2016 NFL Free Agents: Under-the-Radar Moves That Will Pay off Big
In this day and age of communication and media scrutiny, it’s hard to believe that any move in sports can go fairly unnoticed.
With plenty of the NFL’s prominent free agents signing for big bucks, there are other additions that simply don’t get the same kind of attention.
That’s just fine with general managers and head coaches around the league who are only interested in winning.
The teams that opted to grab the following players will reap major rewards this upcoming season.
G Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia Eagles
The dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles is becoming one of tradition.
In the City of Brotherly Love, it has been an offseason where the subtractions have garnered more attention than the additions.
The recent departures of running back DeMarco Murray, linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell via trade have gotten lots of publicity as general manager Howie Roseman looks to move on from the Chip Kelly era.
A starter for at least 14 games each of the past three seasons for the Houston Texans, guard Brandon Brooks comes to Philadelphia and will fit in nicely with an offensive line that has a somewhat younger look to it these days.
As new head coach Doug Pederson looks to put his stamp on this team, 26-year-old Brooks will be a big part of that movement.
FS David Bruton, Washington Redskins
Take a look across the board and the Washington Redskins defense was dreadful in 2015.
While the team won the NFC East, only four clubs allowed more total yards this past season. The Redskins allowed 370 points—easily the most by any of the 12 teams to reach the playoffs.
With all the big names on the top-ranked Denver Broncos defense, reserve safety David Bruton was not a performer who garnered a lot of attention.
However, the seven-year defender comes off the best season of his career. Bruton totaled 49 tackles, one sack, a pair of interceptions, two forced fumbles and knocked down seven passes. Not bad for a performer who played in 13 games and made only three starts.
The 28-year-old is an immediate upgrade for a secondary that has been screaming for help in recent seasons.
CB Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can the signing of a four-time Pro Bowler actually be considered an under-the-radar move? It is when the spotlight wasn’t on the player himself.
There’s no need to go into detail when it comes to the minutia surrounding standout cornerback Brent Grimes, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after three seasons with the Miami Dolphins. We’ll leave that to Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald.
While free-agent cornerbacks such as Janoris Jenkins (New York Giants) and Sean Smith (Oakland Raiders) got plenty of cash to change addresses, Grimes signed a two-year, $13.5 million contract to join a Tampa defense that has surrendered at least 30 touchdown passes in four of the past five seasons.
The nine-year veteran brings a lot of savvy to a secondary that has been a liability for quite some time.
OLB Emmanuel Lamur, Minnesota Vikings
Familiarity breeds a free-agent signing.
That’s the main reason former Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
It’s a bit of a surprise considering that in each of the last two seasons the 26-year-old was ranked near the bottom of the league when it came to 4-3 outside linebackers.
In 2014, the former undrafted free agent started 13 games and finished third on the team with 91 tackles. This past season (via Pro Football Focus), Lamur appeared in all 16 games but didn’t see nearly as many defensive snaps (342) as he did the previous year (905).
His best football actually came as a rookie in 2012 under then-Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is now Minnesota’s head coach.
“He’s very long,” said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Paul Allen of KFAN Radio (h/t Lindsey Young of Vikings.com). “He was a former safety that got moved to linebacker, so he’s very athletic. He’s played in the nickel package in (Zimmer’s) scheme. Zim’ knows the type of player he is and how to utilize his skill set.”
And the Vikings will utilize him in a big way as the team has yet to make a decision to bring back 33-year-old veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway.
ILB Shea McClellin, New England Patriots
The recent trades involving the departure of defensive end Chandler Jones and the additions of guard Jonathan Cooper and tight end Martellus Bennett have grabbed the headlines in Foxborough.
But the New England Patriots’ addition of five-year pro Shea McClellin will prove to be a big-time coup due to the fact that he spent five years with the Chicago Bears trying to find his niche.
No head coach in this league looks for versatility more than New England’s Bill Belichick. The fact that the former first-round pick from Boise State never really found a permanent home at a position with the Bears may bode well here.
This past year, McClellin finished second on the team with 81 tackles in his first try at inside linebacker. In his first three seasons, we saw the 19th overall selection from 2012 at defensive end and outside linebacker. It added up to 7.5 sacks in 40 games.
While a lot of attention has been paid to Bennett’s pairing with Rob Gronkowski, McClellin’s arrival results in a quiet plus for the Pats.
DT Brandon Mebane, San Diego Chargers
In each of the past two seasons, the San Diego Chargers have finished in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of run defense. The team has allowed at least 100 yards rushing in 24 of the 32 games played over that span.
In 2015, only five clubs allowed more yards per game on the ground.
Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane joins the Bolts after nine years with the Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll’s squad ranked first in the NFL this past season in stopping the run.
Via Pro Football Focus, the 2007 third-round pick played his best football of the season down the stretch and was a big part of the team’s strong second half.
Mebane, never named to a Pro Bowl despite his steady play, will quietly but effectively aid a San Diego front seven in need of help.
DT Paul Soliai, Carolina Panthers
The defending NFC champions were looking to add a little depth to the middle of their defensive line.
Ron Rivera’s squad hit the mark by signing Paul Soliai, deemed expendable by the Atlanta Falcons a few weeks ago.
On their way to Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers ranked fourth in the league in run defense this past year. The defensive tackle combination of Star Lotulelei and Pro Bowler Kawann Short were huge in this aspect and adding a nine-year veteran to the mix will keep Carolina’s young duo a lot fresher.
Soliai played just 361 defensive snaps with the Falcons this past season and earned positive grades. He’ll get somewhat lost on the Panthers’ star-studded defensive roster but will earn plenty of attention in the trenches.
WR Rod Streater, Kansas City Chiefs
Two years ago, the Oakland Raiders didn’t get to see a lot of wideout Rod Streater.
A player who totaled a team-high 60 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns the previous season missed the final 13 games of 2014 with a broken foot.
This past year, the now-healthy Streater logged a total of 10 plays (via Pro Football Focus) in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals. There turned out to be a reason he wasn’t on the field the remainder of the season.
“It came to the transition of a new coach and they kind of had who they wanted to play and had a bunch of great receivers last year and I kind of fell back on the depth chart,” explained Streater, per Adam Teicher of ESPN. “I was a healthy scratch and gave it my all in practice but was ready to go but you’ve got to respect the coaches and what their decision was.”
Streater brings his talents to a Kansas City roster still in need of help at wide receiver. Free agent Jeremy Maclin came up big in 2015, but the former divisional foe aids an offense he got the opportunity to observe this past year.
I feel like my biggest strength is that I’m 6-3 and I can play in the slot. I love (the Chiefs’) offense. (Quarterback Alex Smith) gets the ball out fast. I watched (Maclin) over the last year and the other receivers and they get the ball fast. They’re able to make one guy miss and go the distance. It’s really interesting and a great philosophy they have going on there.
Call Streater an under-the-Raider move.
RB Robert Turbin, Indianapolis Colts
The last time the Indianapolis Colts didn’t finish 20th or lower in the NFL in rushing offense was in 2007.
Obviously, that includes all four years of the Andrew Luck era. Last offseason, the team brought in veteran Frank Gore, and he responded with 967 yards and six scores on 260 carries—averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt.
The more somber news was that despite missing the final nine games of the season, Luck finished second on the team with 196 rushing yards.
Enter four-year pro Robert Turbin, once thought to be the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch in Seattle, but a player that spent this past season with the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns. His fresh legs will be a big asset to the NFL’s 29th-ranked rushing attack.
“One of the things that I learned, especially as a young guy coming in as a rookie, was patience,” said Turbin, per Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star. “I think now as a veteran I do have more of an understanding of the game and the league, so I’m very excited to work with Frank.”
The Colts will be equally excited to work with Turbin. It won’t be a big surprise when he winds up leading the team in rushing in 2016.
SS Tavon Wilson, Detroit Lions
Safety Tavon Wilson was part of a New England Patriots secondary the past four seasons.
But the 2012 second-round pick wasn’t the factor the last three years that he was as a rookie.
We didn’t see a lot of Wilson on defense in 2015, who in his first season in Foxborough started four games and totaled six takeaways (four interceptions, two fumbles recoveries) in 16 contests.
Now he comes to the Motor City and will fill the void left by the team’s decision not to re-sign former starting strong safety James Ihedigbo. New Lions general manager Bob Quinn was with the Patriots when Wilson was drafted.
“I’m looking to contribute any way I can,” said Wilson, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “If it’s defensive, special teams. I expect to contribute on defense, but whatever it is, I’m going to give everything I got for this team.”
That will include significantly more playing time on defense. The Lions will have quite the pair of ball-hawking safeties in Wilson and Glover Quin.