2013 NFL Free Agents: Underrated Players That Will Break out with New Teams
Several big names headline the 2013 NFL free-agent pool, but there are several players that may slip under the radar of casual fans that have the potential to star in their future destinations.
It's obviously not a lock that the following players will abandon their current teams, but given the tight salary cap and other extenuating circumstances, their situations lend them the opportunity to flee to greener pastures.
Here is a look at two free agents from each side of the ball who aren't exactly household names—with the exception of one—but should make huge, breakout-type impacts in their new NFL destinations.
Sean Smith, CB
Since being drafted in 2009 in the second round by the Miami Dolphins, Smith has enjoyed a stellar career. However, he is reportedly demanding a contract that pays him somewhere between $8 million and $10 million per season, according to Armando Salguero of the MIami Herald.
The Dolphins are apparently not going to use the franchise tag on him either. Salguero vehemently denied this notion on Twitter recently.
Today is the first day NFL teams can use the Franchise tag on their UFAs. The Dolphins will NOT use their tag on Sean Smith. Period.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) February 18, 2013
Smith has never made a Pro Bowl, but according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, is the top cornerback available.
That may not make him sound too underrated, but the fact that Smith hasn't gotten a bid to Hawaii makes it so. At 6'3" and 218 pounds, he is a physically imposing presence on the outside capable of locking up the opposition's No. 1 receiver and also of providing stout support against the run.
Considering how bad Miami was against the pass in 2012, it's somewhat surprising Smith isn't being brought back. Teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and others should be calling.
Depth at cornerback is more valued now than ever in the NFL, and Smith gives DB-needy teams a surefire, versatile starter.
Dustin Keller, TE
The knock on the extremely athletic Keller with the New York Jets has been his inability to block, according to scouts La Canfora cites in his report. But in the right system, there is little doubt that he has all the physical tools to be a consistently explosive pass-catcher.
Even in his time with the Jets, the running game didn't seem to take a hit when Keller was in the game. New York consistently runs the ball well—it's the passing game that is the problem. And La Canfora also cites sources that indicate the Jets won't have the budget to keep Keller.
That makes sense, because GM John Idzik has a lot of work to do and has already made cuts to marquee veterans such as Bart Scott and Calvin Pace.
If Keller can find a destination with a better quarterback than Mark Sanchez and decent weapons surrounding him, he has a great chance to be successful. Keller's 2012 campaign was unfortunately cut in half due to injury, but he has proven to be very durable otherwise and is a reliable receiver.
As Rich Cimini of ESPN New York points out, Keller caught 28 of 36 passes thrown his way this past season—easily the best on the team. Cimini also notes that the franchise tag may be used on Keller, but again, cap constraints don't give any substance to that assertion.
Keller is extremely strong with reliable hands and has high upside as a red-zone target, which is what often separates the contenders from the pretenders in the NFL.
Matt Shaughnessy, DE
The turmoil in Oakland continues, and it's likely that the talented young Shaughnessy will not be wearing a Raiders uniform in 2013.
Since the team has a high draft pick in a class loaded with help for the front seven, it may be in the organization's best interest to let Shaughnessy walk despite his potential.
A former third-round pick, Shaughnessy has outstanding size at 6'5" and 285 pounds, which makes him a threat to stuff running plays and also to bull-rush and get to the quarterback. He also has the versatility to slide inside and play defensive tackle, which should entice some teams in the market.
As bad as the Raiders' defense was in 2012, it's hard to highlight a main culprit. Shaughnessy certainly wasn't among the most consistent or overall productive players in the unit, but he did finish second on the team with 3.5 sacks.
There is still plenty of upside with Shaughnessy, and in the right environment as part of a stabler organization, he could easily develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player soon.
Pro Football Focus named Shaughnessy to their All-Sophomore team in 2010 after he recorded 56 combined tackles, seven sacks and two forced fumbled. Shaughnessy then played just three games the following season due to injury.
This past year on another bad Raiders team will likely have people snoozing on Shaughnessy, but he could turn out to be one of the biggest bargains of the free-agent class.
Josh Cribbs, WR
Cribbs' lack of success is as a receiver is mostly due to the poor talent that surrounded him for years with the Cleveland Browns.
Before jumping to the argument of, "Well the Browns tried it for years and he couldn't fit..." do consider with whom the trial runs of utilizing Cribbs as a wideout were conducted.
Since his rookie year in 2005, the Browns have trotted out Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy and most recently Brandon Weeden to start at quarterback.
Combine that with a perpetual lack of playmakers alongside the developing Cribbs, and it was simply a disastrous situation. Not to mention, several coaching changes happened in that span.
So if anyone deserves a fresh start, it's Cribbs. He ranked second on the team in receiving in 2011, and voiced his frustration at not being included in the offense this past year, as reported by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Me going from being able to run the wildcat, to playing receiver last season and catching 41 passes and four touchdowns to nothing -- I can't believe it...By me not playing, I feel like they think I'm not good, that I've lost it. But I haven't. I feel when I'm out there I can contribute, but I'm not able to.
Cribbs proved as much in the Pro Bowl, catching three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. Defense is never a big theme in those games, but Cribbs clearly showcased that he can play the receiver position.
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