2018 NFL Free Agents: Top Specialists Still Available

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 21, 2018

2018 NFL Free Agents: Top Specialists Still Available

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    Look down the roster of championship-winning teams, and you'll often find a core player who was overlooked the previous offseason.

    Maybe it's a home run threat receiver who wasn't targeted much but could be counted on when needed most. Maybe it's a kick returner who frequently gave his team quality field position, just as the recently signed Cordarrelle Patterson could for the New England Patriots. Or maybe it's a veteran pass-rusher who piled up sacks while seeing only a few snaps each week.

    For the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, Patrick Robinson was that hidden offseason gem found in late March. He thrived as a slot cornerback (four interceptions) while playing under a one-year, $775,000 deal.

    Spotting talent available in the first hours of free agency is easy, but savvy general managers separate themselves a week later with Robinson-like signings. They're able to spot a player who hasn't fit in elsewhere or is older and plug him into a specialized role.

    There are plenty of options still available in 2018. That includes Darren Sproles, one of the best pass-catching running backs of all time and a unique offensive weapon who isn't moving like a player in his mid-30s recovering from a severe injury.

    He leads a list that also features a couple of likely Hall of Famers who aren't quite done yet.

Darren Sproles, Running Back

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    We begin with a specialist who comes with an asterisk. That's true with plenty of bargain-bin players in the second wave of free agency, but Sproles has both an injury and an age warning.

    Sproles, a free agent who had been with the Eagles since 2014, broke his arm and tore an ACL in 2017. That's a lethal injury combination for any running back, especially one entering his age-35 season.

    But Sproles isn't done yet and doesn't want to have being carted off as his last NFL memory.

    Earlier in the offseason, Sproles told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that he's leaning toward returning. His actions showed he's serious about a comeback; so serious that he doesn't look like an aging running back returning from a shredded knee. Recent workout videos show Sproles cutting, pivoting and accelerating with ease.

    He's still a veteran at a position that comes with maximum exposure to violence. Both that and his injury will impact his next contract, as the guaranteed money he gets will be somewhere between zero and very little.

    The reward is getting one of the best passing-catching running backs ever, and he may have one last season of solid production left. Remember, Sproles is just one year removed from catching 52 passes for 427 yards.

Eric Decker, Wide Receiver

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    Eric Decker was briefly internet famous for the wrong reasons in 2017.

    Decker was wide-open for what could have been a key early catch during the Tennessee Titans' playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs. But there was a disconnect between mind and body, and a routine catch bounced off his hands and then his chest before heading to the ground.

    That came at the end of a season where he averaged only 10.4 yards per catch and 35.2 per game. However, he was part of a sputtering Titans passing offense that ranked 23rd, leaving Decker with few opportunities to shine while only thrown to 83 times.

    He could still fit with an offense that needs a slot receiver or a large target on third down and in the red zone. His size hasn't gone anywhere (6'3", 214 lbs), and Decker has leaned on that while recording three double-digit touchdown seasons.

Terence Newman, Cornerback

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    Cornerback Terence Newman is presumably still using red wine as his secret anti-aging remedy. It must be working, because he's not done yet.

    Newman, who has been with the Minnesota Vikings for the past three seasons, told KFAN he intends to play in 2018. This is normally when we would cast him aside as a 40-year-old (in September) clinging on with little left to give. But there's nothing normal about Newman.

    During his age-39 season, the Vikings still trusted Newman enough to trot him onto the field for 55.8 percent of their defensive snaps. During that time, he allowed only 57.4 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, per Pro Football Focus.

    He brings a steady veteran presence and quality depth, two boxes teams often look to check off at cornerback.

Antonio Gates, Tight End

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    It's strange to picture tight end Antonio Gates in a uniform that doesn't feature a lightning bolt, but that could happen if the Los Angeles Chargers decide to move on.

    Gates will turn 38 in June but has already told Jack Wang of the Southern California News Group he's not fading off just yet. "I've still got the juice," he said in late December.

    He does still have something left. Gates wasn't given many opportunities with the Chargers in 2017 due to Hunter Henry's emergence, and he played less than half of the team's offensive snaps.

    When Henry sat out the final two weeks with an injury, Gates reeled in 10 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown. That came after a 2016 season where he caught seven touchdown passes.

    He can still be featured in a limited red-zone role and relied on to come up with tough catches amid heavy traffic. As he showed in 2017, even at his advanced age Gates is also able to provide quality depth.

Alfred Morris, Running Back

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    Alfred Morris was briefly thought of as the next great draft steal at running back: a sixth-round pick who could carry a heavy load.

    His peak came in 2012, when he produced one of the best seasons ever for a rookie running back, finishing with 1,613 rushing yards. That still stands as the fourth-best all-time rookie rushing season. Then slowly the decline began until he was averaging just 3.7 yards per carry during his final year with the Washington Redskins in 2015.

    Morris has since recovered from his spiral, and he still has value, even if it's not in a starting role. He showed that during two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, and especially in 2017 when the 29-year-old had to fill in for Ezekiel Elliott during his suspension.

    Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 115 attempts last season. Over five starts, he posted two outings with 90-plus rushing yards, highlighted by his 127 yards and a touchdown during a win over the Redskins.

    He benefited from running behind one of the league's best offensive lines, but Morris still demonstrated he's capable of being a safety net if the starter goes down.

    He's among the NFL's best backup running backs, and that's not meant as an insult. It's high praise at a position where injuries can pile up quickly.

Kony Ealy, Defensive End

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    The demand for defensive ends who can make an opposing quarterback's life less enjoyable is always sky-high during free agency. The problem, of course, is the supply of such players dwindles fast.

    That was especially true when the market opened in 2018 after Ezekiel Ansah and DeMarcus Lawrence had already been franchise-tagged. Although there was never a marquee pass-rusher available in free agency, there are solid rotational options who can get a half-dozen or so sacks in a limited role.

    Kony Ealy might be the leader of that group.

    He was selected in the second round (60th overall) during the 2014 draft. The 26-year-old may never live up to that draft slot, but at some point that doesn't matter anymore. It's not his fault the Carolina Panthers drafted him so high.

    He probably won't grow into a double-digit sack guy or someone capable of anchoring a pass rush, but a team wouldn't be expecting that from someone still looking for work a week after the market opened. What can be expected, however, is reliable depth from Ealy, which makes him a valuable asset.

    Ealy has recorded five sacks in two of his four NFL seasons. Although he didn't finish the job often in 2017 when he tallied only one sack for the New York Jets, the former Missouri standout still contributed with nine passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.

    Ealy also finished second on the Jets with 25 pressures, per PFF, a perch he reached while playing just 40.5 percent of the team's snaps.

Dwight Freeney, Defensive End

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Dwight Freeney is a pass-rushing legend likely destined for the Hall of Fame whenever he chooses to retire and spend even more time on the golf course. He sits tied for 17th on the all-time career sacks list, and of the 16 players ahead of him, 11 have a gold jacket in their closet.

    But he might not be ready to walk away just yet, and it's easy to understand why.

    If Freeney returns in 2018, he'll be entering his 17th season. Normally that would be reason enough for teams to tip their hats to a fine career and move on. Freeney is different and always has been.

    He split 2017 between the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. The Seahawks signed him at midseason, and over only five games in Seattle he recorded three sacks. Then in a surprising move he was cut and moved on to Detroit, and even while playing just 227 snaps in 2017, he notched 19 pressures. That came after a surprisingly successful 2016 when he finished with 63 pressures, per PFF.

    Freeney is the ideal candidate for a rotational role as an aging pass-rusher who needs to stay fresh. He was uncertain about his future when speaking to Chris Burke of The Athletic in late December. But he hasn't retired yet, and if the Indianapolis Colts legend decides to return for one more year, he will be a sneaky signing.