2015 NFL Free Agency: Ideal Hidden Gems for Every Team
With one NFL game remaining before the offseason takes center stage, Bleacher Report takes a look at the talent pool available in this year’s class of free agents. But in order to take the free-agency conversation to another level, this slideshow will examine an ideal hidden gem for each team in the league.
So, what exactly is a hidden gem when it comes to free agency?
This was categorized as players who aren’t likely to demand a top-tier contract at their respective positions. That means free agents like DeMarco Murray, Demaryius Thomas, Jordan Cameron and others along that vein will not be listed in this slideshow.
Note: Hidden gems for each NFL team was determined by the talent of the free agent, team needs and how well that player fits with the scheme and organization. Teams with the worst 2014 records were given first priority when deciding which teams would get which players.
Buffalo Bills, Brian Hoyer, QB
Don't get used to seeing quarterbacks because Brian Hoyer is the only guy to make this list from that position.
Anytime you get benched for Johnny Manziel, you’re probably going to be considered a hidden gem. Hoyer might be the most promising quarterback in a weak free-agent class and could provide great leadership as well as a Plan B in case EJ Manuel is not the answer.
Hoyer showed impressive deep-ball skills last year and will be operating primarily off play action just as he did in Cleveland. New head coach Rex Ryan plans on implementing the ground-and-pound attack on offense, which should suit a guy like Hoyer.
If Hoyer never ends up starting for the Bills, he would still be a great addition as a backup and mentor to Manuel.
Miami Dolphins, Michael Crabtree, WR
The Dolphins are still building up a playoff team. Year 3 of this process will have to be a success, or they risk starting over with a new coaching staff and quarterback.
Ryan Tannehill made some great strides in his third year as the Dolphins QB, but he will need some more weapons if Miami expects to see him take that next step.
High-priced wideout Mike Wallace is disgruntled and likely won’t be back. That leaves a gaping hole that the team will need to fill with a target who better suits Tannehill’s strengths in the intermediate game.
If the 49ers let Michael Crabtree walk, which is likely to happen, the Dolphins can pick him up at a reasonable rate considering the numerous big names at this position coupled with Crabtree’s down year. He finished the season averaging just 43.6 receiving yards per game, the lowest of his six-year career.
New England Patriots, B.J. Raji, NT
Many may have forgotten about B.J. Raji after he went on injured reserve with a torn bicep at the beginning of the season.
He is a massive anchor in the middle and could be an eventual replacement for Vince Wilfork, who will be 34 next season.
The Patriots love monsters at nose tackle to clog up any runs in the middle, and Raji should be a bargain for the value he brings to a team.
Another intriguing hidden gem at nose tackle would be Terrence Cody, who was recently cut by the Baltimore Ravens. He is listed at 6’4”, 370 pounds, which probably makes him one of the biggest guys in the NFL today.
Raji gives a team much more lateral movement and is just a better football player overall than Cody. Acquiring him would help provide both depth and girth to New England’s defensive front.
New York Jets, Kareem Jackson, CB
The Jets are one of those teams that need help in a lot of areas. A speed-rusher has been missing from this defense for years, but New York also must upgrade the cornerback position.
Offensively, the Jets need help at quarterback and all of the skill positions but will have to tackle some of that in the draft.
This free-agent class has some pretty decent names at cornerback available. The best bet for the Jets would be to land former first-round pick Kareem Jackson from Houston.
Jackson has struggled for much of his young career, but he seems to be improving with experience. Jackson is 27 years old and could be a long-term answer at the position if he continues to ascend.
The problem here is that Jackson could be in higher demand than anticipated, in which case he may not be a great example of a hidden gem. The reason he’s listed here is because he was one among the worst starting CBs in the league in three of his five years as a pro. This doesn’t mean Jackson will come cheap, but he shouldn’t command an elite contract unless two teams fall in love with him and start a bidding war.
Baltimore Ravens, Byron Maxwell, CB
The Ravens will be watching the Super Bowl at home on their couches this year largely because their secondary lacked the talent to compete against New England. In order to fix this for 2015, Baltimore must bring in some fresh bodies at cornerback to compete and provide depth.
Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb make up a talented duo, but the Ravens need to bolster the nickel and dime packages to avoid a major drop-off in the event of an injury—as was the case in 2014 when Smith went down.
If the Seahawks are unable to retain the services of CB Byron Maxwell, he would be a great free-agent signing for the Ravens.
In his last two years as a member of the Seahawks, Maxwell allowed just three TD passes and six interceptions while being the main target of opposing quarterbacks who are trying to avoid Richard Sherman.
Cincinnati Bengals, Jabaal Sheard, DE
What is it going to take for the Bengals to advance in the postseason? Per usual, they finished the regular season with a solid 10-5-1 record but lost their first playoff game yet again.
The biggest weakness for an otherwise talented Bengals roster was the pass rush. Cincinnati tallied 23 sacks in 2014, ranking 30th in the league.
A great free-agent pickup for them would be Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, but he’s not considered a hidden gem.
Jabaal Sheard, on the other hand, is a hidden gem who might be worth bringing in to help shore up the edges of that defense. He played his first four years at outside linebacker for the Browns and tallied 23 sacks over that span.
He does have talent as a rusher but has always underachieved. He may be able to fully realize his potential in Cincy with his hand in the ground at DE. Sheard was primarily a backup in 2014, finishing with a career-low two sacks.
Cleveland Browns, Jeremy Maclin, WR
After a slow finish to the season, the 7-9 Cleveland Browns will undergo major changes on offense after the departure of their coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Quarterback Johnny Manziel is starting to look like more of a problem than an answer, while star receiver Josh Gordon is not someone you can rely on either. This organization needs to do everything it can to re-sign tight end Jordan Cameron.
It’s a bit too early to give up on Manziel considering the investment and lack of real opportunity to prove his worth. With that said, adding a receiving weapon like Jeremy Maclin could be the Browns' best play.
Maclin should fall into the second tier of free-agent receivers and is not likely to command a price they can’t afford. He is quick and has some shiftiness in space. At this point, the Browns can't be too picky, and Maclin brings an explosive element to an offense that needs it. Besides, he is just 27 years old and entering the prime of his career if he can stay healthy.
It wouldn’t be crazy to pursue an additional veteran receiver this offseason as well.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Walter Thurmond, CB
Pittsburgh is slowly creating its next-generation defense while slowing phasing out the aging vets. One of the main needs this offseason is for the secondary to get younger, faster and more talented across the board.
This is where Walter Thurmond comes in. He joined the Giants last year as a free agent, but he tore his pectoral muscle early in the season and went on injured reserve for the remainder of 2014. This prevented the Giants from gauging the player they invested in.
Thurmond was a sold addition to the Legion of Boom back in 2013, and there is good reason to assume he can be that type of player again. He should also come at a low price, which always adds to a player’s overall value.
Houston Texans, Brandon Spikes, ILB
Houston finished 2014 with an impressive 9-7 record and no contributions from its first pick in the draft, Jadeveon Clowney. Quarterback is an area of need, but this is a desperately thin crop of free agents to choose from. Head coach Bill O’Brien’s best bet is to bring back Ryan Mallet and look to upgrade the position in the draft.
With Brian Cushing on the decline due to multiple injuries, the Texans need to bolster the interior of their defense. Adding Brandon Spikes will make this defense nearly impossible for teams to run against.
Spikes is not known for his speed or coverage ability, but he can take on blockers and clog up a running lane like nobody’s business. Not only will he be an affordable gem for Houston, but he is only 28 years old.
Indianapolis Colts, Stefen Wisniewski, C
Indianapolis has some strong pieces to build around—starting with quarterback Andrew Luck—but its defense as a whole will need to improve, along with the offensive line.
Veteran center Stefen Wisniewski could be the anchor upfront the Colts need to take their offense to the next level. After all, when you have a quarterback like Luck on your team, you have to do what you can to protect and help him succeed.
Wisniewski is a hidden gem who could help the Colts in several areas offensively. He brings a tough demeanor and attitude you look for in a center and is still several years away from turning 30. This is always the best age to lock up a player for the next four years.
Jacksonville Jaguars, Rodney Hudson, C
Head coach Gus Bradley was hoping for more signs of growth in his second year with the Jaguars. However, it appears the owner and general manager are showing him the patience required to turn this team around.
When Brad Meester suddenly retired just before the start of the season, it put the Jaguars in quite a bind. They failed to properly replace him, and it showed.
In an interview with Bleacher Report, former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist said, “Center is the most important offensive line position. The best units are generally anchored by a son-of-a-gun at center. Without a good center, you’re not going to have a good offensive line.”
With that said, why not grab the 26-year-old center from Kansas City, Rodney Hudson? He came out of nowhere to have one of the best seasons of any center in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Hudson graded out third overall among NFL centers.
Tennessee Titans, Brandon Graham, OLB
Anytime you drop 14 of your last 15 games, you can expect some major changes to the roster in the offseason. Tennessee may have found a franchise QB in the youngster Zach Mettenberger—only time will tell there.
A primary need is to bolster a defense that ranked 27th in yards allowed and tied for 16th in sacks (39) last year.
Derrick Morgan led the team in sacks in 2014 with just 6.5.
Brandon Graham is just 27 years old and was underutilized during his stint with Philadelphia. The good news is he should have low mileage and would command a cheap price. His age is also a major benefit when you factor in the high likelihood that his best years are still ahead of him.
Graham has tallied 14 sacks in the last three years despite being a part-time player.
Denver Broncos, Cecil Shorts, WR
This is going to be an interesting offseason for the Denver Broncos, who have a lot of changes on the horizon. There is still no word on whether Peyton Manning will return for yet another season, even though he is turning 39. Eventually, they will need a QB of the future, and Brock Osweiler is not going to be that guy.
If Denver is still positioning itself for a championship run, it has to think about more immediate needs. Retaining TE Julius Thomas and WR Demaryius Thomas won’t be easy or cheap. That means the Broncos might have to look to replace production from at least one of those spots.
WR Cecil Shorts will help make up for the loss of Wes Welker and possibly one of the Thomases.
Shorts is an underrated gem from Jacksonville who had more than 2,300 yards receiving in his last 40 games. He’s just 27 years old and can be a solid contributor for the next three to five years.
Kansas City Chiefs, Jermaine Kearse, WR
The Chiefs had one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL last year, allowing 4.7 yards per attempt (30th). They also went an entire season without a wide receiver catching a single touchdown.
There are a lot of needs for this 9-7 team, but wide receiver has to be the most glaring.
It's wise for the Chiefs to get better in the red zone with their passing game. They will need to add a big body who can use his size to box out defenders and pull the ball in.
Jermaine Kearse has the body (6’1”, 212 lbs) to be a useful for the Chiefs in all areas of the field. In 2014 he had a career high in receiving yards with 537 but only had one receiving touchdown. That could be a problem considering the Chiefs need receiving touchdowns more than anything, but I think he can be that type of player.
Kearse elevates his game in the clutch and has the patience to wait for his number without getting frustrated. Those are key character traits for a receiver who is catching balls from Alex Smith.
Oakland Raiders, Torrey Smith, WR
Only the Bengals had fewer sacks than the Raiders’ 22 this past season. Some might say the Raiders should go for a pass-rusher this offseason. That’s a fair perspective and one that shouldn’t be argued with any vigor. However, Torrey Smith might be the only receiver available who can actually maximize the rocket arm of Derek Carr.
Smith fits the mold of late owner Al Davis and really brings an explosive vertical element to the game that this franchise has emphasized for decades.
The big question is whether Smith qualifies as a hidden gem. The reason I say yes is because this is a strong free-agent class of receivers with guys like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb and Michael Crabtree. With names like that potentially testing the market, Smith falls into the second tier in terms of market value.
San Diego Chargers, A.Q. Shipley, C
Longtime Chargers center Nick Hardwick is 34 years old and a free agent. He will probably not return. That leaves a huge hole that the team will need to fill.
This past year, the Chargers offensive line ranked 31st in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders. Some of that was poor play at the guard positions, but center is where it all starts when you consider Hardwick missed the season with an injury.
A.Q. Shipley signed with the Colts after being cut by the Ravens. He started four games in 2014 and played well for the most part.
Shipley is far from the long-term answer to the Chargers' problem at center. But he does offer stability, depth and a stopgap for the team until it can replace the huge shoes left by Hardwick.
Without a quality center, the offensive line could crumble around Philip Rivers.
Dallas Cowboys, Mark Ingram, RB
The Cowboys will need to add some veterans to their defense, especially up front. There should be some worthwhile names to pursue this offseason who aren’t hidden gems.
Many Cowboys fans fear the likelihood of DeMarco Murray leaving for a big contract that Jerry Jones is not willing to match. If this ends up happening, Dallas will need to replace Murray with a back who is capable of sustaining the type of running game the team established this past year.
Mark Ingram seems to have the body type of Emmitt Smith and could be a great replacement to run the ball behind this elite offensive line.
At just 25 years of age, the former Heisman winner rushed for a career-high 964 yards in 2014 and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry over his four-year professional career.
New York Giants, Rahim Moore, S
The New York Giants have missed playoffs three straight years now. This has to be longtime head coach Tom Coughlin’s last chance at redemption after leading his team to two improbable Super Bowl victories.
With aging safety Antrel Rolle not expected to return and Stevie Brown likely to test the free-agent market, there will be a glaring need to fill some holes at this position.
In the event that the Giants don’t re-sign Brown, Rahim Moore is a hidden gem who would be an upgrade at the position.
Not only is Moore three years younger than Brown, but he is also better at staying healthy and making big plays. Last year he had four interceptions, whereas Brown has none.
Moore should come at a great value. The Giants can sign him to a long-term contract to retain his services throughout his prime years.
Philadelphia Eagles, Perrish Cox, CB
One of the main areas in need is the Eagles secondary. Cary Williams has good length but may not be the type of personality Chip Kelly wants on his team.
In today’s NFL, you can never have too many great cornerbacks—this is where Perrish Cox comes into play. He surprised everyone last year with his ability get his hands on the ball. Sometimes, he hauled it in, but other times it would just turn into a pass breakup. He finished the season with five interceptions.
Cox is a great free-agent addition who shouldn’t demand an inflated salary, even though he had an impressive season.
Washington Redskins, Da’Norris Searcy, S
Washington has struggled for several years to turn this franchise into a contender. The Redskins secondary needs an overhaul for the most part. Some of that will have to be through affordable veterans via free agency.
Washington could probably use help at the cornerback position just as much as safety, but both areas are severely deficient. This past season, impending free agents Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather were major liabilities. It’s time to move on and upgrade quickly.
Da’Norris Searcy is a great hidden gem in part because he is just 27 years old, which means you can build around him. He also had a solid year for Buffalo in 2014, picking off three passes and not allowing a single TD throw against him, according to Pro Football Focus.
Searcy is a versatile defender who can play nearly any position in the secondary. The chances are good that Washington can acquire him for a good price. He may end up being one of the better safeties in the game in three years.
Chicago Bears, Jason Worilds, OLB
Vic Fangio will take over as the defensive coordinator in Chicago after four fantastic years in San Francisco, which means the Bears will likely change to a 3-4 front.
Veteran linebacker Lance Briggs is over the hill at 35 and won’t be back in 2015. His departure and the change of scheme on defense have created even more of a need to upgrade the LB position.
The Bears need help in a lot of areas on defense. One affordable move that makes a ton of sense is former Pittsburgh Steelers LB Jason Worilds. He recently became a starter in the last two years and has tallied 15.5 sacks during that time.
He has good size (6'2", 262 lbs) and could serve a role similar to what Ahmad Brooks did in San Francisco. Though the two are built similarly, Worilds is more skilled as a pass-rusher and has been a good-character guy during his time in Pittsburgh.
Detroit Lions, Jared Odrick, DT
The Detroit Lions have some tough decisions to make, since nearly all of their interior defensive linemen will hit the free-agent market at the same time. That list includes Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley.
Ideally, the Lions can bring Fairley and Suh back to maintain continuity on a defense that served the team well during 2014. If they fail to do this, it will likely be due to money. This means they’ll have to replace one of those guys at a price they can afford.
Miami Dolphin free agent Jared Odrick is the hidden gem who is best equipped to step in if the Lions have to part ways with one of their main guys. Hopefully, that guy isn’t Suh.
According to PFF, Odrick tied for fifth among defensive tackles in quarterback hits (nine).
Odrick is still a few years away from his 30th birthday, which means he is just now entering his prime.
Green Bay Packers, Bruce Carter, ILB
Anyone who watched the NFL Championship Game knows the Packers should be playing in the Super Bowl, if only they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot about a half-dozen times.
During the season, the Packers were so vulnerable inside that Clay Matthews had to move to inside linebacker out of desperation. It's obvious which area the Packers need to improve in for 2015.
LB Bruce Carter was playing out of position in Dallas when the team switched to a 4-3 defensive front. He is better suited to play inside linebacker in a 3-4 system, which happens to be exactly what the Packers run and need defensively. This seems like the perfect marriage so long as there aren't too many teams clamoring for Carter’s services.
He is in the prime of his career right now and would be a great addition to Green Bay’s defense.
Minnesota VIkings, Clint Boling, LG
It was a rough year for the Vikings after they had to play without their best player, Adrian Peterson. On the bright side, they look like a team on the rise and may have found the franchise quarterback they’ve longed for in Teddy Bridgewater.
Speaking of Bridgewater, he is going to need some help up front. The Vikings offensive line performed poorly for much of the season, including former first-round pick Matt Kalil.
Cincinnati’s 26-year-old guard Clint Boling should be able to slide somewhat under the free-agent radar and make a significant contribution to an offensive line that ranked 27th in pass blocking and 13th in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders.
Atlanta Falcons, Jerry Hughes, DE
Seahawk linebacker K.J. Wright made some promising statements about Atlanta’s new coach at media day, via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. According to Wright, the Falcons acquired a “mastermind” when they hired his former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to turn things around down South.
Coming from Seattle, Quinn understands the importance of having talented pass-rushers on defense to help out the secondary.
Jerry Hughes from Buffalo is a great option to help fill the elephant position that is utilized in the Falcons' defensive scheme. He is coming off back-to-back seasons with 10 sacks and is just 27 years of age.
Bringing in free agents you can build around is always preferable to simple renting an aging vet for a year.
Carolina Panthers, Derek Newton, OT
After an interesting year of ups and downs, the Panthers are looking to return to the dominant form they showed back in 2013. In order to do that, they must get better in two areas—wide receiver and offensive tackle.
While I'm a big proponent of the Panthers' supplying weapons to Newton, at this point, all of the worthwhile wideouts have gone to other teams.
You may not know Derek Newton right now, but this seventh-round selection in 2011 has worked his way up to becoming a reliable right tackle for the Houston Texans. Two of the benefits to signing Newton (27) is that he is entering the prime of his career and can be acquired at an affordable price.
I understand that the acquisition isn’t a sexy one, but this just makes a lot of sense for Carolina.
New Orleans Saints, Chris Culliver, CB
The Saints had one of the more disappointing seasons of 2014. Much of that was due to the regression of the defense that was ranked in the top 10 just one year earlier. Defensively, their most glaring weakness was at cornerback, although this side of the ball could use a ton of upgrades all over.
Adding cornerback Chris Culliver to the roster should help things out without taking up too much of the financial pie. He is coming off his best year as a pro, as he was a key member of a secondary that exceeded expectations. He finished with four interceptions while allowing a passer rating of just 66.5 when thrown at, via PFF.
This kid has only been a starter for one year and is just 27 years old. He wins with elite speed and can run with any receiver in the league.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, King Dunlap, OT
The Buccaneers had one of the more disappointing seasons in the NFL last year. Before the season began, some experts had them winning the NFC South.
Offensive line was the most glaring of the team’s many deficiencies, and the guards were the weakest link of the unit. The Bucs offensive line ranked dead last in run blocking and 29th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders.
With that said, it will take a lot more than just a retooled group up front to turn this franchise around.
The Bucs can’t fill all of their needs in the draft, so they’ll have to supplement with free agents.
Adding a veteran like offensive tackle King Dunlap would provide leadership, stability and depth in a much-needed area. He would replace a guy like Oniel Cousins and challenge last year’s disappointing acquisition, Anthony Collins. Dunlap should also come at an affordable price while providing options for the team in Round 2 of the draft.
Dunlap did an impressive job of protecting Philip Rivers the last two years. He is 30 years old, which suggests he can provide a few more years of positive contributions to Tampa Bay without breaking the bank.
Arizona Cardinals, Anthony Spencer, OLB
Considering the injuries that the Cardinals suffered toward the second half of the season, they had a rather successful season under head coach Bruce Arians.
Arizona has struggled to find a dominant or even a consistent rush linebacker for quite some time. In 2015, they need to fix this problem. Alex Okafor is decent enough to play one side, but they must add some more talent to this position when you consider how valuable a good pass-rusher can be.
If the Cardinals can’t bring in a big name like Brian Orakpo, they will have to turn to a hidden gem like Anthony Spencer of the Cowboys.
Not long ago, Spencer was a highly productive rush linebacker working opposite DeMarcus Ware. During the 2012 season, many believed that Spencer was the better player. He had 11 sacks playing the strong side in just 14 games.
In 2013 Spencer missed all but one game due to injury, and when he came back this past year, it was in a backup role in an entirely different defensive scheme.
At 31 years of age and now fully healthy, there’s good reason to believe Spencer can be a productive rusher if he returns to the position where he had his best season. There’s little doubt he can be acquired at a great price.
St. Louis Rams, Brian De La Puente, C
Last year the Bears basically rented veteran center Brian de la Puente, who spent most of his years as an unsung hero up front for the Saints. In Chicago, he picked up where he left off with solid play and quiet leadership.
I had the opportunity to be teammates with him while at Cal and can vouch for his fantastic character and work ethic.
De la Puente is 30 years of age and should be able to play at a high level for at least a few more years. He should fit in nicely with the Rams without demanding a high salary. Scott Wells had an underwhelming season for the Rams and needs to be replaced with a guy who can contribute at a high level right away.
Another need for St. Louis is at the quarterback position, but we will operate under the assumption that Sam Bradford will get one more shot at being the team’s answer.
San Francisco 49ers, Hakeem Nicks, WR
The 49ers might end up looking like an entirely new team in 2015 when all is said and done.
Their big problem came on the offensive side of the ball despite having the talent to be a pretty good unit.
Michael Crabtree is a free agent, and Anquan Boldin is another year older. That means this team is going to need some quality targets for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Hakeem Nicks may seem like an unlikely pick here considering the way he has played the last two years; however, we must remember what he is capable of when healthy and keep in mind that he is just 27 years old.
Nicks may not pan out, but San Francisco can acquire him at a basement bargain price, and he comes with a ton of upside. If Torrey Smith and Jeremy Maclin are off the market (like they are in this slideshow,) Nicks would be a great addition with some intriguing potential.
Seattle Seahawks, Eddie Royal, WR
Seattle will have a tough time returning to the Super Bowl for a third straight time considering it may have to say goodbye to some key members of the roster when Russell Wilson signs his mega-contract.
Either way, this team needs some serious help at receiver. Doug Baldwin led the team with 825 yards receiving, and Jermaine Kearse is likely moving on in free agency.
Eddie Royal has been consistently productive while in San Diego and seems to possess the competitive spirit that Seattle covers. Aside from the need, Royal should come at an inexpensive price.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who writes for Bleacher Report.