NFL free agency 2022: The top 40 defensive players available, ranked from J.C. Jackson, Von Miller on down

Making the right moves in NFL free agency can have significant impact on upgrading a team’s defense.

Take the Bengals, who splurged on defensive end Trey Hendrickson and others the past two offseasons. They filled enough big holes to emerge as AFC champions in 2021.

Although some of the best unrestricted defensive players on the 2022 won’t go anywhere because they are valuable enough to re-signed by their current teams, more will be too expensive to retain. That should flood the market with several key pass rushers, run stoppers and cover men.

Here’s a look at the top available players on that side of the ball across positions:

MORE: Ranking the 50 best NFL free agents for 2022

NFL free agency 2022: Defense rankings

1. J.C. Jackson, CB, Patriots (age: 28)

Jackson was tremendous in coverage taking over as their No. 1 corner. He had eight interceptions and led the league with 23 pass breakups. He’s iffy to come back to New England after the team parted ways with Stephon Gilmore and Jackson may need to find his big money elsewhere. Projected landing spot: Patriots

2. Von Miller, EDGE, Rams (age: 32)

Miller remained effective in producing 9.5 sacks in 15 combined regular-season games with Denver and Los Angeles. He’s slowed down a bit from his prime but can still be a valuable part of any 3-4 defensive scheme. Projected landing spot: Rams

3. Chandler Jones, EDGE, Cardinals (age: 31)

Jones rebounded to pick up where he left off after a 2020 season lost to a biceps injury, recording 10.5 sacks in 15 games. He’s consistent in getting to the QB and like Miller, he has one more big-money run left in him. Projected landing spot: Colts

4. Jessie Bates III, S, Bengals (age: 25) (franchise-tagged)

Bates was a second-team All-Pro in 2020. He wasn’t as prolific making plays all over the field in 2021, but he’s active extra defender for run support and still has strong ballhawking skills. He will be sticking with the Bengals, who slapped the franchise tag on their star safety.

5. Marcus Williams, S, Saints (age: 25)

Williams has been steady, durable and well-rounded for New Orleans since some struggles as a younger player. He’s always got a nose for the ball in coverage and had his best season vs. the run in 2021. Projected landing spot: Commanders

Stephon Gilmore

6. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Panthers (age: 31)

Gilmore was pretty strong in coverage during his half season in Carolina after being dealt from New England. He’s not fading too much given his age but is still more of a short-term playmaker for interested teams. Projected landing spot: Chargers

7. Carton Davis, CB, Buccaneers (age: 25)

Davis missed seven games with injuries in 2021 but when on the field, he showed the shutdown promise and ball skills from his breakout 2020 season that was integral to Tampa Bay winning the Super Bowl. Projected landing spot: Jaguars

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8. Akiem Hicks, DT, Bears (age: 32)

Hicks’ production inside against run and pass looked similar between 2020 and 2021, putting up the same 3.5 sacks in six fewer games of healthy action. His defied his age to be a strong plug-and-play. Projected landing spot: Seahawks

9. Emmanuel Ogbah, EDGE, Dolphins (age: 28)

Ogbah had a few massive games in producing a second consecutive season with 9 sacks. He has enjoyed his best play in Miami, including against the run, and can remain consistent elsewhere. Projected landing spot: Colts

10. Harold Landry, EDGE, Titans (age: 25)

Landry busted out his fourth season plugging away as a durable grinder for Tennessee with 12 sacks from their 3-4 scheme. He’s stayed strong and injury-free which gives him rising appeal as a first-time Pro Bowler. Projected landing spot: Titans

11. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE, Browns (age: 28)

Clowney had 9 sacks, matching his output from his final season with the Texans in 2018. He played well off a sensation season from Myles Garrett. He can be effective in his later age remaining in a complementary role, given he’s always been a fine run stopper. Projected landing spot: Broncos

12. Casey Hayward Jr., CB, Raiders (age: 32) 

The former Packers and Chargers standout had a rejuvenated season as a top cover corner in Las Vegas. He might be a little slower, but he still uses his smarts well in all of his assignments. Projected landing spot: Raiders

13. Randy Gregory, EDGE, Cowboys (age: 29)

Gregory was a strong part of Dan Quinn’s effective line rotation with six sacks, settling into a veteran complementary role while also making some key plays on the ball. Projected landing spot: Cowboys

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14. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Chiefs (age: 29)

The ultimate hybrid, the now venerable “Honey Badger” has made two consecutive Pro Bowls with Kansas City by always being around the ball in coverage and run support. The Chiefs will do their best to keep the leader of their defense. Projected landing spot:  Chiefs

15. De’Vondre Campbell, LB, Packers (age: 28)

Campbell was a pretty prolific tackler for the Falcons and Cardinals but he really raised his game as a cover man, tackler and effective blitzer, rewarded with his first first-team All-Pro nod in his sixth season. Projected landing spot: Patriots

16. Calais Campbell, DT, Ravens (age: 35) 

Campbell has waned from the dominant force he once was for the Cardinals and Jaguars because of his age, but he can still be a valuable versatile contributor. Projected landing spot: Dolphins

17. Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Chiefs (age: 32)

Ingram provided a big lift to Kansas City’s defense at midseason, proving he plenty of juice left as a pass-rusher and backfield disruptor. Projected landing spot: Eagles

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18. Haason Reddick, EDGE, Panthers (age: 27)

Reddick followed up his double-digit sack final in Arizona with 11 more in 16 games while reuniting with college coach Matt Rhule on a one-year deal. He has settled as a quarterback-pursuing specialist. Projected landing spot: Panthers

19. Quandre Diggs, S, Seahawks (age: 29)

Diggs has been solid coming over from the Lions with two consecutive 5-interception full seasons and is a good leader and clean-up presence for a defense. Projected landing spot: Jets

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20. Foyesade Oluokun, LB, Falcons (age: 26)

Oluokun led the NFL with 192 combined tackles in 2021 and he also had three interceptions. He’s a reliable run defender with some juice in coverage, too. Projected landing spot: Falcons

21. B.J. Hill, DT, Bengals (age: 26)

The former Giant has proved to be a good interior pass-rusher to complement their strong ends and should get a boost from his 5.5-sack regular season and playoff performance. Projected landing spot: Bengals

22. D.J. Jones, DT, 49ers (age: 27)

Jones is a strong gap-clogger against the run to be trusted on early downs but he also brings some inside pass-rush pop. Projected landing spot: 49ers

23. Marcus Maye, S, Jets (age: 28)

Maye had a big early start to his career making big plays but his effectiveness and durability have been recent questions. He’s still talented enough to rebound in a second setting. Projected landing spot: Raiders

24. Folorunso Fatukasi, DT, Jets (age: 26)

Fatukaski will get some consideration from teams looking for a reliable 4-3 run stopper. Projected landing spot: Jets

25. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Patriots (age: 31)

Hightower has been a big-time playmaker and key leader for Bill Belichick but his wear over the years is catching up to him. Projected landing spot: Steelers

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26. Darious Williams, CB, Rams (age: 27)

Williams is a solid No. 2 corner who doesn’t make a lot of plays on the ball in coverage, but he helps himself being a tackling asset. Projected landing spot: Bengals

27. Charvarius Ward, CB, Chiefs (age: 25)

Ward is like the Rams’ Williams in that one can’t count on him for big plays and interceptions but he does the little things well as a No. 2 corner. Projected landing spot: Patriots

28. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Cowboys (age: 26)

Vander Eash exploded as a rookie but injuries and changes in scheme and role have led to diminished returns. He is rangy enough to have a late-career resurgence. Projected landing spot: Packers

29. Josey Jewell, LB, Broncos (age: 27)

Jewell played in only two games after suffering a pectoral injury early in the 2021 season. But in 2020, he showed his range and all-around playmaking with 113 tackles, 2 sacks and 4 passes defended. Projected landing spot: Bears

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30. Alexander Johnson, LB, Broncos (age: 30)

Johnson has been a similar active defender to Jewell, only a little older, and thrived in the previous scheme under Vic Fangio. He also didn’t play much in 2021 after suffering his own pectoral injury. Projected landing spot: Broncos

31. D.J. Reed Jr., CB, Seahawks (age: 25)

Reed is a smaller corner (5-9, 193 pounds) who plays big in staying with bigger receivers and also providing good support as a back-end tackler. Projected landing spot: 49ers

32. Jordan Whitehead, S, Buccaneers (age: 24)

Whitehead is a strong upfield safety with his reliability against the run and ability to get to the quarterback while blitzing. Projected landing spot: Jaguars

33. Derek Barnett, EDGE, Eagles (age: 25)

Barnett has disappointed with his pass-rush production as a first-round pick in 2017 but has been pretty solid all-around with some untapped potential for a different scheme. Projected landing spot: Colts

Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh

34. Justin Houston, EDGE, Ravens (age: 33)

Houston came over from the Colts and gave Baltimore good situational production going back to 3-4 outside linebacker after doing well as 4-3 end for two seasons. He still has some solid veteran value with his savvy and versatility. Projected landing spot: Bears

35. Jerry Hughes, EDGE, Bills (age: 33)

Hughes has definitely slowed down as a pass rusher but, like Houston, remains a sound fundamental contributor with scheme versatility for good depth. Projected landing spot: Bills

36. Sebastian Joseph-Day, DT, Rams (age: 26)

Joseph-Day had a career-high 3 sacks playing off Aaron Donald in only 7 games before missing time with a pectoral injury. He can be a solid 3-4 nose anywhere. Projected landing spot: Chargers

37. Charles Harris, EDGE, Lions (age: 27)

Harris, the former Dolphin and Falcons, broke out as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Detroit with a career-high 7.5 sacks and 65 tackles along with 16 QB hits. Projected landing spot: Lions

38. Donte Jackson, CB, Panthers (age: 26)

Jackson has had some flashes making plays on the ball but despite his athletic skill set, he’s been maddeningly inconsistent in coverage. He’s young enough to improve as a starter elsewhere. Projected landing spot: Commanders

39. Uchenna Nwosu, EDGE, Chargers (age: 25)

Nwosu had a career-high 5 sacks and 17 QB hits settling in at outside linebacker opposite Joey Bosa in Brandon Staley’s 3-4. Projected landing spot: Chargers

40. Maliek Colins, DT, Texans (age: 28)

The former Raider and Cowboy did well in Lovie Smith’s defense with active interior work up front, including a couple of sacks and an interception. Houston is looking to bring him back with Smith elevated to head coach. Projected landing spot: Texans