2013 NFL Free Agents: 16 Sleeper Names You Need to Know

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIFebruary 21, 2013

2013 NFL Free Agents: 16 Sleeper Names You Need to Know

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    With so many different media entities that cover the NFL year-round and devote a number of articles to the upcoming 2013 free agents, is it really possible for a sleeper free agent to still exist?

    That is a reasonable question to ask. For this presentation we will seek out 16 free agents that don't get as much publicity or recognition as they deserve, which makes them worthy of a "sleeper candidate" label.

    To be fair, all of these 16 free agents will be well known to the fans of that players' team, but on the national scope, they just don't get very much attention. 

    Sleepers come in various forms. Examples of a sleeper could be a player that dropped out of the game due to injury or some other type of commitment and wants to come back to play. It could be an undrafted free agent that has been languishing on NFL practice squads. A sleeper could also be a player that had to debut in the CFL to get noticed, and is now ready to play in the NFL.

    You could also make a case for a player as a sleeper that is regarded or ranked as a top-5 player at his position, but never makes the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team because he plays for a team that is an annual loser.

    Players that have been relegated to second-string on their own team but have flashed skills worthy of being a starter for other NFL teams also qualify as a sleeper. Finally, a sleeper could be a very good player on a team that rarely appears on nationally televised games, and as a result very few people know about him.

    So, here are 16 sleeper free agents that will land somewhere during 2013 free agency. As is the case with the better-known free agents in 2013, there is no guarantee of how these sleepers will perform with their new teams.

Two Sleepers Have Already Been Signed

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    Some sleepers have already been signed to play during the 2013 offseason. These transactions might have flown under your radar.

    The Kansas City Chiefs just signed safety Husain Abdullah to a new deal. Abdullah last played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2011. He was ranked as the No. 25 best safety in the NFL that year by Pro Football Focus.

    Husain and his brother Hamza  were both starters in the NFL and opted to leave their teams and big paychecks behind in order to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Dropping off the grid like that and then resurfacing qualifies as a sleeper, or as a plot for a series on cable.

    Another example of a sleeper was the New England Patriots' signing of defensive lineman Armond Armstead. Armstead was grabbing headlines at USC until he suffered a heart attack. He sat out the 2011 season to recover and then wound up playing in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts.

    Armstead turned in a solid 2012 season in Toronto and proved that his medical issues were behind him. Three teams worked him out, and the Patriots signed him to a new deal that could be one of the biggest steals of the 2013 offseason.

    Hoping to strike lightning again, the Patriots also added DE/OLB Jason Vega from the CFL this week, according to this story from the Boston Globe.

    There is a long list of NFL players that were toiling elsewhere before a team gave them an opportunity to make a name for themselves. Kurt Warner was stocking shelves at a grocery store and played in the Arena Football League before getting his break. Fred Jackson played in the National Indoor Football League and NFL Europe before the Buffalo Bills gave him his big break.

    This story by Jack Bechta of the National Football Post details how players that are omitted from the Indianapolis Scouting Combine's invitations are able to attend the regional scouting camps around the country. A total of 87 players were signed by NFL teams in 2012 that tried out at the regional camps. That is a much larger group of sleepers, but they do clearly exist. You just have to turn over quite a few rocks to find them.

Minnesota Vikings G/T Geoff Schwartz

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    Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Schwartz is versatile in that he has starting experience at both guard and tackle.

    Schwartz hasn't been starting for the past two years, so he is pumped up and ready to find a team that needs him to assume a starting role.

    During the past season, Schwartz was beat out by Brandon Fusco, so he was relegated to backup duties. In 2011 Schwartz sat out the season due to a hip injury.

    He seems better suited for the right side of the offensive line. The last time that Schwartz was a full-time starter was in 2010, playing right tackle for Carolina. That season, Schwartz ranked as the No. 21 tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, proficient in both run-blocking and pass protection.

    Schwartz is still in his prime, as he is just 26 years old.

New Orleans QB Chase Daniel

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    There are sleepers, and then there are deep sleepers. Chase Daniel qualifies as a deep sleeper.

    New Orleans QB Chase Daniel has been patiently waiting for his opportunity to become a starting quarterback in the NFL. Since joining the Saints in 2009, Daniel has been the understudy for Drew Brees.

    Brees is a durable, tough competitor and hasn't missed one start since Daniel joined the team. So playing time for Daniel has been limited to say the least. He has attempted nine passes in the last three seasons and completed seven of them so far in the NFL, with no touchdowns or interceptions.

    Learning under Brees and head coach Sean Payton, Daniel now has the opportunity in free agency to compete for a starting job, assuming that being a starting quarterback is what he wants to do. Some people are content being the clipboard holder or the No. 2, so we will see if Daniel agrees to return to New Orleans or if he opts to go somewhere else to compete for a job.

Buffalo Bills G Chad Rinehart

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    Buffalo Bills guard Chad Rinehart is one of the sleepers in 2013 for a team needing help on the offensive line.

    Rinehart was originally a third-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins. He played tackle for Washington in 2009 before moving to Buffalo in 2010 according to his player profile on Pro Football Reference.com. The Bills converted him to guard in 2011, and he has made a total of 14 starts at guard over the past two years.

    The most extensive work Rinehart saw was in 2011, when he started 12 games. That year Rinehart saw action in 868 snaps and graded out as the No. 9 overall best guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. He received positive marks for both run-blocking and pass protection.

Houston Texans FB/TE James Casey

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    Houston Texans FB/TE James Casey is getting some touches in the Houston offense. But with players like Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels around, Casey isn't exactly the first choice for Matt Schaub. 

    Casey lines up in the backfield or at tight end. He is an adept blocker and has shown decent hands when they ask him to go out for a pass. In 2012, Casey caught a career-high 34 passes, for 330 yards and three touchdowns.

    Every year, Casey's production has gone up. In his first two years, the Texans barely threw the ball his way (six and eight receptions, respectively). Then in 2011, it was 18 receptions, before reaching 34 in 2012.

    This offseason, Casey will be a restricted free agent. The Texans appear to have some bigger decisions to make on other key free agents, so it is conceivable that Casey could be allowed to test the free-agency market. For any team that is looking to add an H-back or another tight end for their depth, Casey could make tremendous sense.

Arizona Cardinals RB LaRod Stephens-Howling

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    Arizona Cardinals RB LaRod Stephens-Howling made a solid impression in 2012 when he was given an opportunity to show what he could do.

    Stephens-Howling is one of the smallest backs in the league at 5'7", but he makes up for his lack of size with quickness and speed.

    In 2011, he averaged 18.0 yards per catch, as he picked up 234 yards on just 13 receptions, scoring two touchdowns in the process. In 2012, Stephens-Howling gained 357 yards on 111 rushes, good for four touchdowns, including one rush attempt that went for 52 yards.

    Through Arizona Cardinals.com we find out that head coach Bruce Arians doesn't plan to throw very much to his running backs, which isn't a good sign for Stephens-Howling. If anything, that should convince him to find out what other offers are out there for him to consider.

Houston Texans K Shayne Graham

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    For any NFL teams that are thinking about upgrading their kicker, Houston Texans kicker Shayne Graham is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

    Graham is now 35 years old, but he is still getting the job done. In 2012, Graham successfully converted on 31 of 38 field goal attempts, which is a healthy 81.6 percentage rate. Graham hit on seven out of nine attempts from 40-49 yards out. From 50 yards plus his accuracy starts to fade, as he only made four of nine from that distance.

    Graham still ranks in NFL history as one of the top-5 all-time most accurate kickers in the game.

RB Chris Rainey

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    As we mentioned in the photo caption, if ex-Pittsburgh Steelers RB Chris Rainey can get his act together, he could be a major sleeper for 2013. The key word in that sentence is: if.

    We didn't include the Pittsburgh Steelers on the slide title, because Rainey was already released by the Steelers in 2012 because he couldn't keep himself out of trouble. 

    As we said in the opening slide, there are no guarantees with any sleeper in this presentation, and that is certainly the case with Rainey. But Rainey is the type of athlete that can change the dynamics of a game in one play due to his blazing speed. If a team can surround this kid with some positive people to keep him out of trouble, then he can focus on playing football.

    If he keeps letting people down, then he can start up a chat room with Titus Young.

Baltimore Ravens T Bryant McKinnie

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    You have to marvel at the way the 2012 season worked out for Baltimore tackle Bryant McKinnie. He was basically playing second-string for the Ravens until the team was forced to promote him to starting left tackle for their playoff run.

    McKinnie was able to parlay the opportunity into some great play during the postseason. As a result, the Ravens want to bring him back for 2013.

    Don't think for a second that the other 31 NFL general managers weren't paying attention to what McKinnie did when the chips were down. This sleeper will be receiving multiple offers as a free agent from teams that are in need of help at left tackle.

New York Jets TE Dustin Keller

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    When you look at the production numbers for New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller, you could surmise that his career is headed in the wrong direction. Dealing with injuries and playing on the incompetent Jets offense can have that affect on a player. At the very least, it can make them appear to be a sleeper.

    Coming into the 2013 season, Keller is looking for a fresh start where he can be a key part of an offense that wants to utilize a productive tight end.

    The Jets offense was a mess in 2012 and it didn't help that Keller was injured. For the season, Keller played in only eight games and his production numbers reflected the drop in action. Keller had established career highs in 2011 of 65 receptions for 815 yards. In 2012, he saw only 28 receptions for 317 yards.

    For any NFL team looking to bring in another tight end that can contribute to the passing attack, Keller should be strongly considered.

Kansas City Chiefs WR Steve Breaston

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    We go from a player that was a victim of a bad offense with the New York Jets, to a player that suffered due to an inept offense in Kansas City. That player is wide receiver Steve Breaston, who just became a free agent when he was released by the Chiefs this week.

    Breaston had recorded at least four straight seasons of at least 700-plus yards in receptions until his disastrous 2012 campaign. Breaston played in only 10 games last year and was listed as a healthy scratch for the other six games. He went from catching 61 passes for 785 yards in Kansas City in 2011 to grabbing just seven passes for 74 yards for the entire season.

    When you are put in the doghouse and forgotten about, that puts you in prime sleeper mode. Breaston will be able to help some NFL team needing help at wide receiver and put his nightmare of a 2012 season in the rear view mirror.

Detroit Lions DT Sammie Lee Hill

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    Detroit Lions DT Sammie Lee Hill showed some flashes in 2012 that he can be a force to be reckoned with. Hill wasn't credited with any sacks in the 2012 season, but he was credited with 17 quarterback hurries. To come up with that many hurries from a defensive tackle spot means that you are generating strong pass rush up the middle, which is something that many teams could benefit from.

    In addition to the hurries, Hill also deflected three passes last year, further proof that he can make an impact. He probably won't cost a ton, but Hill is a sleeper to keep an eye out for.

Buffalo Bills DE Kyle Moore

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    When the Buffalo Bills lost DE Mark Anderson to injury in 2012, it was unheralded DE Kyle Moore that stepped up and took over his starting job.

    Moore played for Tampa Bay in 2009 and 2010 but never had any career sacks before the Bills picked him up in 2011.

    In 2012, Moore came on to register three sacks, five quarterback hits, 23 quarterback hurries and 15 tackles out of 501 snaps. He graded out with a positive score on his pass rush skills at Pro Football Focus, but he needs to work on his run-stuffing skills.

    Moore is only 26 years old and is improving. I watched him at the Bills training camp this past summer, and you could tell that he had potential but needed more coaching to harness his skills. He is a free agent in the 2013 offseason, but this sleeper shows potential to become a force to be reckoned with, especially on passing downs.

Miami Dolphins FS Chris Clemons

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    It is difficult to grab lots of headlines for Miami Dolphins free-agent safety Chris Clemons due to the number of high-profile safeties that are hitting the market this year. With players like Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson, Jairus Byrd, Charles Woodson and William Moore all available in free agency, it would be easy for Clemons to be overlooked.

    That is exactly what the Miami Dolphins are hoping for, as they are trying to negotiate a deal for Clemons to stay with the team. Clemons was a force with Miami as he contributed 99 tackles last year. He also intercepted two passes.

    Pro Football Focus ranked Clemons as the No. 24 safety in the NFL for his play in 2012. He earned a positive score on both pass coverage skills and stopping the run.

Baltimore Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe

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    Baltimore Ravens LB Dannell Ellerbe won't overwhelm you with his stats. Far from it. In 46 career games he was only asked to start for Baltimore a total of 14 games, as he waited his turn behind their glut of linebackers.

    In 2012, we saw a glimpse of the kind of impact that Ellerbe can make when he was asked to assume a starting role. He started seven games for the Ravens in 2012, and in that time he came up with 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, 66 tackles and two pass deflections.

    He has learned from the best, as he has been tutored by Ray Lewis. Hitting free agency this year, he isn't worthy of a franchise tag yet. He came to the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, so this year is his big chance to land a much larger payday.

    After the 2013 season, Ellerbe won't be a sleeper any longer.

San Francisco 49ers TE Delanie Walker

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    San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker is more than just a second tight end. He is a valuable member of special teams that makes jarring tackles.

    Walker contributes in a number of ways to the 49ers to the point that it is difficult to measure his overall value to the team. Maybe it is just best to say that he is an invaluable member and a player that the 49ers would hate to lose.

    On the year, Walker only caught 21 passes, which is why it might surprise you to learn that in a story by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.com, that Walker is considered the 49ers' second-highest priority free agent to sign this year. That speaks to the value he brings to the team due to his versatility.

    Walker wound up leading the 49ers in 2012 with an average gain of 16.4 yards per catch, more than Randy Moss, Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree. He scored three touchdowns and made some crucial blocks, like the block he made that allowed Frank Gore to score a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII.

    It will be interesting to see how many other teams try to convince Walker to leave the Bay Area for another team during this offseason.

New Orleans Saints RB Chris Ivory

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    One of my favorite sleepers is New Orleans Saints running back Chris Ivory. Please note that Ivory is only a restricted free agent, so there isn't any guarantee yet that the Saints will be making him a offer to keep him in 2013. Based on all of the salary cap issues that the Saints are dealing with, at this point anything is possible.

    For some reason, Ivory has been largely ignored by the Saints coaches, as he only touched the ball 42 times in 2012 (40 rushes and two pass receptions). In those 40 rushes, Ivory gained 217 yards, which amounts to a 5.4 average. Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller led the league with a 6.0 average per rush.

    Ivory wound up with three rushes of 20-plus yards in 2012, which means that he breaks a long run once out of every 13.3 attempts. That is the best percentage of the Saints running backs. In addition, his longest run of the year went for 56 yards, which was also the longest run of any Saints back in 2012.

    We can't tell you why the Saints insist on freezing Ivory out of the offense, but any NFL team that has watched him run will want to consider making him an offer in free agency this offseason.

    If he is signed to remain in New Orleans, we will see if they opt to give him a bigger role in 2013.