2016 NFL Free Agency: Which Players Could Be Best Bargains on the Market?
For any of us who do any kind of shopping, we always look to save money.
In the NFL, it’s all about getting as much bang for the bucks as possible.
For the 32 teams that are preparing for March 9 and the start of free agency, most will be looking for contributors one way or another who can help at a reasonable price.
So what constitutes a bargain? Simply put, a player that a team doesn’t have to break the bank for and in the process exceeds expectations based on his performance and impact.
Last offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed veteran running back DeAngelo Williams to a modest two-year, $4 million contract as an early-season insurance policy for All-Pro Le'Veon Bell, who would serve a two-game suspension to start the season. Williams wound up leading Mike Tomlin’s team in rushing and proved to be more than just an adequate replacement.
Here, we will be look at some players (listed in alphabetical order) who could pay off in similar fashion for teams this upcoming season. While it’s nearly impossible to forecast the contract for each performer, all of these players figure to be had for a reasonable price.
DE Robert Ayers (Potential UFA: New York Giants)
When you consider that Justin Houston, J.J. Watt and even the recently retired Jared Allen have racked up 20 or more sacks in one season, 26.5 sacks in seven NFL campaigns isn’t too much to get excited about.
But that’s the case of defensive end Robert Ayers. A first-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2009, he just concluded his second year with the New York Giants, and it proved to be his best in the league. Ayers totaled 41 tackles, a team-high 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed.
When you rank dead last in the NFL in total defense, you can expect wholesale changes at nearly every position. Such is the case with the Giants, who may want to let Ayers test the free-agent waters. And since the former Broncos defender has also spent time at outside linebacker, he would be a sensible addition to a team that is looking for a little versatility, as well as a little more punch to its pass rush.
CB Brandon Boykin (Potential UFA: Pittsburgh Steelers)
Last August, as documented then by Kevin Patra of NFL.com, the Pittsburgh Steelers took advantage of Chip Kelly’s desire to dramatically alter his roster and surrendered a fifth-round pick in this year’s upcoming draft to obtain Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin.
The highly regarded defender was thought to be an excellent pickup for a team that in 2014 had numerous issues when it came to stopping the pass and in particular struggled at cornerback. But Boykin didn’t make the big splash in the Pittsburgh secondary as some had predicted, because you didn’t see him a lot on defense. Per Pro Football Focus, he was on the field for 407 defensive plays—the vast majority later in the year and in the playoffs.
While he didn't see the kind of action during the season that some of the other performers on the team at this position, he graded out second among Steelers cornerbacks behind Ross Cockrell and ahead of William Gay.
Now, Boykin can pick and choose where he can go this offseason, unless the Steelers bring him back. In any case, he figures to be an excellent addition for a club that won’t have to shell out an enormous amount of money.
ILB Mason Foster, Washington Redskins
Inside linebacker Mason Foster was a player we mentioned often a year ago as being a potential bargain and/or an underrated addition to a team.
Signed by the Chicago Bears last offseason, Foster failed to make the cut in the Windy City and wound up in Washington. In 13 games with the Redskins, he made five starts and totaled 37 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He also recorded eight tackles in the team’s playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
In his first three NFL seasons, all with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Foster was highly productive. Over that span, he averaged roughly 94 tackles per season and added five interceptions (two returned for scores), six sacks, 10 passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries.
During his fourth season with the Bucs, a dislocated shoulder and an Achilles issue limited him to only 10 games and hampered his performance. Now, nearly two years removed from those injuries, he’s definitely worth a closer look in free agency.
NT Jaye Howard (Potential UFA: Kansas City Chiefs)
Fewer defenses in the league were better than the Kansas City Chiefs' this past season. Andy Reid’s club was ranked in the top 10 in the NFL across the board in terms of yards allowed, run defense and passing yards allowed. The Chiefs also totaled 47 sacks and forced an impressive 29 turnovers.
But numerous key parts of that unit can hit the open market in less than two weeks. That includes Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, cornerback Sean Smith, linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali and defensive end Mike DeVito.
The list also includes nose tackle Jaye Howard, who finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks behind outside linebackers Justin Houston (7.5) and Hali (6.5). Hayes, who started 14 games this past season, finished sixth on the team with 57 tackles while notching a pair of forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
He’s been a vital part of the Kansas City defense in recent seasons and offers some versatility along the defensive line, which is always a good selling point.
SS George Iloka (Potential UFA: Cincinnati Bengals)
Like some other teams, the Cincinnati Bengals have their work cut out for them when it comes to re-signing their own players before free agency begins on March 9.
Four key members of the secondary can hit the open market in roughly two weeks. That includes veteran free safety Reggie Nelson, who tied for the NFL lead this past season with eight interceptions. When asked if he would like to play elsewhere in 2016, the rangy defender had a strong response.
“Most definitely not,” Nelson said to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “They know that. Everybody knows that. I would love to be a Bengal. I did my part. I played football. It’s time to handle business and we’ll go from there.”
That business not only includes retaining Nelson but making decisions on cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones, as well as steady strong safety George Iloka. He started all 16 games for the team in both 2013 and 2014 and made a dozen starts this past season. The four-year pro from Boise State has racked up six takeaways (five interceptions, one fumble recovery) and forced two fumbles the past three seasons.
With Shawn Williams waiting in the wings the past three years, the Bengals may opt not to re-sign the savvy Iloka. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the market becomes a little competitive for the 2012 fifth-round selection.
WR Rishard Matthews (Potential UFA: Miami Dolphins)
With the exception of Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry, the wide receiving corps of the Miami Dolphins was fairly underwhelming this past season.
However, Rand Getlin of NFL Network feels that potential unrestricted free agent Rishard Matthews could be a popular choice on the market.
But just because some feel there will be a big market for Matthews doesn’t mean he will command huge dollars. In 2015, he finished third on the team with 43 receptions, second on the club with 662 receiving yards and tied for the team lead with four scoring grabs. All of those numbers came in the team’s first 10 games, as the wideout suffered injured ribs in Week 12 and was done for the season.
With 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker in the fold, as well as Kenny Stills and veteran Greg Jennings, the Dolphins have their share of names and will now have to adjust to new head coach Adam Gase. Matthews, a former seventh-round draft choice, could go elsewhere and prove to be a terrific addition for a club that is looking to add some proven depth to the position.
TE Zach Miller (Potential UFA: Chicago Bears)
Talk about flying under the radar?
After not playing in a game for two straight seasons in Chicago, Bears tight end Zach Miller started 14 out of 15 contests and totaled 34 catches for 439 yards and a team-high five touchdown receptions this past season. He probably made a lot of fantasy football league owners happy down the stretch in 2015.
A sixth-round draft choice by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009, he spent three seasons with that club and made a total of five starts. He appeared in a total of 33 contests and totaled only 45 receptions for 470 yards and four scores. All five of his scoring grabs came in his final eight games.
The Bears do have a number of tight ends on the roster, including Martellus Bennett, but it’s not exactly a position of strength with the team. It will be intriguing to see if general manager Ryan Pace allows Miller to hit the open market or wraps him up soon via a reasonable contract.
RB Bilal Powell (Potential UFA: New York Jets)
The New York Jets fell just short of the playoffs in 2015 despite a sturdy defense and a reliable ground game.
One of those components on offense was running back Bilal Powell, a fourth-round pick by the team in 2011. Rich Cimini of ESPN.com notes that head coach Todd Bowles, in his first season with the Jets, regarded the five-year pro and left guard James Carpenter (an offseason free-agent pickup from the Seattle Seahawks) “as the two biggest surprises of 2015.”
While teammate Chris Ivory (also a potential unrestricted free agent) led the club with 1,070 yards on the ground, Powell spelled him on occasion and ranked second on the team with 313 rushing yards and a score. He also finished third on the Jets with 47 receptions, good for 388 yards and a pair of touchdowns, which is not bad considering he played in only 11 contests. But it’s worth noting that 184 of those rushing yards came in Powell's final six games (he was inactive Week 17).
The Jets have decisions to make with Ivory, Powell and Stevan Ridley, who is also slated for free agency. Powell could benefit if the team makes Ivory its first priority, which might mean he winds up on a team that would use his versatility even more.
WR Rod Streater (Potential UFA: Oakland Raiders)
It wasn’t long ago that Rod Streater was arguably the best wideout on the Oakland Raiders roster.
That’s just not the case anymore, although that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective player for another team.
With the additions of rookie Amari Cooper and free-agent pickup Michael Crabtree as well as the development of former undrafted free agent Seth Roberts, Streater found himself in a reduced role this past season.
Very reduced…as in one catch for eight yards in the two games he was active in 2015.
In his first two seasons in the league, the former undrafted free agent hauled in a combined 99 catches for 1,472 yards and seven scores. Injuries limited him to three games in 2014, and now he’s likely to hit the open market in March.
Streater looks like a healthy option for a team that is looking for a third wideout or more. And that 14.9 yards-per-catch average in his first two seasons bears some attention as well.
C Stefen Wisniewski (Potential UFA: Jacksonville Jaguars)
In 2015, the Jacksonville Jaguars featured one of the most improved offenses in the league led by quarterback Blake Bortles, wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns and tight end Julius Thomas.
Unfortunately, the offensive line remains a sore spot and is making Bortles pretty sore. The second-year pro was sacked 51 times this past season and has been dumped a combined 106 times in 30 career games.
Two of the bigger offseason moves for the Jaguars in 2015 were the free-agent addition of right tackle Jermey Parnell and center Stefen Wisniewski, but both had their issues in pass protection. Nevertheless, Wisniewski graded out as the 14th-best center in the NFL overall this past season and has always been a steady player dating back to his days with the Oakland Raiders.
It may take more than a one-year deal for a team to lock down the experienced center this season. The Jaguars would be wise to bring him back and could do it at a reasonable price. And if Wisniewski can develop another year of rapport with his teammates, it will be well worth the money.