The Hidden Gems of 2013 NFL Free Agency
Sometimes, it is the NFL free agents that everyone isn’t talking about who end up making the biggest impacts with their new teams.
The 2013 free-agent class isn’t going to be any different.
Situations and circumstance can unite, allowing for a player to finally come into his own and realize his potential. Whether that is because of a system fit or because a guy just “gets it” with his new team, it happens often.
The big-name targets don’t always pan out, either. "Buyer beware" is definitely an applicable phrase here, meaning teams should heavily scrutinize their potential free-agent acquisitions.
Let’s take a look at some under-the-radar or otherwise not-so-prominent upcoming free agents and break down why they’re valuable to potential suitors.
Jared Cook, TE
Jared Cook has found himself in a particularly strange situation with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. The team wants to bring back the former third-round pick, but isn’t sure if it will be as a wide receiver or tight end.
If Tennessee doesn’t use its franchise tag or come to a contract agreement with him, Cook will be a huge addition for whichever team is able to pick him up.
He lined up split wide as often as he did next to the offensive line, as traditional tight ends do. At 6’5” and 248 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, if utilized. In just 13 games in 2012, Cook grabbed 44 of his 72 targets for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
Michael Bennett, DE
Tampa Bay Buccaneers free-agent defensive end Michael Bennett isn’t a prototypical pass-rusher. He isn’t going to abuse the blocker in front of him and terrorize offensive backfields.
What he will do, though, is eat away at his opponent across the line of scrimmage from him.
At 6’4” and 274 pounds, Bennett could be a good fit in a 3-4 defense, as well as in a 4-3, depending on team needs. He proved to be a competent run-stopper while excelling as a pass-rusher, as he recorded nine sacks in 2012.
He’s also still just 27 years old. If Tampa Bay lets him free, he should be picked up rather quickly due to his breakout season and potential over the peak years of his career.
Brandon Gibson, WR
Brandon Gibson is a young, quick and talented wide receiver that is approaching the prime of his NFL career. He caught a career-high five touchdown passes in 2012 and played in all 16 games for the first time in his four-year career.
Gibson, 25, isn’t a big deep threat. That doesn’t take away from his value to a quarterback, though. The thing that he does really well is get open.
He’s had his cases of the "dropsies" at times, but is a valuable asset due to his ability to find the seam in defenses and then make plays with the football after catching it.
A team that runs a West Coast offense would be an ideal fit for Gibson, since the Rams are not likely to pursue him this offseason. He would succeed because of his quarterback-friendly skill set.
David Thomas, TE
It was hard for tight end David Thomas to earn playing time with Jimmy Graham ahead of him on the New Orleans Saints' depth chart. Still, he managed to find the end zone four times in 2012 on just 17 targets. He caught 11 of those passes for 86 total yards.
Thomas has spent seven years in the NFL and hasn’t ever really gotten the amount of looks you’d need to evaluate him as anything more than a backup.
His best season as a pass-catcher came in 2009 when he grabbed 35 of the 49 targets that came his way for 356 yards and one score.
The Saints reportedly waived Thomas already, so any team looking for a solid blocker and underrated receiver will get a very reliable player if they pay the man.
Louis Vasquez, G
The San Diego Chargers are in the process of a complete overhaul and guard Louis Vasquez might get lost in that shuffle. They are expected to allot a significant amount of their offseason spending to offensive linemen, but that may or may not include re-signing him.
Vasquez is the sixth-highest-rated free-agent guard, according to Pro Football Focus’ rankings. He is a critical piece of the Chargers in their attempts to rebuild an effective rushing game.
Wherever he winds up will be getting a somewhat-underrated rush-blocker who can pave the way for a team’s rushing attack for the next few seasons. He will turn just 26 in April, making him the perfect candidate for a team looking for a long-term interior-line fix this offseason.
Derek Cox, CB
Derek Cox has had four interceptions in three of his four NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2011, he played in just six games and didn’t record even one pick.
While on the field, Cox has made quite a name for himself. Quarterbacks have struggled when throwing his way, recording just a 69.0 passer rating.
At 26 (27 in September) years old, Cox is experienced and proven in the NFL and would be a big pickup for whoever is able to obtain his services this offseason.
He sounds too good to be true, right? Well, in 2011, he missed 10 games due to injuries and was sidelined for seven more combined in 2010 and 2012 for the same reason. As long as he can avoid the injury bug, Cox could be a steal for a squad willing to take a chance on him.
Juqua Parker, DE
The Cleveland Browns weren’t a dominant pass-rushing team, but they would have been even worse without veteran Juqua Parker rotating in and out of their defensive line.
Parker, who recorded six sacks for Cleveland last season despite playing in a limited role, showed no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 35th birthday this May.
Any team that runs a 4-3 defense and is looking for pass-rush help would be well-advised to give him a look on a one-year deal. He’s not a long-term solution, but his high motor and proven ability to beat offensive linemen makes him a valuable commodity this offseason.
Isaac Sopoaga, DT
While he has been a staple of the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line, he was utilized on only 31 percent of the team’s plays in 2012. Due to the fact the 49ers rotated between a base 3-4 front and other looks, Sopoaga spent a lot of time on the sidelines. However, this limited usage may have in fact extended his career.
He will be 32 when the 2013 season starts, but should still have a couple of seasons left in the tank. Sopoaga has been solid as a rock, doing whatever has been asked of him while clogging the middle for all eight of his NFL seasons in San Francisco.
Keenan Lewis, CB
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis isn’t the biggest name at cornerback on the free-agent market, but he might be the best.
Lewis was second in the NFL with 23 pass breakups in 2012, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.
Any team looking for a cornerback should be on the horn with Lewis’ representation if the Steelers let him slip through their fingertips. That’s probably what is going to happen, too, thanks to the organization's salary-cap struggles.