seasons and just had a career-high 94 tackles in 2021. He also gave up just one touchdowns last year while opposing quarterbacks registered a passer rating of 63.4 when throwing in his direction. While Diggs balled out in a contract year, he did suffer a dislocated ankle an a broken right fibula in Seattle's regular season finale, so his recovery will be a piece of his free agency puzzle.
As we mentioned with Marcus Williams, Diggs could be another target for Dallas as they look to solidify the safety position. The Philadelphia Eagles are another team in the NFC East that could use a boost at safety. Of course, the Seahawks could also look to retain Diggs before he hits the market, but they are already paying Jamal Adams a hefty amount, so it'd be interesting to see if they double-down salary-wise to that position.
Projected AAV: $12.1 million (via Spotrac)
Logical fits: Cowboys, Eagles, Seahawks, Jets
10. Marcus Maye
Age: 29 | Last team: Jets
Marcus Maye is another free agent that is dealing with an injury. The Jets safety -- who was playing the 2021 season under the franchise tag -- suffered a torn Achilles back in Week 9 that ended his year early. When healthy, he has been a strong piece to New York's secondary and played very well in an expanded role following the departure of Jamal Adams. In the six games he did play in during the 2021 season, just 47.6% of the balls thrown Maye's way were completed and he also totaled 46 tackles with two pass breakups.
Given his injury, it is fair to wonder if Maye will opt for a one-year prove-it deal somewhere to boost his market before hitting free agency against next year with eyes for a more lucrative deal. In any event, Maye should see plenty of suitors. The Ravens and Eagles could be in the market for a talented safety to solidify the back end of their secondaries, while the Patriots may also need help at that spot with Devin McCourty's future with the team uncertain.
Projected AAV: $7.4 million (via Spotrac)
Logical fits: Ravens, Eagles, Patriots