Can LeGarrette Blount leap his way into a big new contract?
Every year, high-priced and big-named NFL free agents hit the open market looking to strike it rich with the right team. Most of the time, though, careless free-agent spending will end up hurting a team for years to come, costing them millions of dollars in dead money. The wrong decision in free agency could lead to money wasted on paycheck players who have long decided to cash it in.
But what about those lesser-known guys who are often forced to settle for little salary and a backup role? Some of these players actually end up becoming key contributors on a Super Bowl roster.
For example, guys like Jacoby Jones and Paul Kruger were not marquee names a year ago, but were key players in the Ravens' Super Bowl championship this season. The latter is set to cash in for himself during this year's free agent period.
It's those great, under-the-radar additions who really determine a team's success in the long run, and maximizing a player's value is the true key to building a winner in today's salary cap era. The team that can find the best cheap labor in the free-agent market is most likely to succeed, not just for today, but for years to come.
So, with that in mind, here is a list of guys who should drastically out-perform their free-agent contracts this offseason. They can provide much more value than simply a one-year rental and yield several years of steady, high-level production at an affordable cost.
Read on to find out who the most underrated players are in the 2013 NFL free agent class.
All statistics were attained via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
2012 team: Miami Dolphins
Even though Matt Moore spent nearly all of last season on the bench in favor of Ryan Tannehill, he's still very much a viable quarterback in the NFL. As an undrafted free agent in 2007, Moore has become accustomed to making the most of his limited opportunities.
In 2009, Moore started the final five games for the Carolina Panthers. During that season, he managed to complete 62 percent of his passes, along with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions with a quarterback rating of 98.5.
The 2010 campaign was less kind to him, though, and it ultimately led to his departure to the Miami Dolphins. During his first year in Miami, Moore completed 60 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also had a quarterback rating of 87.1.
The time has come for Moore to dust off the rust that he accumulated from last season and find himself a suitable home where he can be given a real opportunity to compete for a starting job. Even if Moore is destined for a backup role, his value as top-notch reserve should not be understated, especially in a quarterback-driven league.
Given the success that he has had in such a limited role, it would only seem logical for some team to give this 28-year-old—who is just entering his prime—a legitimate shot at a starting role.
2012 team: Cleveland Browns
Josh Johnson is an intriguing talent at quarterback. Besides being extremely athletic (he ran a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash), he finished his collegiate career at San Diego by throwing an incredible 108 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,770 yards and 19 touchdowns.
In the NFL, Johnson has never really been given a chance to prove himself. During his three years in Tampa Bay, he only attempted 177 passes, which has hardly been enough to give this small-school prospect a true feel for the speed of the NFL.
Given Johnson's remarkable physical tools and pinpoint accuracy, he should be able to thrive under the right conditions. Still, his journey on the free agent-market will likely come with minimal cash and limited opportunities, which is unfortunately why this under-appreciated signal-caller makes the list.
If a QB-needy team is smart, it'll give this guy a chance.
2012 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This controversial, bruising running back has had quite the roller-coaster career. He has gone from obscurity to starter and back again in just a matter of a few years. Though there are many concerns surrounding LeGarrette Blount in terms of character and ball security, he has still proven himself to be a unique talent in the NFL.
Under new head coach Greg Schiano, Blount never had more than 10 carries in a single game. Despite the lack of touches, which can really hurt a running back's rhythm, Blount still managed to average 3.7 yards per carry.
In order to assess his value properly, we really need to look at a larger body of work than just last season. That is because in 2011, only nine running backs averaged more yards after contact that Blount's 2.9 average. He also finished sixth in the NFL in missed tackles among running backs.
In 2010, he led the league in that same category with 50 missed tackles.
Blount is clearly a difficult back to bring down and has remarkable athletic ability for a guy of his size. He has found his way onto several highlight reels by famously hurdling over entire defenders looking to take him down. Considering his youth (26 years old) and fresh legs, Blount should have a lot of gas left in the tank for any team willing to pay for his services.
But after a forgettable 2012 campaign, it's only fitting that he makes this list of underrated free agents.
2012 team: Tennessee Titans
Darius Reynaud is a guy people will need to start remembering. Last year during the preseason, this explosive guy from West Virginia emerged as one of the deadliest ball-carriers on the team. This one-man highlight show made something special happen nearly every week, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 24 carries as a running back during that span. He also had several impressive kick returns in the preseason which showed off his elite speed, vision and elusiveness.
His impressive preseason performances helped this four-year journeyman defy the odds by earning a coveted spot on the team's 53-man roster.
Now facing free agency, Reynaud will likely receive a fair amount of attention for his exploits as a dynamic punt and kick returner. In 2012, Reynaud returned one kickoff and two punt returns for touchdowns, tying Baltimore's Jacoby Jones with the most special teams touchdowns in the NFL.
Reynaud can play either running back or wide receiver, which gives him added value as a versatile backup to multiple positions. He's quickly emerging as a guy you must get the ball to.
2012 team: Buffalo Bills
Chad Rinehart has played guard in a backup role for the Bills since 2010. In that time, Rinehart has accumulated 1,474 snaps on offense. In those snaps, he has only allowed 13 hurries, three hits and only one sack on the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus.
By contrast, in nearly 300 less snaps, Evan Mathis (the highest rated guard in 2012, according to PFF) has given up more than twice as many quarterback hits and only one less hurry.
These numbers clearly demonstrate Rinehart's potential to be not only a full-time starter, but a potential star in this league for years to come.
2012 team: Oakland Raiders
Some may know Desmond Bryant from his recent misdemeanor encounter with the law, which included a less than flattering mug shot when he was apparently intoxicated. But there is a lot more to this Harvard graduate than inebriated nights in Miami.
Bryant, who was an undrafted rookie in 2009, has come on strong over the last two seasons in Oakland by amassing 10 sacks, mostly from an interior line position. His impressive play has even made guys like Richard Seymour expendable.
The only question now is whether or not the Raiders will be able to re-sign Bryant once he hits the free-agent market. Despite few people outside of Raider Nation knowing much about him, there should be significant interest in this 27-year-old rising star from several teams.
Bryant may not be the sexy, big-name free agent that most fans are hoping for, but he should come at a decent price while bringing with him solid production and an enormous amount of unrealized potential.
2012 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Michael Bennett's value in the NFL has been underrated ever since his career began as an undrafted free agent in 2009 out of Texas A&M. Though he has spent the first three years of his career developing into a reliable starting defensive end, it wasn't until this past season that he truly had a breakout year.
In 2012, Bennett was able to rack up nine sacks and finished third among 4-3 defensive ends in hurries with 48 of them, according to PFF.
2012 team: Indianapolis Colts
Darius Butler may not be a name that most casual NFL fans would recognize. Despite being a second-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2009, they decided to part ways with him after only two seasons in the NFL. He was then picked up by the Carolina Panthers in 2011, where he played rather poorly for most of that season before being released just before the start of the 2012 season.
On Sept. 25, 2012, however, Indianapolis obtained the rights to this two-time castoff. He then saw his first action for the team in Week 5 of last season. Butler helped the Colts complete one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, as they made the playoffs just one season after finishing 2-14.
As his role increased toward the middle of the season, Butler began to show exactly why he was a second-round pick out of UConn. By season's end, he had limited his opponents to a quarterback passer rating of 39.5, which was the second-best of all cornerbacks in the league. He also allowed only one receiving touchdown all year while piling up a career-high four interceptions .
This is a kid with decent size and elite quickness. At the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, he ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash while doing remarkably well in the short-shuttle (4.19) and three-cone (6.92) drills (via NFL.com).
It seems like Butler is finally starting to put it all together, and he could emerge as a top-tier corner in this league before it's all said and done. Whoever lands Butler this offseason will be getting a player that is truly on the upswing of an otherwise tumultuous career.
2012 team: Jacksonville Jaguars
I understand that it may be hard to comprehend that the Jaguars had any talent on last year's roster, but they did.
Since being drafted in the third round by the Jaguars in 2009, Derek Cox has allowed 11 touchdowns receptions while intercepting 12 passes. Anytime a cornerback can take the ball away more times than he allows a touchdown, he's undoubtedly playing some quality football.
Cox has ideal size (6'1", 195 lbs.) for his position, which has aided him in only allowing 54 percent of the passes thrown his way over the last two seasons to be completed. Of those completions, only one of them was for a touchdown.
A mega-contract will not be in the cards for Cox this offseason, but if the Jaguars are smart, they'll spend whatever they have to in order to keep this guy on their roster.
2012 team: New York Giants
Kenny Phillips may be one of the better-known names on this list, but he still qualifies as one of the more underrated free agents this offseason due to the fact that missed most of the 2012 season with a sprained right knee.
Despite missing most of last year, though, Phillips still managed to play quite well in seven games.
With the Giants looking to lock up several priority free agents this offseason, it's reasonable to assume that Phillips will be left to test the free-agent market. In 2011, Philips allowed a mere 47.6 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. Of those completions, only one was for a touchdown.
During that time, Phillips held the quarterbacks throwing his way to a passer rating of only 43.4, which was the third-lowest among safeties in the NFL.
Were it not for an injury-plagued year in 2012, I believe that Phillips would have established himself as one of the elite safeties in the game. It seems that now he'll be reduced to finding a new home amidst a heavily saturated free-agent market, at least in terms of safeties.
With names like Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Dashon Goldson hitting the open market this offseason as well, Phillips will likely be a guy that few people will be talking about but one who most defenses could really use.
2012 team: Seattle Seahawks
It's time now to give a little bit of love to a kicker, and who better to give it to than the very under-appreciated Steven Hauschka?
In only five seasons, this 27-year-old journeyman has already been associated with seven professional football teams, including the UFL's very own Las Vegas Locomotives.
Despite struggling to find a home, Hauschka has made 65-of-79 field-goal attempts throughout his NFL career, which amounts to a very impressive 82 percent. Those are respectable numbers by any NFL standard, but where Hauschka really stood out was last year when he hit an astounding 25-of-25 field goals from under 50 yards.
That type of performance should be enough to land him a relatively steady job in the NFL. This kid is a solid place kicker and is very much underrated.