2014 NFL Free Agents: Under-the-Radar Moves That Will Pay Off Big

Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterMarch 20, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agents: Under-the-Radar Moves That Will Pay Off Big

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    It’s so much fun to watch the hype of free agency, especially when it comes to the big, household names that sign with different teams.

    Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and Jairus Byrd are just a few of the names almost everyone knows who will relocate in 2014. Vontae Davis and Charles Tillman are stars who decided to stay put and play for the same teams they played for in 2013.

    No matter if a free agent moved elsewhere or signed to stay at home, everyone expects a big impact from these top-notch players. But what about the guys who aren’t household names?

    It’s easy to see how the big-name players will fit in and how they’ll alter the course of the team each free agent signed with. But the true sign of a successful free-agent signing is for a general manager to strike gold with a player who is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

    If a team signs a few of these lesser-known free agents and the player outperforms expectations, well that’s how championships can be won.

    Here are eight under-the-radar free-agent signings that will pay off big.

Jon Asamoah, G, Falcons

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    One of the knocks on the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line is that it doesn’t really play angry, and it hasn’t since 2010. Most look back at right guard Harvey Dahl leaving to play for the St. Louis Rams as the marker for when Atlanta’s line lost its mean streak.

    The Falcons took a step toward fixing that by signing right guard Jon Asamoah, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Asamoah has only been in the NFL since 2010, but he brought a mean streak with him to the professional level from his days at Illinois working with offensive line coach Eric Wolford, who described his approach with Asamoah, per ESPN.com reporter Vaughn McClure:

    The first thing I thought about Jon was Jon was a humble, quiet, great person. But you needed to push him to understand this is a big boy’s game. You’ve got to get nasty with some people, and it’s OK. They’re not going to arrest you on the football field for your play. And that’s obviously something that eventually came out of him.

    Asamoah also brought some talent with him.

    Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Asamoah as the ninth-best right guard in the NFL last year. He gave up just one sack and allowed zero hits on the quarterback, a feat Atlanta signal-caller Matt Ryan should smile about after hearing.

    Asamoah also shows promise as a run-blocker and was a fixture of Kansas City’s line that was ranked second by Football Outsiders in run blocking with an adjusted line yards average of 4.33 yards.

Willie Young, DE, Bears

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    A quick glance at the stats from 2013 on defensive end Willie Young and nothing really jumps out. He was solid but not spectacular, with 47 tackles, three sacks and five passes defensed for the Detroit Lions last season.

    But then you see a tweet from a respected numbers guy like Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus that compares Young more than favorably to defensive end Julius Peppers, and it’s hard not to get excited.

    Bold to say, but Willie Young might be an upgrade over Julius Peppers.He was better last year: #Bears pic.twitter.com/W34soaaxWz

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 14, 2014

    According to Pro Football Focus, Young ranked third in the NFL last season among 4-3 defensive ends with 48 quarterback hurries. He was three hurries behind St. Louis Rams star Robert Quinn (51) and 15 from Brian Robison of the Minnesota Vikings.

    Young also ranked 15th overall with a pass-rushing productivity score of 9.8 from PFF. He added eight quarterback hits last year to his three sacks and 48 hurries to affect the opposing quarterback with 60 total pressures.

    The move made sense for the Bears, who were in dire need of a pass-rusher. They replaced Peppers with a guy six years younger and much cheaper. Young signed a three-year, $9 million contract with Chicago that will cost the Bears $2.6 million against their cap in 2014, according to Over The Cap.

    Peppers, had he stayed with the Bears, was going to be an $18.2 million drain in 2014.

    With more upside and better numbers, Chicago picked a winner in Young.

Zach Strief, OT, Saints

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    When the New Orleans Saints re-signed right tackle Zach Strief, quarterback Drew Brees had to have smiled.

    While the 2013 season was a return to prominence (and the playoffs) for the Saints, Brees was hit more frequently than usual. Only seven passers were hit more while in the act of passing than Brees, who, according to Pro Football Focus, was hit six times as he threw under pressure.

    Had the Saints let Strief get away via free agency, they would have let their best pass-blocking asset go and opened up Brees to more frequent abuse.

    Strief wasn’t just the best offensive lineman New Orleans had. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the highest-ranked right tackle in the NFL and seventh-ranked tackle overall. Strief gave up just three sacks, four quarterback hits and 26 hurries in 2013.

    According to Strief’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, the Miami Dolphins were interested in signing Strief. But the tackle decided to stay in New Orleans, where outside of 2012, when he was hampered by an injury, he’s been a mainstay as the top dog on the Saints’ offensive line.

    Strief will play a huge role in 2014 in keeping the Saints offense humming. Brees threw for 5,162 yards last season and has eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark in each of the last three seasons and four of the last six. Strief returning to New Orleans is good news for the streak to continue.

Shelley Smith, G, Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins had two starting guard spots open on their offensive line and filled the first with former St. Louis Rams guard Shelley Smith.

    Smith played in 14 games last season and started two, splitting time between the right and left side of the line. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith was the 23rd-ranked guard in the NFL last season but the fourth-best run-blocker.

    Smith is young and athletic and shows great promise as a run-blocker. He can pull and get into space easily to open holes in the second level of the defense. The problem with Smith is his lack of starting experience.

    Drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, Smith has only started eight games in four seasons. According to Chris Perkins of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Smith isn’t going to make people forget about the talent that was playing for Miami last season, but he’s better than what was available on the roster.

    Smith, 26, wouldn’t be an upgrade over left guard Richie Incognito. He might only be a slight upgrade over right guard John Jerry.

    But Smith would almost certainly be an upgrade over Sam Brenner and Nate Garner, who alternated at left guard after Incognito was suspended in November.

    At the very least Smith, who figures to be a starter right now, would be better than any backup on the Dolphins' roster. He’s a worthwhile signing.

    If Smith ends up winning the starting job and keeps it for the entire season, seeing him play 16 games with his run-blocking skills could help elevate Smith to a more known status around the league.

Linval Joseph, DT, Vikings

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    Linval Joseph brings an interesting skill set to the Minnesota Vikings. At 6’4” and 328 pounds, he brings prototypical size to the defensive tackle position. But his nine career sacks—all came in the last three seasons since Joseph became a starter—show that he’s able to penetrate when needed and that he can explode after the quarterback.

    Mike Wobschall, who is a writer for Vikings.com, looked at Joseph’s last two seasons and came up with some interesting aspects that jumped out at him.

    Just watched tape of Linval Joseph's 7.0 sacks in '12 and '13. Best traits in pass rush: active hands, change of direction, power. #Vikings

    — Mike Wobschall (@wobby) March 19, 2014

    Ross Tucker seemed to like the move too and called Joseph “sneaky” (is it sound to call a 328-pound man sneaky?) on SiriusXM NFL Radio.

    Tuck On @Vikings getting Linval Joseph "I think they're getting a steal. Just on ability, a strong run stopper, sneaky pass rusher."

    — SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) March 14, 2014

    According to Pro Football Focus, Joseph was the 19th-ranked defensive tackle overall in 2013 and ranked five spots higher, at No. 14, against the run. Of the 13 defensive tackles who ranked higher against the run than Joseph, however, only two—Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions and Marcell Dareus of the Buffalo Bills—had more combined sacks and quarterback hits than Joseph.

    The Vikings are going to like Joseph’s versatility at stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, and they’re also going to like his durability. Joseph has only missed two games in the past three seasons.

Brandon Spikes, LB, Bills

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    The middle of the defense for the Buffalo Bills will look completely different than it did in 2013, with new personnel and a position change.

    Mike Rodak of ESPN.com reported that former middle linebacker Kiko Alonso will be moving to the weak-side linebacker position in 2014, while new addition Keith Rivers would play the strong side.

    Doug Whaley says Kiko Alonso will move to WLB. Rivers slated at SLB. Bills hosting more MLB candidates

    — Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) March 14, 2014

    The middle linebacker the Bills were looking for turned out to be Brandon Spikes, formerly of the New England Patriots.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Spikes was the sixth-ranked middle linebacker in the league last season and the best against the run. His top spot versus the run is something he’s used to, according to PFF’s Pete Damilatis.

    For each of the last 2 seasons, Brandon Spikes had the highest @PFF run defense grade of any inside linebacker. #Bills

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 15, 2014

    Prior to the Bills meeting the Patriots last season, Tim Graham of The Buffalo News asked offensive lineman Eric Wood to talk about Spikes.

    Spikes is a physical player. He's kind of an old-school, thumping linebacker, not one of those hybrid guys that you might see nowadays, where maybe he was a converted safety from college. He's a true linebacker. I have a lot of respect for his game.

    That dude will take a shot on anybody if he sees a clean look. I don't think he's going to make an exception and not hit EJ [Manuel] if he thinks he has a shot at him.

    Spikes may have to come off the field on third-down and passing situations, but when he’s on the field, he should bolster a Buffalo linebacker corps that already enjoyed Alonso as one of the brightest young stars of the game.

D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Colts

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    Yes, the Indianapolis Colts overpaid for middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who got a four-year, $22 million deal at the age of 30. But try to forget about the financial aspect of this deal and consider what Jackson brings to the team.

    First and foremost, Jackson is an improvement over anyone the Colts had on the roster, according to ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson, via ESPN.com's Mike Wells:

    He is better than anyone (the Colts) have now at inside linebacker for sure. I like Jackson, but also think he is a bit overrated. A good quality player that racks up numbers, but needs to be protected and doesn't excel in one particular area. He has played in both a 3-4 and 4-3, never has to come off the field and is considered a strong leader.

    An improvement, yet overrated? That sounds about right. And if the Colts can use Jackson properly, he’ll pay dividends.

    Sure, the Colts are going to benefit from Jackson’s locker-room presence and his quarterback-like mind in the middle of the defense, but where Jackson will truly make a difference is in coverage.

    While Jackson was the 42nd-overall middle linebacker in the league last year according to Pro Football Focus, he does shine in one particular aspect of the game. Jackson is a wizard in coverage and was ranked as the No. 2 middle linebacker in coverage in 2012. He was ranked 13th last year among linebackers who played at least 75 percent of their teams' snaps.

    The Colts desperately need Jackson on third down. He’ll help the defense get off the field more frequently, and his cover skills may keep the football in the opposing quarterback’s hands just a split second longer to help out Indianapolis’ pass rush.

Walter Thurmond, CB, Giants

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    Walter Thurmond, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, was one of five cornerbacks last season with at least 400 snaps on defense who did not allow a touchdown while in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Thurmond was thrown at 53 times and gave up 34 receptions with an average of 7.4 yards per reception.

    His new team, the New York Giants, hopes Thurmond’s trend of not allowing touchdowns continues throughout the 2014 season. If history is an indicator, and Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus says Thurmond has a favorable history of preventing touchdowns, Thurmond has a good shot at keeping the receivers he covers out of the end zone.

    Like Walter Thurmond to NYG. Played very well in SEA, hasn't allowed a TD in coverage since 2011. "Prove it" deal makes sense.

    — Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 16, 2014

    Jordan Raanan, who covers the Giants for NJ.com, spoke with ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick about Thurmond. Riddick liked the signing and thought Thurmond was the most underrated player heading into free agency.

    If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, it’s a tremendous value signing.

    You could tell during the year that Walter is special. He’s a dynamite press corner, who is as good with his technique as [Seattle’s] Byron Maxwell, as [Seattle’s] Richard Sherman. Walter is very good. He can play in the nickel because he’s big enough, because he can tackle, because he’s a good blitzer. And he can play on the outside. Not only can he press, he can play them all.

    Thurmond should slide into the slot corner position with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on one side and Prince Amukamara on the other. The Giants now have one of the more formidable secondaries in the league.