Under-the-Radar Free-Agent Signings Who Will Have a Major Impact in 2014
Lost in the promise and pomp of the NFL's offseason big-money moves is a nary-discussed reality: Free agents are there because some team decided they were not worth the cost. That is all too easily forgotten.
We just always get sucked in by hype and what might be. We lose track of the fact that for every signing, there are 31 other teams that ostensibly decided, "No thanks."
But one team's trash can be another team's treasure. We pick through the less-heralded offseason additions to find the under-the-radar guys who can have a major impact with their new teams next season.
You won't find any of the well-publicized moves here. Heck, they are more likely to be overrated anyway. Instead, we pick out some overlooked offensive linemen, injury-plagued vets and has-beens, and perceived never-will-bes in this eight-part slideshow.
DE Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers
Julius Peppers might be a household name, but he is no longer the same player he was. No 34-year-old is. That doesn't mean he won't make a significant difference in the NFC North next year, switching from the Chicago Bears to the Green Bay Packers.
Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo expressed exactly that to the "Kap and Haugh" show on WGWG-87.7 FM in Chicago, per the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer:
They certainly didn't pay what we paid when we signed him (in 2010). But I will say I think it was a very good signing by Green Bay. They've never really had a secondary rusher to go along with Clay Matthews. Peppers will give them that now. He can still play. We know that, even though his production tailed off last year. He's still a good football player.
When you team him up now with a Clay Matthews, you're probably going to see the best of what Peppers is because teams won't just be focusing on him, and they've got to deal with Matthews first.
Unlike the names following Peppers in this slideshow, he wasn't even a free agent going into the offseason. The Bears just wanted him to go away as part of the problem on the worst run defense in football. Instead, they released Peppers for nothing to sign the less-heralded Lamarr Houston, 26, in an effort to turn their defense around.
One team's trash will truly be another team's treasure here.
Peppers is an ideal secondary option in Green Bay, a team that can challenge the Seattle Seahawks for NFC supremacy with a healthy year for Aaron Rodgers. If the Packers win the Super Bowl, it figures to be because of Rodgers, Matthews or the play of the potential first-round safety they might draft. Few will credit Peppers, but he is a piece to the puzzle that can make it all fit together nicely.
G/T Geoff Schwartz, New York Giants
The New York Giants blamed most of their breakdowns last season on an aged, broken-down and ineffective offensive line. The addition of a versatile road-grader in Geoff Schwartz from the Kansas City Chiefs will have a ripple effect here.
Credit the Giants and GM Jerry Reese for a slew of free-agent additions this winter, but no one will be more important than Schwartz. He can play guard or tackle and gives the Giants the flexibility to draft a right tackle or an interior lineman, if they so choose.
Schwartz, 27, might be playing with his fourth team in four years, but he has found a place that needs him like no other.
Giants.com writers John Schmeelk and Dan Salomone agree.
It was one of the Giants first moves, and I think their best. If there was one weakness the Giants had last year that really short-circuited their season, it was offensive line. He was one of the best guards on the market, filled a major need and came at a good price. This was a move the Giants had to make and, therefore, the best free-agent move.
Salomone says: "I was sold at 6'6", 340. The Giants needed talent on the line. They needed size. They needed a veteran with his best days still ahead of him. Finally, they needed someone they could plug in day one. That's Geoff Schwartz."
While the additions of shutdown corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, inside linebacker Jon Beason and potential feature back Rashad Jennings will get all the headlines, Schwartz is the single-most impactful move of the Giants' offseason. Schwartz went to Kansas City under the radar a year ago and helped it go from embarrassed to exhilarating. He will do the same again in New York.
For more on Schwartz's most recent free-agent experience, read his first-hand account of how it all transpired, exclusive to Bleacher Report.
WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
From a new Giant to a former one: Hakeem Nicks' lasting impression in New York will be one of unfortunate injury after injury. A player who was unable to score a touchdown last season will now have Luck on his side.
Andrew Luck that is.
Nicks, 26, took a chance on signing with a one-year, $3.975 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts as opposed to a longer-term deal elsewhere, banking on the fact the emerging talent of Luck will help Nicks return to the level of being a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown receiver again. That is something he hasn't been in four seasons.
Nicks told The Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder:
I was (looking for a multiyear contract), but I didn't really like none of those situations. I didn't want to get myself in a long-term situation that I didn't like. This was the best situation for me. A great organization, a chance to come in and show them what I can do (and) what I can bring to the table.
Injuries and three years of declining impact are the reason Nicks could only muster a smallish contract this winter. He gives Luck a legit go-to threat all over the field, though. Luck might challenge for 5,000 yards passing en route the postseason. He will only accomplish those lofty goals working rather closely with Nicks.
Last year was last year. I don't really want to get into that. I've got a new start now. ...
I don't think there's nothing for me to prove. I just want to go out there and play football and win championships. My play speaks for itself. I'm always a believer in working in silence and letting the game speak loud. So, that's what I do. (People) will see me and then they'll all stop making speculation.
CB Brandon Browner, New England Patriots
When Brandon Browner's new team has added the likes of Darrelle Revis at the same position he plays and has Tom Brady working on his end game of a Hall of Fame career, it will be very easy to overlook the impact the cornerback will have on the New England Patriots.
Heck, Browner wasn't even needed for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks down the stretch, and he won't be available to his new team for the first four games of 2014, due to violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
During a conference call with the media, Browner said he will be playing to win and be a part of a champion next season.
It was tough to watch my guys out there go get it. But at the same time, I also enjoyed it as well. It seemed like they had a good beat on Peyton Manning and those guys. They played a little faster than the Broncos did, so it was exciting to see those guys playing like we play ball. It almost looked like a glorified practice, so to say. ...
The (Patriots) organization, first class. I watched them win multiple Super Bowls. They always have the chance to compete to get to the big one. Leaving an organization like Seattle, growing up and up and coming, it was only right for me to come over to New England and have a shot at playing in the big one. My goal is to win the big one. That's why that was part of my decision to come to New England.
Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan or Kyle Arrington will start opposite Revis to open the season, but when the games get serious down the stretch, expect Browner to be manning the other side in an aggressive press-man defensive scheme. No matter how well Browner fits in and plays, he will always play second fiddle to Revis on a defense that plays second fiddle to Brady in Foxborough, Mass.
LT Anthony Collins/C Evan Dietrich-Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were surprisingly huge players in free agency this winter, releasing Darrelle Revis and adding defensive end Michael Johnson and young cornerback Alterraun Verner in big headlining moves.
Everyone will be marveling at their turnaround, especially defensively, with head coach Lovie Smith, a guru on that side of the ball. Heck, they even added a projected starting quarterback in Josh McCown from the Chicago Bears.
No one will notice what left tackle Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith do for the offensive line and potentially MVP-level running back Doug Martin. Collins, from the Cincinnati Bengals, and Dietrich-Smith, from the Green Bay Packers, are both from successful franchises used to winning. They never received credit for it.
Martin is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, too, to further cloud the possible impact of two-fifths of a starting offensive line. With all those Bucs additions expected to get this franchise back to respectability, there is little chance anyone will be giving these line additions the credit for the turnaround.
Collins, specifically, was mostly a bit player for the Bengals, but he is capable of filling the all-important role of left tackle now, protecting McCown's blind side.
"I'm very ready," Collins told the Associated Press' Fred Goodall. "Patience is a virtue. Now is my time."
The inclination will be to applaud the running back, quarterback, head coach, pass-rusher, world champion defensive tackle (Clinton McDonald from the Seattle Seahawks), shutdown cornerback or No. 7 overall pick in this May's draft.
WR Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Eric Decker was a big-time performer for Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons and earning a big-time contract with the New York Jets. Decker has had as many touchdowns in either of the past two seasons (13 or 11) as new Bronco wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has had in his four-year career in Pittsburgh.
Welcome to the wide receiver buffet also known as Manning's offense, Mr. Sanders.
In a press conference, Sanders said:
This is the team that I wanted to go to during free agency. Somehow, some way, it ended up happening. ...
To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven. I know that he's going to make me a better player, whether it's mentally or physically. I know I'm in a great environment.
Per The Denver Post's Mike Klis, John Elway was effusive with his praise, too, saying: "He can play anywhere. He can play inside, he can be outside. He's explosive. Great separation skills. He can do it all."
So, if the deal with Sanders was such a home run, how can it be "under the radar," right? Well, Sanders will be the fourth receiving option behind Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas. He will also merely be a "product of the system" as most of Manning's targets have been for years.
Then, you won't forget the Broncos' big offseason acquisitions were on defense in shutdown corner Aqib Talib, pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and run-stuffing strong safety T.J. Ward. Sanders is a fourth factor in many ways.
That doesn't mean he wasn't a perfect fit.
Decker was a bit of a duplicative receiver, being a bit like Demaryius Thomas or Welker in his production or role. Sanders is more clearly a field stretcher the Broncos need. They conceivably have the whole field covered now for Manning, even more so than a year ago. That is a scary thought for the AFC West and defenses of their 16-plus opponents next season.
LB Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills
Brandon Spikes, coming off a mercurial tenure with the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick, might not have been wanted in his last home, but he fits in nicely with the Buffalo Bills.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle's Sal Maiorana reported Spikes was taking a parting shot at the Pats and Belichick, tweeting:
"I just want to close that chapter," Spikes said in a conference call, per Maiorana. "I'm on to Buffalo. I'm just excited about the future. I just want to put that all behind. It feels great to have a new beginning."
Spikes told reporters after his signing: "I just want to kind of close that chapter. I just want to put that all behind me. It's great just to have a new beginning. I'm excited. The past is the past. I'm happy now and I'm ready to get to work and I'm just ready to help."
Maiorana wrote Spikes was "basically benched" in the postseason by being placed on the injured reserve list for a sore knee Spikes played all year with. Belichick and the Pats considered Spikes to be addition by subtraction, apparently.
Whatever it means, it is what it is. My whole life I've had something to prove, so it just helps put some fuel on the fire. It keeps that burning sensation I have inside of me for the game and, like I said, whatever, if they say I have something to prove, I just have to go out there and do it. It's going to be interesting and it's going to be a great season.
Spikes might be merely a situational player, manning the middle linebacker spot on run downs, but his biggest contribution will be allowing Pro Football Writers Association's Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso, for whom this writer voted, to move to the weak-side linebacker spot, as the aforementioned AP link reported.
Spikes wasn't a first choice for the Pats and will be an early-downs guy for the Bills, but he is a first-rate addition this offseason.
QB Brandon Weeden, Dallas Cowboys
We have to admit this last one is a long shot. Brandon Weeden doesn't look like he would be good for anybody.
After all, he was a bad quarterback for a sad-sacked franchise in Cleveland, despite having an all-world breakout WR in Josh Gordon and the emerging Jordan Cameron to work with. But, bear with us here.
Weeden is a cheap insurance policy for Tony Romo, who is coming off back surgery, which doesn't tend to be a sure-fire procedure for anyone. Even if Romo is healthy, another shaky year for the Cowboys would put Romo on a hot seat that owner/GM Jerry Jones just never seems to put himself on.
Heck, Romo is an even bigger pariah in Big D than the big man himself, and that says something. We could see Weeden starting games for the Cowboys in 2014, regardless.
That might sound ominous for the Cowboys, but could it be any worse than what Romo has put together in his time there? Romo hasn't won a thing, despite loads of premium talent around him on "America's Team."
Weeden talked to 105.3 The Fan KRLD-FM (h/t Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota):
I had some good times in Cleveland and I had some times where I just wasn't very good. Even though I am 30 years old, I still feel like I got a lot of football ahead of me. I'm excited about the opportunity of a fresh start. ...
I'm one of the most competitive guys you'll meet. I don't like not playing well. I don't like losing. I hate it. I've never really been in a situation in any sport where I lost games and had the struggles that I had the last two years, so absolutely I have a chip on my shoulder.
I feel like I have something to prove. That's kind of the way that I go about it, starting now, even in the offseason, leading up to camp. I need to come out and kind of revive myself and get back to slinging the football around and playing with that confidence that I did back in college.
Count this one as a long shot but also one of those "you heard it here first" scenarios: Weeden will have an impact on the Cowboys next season. This was a low-risk, potentially high-reward addition. He is about as under the radar as you can dig up among this offseason's signings.
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.