Under-the-Radar Free Agent Signings Who Will Have Major Impact in 2013
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The heart of NFL free agency is long gone and though there will be moves here and there, the big-money contracts are all signed and teams are now focused on the 2013 NFL draft. The Miami Dolphins made a splash by signing wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. The Cleveland Browns went all-in on outside linebacker Paul Kruger.
The Houston Texans believe they have found the missing piece in safety Ed Reed and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave safety Dashon Goldson the big-money, long contract he was looking for. The St. Louis Rams believe they have the answer to their offensive line woes in left tackle Jake Long and the Tennessee Titans paid a pretty penny to left guard Andy Levitre.
Others like defensive end Cliff Avril, tight end Dustin Keller and linebacker Victor Butler took less than market value in hopes of hitting pay day in the next couple of years.
Here is a list of players that all moved teams in free agency. While they may not have signed mega-million dollar deals, each player is a perfect fit for the team they signed with and will make an impact for their new team in 2013. Of this list of players, only two have ever made a NFL Pro Bowl. (One as a special teams player and the other who was selected as a replacement player.)
Lorenzo Alexander, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
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Alexander was last year’s NFC special team’s representative in the Pro Bowl while with the Washington Redskins. While he is known for his outstanding special teams play, Alexander is coveted by defensive coaches for his versatility. The former college free agent has lined up at every defensive position in the front seven in his NFL career. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett loved all the ways he could use Alexander in the defense.
Arizona’s new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will need to find creative ways to get Alexander in one on one pass-rush opportunities. Alexander will finally have a chance to be a starter in Arizona and should benefit playing with defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. Alexander had three sacks in 325 defensive snaps in 2012. I expect that sack number to triple in 2013.
Desmond Bryant, DT, Cleveland Browns
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The scary part for the AFC North teams that Bryant signed with Cleveland is that the Browns already have a solid defensive line. Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and former defensive end now outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard are good, young players that will compliment Bryant well.
According to Profootballfocus.com, Bryant was the sixth-best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012. That was playing for an Oakland Raiders team that finished 28th in points allowed last season. Bryant is a strong run defender who will benefit greatly from playing with Sheard and Paul Kruger at the outside linebacker positions. Look for Bryant to be in the mix for a Pro Bowl after the 2013 season.
Louis Vasquez, RG, Denver Broncos
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Vasquez leaves one AFC West team for another as he joins the Broncos from the San Diego Chargers. The addition of Vasquez gives the Broncos one of the best offensive lines in football. While Vasquez is not known as a great run-blocker, his forte is as a pass-blocker. He could not join a better team for that and block for quarterback Peyton Manning.
Vasquez was ranked the ninth-best right guard in the NFL in 2012 and was ranked 12th at the position in 2011 by Profootballfocus.com. He only gave up two sacks last season. Right tackle Orlando Franklin, left guard Zane Beadles and left tackle Ryan Clady are all in the top 18 at their position in the NFL. Adding Vasquez was sneaky good signing for John Elway and should keep Manning vertical a majority of the season.
Glover Quin, FS, Detroit Lions
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While much was made of Ed Reed now being the missing piece of the Houston Texans defense, the man he is replacing is no slouch. As a matter of fact, a case can be made that over the course of the past two seasons, Quin has been more productive than Reed. Granted, Reed has more interceptions over that period of time, but Quin has more total tackles and more passes defensed.
Quin just turned 27 years old and played in over 100 snaps in each of the past three seasons. He is durable, tough and will bring some stability to a Detroit Lions secondary that needs a leader. Expect Quin to have career highs in both interceptions and tackles in 2013.
Gosder Cherilus, RT, Indianapolis Colts
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Cherilus signing with the Colts from the Detroit Lions was overshadowed by the other big free-agent moves the Colts made. But his signing will pay the most dividends for Indianapolis in 2013. Quarterback Andrew Luck was sacked 41 times in 2012 and general manager Ryan Grigson was adamant that those statistics would not be acceptable in 2013.
So Grigson put his money where his mouth was and signed the top free-agent right tackle in free agency and second right tackle overall according to Profootballfocus.com. Cherilus gave up only four sacks in 1,229 snaps in 2013. That snap total was the second highest of any offensive tackle in the NFL last season. His durability, foot quickness and toughness will cut Luck’s sack total in half in 2013.
Sen’Derrick Marks, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
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When looking at statstics and production from his time with the Tennessee Titans, it is easy to see why Marks lasted so long on the street in free agency. He has never ranked higher than the 68th-best defensive tackle in the NFL according to Profootballfocus.com in his career.
So then, why is he on this list? Because he is 26 years old and playing for one of the best defensive line coaches turned head coach in the NFL, Gus Bradley.
The new head man in Jacksonville knows how to get the most out of his defensive linemen. Bradley has taken players like Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock and Red Bryant and turned them into productive and effective professional football players. While Marks may not be a Pro Bowl caliber signing, as a rotational defensive tackle in Jacksonville, he will have the best year of his career in 2013.
Brent Grimes, CB, Miami Dolphins
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A former Pro Bowl alternate is coming off a serious Achilles injury that cost him a majority of the 2012 NFL campaign. Due to the uncertainty of that injury, Grimes signed a one-year contract with the Dolphins. Though Jeff Ireland spent big money in free agency, the Grimes signing will end up being the best move he makes in 2013.
Profootballfocus.com had Grimes ranked in the top 10 at cornerback in 2010 and 2011. Grimes is only 29 years old and gives the Dolphins a more consistent player at the position than Sean Smith was. Grimes brings 13 career interceptions to Miami. With the invigorated pass rush defense of the Dolphins, Grimes will add at least six more picks to his career numbers in 2013.
Victor Butler, OLB, New Orleans Saints
While I personally love the Keenan Lewis signing in New Orleans, I believe the Butler signing will have as big or bigger impact on the Saints defense. Butler is reunited with former Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who will do all he can to put Butler in a position to succeed.
Butler only played in 300 snaps last season, but he produced three sacks and Profootballfocus.com ranked him the seventh-best outside linebacker who played in a 3-4 defense. The Saints are switching to the 3-4 and currently have Jonathan Vilma listed as the starter on the outside. Butler takes that role and will have the type of impact his former teammate Anthony Spencer had for the Cowboys defense in 2013 when he was a Pro Bowl alternate.
Brandon Myers, TE, New York Giants
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All Myers did in 2012 was catch for a career high 806 yards receiving and four touchdowns. In his career, Myers has 111 receptions. Seventy-nine of those catches came last year in Oakland for the Raiders.
This year, Myers signed with the Giants after Martellus Bennett signed with the Chicago Bears. Bennett got a huge contract while Myers signed a four-year deal that is voidable after one season.
Myers will never be known for his blocking prowess, but as a receiver, he can hold his own versus any tight end in the NFL. He will benefit greatly by playing with quarterback Eli Manning. Look for Myers to top 50 receptions again in 2013 but to be more active in the red zone. Myers should produce eight scores this season.
Antwan Barnes, OLB, New York Jets
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Barnes has been viewed as a situational pass-rusher his entire NFL career. But with 14 sacks in the past two seasons, Barnes will finally get a chance to start for the Jets. Barnes also reunites with head coach Rex Ryan, who coached him in Baltimore.
Barnes has an explosive first step and playing alongside defensive linemen Quinton Coples will allow Barnes to get many one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. In 2011, Profootballfocus.com ranked Barnes as the eighth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. After an injury plagued 2012 campaign, look for Barnes to once again produce double-digit sacks.
Kaluka Maiava, LB, Oakland Raiders
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When you play in Cleveland the past couple of seasons, rarely does a player get the recognition he deserves. Maiava is a perfect example. He finished 2012 with 35 total tackles, three sacks and is regarded as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.
The fact he just turned 26 and still has his best football in front of him makes Maiava a perfect under-the-radar signing. Maiava played at USC so heading back to the West Coast will make him feel at home and though he is undersized, Maiava fits perfectly into head coach Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme. Look for Maiava to stand out in 2013 and be the team leader in tackles.
Jonathan Casillas, SLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Casillas will not be the best linebacker for the Buccaneers in 2013 and probably will rank behind both Lavonte David and Mason Foster in terms of production. But by signing Casillas to a cap-friendly deal, general manager Mark Dominik added a bona fide starter at Sam linebacker and weakened a division rival, the New Orleans Saints.
Casillas will be given a chance to be the out-right starter in Tampa and can help solidify a defense after the loss of former starter Quincy Black. Casillas is a smart player who will bring leadership and toughness to the position. The fact the four-year player is only 25 adds to his value. Casillas will have a career year in Tampa Bay in 2013. He will finish with over 60 tackles and three sacks this coming season.
Robert Turner, RG, Tennessee Titans
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Much has been made about the Titans signing a free-agent offensive guard in free agency. That would be former Buffalo Bill Andy Levitre. While Levitre signed for over $46 million, Turner got a one-year deal for just over $1 million. In the end, Turner will turn out to be a better value.
Levitre is a Pro Bowl talent, but Turner played his best football of his career last year in St. Louis and will benefit being coached by two Hall of Famers in Bruce Matthews and Mike Munchak. Given a chance to start last year, Turner played in 1,084 snaps at both guard and center. His versatility will pay huge dividends for the Titans in 2013.
EJ Biggers, CB, Washington Redskins
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What makes the Biggers' signing so solid in my mind is the fact he reunites with his former coach in Tampa, Raheem Morris. If anyone knows how to get the most out of Biggers' talent, Morris is the guy.
Biggers was thrust into the starting lineup last year in Tampa Bay and held his own. While not known for his tackling, Biggers graded out while as a pass defender according to Profootballfocus.com, who ranked him as the 35th-best cornerback in the NFL in 2012.
That grade was higher than any corner on the Redskins roster last season. Look for Biggers to have at least three interceptions in 2013 and to become a more aggressive tackler under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.