Week 11 means heading into the final stretch in most fantasy leagues, and after last week reviewing the success of the 2021 drafts, it’s never too early to think about 2022. Plenty of NFL teams are already starting to shift their focus from this season to what they can do to improve 2022.
There are seven weeks left to the NFL season, and many players become free agents next season. Some will re-sign, most likely end up somewhere else. This week’s column looks at the most notable pending free agents and what they could mean next season, and what they mean for the rest of 2021. These players are even more important in dynasty leagues.
1.) RB James Conner, Chase Edmonds (ARI) – Both players become free agents in the spring. Conner signed a one-year deal, and Edmonds reaches the end of his rookie contract. The only other back of any note is Eno Benjamin, a seventh-rounder from 2020. Edmonds hasn’t turned in a primary back as was hoped, and Conner’s been great at short-yardage with 11 touchdowns after just ten games, but he’s only averaged 3.9 yards-per-carry on his 125 rushes. It doesn’t help Edmonds was injured after just 76 rushes and 30 receptions.
Both backs are playing for their next contracts. Conner’s done well enough that he’ll land somewhere else quickly if the Cards don’t re-sign him. Edmonds has been just an average third-down back. The duo started the year with equal carries, but Conner’s taken over as the primary rusher and looks like the most likely to be kept. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to Edmond’s workload.
2.) RB Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon, Derrick Gore (KC) – Clyde Edwards-Helaire has two more years on his rookie deal, but the other three running backs are all set to become free agents (Gore is ERFA). Darrel Williams has been the star of the bunch stepping up when Edwards-Helaire was injured in Week 5. Williams was an undrafted back that signed a very cheap 3-year deal in 2018, then re-upped for just this year. He’s done well enough over these last five games that he may have options elsewhere in 2022 and could become part of a tandem when Edwards-Helaire returns.
3.) RB Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard, Ronald Jones (TB) – Yes, other than Ke’Shawn Vaugh and his five carries, the entire backfield of the Buccaneers are free agents after this year. The Buccaneers reloaded for a return to the Super Bowl and kept almost the entire team together. Leonard Fournette has stood out as the clear best option, but the better he plays, the better chance he’ll have of getting more cash elsewhere. Jones’ role just never took off this year. Be interesting to see if he gets any playing time increase later on to check if he is worth rostering again. This backfield could be all-new in 2021.
Just to complicate things a bit more, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown also become free agents.
4.) RB Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, Tajae Sharpe, Russell Gage (ATL) – Calvin Ridley is signed through 2022 on his rookie contract, but he’s a no-show for an indeterminate amount of time. The Falcon’s head coach Arthur Smith’s first season has been rough, and his second could see a complete rebuild of the wideouts. Kyle Pitt (3-29) just showed what happens when defenses key on him. Cordarrelle Patterson has been shockingly productive but can the Falcons re-sign him? What sort of contract does a 30-year-old receiver after his first breakout year get?
The Falcons are wafting to the bottom of the standings, and they need to decide who, if any, of their entire receiving corps that they want to keep. Remaking the entire set of secondary receivers rarely goes well. Ask the Washington Football Team or the Lions how well that works. The Falcons are likely to start picking through the pieces to determine who returns.
5.) WR Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Randall Cobb, TE Robert Tonyan (GB) – All of these receivers are free agents in 2022 except Randall Cobb, who is signed through 2022, but the Packers have a potential out after this year if they don’t want to pay a 32-year-old wideout $7.875 million.
Of course, the Packers may lose Aaron Rodgers in 2022 and if so, the entire passing offense changes. The Packers’ offense may be in a total ground-up rebuild other than their backfield. Maybe the question is less about who remains and more about if Rodgers would bring anyone with him to a new team? The Broncos are a rumored suitor, and they have Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick becoming free agents in 2022.
6.) RB Melvin Gordon (DEN) – He’s half of the backfield tandem with Javonte Williams, and arguably the rookie is at least as good as Gordon, if not better. But Gordon is a free agent in the spring. They could re-sign him, but let’s say that the Broncos wanted to bring in a very pricey quarterback and needed cap room. Just rely heavily on the rookie that makes a little over $1 million next year, or bring back Gordon, who makes $8 million this season?