Finding Ideal Homes for the 10 Best Still Unsigned NFL Free Agents
At this stage of the NFL offseason, the core of a team is largely set. The roster-construction phase of the offseason is essentially over, and coaches are now installing playbooks for their personnel. Instead of acquiring, teams are now focused on teaching.
However, that does not mean that teams cannot still tweak their rosters. Now that June 1 has passed, veteran free agents will no longer count against the compensatory pick formula. Teams often delay on the secondary waves of free agency to hone in on the draft and see where their needs remain afterward.
There are several potentially important contributors still unsigned, whether because of injury or age.
Recent history has provided ample evidence of important free-agent signings in the summer. Last year, the Ravens found a viable Ray Lewis replacement in Daryl Smith on June 5, and the Cardinals received 11.5 sacks from John Abraham, who signed on July 26.
In 2012, the Bengals signed Wallace Gilberry on June 5; he has since produced 14 sacks in two seasons and will likely start this season in place of departed free agent Michael Johnson.
Though the transaction wire is quiet at the moment, multiple contending teams will likely snatch up an important player at some point within the next month or two.
Though not all these players will end up making a huge impact, they represent the best available talent due to their track record and future upside. Therefore, considering the minimum-value contracts they are likely to receive, they could provide some of the best values of the offseason.
Taking a look at the best remaining free agents by this critirea, let's determine where they would fit best in 2014.
10. Ronnie Brown, RB: Houston Texans
It's no secret that running backs have become devalued. In the early waves of free agency, starters such as Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate had difficulty finding commensurate contracts, eventually settling for below-average deals. Even Chris Johnson couldn't raise the bar much higher, though his recent performance did not dictat a big contract.
Thus, 32-year-old Ronnie Brown might not seem like a particularly interesting target. His age is an obvious factor that works against him, and Brown has not received more than 50 carries since 2010, the end of the halcyon days of the Wildcat offense in Miami.
Still, on a veteran minimum type of deal, Brown could prove a bargain. Brown's role in San Diego diminished last season following the free-agent signing of Danny Woodhead, but in 2012, he compiled 49 receptions for 371 yards as the Chargers' third-down back. Though he is not the early-down workhorse he once was, Brown could still provide value on obvious passing downs.
The Houston Texans could use more depth behind Arian Foster, who missed eight games last year with a back injury. Free-agent signing Andre Brown fell out favor with the Giants due to chronic fumbilitis and a litany of injuries, while Dennis Johnson and sixth-round rookie Alfred Blue are unproven commodities.
Brown is not necessarily a threat to take snaps away from a healthy Foster, but if injuries strike again, he could provide a reliable insurance plan. Ryan Fitzpatrick provided plenty of opportunities throwing to backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in Buffalo, so Brown could similarly thrive as a receiver if given the opportunity.
9. Pat Angerer, ILB: Dallas Cowboys
Following Sean Lee's devastating torn ACL, the Dallas Cowboys' need at middle linebacker has been much lamented and well documented. Though names like Brian Urlacher and Jonathan Vilma are making waves, it's another veteran middle linebacker who could be a better fit.
Ex-Colt Pat Angerer was once considered a rising star, having compiled 226 tackles in his first two seasons. However, various maladies have caused the Iowa product to miss 10 games over the past two years. Moreover, Chuck Pagano's hiring has caused the Colts to transition to a 3-4, where Angerer has appeared out of his element.
Nonetheless, a 4-3 team could still use his services as a rangy sideline-to-sideline tackler. Angerer can also be an asset in coverage, though at 6'0", he possesses less-than-ideal size to cover tight ends. Nevertheless, at 27 years old, Angerer figures to have more left in the tank than either Urlacher or Vilma.
Currently, the Cowboys are stuck choosing between DeVonte Holloman, fourth-round rookie Anthony Hitchens or the possibility of moving someone like Bruce Carter to the Mike position. None of those sound particularly enticing, barring a surprising leap from Holloman or Hitchens. The Cowboys cannot replace Lee's skill set or production, but they can limit the drop-off.
Angerer's recent injury history could be cause for concern, but there is scant evidence to suggest that Urlacher or Vilma would be more likely to stay healthy for 16 games. Angerer provides the highest ceiling of the current middle linebacker crop, providing a lottery ticket Dallas should seize.
8. Uche Nwaneri, G: San Diego Chargers
Though Jacksonville was largely a wasteland last season, right guard Uche Nwaneri emerged as a possible diamond in the rough. Nwaneri compiled a plus-6.4 pass-blocking grade that ranked 12th among all guards last year, and has been an adequate run-blocker over his seven-year career.
The San Diego Chargers never really replaced Louis Vasquez last season, and could still use a more suitable right guard. Longtime right tackle Jeromey Clary had a rough transition inside last season, with a minus-18.9 overall grade that made him the 10th-lowest rated guard in the league. Clary underwent hip and shoulder surgeries this offseason, according to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, which could leave his preseason availability in doubt.
Regardless, per Spotrac.com, Clary currently has a $6.25 million cap hit in the final year of his deal. The Chargers could save roughly $4.55 million by shedding Clary's contract, money they could allocate towards upgrading the interior protection for Philip Rivers.
Nwaneri is not a name who would generate much buzz, but he could prove vital against interior pass-rushers from the AFC West like Dontari Poe, Antonio Smith and Terrance Knighton. Unless third-rounder Chris Watt proves ready to start immediately, it might behoove the Chargers to upgrade with the 30-year-old Nwaneri.
7. Terrell Thomas, CB: Detroit Lions
The cornerback market currently provides plenty of name-brand players who are well past their prime. Though the likes of Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Drayton Florence might elicit more intrigue based on their past, an ex-Giants corner actually represents the best player remaining.
Terrell Thomas missed all of the 2011 and 2012 seasons after tearing his ACL and then suffering a setback, but he rebounded to play all 16 games last season. As New York's nickelback, Thomas put up a respectable performance, closing the season particularly strong after some rough midseason showings.
Thomas' primary value lies in the slot. He played 315 of his 398 total pass-coverage snaps in the slot, conceding a 91.0 quarterback rating while allowing 45 receptions on 69 targets. Though targeted more frequently on a per-snap basis than any other slot corner, Thomas ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of how many yards he allowed per play.
The Lions have already hosted Thomas, per Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. Bill Bentley performed fairly well as the slot corner last year, but he's missed 15 games over his two-year career due to shoulder and knee injuries. None of the other current Detroit corners played more than a modicum of snaps in the slot last season, though fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson has the versatility to play the position.
Nevertheless, Detroit's secondary remains in a dicey state. The Lions could sorely use some more depth to enhance their camp competition, and Thomas is certainly capable of winning a starting sub-package role.
6. Eric Winston, T: Baltimore Ravens
Eric Winston may have been elected president of the NFL Players Assocation, but he only gets to keep that title if he continues to play. The currently unemployed 30-year-old could find work soon, however, as there are several teams who might be interested in signing a plug-and-play right tackle.
The Baltimore Ravens are one such team, as general manager Ozzie Newsome concentrated the majority of his draft resources on bolstering the defense. Some observers, such as Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, have already speculated about Winston's fit in Charm City, as he played six seasons in Houston under new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Winston had a rough 2013 as part of an abysmal Arizona line, compiling a 92.6 pass-blocking efficiency rate that ranked ninth-worst among offensive tackles. However, Winston was terrific in Kansas City the year before, as his plus-13.1 overall grade made him one of the league's better all-around offensive linemen.
The latter performance is much more illustrative of Winston's track record, so it's reasonable to believe that a return to Kubiak's system could help him bounce back from a poor 2013. Currently, 2013 fifth-rounder Rick Wagner is slated to start at right tackle following Michael Oher's free-agent defection. Wagner played just 131 snaps his rookie year, most of them during underwhelming stints at right guard.
That the Ravens did not add any competition suggests confidence in Wagner, but they have left themselves vulnerable in the event that the second-year Wisconsin product is not ready. Winston would not only represent a considerable upgrade over the likes of reserves Ryan Jensen and David Mims but also a potential short-term solution.
5. James Anderson, OLB: Minnesota Vikings
Coverage linebackers are an increasingly valuable commodity in a league where tight ends and running backs have become dangerous mismatches in the passing game. Though he is fairly one dimensional, ex-Bear James Anderson's coverage skills could make him a valuable sub-package presence for a 4-3 defense.
The 30-year-old Anderson graded out at plus-8.5 in pass coverage last season, which ranked sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers. Indeed, Anderson conceded just 367 yards in 437 pass-coverage snaps, a 0.84 yards per cover snap mark that ranked behind only Vontaze Burfict and Geno Hayes at the position.
Anderson could take his talents north to Minnesota, where the Vikings' linebacker corps is among the thinnest in the league. Veteran Chad Greenway has become a liability, as he was the lowest-graded outside linebacker last season. Ninth overall pick Anthony Barr is a raw prospect who needs more polish before playing heavy snaps. Jasper Brinkley could start inside, while prospects Michael Mauti and Audie Cole figure to compete for snaps, though neither has seen significant regular-season exposure.
At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Anderson looks more like a Kam Chancellor-type oversized safety rather than a linebacker. Consequently, he possesses the enticing combination of fluid movement skills and size that allows him to run with tight ends up the seam and on the perimeter.
The NFC North is not home to many imposing tight ends, but the Vikings' non-division schedule has them facing the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen. Anderson is the defender who could contain such weapons and boost Minnesota's chances of winning those games.
4. Santonio Holmes, WR: Seattle Seahawks
Since a debilitating Lisfranc injury in 2012, Santonio Holmes has taken a precipitous dip from his Super Bowl MVP heyday. Playing in a dysfunctional Jets offense, Holmes rarely had the opportunity to shine, and questions about the 30-year-old's viability have left him unsigned to date.
But while the buzz surrounding Holmes has been nonexistent, there are reasons to think he could still be a contributor and an occasional weapon in someone's passing attack. For one, Holmes caught eight of his 11 deep targets in 2013 (passes that traveled 20 or more yards), a 72.7 catch rate that was the best in the league among wide receivers. Indeed, Holmes' 19.8 yards-per-catch average was second best among receivers who had at least as many receptions as he did (23), per Pro-Football-Reference.
The Seattle Seahawks may not have many holes, but they could use an outside-the-numbers receiver to complement their current corps. After losing Golden Tate in free agency, Seattle employs a bunch of slot receiver types in Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin and second-round rookie Paul Richardson.
That collective skill set doesn't really complement the improvisational skills of Russell Wilson, which have led to plenty of big passing plays downfield the past two seasons. Last year, no quarterback had a higher accuracy on deep passes than Wilson, and only Nick Foles and Jay Cutler attempted a higher percentage of deep passes.
In short, Holmes and the Seahawks appear well suited to accentuate each other's strengths. Holmes thrived for a brief period under Rex Ryan's player-friendly mentality, and a similar environment under Pete Carroll should keep the occasionally difficult receiver happy on a one-year deal.
3. Will Hill, S: Chicago Bears
Safety Will Hill might simply lack the dedication required for the all-encompassing NFL lifestyle. The Giants released Hill despite a breakout 2013 season, as the league suspended the safety six games for his third violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Based on his recent comments, Hill sounds as though he has continued to make excuses for his repeated mistakes.
Hopefully the light will come on at some point for Hill, who is a tremendously talented player. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Hill as their second-best safety of 2013, thanks largely to superb coverage abilities that helped him hold opposing quarterbacks to a 62.0 quarterback rating. Though Hill did concede 19 receptions on 31 targets, those catches went for just 9.8 yards on average, an extremely impressive number for a free safety.
Hill's skill set would play well in Chicago, where the Bears' offseason defensive renovations could have them contending for the NFC North crown. However, Chicago signed only a pair of reserve-caliber safeties in M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy, and 2013 starter Chris Conte is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Fourth-rounder Brock Vereen could contribute, but the Bears do not have any bona fide starters they can lean on to command the secondary.
Hill is the type of player who could boost the Bears in the second half of the season. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Chicago conceded 59 pass plays of 20 or more yards, the seventh-worst mark in the league. Conversely, Hill's Giants gave up 41 such plays, the fifth-lowest mark.
At 24 years old, Hill is the rare athlete who has hit the market while still ascending as a player. His off-field issues may derail an otherwise promising career, but on a non-guaranteed contract, the Bears could very well unearth the player who helps end their three-year playoff drought.
2. Kevin Williams, DT: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Though Kevin Williams is clearly on the back nine of his career, the 33-year-old still has enough gas left to be a useful early-down presence in a 4-3 defense. Williams remained a solid all-around defensive tackle last year in Minnesota, where he played a reasonable 66 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already employ a dominant 3-technique player in Gerald McCoy, but they could still use a run-stuffing presence to complement their precocious All-Pro. Though Williams played the 3-technique position for most of his career, the Vikings moved the veteran to nose tackle in 2013.
In truth, Williams has not really been fit to play the penetrating one-gapping style of the 3-tech for a few years now. The veteran has not compiled more than five sacks in a season since 2009, and he ranked 24th out of 33 qualified defensive tackles in pass-rushing productivity last year.
Nevertheless, he would provide an upgrade over current linemen, Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald, in the defending against the run. Both Spence and McDonald were graded among the 12 worst defensive tackles last season in terms of run defense, though the latter could boost the pass-rush in certain sub-packages.
The Bucs' run defense was not necessarily a poor one last season, as its 4.0 opponent yards per carry average ranked tied for 14th in the league. Still, considering both his skill set and locker room leadership, Williams would be an excellent addition to a young Tampa team with elevated expectations after its offseason makeover.
1. Jermichael Finley, TE: New York Giants
Once considered one of the NFL's most promising young tight ends, Jermichael Finley's scary neck injury has put in career in doubt. However, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that Finley was cleared by the doctor who performed his spinal surgery. If the Green Bay doctors follow suit, that could finally generate some definitive interest from teams.
Though a return to Green Bay remains a possibility, the New York Giants look like a team more in need of Finley's services. After letting Brandon Myers loose and failing to address the position during the draft, the Giants are currently left with a combination of 2012 fourth-rounder Adrien Robinson, Larry Donnell and veterans Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells.
Last season, that quartet combined for a grand total of six catches. Though New York drafted Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round and harbors high hopes for receiver Reuben Randle, the supporting cast around Eli Manning looks underwhelming at the moment.
Finley is no sure bet (a theme with all the names on this list), but his recent on-field production is promising. Before his injury, Finley was on pace to set career-highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns, emerging as one of the primary centerpieces of the Packers offense.
The advanced stats back up his improvement as well. Finley garnered an impressive 1.96 yards per-pass-route average, his highest mark since 2010. For reference, had he played enough snaps to qualify, that would have ranked him third among tight ends, behind only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
If Finley can proceed with no lingering medical concerns, he would represent a steal at this stage of free agency. Based on his ceiling, Finley could emerge as the biggest bargain of the post-June 1 free-agency period.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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