NFL Veteran Free Agents Who Should Be Picked Up by Contenders
It can take several years for NFL teams to even get close to becoming legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Even once a team reaches the top level of contention, however, it can take the right final additions to go from competitive to world champion.
For teams teetering on the edge and looking at narrow Super Bowl windows, they often find those final pieces in the form of aging veteran free agents. Talented NFL veterans entering the later stages of their careers are likewise interested in finding a team that can deliver a ring—before Father Time closes their own respective windows.
For these players, money is often a far less significant concern than a potential championship.
You can find one recent example of team and veteran player merging perfectly on the roster of the NFL's most recent champions. Back in 2014, the Denver Broncos signed pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware in order to bolster their pass rush. The three year, $30 million deal was a relatively team-friendly one when you consider the general demand for top-tier sack artists.
A few weeks ago, Ware and the Broncos hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Could a veteran like running back Matt Forte be doing the same with the New England Patriots in a season or two? What about a guy like wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the Cincinnati Bengals?
We're looking at still-productive players who are at least 30 years old and who may be willing to take a team-friendly short-term deal to land with a contender.
These are the guys who should land with teams looking to complete championship rosters.
Adam Jones, Cornerback
The Denver Broncos proved this past season that defense still wins championships. It shouldn't be a surprise to see top-tier defenders drawing a lot of interest from contenders on the open market this offseason.
Considering the NFL is a passing league, pass defenders should be near the top of the wish list.
Teams looking for a short-term answer at the cornerback position would be wise to take a long look at Adam Jones. He'll turn 33 years old shortly after the start of the 2016 season, but he is still incredibly productive as a starter on the outside.
In 2015, Jones started 14 games with the Cincinnati Bengals and racked up 62 tackles, 12 passes defended and three interceptions. Pro Football Focus rated him 13th overall among cornerbacks for the season.
Jones brings with him the added bonus of being a legitimate threat in the return game. He averaged a solid 11.2 yards per punt return and 23.5 yards per kick return in 2015. Pro Football Focus rated him seventh overall among return specialists.
Jones still has a few really good seasons left in the tank, but he probably won't have any interest in signing with a rebuilding team this offseason. For a guy on the plus side of 30 and still playing at Jones' level, the time is now to go looking for a championship opportunity.
For a team looking to fill a hole in its secondary—and perhaps add a bit of a special teams threat—Jones is the perfect candidate.
Evan Mathis, Offensive Guard
DeMarcus Ware isn't the only elder statesman to finally lift the Lombardi Trophy with the Denver Broncos this past season—and no, we're not talking about a particular beer-swilling quarterback here.
Veteran guard Evan Mathis signed a team-friendly one-year, $3.25 million deal with Denver this past season. A shot at a Super Bowl drove Mathis' motivations in doing so.
"When I look back at my career, or when anyone looks back at my career, they aren't going to say, 'How much money did Evan Mathis lose in 2015?' I think the opportunity to (play in the Super Bowl) is much more valuable," Mathis said the week before Super Bowl 50, per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com.
Even at 34 years of age, it's apparent Mathis still has plenty of on-field talent to offer. Pro Football Focus rated him seventh overall among guards in 2015. There's little reason for Mathis not to go after another ring in 2016—whether it be in Denver or elsewhere.
Teams looking for interior help on the offensive line should be quick to call Mathis' agent when the legal tampering period officially begins on March 7. This is especially true for teams residing in the AFC and hoping to prevent Mathis from returning to the Broncos in 2016 (New England, I'm looking in your direction).
Kevin Williams, Defensive Tackle
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams has been terrorizing opposing NFL offenses for 13 years now, and his cumulative statistics are quite impressive.
For his career, Williams has produced 525 total tackles, 63.0 sacks, 68 passes defended, five interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The 35-year-old pending free agent should be more than capable of adding to these totals in 2016, and contending teams seeking help on their defensive lines should show interest.
Just this past season, Williams produced 32 total tackles, three passes defended and two forced fumbles with the New Orleans Saints. Pro Football Focus rated him 22nd overall among all defensive tackles for the season.
Williams' services in 2015 only cost New Orleans $1.15 million. He should be available at a similarly thrifty price tag for the coming season.
After watching the defensive lines of the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers wreak havoc all the way up to Super Bowl 50, contenders should make it a priority to add a defensive lineman of Williams' caliber. Being able to do so at an affordable price is a massive bonus.
Eric Weddle, Safety
Eric Weddle remains one of the NFL's top safeties even at 31 years of age. In 2015, he produced 78 tackles and six passes defended in 13 games for the San Diego Chargers. Pro Football Focus rated him 12th overall among safeties for the season.
The productivity Weddle still brings to the field is one reason why he still has plenty of reason to chase money on the free-agent market. However, the former Utah standout is about to enter his 10th NFL season and has made it clear that landing with a contender is on his priority list this offseason.
"Who wants me, No. 1," Weddle said about the type of team he's looking for, per Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "In the next three or four years, are they going to be competitive, are they going to be division winners, are we going to have a chance at the Super Bowl?"
Weddle would be an asset for any contending team looking to add playmaking talent to the back end of its defense. The trick, of course, is for such a team to convince Weddle that chasing a championship is worth making a team-friendly deal.
If Weddle decided to go after the big money of a long-term contract, his chance at a Lombardi Trophy might have to wait quite a while.
Matt Forte, Running Back
Matt Forte is on the younger end of this list at 30 years of age, but he is getting up there as far as running backs are concerned. Next season will be Forte's ninth as an NFL player.
However, Forte is still incredibly productive and versatile. Despite missing three games due to injury in 2015, he still managed to rush for 898 yards and four touchdowns with the Chicago Bears. He also caught 44 passes for 389 yards and another three scores.
Pro Football Focus rated him 19th overall among running backs for the 2015 season.
Forte would be an asset for a team needing running back help (New England Patriots). He could also prove useful for a team in need of a change-of-pace back (Carolina Panthers). If a team like the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Jets can convince Forte that it can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, then it could wind up on his short list as well.
Teams looking for a back who excels in the passing game should find Forte particularly enticing. Just two seasons ago, he hauled in a whopping 102 passes for 808 yards.
Of course, much will depend on if and how quickly teams believe Forte can help them close out a Super Bowl run. ESPN analyst John Clayton recently explained why money won't be the only aspect of free agency defining his value.
"He'll still get middle-level type money, he's just not going to get the big money," Clayton said on 710 ESPN Seattle's Brock and Salk. "The question is going to be, will New England be willing to sacrifice a compensatory pick to get him? Will Green Bay do the same thing?"
Ultimately, a team like the Patriots or Packers should be quick to pounce if it believes Forte will be more immediately beneficial than a 2016 or 2017 mid-round draft pick.
Terence Newman, Cornerback
We've already mentioned that top-level defensive backs should be in demand for contending teams this offseason. This is precisely why it makes sense for one to take a chance on 37-year-old cornerback Terence Newman.
Newman signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal to play for the Minnesota Vikings this past season. He ended up being one of the reasons why the Vikings took home an NFC North title. He started all 16 games and finished with 62 tackles, 12 passes defended and three interceptions.
Pro Football Focus rated Newman 34th overall among cornerbacks for the 2015 season.
Returning to Minnesota makes sense for Newman if he believes the Vikings can take the next step and become a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2016. However, Newman will be 38 at the start of the season and may be looking at his last chance to secure a ring.
For him, becoming a depth player on a team like the New England Patriots, the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos might make a bit more sense.
Newman is a fit for any team looking to add talent to its secondary.
Reggie Nelson, Safety
Safety Reggie Nelson is another pass defender who could help elevate the secondary of a contending team and transform it into a championship unit.
Nelson started all 16 games for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016 and finished with 77 tackles, 14 passes defended and a whopping eight interceptions. He was named to the 2016 Pro Bowl, and Pro Football Focus rated him 13th overall among safeties.
If Nelson feels the Bengals are on the right track and can get to a Super Bowl within the next couple of years, then it would make sense for him to return to Cincinnati. However, Nelson will turn 33 shortly after the start of the 2016 season, which will be his 10th in the NFL.
His opportunities to reach the game's biggest stage could quickly be dwindling.
If Nelson has any sense that his play could drop off within the next couple of years, he should seek out a team that can provide a championship opportunity within that time frame. Signing with a team that is further away from a championship than Cincinnati should be entirely out of the question.
For teams looking at a Super Bowl window, Nelson makes a whole lot of sense, even if it's only as a depth or rotational player. With 12 interceptions over the past two seasons, Nelson has shown he has a knack for finding the football.
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
Few NFL wide receivers have been as reliable and as consistent as Anquan Boldin over the years. Through 13 pro seasons, he has racked up an amazing 1,009 receptions, 13,195 yards and 74 touchdowns.
Though he will turn 36 years old during the 2016 season, Boldin should still have quite a bit left in the tank. Despite playing in the San Francisco 49ers' unimpressive passing attack (ranked 29th, averaging just 207.2 passing yards per game), he still produced 69 receptions and 789 yards in 2015.
Pro Football Focus rated Boldin 33rd overall among wide receivers for the 2015 season.
Boldin probably isn't going to be a No. 1 receiver on a contending roster, but he should be more than capable of stepping in as a reliable second or third option.
A team like the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals or Carolina Panthers could be looking for such an option. Christopher Price of WEEI.com explained why Boldin could be a perfect fit for the Patriots:
He’s one of the more well-respected veterans around the league, and he’s clearly transitioning into the “mentor” phase of a career. He could serve as a leader for some of the younger New England receivers. He’d also be the sort of secondary receiver who could benefit from being part of an offense that includes the likes of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
The benefits of adding a guy like Boldin to a contending roster should be fairly evident. For Boldin, it makes sense to go out and seek such a team at this stage of his career. He isn't likely to experience winning a championship by returning to the rebuilding 49ers.
All contract information via Spotrac.com.
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