Best NFL Free Agents Still Available Heading into Regular Season

Brent SobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 5, 2017

Best NFL Free Agents Still Available Heading into Regular Season

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    The pickings are slim, but value can still be found among the top remaining free agents. 

    NFL teams simply aren't content to stand pat. Every option is considered in an attempt to improve a franchise's 53-man roster. 

    "It never stops," Seattle GM John Schneider told MMQB's Peter King prior to Saturday's roster deadline. "This is a nonstop building of the roster now. We're not smarter than anyone else—I can guarantee you that—so we're just going to keep working.”

    Those still available are imperfect. Most times, age or injuries are the biggest factors in their availabilities. Some extenuating circumstances come into play, too.

    The life of a professional football player is stressful. Everyone can be replaced. The remaining top free agents are just biding their time until someone currently on a roster falters. 

    "Well, the reality of it is this is the National Football League and there are plenty of guys that are going to be on rosters today, tomorrow and Week 1 that won't be on them in Week 3 or Week 4," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, per the Associated Press' Maureen Mullen.

    The following are the 10 best guys waiting in the wings for their next shot. 

QB Colin Kaepernick

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    Would you like to play a game? This one is called "Name that quarterback." 

    Below are two quarterbacks and their performances during the 2016 campaign. Both of these signal-callers started at least 11 contests and played in 12. 

    1. Player A: 59.2 completion percentage; 2,241 passing yards; 6.8 yards per attempt; 16 touchdowns; four interceptions; 90.7 quarterback rating; 468 rushing yards
    2. Player B: 59.0 completion percentage; 2,957 passing yards; 5.8 yards per attempt; 15 touchdowns; 16 interceptions; 72.2 quarterback rating; 131 rushing yards

    Colin Kaepernick is Player A, and he's been unemployed without an offer from a team since opting out of his previous contract with the San Francisco 49ers on March 3. 

    Brock Osweiler is Player B, and he agreed to a deal with the Denver Broncos mere hours after being released by the Cleveland Browns, who are still paying him over $15 million this season. 

    "He's inaccurate, inconsistent reading defenses," an anonymous executive said of Kaepernick, per MMQB's Albert Breer. "He needs everything to be perfect around him, and he needs to run a certain offense."

    The executive could just as easily be talking about Osweiler, who has as many issues, if not more, than Kaepernick from an on-field perspective. Yet he has a job when his colleague doesn't. 

    The excuses have been plentiful, and the politics have been covered endlessly. It's clear something is holding Kaepernick back outside the normal realm of player evaluation, because he's good enough to be an NFL quarterback. 

RB Chris Johnson

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    As soon as any running back hits 30, he is automatically devalued. There are only so many carries in a runner's body before it starts to break down. 

    Chris Johnson turns 32 years old later this month, and his glory days are long behind him. Yet he's still a competent back capable of effectively carrying the ball and contributing in the passing game. 

    "I'm getting better and better," Johnson said last week, per ESPN.com. "Me running the ball never really has been the problem, but I think I've shown my hands have gotten better, catching the ball better and those types of things. I think I've really done all that I can do."

    However, injuries have been an issue the last two seasons. A groin injury forced him onto injured reserve last year. The running back suffered a fractured tibia in 2015. 

    When Johnson is on the field, he can still be effective as a runner, receiver and blocker. Some team must be comfortable his injury history or suffer a key injury in the backfield before Johnson becomes a serious option. 

WR Jeremy Kerley

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    Oftentimes, a young and cheaper version pushes a veteran off the roster. This was exactly the case for Jeremy Kerley. 

    The San Francisco 49ers' decision to release the 28-year-old Kerley has less to do with the veteran's ability to play and more about a rookie stepping in and performing at a sufficient level during training camp and the preseason. 

    "Once we got Trent Taylor in that slot and once we saw that Trent could handle it and handle it right away, we said it was going be hard at that point for Jeremy to make the roster," 49ers general manager John Lynch said, per the Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows

    The organization thought highly enough of Kerley to sign him to a three-year, $8.4 million extension in March. The franchise already paid him $2.8 million in guaranteed money, while Taylor is set to make $465,000 this season. 

    Kerley led the 49ers last season with 64 receptions for 667 yards. He's a tailor-made slot receiver with the ability to separate and create after the catch.

TE Gary Barnidge

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    Gary Barnidge's NFL career is like a movie. The slow build led to an surprise everyone was talking about before wrapping up everything during the final act. 

    Barnidge played six seasons before his breakout Pro Bowl performance during the 2015 campaign. The veteran provided one of the greatest seasons by a tight end in Cleveland Browns history with 79 receptions for 1,043 years and nine touchdowns. 

    He followed the standout season with an underwhelming 55-catch, 612-yard effort. The Browns decided to get younger and more athletic at the position with the first-round selection of David Njoku before releasing Barnidge. 

    Now, it's time for the 31-year-old target to experience his final act as an NFL performer. 

    His value still resides in the passing game. Barnidge was never the most athletic option, yet he's adept at finding the soft spots in zone coverages and provides the quarterback with a reliable target. He's a poor blocker but more than makes up for it with his experience and contributions as a receiver. 

    In today's pass-happy NFL, Barnidge still has a place on a team in need of a tight end with polished skills.

OG Alex Boone

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    Alex Boone signed a four-year $26.8 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings prior to the 2016 campaign. He was supposed to serve as the cornerstone of rebuilt offensive line. Instead, he lasted one season with 14 starts before the organization decided to move in another direction. 

    According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Ben Goessling, the organization wanted to retain the guard at a reduced price. Boone scoffed at the idea. The Vikings still owe the blocker $3.4 million this season, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio

    The Vikings obviously didn't feel Boone's play warranted the rest of his deal. But the decision doesn't indicate a decline in play for the 30-year-old blocker. He'll consider his options and likely sign with another team in need of interior help.

    The Miami Dolphins appear to be the favorite to acquire Boone's services since offensive line coach Chris Foerster coached him in San Francisco and the team needs help at left guard after placing Ted Larsen on injured reserve. 

    Boone told the Palm Beach Post's Joe Schad he's "very interested" in the possibility of playing for the Dolphins. 

OG John Greco

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    Teams in search of an experienced swing lineman should look no further than John Greco. The 32-year-old interior blocker started 66 games over the last five seasons for the Cleveland Browns. 

    But the Browns' youth movement pushed Greco off the roster, even though he was expected to serve as the team's sixth lineman. 

    The veteran has played in zone-heavy and gap schemes. He can play guard, center or even right tackle in a pinch. Greco's ex-teammates weren't exactly thrilled about the front office's decision to release him. 

    "It's s----y," left guard Joel Bitonio said, per 92.3 the Fan's Daryl Ruiter. "... It was tough for me. It was one of the tougher cuts."

    Greco spent the offseason recovering from Lisfranc surgery, yet he started three preseason contests in Bitonio's stead, while the younger guard nursed a nagging injury. 

    The nine-year lineman can still start for an organization in the right situation. At worst, he can serve as a top backup at multiple positions. 

C Nick Mangold

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    A seven-time Pro Bowl performer is sitting at home waiting for an opportunity. Center Nick Mangold remains unsigned since the New York Jets released the 33-year-old lineman in February. 

    Is Mangold the same dominant blocker he once was? Of course not. But his experience should be a welcome addition to any offensive line. 

    "Right now, I'm kind of sitting back and weighing what options are available," Mangold told SiriusXM NFL radio in May (h/t ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley). 

    Mangold still hasn't signed a deal, and opportunities are limited as franchises prepare for the regular season. A veteran of Mangold's stature doesn't necessarily need to go through camp and the preseason to be effective, but he'll need time to assimilate in a new situation, especially if he's expected to make line calls. 

    There's also a potential issue regarding Mangold's health. The center missed eight games last year and landed on injured reserve due to an ankle injury. 

    If healthy and fully committed, Mangold can still be one of the league's better centers, even at an advanced age.

DT Ra'Shede Hageman

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    The possible acquisition of defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman is a delicate situation. 

    Hageman is 27 years old, a 2014 second-round pick and started in Super Bowl LI for the Atlanta Falcons. Most teams would jump at the opportunity to sign such a talented defensive lineman. 

    However, the Falcons decided to move on from the 6'6", 310-pound defender after he was placed on the Commissioner's Exempt List once a police investigation into alleged domestic violence from 2016 concluded, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter

    The NFL's investigation into the matter is still pending. 

    Once the league hands out its ruling, teams may be interested in acquiring Hageman. His talent has never been in question. When the defensive tackle's motor runs hot, he can overwhelm offensive linemen and make plays in the backfield. 

    Franchises are always searching for interior defenders who can collapse the pocket and create pressure. Hageman graded as the NFL's fourth-best interior pass-rusher last season, per Pro Football Focus

    His level of effort has been inconsistent throughout his career, though.

    Right now, Hageman's status is a league matter. Once available, his talent may be too tempting for an organization to ignore. 

DT Jaye Howard

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    Injuries limited Jaye Howard's effectiveness over the past year, but he's getting healthy and ready to contribute for some franchise. 

    The defensive lineman missed eight games in 2016 with the Kansas City Chiefs due to a hip injury that required surgery. The same malady slowed his progress with the Chicago Bears during training camp and the preseason. As a result, the Bears released the 28-year-old defensive lineman. 

    Howard developed into a starting-caliber defender prior to the injury. He managed 57 total tackles and 5.5 sacks during the 2015 campaign. The Chiefs rewarded him with a two-year, $10 million contract extension. His injury complicated matters before he was released. 

    According to the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs, the defender's hip was "feeling better," but the organization decided to part ways anyhow. 

    A team's medical evaluation will determine how enticing Howard is. If he is truly feeling better and returns to 2015 form, he'll be a valuable addition to any roster. 

LB Sean Spence

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    Sean Spence finally experienced a breakthrough season in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans after multiple disappointing and injury-filled campaigns with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

    Spence finished fifth on the Tennessee Titans last season with 50 tackles even though he only started six games. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked third among inside linebackers in tackling efficiency. He registered three sacks, too. 

    The Indianapolis Colts signed Spence to a one-year, $2.5 million contract to help improve the team's speed and athleticism. Unfortunately, Spence tumbled down the Colts' depth chart due to a nagging hamstring injury. The organization decided to retain four inside linebackers, who are all younger than the 27-year-old Spence. 

    Soft-tissue injuries are tricky, yet Spence will be an interesting possibility for 3-4 teams in search of an inside linebacker with experience calling plays for a defense. 

    The 2012 third-round pick already showed he can be a reliable backup and spot starter in case of injury or any other extenuating circumstance.

S Dwight Lowery

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    Every year, a team makes a surprise roster move by releasing a veteran starter, who previously seemed to be a lock to make the team. 

    This year, it was the Los Angeles Chargers with free safety Dwight Lowery. The 31-year-old defensive back started all 16 games last year, led the defense in total snaps and registered 60 total tackles and nine defended passes. 

    The organization signed Tre Boston this offseason to compete with Lowery for a starting spot and appears comfortable moving forward with Boston as the last line of defense. 

    Boston was both younger and cheaper. As such, the nine-year veteran is searching for a new home, and he'll be ready once another team calls. 

    "I will certainly continue to train, improve and be in shape in the event of another opportunity," Lowery told the Santa Cruz Sentinel's Jim Seimas 

    All stats via Pro Football Reference or NFL.com unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers are courtesy of Spotrac