Every year in free agency there are the players that everyone scrambles to get and then there are the ones who are considered "insurance" players. These last players generally aren't regarded as starter quality and some aren't even considered to be solid back ups. However, there are always diamonds in the rough.
This offseason is no different than any other (except that we don't know what the free agency status will be from day to day, week to week, month to month). There are players who were overshadowed, not given a true opportunity to show their abilities, or just not on the right team to develop them. Some times it is a matter of maturity. There are always players who take more time to develop but it doesn't mean that they won't.
Here is a list of players that are currently the most underrated in free agency and could prove to be the surprise players of the 2011 season.
Even though there is still no word of the lockout being lifted or when the undrafted rookies can be considered free agents, I'm including them here.
This is part of a series which will break down the most underrated free agents by position.
Part one: Quarterbacks
Matt Leinart was the first round pick for the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He was supposed to have been their answer for a franchise QB but that didn't quite work out. The Cardinals let him go in 2010 where he landed with the Houston Texans on a one-year contract.
Leinart went from first string to second string with the Cardinals after they brought veteran QB, Kurt Warner in to elevate the team. Leinart was let go, shall we say, due to "irreconcilable differences" with coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Hoping for a new start with the Texans, Leinart became their third-string QB instead.
Lately the former Heisman Trophy winner seems to be understanding what he needs to do. He lost his confidence as a standout QB. It's a difficult transition for many star athletes in college to make once they enter the professional arena.
There is a lot of pressure on a young QB who is expected to be the new face of a rebuilding franchise. Some are more prepared for this kind of pressure than others. Leinart wasn't. He didn't have the maturity coming into the NFL to provide leadership to himself, let alone the rest of the team.
I'm not knocking on Leinart. It's just the way it is for some of these kids. They are just kids, after all, when they are drafted.
What is more telling to me about Leinart is the way he is handling the situation he is in now. After taking a major blow to his confidence and then being humbled by a career that had him going from starter to a third string back up, Leinart hasn't given up.
“I have had a lot of learning experiences and ups and downs, but I know that I have grown as a player and as a person, on and off the football field," Leinart told the Daily Trojan. “I am totally ready to take advantage of the next opportunity I get.”
Leinart may have had to learn the hard way how to grow up in the NFL. His work ethic had been in question while with the Cardinals which may have been part of his learning curve.
If Leinart is going to be able to be a starter again he has to believe in himself and become a leader. He has the talent and has learned a lot of valuable lessons. Now he has to show whichever team he ends up playing for that he really has matured.
He hasn't given up on himself, which is a good sign. He hasn't crumbled and isn't whining about not getting a chance. He has been given a chance. Now he just has to step into the role of a true former Heisman winner, reconnect with the fire in his belly to be a starter, and bring his 'A' game every day.
I wouldn't label Leinart as a "bust" if he can find his way back out of the number three spot.
He has the right attitude to step up. He's matured.
I'd be very interested in seeing what he can do given another chance to show why he went in the first round five years ago.
John Parker Wilson
The issue with most younger QBs in the NFL who are not targeted as starters is the lack of NFL experience. They don't get reps, they don't get protection; they are not often played in regular season games; they always end up playing with the second and third string players (sometimes even the practice squad guys), and they get pushed further and further into obscurity.
Some of these young players have talent and only need the opportunity to be tested on the field during the regular season with the first string guys.
There are also the cases where they are given a chance to play in the "big league", but the team's best offensive line isn't very good and doesn't give a new guy much of a prayer to have anyone to work with.
John Parker Wilson would fit in the first scenario.
While he was the starting QB with Alabama's Crimson Tide, in 2008, Wilson was impressive. He passed for 2,846 yards on the season with 18 touchdowns. He holds a school-record 16 200-yard passing games and is among the Crimson Tide's career leaders in pass attempts (852), completions (478), passing yardage (5,651) and touchdown passes (37).
Since being picked up by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Wilson has yet to play in a regular season game. He is the third string QB after Matt Ryan and Chris Redman. Wilson is a young QB with a good arm. He just needs to find a team where he actually can get some playing time in.
The Falcons will likely keep him as a third-string QB.
As I do with all the guys on this list, I just hope he gets his time to see if he can be a second string or even develop into somebody's first string QB in the future.
Character is not an issue with this guy. Did you happen to catch his "Know it Forward" public service announcements? A football player who talks about preventing sexual assault is high-caliber in my book.
Scott Tolzien, the starting QB for the University of Wisconsin, was considered to be the 14th best QB in this year's draft. The one thing that may have held him back was his need to bulk up. He can't get any taller (he's 6'2") but he could add some muscle to his 209lb frame.
Tolzien did not get any playing time until 2008, and that was extremely limited. In 2009, he started in all 13 games, posted 2,705 yards (64.3 passer rating),16 TDs, but was intercepted 11 times. In 2010, he started in all 13 games, threw for 2,459 yards (72.9 passer rating), 16 TDs and reduced his interceptions to 6.
This guy has a high character value and can be a very effective leader on and off the field.
If no one is open, he fights for yardage by tucking and running. Tolzien doesn't possess great speed but he shows a lot of aggressiveness to move the ball and is fairly composed in the pocket. He needs more coaching at how to fool defenses by not looking straight at the intended receiver but has shown progress in this area.
His footwork, which can be hard to teach, is very good and he gets out of the pocket quickly. He can also throw to either side while rolling out.
Tolzien might not be starter quality in the NFL but he would be a solid back up and can learn from a solid veteran.
He is worth the risk and should be added to someone's roster.
I can see many people wondering why I have Mike Hartline here instead of Pat Devlin, who was rated higher in the draft this year. Both have character issues and both went undrafted. Hartline has more upside, in my opinion, if given the right culture to grow up in. Besides, this article is about who is the most underrated, and Devlin has a strong contingency of people already rooting for him.
Mike Hartline wasn't really expected to go in the draft. If he did get picked up it was thought that it would be in the later rounds. The Green Bay Packers in the second round picked up his teammate from Kentucky, Randall Cobb.
Hartline didn't have many fans at the University of Kentucky, however, don't count this guy out. He has professional football in his DNA makeup.
You may not be familiar with Mike, but his brother, Brian Hartline is a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins. If you look at Mike you may be inclined to wonder why he didn't follow in his brother's footsteps and play at wide receiver instead of QB. He's 6'5" and weighs 219lbs. He is another young QB who needs to bulk up, but he lacks elite speed.
The interesting thing about Hartline and Cobb is that Hartline actually lost his QB job to Cobb, temporarily, in 2008.
Hartline's 2008 campaign wasn't a washout though. He started the first eight games, was named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the Liberty Bowl, earned the ESPN Helmet Sticker for leading Kentucky to a huge comeback in the fourth quarter, threw a 71 yard bomb for a score and had 95 consecutive passes without an interception.
In 2009 he started the first five games but then went down with a knee injury.
He was back to form in 2010 where he threw for 3,178 yards, had 23 TDs, nine interceptions and was sacked a career high 14 times.
What may have hurt him most for the draft was that how he ended his senior year. He was not allowed to play in the BBVA Compass Bowl because he had been arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct.
Being concerned about Hartline's ability to provide leadership in the NFL is understandable. He can play football though and with the right coaching and team culture, Hartline could be well worth the risk. He's the right height for the NFL and played in a pro-style offense at Kentucky. He is also considered to be a tough-minded and competitive QB.
This is another young QB who needs to mature. He may never be a starter but he could be a solid second string guy with the right coaching.
Drew Stanton TD
Here's a quiz for you. Which Detroit Lions QB beat the Packers in 2010? Answer: Third-string QB Drew Stanton.
The fact that Stanton is a third-string QB who found a way to beat the aft-crowned Super Bowl Champions could be enough to warrant him the most underrated QB in free agency this year. He opened a lot of eyes last season, including the ones of Lions' head coach, Jim Schwartz.
Interestingly, Stanton was chosen to be the most underrated QB in the 2007 NFL draft also. War Room NFL writer, Chris Otwell had this to say:
Stanton possesses the skills to be a better overall QB than both Russell and Quinn if drafted by the right team. He has a rocket arm and can throw on the move as well as either of them. Stanton is still raw, playing at Michigan State, and we are yet to see the best of him.
Stanton was taken in the second round of the 2007 draft. He was being coached by Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz (who is no longer at Detroit). Martz had Stanton change almost every aspect of his game. Much of this may have been helpful but it it also could have hurt him as he tried to make some major adjustments to his QB style.
Prior to being drafted, Stanton, who was the starter for the Michigan State Spartans, was thought to have what it took to make a big impact in the NFL.
Stanton has adequate size and a good arm, but his greatest asset is his mobility and escape ability. Not only can he avoid the rush with his feet, but Stanton's pinpoint accuracy does not fail him even when he's on the run. He possesses all the essential intangibles, too, as he almost always makes good decisions with the football and is a natural-born leader. Stanton's main issues are inconsistency, durability, and mentality. When things get rough, Stanton often gets too hard on himself and lets the situation spiral out of control [...]
Most of what was predicted has come to fruition with Stanton. He can easily be an NFL-caliber QB but has to work on his self-defeating thought process when things aren't going well. By the end of the 2010 season, I submit that as the Lions themselves thwarted several demons, so did Drew Stanton.
Here is a brief look into his NFL career:
Before Stanton could take the field in 2007 he ended up having to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and was placed on the reserve/injured list.
In 2008 he was a third-string backup for the first four games of the season and then elevated to second string the fifth week. In his very first game against Jacksonville, Stanton's first pass was a TD (only the second Lion in history to do so). He also completed 6 of 8 passes in this game for 94 yards.
A concussion had him leave the game against Tampa Bay two weeks later.
In 2009 he only played in three games and struggled with 26 of 52 passes for 259 yards and six interceptions. Stanton, however, began to show his mobility and scored his first rushing TD against the Arizona Cardinals. He was also selected as the Robert Porcher Man of the Year for his off-the-field community service and was a finalist in the Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Last season Stanton had a lot more time on the field and showed flashes of what kind of QB he can be when his confidence is where is should be.
Though he was still regarded as the team's third string QB, he was brought into the game against the New York Giants after QB Shaun Hill broke his forearm. Stanton threw for 222 yards and posted one TD, and a pass to WR Calvin Johnson for an 87 yard gain (which resulted in the TD). He showed his ability to run again during this game and rushed for 30 yards.
His second career start was against the Chicago Bears on December 5. He threw for 178 yards (16 of 24) and scored two TD's. His first TD was a completed pass to Calvin Johnson and he ran the ball in himself for the second TD.
All of this was leading up to his two most impressive games of the season and of his career. On December 12, Stanton threw the game winning TD pass against Green Bay in the fourth quarter. He also rushed for 44 yards against the Packers that included one for 17 yards.
Next, he helped defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 252 yards passing (23 of 37) and threw the game-winning TD in overtime.
Overall in 2010, he threw the ball 119 times and only had three interceptions while posting five TDs (one was a rushing TD). That is major progress over his previous year where he threw 51 times and had six of them intercepted with no passing TDs (but one rushing). If he continues at this pace, Stanton will emerge as a true NFL QB worthy of at least a second string position.
Stanton still may need a bit more time on the field to be a starter but if he didn't make fans and the Lions' coaches look at him differently after his end of the year performances, I'd suggest they weren't watching the same games or the same player.
Schwartz did put a tender on Stanton this off season so he saw enough in the 27 year old QB to either want him to stick around longer or see if other teams would show interest in free agency.
I like Shaun Hill a lot and believe that Matthew Stafford will finally have the season he has been expected to have since drafted in 2008. I would like nothing more than to have Stanton resign with the Lions, however, if he is never going to be given a chance to be more than a third string QB (except when the others are injured), then I would wish him all the best in going to a team that will give him that chance.
There are several teams who still desperately need a QB. Stanton is, in my opinion, the most underrated of all the QBs in free agency this year and would be a great asset to any team.