Every NFL offseason has its fair share of splashy moves via free agency, the draft and even cuts (hello, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers).
However, it is often the accumulation of under-the-radar signings that brings a team the ultimate success.
That’s not to say the following players aren’t legitimate talents who rank among the best in the league at their position, just that they don’t necessarily have the household-name status as some of the aging veterans on the market.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the less-heralded signings in the early going of free agency that are sure to pay benefits down the road.
Bears Sign Lamarr Houston
The Chicago Bears made waves by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler Peppers, but they actually got younger and more talented on the defensive line at the end of the first day of free agency.
When Chicago’s original pursuit of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett did not go as planned, it quickly turned to its next option in former Oakland Raider Lamarr Houston. Houston received a five-year and $35 million contract and appeared rather pleased to be joining the fold:
Houston may not be as recognizable as Peppers, but Peppers isn’t getting any younger and was clearly on the decline last year (along with much of Chicago’s defense). The 26-year-old Houston registered six sacks for the Raiders in 2013 and is just hitting the prime of his career.
What’s more, he is a solid run defender and can fill holes across the front.
Looking forward, this move is critical for Chicago in its effort to bolster the pass rush and shore up the run defense.
The Bears' defensive front was crippled by a number of injuries last season, which resulted in the worst run defense in the league. Houston will immediately help next year as a healthy body for production and depth purposes and an elite-level pass-rusher and run stopper.
Chargers Sign Donald Brown
Pro Football Talk broke down the details of the San Diego Chargers' decision to sign running back Donald Brown:
Brown averaged a career-high 5.3 yards a carry for the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 and finished with 537 yards rushing, 214 yards receiving and an individual-best eight total touchdowns. What’s more, he is durable, as was evidenced by his presence in the lineup for all 16 regular-season games.
The Chargers evidently struck while the iron was hot on Brown’s career.
Running back certainly wasn’t an area of particular need for San Diego, but Brown provides a solid and consistent backup for Ryan Mathews. The added depth also allows Danny Woodhead to fill the role of a pass-catching running back, which is what he does best, instead of someone who carries the ball a number of times per game.
Pittsburgh Steelers Sign Mike Mitchell
Donte Whitner heading to the Cleveland Browns, T.J. Ward signing with the Denver Broncos and Jairus Byrd going to the New Orleans Saints stole the headlines from the safety position, but don’t overlook the signing of Mike Mitchell by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He seemed excited by the move:
Mitchell discussed his free-agency wishes with Tom Pelissero of the USA Today prior to signing with a team:
I want to play for somebody who's going to be a contender, and I want to be on a team that sees me as an integral piece, not just a little fill-in. I want to be a staple in someone's defense, because I think I can become that type of player.
He will have the chance to become that type of player alongside Troy Polamalu in 2014.
Mitchell was third on the Carolina Panthers in total tackles in 2013 and registered four sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. He is younger than free agent Ryan Clark and provides range as a pass defender and a solid ability to come up and stop the run.
The Steelers secondary will be better in 2014 because of Mitchell.
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