2017 NFL Free Agents: Which Available Players Can Still Be Key Contributors?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 15, 2017

2017 NFL Free Agents: Which Available Players Can Still Be Key Contributors?

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    There's a predictable movement to the NFL calendar and the roster-building process. If you're still a free agent in mid-April, then you'll likely be a free agent in early May, too.

    Inevitably, at that point there will be key roster holes still not filled after the draft. That's why the free-agent market briefly stirs from its slumber in May. Established-though-flawed veterans are snapped up on cheap short-term deals, hopefully as decent solutions to those roster question marks.

    And make no mistake about it: Every free agent still available deep into the offseason is flawed in some way. They're aging, injury prone or simply declining in skill. Or worse, a vicious combination of all three.

    That doesn't mean they don't have value. But that value can often only be realized if they're plugged into a specific role.

    Often a free agent who was an afterthought signing in April or May rises to make a key contribution. For example, wide receiver Anquan Boldin went even deeper into the calendar before signing with the Detroit Lions in 2016. He inked his one-year deal on July 28, just before training camp.

    Then he went out and asserted himself as a trusted possession receiver and large-bodied presence, which are the qualities that should eventually get him into the Hall of Fame. Boldin caught eight touchdown passes, his best single-season total since way back in 2008.

    Boldin will turn 37 during the 2017 season and has said he wants to return for another year. Let's take a closer look at him and the other top remaining free agents who could make a valuable contribution.

Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver

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    Remember that time Boldin pretty much had his face broken and then missed only two games? That happened back in 2008, and it was one of the early times when we learned Boldin is different.

    Different in the best way possible, of course, as he's put together a long and successful NFL career with seven 1,000-plus-yard receiving seasons, the most recent coming in 2014. Boldin has plenty of impressive skills, starting with his body control to seal off defenders and win jump balls as well as his steady hands amid chaos.

    But durability might be the defining Boldin characteristic. He plays a highly physical style and essentially operates like a tight end wanting to escape a wide-receiver body. So he's taken many, many thumps over the years, and yet Boldin has played 14-plus games in 11 of his 14 NFL seasons.

    And he's still hungry for more.

    Boldin has said he plans to return for a 15th season and reiterated that intention recently when speaking to Jamey Eisenberg of CBSSports.com. He'll likely wait until late in the summer to sign, and a return to the Lions is still possible.

    His 2016 season with the Lions is the answer to any questions about what Boldin has left. For his age-36 season, Boldin was brought in to provide veteran leadership and depth while also being at best the third or fourth receiving option. Then he became the same player he has been throughout his entire career, and age didn't seem to matter at all.

    He finished with 584 receiving yards, which is a solid year in that secondary role. More importantly, Boldin was still a reliable chain-mover and red-zone threat. Of his 67 total receptions, 41 resulted in first downs, which tied him for second among Lions pass-catchers. And his eight touchdown catches led the team.

    Forget his age. Boldin is more immune to a sudden drop-off because his game was never built on speed to begin with. He's a bullying physical brute and has been aging gracefully for quite some time now.

    That should continue in 2017, when Boldin can thrive in his possession receiver role once again.

Jamaal Charles, Running Back

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    There are clear and blaring five-alarm health concerns hovering around Jamaal Charles. That's typical to some degree with every 30-year-old running back, but the former Kansas City Chief makes potential employers mash the injury panic button even harder.

    He's played only eight games over the past two seasons due to an ACL tear. He tore his right ACL in 2015 and never fully recovered. Coming back from such a severe injury is always difficult, and it's that much harder for a running back who has hit the age-30 plateau with his career touch odometer climbing.

    Injury fears get raised to threat-level orange when you remember that Charles also tore his left ACL back in 2011. So that's two significant knee injuries suffered by a running back who needs his quick-cutting ability to be effective.

    But let's try to be optimistic for just a second.

    Even a dinged-up Charles might not age quite the same as other running backs, and he could still be a key contributor in a specific role. That role? A third-down pass-catcher.

    Charles is a highly skilled pass-catcher and is at ease in the open field when given the opportunity to make tacklers miss while being creative after the catch. That's what separates Charles from Adrian Peterson and makes him more appealing than the other available veteran running back who comes with a long list of medical red flags.

    Peterson has never been much of a pass-catcher out of the backfield. His career single-season high was 436 receiving yards in 2009, while Charles recorded 693 receiving yards on 70 catches in 2013.

    There's a piano-sized injury question mark that will follow Charles around. But if he can come back to be even, say, 70 percent of his old self, then Charles can still be a key offensive cog in a pass-catching role.

Jay Cutler, Quarterback

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    Judging by his, um, attire during vacation (or lack thereof), Jay Cutler sure seems to be enjoying the semi-retired life.

    And he might keep enjoying it. In late March, Adam Hoge of WGN Radio reported there was a "strong belief" around the NFL owners meetings that the former Chicago Bears quarterback won't play in 2017.

    Money certainly isn't an issue for Cutler, especially since his wife has made a few dollars as a model, actress and cookbook author. And he's been pretty beat up the past few years, so it wouldn’t exactly be stunning if Cutler decided that now is the time to embrace the dad life, with his 34th birthday approaching.

    There are few jobs you're potentially too old for at 34, and NFL quarterback is often one of them. If Cutler decides to preserve his remaining youth and make sure he can bend down to play with his kids in five years, it's tough to criticize that decision.

    However, it probably wouldn't take much to rekindle his competitive desire. And yes, Cutler has that, even if his face usually offered only apathy.

    Talentwise, he's in a situation similar to Colin Kaepernick. He could even be a step or three ahead in that regard. Like Kaepernick, Cutler is flawed and frequently makes poor decisions. He also still has a catapult for an arm. And unlike Kaepernick, Cutler does have a more established history of playing at a level we can at worst label average.

    An even serviceable quarterback would be just fine for a team like the Houston Texans, with its great defense and solid support from a quality rushing offense. Cutler is inconsistent, but at his best he can leap high over the low bar for acceptable quarterback play in Houston. Remember, he's only one year removed from averaging 7.6 yards per pass attempt with a career-high single-season passer rating of 92.3.

    But the Texans apparently aren't interested, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, leaving Cutler to sit and wait. It could take an injury for him to get a call, or the Texans missing on the quarterback they wanted in the draft and then realizing Tom Savage isn't a viable starter for a playoff-contending team.

    Or maybe Cutler doesn't want a call, and he's just fine with drifting off into retirement, spending his days sitting on beaches with the same facial expression he had while in the huddle.

Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback

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    Running back prospect Joe Mixon is likely going to be on a team soon, and we applaud Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill every week during the season. They each have been charged with—and in Hill's case, convicted of—assaulting a woman. (Mixon reached a plea deal.)

    Yet somehow Colin Kaepernick is a potential distraction for NFL teams?

    The conversation around Kaepernick's continued unemployment has become cluttered and muddled at this point, with few willing to seek simplicity amid the noise. During more peaceful times on this topic back in early February, I called Kaepernick a looming "free-agency mirage," working under what felt like a safe assumption then. I thought teams would look at the 29-year-old's relative youth along with his past success and decent 2016 season in an awful San Francisco 49ers offense and then dramatically overpay.

    That felt like a logical conclusion in a quarterback-starved league, one willing to giving Mike Glennon $18.5 million guaranteed even though he's logged 11 regular-season pass attempts over the past two years. Barely serviceable backups like Mark Sanchez and Case Keenum have also been signed as Kaepernick waits.

    Let's be honest about Kaepernick's talent, though. At his very best he's an average quarterback.

    He had a passer rating of 90.7 in 2016 and threw only four interceptions. However, he did that while averaging only 6.8 yards per attempt, and Kaepernick remains limited on any throw beyond short-to-intermediate distances. He ranked 23rd in 2016 while completing only 36.7 percent of his throws that traveled 20-plus yards through the air, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Still, being average has tremendous value at the quarterback position. Being average means that, at worst, a quarterback can be a short-term bridge solution as a younger, better option develops. Being average or even close to it also means the quarterback in question won't absolutely faceplant each week. Kaepernick had to watch on the 49ers sideline as Blaine Gabbert did that ahead of him in 2016.

    Most of all, being average means that you deserve to be on a roster in the offseason and given a shot to earn a job. In that sense, being average also means you're one of the top 64 quarterbacks in the NFL.

    It takes some creative mental gymnastics to convince yourself Kaepernick doesn't belong in that group.

DeAngelo Williams, Running Back

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    It would usually be pretty tough to get excited about a soon-to-be 34-year-old running back whose body has taken plenty of beatings. But there are few 34-year-old running backs like DeAngelo Williams.

    Williams filled in for Le'Veon Bell in 2016 when the Pittsburgh Steelers running back was suspended for three games to begin the season. In Week 1, Williams went off for 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns. And over the three games, he shined with 347 yards from scrimmage. That came after a 2015 season in which Williams averaged 4.5 yards per carry while also filling in for an injured Bell.

    He'll slow down eventually when his 1,966 career touches take their toll. But that day hasn't come quite yet.

Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver

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    There's still a tall and athletically gifted wide receiver somewhere inside of Michael Floyd. And also a pretty young one, too, as Floyd won't celebrate his 28th birthday until late in the 2017 season.

    But can he ever keep his head aligned in the proper position?

    The answer too often lately hasn't been encouraging. Floyd was sentenced to 120 days in jail after a DUI. It was his second such offense, with the first coming in 2011.

    On the field, though, Floyd was considered a quality second option in the Arizona Cardinals' deep-passing attack and a rising young talent. In 2013, his second NFL season, Floyd finished with 1,041 receiving yards. That was the first of three straight years with 800-plus yards and averaging 16 yards per reception or more.

    He may never become a game-breaking offensive weapon, but if he behaves off the field, Floyd can still be a quality second or third receiver and a talented red-zone threat on it.

    At minimum he's worth a flier contract with little to no guaranteed money to see if he can rekindle some of that early-career success.

Dwight Freeney, Defensive End

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    Here's a line we can repeat every spring: Dwight Freeney is an ageless pass-rushing treasure. In the latter stages of his career, Freeney's continued effectiveness has made the defensive end an annual free-agency bargain.

    The Arizona Cardinals signed Freeney midway through the 2015 season to be a rotational part-time player. He rewarded them with eight sacks over only 11 games. Then, in 2016, the Atlanta Falcons signed him to a one-year deal, hoping he could inject some life into their pass rush. The result: 46 pressures generated over only 333 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

    There's no reason to think Freeney can't keep making his age irrelevant and keep being effective in a specialized role. That's still true now even as he prepares to enter his age-37 season.

    Freeney has been healthy for three straight years, and a source told USA Today's Tom Pelissero that he doesn't have any plans to fade away just yet.

    And why would he? Freeney can offer leadership and production to a defense in need of both. He'll land somewhere and bring that package with him at little cost in guaranteed money.

Sam Shields, Cornerback

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    It's unclear if cornerback Sam Shields will play in 2017. He probably shouldn't play because at some point long-term health takes priority.

    Shields has battled concussion issues throughout his career, suffering five head injuries. The most recent held him to only one game in 2017 with the Green Bay Packers. It then became difficult to justify his $11.65 million cap hit in 2017, and the Packers made the easy decision to release Shields.

    There are a heaping pile of "ifs" that follow Shields around now. But if he wants to play and is medically cleared, Shields can still be a high-performing cornerback on what would be a cheap, low-risk contract with little guaranteed money. If he can stay healthy, of course.

    His last somewhat healthy season is still in the recent past. In 2015, Shields played 12 games, though of those four missed weeks three were because of a severe concussion. Still, when on the field, he was a shutdown presence while recording a passer rating in coverage of 71.2, per PFF. Shields also finished that season with three interceptions and nine passes defensed.

    At worst, then, he's capable of providing high-quality depth at a position where teams can never have enough talent lining the depth chart. And at best, a healthy Shields could become a pillar in the secondary.

Jared Odrick, Defensive End

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    Jared Odrick is a poor man's version of Dwight Freeney.

    At first, that sounds like an insult. It can double as one because Odrick is much younger than Freeney at 29 years old.

    But if a team is seeking veteran depth and a situational pass-rusher—which, if we're being honest with ourselves here, is all you'll usually find on the open market among defensive linemen in mid April—then Odrick offers something valuable.

    He brings position versatility and therefore the ability to create pressure from both the outside and inside.

    Odrick's production has fallen off recently, and injuries are partly to blame. He appeared in only six games in 2016 due to an elbow issue. But prior to that, he hadn't missed a game over the previous five seasons and led the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015 with 5.5 sacks.

    He did that as a defensive end, and Odrick has excelled as a tackle in the past, too. His best season came in 2013 when the Miami Dolphins used him in that role. Odrick recorded 4.5 sacks that year with 42 tackles, 29 defensive stops and 46 pressures, all per PFF.

    It won't cost much to see if Odrick can resurrect his career when used as an interior pass-rusher more often.

Ryan Clady, Offensive Tackle

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    With a few exceptions, it was a weak free-agency class for offensive tackles. And with a few exceptions, it'll be a weak draft at the position, too.

    But luckily there's a four-time Pro Bowler available for teams with that offseason shopping item still at the tops of their lists.

    Ryan Clady comes with red flags planted in a few places on his body. He missed most of the 2016 season with the New York Jets due to a shoulder issue, and in 2015, Clady suffered a torn ACL. He also played only two games in 2013 due to a Lisfranc injury.

    Any team signing Clady is getting more than damaged goods. He's been completely disassembled and then put back together and stuffed into the package.

    But if he manages to fight off those injury demons, Clady can be a high-quality short-term solution to a critical protection problem. He showed that in 2014, his last healthy season that also ended with his most recent Pro Bowl invite. That year, Clady allowed only three sacks over 1,155 snaps, per PFF.

    He's the best remaining tackle on the market in a league often starved for even average play at the position.