2014 NFL Free Agency: Best Remaining Bargains to Fill Out Your Roster
While the primary phase of the 2014 NFL free-agency period has largely subsided, teams are still in the early phases of their 2014 roster construction. Big-money signings elicit excitement and the promise of huge production, but it's the secondary phases of free agency where a team builds invaluable depth for the inevitable attrition it will suffer during the regular season.
Year after year, we witness how superior depth often trumps the pure star power of a few individuals. Organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have earned acclaim not for their big free-agent splashes, but rather for their emphasis on the middle class that allows them to remain competitive on an annual basis.
Indeed, this phase of the roster-building season may not generate as many headlines, but it is just as vital as the opening frenzy of free agency. Consider last year's Super Bowl teams, on which vital contributors like Michael Bennett, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Shaun Phillips were all bargain-bin acquisitions in the latter stages of the free-agent period last offseason.
So which remaining free agents could provide similarly underrated boosts to their respective clubs this season? Judging by a combination of ability and potential cost, here are the best bargains still available on the free-agent market.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and plus/minus grades courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
15. Vonta Leach, FB
Fullbacks may be a dying breed in today's increasingly spread-oriented NFL offenses, but Vonta Leach is one of the few that remain employable at the position.
The Ravens cut Leach loose after their running game struggled throughout all of last season amid putrid run-blocking. Leach himself did decline a bit from his lofty pre-2013 heights, falling to a minus-7.1 overall grade that was second-worst among regular fullbacks.
However, Leach is just one season removed from an eye-popping plus-19.1 overall grade that was by far the top mark among fullbacks. At 32 years old, it seems conceivable that Leach could at least recapture some of the form that made him the class of the position for years.
Few teams that regularly use a fullback are in need of one, but some team will surely take a summer flier on Leach. Possibilities could include the Chargers and Jets. Both teams utilized fullbacks rather regularly last season, but negative grades from Le'Ron McClain and Lex Hilliard, respectively, did more harm than good for their running games.
For teams that still incorporate some "ground-and-pound" power packages into their offensive schemes, Leach is worth a look in camp.
14. Rob Bironas, K
Kickers aren't exactly splashy difference-makers, especially since the recent trend of historic accuracy has reduced league-wide variance. Nevertheless, a team looking for a reliable veteran might take a look at ex-Titans kicker Rob Bironas.
The 36-year-old Bironas rebounded from a shaky 2012 season to hit 25 of 29 field goals last season. It's a small dip from his 2010-2011 peak, when he missed just five field goals over two seasons, but it's clear he still belongs in the league.
According to Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt, the Titans saved $2.88 million against the cap by cutting him this offseason, so it appears Bironas' release was tied more to economics rather than skill. At a veteran's minimum salary, Bironas would come with little financial baggage and more certainty than one would receive by drafting a rookie kicker.
Teams that could use a short-term kicker fix include the Saints, Giants and Lions. All already employ aging kickers, so whoever misses out on a potential draft solution might look at Bironas as a potential 2014 upgrade.
13. Thomas DeCoud, S
Since Thomas DeCoud signed a five-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons two years ago, his performance has gone downhill.
Last season, DeCoud played heavy snaps on a putrid Atlanta defense, and his minus-16.0 overall grade was the fourth-worst mark among all safeties. He also had no interceptions for the first time in his career, and he generally appeared ill-suited as a starting free safety.
So why would any team want to take a chance on DeCoud? For one, he's not far removed from a 2012 season that saw him pick off a career-high six passes, as quarterbacks compiled a measly 58.8 quarterback rating when targeting DeCoud in 2012. Thus far, 2013 has been the outlier in a solid if unspectacular career.
At 29 years old, DeCoud remains in his prime and could be a potential sleeper starter for a team. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported that in addition to already meeting with the Lions, DeCoud is meeting with the Panthers on Monday.
DeCoud is likely more of a rotational safety rather than an every-down starter, but that has value in a league where defenses play sub-packages on the majority of snaps.
12. Terrell Thomas, CB
While we're on the topic of rebound secondary candidates, ex-Giants corner Terrell Thomas could provide sub-package value to a team willing to take a small risk on a veteran with a solid track record.
Unlike DeCoud, Thomas does come with considerable medical red flags. He missed the entire 2011 season due to a torn ACL that he suffered in the preseason, and a setback cost him all of 2012 as well. Thomas did rebound to play all 16 games last season, though he was always listed on the injury report with the knee injury.
While Thomas was far from spectacular after his two-year absence, he was a solid slot cornerback for New York. His 2009-2010 peak might seem like ancient history after his recent injury setbacks, but he did compile 10 interceptions over those two seasons.
Thomas has already visited with the Raiders, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, and the Panthers, according to Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports. Thomas is not going to land much (if any) guaranteed money, and any contract he signs will be a short-term team-friendly deal laden with incentives.
For teams that could use a potential third or fourth corner, however, Thomas is capable of providing important depth.
11. Jermichael Finley, TE
Of all the free agents on this list, Jermichael Finley might face the most ambiguous circumstances because of the devastating neck injury he suffered last season. ESPN's Rob Demovsky noted that Finley visited the Seahawks in early March to take a physical, sparking the possibility that the ex-Packer could join the Super Bowl champs.
However, it appears Finley is not close to a return from his injury, as Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the tight end is "at least two months away" from a return, and possibly longer. Thus, Finley is not really on the immediate free-agent radar.
However, if Finley does receive medical clearance to resume his career, some team will take a chance on a tight end whose physical tools allow him to create mismatches in a similar manner as some of the league's best at the position. Finley has never reached that elite threshold, and while some of that stems from his inconsistent performance, he also never really had a defined role amid a loaded Green Bay receiving corps.
Finley is more of a traditional in-line "Y" tight end—in 2012, just 23 of his 440 routes came from the slot—and as a slightly below-average blocker, he's not exactly an all-around threat. Nevertheless, tight-end-starved teams like the Chiefs, Texans and Buccaneers might view Finley as a low-risk/high-upside gamble if he receives medical clearance.
10. Sidney Rice, WR
It does not seem long ago that many viewed Sidney Rice as a true No. 1 receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. However, injuries have derailed Rice since his breakout 2009 season, as he has played nine games or fewer in three of the past four years.
Still, when Rice played 16 games in 2012, he flashed the form that made him a hot commodity as a free agent after the 2009 season. On deep passes (20 or more yards), Rice hauled in nine of 16 targets, good for the seventh-best deep-ball catch rate among receivers that year. Indeed, even in limited playing time, Rice's yards-per-catch average has not fallen below 15.0 in any of the past five seasons.
Considering Rice will turn just 28 at the start of the 2014 season, it is little surprise that he is generating interest. Ian Rapoport reported that the Jets, Saints and Seahawks are all interested in acquiring Rice. Per USA Today's Tom Pelissero, Rice is also "on track" to receive clearance for offseason workouts, which should allow him to assimilate into a new system if he leaves Seattle.
Rice's medical history means that any contract will likely be short-term and incentive-laden. But while any team that signs Rice is likely not expecting a starter, it very well could receive an important difference-maker.
9. Steve Gregory, S
After Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward were locked up early in free agency, the safety market became barren very quickly. The signings of second-tier options like Mike Mitchell (Pittsburgh) and Antoine Bethea (San Francisco) have left teams looking to the draft for help at the position, where potential first-rounders like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor loom.
However, one proven starter still exists on the market in ex-Patriots safety Steve Gregory. Gregory played 84.3 percent of the snaps last season for a solid New England secondary, serving as an instinctive in-the-box complement to roaming free safety Devin McCourty.
The cap-strapped Pats cut Gregory loose before the start of free agency, and all has been quiet in terms of potential interest in the 31-year-old. However, while unspectacular in his approach, Gregory is a well-rounded safety who is capable of helping any rotation. His 7.8 run-stop percentage last season was 10th-best among all safeties, reflecting his ability to help in run support and cover tight ends.
Gregory will not come at a prohibitive cost either, so a team in need of safety depth like Washington, Indianapolis or Chicago could add a reliable 800-1,000 snaps to its secondary for 2014.
8. Drayton Florence, CB
After four ho-hum seasons in Buffalo and Detroit, it appeared as though veteran cornerback Drayton Florence's career had reached its end. However, Florence quietly had one of the best and most unexpected bounce-back performances last season for a thin Carolina secondary.
In 2013, Florence's plus-7.2 overall grade was 22nd-best among all cornerbacks, a mark that portrays him as a borderline No. 1 corner. That claim is too much of a stretch, but with a plus-6.1 coverage grade that was 14th-best at the position, it's clear that Florence was not only capable but was a significant asset last year.
Granted, playing behind arguably the league's best front seven makes life significantly easier for defensive backs, and it's unclear if Florence would thrive in a bigger role on a new team. Also, at 33 years old, it makes more sense that 2013 was a one-year blip and that Florence's best years are behind him.
Still, cornerback depth is invaluable, and some team should try to replicate the low-salary bargain the Panthers received last year. Florence primarily played the outside left corner position last year, so teams in need of outside depth like the 49ers, Steelers and Vikings might want to take a look.
7. Will Smith, DE
After the recent signings of Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips, the veteran pass-rushing market has largely dried up. However, there is at least one player who could potentially provide solid sub-package value at a minimal one-year cost.
Ex-Saints defensive end Will Smith has racked up 67.5 sacks over a 10-year career, but the 32-year-old missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL that he suffered in training camp. Combined with his high cap number and New Orleans' dicey salary-cap situation, Smith was one of the veteran casualties in the Saints' attempt to clean up their books this offseason.
However, Smith did have six sacks in his last full season in 2012, and he could provide a nice pass-rushing boost in a 4-3 system. Smith is quite one-dimensional at this point—546 of his 547 pass-rushing snaps came from the right side that season, and he's no longer stout against the run. Edge-rushers are an extremely valuable commodity, however, and Smith could certainly work his way into a rotation.
ESPN.com's John Clayton reported (via Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston) that Smith had visited the Patriots earlier, a team that has little pass-rushing depth behind starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Other 4-3 teams thin on pass-rushing defensive ends, like the Cowboys and Bengals, could also use Smith.
6. Jonathan Goodwin, C
Centers are not exactly the most glorified players on the field, despite their vitality to offensive communication. In Jonathan Goodwin, there is still one solid starter remaining on the market.
Goodwin has been a solid cog in the 49ers offense for the past three seasons. Though Goodwin's play slipped a bit last season, 2012 saw him put up a plus-11.9 overall grade that was 10th-best among all centers in the league. Moreover, having started all 16 games in five consecutive seasons, Goodwin provides durability along with his consistent on-field performance.
At age 35, Goodwin is not a long-term solution to any team's plans. However, Saints center Brian de la Puente signed with Chicago, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, leaving Goodwin as the clear-cut top center remaining on the market.
Teams that missed out in the de la Puente sweepstakes, such as the Saints, Giants and Washington, might all consider a one- or two-year deal for a solid consolation prize.
5. Santonio Holmes, WR
Among free-agent receivers, Santonio Holmes might have the widest gap between his ceiling and his floor. Entering this season, Holmes will be two years removed from a debilitating Lisfranc injury, but it's unclear if he can be a No. 2 receiver in this league again, much less the top option that he was in his heyday.
After compiling at least 49 receptions and 600 yards in each of his first six fully healthy seasons in the league, Holmes slipped to 23 receptions for 456 yards last season. Granted, the Jets offense was a general catastrophe and not conducive to individual standouts, but it was clear that Holmes had not recaptured his old form.
However, there are signs that Holmes could be a steal this season. Last season, Holmes' 72.7 percent catch rate on deep passes (passes traveling 20 or more yards) was tops in the league among receivers. And with 55 targets on such passes, it's not exactly a small sample size, especially considering his limited 11-game workload.
A team like the Panthers, Chargers or Giants could be in need of an outside-the-numbers vertical threat. No team has contacted the former Super Bowl MVP, but after an eye-popping 19.8 yards-per-catch average in 2013, Holmes' tank may not be on empty yet.
4. Kevin Williams, DT
Kevin Williams has been one of the most dominant anchors in the league for the past decade. However, not only is the 33-year-old Williams past his peak, but pure two-gapping nose tackles like him are no longer a particularly valuable commodity, as defenses are trying to get smaller and faster in order to combat offensive spread concepts.
Still, the running game is not insignificant, and having a capable foundation in the middle remains essential. Williams is no longer an All-Pro-quality player, but a plus-4.4 grade against the run last season proved that he is still a capable starting defensive tackle.
Williams' declining sack totals (just 5.5 over the past two seasons) also means he is effectively a two-down player at this point. Nonetheless, a durable run-stuffer and respected veteran presence is not worthless, and Williams could certainly help a team without much proven depth up the middle.
Thus far, no teams have contacted Williams about a possible visit. Though Williams has traditionally been a 4-3 defensive tackle, his skill set makes sense for the 0-technique on a 3-4 team like the Falcons or Titans.
3. Miles Austin, WR
Miles Austin was one of the victims of Dallas' cap mismanagement, receiving the ax from the cap-strapped Cowboys this offseason. However, while Austin is not the No. 1 receiver he was in 2009 and 2010, he still belongs as at least a capable third receiver—perhaps more if he can recapture some of his pre-injury form.
Indeed, nagging injuries having limited Austin at times over the last three years, with a hamstring sabotaging much of his 2013 season. Consequently, Austin has seen a steady dip in his previously explosive form—his yards-per-reception marks have declined, going from 16.3 in his breakout 2009 season to 10.2 last year.
Even when healthy, Austin played a more limited role in the Cowboys offense. He played just 542 snaps in 2013, and apart from an 11-target game in Week 1 against the Giants, Austin did not receive more than four targets in any of the other 10 games he played in last year.
While he can no longer be the focal point for an offense, Austin can provide a low-risk, outside-the-numbers target for a receiver-needy team. The Browns, Jaguars and Raiders could all conceivably kick the tires on someone who was once one of the league's most explosive targets.
2. Chris Johnson, RB
Former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson is easily the biggest name on the free-agent market, though he is no longer the game-breaker he has been in the past. Johnson demonstrated declining skills and petulance towards the end of his Titans tenure, which are traits that would typically drive teams away.
Still, in an enormously depressed running back market, Johnson at least figures to provide decent value to his new team. Johnson should surpass the $3.5 million annual value set by Ben Tate, Toby Gerhart and Donald Brown, but not by much.
ESPN's Adam Schefter notes that the Jets, Dolphins, Bills and Falcons all had interest in trading for Johnson, but they ultimately declined to pull the trigger. If Johnson were to take a one-year deal in order to try to re-establish his value under different market parameters in 2015, he could be a bargain for any team in need of someone to take an extra 15 carries per game.
Make no mistake, Johnson is in decline. Last year, he ranked third-worst in PFF's Elusive Rating metric, and he ranked 23rd in breakaway percentage (percent of runs that went for at least 15 yards). But while he may not be fit for workhorse duties, someone will take a chance on Johnson's speed and track record.
1. Anthony Spencer, DE/OLB
A common refrain among the players on this list is a significant question mark, as a surefire starter would have been snatched up by now. However, while microfracture surgery is no joke, Anthony Spencer may be the likeliest to make a positive impact on a new team in 2014.
Spencer missed nearly the entire 2013 season with a left knee injury. Still, with 11.0 sacks in 2012, the 30-year-old Spencer was excellent in his most recent healthy season. That year, his 40 total pressures made him the fourth-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of pass-rushing productivity.
ESPN.com's Todd Archer opined that Spencer would return to Dallas, though the veteran linebacker has already visited the Giants this offseason, per Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. Given his past success in the 3-4 scheme, a team like the Jets, Eagles or Texans could make sense.
Spencer is not a can't-miss signing, and like the other free agents on this list, he could prove irrelevant in the upcoming season. But even though strengthening the middle class of a roster is not particularly sexy, the unheralded free-agent activity in April and beyond lays the foundation for a complete roster and successful showing in the fall.