Underachieving NFL Free Agents Who Could Flourish on New Teams
The NFL free-agency period is just weeks away as March 9 rapidly approaches. NFL general managers and coaching staffs will have their hands full as they make franchise-tag decisions and attend the NFL Scouting Combine before free agency. That doesn’t mean potential targets haven’t been identified and prioritized, though.
While free agency can be a financial pitfall if a team doesn’t properly utilize its skills, it’s a good place to augment a roster with immediate help. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots added significant talent through free agency the last few seasons and happen to be the last two Super Bowl winners. Each successfully identified players that have either underachieved elsewhere or fit a specific role for their team.
The 2016 free-agency class is deep with talent that could hit the market. Even those who struggled last year could be in for a major rebound in the right situation. Some just need to find a better scheme or surrounding talent or even heal from injuries.
We’ve identified five players who had their share of struggles in 2015. They’ve underachieved in relation to their talent and could be steals if other teams pluck them away. We’ll go in depth as to why they’ve underachieved and why there’s reason to believe improvement will come at their next destination.
Which free agents do you think will improve at their next stop? Leave your thoughts below in the comments section.
George Iloka, SAF, Cincinnati Bengals
At 25 years old, Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka is one of just a few players on the market who have yet to physically peak. The 6’4”, 225-pound versatile safety has three years of starting experience on the talent-laden Bengals defense. He’s proved to be a quality option for teams that like to mirror their safety responsibilities.
Iloka has the ability to play single high, man or Cover 2 schemes. His blend of size and playing speed is rare and puts him among the top free-agent safeties this year. But 2015 was a down year for him in terms of production and impact plays.
After dealing with an undisclosed injury last offseason and a groin injury late in 2015, Iloka just never seemed fully healthy. His movement on the field seemed more limited than in 2014, and his numbers consequently dipped. He had just 47 tackles and one interception last year in 12 games.
Now with a full offseason to recover, Iloka could explode next season. He was on the verge of becoming a top-10 player at the position after his 79-tackle, three-interception season in 2014. A rejuvenated body could be the key to his ascension.
The Bengals should be motivated to keep Iloka in house. If he gets away, then other Cover 2-based teams would be his best fit in order to maximize his impact. That means the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants are threats to poach Iloka off the market.
Brandon Boykin, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
After the Philadelphia Eagles dealt him to the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the 2015 season, there was hope Boykin would receive significant playing time. He has been one of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL throughout his career but oddly fell out of rotation with the Eagles. Instead of playing Boykin, the Steelers continued to give Antwon Blake snaps.
Their insistence to reward Blake for his poor play over Boykin was head-scratching. According to Pro Football Focus, Blake was the second-worst cornerback in the NFL last season. When Boykin finally broke into the lineup in Week 13, he provided an immediate boost and earned a positive grade.
Boykin has been productive whenever he’s been given the chance to play. He played the most in 2013, when he logged a career-high 674 snaps and six interceptions, per PFF. Boykin deserves to be a full-time slot cornerback with his continued success throughout his career.
According Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, Boykin would be interested in returning to the Steelers despite his lack of consistent playing time. Their lack of cap space (only $8.4 million open, per Over The Cap) will make it hard to retain Boykin. He should command a multiyear deal worth $5 million or more per season.
Teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans could use a slot cornerback like Boykin. He would be able to seamlessly step in and provide high-level man coverage from day one.
Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Injuries are a part of the NFL, but some players have worse luck than others. Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen has been an injury magnet throughout his first four seasons. He’s missed time for ankle, calf, knee and hip ailments throughout his young career.
When Allen is actually on the field, he serves as a good receiving threat and great blocker. The Colts primarily used him as a blocker, which did not sit well with him. According to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star, Allen said: “Targeted (29) times? Wow, that many? I didn’t know it was (29). They count some throwaways, though, if I was in the vicinity.”
Indeed, Allen caught just 16 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown. He underachieved due to a limited quarterback and the team’s need for his blocking skill. Now, he likely wants to start fresh and be featured more as a receiver.
A multiyear deal worth around $4 million per year would make sense. Teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers should be interested in Allen’s services. He could end up being a major bargain if he can stay on the field.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
It seems as if we’ve been waiting for San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green to break out for the last four years. I thought 2014 was going to be the year he emerged as a stud starter. That hasn’t happened yet, as Green hasn’t been a featured receiver for the Chargers.
Now that he can get out of Antonio Gates’ shadow, Green has the opportunity to stop underachieving statistically. His relegation to a blocking tight end with the Chargers showed that he’s one of the more reliable blockers in the league. But he wasn’t given many opportunities to expand his role.
With just 77 receptions, 1,087 yards and seven touchdowns in his first four seasons, Green should be searching for a starting job that will increase his usage.
He played through injury in 2015, as he endured an ankle injury before getting shut down for the final game of the season. Other than the ankle requiring surgery this past season, Green has been durable for San Diego. At just 25 years old, his upside is still intact. In a larger role, he could explode into one of the better all-around tight ends in football.
On top of the potential fits mentioned for Dwayne Allen, the Houston Texans, New York Giants and New York Jets should be in play for Green based on fit and need.
C.J. Anderson. RB, Denver Broncos
Anderson saw a decline in carries, rushing yards, touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards thanks to injury last year. He never got into a rhythm, and the Broncos had to rotate him with Ronnie Hillman. It also didn’t help Anderson when the Broncos lost two starting offensive tackles during the season.
If Anderson can get into another zone-running scheme, there’s reason to believe his best days have yet to come. The third-year back just turned 25 as he celebrated the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory. He’s also only logged 338 carries to this point in his career.
With a more stable offensive line and an effective passing game, Anderson could see his production skyrocket. He’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. That mark would have been an upgrade for 28 teams.
The Washington Redskins, Houston Texans and New England Patriots would be good suitors for the young running back, given their ability to run a zone-blocking scheme.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.