2017 NFL Free Agents: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players Still Available
We're two weeks and change into free agency in the National Football League in 2017. Like the aisles at a Best Buy after a Black Friday sale, the shelves are starting to look rather picked over.
Many of the biggest names, like defensive end Calais Campbell and guard Kevin Zeitler, didn't make it through the first few days without landing huge contracts in new homes. With each passing day, the list of signed players grows, and the pool of available talent becomes shallower.
That pool hasn't dried up entirely. There are a few potential value signings still left out there—players I'm frankly surprised are still available.
There's a flip side to that coin, though. Some veteran stars many fans are clamoring for their favorite teams to sign are likely best left exactly where they sit...on the open market.
Let's take a look at which NFL free agents top each of those lists with the most overrated and underrated free-agent players still available.
Jamaal Charles, Running Back: No running back in NFL history has a higher yards-per-carry average than Charles, but injuries have wiped out two straight seasons for the 30-year-old. Charles' days as an every-down workhorse appear finished.
Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver: Floyd is in his prime at 27 and has a 1,000-yard season under his belt. But repeated off-field dust-ups dating back to his time at Notre Dame have defined his career more than his not inconsiderable talents.
Ryan Clady, Offensive Tackle: Once upon a time, Clady was one of the NFL's best blindside tackles. Of course, once upon a time Adam Sandler made movies that were funny too. Clady ranked 54th among all tackles last year at Pro Football Focus.
DeAndre Levy, Linebacker: Back in 2014, Levy posted a career-high 151 tackles, including a league-leading 117 solo stops. In the two seasons since, Levy has played in just six of a possible 32 games. His heart may still be in it, but his body doesn't appear to be interested.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback: Stop laughing. Yes, Fitzpatrick is a 34-year-old journeyman coming off a down season. But take a look at the backup situation across the National Football League and tell me he wouldn't be an upgrade on half a dozen teams or more.
Brandon Bolden, Running Back: Bolden hasn't topped 450 total yards in any of his five NFL seasons, but he's 27, has averaged 4.2 yards on his 203 career carries and can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Devin Taylor, Defensive End: Taylor took a significant step backward for the Detroit Lions in 2016, but he's still just 27 years old and racked up seven sacks as recently as 2015. There's some real upside present with the four-year veteran—enough that I'm surprised he hasn't signed for anyone yet.
T.J. McDonald, Safety: It's today's NFL safeties who can cover who are incredibly valuable. McDonald ranked inside the NFL's top 25 safeties in that regard in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, and at 26, his best days of football should be ahead of him.
Overrated: Adrian Peterson
In the history of the National Football League, only 15 men have gained more rushing yards in their careers than Adrian Peterson.
Peterson has led the NFL in rushing three times. In 2012, en route to winning the league's Most Valuable Player award and carrying the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs, Peterson gained a staggering 2,097 yards.
Only Eric Dickerson has gained more real estate on the ground in a single season.
Peterson has topped 1,000 yards in a season seven times, he'll all but surely one day be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he's arguably the best player the Vikings have ever had.
Not just best running back, mind you. Best player.
However, every one of those achievements, honors and accolades happened in the past. Peterson's present isn't nearly as rosy.
The fact is, Adrian Peterson is a 32-year-old who is playing a position where decline usually begins at the age of 28 or so. He's missed most of two of the last three seasons to either suspension or injury.
And before tearing his meniscus last year, Peterson averaged a miserable 1.6 yards per carry.
Given his resume and reputation, someone's going to roll the dice that "All Day" has one more big year left in the tank.
But the odds are as good as they are not that Peterson's future won't look a whole lot better than his present.
Underrated: Anquan Boldin
It's not a surprise that Anquan Boldin has yet to find a home for the 2017 season. For one, Boldin isn't expected to ink a deal until just before training camp, per ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein.
When you're 36 years old, the idea of OTAs doesn't appeal.
However, there's also a reason why, despite Boldin's advanced age and disdain for fun in shorts and shells, a quick Google search returns a litany of articles with similar headlines.
Something along the lines of "Why the (insert team name here) Should Sign Anquan Boldin."
Is Boldin the same player who racked up seven 1,000-yard seasons and made it to three Pro Bowls? No. His ability to separate from defensive backs isn't what it used to be.
But if last year was any indication, Boldin also isn't close to "done." His 67 catches last year, totaling 584 yards, ranked second on a Detroit Lions team that made the playoffs.
While Boldin might not be able to run past cornerbacks anymore, he doesn't seem to have any problem taking the ball away from them. His eight scores in 2016 led the Lions, were his most since 2008 and stood as the joint-third-highest total of his career.
Boldin remains a savvy route-runner and arguably the toughest player in the NFL at his position.
He'd be an asset to just about every club in the league.
Overrated: Jay Cutler
What? You thought I wasn't going to talk about quarterbacks?
The argument can be made that since Jay Cutler is still unsigned, it's hard to call him "overrated." After all, the New York Jets just passed on Cutler in favor of Josh McCown's corpse.
Good luck with that, Gang Green.
But the argument can also be made that Cutler is stuck in Romolimbo—trapped as the clear No. 2 option if teams are looking for a proven starter behind a guy who isn't even technically a free agent yet.
Make no mistake, though. Once the Tony Romo situation plays out and/or there's an injury under center, some NFL team is quickly going to talk itself into the idea that the 33-year-old Cutler could be its starting quarterback in 2017.
Looking at you, Houston. Denials aside, looking right...at...you.
Some landing spots for Cutler could make sense. If the Cleveland Browns decide to ditch Brock Osweiler but don't like the young quarterbacks in this year's draft enough to burn a high pick on one, signing Cutler for a year or two wouldn't be the worst idea ever.
That he would be arguably the team's best signal-caller in over a decade is an incredibly depressing story for another day.
But as teams try to rationalize bringing Cutler in, there are a few numbers they might want to bear in mind.
Like one—the number of times Cutler has posted a passer rating over 90 in a season.
Or zero—the number of 16-game seasons in which Cutler tossed fewer than 10 interceptions.
Or two—his number of playoff starts in 11 NFL seasons.
Cutler isn't a terrible quarterback. But he also isn't terribly accurate. Or terribly careful with the football.
The NFL team that fools itself into thinking he's some sort of "missing piece" is at best taking a huge risk and at worst begging for trouble.
Underrated: Colin Kaepernick
First off, if you're looking for a breakdown of all the political brouhaha that surrounds Colin Kaepernick, keep looking. I'm not going there...at least not in this article.
As a matter of fact, look right here at B/R. NFL national lead writer Mike Freeman already covered that story in his typically excellent fashion.
The man can write.
But while everyone was paying attention to what Kaepernick was doing before games in 2016, during the games themselves (despite having a receiving corps that ranked somewhere between pile of garbage and flaming pile of garbage) the 29-year-old had his best season in quite a while.
Kaepernick's completion percentage was up relative to 2015, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating were his best since 2013.
Oh, and he averaged a career-high 6.8 yards a carry on the ground.
Kaepernick isn't the quarterback we thought he was going to be when he burst on the scene back in 2012. But the notion that NFL teams are afraid of rostering a 29-year-old quarterback who has won half of his 64 career starts and nearly won a Super Bowl because some fans won't like it (especially when the vast majority of players had no issue with Kaepernick's actions last year) just doesn't make football sense.
Overrated: Nick Mangold
It pains me to list longtime New York Jets center Nick Mangold as an overrated free agent. Much like Joe Thomas in Cleveland, many people don't realize just how good the seven-time Pro Bowler was because much of his career was spent opening holes for bad teams.
Back in 2011, Andy Benoit wrote for the New York Times that Mangold was the best center in football. Over a six-year stretch from 2007 to 2012, the lowest Mangold ranked at his position per the graders at Pro Football Focus was fourth.
The problem is that it's 2017.
As recently as 2014, Mangold graded out second in the league among centers, trailing only Travis Frederick of the Dallas Cowboys.
The following season, however, Mangold dropped all the way to 18th. His pass-blocking grade that season free-fell all the way to 23rd.
Last season Mangold's overall grade at Pro Football Focus improved, but his ranking relative to the NFL's other centers fell to 25th. More importantly, after missing all of four games in 10 seasons entering 2016, Mangold missed half the 2016 season with an ankle injury.
That downward spiral led the New York Jets to release the 33-year-old, but Mangold told Steve Serby of the New York Post that he still has something left to offer.
"I still feel that I got a couple of good years left in me," Mangold said. "I still love the game. It's still a great passion of mine. So hopefully the right situation comes along, and be able to find a team that I can carry that on with."
Someone will no doubt take the chance that Mangold's right, but Father Time spares no one in the NFL.
Not even under-the-radar superstars.
Underrated: Austin Pasztor
It's understandable that players from a 1-15 team aren't generally going to generate a stampede of interest in free agency.
Still, it's a little surprising that a 26-year-old starting tackle who played relatively well in 2016 is still looking for work going on three weeks into free agency.
That's the situation Austin Pasztor finds himself in. Pasztor spent his second season with the Cleveland Browns manning a new position after kicking outside to right tackle. Pasztor had some struggles (he allowed five sacks on the year), but at season's end, he graded out a respectable 35th among tackles, per Pro Football Focus.
That's higher than Riley Reiff, who just got a fat free-agent pact with the Minnesota Vikings. And Russell Okung, who the Los Angeles Chargers recently made the highest-paid tackle for 2017.
Pasztor is a young, capable lineman who can play both guard and tackle and was on the field for all but 10 of the Browns' offensive snaps in 2016. He performed better than some of the bigger names in free agency this year and should be available for much less than teams like the Vikings and Chargers paid for those "name" linemen—especially this late in free agency.
If there's a problem here, darned if I can see it.
Overrated: Zach Brown
Inside linebacker Zach Brown had quite the season for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. It was even more impressive when you consider that heading into training camp last year, Brown wasn't even supposed to be a starter.
That changed after Reggie Ragland's rookie season ended before it started due to a knee injury. Thrust into the starting lineup for his new team, Brown did a fair bit more than hold down the fort.
He thrived, leading the AFC with 149 total tackles and finishing the season 12th among all inside linebackers at PFF.
Given that productivity and his age (27), one would think teams would have already have asked what Brown can do for them.
Sorry. That was unnecessary.
However, despite making multiple visits, Brown remains unsigned. That could be partly a matter of contract demands and/or representation. As Jay Skurski reported for the Buffalo News, Brown recently switched agents—an oddity at this critical juncture in his career.
The bigger concern could be the "fluke factor"—that Brown's huge season happened to occur in a contract year.
Before his explosion in 2016, Brown's most success came as a rookie with the Tennessee Titans back in 2012. After piling up 93 tackles and 5.5 sacks that year, Brown came into the following year a young linebacker to watch in the eyes of many.
But Brown's level of play and per-snap productivity both fell way off. Brown got hurt early in 2014, and by 2015 he was a role player and on his way out of Nashville.
It's possible 2016 was Brown's coming-out party. He can't be expected to top 140 stops every year, but when he's on, he's shown the ability to be a good three-down linebacker.
Until he can back that up with consistency, though, handing him a lot of guaranteed money would be a risky bet.
Underrated: Gerald Hodges
Much like with Boldin, a quick bout of Google-Fu shows there is no shortage of scribes who think the teams they cover should take a run at signing Gerald Hodges.
It certainly isn't because Hodges has had the long and storied career Boldin has. The most accurate way to describe Hodges' four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers is "uneven." Of his 26 career starts, nearly half came last year.
That's the thing, though. During those 12 starts with the 49ers, Hodges showed he may have been a late bloomer.
It wasn't just the 83 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions, although all are easily career highs. In 584 snaps for the 49ers, Hodges posted the eighth-highest overall grade of any inside linebacker in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
That's a handful of spots higher than the aforementioned Zach Brown. Higher than young up-and-comers like Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier and Minnesota's Eric Kendricks. Even higher than veteran Pro Bowlers like Kansas City's Derrick Johnson or Alec Ogletree of the Los Angeles Rams.
Granted, it's just one season, and Hodges has had his ups and downs to this point in his NFL career.
But signing a young, upward-trending player as he enters his prime to a reasonable contract is supposed to be what free agency is all about.
Overrated: Erik Walden
After the Indianapolis Colts signed John Simon and Jabaal Sheard early in free agency, it became abundantly clear Erik Walden wouldn't be back with the team. So much so that he took to Twitter to say his goodbyes.
"I'll like to give thanks to Irsay family and the entire Colts organization for four great years of memories and relationships that will last a lifetime," Walden posted (h/t Kirk Larrabee of 247Sports). "I'll also like to thank my teammates, trainers and fans for their support. With that said, I'll always be grateful to have had a opportunity to play for the Shoe."
At first glance, it seems an odd move. Walden paced the Colts with 11 sacks in 2016, and the last thing Indy can afford is to lose what little pass rush it had.
However, Walden's 2016 is living proof of what a fluke stat sacks can be. The 31-year-old had averaged three sacks per 16 games prior to last season's outburst. His previous career high was six in 2014.
Oh, and the graders at PFF listed Walden as the absolute worst, dead last, isn't anyone else behind him 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL among 59 qualifiers. Even his pass-rush grade barely snuck inside the top 50.
As with most of the players listed here, in some ways it's hard to call anyone who is still looking for work almost three weeks into free agency "overrated."
They are, after all, unemployed.
But the moment—the second—that an NFL team signs Walden with any inkling of a notion that he has a snowball's chance of posting double-digit sacks again, that's exactly what it will be doing.
Underrated: Darrelle Revis
To say the 2016 season was disappointing for Darrelle Revis is a bit like saying the 2016 presidential election was disappointing for Hillary Clinton.
"Revis Island" became a vacation spot for opposing wide receivers. Among 119 qualifying cornerbacks at Pro Football Focus, Revis finished his 10th NFL season 77th in pass coverage. He allowed two-thirds of the passes thrown his way to be completed, and his passer rating against was well over 100.
It was a staggering fall for a player once considered the best at his position in the NFL, a cornerback many expect to one day make the Hall of Fame.
Many also believed that terrible season (and his subsequent release by the New York Jets) might be the end of the line for Revis.
He told NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala he isn't ready to call it a career.
"The hunger is definitely there," Revis said. "It's just passion and love for the game. I'm excited for this season to start. ... I can focus on what team I can fit with and the best system."
Wherever he lands, whether it's at cornerback or safety, the team that signs him is going to be glad it did.
Last season's faceplant had to be galling for a pro of Revis' stature. He told Kinkhabwala that he's attacking offseason workouts in an effort to put it behind him.
"My nutrition is different," Revis said. "I'm actually 10 pounds lighter than I was last year at this time. I'm really hammering out there."
Revis isn't 25 anymore, and his days as the NFL's best cornerback may be in the past. But at only 31, it's premature to call his career finished, and a motivated Revis could turn out to be the signing of the year for a contender like Pittsburgh or New England.