NFL Free Agency 2017: Hidden Gems from NFL1000

Doug FarrarNFL Lead ScoutJanuary 12, 2017

NFL Free Agency 2017: Hidden Gems from NFL1000

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    Aaron Rodgers apparently knows that A.J. Bouye has arrived.
    Aaron Rodgers apparently knows that A.J. Bouye has arrived.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    One of the best things about the constant, week-to-week analysis in the NFL1000 is the ability to project that research into the offseason. As teams start to focus their efforts on free agents, some obvious names will lead the discussion: Kirk Cousins, Alshon Jeffery, Eric Berry, Trumaine Johnson, Jason Pierre-Paul, Andrew Whitworth and Pierre Garcon, to name a few. 

    But if you want consistent success in the NFL, you must strike well when it comes to the second- and third-level free agents. They are the glue guys who may not get the attention they deserve on a national level, but they frequently make the difference between playoff berths and long offseasons.

    So it is with the upcoming class, and we have a list of nine players who should get a great deal of attention in the 2017 free-agency derby. Some are underrated because of their positions; others have improved their performances at the right time. But they all have something to offer to those teams in the hunt for more talent.

    For more on the exploits of every player in the 2016 NFL regular season, check out the year-end NFL1000 grades here

Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Baltimore Ravens

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    John Grieshop/Getty Images

    If you're wondering why we're touting the work of a fullback who rushed five times for 22 yards and a touchdown all season, it's because of everything else Kyle Juszczyk did for the Ravens in 2016.

    He was the best offensive skill player in a system that was iffy at best, and his consistency in multiple aspects of the game was impressive. Not only did Juszczyk catch 37 passes on 49 targets for 266 yards, but he was also the league's most effective blocker at his position.

    The Ravens have a lot of work to do with their skill-position players, and considering how much they rely on the fullback in their offense, they'd better be ready to pony up for Juszczyk's return.

    According to Over the Cap, the Kansas City Chiefs' Anthony Sherman has the largest fullback contract at $2.1 million per year and just over $2.3 million guaranteed, and wherever Juszczyk winds up, he's in line not only to exceed that but potentially to blow it out of the water.

    In an era when the fullback seems like a disposable entity, Juszczyk has proved he's indispensable.

     

    Grading Scale

    Blk: Blocking (Graded out of 50)
    Run: Running (Graded out of 25)
    Rec: Receiving (Graded out of 15)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Kyle Juszczyk NFL1000 Scores
    FB RankBlkRunRecPosOvr
    1/2044.616.810.8476.1

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    A restricted free agent in 2017, wide receiver Adam Thielen was one of the few good things about the Minnesota Vikings passing game. He should be a key cog going forward unless some other team decides to go aggressively after a player who will certainly get a high RFA tag.

    The Minnesota State-Mankato product caught just 20 passes total in his first two seasons, but with Sam Bradford as his quarterback in 2016, he caught 69 balls for 967 yards and five touchdowns.

    He also finished top 10 in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for receivers—both in a per-play and in a cumulative sense, he was one of the NFL's most efficient wideouts.

    He wasn't just beating up on lesser opponents either. He had a 127-yard, one-touchdown game against a sound Houston Texans defense in Week 5 and 202 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. And given the general paucity of production among Minnesota's receiving corps, it isn't as if he was facing single coverage on every play.

     

    Grading Scale

    Route: Route Running (Graded out of 25)
    Hands: Hands (Graded out of 25)
    YAC: Yards After Catch (Graded out of 20)
    Blk: Blocking (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Adam Thielen NFL1000 Scores
    WR RankRouteHandsYACBlkPosOvr
    53/15517.116.912.811.3966.9

Ricky Wagner, RT, Baltimore Ravens

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    While the Baltimore offense didn't take off in 2016, the blocking was generally sound when rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis were on point. Of course, guard Marshal Yanda is the rock star of the offensive line, but right tackle Ricky Wagner wasn't bad himself.

    He gave up three sacks in 2016, but none of them were after Week 5. And he cut down his hurries allowed from 40 in 2015 to 25. The arrow is pointing up for a player who should receive interest from several teams that have had issues on the right sides of their lines.

    Wagner missed the last game of the season with a concussion, but he's in line to get good money. According to the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, it's less than likely the Ravens, who let Kelechi Osemele go in free agency last year, will pay it.

         

    Grading Scale

    Pass: Pass Protection (Graded out of 25)
    Run: Run Blocking (Graded out of 25)
    Power: Power (Graded out of 20)
    Agl: Agility (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Ricky Wagner NFL1000 Scores
    RT RankPassRunPowerAglPosOvr
    21/3817.617.714.513.9770.6

Ty Nsekhe, LT, Washington Redskins

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Here's an interesting case. Ty Nsekhe placed eighth overall in our left tackle rankings, primarily for his work as Trent Williams' replacement during Williams' four-game suspension. If you weren't paying attention, there wasn't much to indicate the undrafted free agent from Texas State was going to be anything but a mammoth downgrade to the guy who ended up No. 1 at his position in our final rankings.

    But Nsekhe allowed only nine quarterback hurries and didn't allow a single sack in that four-game midseason swing.

    Moreover, Nsekhe has positive indicators he is more than a four-game wonder. He had 197 snaps in 2015 and allowed just one sack and four hurries in swing duty between the left and right sides. It will be interesting to see how the Redskins handle his restricted free-agent status and how the rest of the league views a player whose breakout might be happening now.

                          

    Grading Scale

    Pass: Pass Protection (Graded out of 25)
    Run: Run Blocking (Graded out of 25)
    Power: Power (Graded out of 20)
    Agl: Agility (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Ty Nsekhe NFL1000 Scores
    LT RankPassRunPowerAglPosOvr
    8/4019.419.014.815.0876.2

Chris Baker, 3-4 DE, Washington Redskins

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    If you're looking for a penetrating interior lineman for a 3-4 or hybrid front, there are few people on the open market more appealing than Chris Baker. An undrafted free agent out of Hampton, Baker has enjoyed outstanding performances in each of the last two seasons, and he's an underrated force in a defense that has struggled to stay out of its own way.

    In 2015, Baker amassed seven sacks, 11 hits and 25 hurries, and he added 34 total stops to his resume—all in just 691 snaps. In 2016, he had six sacks, six hits and 30 hurries with 24 stops. The 6'2", 329-pound Baker will be of great interest to any team that is looking to add both beef and speed to its defensive line. That's why he's 11th overall in NFL1000's list of 3-4 defensive ends.

                           

    Grading Scale

    Snap: Snap Explosion (Graded out of 15)
    Rush: Pass Rush (Graded out of 25)
    Run: Run Defense (Graded out of 30)
    Tkl: Tackling (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Chris Baker NFL1000 Scores
    3-4 DE RankSnapRushRunTklPosOvr
    11/5310.815.919.613.6766.5

Jabaal Sheard, 4-3 DE, New England Patriots

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Jabaal Sheard signed a two-year deal with the New England Patriots in 2015 after he was lost in the Cleveland Browns' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base front. At his best, Sheard works as the run-stopping end in a base 4-3, able to crunch blocking with power and provide some pass rush. He did this for head coach Bill Belichick, who knows a thing or two about how to use his players. In 2016, Sheard had six sacks, six hits and 27 hurries along with 20 stops in 578 snaps.

    Sheard did see fewer snaps at the end of the season, and Belichick is known to prefer to cut ties with players a year early as opposed to a year late. At age 27, Sheard might be on the wrong side of that, especially as New England's defensive front gets younger and more versatile, but he still has a lot left in the tank for a team in need of a tough guy on the edge.

                           

    Grading Scale

    Rush: Pass Rush (Graded out of 25)
    Run: Run Defense (Graded out of 25)
    Snap: Snap Explosion (Graded out of 20)
    Tkl: Tackling (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Jabaal Sheard NFL1000 Scores
    4-3 DE RankRushRunSnapTklPosOvr
    27/6818.014.113.313.1866.1

A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Last weekend against a depleted Oakland Raiders passing game, A.J. Bouye allowed no catches on seven targets—with his interception, he had more receptions of Connor Cook's passes than he allowed. But this wasn't just a case of picking on an inexperienced quarterback; Bouye was a sound player throughout the 2016 season, and he's made the most of his first real experience as a week-to-week starter.

    The former special teams maven signed a one-year, $1.67 million contract as a restricted free agent before the 2016 season, and he then made that look like one of the biggest bargains in the league.  

    Bouye played just 211 snaps in 2015, but he upped that total to 790 in 2016. His 410 coverage snaps were especially enlightening. He made great strides as a boundary corner, frequently taking on the No. 1 or No. 2 receiver on the opposing team. And on 77 targets, he allowed 42 catches for 413 yards and two touchdowns and had one pick and a 73.1 opponent passer rating.

    Some may balk at the fact Bouye has been an impact cornerback for less than a full season, but his performances in the second half of 2016 and into the postseason show he's more than a fluke. A dominant performance at Gillette Stadium against the Patriots in Saturday's divisional round would do even more to prove that point.

                                                             

    Grading Scale

    Cvg: Coverage (Graded out of 30)
    React: Reaction/Recovery (Graded out of 30)
    Slot: Slot (Graded out of 20)
    Tkl: Tackling (Graded out of 10)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    A.J. Bouye NFL1000 Scores
    CB RankCvgReactSlotTklPosOvr
    20/13319.019.815.95.4969.2

Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Tony Jefferson ranked eighth overall in our strong safety rankings, though he increased his value to coordinator James Bettcher's Cardinals defense by playing a hybrid role. With Tyrann Mathieu injured through much of the season and D.J. Swearinger playing admirably, Jefferson held everything together among Arizona's safety corps.

    The Cardinals rely on their safeties for everything from deep coverage to run support, and Jefferson proved adept at it all. He amassed two sacks, two quarterback hits, six hurries, 79 solo tackles and 35 stops. He also allowed just 24 catches on 44 targets for 171 yards, two touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 78.9.

    The value of a versatile safety is more pronounced in today's NFL than ever before, and Jefferson proved his worth in that regard at the right time.

                            

    Grading Scale

    Cvg: Coverage (Graded out of 25)
    Rec: Recovery (Graded out of 25)
    Slot: Slot/LB (Graded out of 20)
    Tkl: Tackling (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    Tony Jefferson NFL1000 Scores
    SS RankCvgRecSlotTklPosOvr
    8/5318.118.915.616.0674.6

JC Tretter, C, Green Bay Packers

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    A sprained MCL cut JC Tretter's season in half, which was a shame because he looked great on the field when he was able to start. He allowed two sacks, one hit and five hurries in 488 snaps and run-blocked well for a Packers ground game that was in flux.

    While center Corey Linsley is more of a powerful, driving blocker, Tretter is an excellent blocker on the move. He gets to the second level well, hits his targets and understands zone and combo concepts. He would be an outstanding (and likely lower-priced) addition to any front five in need of experience and agility.

                          

    Grading Scale

    Pass: Pass Protection (Graded out of 25)
    Run: Run Blocking (Graded out of 25)
    Power: Power (Graded out of 20)
    Agl: Agility (Graded out of 20)
    Pos: Positional Value (Graded out of 10)
    Ovr: Highest Possible Score of 100

    JC Tretter NFL1000 Scores
    RankPassRunPowerAglPosOvr
    11/3817.716.415.316.0671.4

     

    Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.