Under-the-Radar Free-Agent Signings That Will Make the Biggest Impact

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterMarch 29, 2013

Under-the-Radar Free-Agent Signings That Will Make the Biggest Impact

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    Rightfully so, fans spend a majority of the NFL offseason salivating over the draft and the first wave of free agents signed. However, championships aren't won by spending big in free agency; just ask the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. 

    Super Bowl-caliber teams always have a deep roster that can keep going full steam ahead if injuries do occur. Those teams seem to dominate the second and third weeks of free agency as well.

    It's no coincidence, so let's take a look at 10 of the top under-the-radar free-agent signings.

     

    All statistics compiled with the help of Pro Football Focus' premium subscription area.

E.J. Biggers

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    If there has been a lacking position on the Washington Redskins over the course of the past few years, it has been cornerback. Year after year the organization has tried to find a player who brings consistency to the defensive backfield.

    In 2008, owner Dan Snyder acquired DeAngelo Hall after he was cut from the Oakland Raiders. In 2011, Josh Wilson came over from the Baltimore Ravens in free agency. However, neither showed enough consistency in his game to provide stability to a weak position.

    So what did general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Mike Shanahan do during the 2013 offseason? They dipped into the free-agent market again and signed E.J. Biggers.

    Biggers is a former seventh-round pick who came into his own in 2012 after defending 38.7 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage area. Not to mention he only surrendered three touchdowns on 80 total targets. Not earth-shattering numbers by any means, but his string of strong performances is enough to offer the Redskins hope on defense.

    No. 31 will play right cornerback in Washington and undoubtedly give the people of D.C. something to cheer about in an overall quiet offseason.

Victor Butler

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    With former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan making his way to New Orleans as the Saints' new defensive coordinator, he surely needs to bring a player along to help teach his 3-4 style of defense.

    Who better to help teach it than outside linebacker Victor Butler?

    For the past three years, Butler has arguably been Dallas' best linebacker not named DeMarcus Ware.

    Since the beginning of 2010, he has logged a measly 690 snaps in 47 games. During that 47-game stretch, the 245-pound rush linebacker tallied eight quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries.

    A total of 42 total quarterback pressures on 690 snaps equals out to one quarterback pressure every 16 snaps. That's an incredibly impressive number when you factor in the number of run snaps included in his overall snap count.

    For the first time in Butler's career, he will have the opportunity to start a full 16 games. It will be interesting to see what kind of production he has as an every-down player.

Robert Turner

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    Offensive guard Robert Turner has a long way to go before he establishes himself as a household NFL name. Yet this past season in St. Louis, his play at both center and left guard caught the attention of every Rams fan willing to pay attention.

    The fifth-year player out of New Mexico appeared in all 16 games for head coach Jeff Fisher and logged 1,084 snaps. As a pass protector, Turner surrendered one quarterback sack, three quarterback hits and 10 quarterback hurries.

    Those numbers helped deem him the most heralded offensive lineman the Rams had to offer in 2012. Fans and media members alike were baffled when general manager Les Snead showed little to no interest in bringing Turner back.

    Surely an organization would prefer a younger player with a higher ceiling, but injuries often creep up and throw a wrench into a team's plans. That is exactly why the Tennessee Titans were happy to take him off the open market.

    He's currently slated to start at right guard, but if push comes to shove, he may end up being a situational player at best. Regardless of his role, Tennessee signed a player who will only make its team better when he's on the field.

Phil Dawson

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    After a Pro Bowl season in 2011, San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers fell off the face of the earth in 2012. On 42 field-goal attempts, Akers only converted 69 percent of his kicks—the lowest number of his career by a wide margin.

    Prior to this past year, he had only turned in three seasons as a starter where his field-goal percentage was below 80—an amazing feat given he has been a placekicker in the NFL for 15 long seasons.

    Yet head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't let Akers' past accomplishments stop him from making a change. Less than a month after the 38-year-old kicker was cut, the 49ers signed another 38-year-old kicker in Phil Dawson.

    Dawson was a longtime member of the Cleveland Browns before signing with San Francisco and currently stands as the 10th-most accurate kicker in NFL history. For his career, he has converted 84 percent of his field-goal attempts along with 97.8 percent of his extra points.

    Talent evaluators believed the Niners would use one of their 14 draft selections on a younger kicker who would have a longer shelf life. Apparently, Trent Baalke and Harbaugh weren't too keen on this year's draft class and opted for a more well-known commodity.

Adam Jones

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    Despite the fact cornerback Adam Jones will never be able to live up to his lofty first-round draft status, he has done an incredible job of resurrecting his career in Cincinnati. As a spot starter in 2012, Jones was amongst the best of the NFL in pure coverage ability.

    Opposing quarterbacks only managed a quarterback rating of 81.9 when throwing in his coverage area. Moreover, wide receivers averaged 11.4 yards per reception on 37 catches. Of any cornerback who played at least 50 percent of his team's defensive snaps, Jones had the 19th-best completion percentage against at 54.5.

    Even though he will turn 30 years old during the 2013 season, the Bengals thought enough of him to re-sign him to a three-year deal. The specifics of the contract have not been released, but it's safe to assume Mike Brown was able to lock up the team's best corner at a bargain-bin price.

    The market for defensive backs was quite soft this year, so any contract longer than one year was definitely a win for the player involved. Depending on what happens with Dre Kirkpatrick, Jones could easily find himself as a 16-game starter in 2013.

Brad Jones

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    From one Jones to another, Green Bay inside linebacker Brad Jones has re-upped with the Packers. Prior to the 2012 season, Jones' future was up in the air. He hadn't really shown a lot of skill when given the opportunity to play in years past.

    Yet when he made his first start of the 2012 season against St. Louis, No. 59 took off. During the final 10 regular-season games, Jones amassed 56 solo tackles, 30 defensive stops, two quarterback sacks, one quarterback hit and six quarterback hurries.

    In each of the five categories I mentioned above, the former seventh-round pick notched career highs. The uptick in play will help him push for a starting job in 2013. Despite currently holding the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, I could easily see Jones unseating either A.J. Hawk or Desmond Bishop for a starting spot.

    Hawk had a below-average 2012 campaign, and Bishop will return from a severe hamstring injury that caused him to miss the entire season. Let's not forget Jones is the youngest of the three potential starters, so it wouldn't surprise me to see him start based on that premise alone.

Michael Huff

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    After the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens decided it was time to move on from both Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed. Reed's health concerns weren't worth $15 million over three years, and Pollard had become a real liability in coverage. Ozzie Newsome felt a complete overhaul at the safety position was necessary.

    The overhaul means Christian Thompson will step in as the starter at strong safety and former Oakland Raider Michael Huff will take over for Reed.

    Despite being switched from free safety to cornerback midway through the 2012 season, Huff still finished as the Raiders' top defensive back. He only allowed 48 of 90 throws to be complete, while picking off two passes and deflecting nine. It's also worth mentioning Huff had six games where he held opposing signal-callers to a quarterback rating below 50.

    Expect No. 24 to play a lot of single-high safety in Baltimore.

    At this point in their careers, it's hard not to think Huff isn't an upgrade over Reed. Not to mention the Ravens will save $9 million over the course of three years since they opted for the younger, cheaper player.

Vance Walker

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    Even though the Raiders are in salary-cap hell and general manager Reggie McKenzie is still trying to clean up Al Davis' mess, Oakland has the ability to make a few under-the-radar moves. One of its best and most underrated signings was defensive tackle Vance Walker.

    Walker isn't the most well-known name in league circles yet, but his time is coming. As a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2012, he finished as the 17th-most productive defensive tackle in the NFL. By nature he is a better run-stuffer than pass-rusher, yet at times he displayed equal skill in both categories.

    Against the run he finished with 24 defensive stops, six tackles for loss and one forced fumble. When rushing the quarterback, Walker dropped the opposition four times and pressured a total of 20 times—above-average numbers for a guy who only rushed the passer 326 times.

    In Oakland, Walker will get the opportunity to be a full-time starter for the first time. During his tenure with the Falcons he was a spot starter from time to time, but at no point did he start more than eight games in a single season.

Stevie Brown

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    Letting Kenny Phillips walk in free agency signaled the return of Stevie Brown for the 2013 season. Brown caught on with the New York Giants in 2012 after spending the first two years of his career in Oakland and Indianapolis.

    Injuries and an overall lack of depth at safety allowed Brown to showcase his skill set in Week 5 when he made his first start at strong safety. Against the Browns he intercepted quarterback Brandon Weeden, knocked away one pass and recorded three tackles.

    From that point on, Tom Coughlin couldn't afford to keep Brown on the bench. He started every game but one for the remainder of the season.

    Coughlin's faith in the former seventh-round pick paid dividends. No. 27 went on to intercept seven more passes and deflect 10 other balls. By season's end he was PFF's 23rd-highest-rated safety.

    The Giants brought back Brown on a one-year prove-it deal valued at $2.02 million. The organization wants to make sure that his 2012 season wasn't a fluke and that his high level of play is sustainable.

Donnie Jones

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    I already know what you're thinking: a kicker and a punter on the list of under-the-radar free-agent signings?

    Yes, it's hard to fathom, but kickers and punters are people too. The impact good kickers and punters have on the game can totally change the outcome.

    Winning the field-position battle becomes more and more important by the week, so I felt it was only fitting that I showcased one of the league's best at flipping the field on the opposition.

    New Philadelphia Eagles acquisition Donnie Jones finished as PFF's top punter in 2012. He was consistently good in every major category. He dropped 29 punts inside the 20-yard line, his net yards per punt were 40.5 and he had a maximum hang time of 5.3 seconds. Additionally, his longest punt of the season traveled 66 yards, and he had zero punts blocked on 88 attempts.

    Despite the strong year statistically, the market for Jones and punters in general was surprisingly weak. Houston couldn't work out a deal to keep him, so the Eagles swooped in and signed him to a one-year deal worth $840,000.

    If Jones performs in 2013 the way he did in 2012, Philadelphia would be smart to lock him up long-term.