Ranking the 10 Best NFL Free-Agent Sleepers
Sorry, wishful NFL fans: Not everyone's team can shop at Tiffany and Co.
Sometimes, you need to browse the selections at your local department store. Here, we break down the top 10 free-agent sleepers who figure to hit the market next month.
When you are a team like the Oakland Raiders, who have the most salary-cap room in the league, according to Spotrac.com, yet are a cellar dweller who struggles to sign players, you need to pick through the leftovers. Be it injury (Sam Shields), suspension (Walter Thurmond, above), character issues (Richie Incognito), inexperience or pricing themselves into starting jobs for the first time (Clinton McDonald), we have found some hidden gems for teams to target outside of the top tier.
This 10-part slideshow outlines them, chronicles why they are sleepers and gives a best-fit projection for each player.
10. Kenny Britt, Wide Receiver, 25 Years Old
Kenny Britt is still just 25. He is also coming off a season when he was buried on the Tennessee Titans depth chart behind the unproven likes of Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Damian Williams. This was a Titans team that few opponents feared as a passing offense.
Britt has elite potential, though. 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."
We doubt he has that kind of juice, but Britt has the potential to start for a lot of teams when healthy.
Best Fit: New York Giants
In Bleacher Report's Top 10 Most Underrated Free Agents last week, we surmised the San Francisco 49ers could use an affordable secondary threat for Colin Kaepernick. They have Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis as long-term answers. They would be wise to bring back veteran Anquan Boldin and draft a long-term prospect, though.
A team like the Giants needs a quicker fix for aging Eli Manning. Britt, a Rutgers product, could be that.
"Retired" former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told me, a coaching pupil at the Glazier Clinic last weekend in Boston, that struggles at wide receiver were the top reason for Manning and the offense's stagnation in 2013. Britt is a veteran who could step in and replace Hakeem Nicks' production at a much cheaper rate for a cap-strapped team.
9. Richie Incognito, Offensive Guard, 30 Years Old
Just when you thought the maligned Richie Incognito has put the Jonathan Martin situation behind him, he exploded Wednesday on Twitter, as Bleacher Report's Matt Fitzgerald chronicled here.
Incognito is the type of hot-headed, loose-lipped monster who just cannot get out of his own way. His free-agency situation was already cloudy. He is like a taxi meter, costing himself money by the second.
Yet, the same tenacity that he approaches life with is the reason why he was a fairly successful NFL football player. He has a fire burning inside him that helps him win on the field...for the most part.
The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero wrote the same thing, adding it will take only an affordable one-year deal to secure a pretty good interior lineman. You just need to be prepared for the media attention and potential consequences.
Best Fit: Oakland Raiders
If there were only a team in the NFL that has a lot of cap space and has proved willing to take on a guy who needs a second chance. Uh, oh yeah, the Raiders fit that description perfectly.
Like we said with Walter Thurmond in a previous slide, the Raiders can afford to take a chance on a guy with baggage. Heck, when you're the lowly Raiders, these kinds of misfits might be all you can lure to Oakland.
8. Clinton McDonald, Defensive Tackle, 27 Years Old
How much do the Seattle Seahawks value Clinton McDonald in their Super Bowl-champion defense? So much that they subjected him to the rest of the league as one of the final cuts at the end of training camp in September.
They brought him back shortly thereafter, and he registered the first 5.5 sacks of his NFL career. That is a huge number for a defensive tackle who made just one start this past season and two in his four-year career.
It is easy to see why McDonald, a former seventh-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals out of Memphis, is overlooked. He is a career backup who has earned the right to start—and a starting salary—elsewhere.
Teammate Chris Clemons praised McDonald's breakthrough after being cut to Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times:
He's had a hell of a year. I mean, he had more quarterback sacks than I did this year. I'm proud of him. He's one of those guys who never stops. And you've got to love him for that.
After that happened, I talked with (general manager) John (Schneider) and he said he was going to bring him right back. When he got back, I had a conversation with Clint and I told him, 'This is the time where you don't hold anything back. Right now you're playing for your life.' He came out and took advantage of it.
Best Fit: Oakland Raiders
Whether or not the aforementioned Lamarr Houston is brought back to Oakland, the Raiders will still need more help along the defensive line and in the pass rush of their 4-3 defense. This is yet another sleeper whom we peg for the team with the most cap space.
McDonald deserves to start and be a full-time player. The Raiders can afford him that, along with the dollars that 5.5 sacks at defensive tackle deserve.
The Seahawks won't be able to bring everyone back. Ask the 2012 champion Baltimore Ravens how much winning a title leads to backups becoming well-paid starters elsewhere.
7. Sam Shields, Cornerback, 26 Years Old
The Green Bay Packers were a bottom-10 pass defense this past season, allowing almost 4,000 yards through the air. That was with Sam Shields.
A lot of cornerbacks on the free-agent market are coming off much better years, namely Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Shields, an undrafted free agent who has started just 35 of the Packers' 64 regular-season games in his four seasons, just doesn't have the cachet of that group.
That doesn't mean he is less worthy of being a starting corner in this league.
The Packers, notoriously frugal in free agency, might look elsewhere to fix their secondary woes. Bill Huber of the Packer Report tweets it "seems increasingly likely [Shields will] hit the market."
Best Fit: Miami Dolphins
Grimes is arguably the biggest fish on the corner market this winter, but the Dolphins have serious woes on their offensive line after the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin drama. Their two best defensive tackles, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, are also entering free agency. They cannot re-sign everyone and still get better.
Shields, a former Miami Hurricane, figures to be a cheaper alternative in the event that Grimes finds greener pastures elsewhere—perhaps even Green Bay.
6. Jon Asamoah, Offensive Guard, 25 Years Old
The Kansas City Chiefs have some decisions to make on their offensive line. Pending free-agent left tackle Branden Albert has already stolen the headlines for the past year, fighting through a sticky contract dispute, but the team's potential losses won't stop there.
Guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, 27, are also free agents.
Schwartz overtook Asamoah as a starter down the stretch and might prove to be more cost-efficient for a team that doesn't have much cap space. Spotrac.com lists the Chiefs as very close to the cap with 17 free agents to deal with.
They already made the decision that they prefer Schwartz over Asamoah and will have to give Schwartz a starting guarantee to get him to return.
"I'm not going to be versatility. I'm going to be starting," Schwartz tweeted Wednesday.
Best Fit: New York Jets
It is no secret the Jets need an offensive overhaul. They want to be a physical, run-oriented team, and Asamoah can help center Nick Mangold on the interior of their line. They also have more than $22 million in cap room.
Unlike Schwartz, Asamoah has yet to reach his prime. The Jets are more likely to throw money at him to make him a part of their long-term plans.
5. Brian De La Puente, Center, 28 Years Old
The only time casual NFL observers tend to notice offensive linemen is when the pass protection breaks down. Even then, it usually is an edge protector who makes that mistake.
Centers are the quarterbacks of the offensive line, and the New Orleans Saints have a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees who tends to get the ball out quickly and allow his offensive linemen to get overlooked...in a good way.
Brian De La Puente has started every game for the Saints the past two years, and now the cap-strapped team might be forced to turn the center position over to another undrafted free agent in Tom Lelito because New Orleans has so much money tied up in the starting guards, as ESPN's Mike Triplett writes.
Best Fit: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens need an entire overhaul of their offensive line, and it should start at center. De La Puente is not a luxury that the Saints might be able to afford, but his services would be a necessity in Baltimore.
USA Today's Brent Sobleski listed interior offensive line as the Ravens' No. 1 priority this winter. Signing a veteran like De La Puente would allow them to use their draft resources on the rest of the O-line and get back into contention more quickly than if they were to break in an inexperienced blocking-scheme caller.
4. Lamarr Houston, Defensive End, 26 Years Old
Lamarr Houston has played for a lowly Oakland Raiders team and registered an average of just over four sacks the past four years. That is a low total for a defensive end in the 4-3 defense, a pass-rush position in that scheme.
Houston is a better run-stopper than pass-rusher, so he stands to be overlooked in free agency.
He hasn't missed a game in his four-year career since being drafted in the second round out of the University of Texas. He has a resume that exceeds his statistical production.
Houston told Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune:
I believe that Dennis Allen and the Raiders might be looking to move on and have me go to another team and find something more what they want for their system and their scheme. Who knows? It's a rough business, and nothing's guaranteed, and everything changes from day to day.
Scott Bair of CSN California asked Allen about that comment a day later:
I did see that quote, and that's not the case. Obviously, I sat down with Lamarr today and had a nice discussion with him. We'd love to have him back. We think he fits our system and what we're trying to do, and we think he's a guy that we can build with.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
It is no secret the Falcons need to upgrade their defensive front, having allowed the second-most rushing yards this past season. They need to use any of their available salary-cap room to that end.
Houston also sounds like he would prefer to go someplace where the pressure is off him as the lone threat in the pass rush. If the Falcons keep Osi Umenyiora, as ESPN Vaughn McClure debates here, Houston would be a perfect fit opposite him.
3. Jason Worilds, Linebacker, 25 Years Old
The Pittsburgh Steelers, a once-proud, defensive-minded franchise, thought so much of Jason Worilds that they drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round last April to start over him. It might cost them a quality linebacker who is just about to enter his prime.
ESPN's Scott Brown asked Worilds if he was open to a return to the Steelers this winter, and the response was cold.
"If the circumstances are right, for sure," Worilds said. "They haven't been right for me in the past. I wouldn't want to fall back into (not starting) again."
Ironically, he is coming off a season when he started the most games of his career (11), which is one more than he started in his previous three combined, according to Pro Football Reference. He hasn't been pleased with his misuse in Pittsburgh, telling Brown:
It's been rough just to get on the field, especially when you probably could have helped the team in years past, but you just weren't given an opportunity. The opportunity came this year, and I did well with it. For me to get out there and play consistently, I kind of feel like I showed some people what I could do.
Best Fit: Philadelphia Eagles
Unless the cap-strapped Steelers decide to make LaMarr Woodley a June 1 cap casualty, Worilds is going to start elsewhere in 2014. He might not wait for that decision to be made because a bridge has been burned.
The Eagles have Trent Cole under a large deal as the rush backer in their newfangled 3-4 defense, but they could promise Worilds a starting job on the left side at a minimum. The Eagles need playmakers on their defense, and he wouldn't even have to leave the state, playing just down the New Jersey Turnpike from where he grew up.
2. Walter Thurmond, Cornerback, 26 Years Old
How does a Super Bowl champion get overlooked in free agency? Well, try being the fourth or fifth option in the Legion of Boom.
It is tough to get noticed when he has the likes of motor-mouth Richard Sherman and fellow LOBers Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner and eventually Byron Maxwell stealing the limelight.
If not for a four-game substance-abuse suspension, Walter Thurmond would have spent the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl as a full-time member of the LOB. Instead, he was relegated to nickel corner behind Maxwell.
The 26-year-old former fourth-rounder out of Oregon has started just eight games in his career. Heck, he has played in just 34 of 64 regular-season games since the Seattle Seahawks drafted him.
And finally, Tom Pelissero of USA Today expects Thurmond to command no more than a one-year contract due to the fact he is one positive drug test away from a one-year suspension. Someone is going to get a career backup on a one-year deal to be a potential stalwart corner.
Best Fit: Oakland Raiders
Thurmond is arguably a renegade. The Raiders have long been a renegade program. It makes sense.
The Raiders need defensive backs. They need everything and can take a shot on a potential impact back-end player like Thurmond. The Raiders also have the most salary-cap space in the NFL (over $63 million), according to Spotrac.com, so a mistake here wouldn't hurt them.
1. Linval Joseph, Defensive Tackle, 25 Years Old
Defensive tackles never get enough respect. They do the thankless run-stuffing work on the down-and-dirty side of the ball, rarely making the highlight reel with sacks.
Every good defensive tackle is underrated and underpaid and slept on in free agency. The Giants' Linval Joseph is just the best of this year's sleepers.
The East Carolina product did not go to a big school or get drafted in the first round. He deserves elite money for his position, though.
He has averaged more than 55 tackles and three sacks over the past three seasons and has been consistent year to year. He has missed just one game in three years for a Giants defense that would have been poor against the run if not for the 323-pound Joseph clogging the middle.
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell told Jordan Raanan of NJ.com:
You don't miss a guy like Linval until he's not in there because he's steady. He doesn't get a lot of press, he doesn't get a lot of attention, but he's always there. He's solid each week...He's one of those guys that's kind of underappreciated, that you don't talk a whole lot about, but if he's not there, there's that big void.
Fewell just defined a sleeper right there.
Best Fit: New York Giants
The Giants don't generally pay defensive tackles. They draft them. But with many holes, they would be wise to lock up the 25-year-old Joseph before he officially hits the free-agent market next month.
He is such a free-agent sleeper that the Giants might score a coup, with him taking a hometown discount.
"This is where I started at; I love this organization," Joseph told Raanan. "I love the scheme. I love it here. It's home."
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. 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.