NFL Training Camp: Best Free Agents Waiting on Camp Injuries to Sign

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IJuly 18, 2015

NFL Training Camp: Best Free Agents Waiting on Camp Injuries to Sign

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    We’re in the dead period before the NFL starts back up with training camp over the summer. When teams get back into the swing of things, there will be injuries and disappointing players that must be upgraded. This is when the final wind of free agency will occur.

    There are always several talented veterans available as training camp nears. It happens every year. Some players benefit from waiting for injuries to occur or for their own injuries to heal. Then they can step into a major role.

    The caliber of free agents still available is fairly impressive. Some of the players mentioned in the forthcoming slides should receive a guaranteed contract for 2015 based on their accomplishments in 2014. Others are at the twilight of their careers, looking to prove they’ve still got gas in the tank. All have proven to be productive players in recent years. 

    The question with some of the older veterans available is whether they'll be able to be the difference between making the playoffs and not. Those that are should receive guaranteed money. 

    Let’s take a look at the 10 best NFL free agents who could still receive a training-camp invite. These are the guys likely to receive contracts before Week 1. 

Evan Mathis, Left Guard

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    By far, the best free agent available is former All-Pro guard Evan Mathis, who at 33 is a short-term option for contending teams that run a zone-blocking system. With the Philadelphia Eagles, Mathis earned his reputation as an impact run-blocker and consistent pass-blocker.

    Advanced stats really love Mathis’ consistency. Pro Football Focus has graded Mathis as the best left guard in the NFL for the past four seasons. Over that same time frame, Mathis hasn’t graded negatively in a significant way in any one game.

    Whoever adds Mathis will need to slide the center his way in pass protection, but that’s normal. The left guard often receives help, while the right guard is on an island. There’s little downside aside from the cost it will take to sign Mathis.

    He’s the one free agent still available who is well worth signing even if an injury doesn’t occur to make space for him.

    Best fits: Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots

Jake Long, Left Tackle

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Left tackle Jake Long, 30, is coming off a second consecutive ACL tear. His career was once as promising as any lineman’s, as Long was among the top few impact blockers in the NFL. After a multitude of serious injuries, Long is now just looking for employment somewhere.

    His return to to the NFL would be a great story for 2015. It seemed impossible that Long would ever see the field again after he parted ways with the St. Louis Rams this offseason, but several key injuries across the league may have opened opportunities. Two options include the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media. 

    Of the top available tackles, Long offers the most upside and least certainty from a playing standpoint. The former No. 1 overall draft pick could also benefit from going to a situation with a young left tackle who has been struggling.

    Best fits: New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings

Wes Welker, Wide Receiver

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Despite being undrafted out of Texas Tech, Wes Welker helped change how the slot position works in the NFL. A quick-twitch skill set and toughness allowed Welker to produce five 100-catch and 1,000-yard seasons. He was the gold standard of all slot receivers for a solid six seasons.

    Concussion issues and advanced age for the position have filled doubt around Welker’s NFL future. He claims to have been cleared by a leading expert, according to Mike Klis of Colorado's 9News, but his playing style attracts hard hits to the head. He’s a massive risk for any team.

    Still, there are teams severely lacking quality slot options. A younger squad may want Welker on the roster in hopes that he gives its quarterback a solid outlet option. Or a contender that wants one more inspired season from Welker could roll the dice.

    Best fits: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions

Lance Briggs, Outside Linebacker

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Once one of the top linebackers in the NFL, Lance Briggs is coming off two consecutive injury-shortened seasons. Briggs has only played with the Chicago Bears, but he’ll have to go elsewhere to find employment now. A linebacker-needy team would be wise to snatch Briggs up if an injury occurs.

    Briggs played just 461 snaps in 2014, according to Rotoworld, but he played well nonetheless. He’s still a quality option in limited time on the field. His tackling prowess and overall instincts have helped mitigate his slowing body.

    The big question with Briggs is his health. After missing just four games in 10 years, he’s sat out 15 over the last two combined. Reducing his workload and using him as a two-down player would be a wise decision that can pay off well.

    Best fits: Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants

Reggie Wayne, Wide Receiver

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    At 36 years old, Reggie Wayne’s career is certainly nearly over. He’s suffered two significant injuries in the last two seasons, and his on-field play in 2014 was abysmal. But he has appeal as a former No. 1 receiver and a great locker-room character.

    If a team believes that Wayne can recover from an offseason knee scope, he’s worth a flier as a third or fourth receiver. The lifetime Colt would fit best with a contender that won’t ask too much of him. Teams such as the Chiefs, Lions and Bengals all have potential openings in the slot.

    Wayne is unlikely to be commanding any guaranteed money at this point. He averaged just 51.9 yards a game in 2014, with two touchdowns total. But compared to a young, unproven receiver, Wayne has his selling points.

    Best fits: Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals

Anthony Collins, Tackle

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Anthony Collins was a valuable swing tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals. He then left and signed a five-year, $30 million contract to be the right tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014. Things went south quickly, as Collins played poorly and had locker-room issues.

    He is now available, likely for a bargain price. He must rehabilitate his image, meaning a one-year, prove-it deal should be his calling.

    As a reserve player, Collins excelled for the Bengals. That will likely be his role in 2015. The shortage of quality tackles across the league is alarming, making Collins an even more worthy signing.

    Best fits: New York Giants, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears

Jermaine Gresham, Tight End

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Jermaine Gresham has already been in the league five seasons, but at 27, he hasn’t been able to deliver on the promise he showed at Oklahoma. The former first-round pick had back surgery earlier this offseason and is now waiting to fully recover before signing with a team.

    For organizations that need a secondary option at tight end, Gresham is worth signing. He’s not dynamic, but he has averaged 3.8 receptions and 36.8 yards per game in his career. Don’t forget, those numbers also came in a loaded offense that spread the ball around.

    His health is going to be the key if he's to find success in 2015, but Gresham should have numerous suitors. He is a good blocker and decent receiver. For most teams, that’s good enough to be the second tight end on the roster.

    Best fits: Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings

James Jones, Wide Receiver

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    A surprising veteran release this offseason was that of former Packers and Raiders wide receiver James Jones, who was miscast as Oakland's No. 1 receiver last season. He still averaged 4.6 catches and 41.6 yards a game in 2014.

    He isn’t dynamic or explosive, but as a slot receiver, Jones can be effective. He’s 31 years old, meaning he could have at least another two seasons left in the tank. With Oakland now looking to win, this was a release that made little sense.

    Teams that need a plug-and-play rotational receiver should be interested in Jones. His professionalism and experience in a variety of roles will help his value in 2015. Jones' game tape last season certainly indicated that he can continue to produce in a proper role.

    Best fits: New England Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints

Knowshon Moreno, Running Back

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    There hasn’t yet been a market for Knowshon Moreno, who is coming off a torn ACL from Week 6 of the 2014 season. Moreno had one big game with the Miami Dolphins before suffering injuries. His ailment history is likely a major deterrent for teams needing another running back.

    If healthy and put in a backup role, Moreno may still be a valuable pickup for contenders. He’s not explosive anymore, but he showed good vision and power in Miami. He just doesn’t have the longevity of younger, healthier backs.

    It’s unlikely that Moreno would cost anything more than the veteran's minimum with no guarantees. One injury to a key backup should spur a contender to call about Moreno’s services.

    Best fits: Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs

Bernard Pollard, Strong Safety

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    After suffering an Achilles' tear early in 2014, Bernard Pollard’s career is in jeopardy. At 30 years old, Pollard has never been an especially good coverage defender. But his reputation as a hard-hitting box safety is well-earned.

    Pollard plays the run well. He’s another linebacker on the field, and a solid blitzer when he attacks the line of scrimmage. The offense must always know where he is before the snap.

    If Pollard is able to get back to pre-injury form, he will be a solid short-term signing. He can impact the game as a starter, even if he’s more of a traditional strong safety and not the rangy, coverage type.

    Best fits: Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    All stats are from Sports-Reference.com.

    Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

     

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