The National Football League is full of talented players. But as we all know, there’s only one football and just 22 starting jobs.
Depth is a rare commodity in today’s game, but there are teams that are well-stocked at certain positions. Of course, the reason for that is free agency, now beginning its third decade in the NFL.
The following 20 players are all unrestricted free agents, meaning if they are still unsigned or haven’t been given the franchise tag, they will all hit the open market on March 12. And we’ve listed two of three at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back.
As far as how we decided on who makes the list, there are all kinds of reasons a player could be considered underrated. It could be for playing behind a Pro Bowl performer or excelling on a team and/or a unit not known for its success. Or, it may be a former starter seemingly forgotten due to numerous changes on the club, but he still is more than capable of performing at a high level when, perhaps, given a fresh start.
We’ll be focusing on the players’ total resumes for the most part, not just last season.
Agree or disagree? Did we leave someone off the list that’s more deserving than the players we chose? That’s up to you to decide.
When it comes to quarterbacks, there is seemingly one scale when it comes to judging them: good or bad.
While there are those names mentioned when talking about who is overrated, there’s rarely the underrated because the position is so heavily scrutinized.
In Week 17 of last season, one-time New England Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer made his first NFL start for the Arizona Cardinals. He completed 19-of-34 passes for 225 yards and one score (one interception) in a 27-13 loss to the Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers.
Hoyer rarely got the opportunity to show his talents in Foxborough playing behind Tom Brady. But when he did play (mostly in the preseason), it was hard to ignore his abilities.
It will be interesting to see if new head coach Bruce Arians adds him to the quarterback mix with the Cards.
As previously mentioned, finding an underrated quarterback these days is rare due to the intense scrutiny placed on the position.
So how do we feel about Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore, who lost the starting job to 2012 first-round draft choice Ryan Tannehill last season?
In six NFL campaigns, Moore has amassed a 13-12 record with the Carolina Panthers and Dolphins, throwing 33 touchdown passes to 26 interceptions.
His most impressive stretch came in 2011, when Miami won six of its final nine games with him at the controls. In those contests, Moore threw for 15 scores and was picked off only five times.
Teams looking for a quarterback who may be more than just a stopgap might want to take a flyer on the former undrafted free-agent find.
Understandably, three-time Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson grabs attention playing for the Tennessee Titans. But the team has had a solid runner waiting in the wings with Javon Ringer when he is healthy.
The four-year veteran saw his 2012 campaign cut short by a knee injury in late October, but up until then, he had seen limited action this past season.
Ringer’s best overall season was 2011, when he ran 59 times for 185 yards and a touchdown. Plus, he caught 28 passes for Mike Munchak’s team. In 2010, Ringer rushed for a career-high 239 yards and a pair of scores.
Given the chance by a team to move into a bigger role, the former Michigan State Spartan may prove to be quite an addition. His health could be the only question mark.
While it turned out to be another playoff-bound season for the Cincinnati Bengals, it proved to be a forgettable year for steady running back Bernard Scott.
Injuries in 2012 limited Scott to just two games, eight carries and 35 yards rushing. Prior to that, he had rushed for exactly 1,000 yards and four touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. In his first two years, he saw his share of action on kickoff returns, adding to his value as a free agent.
The Bengals appear to be in very good shape in the backfield with former free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis coming off a hot stretch run and a season in which he ran for 1,094 yards.
It will be very interesting to see if Scott’s future is indeed in Cincinnati. If healthy, he could be a valuable find for another club.
It is somewhat appropriate that a jack of all trades plays for the Cards.
Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling was a seventh-round draft choice by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFL draft. In four seasons with the team, he’s put up some very interesting numbers.
Stephens-Howling has rushed for 652 yards and five touchdowns, rolling up career highs with 356 yards and four scores in 2012. He’s also caught 56 passes for 534 yards and three touchdowns in four seasons.
But where he’s made the biggest name for himself (no pun intended) is on kickoff returns. Stephens-Howling has rolled up 4,067 yards in this department, averaging 25.0 yards per return and taking back three kickoffs for scores.
Add in the fact that he’s a solid special teams player in all aspects, and the Cardinals would be wise not to let him test the market.
Talk about a tour of duty.
Wide receiver Micheal Spurlock left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and signed with the San Diego Chargers last April. Six months later, the Chargers waived him.
Nearly two months later, the Bolts claimed Spurlock off waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars. All told, he played 14 games last season for the two clubs.
None of this is new for Spurlock, who also had two separate stints with the Bucs and has played for the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.
So what’s the worth in a player who has caught only 46 passes during his career (three for touchdowns) in seven NFL seasons? It’s his return ability thanks to five career touchdowns via punts and kickoffs. Spurlock took back one of each for a touchdown last season with the Chargers.
It could be six teams in eight years for Spurlock. But that big-play ability on returns is hard to ignore.
When you draft a talented wide receiver like Mike Williams and add another via free agency in Vincent Jackson, it likely means you won’t be seeing a lot of passes thrown your way in any instance.
When your last two seasons have been cut substantially short by injuries, it’s an even bigger issue.
Such is the case for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Sammie Stroughter, who can’t seem to stay healthy. In four seasons, he has seen his games-played total slip from 13 to 12 to six and just two in 2012.
So how is he underrated? Well, when he was readily available his first two years, he totaled a combined 55 receptions. Stroughter also proved to be a very capable kickoff-return artist during his first three NFL seasons.
Yes, you’re probably taking a bit of a chance with Stroughter, especially if he continues to fight the injury bug. But it might prove to be a worthwhile gamble.
If you are a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys these days and your name isn’t Jason Witten, it’s safe to say that you are pretty anonymous.
Such is the case with John Phillips. But perhaps, that changes a bit in 2013.
The former sixth-round draft choice from Virginia opened some eyes down the stretch for the Pokes in 2009. He even caught a touchdown pass in the Cowboys’ playoff win over the Eagles.
Phillips missed the 2010 season after injuring his knee in the Hall of Fame Game. But he returned a year later and has played in every game the last two seasons, catching 23 passes, two for scores. Of course, that’s nearly a day at the office for Witten, who totaled 18 receptions in a home loss to the New York Giants this past season.
It will be interesting to see if Phillips remains in Dallas, where he has started his share of games in the team’s multiple tight end sets. Is he ready to become a solo act elsewhere?
Part of free agency is getting plenty of bang for your buck. And you could do worse than San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker.
The seven-year veteran has totaled 123 receptions for 1,465 and 11 scores. Walker has also run the ball on occasion and is a solid performer on special teams.
He certainly drew some attention from his play in Super Bowl XLVII, when he totaled three tackles for those units. Walker also posted three receptions for 48 yards in that contest.
With big-play tight end Vernon Davis on the roster as well, the Niners are in good shape at the position. But could another team come in and make Walker walk with the promise of a more prominent role, perhaps as the starter?
New York Giants tackle Will Beatty could very easily go from underrated to unavailable.
That’s because the four-year NFL veteran and former second-round pick from Connecticut has seen his value rise the last two seasons. And as many will tell you, you can’t underestimate the value of a solid left tackle.
Beatty has made 31 starts in four seasons, 25 coming the last two years and 15 of those in 2012. He’s not a big name thrown out there when it comes to the Pro Bowl, but he has done a steady job on a unit that has transformed itself in recent seasons.
As for being unavailable, it’s very possible the Giants could give Beatty the franchise tag, a decision that needs to be made by the club by next Monday.
You have to love savvy veteran offensive linemen, and there’s little doubt Oakland Raiders guard Cooper Carlisle fits the bill.
Originally drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2000, the former University of Florida product spent seven seasons in the Mile High City before signing with the division rival Raiders in 2007.
Carlisle has started 95 of 96 games since joining the Silver and Black and a total of 133 contests dating back to 2005.
Despite his vast body of work, Carlisle, who made only six starts in his first five seasons with the Broncos, has never been named to a Pro Bowl, and the odds at this stage of his career may be slim.
But whether he returns to Oakland or moves on, the feeling is that there are some years left for this reliable pro.
Consistency may be the easiest and most accurate way to describe Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre.
Four NFL seasons have added up to 64 games and 64 starts for the former Oregon State standout, who was grabbed by the Bills in the second round in 2009.
Despite his steady play alongside former first-round center Eric Wood, who was drafted the same year, Levitre has yet to earn an invitation to the Pro Bowl. Sometimes, that proves to be just a numbers game, but it also appears it's only a matter of time before he earns those honors.
It wouldn’t be out of the question to see the Bills slap Levitre with the franchise tag. In any case, the dependable blocker is in an ideal situation to cash in one way or another.
While many times, the focus on defensive players is either the number of sacks or interceptions, don’t look for a lot of either from Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Roy Miller.
But what you get is solid play, as the former third-round draft choice for the University of Texas (2009), who has played in 62 games the last four seasons, gets the job done while his teammates reap some of the statistical benefits.
Last season, Miller started 14 games and totaled 23 tackles, while the Bucs finished first in the league in rushing defense one year after ranking dead last in the NFL in the same category.
As for sacks, Miller has totaled three in four years, including zero sacks in each of the last two seasons. But those looking for someone to do the dirty work in the middle of the defensive line shouldn't anticipate being disappointed.
By the time you read this, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson may have already been designated the team’s franchise player…and with good reason.
The former Georgia Tech product hasn’t missed a game since the team made him a third-round draft choice in 2009. Johnson’s tackle total has increased each season he’s been in the league, as he totaled a career-high 52 stops this past season.
Of course, there’s one number that stands out here. Johnson amassed 11.5 sacks in starting 15 of 16 games in 2012. Interesting enough, the four-year pro started just 15 contests in each of his first three seasons and totaled 11.5 sacks.
Is Johnson, who has also intercepted a pass in each of the last two years, truly underrated or simply just coming into this own? We’ll find out soon enough if he puts together another standout season, regardless of it being with the Bengals or another team in 2013 and beyond.
Versatility is almost a necessity in the National Football League these days. And it’s why players like New England Patriots defensive end Trevor Scott succeed.
Scott totaled three sacks with the Patriots last season, his first with the team. The 6’5”, 256-pound performer totaled 12.0 sacks in his first two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, including a career-high seven sacks in 2009. That number slipped to 1.5 sacks in 10 starts with the Silver and Black in 2010.
New England totaled just 37 sacks last season, and the team ranked 29th in pass defense, so it would seem Bill Belichick’s team could use all the help it could get. But after adding Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the first round of the draft last April, the youth and fresh-face movement is on.
Scott’s pass-rushing ability, be it from defensive end or outside linebacker, may be too intriguing for a team to overlook.
Now this will be interesting to watch.
Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach has started 29 out of 32 games the last two seasons, the majority of those at outside linebacker opposite Lance Briggs and next to Brian Urlacher. In 2012, he totaled 65 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four passes defensed.
When Urlacher has been unavailable, Roach has been the man to fill in for the eight-time Pro Bowler.
Now, Urlacher’s future with the team is somewhat unknown. Common sense says that the steady, yet unsung Roach, who has played six seasons with the Bears, is the heir apparent in the middle. But is that indeed the case, and will the Bears look to ensure his return sooner rather than later?
With the ability to play both inside and outside linebacker, Roach should be a hot commodity if he hits the open market.
Any guess as to who finished third on the Green Bay Packers in tackles in 2012?
With Desmond Bishop missing the entire season, linebacker Brad Jones wound up starting a career-high 10 games and put up a career-best 77 total stops. It was the most productive season for Jones since his rookie campaign in 2009, when the former seventh-round draft choice finished with 29 tackles and four sacks.
There’s little doubt that, while the Green Bay defense improved in 2012, there were still issues when it came to stopping the run. The Packers finished 17th in the NFL in rushing defense.
It's hard to tell whether or not Jones is part of the team's future plans. The club used the majority of its 2012 draft for defensive help.
In any case, Jones’ ability to play both inside and outside is a major plus.
Contrary to popular belief, one memorable play does not make a career, especially when the play doesn’t go your way.
In 2010, Houston Texans cornerback Glover Quin and his teammates dropped back to thwart a Hail Mary pass from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard in the closing second of a game. Quin did what he was supposed to do—knock the ball down.
The knock was good; the down wasn’t far enough. Quin actually batted the ball into the hands of Jaguars wide receiver Mike Thomas, who scored the winning touchdown and handed the Texans a crushing loss.
Safe to say, Quin has rebounded well and is now lining up at safety for the team since 2011. Last season, he led the team with 84 tackles, totaled two interceptions, had two forced fumbles and knocked down 14 passes. He’s also started all but one game each of the last three seasons.
It’s hard to believe Quin is headed elsewhere, but stranger things have happened. Bottom line is that he has proven to be a solid performer for a defense that has come into its own (for the most part) under coordinator Wade Phillips.
Underrated even with a Pro Bowl berth under your belt? Indeed, that may be the case for Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd.
While the Buffalo defense continues to be a liability, the heady performer has certainly done his part to try and fix that.
Last season, Byrd amassed 76 tackles and totaled team highs with five interceptions and four forced fumbles. All told, he collected seven of the team’s 21 takeaways in 2012.
The former second-round draft choice earned those aforementioned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie in 2009 when he picked off nine passes. Byrd has totaled just nine interceptions the last three seasons, but those numbers have increased on a steady basis, from one in 2010 and three in 2011 to last year’s team-high total of five.
The Bills could franchise either Byrd or guard Andy Levitre. And it’s important that they retain the services of both, as the team has let far too many good football players get away in recent years.
Is it possible to be underrated in the secondary of a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed?
Anything’s possible. And that’s why the Miami Dolphins may be wise if they don’t let free safety Chris Clemons get away despite the fact his team finished 27th in the NFL in pass defense in 2012.
Clemons finished third on the Dolphins with 99 tackles in 2012. He also totaled a pair of interceptions and recovered a fumble. Admittedly, that is an area where Miami needs to improve overall, as no team has totaled fewer takeaways in the league the last four seasons combined. The Dolphins forced only 16 turnovers in 2012.
With Clemons, starting cornerback Sean Smith and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Randy Starks all potential free agents in a few weeks, it would be a big step backward if the Dolphins’ emerging defense doesn’t retain at least two of these players.
The underrated Clemons could prove the hardest to replace if he indeed gets a worthwhile offer.