NFL Free Agents 2014: The Top 10 Most Underrated Players Available
NFL free agency is rarely an exact science. It is equally rare to find players under value in it every year.
If these players were so good, why are teams potentially letting them walk? And why won't another team with loads of cap space like the Oakland Raiders or Jacksonville Jaguars throw money at them in an effort to get back to respectability?
We present you the top 10 most underrated free agents available this winter. Be it injury, behavioral concerns or just being overlooked for what they do, we have quite a list for you in a tidy 10-part slideshow.
10. Hakeem Nicks, WR, 26 Years Old
Talent hasn't been Hakeem Nicks' problem, and having just turned 26 years old in January, time is still on his side. The behavioral question mark is a tough one to live with, though.
A costly one at that.
There was a time it might have made sense for the New York Giants to consider Nicks a potential franchise-tag candidate, which former agent Joel Corry estimated at CBS Sports will be around $11.5 million for a wide receiver.
Back-to-back subpar seasons (53 receptions for 692 yards and three touchdowns in 2012; 56-896-0 in 2013) just don't make him worth it. On top of a lack of production, Nicks is also considered a malcontent, famously missing practices due to various injuries and never playing a 16-game season.
Nicks sought out some contract-year advice from former Giant Plaxico Burress, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com. Ouch. Not quite the source you would like to see if you are a Giants fan, but Burress had good advice, as he told Raanan:
I tried to settle him down and really let him understand that as tough as it is, you really have to put it in the back of your mind and go play football. Everybody wants that deal, wants that security. Maybe he wasn't as focused as he should have been. He couldn't stay healthy, for the most part of [the past few seasons].
If Nicks can stay healthy and focused, he could rebound as an 80-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown go-to receiver—albeit at far less than the franchise-tag price above. Perhaps a return to his North Carolina roots with the Panthers can get him to that level.
9. Darren McFadden, RB, 26 Years Old
No, this is not an overrated list. Darren McFadden still has something in the tank at age 26. He just needs to prove healthy to show it.
The question you have to ask is this: Were the Raiders terrible because of McFadden and his awful injury history, or was McFadden awful and oft-injured because the Raiders were terrible?
Clearly, it can be a combination of both factors, but McFadden is not old, and it is not inconceivable he enjoys a renaissance like Knowshon Moreno did with the Denver Broncos this past season.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie told ESPN's Paul Gutierrez:
Darren's going to be a free agent and there's been communication with his agent. He's going to see what his market is. And that's the thing, when you're talking about the games that he's missed, he has no idea—and when I say 'He,' I'm talking about his agent—he has no idea what his market value will be, and I couldn't tell you what the other 31 teams think.
A healthy McFadden is a potential game-changer. After missing 19 of his past 41 games and 29 in his six-year career, no one is going to pay McFadden like one.
8. Jacoby Ford, WR/KR/PR, 26 Years Old
Oakland Raiders return man Jacoby Ford will never be confused with a full-time wide receiver. That is precisely the reason he will be underrated on the open market.
Most teams, particularly a rebuilding one like the Raiders, would not bother to afford a specialist like Ford. He has proved he is not a worthy wide receiver, so he would suck up a roster spot to merely serve as a return man.
The field-position battle is a lot more important to a contender, and Ford could be brought in on the cheap to provide a 25-yard kick-return average and 10 yards on punts.
Ford is an underrated weapon for a team that can afford a specialist.
7. Dexter McCluster, WR/RB/KR/PR, 25 Years Old
A jack of all trades, master of none. That phrase summarizes Dexter McCluster's NFL value. Riddle him an "O.W."—an offensive weapon.
McCluster's value wasn't lost on the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, and they figure to make a concerted effort to retain him, but whatever he gets from the Chiefs won't be enough.
McCluster is a valuable member of a 53-man roster because he serves as a backup running back, backup wide receiver, a punt returner and a kick returner. Some teams suck up four roster spots to fill those positions. By that logic, McCluster is worth more than four times whatever he will be paid.
ESPN's Adam Teicher reports the signing of Canadian Football League wide receiver Weston Dressler might be insurance for the Chiefs potentially losing McCluster in free agency.
6. Captain Munnerlyn, CB, 25 Years Old
Captain Munnerlyn has one of the coolest names in football. He is going to warrant a cool contract to go with it, too.
The former seventh-round draft pick, undersized at just 5'8", certainly has come a long way from his days at South Carolina.
The Seattle Seahawks defense enjoyed a Super Bowl championship with the Legion of Boom, but the Carolina Panthers defense had a great year with its "Legion of Whom"—a defensive backfield filled with late-round picks.
The fact the Panthers are building a championship-caliber club near Munnerlyn's long-time home might lead them to getting him on a hometown discount.
Munnerlyn told the Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones:
This is home for me. We got something special going. I know the guys in the secondary, it's a lot of us up, and I know people called us the 'Legion of Whom,' but man, those guys, I wouldn't trade them for the world—for anybody. They played hard, they played tough and we played physical. I want to be back here.
Munnerlyn already played in 2013 under a mere $1.1 million deal. He deserves something long term, but the fact he might return to Carolina to finish what he helped start could make him one of the more underpaid free-agent corners on the market.
5. Walter Thurmond, CB, 26 Years Old
Unlike most players preceding him in this slideshow, Walter Thurmond didn't wallow as an also-ran. He is a Super Bowl champion. That alone makes him well-regarded.
The knocks against him are a four-game substance-abuse suspension in 2013 and having played just eight games in the prior two seasons due to complications from a broken leg.
Getting lost in the shadows of the Legion of Boom doesn't help his case either. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell have made Thurmond a mere situational defensive back.
He can be a starter someplace else—perhaps anywhere else.
Nevertheless, no team will risk a large starter-sized contract on Thurmond, especially since he is just one more violation away from a one-year suspension, according to The News Tribune's Todd Dybas for The Herald of Everett, Wash.
Whomever signs him will be getting a starting-quality player, though.
4. Kenny Britt, WR, 25 Years Old
Kenny Britt said his treatment with the Tennessee Titans was not fair, according to a tweet by The Tennessean's John Glennon. We tend to agree.
Like so many wide receivers before him, Britt became known as a diva, falling behind the younger likes of Kendall Wright, Damian Williams (also a free agent) and Justin Hunter on Tennessee's depth chart.
You should not blame the Titans either. They are a rebuilding club that needs to develop young talent as opposed to continuing to pound the pavement with an overconfident and far-too-vocal/sensitive retread.
Britt is still a potential starter, if not star, in this league.
Just ask him.
The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt did:
I am going to be a No. 1 receiver somewhere else if I am not here next year, and that is guaranteed. I am definitely going to be a receiver that makes plays on Sundays and makes something happen for a team. ...
Whatever happens next year, I'm looking forward to it.
Britt's struggles since his sophomore season (775 yards and nine touchdowns) can conceivably be blamed on poor quarterback play. He had reconstructive knee surgery in there, but if he can get his knee, body and mind right, he can emerge as a potential 65-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown receiver.
Imagine him taking a low-ball, one-year deal with a team like the San Francisco 49ers and working opposite Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis for Colin Kaepernick. Britt has a lot of warts among NFL evaluators, but he could prove to be the steal of the offseason.
3. Karlos Dansby, LB, 32 Years Old
It is tough to be a free agent in the twilight of your career, but Karlos Dansby finds himself back in that spot after another big year.
After being a Miami Dolphins cap casualty, Dansby landed back with the Arizona Cardinals and played at an elite level. Because he is the oldest of the free agents on our list, he won't command the top dollars his numbers suggest he should be worth.
Dansby racked up a career-high 114 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He also registered his second-highest sack total of his career (6.5).
"I would love to come back," Dansby told Kyle Odegard of the Cardinals' official website. "The future is bright. I have a couple months and I will figure out what's going on."
Despite his advanced age, this is a playmaking linebacker who made just $2.25 million on a one-year deal last season. He won't be paid enough for his durability and consistent production.
2. Alterraun Verner, CB, 25 Years Old
If Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner was allowed to hit the open market, he could command a boatload of cash. Odds are the Titans retain his services, though, perhaps under a franchise tag.
Judging by Verner's Pro Bowl tweets, as reported by ESPN's Paul Kuharsky, he is fully expecting to be back with the Titans, despite being an unrestricted free agent.
This was a breakthrough season for the UCLA product. He earned a starting job in training camp and helped the Titans secondary become one of the biggest surprises in football.
Verner's career arrow is pointing way up at arguably the most important position in football, so a one-year franchise tender would make him a steal for the Titans this offseason.
1. Jeremy Maclin, WR, 25 Years Old
If not for a season-ending knee injury suffered at the start of training camp, we might be talking about Jeremy Maclin becoming one of the highest-paid wide receivers in football. If you are a Philadelphia Eagles fan and were resigned to coming up short of the Super Bowl in head coach Chip Kelly's first year, Maclin's injury might have been a silver lining.
A lost season will at least make him affordable. An under-market-value deal to return to the Eagles, who boast a potentially explosive offense with Kelly calling the shots, might make Maclin the steal of the offseason.
Maclin's primary concern for 2014 should be proving healthy and productive. He stands to earn himself a far bigger nest egg in 2015 than anything he can get amid rehab after reconstructive knee surgery.
You can argue playing under Kelly's uptempo system in Philly—with a franchise he is familiar with and has been committed to him being a go-to man in the past—gives Maclin the best chance to star for one year. He might command a top-10, if not top-five, wide receiver salary next year if he returns to being an 80-catch, 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown threat.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report in 2013. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.