Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Be Key 2016 Contributors

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2016

Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Be Key 2016 Contributors

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    We are now officially in the second month of 2016 NFL free agency. The blockbuster deals have been signed, and the big-name free agents are already off the market. However, this doesn't mean NFL teams that are looking for talent cannot find it.

    On the contrary, a number of NFL veterans are still biding their time on the market and can contribute as starters or as pivotal role players. These are the guys we are going to examine today.

    What follows is a list of remaining free agents who can be key contributors in the 2016 season. These guys have the talent to play significant roles—particularly for contending teams—this coming season. As important as quality backups and special teams aces can be to a franchise, we're only looking at players who can start or be heavily involved in a rotation.

    Also, we're only looking at players who are expected to be healthy once the regular season begins and who are currently in the league. (Sorry, Anthony Davis fans.)

    Do you agree with our list? Be sure to let us know in the comments section.

Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver

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    2015 Team: San Francisco 49ers

    2015 Stats: 69 receptions, 789 yards receiving, 4 touchdowns

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    At 35 years old, there's little doubt that veteran receiver Anquan Boldin is entering the twilight of his NFL career. However, that doesn't mean the man is too old to be a key contributor for another season or two. Despite playing in the 29th-ranked passing attack of the San Francisco 49ers (207.2 yards per game), Boldin still produced 69 receptions and nearly 800 yards in 2015.

    Pro Football Focus rated him 33rd overall among wideouts for the 2015 season.

    It's highly likely that Boldin will produce similar or better numbers if he can find a home with a more capable passing offense, though he might be a role player in one. Returning to a rebuilding team such as the 49ers could allow Boldin to remain a No. 1 option—however, it would diminish his chances of late-career success.

    He visited the Washington Redskins earlier this offseason, according to the Washington Post (h/t NFL.com's Ian Rapoport). However, he would probably be better suited for a team that is capable of Super Bowl contention.

    Boldin would likely be a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver with a contending team such as the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals or Carolina Panthers. However, going to a contender is his best chance of ending a stellar career with one or two final championship opportunities. He could be the type of complementary receiver needed to put a team like Cincinnati, Carolina or New England over the top in 2016.

Marques Colston, Wide Receiver

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    2015 Team: New Orleans Saints

    2015 Stats: 45 receptions, 520 yards receiving, 4 touchdowns

    Projected 2016 Role: Depth receiver

    Marques Colston's days of being a top-tier receiver in the NFL appear to be at an end. He was finally relegated to the role of depth receiver in his 10th pro season, and this is likely the role in which he will finish out his career.

    However, this does not mean that Colston cannot be a key contributor for the right team and in the right offense. He's still a 6'4", 225-pound target with strong hands and an ability to catch the ball in traffic. Though he only made five starts for the New Orleans Saints last year, he still managed to haul in 45 passes.

    Colston was rated 92nd overall among all wide receivers by Pro Football Focus for the 2015 season.

    For a team that lacks size and experience at the wide receiver, Colston could potentially step in and fill a No. 2 receiver role. However, his best chance of making an impact in 2016 is to find a team with realistic playoff chances and catch on as a third or fourth wideout.

    Even if he is only utilized in red-zone and third-down situations, Colston's size and experience should make him a serious asset.

    "He was basically a third or second tight end in this offense and he did all the dirty work," Saints receivers coach John Morton recently said of Colston, via the Black and Blue Report on the Saints' official website.

    It shouldn't be a surprise to see Colston draw interest after the draft from a contender or a team with a dearth of receiver talent.

Ronnie Hillman, Running Back

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    2015 Team: Denver Broncos

    2015 Stats: 863 yards rushing, 24 receptions, 111 yards receiving, 7 touchdowns

    Projected 2016 Role: Complementary back

    Though he did start 10 games for the Denver Broncos in 2015, we don't really see Ronnie Hillman as a true starting running back in the coming season. The 24-year-old is still learning to adapt to the pro game and has a limited skill set.

    Hillman can be a producer on the ground, but he can also be a liability in the passing or blocking game. As an overall back, he was rated just 60th overall by Pro Football Focus for the 2015 season.

    Still, Hillman should be able to find plenty of success in a two- or three-back system. He operated alongside C.J. Anderson in Denver well and had plenty of shining moments—including a season-long run of 72 yards—for the eventual Super Bowl champions in 2015. He should be a valuable contributor in a similar situation this coming season.

    That situation might even come with the Broncos again. Though Denver made retaining Anderson an initial priority, the team now appears interested in bringing back Hillman as well.

    According to Troy Renck of the Denver Post, the Broncos have discussed the parameters of a potential new deal with Hillman.

    If the Broncos don't bring back Hillman before the draft, expect him to draw increased interest from around the league after the draft. Because of his age and ability, he should pique the interest of both contenders and building teams alike.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback

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    2015 Team: New York Jets

    2015 Stats: 3,905 yards passing, 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 88.0 passer rating

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had the best season of his pro career in 2015, passing for nearly 4,000 yards and leading the New York Jets to a 10-win season. Pro Football Focus rated him 27th overall among quarterbacks for 2015.

    Fitzpatrick is really the only quarterback remaining on the market who is capable of filling a starting role in 2016, though his options are limited. His best chance of having a successful 2016 campaign will likely come with the Jets or another quarterback-needy contender like the Denver Broncos.

    We believe that New York is likely Fitzpatrick's eventual destination. However, cap issues have prevented the two sides from coming to a deal before now. The good news, as former sports agent and current cap analyst Joel Corry recently pointed out, is that the $9.093 million of salary-cap room the Jets are gaining from D'Brickashaw Ferguson's retirement could free up enough cap space for the two sides to work out a deal.

    Should a team suffer a significant injury at the quarterback position before the Jets can re-sign Fitzpatrick, however, his market could quickly grow.

    Any team that is looking to sign Fitzpatrick shouldn't expect to get a star signal-caller in return. However, it will get a capable starter with enough ability to succeed with the right talent around him. Though his decision-making sometimes appears suspect, Fitzpatrick has all the physical and mental tools needed to succeed.

    Fitzpatrick is also an underrated athlete who is capable of buying time in the pocket and making plays with his legs—the Harvard product rushed for 270 yards and two scores in 2015. Expect him to earn and keep a starting job somewhere this coming season.

Jahri Evans, Guard

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    2015 Team: New Orleans Saints

    2015 Stats: 11 starts

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    Veteran guard Jahri Evans was limited to 11 games in 2015, and the New Orleans Saints released after the season after he refused to take a pay cut, according to his agent. However, the 10-year veteran appears to be healthy and should have little trouble finding a new home in 2016.

    As was the case for Evan Mathis last offseason, however, Evans is likely to wait for the right situation and the right deal to come along. If Evans wants another crack at a Super Bowl title, that could mean waiting for a post-draft opening or an injury-related opportunity with a contending team.

    Mathis' patience resulted in a job with the Denver Broncos and, eventually, a Super Bowl ring.

    Teams interested in Evans will be looking at a player with plenty of experience and on-field talent. He is a six-time Pro Bowler and a former Super Bowl champion.

    Pro Football Focus rated Evans 38th overall among guards for the season last year.

    Even if Evans cannot find a starting role with a contending team, he should be able to catch on with one as a depth or rotational player. If he has his heart set on starting in 2016, he should have no trouble finding a job with a rebuilding or retooling team. Swallowing pride and returning to New Orleans on a cheaper deal may also remain an opportunity.

    Regardless, we expect to see Evans on the field and playing at a high level in 2016. He has too much talent and too proven a track record not to.

Leon Hall, Cornerback

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    2015 Team: Cincinnati Bengals

    2015 Stats: 55 tackles, 9 passes defended, 2 interceptions

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter or depth player

    Veteran cornerback Leon Hall used to be one of the top pass-defenders in the NFL. However, this is no longer the case. The Cincinnati Bengals made him more of a role player in 2015, and he may be looking at employment as a third or fourth corner this offseason. This is likely to be true especially if he wants to land with a contender.

    For a team devoid of talent in the secondary, however, Hall could possibly be seen as starting material. Pro Football Focus rated him 27th overall among cornerbacks for 2015.

    The problem for Hall is that he will turn 32 years old before the start of the 2016 season and is coming off an injury-hampered campaign. According to Bengals radio announcer and NFL veteran Dave Lapham, Hall also had back surgery early in the offseason.

    "He's had back surgery. He had it right after the season," Lapham said in an interview with James Rapien of ESPN 1530 Cincinnati. "He was getting epidurals to play with the back problem that he had, and he's had the disc surgery, and he's gotta rehabilitate from that."

    The offseason surgery might not be the only reason Hall remains unsigned. According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, Hall is looking for one last big payday that teams are not willing to provide.

    At some point, we expect Hall to reach an agreement in time to be a contributor in the 2016 season. Assuming there are no complications with is rehabilitation, Hall should be ready to contribute at a high level too—though perhaps not on a pay scale that excites him.

Walter Thurmond, Safety

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    2015 Team: Philadelphia Eagles

    2015 Stats: 71 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended, 3 interceptions

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    Veteran defensive back Walter Thurmond played a full 16-game season for the first time in his pro career this past year, and the end results were impressive. He proved to be a major defensive force for the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the better defensive backs in the entire league.

    Pro Football Focus rated Thurmond 18th overall among all safeties for the 2015 season.

    The 28-year-old has shown the ability to play both safety positions, as well as cornerback during his NFL career. He should have little trouble filling a starting role for a quality team in 2016, assuming he has the interest in doing so.

    According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Thurmond has turned down multiple offers of at least $4 million per year and is considering retirement. While injuries weren't an issue for him in 2015, they have been in the past and could be weighing on his decision about the future.

    As we move later into the offseason, however, don't be surprised if a serious contender makes a run at Thurmond—possibly even offering him a contributing role instead of asking him to be an every-down player.

    Even if Thurmond only plays on a rotational basis in 2016, he can be a key contributor for a talented team. Filling this role would also allow him to reduce the physical rigors he faces in the coming year.

Donte Whitner, Safety

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    2015 Team: Cleveland Browns

    2015 Stats: 81 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 4 passes defended

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    There's little doubt that 10-year veteran Donte Whitner can still be a capable starter at the safety position. Before the 2015 season, he had appeared in the Pro Bowl for three consecutive years—and even his down year in 2015 wasn't that bad.

    Whitner started 14 games for the Cleveland Browns in 2015 and finished the year rated 28th overall among safeties by Pro Football Focus.

    Though he will turn 31 years old before the start of the 2016 season, players of his caliber just aren't often available this late in free agency. Of course, the Browns waited nearly a month into the market period before releasing the Ohio State product.

    "I just wish they had common courtesy and would've done it weeks ago when free agency was going on," Whitner said shortly after his release, via Twitter.

    It's highly unlikely that Whitner will have to wait long to find a new employer. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the veteran safety has already met with the Los Angeles Rams. If he doesn't end up in L.A., Whitner will likely draw interest from other teams in need of help at strong safety.

    The Carolina Panthers are one such team that could provide a particularly promising pairing. Carolina released starting strong safety Roman Harper this offseason, and the Panthers could definitely provide Whitner with playoff opportunities.

    No matter where he goes, expect Whitner to start in 2016.

Greg Hardy, Defensive End

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    2015 Team: Dallas Cowboys

    2015 Stats: 35 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter or dedicated pass-rusher

    We're not going to dive too deeply into the troubled past of veteran defensive end Greg Hardy here. Because of his on-field talent, someone is going to give him an opportunity—just as the Dallas Cowboys did a season ago.

    According to Bleacher Report NFL Insider Jason Cole, several teams are interested in bringing in Hardy for the 2016 season.

    Despite serving a four-game suspension stemming from domestic-violence allegations, Hardy still had a strong season for the Cowboys in 2015. He started 12 games and finished the year rated 17th overall among 3-4 defensive ends at Pro Football Focus.

    Hardy's production isn't likely to dip any time in the foreseeable future, provided he can get and stay on the field.

    Hardy is still young at just 27 years old, though there's a strong chance that potential employers will look to keep him motivated with an incentive-laden short-term contract. We expect a one- or two-year deal with compensation heavily tied to sack production.

    In terms of raw talent, Hardy is still an elite player and projects as a starter—or at the very least, a dedicated edge-rusher—in 2016. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him land with a contending team with a strong locker room such as the New England Patriots or the Cincinnati Bengals. However, several teams in need of pass-rushing help should look in Hardy's direction throughout the offseason.

Mike Neal, Linebacker

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    2015 Team: Green Bay Packers

    2015 Stats: 36 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble

    Projected 2016 Role: Depth player

    Linebacker Mike Neal worked his way into a starting role with the Green Bay Packers this past season and performed relatively well. However, we see him as more of a role player in 2016.

    Neal's immediate future could depend on which role that potential employers see as a fit for the Purdue product. He has some pass-rush potential—he had four sacks in 2015 and has produced 13.5 sacks over the past three years. However, he was more effective against the run this past season.

    Neal finished 2015 finished the season rated 24th against the run among 3-4 outside linebackers by Pro Football Focus.

    The Packers have expressed interest in bringing back Neal for the 2016 season, according to Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel. If Green Bay doesn't bring Neal back into the fold, he is likely to draw more interest after the upcoming draft.

    At 6'3" and 262 pounds, Neal has adequate size for the outside linebacker position. At just 28 years old, he is also young enough to be considered a long-term piece of a building team as well. However, it would likely require the right system and the right circumstances for Neal to emerge as a true standout player in 2016.

    Neal made just 14 career starts in the five seasons prior to this last one. We expect him to return to the role of depth player in 2016, but he definitely has the potential to thrive in that role.

Josh Brown, Kicker

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    2015 Team: New York Giants

    2015 Stats: 30-of-32 field goals, 44-of-45 extra points 

    Projected 2016 Role: Starter

    Teams in need of a place-kicker this offseason should be taking a long look at 13-year veteran Josh Brown. Sure, the 36-year-old Nebraska product isn't likely to be part of any team's long-term plans, but he is a quality kicker who can fill a role this season.

    Brown made 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts last season with the New York Giants while appearing in all 16 games. He made all three of his attempts of more than 50 yards with a season long of 53 yards. He also averaged 61.6 yards on 93 kickoffs.

    Pro Football Focus rated Brown sixth overall among all kickers in field-goal and extra-point kicking for the 2015 season.

    Because of his age, Brown may have to wait until after the draft or a significant offseason injury before he gets a serious look from a franchise. However, he will almost certainly be on an NFL roster once the regular season gets underway.

    After all, it's difficult for any team to head into the season with questions at the kicker position.