2017 NFL Free Agency: Most Underrated Signings of the First Week

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 17, 2017

2017 NFL Free Agency: Most Underrated Signings of the First Week

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    Our eyes are drawn to the big names and the even larger dollars given to them during the early days of free agency. The first hours can feel like watching a July 4 fireworks display as massive contracts dance across the many screens in your life.

    But while the players tied to those deals will make valuable contributions, often the second-tier pieces gobbled up at a much lower cost have a significant impact too.

    In 2017, they came in the form of Kendall Wright—a young wide receiver who fell out of favor with his former team but is still athletically gifted and could resurrect his career—and Danny Woodhead—an aging and often injured running back who became a highly effective passing-game weapon in the not-so-distant past.

    Free agency is about the Woodheads and Wrights as much as it's about the Stephon Gilmores and DeSean Jacksons. Throwing fistfuls of cash at a top-tier established star is easy. But identifying the hidden gems who could play meaningful roles in the coming season is the hard part and what often separates playoff contenders from consistent basement dwellers.

    Let's take a closer look at some of the top underrated signings after the first week of free agency.

Rex Burkhead, Running Back

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    Rex Burkhead is a walking, breathing, juking and missed tackle-inducing Bill Belichick stereotype at running back.

    He has so much Danny Woodhead-era grit that Burkhead surely sleeps on sandpaper at night. But what really makes him a true Belichick running back is that, while on the surface he fills a highly specific need as a passing-catching specialist, there's something tantalizing that could lie below.

    Burkhead was one of the few running backs to come off the market earlier in free agency when he signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots worth $3.15 million. The 26-year-old has become somewhat of a cult lunchbox hero around the fantasy football community because of the strong potential he's flashed when given fleeting opportunities.

    In his only career start, Burkhead ran for 119 yards on 27 carries for the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 of the 2017 season (4.4 yards per carry). He also added 25 receiving yards that day, bringing his total production through the air in 2016 to 145 yards. That pass-catching contribution doesn't sound overly impressive until you remember he was primarily a special teams player for much of the season and entered Week 11 with only one catch for 10 yards.

    So Burkhead is the classic Belichick back in the sense that he can excel when given a specific job, and the former sixth-round pick is also capable of growing into a much larger role while doing it all at a discounted price.

    Burkhead is elusive and slippery in space and showed by that by creating 15 missed tackles in 2016 on only 91 touches, according to Pro Football Focus. There could be a fight for touches in New England, as Burkhead, James White and Dion Lewis all have similar skill sets. But the newcomer has the ability force his way onto the field fast.

Danny Woodhead, Running Back

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    And now the actual Danny Woodhead comes after the Patriots signed their newest version of Danny Woodhead.

    The original Woodhead has suffered through some hard times recently, with a torn ACL in 2016 and a broken fibula in 2014, which meant that he appeared in only five games combined during those seasons.

    He's also 32 years old now, so normally this is when darkness would start to descend for a running back recovering from a severe knee injury. But there's reason to believe Woodhead can mend himself quickly again while be a hidden gem once more, which is surely why the Baltimore Ravens signed him to a three-year contract with $4.25 million guaranteed.

    The first and best reason is simple: He's done it before, and recently.

    In 2014, Woodhead broke is right leg in Week 3. He was 30 years old at the time, which also isn't exactly an ideal age for a running back to be suffering a significant lower-body injury. Even one like Woodhead, who makes his living primarily as a pass-catcher and has logged only one career season with 100-plus carries.

    Woodhead relies on fluid movement and swift change-of-direction ability in open space to generate chunk yards after the catch. Being able to make jarring cuts would seemingly be the first skill to go after a broken leg. So of course Woodhead then came back completely healthy in 2015 to play all 16 games, and he set a new career single-season high with 755 receiving yards.

    He's still only a year removed from that season and was already seen sprinting and cutting in January while recovering from the ACL tear. If Woodhead is even, say, 80 percent of what he was in 2015 now during his age-32 season, the Ravens will have a steal and a much-needed weapon out of the backfield for quarterback Joe Flacco.

Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver

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    Somewhere inside of Kendall Wright is a first-round pick wide receiver crying out, waiting to be released into the wild.

    He was once a young, ascending talent with the Tennessee Titans and quite rightly worth the 20th overall pick in 2012. Then injuries happened, and coaching-staff clashes happened, and overall the relationship between the Titans and a promising prospect soured.

    That's the bad news about Wright, and the recent history that makes you wonder what the "This Is Fine Dog" would think about him signing with the Chicago Bears.

    But any and all risk is mitigated by the short-term nature of his agreement with a rebuilding team, one that needs to take chances on young potential. Wright signed a one-year deal worth only $4 million.

    If he continues to waste his talent, the 27-year-old will be gone in a year, and his career will be left to languish elsewhere. However, if a new coaching staff can provide a jolt of life then suddenly there could be a long-term growth opportunity for Wright with the Bears.

    They would have the inside track to re-signing Wright, who still has plenty of prime years left, if he can revert back to being the receiver who caught 94 balls for 1,079 yards during just his second NFL season.

    There's a reclamation project within Wright that the Titans couldn't unlock. Now it's up to the Bears, making him the perfect young fit for a team that will spend 2017 trying to find itself.

John Simon, OLB/DE

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    The Indianapolis Colts defense has been gracious to opposing quarterbacks over the past two seasons. Their pass rush, or lack of it, has made the pocket resemble the coziest man cave ever, one complete with the standard neon signs.

    The Colts have failed to hit the 40-sack mark for two straight seasons. Their pass rush ranked 19th in 2016 with 33 sacks and 22nd in 2015 with 35. They needed to find a young pass-rusher who is on the rise, which would come with the added benefit of having cheap control over him for a few years.

    Outside linebacker John Simon has all the tools to be that guy.

    The Colts signed Simon to a three-year contract worth $13.5 million, with only $5.5 million guaranteed. It's a minimal commitment for a pass-rusher who could be developing fast. Whether his climb continues is directly tied to if Simon can keep growing and thriving while not supported by J.J. Watt and/or Jadeveon Clowney.

    With the Houston Texans in 2016. he benefited from having the attention of opposing blockers drawn elsewhere. Still, Simon regularly showed impressive burst to bend around the edge, which led to his 8.5 sacks over the past two years even while playing limited snaps in a situational role.

    Simon was on the field for 61.8 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps in 2015, and that increased to 72.3 percent in 2016, per PFF. Yet during that time he still logged 50 pressures. Simon has also been a quality edge-setter against the run, recording two straight seasons with 50-plus tackles.

    He's a versatile and still young defender at 26 years old who could make a leap in 2017. So yes, he's exactly the front-seven piece the Colts needed to chase.

D.J. Swearinger, Safety

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    When a player is heading to his fourth team in five seasons after being a second-round pick, usually that means his career is winding toward a messy conclusion. Instead, safety D.J. Swearinger finally salvaged his NFL existence, and now the Washington Redskins have added a quality piece at an affordable price.

    The Redskins signed Swearinger to a three-year contract worth $13.5 million but with a modest $9 million guaranteed. That essentially amounts to a one-year commitment for a player whose career has been both turbulent and impressive, though lately more of the latter.

    Swearinger had been known as a heavy hitter who thoroughly enjoyed rattling the snot out of anyone in his general vicinity. Which served its purpose at times, sure, but it also resulted in reckless and even wild play that left Swearinger exposed in coverage. In 2014, for example, Swearinger allowed a 99.2 passer rating over the 59 times he was targeted in coverage, per PFF.

    That's the sort of safety who finds himself firmly in the crosshairs of an opposing quarterback and offensive coordinator, and one who becomes a complete liability. It's also the sort of safety who either changes positions before long or worse, is out of the league.

    But suddenly in 2016, with the Arizona Cardinals, there was a eureka moment for Swearinger. He entered the season with only three career NFL interceptions over three seasons. Then he matched that total by Week 12. Swearinger's passer rating allowed in coverage also improved dramatically while falling to 67.6.

    Whether that rise can continue on a new team and under a new coaching staff is the next question Swearinger needs to answer. If the answer is an emphatic "yep!" then the league's 25th-ranked secondary in 2016 (the Redskins allowed an average of 258.1 passing yards per game) will immediately benefit from a sneakily solid signing.

Alan Branch, Defensive Tackle

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    Hey look, it's another Patriots move that addresses a highly specific need. And it was done with defensive tackle Alan Branch getting a deserved raise but still being paid the equivalent of an Arby's meal by NFL standards.

    Branch will earn a base salary of just $1.7 million in 2017, per Spotrac, and the 2018 half of this two-year deal is a club option. Sure, the cost for his services was lowered by Branch's veteran status, as he's entering his age-32 season. But that's still a minuscule price to pay for one of the best run-stuffing hunks of interior beef in the NFL.

    Branch established a new career single-season high in 2016 with 49 tackles. He was the cornerstone for the league's third-ranked rushing defense that allowed only 88.6 yards on the ground per game. The Patriots also allowed a league-low six rushing touchdowns, and Branch led the way for the interior line with his 26 defensive stops, per PFF.

    By re-signing both Branch and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have brought back the core of a defensive front that routinely made opposing offenses became one dimensional. Toss in the offensive additions in New England, and it's been a rough winter for the many Patriots haters.