NFL Free-Agent Signings 2015: Highlighting Early Market's Most Underrated Deals

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2015

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 12:  Nose tackle Dan Williams #92 of the Arizona Cardinals runs out onto the field before the NFL game against the Washington Redskins at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 12, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 30-20.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Feel free to focus on the how and why of NFL free agency's biggest names, but do so with the understanding it is the under-the-radar deals sure to make the biggest difference next season. 

Think about it—ask Washington how repeated splurge-fests on the market have turned out over the years. Ask Miami how making Mike Wallace a $60 million man is going.

While many teams take a lighter to checkbooks, a few contenders and rebuilding teams alike have made some great moves that will either reinforce playoff status or jump-start lengthy rebuilds.

The top deals to know not on the receiving end of Ndamukong Suh-sized coverage rest below.

 

Brian Hartline, WR, Cleveland Browns 

Dec 28, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline (82) celebrates his catch against the New York Jets in the second half at Sun Life Stadium. The Jets defeated Miami 37-24.  Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

For a team with serious wideout issues and a question mark under center, the Cleveland Browns make out like bandits in a quiet manner with the signing of veteran Brian Hartline.

ESPN's Dustin Fox broke the news:

Hartline won't grab a ton of touchdowns for the Browns, regardless of who lines up under center. He's never caught more than four in a season and has 12 over the course of a sound six-year career.

What he will do, though, is soak up targets and receptions, move the chains and take pressure off others. The 2012 and 2013 seasons speak to the damage the Ohio State product can do when acting as a key cog in an attack:

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200931565063
201043736151
201135675491
2012741281,0831
2013761341,0164
201439634742
ESPN

For his part, Hartline wants to be in Cleveland, too.

"In my mind, my career is going to continue to ascend and I think I'm just starting to hit my peak, so I feel good, I feel healthy and I'm excited to get started,'' Hartline said, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.

Hartline is far from one of those franchise-changing options. Ask a casual fan and they might have no idea where he's at right now. But what he does do is provide a safety blanket, as well as shores up a major need so the front office can go out and next get a deep threat to pair with him. 

 

Jabaal Sheard, LB, New England Patriots

Dec 1, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (97) against the Jacksonville Jaguars at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

A former member of the Browns is one of the best quiet additions of the market so far. 

Jabaal Sheard, who spent the first four years of his career with the Browns, is now a member of the New England Patriots, as ProFootballTalk captures:

It's quite a steal from a financial standpoint considering the Pittsburgh product ranked as the league's No. 16 3-4 outside linebacker at Pro Football Focus last year in large part thanks to his ability to put pressure on passers, generating two sacks, four quarterback hits and 24 hurries.

ESPN's Adam Schefter provided a quote that hits the proverbial nail right on the head:

Sheard joins the Patriots going into his age-26 season and is already a proven contributor.

As they say, the rich get richer.

 

Owen Daniels, TE, Denver Broncos 

Oct 19, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Owen Daniels (81) catches a touchdown in the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Julius Thomas who?

There was little doubt in Denver that the Broncos would lose a starting tight end this offseason after the front office hit Demaryius Thomas with the franchise tag.

What some may have missed, though, is general manager John Elway hitting the market and bringing in a proven veteran in Owen Daniels. Schefter provided the news, while Bleacher Report's Matt Miller highlighted a bit of insight:

When his body permits, the 32-year-old former Wisconsin star is quite reliable, as the numbers from his last four seasons show:

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2011 (HOU)1554846773
2012 (HOU)15621037166
2013 (HOU)524402523
2014 (BAL)1548795274
ESPN

Peyton Manning and the Broncos will expect the world from Daniels. He's replacing a guy who ranked fourth on the team in targets last season but still led the team with 12 touchdown receptions.

Daniels may not meet those lofty aspirations, but then again, playing with Manning can work wonders for a player's career.

 

Dan Williams, DT, Oakland Raiders 

Sep 15, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams (92) against the Detroit Lions at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

One of the most obvious needs in all free agency resided in Oakland, where coach Jack Del Rio's team needed to add some serious beef to the defensive trenches.

The front office did so, but not in the big-name way most would have guessed.

Instead, Del Rio and Co. went with a lesser-known name who happens to be one of the league's most productive players—Dan Williams. The team shared a look at its new warhorse up front while breaking the news:

For those who don't know Williams, he spent the first five years of his career with the Arizona Cardinals and is one of the league's top run defenders. Last year at PFF, he ranked as the No. 14 defensive tackle in the league and only seven players graded better than him as a run defender.

It's important to think of this in a long-term lens. Not only does Williams' arrival free up talented linebackers such as Sio Moore and Khalil Mack, it provides the perfect complement to a pass-rushing tackle next to him—say, USC's Leonard Williams at No. 4 in the upcoming draft.

The rebuilding Raiders now have a critical piece of a strong defense in place and can further build around it in the coming months—even if it is one of the period's quietest transactions.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of NFL.com as of March 13. All advanced metrics via Pro Football Focus.

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