NFL Free Agents 2014: Predictions for Best Under-the-Radar Players Available

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2014

In this Nov. 17, 2013, photo, Seattle Seahawks' Byron Maxwell, right, smiles as he joins Walter Thurmond after Thurmond's interception and touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during an NFL football game in Seattle. Thurmond is returning from his four-game suspension just in time to join the Seahawks for the postseason. But Thurmond has lost the starting spot he had before the suspension arrived. Thurmond is expected to be activated to Seattle's roster before Sunday's game against St. Louis. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The start of NFL free agency on March 11 brings with it the hope and optimism that one bold move will make all the difference. With a solid group of impact starters on the market, there are plenty of deals and teams to keep an eye on. 

Sometimes, though, the best deals in free agency go to less-heralded players. We know what a player like Jairus Byrd can do, but how do you quantify what Brandon Spikes is going to do as a two-down linebacker?

Star power does win championships, but depth gets you into the playoffs. That's what we are focusing on here, those players who can start for a championship team but may end up playing smaller roles on a new club to push it over the top. 


LB D'Qwell Jackson

David Richard/Associated Press

Forget the Super Bowl blowout for a minute. The Denver Broncos found the run-stopping defensive tackle they needed in the postseason with the emergence of 27-year-old Terrance Knighton.

Knighton was a monster in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, when the Broncos held them to 64 yards on the ground. He recorded four tackles and one sack in that game. 

But where the Broncos really need to shore up their defense is at the linebacker position. Von Miller is a star when healthy, but he only played nine games last year, and the rest of the unit suffered in his absence. 

Jackson is an inside linebacker, making him more vital to stopping the run than getting after the quarterback. He's just 30 years old and coming off a productive season in Cleveland with 141 total tackles and seven passes defended. 

Mike Klis of The Denver Post reported that Jackson visited the Broncos on Sunday night. The Broncos have an opening at middle linebacker, with Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon hitting free agency. 

Jackson brings a toughness to the second level of that defense the Broncos desperately need to keep up with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers to win a Super Bowl. 

Prediction: Signs with Denver Broncos


CB Walter Thurmond

JOHN FROSCHAUER/Associated Press

Playing in the same secondary as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor makes it hard to get any publicity. Walter Thurmond has grabbed headlines in his career, though for a lot of the wrong reasons. 

Thurmond was suspended four games last season after violating the league's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. With one strike against him, teams are likely to tread lightly with any contract offers. 

However, even with some volatility attached, Thurmond is a solid playmaker with an aggressive, attacking style that makes it difficult for receivers to get off the line of scrimmage. He's just 26 years old, so there's no reason to expect a drop in production.

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who came over from Seattle two years ago, knows Thurmond very well. The Jaguars need a playmaker in the secondary after finishing tied for 25th in pass defense and tied for 26th in interceptions. 

Playing in a division with the Indianapolis Colts, who have Andrew Luck, and the Texans, who own the No. 1 pick in a draft with quarterback depth—not to mention receivers like Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Kendall Wright and Nate Washington—having a good secondary is imperative. 

At the very least, Thurmond would fit in nicely as a nickelback for the Jaguars, who have more than $30 million in cap space to upgrade their roster, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. 

Prediction: Signs with Jaguars


WR Sidney Rice

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 08:  Sidney Rice #18 of the Seattle Seahawks during warm up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on August 8, 2013 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

There may not be a more volatile receiver on the market than Sidney Rice, who was released by the Seahawks after missing the last eight games of 2013 with a torn ACL. It was the third time in four years the former Pro Bowl receiver has played in less than 10 games. 

For all the talk about Percy Harvin's injury woes, Rice is just as susceptible to injuries. However, just looking at what he was able to do when healthy, he can still help a team in need of a wide receiver. 

The key is Rice can't be the No. 1 or 2 option on a team but must provide quality depth as a No. 3/slot player until he proves capable of staying healthy. He's just 27 years old and has averaged at least 15 yards per catch since 2009.

A contending team like the 49ers, in need of a third receiver, could use Rice. It also doesn't hurt that he could provide insights into Seattle's playbook, but they aren't the type of team to spend money on a receiver in free agency. 

Rice's best fit, if they have an interest, is the New York Giants. Eli Manning is as inconsistent as any quarterback, but we know what he's capable of on good days.

Hakeem Nicks is a free agent and hasn't been the dynamic outside threat he was when the team won a Super Bowl three years ago. He didn't catch a touchdown last year, after having just three in 2012, and has 109 catches the last two years despite being targeted 202 times. 

The Giants do have around $16 million in cap space, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. Rice shouldn't cost a lot of money because of his injury concerns and inconsistent production. He's worth a flier for a team in New York's position. 

Prediction: Signs with New York Giants


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