Predicting Where Top Remaining NFL Free Agents Will Sign
Most of the major (and more than a few of the minor) NFL free agents are signed and getting ready for training camp, but there are still some players out there who should end up with jobs sooner than later.
Teams add players this late in the offseason for many reasons. Maybe there's an injury, or perhaps a player the team thought would step up plays badly. It could be that the team's worried about depth or is hoping to push someone at a current position.
Whatever the reason, teams never stop adding players.
The following list is comprised of eight players still on the market who have proven their abilities at one point or another during their careers, as well as likely landing spots for each over the next month or two.
Jermichael Finley, Tight End: Green Bay Packers
Of course, we still don’t know if Jermichael Finley is healthy enough to play football.
Finley has tremendous athletic ability and would be an excellent addition to any offense. He has had issues with drops but had improved in that area prior to his 2013 injury.
Based on recent reports from guys like ESPN’s Jason Wilde, it seems that Finley wants to remain a Packer and is working his tail off to do it. He told Wilde he’s feeling great, but the Packers doctors are the ultimate authorities here, and they are very conservative about injuries like Finley’s.
The Packers currently have seven tight ends on their roster, but the position lacks experience and a clear front-runner, so there is still a need for Finley's talents. He has the ability to be that help if he can get cleared, and I think he gets his shot with the Packers.
Chris Houston, Cornerback: Carolina Panthers
The Detroit Lions looked a little crazy when they released Chris Houston a year into a five-year contract, but with Detroit Free Press Lions beat writer Dave Birkett reporting that concerns over Houston’s health were legitimate, maybe we were too quick to judge.
Houston confirmed those reports and commented on the necessity of toe surgery, per Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman.
"It was something that had to be done, because playing football when you’re constantly hurt is not fun. Health comes first. If I’m able to get back to 100 percent, I know I’ll have another opportunity somewhere."
Houston wasn't good in 2013, but he’d been playing very well before that, which is what netted him the big contract (which in turn got him cut). According to Birkett, the Lions felt Houston’s career was ending, but Fox Sports Detroit's Dave Dye reported that the former Lion believes he can return in August or September at the latest.
The Carolina Panthers secondary took a hit when Captain Munnerlyn left, and while adding Antoine Cason across from Melvin White will help with that loss, they could still use a playmaker on at least a rotational basis.
They have the cap room for a small, one-year contract, which would limit their risk in case Houston isn’t the same player or never quite recovers.
But if he does pay off, the Panthers will get super-cheap help in the secondary.
Josh Freeman, Quarterback: Houston Texans
There’s no denying that both the end of Freeman's time in Tampa Bay and his brief sojourn in Minnesota were bad, but he had shown he could lead an offense prior to that career skid.
Freeman has a solid arm and plenty of talent—enough for a team to bring him in and see what he has during camp. Perhaps a team like Houston.
Sure, Houston is happy with its guys. What’s not to like? A retread veteran, a middling quarterback who folds under pressure and a very raw rookie—sounds like a recipe for success, right?
At some point, new head coach Bill O’Brien is bound to wake up and wonder just what the hell he was thinking. When that happens, he could decide to bring in another arm—an arm like Freeman.
Freeman would need to get some more time to get up to speed, but he could push for a roster spot into preseason, and it’s not like the team can’t put Tom Savage on the practice squad if it needs to.
While I'm not sold on Freeman recapturing what magic he had prior to being Schiano’d, his strong arm could be a good fit in this offense and actually might make Andre Johnson a bit happier.
Eric Winston, Tackle: Carolina Panthers
Incumbent Carolina offensive linemen Nate Chandler and Byron Bell were not good last season. Bell stunk the joint up at right tackle, and Chandler was subpar at both tackles and right guard. I can’t imagine this is a state of affairs the team wants for Cam Newton.
Now, Eric Winston wasn’t Pro Bowl material last season, but the Arizona line was awful across the board, and he had been solid in previous seasons with other teams. The Panthers have the core line but could use someone on the right or left side who knows what he is doing.
As mentioned in the Chris Houston slide, the Panthers have enough cap room for a one-year, low-cash deal—something Winston could use to springboard back to a better deal the next year.
Carolina is already playing fast and loose with its receivers. The team needs to cut Newton a break, and improve the offensive line this summer.
Travelle Wharton, Guard: Seattle Seahawks
So Travelle Wharton has been kicking around retirement, according to The Charlotte Observer’s Joe Person, but we’ve heard previous players discuss hanging 'em up and their reasons for doing so, just to see them return for another year.
Quite often, once camp has finished or is winding down, a veteran (maybe one might say a savvy veteran) will suddenly appear. Nobody likes camp, and a guy who has played as long and as well as Wharton could be looking to skip it.
Wharton was ranked as Pro Football Focus’ fifth overall guard (subscription required) for last season, filling in for an injured Amini Silatolu.
While he is on the downhill slope of his career, Wharton proved last year that he still has plenty left in the tank. An excellent run-blocker and a very solid pass-blocker like him is going to get offers.
Despite winning the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks interior was a hot mess last season. We’re betting that a shot at a ring (which the Hawks absolutely have) would get Wharton out of the retirement home.
He’d be an excellent fit in place of J.R. “It ain’t easy being” Sweezy or James Carpenter, and I expect the trigger to be pulled by the end of August.
Rob Bironas, Kicker: Oakland Raiders
Rob Bironas was cut to save cap room but had a solid 2013 season, going 25-of-29 on field-goals attempts with 10 of them from 40-plus yards out (he missed three from that distance).
Kickers are a dime a dozen, and teams always want to push the ones they have (if just to remind them they are expendable). Bironas has played at a high level for a long time and is likely to see an invite before the end of camp.
We’re betting that it’s with the Oakland Raiders. Sebastian Janikowski is nowhere near as good as he should be for his contract, as he missed some critical kicks last year.
Bironas was better, and he would be better—and cheaper—than Janikowski this year.
Dustin Keller, Tight End: New England Patriots
Dustin Keller’s knee is no longer an issue, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, so it is only a matter of time before he gets brought in to a camp.
Keller could be a great fit as a “move” or “joker” tight end because of his ability to stretch the field. While he doesn’t have the athleticism of a Jimmy Graham or even a Jermichael Finley, he has enough to fill a smaller or complementary role alongside other weapons who could pull the defense away from him.
A weapon such as Rob Gronkowski, maybe?
Next to Gronk, the best tight end on a roster which used to feature dual-tight end formations is Michael Hoomanawanui who, while serviceable, isn’t going to bring the ceiling Keller has.
After his injury, Keller is likely to settle for a minimal contract as well. If he pans out (and with Tom Brady throwing the ball, he’d have his best shot), the Patriots have a great complementary weapon, and if not, they take a minimal hit.
Low risk, high reward—which is how the Patriots usually roll anyway.
Santonio Holmes, Wide Receiver: Cleveland Browns
It’s clear the New York Jets version of Santonio Holmes was not as good as the Pittsburgh Steelers version appeared to be. The veteran receiver was rarely able to produce the results the Jets staff was hoping for.
Despite that, Holmes has shown that he still has good hands and can make plays after the catch. Yes, there were injury issues the last few years (he has only appeared in all 16 regular-season games once over the last four years), and his ability to fit into a locker room is definitely a concern.
But he has experience in big playoff moments and could be a help to a team that wants to make a push for the playoffs with a young corps of wide receivers.
So what about the Cleveland Browns?
They've added some names—Miles Austin and Nate Burleson are still there though Earl Bennett was cut—but there is room for more help.
Holmes could be a big help in moving the chains and occasionally making a big play for either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel.
The biggest concern is attitude, but if you give him a short-term deal with incentives, you leave both a way to motivate him and an exit strategy for yourself.
Holmes could be a good short-term fit in trying to help hold down the fort while Josh Gordon serves his expected suspension.