NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Help Teams in 2016
Realistically, NFL free agency is over. However, there are still good players to be had for the right roles and prices.
Not all of the big names on the open market would make for ideal pickups. Veterans like wide receiver Marques Colston and guard Ben Grubbs have received little interest due to health issues. There are totally different concerns in the case of inside linebacker Donald Butler, as well as one-time Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy.
There’s also the never-ending saga between the New York Jets and unsigned quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The parties have mutual interest in reuniting, but the waiting game continues.
Here’s a look at some performers (in alphabetical order) who continue to draw interest but do not have a new team to date. There’s little doubt they can be vital contributors this fall.
WR Anquan Boldin
The month of June is upon us, and there’s still been no Anquan Boldin sighting in the Bay Area.
Is the 35-year-old wide receiver in the San Francisco 49ers’ 2016 plans or not?
It doesn’t appear that way. According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, Chip Kelly hasn’t spoken with the veteran since February. And the new head coach appears happy with the pass-catchers at his disposal at the moment.
“I like their energy,” the former Philadelphia Eagles sideline leader said to Maiocco in May. “I think there’s a group that brings a lot of juice every single day we are out there. There’s a lot of athleticism out there and will continue to gain experience as we get moving forward with them. They’ve been great so far.”
So what of Boldin? He led the Niners in receptions in each of his three seasons with the club. He comes off a year in which he totaled 69 catches for 789 yards and four scores. The veteran wideout ranks 12th in NFL history in receptions (1,009), and he has totaled at least 50 grabs in each of his 13 campaigns.
There’s also this plus: The productive performer has played in 14 postseason games with three different franchises. It’s added up to 68 catches for 1,033 yards and eight scores, as well as a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s unfathomable to think that he won’t be on a roster this summer. The Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears are a few teams that could either benefit from his experience or simply could use another excellent set of hands.
CB Brandon Boykin
A year ago at this time, cornerback Brandon Boykin was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
A lot has happened since then.
After three seasons with the Birds, he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers last summer. While he played in all 16 games, his time on defense was limited until later in the season. Boykin would start in the season finale against the Cleveland Browns. Two weeks later, he was in the opening lineup in the playoffs versus the Denver Broncos.
This offseason, it was the Carolina Panthers who opted to sign the free agent to a one-year, $840,000 contract on March 28, per Spotrac. Less than two months later (May 16), the defending NFC champions cut him loose.
Boykin has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in each of his four NFL seasons. He was in Atlanta for a visit in May, according to ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure. Atlanta did not sign the corner, but head coach Dan Quinn liked what he saw.
“He’s good,” Quinn said. “I thought he could have helped us. I think he can help somebody at the nickel position.”
What team that may be remains a huge question for the 25-year-old Boykin, who found himself with three different employers in less than a calendar year.
G Jahri Evans
There has not been a lot of news regarding six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans. That doesn’t mean he’s not still capable of helping a team this upcoming season.
The 6’4”, 316-pound pro turns 33 years old on August 22. He comes off a season in which he played a career-low 11 games. In 10 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, he missed only seven contests—making an impressive 153 starts and earning All-Pro honors four times.
While he hasn’t been the same player he was earlier in his career the past two seasons, the drop-off has not been significant (as Pro Football Focus points out). He was cut loose by the Saints after failing to take a pay cut. Earlier this year, he visited with the Buffalo Bills, but they did not offer him a contract.
Could a team like the San Francisco 49ers make a play for Evans? Their once-proud offensive line is a shell of its former self. General manager Trent Baalke used a first-round pick on guard Joshua Garnett out of Stanford. Evans and his 10 years of experience could prove valuable to the rookie blocker.
RB Arian Foster
In seven seasons with the Houston Texans, running back Arian Foster racked up 8,740 yards from scrimmage and scored 68 total touchdowns in only 76 regular-season contests. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards and earned four trips to the Pro Bowl.
But there’s also the reality that the 29-year-old star has missed a combined 23 games the past three seasons—12 of those in 2015 due to an Achilles injury that Foster is still recovering from.
“I probably need another month to get where I am, the person everyone is used to seeing,” Foster told David Nuno of ABC13 in Houston in late May. “I can definitely play but I need another month to be where I want to be and be at that Pro Bowl level I can be at.”
Foster has rebounded from injury before. In 2013, he missed the final eight games of the season with a back injury. He came back the following season and rolled up 1,573 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
The Miami Dolphins were one of those teams that kicked the tires on the experienced running back not long after he was released by the Texans this spring. The Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins are three more clubs that could use some additional depth in the backfield as well.
DE/OLB Dwight Freeney
Mike Nolan, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator in the league, recently spoke with ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure in regard to arguably the best pass-rusher still available in free agency:
Dwight Freeney is a one-dimensional guy; he does not play the run—ever—and only pass-rushes. His only move is his spin move, and it works. If he gets a young guy on him, he’s going to have two sacks in a game. He’s worth having. The thing is, if he’s their only pass-rusher, he’s just going to be so-so.
According to McClure, the 36-year-old defender has a visit set with the Atlanta Falcons. That makes plenty of sense for a defense that totaled a league-low 19 quarterback traps in 2015. Freeney played in only 11 games for the Arizona Cardinals this past season and led the NFC West champions with eight sacks.
Last spring, the Falcons looked to solve their pass rush with free-agent additions such as defensive end Adrian Clayborn and outside linebacker Brooks Reed. They used the eighth overall pick in the draft on Vic Beasley, who “led” the team with four sacks.
This offseason, the club lured 27-year-old defensive end Derrick Shelby away from the Miami Dolphins. He made eight starts for Miami this past season and managed 3.5 sacks in 16 contests.
It’s a no-brainer for the Falcons to offer Freeney a contract. He would make for a great mentor to Beasley and the rest of Atlanta’s pass-rushers in need of guidance.
CB Leon Hall
It was Monty Hall that hosted the popular game show Let’s Make a Deal.
Meanwhile, 31-year-old cornerback Leon Hall is hoping there’s a team for him behind door No. 1—or perhaps Nos. 2 or 3. It won’t be for a lack of trying.
He has certainly made the rounds. This offseason, the former Cincinnati Bengals defender met with the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. In May, Aaron Wilson of National Football Post reported on Hall’s dealings with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants.
A first-round pick in 2007 by the Bengals, he totaled 26 interceptions in nine seasons in the Queen City. He earned a plus-5.8 grade from Pro Football Focus for his performance in 2015. It included 55 tackles, a pair of interceptions and nine passes defensed.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Hall underwent back surgery to repair a disc injury, per James Rapien’s interview with Dave Lapham on ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati. No doubt that’s the reason he hasn’t latched on with a team to date. But in a day and age where quarterbacks and receivers are racking up incredible numbers, shaky defensive units such as the Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints could use any help available.
OLB Mike Neal
You could call outside linebacker Mike Neal’s career with the Green Bay Packers disappointing, and no one would blink.
That doesn’t mean the 28-year-old defender can’t help another club. But the reality is that the unrestricted free agent wasn’t brought back by the franchise that made him a second-round pick in 2010.
Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently spoke with the six-year pro, who understands the nature of today’s NFL.
“I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus,” Neal said. “I love Green Bay. They’ve started my life off great, so how can you ever be mad at that? You know what I’m saying? You can never be mad at that. That’s just a business, that’s what they choose to do. I’m in a good place. I couldn’t be in a better place.”
In his time with the Packers, Neal played at a variety of positions. In 2015, he made a career-best 15 starts and totaled 36 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. He’s totaled at least four quarterback traps in each of the past four seasons but no more than five in any of those years.
The production has been underwhelming, but we can't undersell his versatility in lining up at both outside linebacker and defensive tackle. Doesn’t Neal have the feel of a one-year contract with the New England Patriots?
SS Donte Whitner
In today’s era of player safety, there’s still room for physical football. Ask Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton how he felt after spending three hours against the Denver Broncos defense in Super Bowl 50.
Donte Whitner has spent 10 seasons in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. He’s made his share of big hits from his strong safety spot and has been a productive player throughout his career. In 2015, he totaled 81 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble for the Browns’ 27th-ranked defense.
But Cleveland let him go this offseason, and he is still looking for employment. To date, the only team he has visited since his release has been the Los Angeles Rams, as originally reported by ESPN’s Nick Wagoner. That was in late April prior to the draft. Since then, there hasn’t been much movement in regard to the three-time Pro Bowler who turns 31 years old on July 24.
Whitner could still wind up with the Rams. It’s a secondary that lost cornerback Janoris Jenkins (New York Giants) and safety Rodney McCleod (Philadelphia Eagles) to free agency. Head coach Jeff Fisher is more than familiar with Whitner's recent playing days while still with the Niners.
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.