Ranking NFL's Best Remaining Free Agents Ahead of Training Camp
Being a free agent in July is a situation that no NFL player—at least one who intends to continue his career in the league—wants to be in.
As training camps are set to begin later this month, veteran players who remain unsigned are running out of time. While they sit in the uncomfortable position of hoping and waiting for another opportunity, most NFL rosters are already at or very close to their 90-man preseason limits.
Any player who had any real demand from the league has joined an NFL roster by now. No team is going to fix any major hole on its roster by signing one of the lingering veterans still on the market. That said, there are still players available who have the ability to be solid contributors to a team if given the opportunity.
It’s quite possible that any of the following players could have played their final snaps in professional football. But it’s also a possibility that each of them could still end up being signed by teams during training camps and subsequently end up establishing themselves as quality role players for their new franchises.
Let's take a look at who those players are.
Jermichael Finley, TE
A big, athletic pass-catcher who amassed 2,785 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in six seasons with the Green Bay Packers, tight end Jermichael Finley is the most talented free agent left on the market, but it’s unknown whether he will ever get another shot to play in the NFL. He suffered a neck injury in November that required spinal fusion surgery.
Travelle Wharton, G
Travelle Wharton returned to the Carolina Panthers last season and had a very solid year at left guard for the only team he’s ever actually played a regular-season game for in the NFL.
With 111 career starts under his belt, Wharton is still good enough to be a first-team guard in the league, but he had been giving “every indication he’s done playing” as of May, according to Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer.
Jonathan Vilma, LB
It was already clear before last season that Jonathan Vilma’s best years were behind him, then he played just 12 snaps for the New Orleans Saints in 2013 due to knee injuries. At his best, he’s a ferocious linebacker who can play both inside and outside, but it’s uncertain whether he has enough left in the tank to make more than a minimal impact on an NFL defense in 2014.
Erin Henderson, LB
A good athlete and strong tackler who can play both inside and outside linebacker, Erin Henderson is one of the most talented veterans still on the market, but he brings significant off-field baggage with him. He was arrested in November for probable-cause DWI and possession of a controlled substance, then again in January for DWI and marijuana possession.
10. Dustin Keller, TE
Like Finley, Dustin Keller is an athletic pass-catcher who could add a skilled receiving threat at tight end to an NFL offense, but injury concerns might be to blame for his being unsigned thus far this offseason.
Keller is more accurately described as a reliable target than as an offensive X-factor, but when healthy, he was an asset to the New York Jets offense. He caught 241 passes for 2,876 yards and 17 touchdowns in five years with the team.
The problem with Keller is that he might never return to his old form, or at least not in time for the start of the 2014 season. In a preseason game last year after signing with the Miami Dolphins, Keller took a direct shot to his knee that resulted in three torn ligaments and a dislocation.
If Keller becomes healthy, he should get a shot to play. The New England Patriots, who could certainly benefit from adding a receiving playmaker at the tight end position, have reportedly stayed in touch with the former divisional rival this offseason, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.
9. Drayton Florence, CB
When NFL teams have had to turn to Drayton Florence to be a starter in their secondary, that’s typically been an indication that they weren’t very strong at the cornerback position. Nonetheless, Florence, 33, has managed to be a steady second or third option for the five teams for which he has started a total of 104 games over the past 11 years.
In 2013, he had five starts for the Carolina Panthers, appeared in 14 total contests and ended up finishing the year ranked 19th among all NFL cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He’s never been much of a big-play threat and his effectiveness in run support is limited, but he has typically been steady in both outside and inside coverage.
At this point in his career, no one should be looking at Florence with the expectation that he will be in their first-team defensive lineup. That said, he could be a solid addition on a one-year contract for any secondary that could use some experience in a third or fourth cornerback.
Florence recently participated in the Baltimore Ravens’ minicamp on a tryout basis but “didn’t have a good day,” according to ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley.
That could take some steam away from his push to make a roster in 2014—he was not offered a contract by Baltimore, as he was passed up in favor of fellow veterans Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks—but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another team give him a shot during training camp.
8. Santonio Holmes, WR
After missing the final 12 games of the New York Jets’ 2012 season with a Lisfranc foot fracture, Santonio Holmes didn’t look like the same player this past season. Following a slow recovery that had some within the Jets organization wondering if he was “milking the injury,” according to ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini, he returned to catch just 23 passes for 456 yards in 11 games.
With concerns about his health, attitude and how far past his prime he might be, Holmes was no longer a hot commodity this offseason after being released by the Jets. Still, there’s reason to believe that a receiver-needy team should place a call to Holmes, who has compiled 5,963 yards and 83 touchdowns in his NFL career.
The biggest question with Holmes is whether he still has enough speed to separate from NFL defensive backs. He can continue to be effective if he utilizes his quickness and route-running ability, but it was clear last season that his ability to accelerate is not what it once was.
At best, Holmes should project as a third or fourth receiver at this point in his career, but the 30-year-old could still be productive in the right situation if he is healthy. According to Brian Costello of the New York Post, “the feeling around the league is Holmes will be signed by one of the first teams to lose a wide receiver to injury.”
7. Eric Winston, OT
It came as a shock in March 2012 when the Houston Texans released Eric Winston. Regarded at the time as one of the NFL’s best right tackles, many felt as though the Texans had made a mistake by cutting loose their six-year starter at the position.
Two average-at-best seasons later, it wouldn’t be overly surprising if Winston doesn’t play in the NFL this year. His performances with the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals weren’t enough for him to last longer than one year with either team, so it’s pretty clear that NFL franchises do not view Winston as a premier talent.
With that being said, the NFL Players Association’s new president is only 30 years old and has been a 16-game starter for each of the past seven seasons.
Winston’s days of playing on a long-term contract are well behind him, but he’d be a solid one-year pickup for any team which determines in training camp that it has a problem at right tackle. Winston signing for the 2014 season could be a matter of waiting for a team to lose its starting right tackle, or for a team to simply be underwhelmed by its competition at the position in training camp.
6. Asante Samuel, CB
With 51 interceptions in his 11-year career, Asante Samuel has been one of the top playmakers among NFL defensive backs of the past decade. Possessing very good ball skills and great short-area quickness, Samuel has long had a knack for jumping routes and getting his hands on passes.
The 33-year-old cornerback isn’t what he once was. Samuel’s declining speed was evident in 2013, and after battling a thigh injury in a year in which he gave up far more big plays than he made, he was benched late in the season in favor of Robert McClain.
Considering that, it came as no surprise that the Falcons released him in February, and it’s not exactly a shock that Samuel hasn’t landed with a new team, either. A small cornerback (5'10", 185 lbs) who has lost his athletic advantages, Samuel can’t match up with outside receivers as he well as he could in his prime.
Even so, he could be a solid training camp addition for cornerback depth thanks to his instincts and ball skills. The 2013 season was probably his last as a starter on the outside, but he still might be able to be a short-term upgrade for an NFL defense as a third or fourth cornerback.
5. Ryan Pickett, DT
Ryan Pickett has played in the NFL for 13 seasons, and he has started at least nine games in every one of them except his rookie year. A 16-game starter in each of the last two years of his eight-year run with the Green Bay Packers, Pickett has been a strong, reliable interior defensive lineman for a long time.
Pickett has never been a sack artist—he has only 9.5 for his career—but he’s a big gap-plugger who holds his ground well at the point of attack. His production dipped last season, as he played almost exclusively at nose tackle, but he also has experience playing as a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle.
With years of reliable play under his belt, the 34-year-old could seemingly still be a short-term asset to an NFL defensive line as rotational depth. His career as a starter might be over, but the 6’2”, 340-pound presence would make a strong backup nose tackle.
Pickett, for what it’s worth, fully expects to play for an NFL team this season. He told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he “can still play ball” and likes “to prove people wrong.”
4. Brett Keisel, DE
Phasing out their aging defensive talent has been a gradual process for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they have left defensive end Brett Keisel unsigned after 12 seasons with the team.
He’s as well-known for his famous beard as anything he has done on the field, but Keisel has proved to be a very good fit as a 5-technique defensive end in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense over the years. Keisel isn’t as strong or powerful as many interior defensive linemen, but he’s disruptive with his hands and has good gap discipline.
A starter in Pittsburgh for the past eight seasons, Keisel’s play was clearly in decline in 2013, and he is set to turn 36 in September. Despite that, he showed he still had enough skill and athleticism this past season that he should still be a good addition for a 3-4 defense as a rotational end.
His days on the Steelers' first-team defense are likely done, but he could be back for one more year with the team. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in June that the team was still interested in signing Keisel if he would be willing to play for the veteran minimum.
Whether that materializes or not, Keisel deserves another shot to play, as long as he is understanding of his diminishing value and willing to play in a rotational capacity on a one-year, low-risk deal.
3. Steve Gregory, SS
There isn’t much that stands out about Steve Gregory’s game. He has underwhelming physical traits at 5'11" and 200 pounds, and he isn’t known for making plays on the ball or being a pulverizing hitter. Despite that, Gregory has shown with both the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots that he can be an active, steady presence in an NFL secondary.
The 2013 season wasn’t a particularly strong one for Gregory, and his play was apparently deemed unsatisfactory for the Patriots, who decided to release him despite having no sure replacement plan at strong safety.
Although he was ranked 27th among NFL safeties by Pro Football Focus, Gregory was liable for more big plays in coverage than in previous years and had some issues with missed tackles.
Gregory has started 54 games in the past six seasons, but he’s below average in a starting capacity. He could be a very solid addition, however, as a backup safety who can play situationally, fill in a starting role if needed and contribute on special teams.
2. James Harrison, OLB
As the then-35-year-old made a difficult transition to playing strong-side linebacker on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 4-3 defense from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, James Harrison’s playing time and production decreased significantly in 2013. Still, Harrison was impressive enough when he was on the field to show that he could still be a playmaker.
He’s now 36 years old and not as athletic and explosive as he was in his prime. But Harrison remains a fiery personality who can be a hard-hitting run-stopper, bring pressure off the edge and even drop into coverage if necessary—though he’s far from a natural in the latter capacity.
Harrison only lasted one year with the Bengals, who released him in March, and his years as an every-down starter should be well beyond him. In a rotational capacity, however, Harrison still has enough ability to be an impactful run defender—both off the edge and in space—and bring pressure as a rusher and blitzer.
The 6'0", 275-pounder projects best as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the position that made him a star for many years in Pittsburgh, but he showed last year that he can also be a solid contributor in a 4-3 scheme. He’s worth a look for any team seeking to add some tenacity to its defense, and depth or competition at strong-side linebacker.
1. Terrell Thomas, CB
It’s rare to see someone who has torn his ACL three times return to be a productive NFL player—in fact, it’s only happened twice, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com—but that’s exactly what Terrell Thomas did with the New York Giants in 2013.
Thomas, who had previously torn his right ACL while playing for USC in 2005, suffered the injury again prior to both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, causing him to miss both years in their entirety. That didn’t stop him from playing well in 2013, a year in which he played all 16 games, started seven and recorded seven passes defensed.
He’s not quite the player he was for three seasons with the Giants prior to the knee injuries, but Thomas played well enough in 2013 to warrant at least a one-year contract from a team this offseason. Despite his comeback year, however, Thomas told SiriusXM Radio in June, according to Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger, that teams have shied away him because of his injury history.
Despite stating in that interview that the “NFL game is not loyal,” Thomas believes he can still be productive if he gets a shot this season:
As a veteran, I’m a plug-in starter. I don’t need to go through OTAs, through minicamps to get reps. ... I can go in and play right now. So I’ll be ready whenever my number’s called, whenever the right team picks me. All I need is one team to love me. All I need is one team to give me an opportunity. My play speaks for itself.
Of all the free agents who remain on the market, Thomas most deserves a shot.
NFL teams shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’re getting a hard worker; Thomas has proven his perseverance by battling back through hard injury luck. Most importantly, Thomas remains more than capable, at just 29 years old, of still being a solid No. 2 or 3 cornerback for an NFL secondary.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.