2014 NFL Free Agency: Highlighting the Market's Hidden Gems

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Highlighting the Market's Hidden Gems

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The 2013 season might be coming to an end, but NFL free agency is just two months away. The NFL never rests.

    There are plenty of big names and otherwise great options slated to hit the market, but who are some of the more underrated free-agents-to-be? These are the kinds of signings that could make big impacts without big blows to team budgets.

    Click through to find out.

Donald Brown, Running Back

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    When the Indianapolis Colts traded for running back Trent Richardson, they certainly didn't expect Donald Brown to become their top back. Why trade for Richardson in that case?

    Brown was a half-yard average away from doubling up Richardson, who ran for a woeful 2.9 yards per carry. The former did double up the latter with six touchdowns to three, too.

    At 751 total yards—despite starting just five games—this was Brown's best season of his career. It just so happened to be a contract year, and he seems eager to leave per ESPN.com's Mike Wells:

    Brown ended up leading the Colts in rushing. The former first-round pick showed flashes but he had a difficult time being consistent. 

    "Yeah, this past season was almost like an interviewing process and now you're just waiting to see what job offers you get," Browns said. "Then just take the one that makes the most sense for myself and my family." 

    Brown won't be a top option for any team, but he can clearly thrive in a good situation.

Akeem Jordan, Linebacker

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Linebacker Derrick Johnson gets much deserved credit in the middle of the Chiefs defense, but his running mate in the middle did a pretty good job last year.

    Akeem Jordan followed Andy Reid west from Philadelphia, though he wasn't born and raised, nor did he spend most of his days on the playground.

    The 28-year-old had the best season of his career, amassing 67 total tackles and forcing two fumbles alongside Johnson. He ranks as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best free agent option at linebacker this offseason after rating 11th-best at the position last year.

    Jordan is no NaVorro Bowman, but he is a solid option in the middle of a 3-4 defense for linebacker-needy teams. 

Riley Cooper, Wide Receiver

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    Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper put his career in jeopardy before the 2013 season. Things turned around for him quickly after his racial slur was caught on camera. 

    Cooper shook off the scandal to have a nice season as the No. 2 receiver in Philadelphia. He helped Nick Foles become a star, catching three of the record-tying seven touchdown passes the quarterback threw against Oakland.

    It's easy to chalk Cooper's success up to head coach Chip Kelly's offense, but further inspection reveals some underrated talent in the 26-year-old. It probably helped that he played in a good offense, but Cooper is also pretty good at running routes and beating press coverage.

    Cooper wants to re-sign, per NFL.com's Mark Sessler, but the Eagles might have a tough time hanging onto him and Jeremy Maclin. If he gets loose in free agency, he could make a pretty penny as a No. 2 receiving option.

Zach Strief, Offensive Tackle

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Offensive linemen don't get much love in the public eye, but when they do, left tackles get the most.

    Right tackles are rarely discussed as big free-agent prospects, which explains why Zach Strief isn't getting much attention out of New Orleans.

    The 30-year-old was the top-rated and most efficient pass-blocking right tackle in the league per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), allowing just three sacks and 33 total pressures from the right side.

    Some of that might have to do with teams attacking the left side, which was vulnerable after Jermon Bushrod's departure, but Strief has been solid throughout his career.

Geoff Schwartz, Offensive Guard

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    Injuries almost derailed guard Geoff Schwartz's career.

    A hip injury kept him out all of 2011 with the Panthers, and a sports hernia sidelined him with the Vikings in 2012. It was too bad given he has been good when on the field.

    As a result of all those injury concerns, the cat-loving guard was only able to land a one-year deal with the Chiefs last offseason. It proved a boon for Kansas City, which got a top-10 offensive guard per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It was a valuable season for Schwartz, too, who played every game and only saw the injury report once—a "probable" designation for a triceps issue.

    Not only is Schwartz a quality interior lineman, but he is only 27 years old. Past injuries will probably dog him in new contract negotiations, which could make him a bargain wherever he winds up.

Rashad Jennings, Running Back

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The running back market isn't laden with many big names.

    Maurice Jones-Drew headlines the list—as far as having a big name goes—along with Darren McFadden and Knowshon Moreno. We have already discussed Donald Brown, but there is another low-flying option who could be a big boon to needy teams.

    Rashad Jennings had a marvelous season in 2013, more than filling McFadden's shoes when the latter was predictably out with injury for the Raiders.

    Jennings averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns. McFadden averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.

    This has happened with Jennings before—he looked great as Jones-Drew's backup in Jacksonville for a couple of seasons—but he had a miserable contract year with the Jaguars, which is why he landed in Oakland as a backup.

    The downside here is Jennings' age. At 28, he is already past his prime as a running back.

    Given he doesn't have a lot of mileage on those legs, however, Jennings could become the next Fred Jackson of the NFL. The Buffalo stalwart has had a late-career renaissance, much of which has come north of 30 years old.

Vontae Davis, Cornerback

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    Oft-maligned in Miami, cornerback Vontae Davis has taken off since being traded to Indianapolis.

    Colts general manager Ryan Grigson spent a second-round pick on the floundering cornerback, and 

    Davis was the third-best (subscription required) rated cornerback over at Pro Football Focus this year, allowing just 50.6 completion percentage on passes thrown his direction. He did allow eight touchdown passes, though, a testament to his high-risk style of play.

    The former first-round pick could be a great addition to a team that needs help at cornerback if he leaves Indianapolis. He is no shutdown corner, but Davis may have finally tapped into the potential Miami saw in him in the 2009 draft. 

Anthony Collins, Offensive Tackle

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Another year, another under-the-radar listing for offensive tackle Anthony Collins.

    The big lineman has been stuck behind Bengals stalwart Andrew Whitworth in Cincinnati, but Collins got his chance to prove himself last season when Whitworth was forced inside to left guard due to injuries at the position.

    Collins stepped up to the challenge, allowing no sacks (subscription required) and 12 total quarterback pressures on 592 snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus.

    His breakout came at the perfect time as free agency looms. The Bengals might not be able to keep him at a low cost, and paying him well to be a backup left tackle—Whitworth should move back to his original position next year—would be wasteful.

Corey Peters, Defensive Tackle

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    The Atlanta Falcons defense was abysmal at times this season, but not for lack of effort from defensive tackle Corey Peters.

    The big defensive lineman had the best season of his career with 46 total tackles and five sacks from the middle. As Bleacher Report's Scott Carasik put it, it was Peters' versatility that really helped him shine in Atlanta:

    By lining up in different spots, he helps create different lanes for the blitzes to come and helps confuse opposing offenses. On top of that, he can penetrate any gap and force a double-team.

    By featuring such a versatile player, the Falcons are able to run more fronts and be a more varied defense.

    Without Peters, the Falcons defense wouldn't be anywhere close to what it is. Despite being a bad unit, it'd be that much worse without his impact in the middle.

    The problem for Peters and potential suitors is a season-ending Achilles injury. He had surgery to repair it, but it came at the end of the season. That means he could be out until training camp or beyond, depending on rehab.

Anthony Spencer, Outside Linebacker

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    Last season was lost for Anthony Spencer, whose move from outside linebacker to defensive end was short-lived due to an injury.

    The veteran pass-rusher had cashed in with two consecutive franchise tag payouts from the Cowboys, who have far too many cap issues to even think about doing it a third time in a row.

    Spencer has always been a great run-stopping outside lineman, but he broke out as a pass-rusher in 2012. It's why the Cowboys paid him 120 percent of his 2011 salary to tag him two consecutive seasons. Spencer garnered 11 sacks two seasons ago.

    He didn't get a chance to give defensive end an honest shot because he was knocked out for the year