Lost in the madness of NFL preseason position battles and players fighting for roster spots is the fact that there are still valuable contributors on the free-agent market who can help teams fill out their depth for the regular season.
Some players have that oh-so valuable starting experience under their belts but may be returning from an injury or fighting age to keep a spot in the NFL, making it difficult for teams to commit a roster spot to them.
At this stage of the preseason, with two weeks left before the real games start, teams are always searching for depth or potential replacements for someone who got injured. We are going to offer our best predictions for the best free agents still available.
Jermichael Finley, Tight End
The curious case of Jermichael Finley is fascinating. He is just 27 years old and has shown some prowess for finding the end zone as a 6'4", 240-pound monster, scoring 20 touchdowns in 70 games with the Green Bay Packers.
Unfortunately, due to that nasty spinal cord injury suffered last year against Cleveland, Finley's career has been put on hold. He was cleared to play football again by his personal doctor, according to his agent in an interview on Pro Football Talk Live:
Agent Blake Baratz tells PFT Live that Dr. Maroon has given Jermichael Finley full medical clearance.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) May 29, 2014
Finley actually had a meeting with the Seattle Seahawks in March, but nothing materialized. As Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted, the team wanted him to keep resting before making any commitment.
Another issue hanging over Finley is a $10 million disability insurance policy, which Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports reported on August 4 may not be there now because of his agent's comments:
While the language in policies varies by provider, permanent total disability (PTD) policies generally don’t pay out unless a player experiences a disability that prevents him from playing professional football again, said Chris Larcheveque, executive vice president of International Specialty Insurance.
All of this adds up to a situation that should prevent Finley from playing in 2014. He's still young enough to have an NFL career, but coming off the type of injury he had and how one wrong hit could make things worse, the six-year veteran should play things safe and stay off the field until 2015.
Prediction: Finley sits out the 2014 season.
Dustin Keller, Tight End
Another tight end still searching for work is Dustin Keller. While he was never as productive as Finley, it's important to remember he played in a situation with the New York Jets starting in 2009 in which Rex Ryan wanted to run the ball and never had a strong quarterback.
Which free agent will be the first to sign a contract?
Keller signed with the Miami Dolphins last year but never played a down in the regular season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during the preseason. That was bad news for him, though it does give teams an opportunity to sign him on a short-term, low-cost deal.
One team that has been mentioned as a potential landing spot is New England, which makes sense the more you think about it. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported in June that the Patriots were "staying in touch" with Keller.
Two months later, nothing has come of it. However, the Patriots did release another tight end, Ben Hartsock, on August 14. Bill Belichick's offense emphasizes the tight end, as evidenced by the importance of Rob Gronkowski and, before his off-field issues, Aaron Hernandez.
Gronkowski is healthy for the first time in two years, but the Patriots need depth at the position given how fragile he has been. It also wouldn't hurt to add a 248-pound pass-catcher to an offense that is lacking in weapons for Tom Brady to play with.
If a team is going to come calling Keller, either before the season starts or as in-season move, the Patriots seem like the best choice.
Prediction: Keller signs with Patriots.
James Harrison, Linebacker
Once one of the NFL's great defensive players, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, James Harrison is 36 years old and coming off the least productive season of his career in 2013 with the Cincinnati Bengals.
After 10 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harrison took his talents to their AFC North rivals. His production was already in decline before leaving, but his 16 tackles were a career low in a season with more than 10 games played and his two sacks were the fewest he's had since 2004.
It's not surprising that Harrison's phone hasn't been ringing, though it has given him an opportunity to showcase his extracurricular activities, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
One intriguing scenario that isn't being ruled out, at least publicly, has Harrison reuniting with the Steelers. General manager Kevin Colbert didn't get into specifics, but he did tell Scott Brown of ESPN.com in late July that all options are on the table:
We haven’t eliminated anybody from consideration because we don’t know what’s going to happen before the season. Even into the season there’s been times when we’ve brought back veteran players due to injury. If we have eliminated a player we always tell [him] don’t keep us in your thought process, if you have an opportunity don’t wait for us, something along those lines.
The Steelers did bring back Brett Keisel when it looked like his time with the team had come to an end, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com:
Steelers and DE Brett Keisel have reached agreement. Keisel back to Pittsburgh, per league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2014
Pittsburgh is in an interesting transition phase, trying to keep its aging core players around to compete for a playoff spot while at the same time looking to incorporate younger, more athletic talents to serve the team better in the future.
Harrison represents the old guard for the Steelers. He was a fixture on defense during the team's two Super Bowl wins in 2005 and 2008. The days of him being an All-Pro are long gone, but if they need depth during the season, what's the harm in giving him a call?
No one on the market knows defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defensive scheme better than Harrison, so it wouldn't take him long to get in camp and ready for games if the call comes. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.
Prediction: Harrison signs with Steelers.
All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
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