Ranking NFL free agency's top 25 players in 2024: Chiefs' Chris Jones stands above rest

The NFL's own version of March Madness is not too far off.

With Super Bowl 58 wrapping up the 2023 season just days ago, it won't be long before teams begin putting their plans in motion for this year's campaign. For some franchises, that could mean significant personnel change, whether via trades, signings or departures. And the biggest frenzy of all begins on March 11 with the opening of the legal tampering period of free agency.

Of course, some teams will opt to give their top impending free agents the franchise tag, thereby prohibiting them from truly having free rein to head elsewhere. That process should remove several of the most formidable options from the open market. But there are still a number of starters whose decisions could swing the balance of power in the league.

With that said, here's our look at the best impeding free agents before the franchise tag window opens.

Ranking the top 25 NFL free agents for 2024

1. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) reacts on the sideline during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) reacts on the sideline during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

No doubt about it: If Jones, 29, makes it to the open market, he's in a class all his own. The five-time Pro Bowl selection consistently wrecks opponents' game plans, his 20% pass-rush win rate trailing only the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald among defensive tackles despite his league-high 72% double-team rate, according to ESPN. Jones also reinforced that he can be moved to the outside to take advantage of favorable matchups. A contender likely would need to be prepared to put him in the echelon of Donald and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa as one of the NFL's top-paid defensive players, but he would reshape the pass rush of any team he joins. At the Chiefs' Super Bowl parade, Jones said "I ain't going nowhere." But let's see how that sentiment holds up in the next month.

2. Josh Allen, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars

No longer merely "the other Josh Allen," the star pass rusher enjoyed a full star turn in 2023, finishing tied for second in the NFL with 17 ½ sacks. Other teams shouldn't get their hopes up for nabbing him, though, as Jacksonville GM Trent Baalke said in late January that Allen "will be a Jaguar next season."

3. Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Is he ready to be a No. 1 receiver? Sure looks that way. The franchise tag remains a strong possibility, but if Higgins, 25, becomes available, there should be a massive bidding war to secure the services of the 6-4, 219-pound target.

(Editor's note: Higgins has received the franchise tag from the Bengals.)

4. Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

It speaks volumes that a torn Achilles suffered at midseason hasn't torpedoed the 36-year-old signal-caller's value. That's the benefit of the doubt one gets with consistent production and pinpoint passing. For whatever limitations Cousins has in elevating a team into true Super Bowl contender status, it's not often that an above-average starting quarterback with an established track record can be freely signed.

5. Brian Burns, DE/OLB, Carolina Panthers

A year and a half after the Panthers turned down multiple first-round picks in the Rams' offer for Burns, per multiple reports, the two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher's true value could come to light. But Burns, who has logged 46 sacks in five seasons, seems like a candidate for the franchise tag, if only because Carolina might be reticent to let him walk without returning any value beyond a compensatory pick.

6. Justin Madubuike, DT, Baltimore Ravens

One of last season's biggest breakout players, Madubuike led all defensive tackles with 13 sacks and tied an NFL record by recording at least a half-sack in 11 consecutive games. Able to bounce to the outside and create mismatches with his rare bend, he has all the requisite physical tools to make him a good bet to earn one of the gaudiest contracts handed out this offseason.

7. Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears

Despite earning his first career Pro Bowl nod, Johnson still likely didn't receive his proper due on a national stage in 2023. Already proven as a sticky and physical matchup in man coverage, the 6-0, 196-pounder turned heads with four interceptions last season.

8. Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The concept of Pro Bowl snubs is overblown, but Winfield had legitimate beef with his omission last season after a campaign in which he further established himself as one of the league's pre-eminent do-everything defenders. You won't find many defensive backs with his versatility in coverage who also can notch six sacks and six forced fumbles in a single season.

9. L'Jarius Sneed, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

Few have handled the transition from nickel to outside corner as well as Sneed, who proved during the Chiefs' Super Bowl run to be a smothering coverage presence capable of traveling with opposing teams' No. 1 receivers. It's easy to see why Chiefs GM Brett Veach said it was a priority to re-sign not only Jones but also Sneed, as having a cornerback tandem that features both the four-year veteran and All-Pro Trent McDuffie allows Steve Spagnuolo to do plenty of unorthodox things with his defense. The franchise tag could be in play, if only as a temporary means of protection.

10. Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings

It might seem strange to highlight Hunter's consistency after he missed all but seven games from 2020-21 due to a neck injury and torn pectoral, but that's now one of the hallmarks of the three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher's profile. Even if his sack total takes a step back from his career high of 16 ½, Hunter can be counted on to rank among the league's best in generating pressure.

11. Christian Wilkins, DT, Miami Dolphins

Despite Wilkins tallying a career-high nine sacks in 2023, his pass-rushing potential probably doesn't measure up to the defensive tackles who in recent years have earned contracts north of $20 million per year. But almost every other facet of his game is first-rate, as he is a defensive leader for the Dolphins whose non-stop hustle and staunch play against the run set the standard for the unit.

12. Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

Though he might lack the panache of other No. 1 receivers, Pittman has affirmed his status as a go-to target with his career-best 109 catches and 1,152 receiving yards in 2023. After the 6-4, 223-pound wideout helped lead Indianapolis to the verge of the playoffs, it's hard to imagine GM Chris Ballard letting Pittman walk given the ample spending space Indianapolis has to enjoy and the organization's emphasis on equipping Anthony Richardson with top talent.

13. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The model of consistency for wide receivers, Evans hasn't slowed down at 30, recording 1,255 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches last season. Baker Mayfield already has made it known he wants Evans – who didn't receive the long-term extension he sought last fall – to return to Tampa if the quarterback is to do so as well, but the five-time Pro Bowl receiver would have a horde of teams looking to pounce if he does reach the open market.

14. Leonard Williams, DT, Seattle Seahawks

A midseason trade helped Williams rediscover some of his early-career pass-rushing ability, as he posted four sacks in 10 games with the Seahawks while also creating opportunities for others on Seattle's defense as he commanded double teams. While re-upping would make sense for both sides, the financial realities at play – the Seahawks are set to be roughly $5 million over the cap – could prompt Williams to sign elsewhere.

15. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Health has been the pressing question for the eight-time Pro Bowl selection, who played in just 17 contests from 2020-22 and hasn't appeared in more than 13 games in a season since 2015. But Smith, 33, bounced back by starting 13 games last season and served a reminder of his pass-protecting prowess. Any aspiring contender looking for a quick fix at left tackle should gravitate toward him if he and the Cowboys don't work something out together.

16. Calvin Ridley, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

His return from a one-season gambling ban had its share of highs (notching 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns) and lows (catching just 76 of his 136 targets in a scheme that afforded him few easy opportunities to make plays). If the other top pass catchers are handed the franchise tag, Ridley could be a coveted option for teams looking to make a splash with a proven receiver.

17. Kendall Fuller, CB, Washington Commanders

Steady is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to cornerbacks. Fuller, 29, can be trusted with an assortment of assignments. Any playoff-caliber team looking to shore up its secondary in the short term should look his way.

18. Marquise Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals

The connection between Brown and Kyler Murray, friends and former Oklahoma teammates, never quite coalesced in the last two seasons while each dealt with a significant injury. "Hollywood" might not land the lucrative long-term deal that Christian Kirk did two years ago upon leaving Arizona, but the 5-9, 180-pound speedster should still command interest from any team in need of a big-play threat.

19. Bryce Huff, DE, New York Jets

From an efficiency standpoint, Huff was lights out when it came to pestering the quarterback, as he recorded 10 sacks and generated ample pressure despite playing in just over 42% of the Jets' defensive snaps. While he has vulnerabilities against the run and won't be a fit for every scheme, teams typically line up to pay a premium for his skill set.

20. Baker Mayfield, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In what initially looked like his last chance to be an NFL starter, Mayfield seemed to finally find his fit with the Buccaneers while throwing for a career-high 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Dave Canales is gone after being hired as the Carolina Panthers' new head coach, but Tampa Bay replaced him with Liam Coen, who was the Rams' offensive coordinator when Mayfield joined the team in 2022 and provided a late-season spark. There's little point in either side looking elsewhere, though Mayfield should earn a significant pay bump from the one-year, $4 million deal he agreed to last March.

21. Kevin Dotson, G, Los Angeles Rams

A change of scenery – and scheme – did Dotson good. After being traded by the Pittsburgh Steelers last August, the 6-4, 321-pound blocker found his pace in Sean McVay's newly implemented gap system.

22. Mike Onwenu, G/OT, New England Patriots

Don't let the Patriots' offensive struggles fool you. Despite New England having glaring shortcomings up front, Onwenu was hardly one of them, as the 6-3, 350-pounder proved capable of holding down a starting role at either right tackle or right guard. Expect the 2020 sixth-round pick to strike it big in a market that highly values his steadiness and versatility.

23. Chase Young, DE, San Francisco 49ers

Last season served as a nice career revitalization for Young, the former No. 2 overall pick and 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year tying a career high with 7 ½ sacks while being traded from Washington to San Francisco. But are teams ready to shell out a significant sum of guaranteed money in a multiyear deal to a player who missed 23 games from 2021-22 while recovering from a torn ACL?

24. D.J. Reader, DT, Cincinnati Bengals

Another case complicated by injury, as Reader suffered a torn quad tendon in December after missing substantial time in 2020 and 2022. When healthy, he's a magnet for double teams and is extremely disruptive against both the run and pass, even if the 6-3, 335-pounder isn't often one to finish plays.

25. Kyle Dugger, S, New England Patriots

Running big nickel packages instantly becomes easier with a player like Dugger, a 6-2, 222-pound hybrid defender adept at working downhill. While he might need to be deployed creatively, Dugger should be of interest to several teams that prize versatility on defense.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 NFL free agency: Best 25 players available on open market