Patriots

NFL free agents 2022: Ranking the top 10 cornerbacks

Patriots

Fans of the New England Patriots need no introduction to two of the top cornerbacks set to become free agents in March.

New England's own J.C. Jackson is in line for a massive payday as not only the best free-agent cornerback, but perhaps simply the top player at his position overall in 2021. Meanwhile, former Patriot Stephon Gilmore is set to hit free agency for the first time since prior to signing in New England in March 2017. While he likely won't get anywhere near the five-year, $65 million deal that brought him to Foxboro in the first place, Gilmore is certainly in line for one last payday in his career.

Jackson, however, could become the highest-paid corner in the league when all is said and done.

Top 2022 NFL free agents by position: QB | RB | WR | TEOL | DLEDGE | LB | S | KTop 25 overall

Here's a look at the top 10 corners set to become free agents this spring.

10. Eli Apple

Age: 26

2021 stats: 2 INT, 10 passes defended, 49 tackles

Still in his prime physically, Apple spent the 2021 season rebuilding his value with the Cincinnati Bengals -- his fourth organization since being drafted 10th overall in 2016 -- and played well, appearing in 93 percent of the team's defensive snaps. A strong showing in the Super Bowl against any one of the talented wideouts for the Los Angeles Rams could boost Apple's value further.

9. Rasul Douglas

Age: 27

2021 stats: 5 INT, 13 passes defended, 57 tackles

Curiously well-traveled in 2021, Douglas likely positioned himself for job security, if nothing else, after a solid 12-game audition with the Green Bay Packers after spending time with the Las Vegas Raiders, Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals from the offseason through midseason. Two of his five interceptions were returned for touchdowns, tied for the league lead.

 

8. Casey Hayward

Age: 32

2021 stats: 1 INT, 9 passes defended, 46 tackles

One of the more durable corners in the league over the last decade -- three missed games in 2020 are his only absences over the last eight years -- Hayward won't command much more than the $4 million he earned last season for the Las Vegas Raiders and will be a solid addition for whoever looks past his age.

7. Patrick Peterson

Age: 31

2021 stats: 1 INT, 5 passes defended, 45 tackles

One could make a case that Peterson is the very best player the Cardinals have had this side of Larry Fitzgerald since they moved to the desert in the late '80s. He made eight Pro Bowls and was named First-Team All-Pro three times with Arizona.

After nine seasons with the Cardinals, Peterson spent 2021 with the Minnesota Vikings, where he was neither part of the problem nor solution for a middling operation that missed the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons. A member of the Hall of Fame's All-2010s team, Peterson's 78.7 passer rating against was his best figure since 2018.

6. Charvarius Ward

Age: 25

2021 stats: 2 INT, 10 passes defended, 67 tackles

An elite tackler, the former undrafted free agent theoretically hasn't reached his peak yet. He has good size at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, and held opposing quarterbacks to a mediocre 79.3 passer rating against in 2021. Patriots fans may remember Ward for catching what would have been the clinching interception in the 2018 AFC Championship Game for the Kansas City Chiefs if not for Dee Ford lining up off-sides.

UPDATE (March 15): Ward is joining the San Francisco 49ers on a three-year contract.

5. D.J. Reed Jr.

Age: 25

2021 stats: 2 INT, 10 passes defended, 78 tackles

Reed had his best season as a pro for the Seattle Seahawks in 2021. He's only 5-foot-9, but limited opposing quarterbacks to a 47.7 completion percentage and 67.8 passer rating when targeted.

UPDATE (March 15): Reed is signing a three-year deal with the New York Jets.

4. Darious Williams

Age: 28

2021 stats: 0 INT, 9 passes defended, 71 tackles

With Jalen Ramsey still commanding $20 million per season, Los Angeles will likely have to let Williams walk after putting a first-round tender on him a season ago as a restricted free agent. 

3. Stephon Gilmore

Age: 31

2021 stats: 2 INT, 2 passes defended, 16 tackles

A contract dispute led to his abrupt dismissal from New England after four seasons, three Pro Bowls, two First-Team All-Pro nods, a Defensive Player of the Year award and most importantly, a Super Bowl title. Gilmore proved he still had something to offer in Carolina, picking off two passes -- one against his former team -- in eight games after joining the team midseason. Recently named a Pro Bowl alternate, Gilmore should have no shortage of suitors when free agency begins.

 

2. Carlton Davis

Age: 25

2021 stats: 1 INT, 11 passes defended, 39 tackles

His age -- he won't turn 26 until New Year's Eve -- and championship pedigree with the Bucs make him a rare potential No. 1 cornerback hitting free agency in his prime. Davis missed seven games in 2021 due to a quad injury he suffered against the Patriots in Week 4, and while he's never missed significant time beyond that, he's still been inactive for at least two games in each of his first four seasons. 

But when healthy, Davis has been among the steadiest corners in the league over the last three seasons, with a respectable passer rating against in the 80s every year since 2019, including 83.2 this season.

UPDATE (March 14): Davis is staying in Tampa on a three-year contract extension.

1. J.C. Jackson

Age: 26

2021 stats: 8 INT, 23 passes defended, 44 tackles

The latest in a long line of prolific undrafted free agents to blossom at corner for the Patriots under Bill Belichick, Jackson just might be the most accomplished. He's already ninth in franchise history with 25 interceptions in just four seasons; with eight in 2021, he earned his first Pro Bowl berth and was named Second Team All-Pro with a league-leading 23 passes defended.

Quarterbacks looking Jackson's way didn't find much, completing less than half their passes (49.1 percent) with a passer rating of 46.8.

For as much as New England seemingly can't afford to lose him, can it afford to keep him? Given his age and production, Jackson could fetch a deal approaching $20 million per season, the salary commanded by Jalen Ramsey, who's in the midst of a five-year, $100 million pact with the Los Angeles Rams.

UPDATE (March 14): Jackson indeed is leaving the Patriots and signing with the Chargers on a lucrative five-year contract.

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Honorable mentions: Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Robert Alford, Jason McCourty, Chris Harris, Kyle Fuller, Xavier Rhodes, Richard Sherman.