The Most Overlooked Additions of the 2017 NFL Offseason
Not every free-agent signing or trade in the NFL brings a superstar in return.
Franchise quarterbacks rarely hit the market. League leaders in any category aren't readily available. Due to the franchise tag, teams are often able to retain their top performers.
Instead, most deals are meant to improve or rebuild particular areas of a team.
Value can be found by acquiring established veterans who fit certain roles. These moves often become the glue that holds a squad together.
However, such deals are inherently risky. Organizations end up paying top dollar for players who may not excel in a different situation.
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars "won" the offseason with the free-agent acquisitions of Malik Jackson, Chris Ivory, Tashaun Gipson, Prince Amukamara and Kelvin Beachum. A year later, Amukamara and Beachum are no longer with the team. Gipson and Ivory haven't lived up to expectations. Only Jackson is considered a future building block.
General managers tend to believe teams are built through the draft, while free agency serves as a way to fill gaps within the roster. This approach allows franchises to identify under-the-radar targets who have a chance to be legitimate contributors.
The following 10 acquisitions have been largely overlooked during the offseason, yet each should prove to be beneficial for their respective teams.
RB LeGarrette Blount, Philadelphia Eagles
Patience is a virtue, and the Philadelphia Eagles' patience in free agency allowed them to land a potential starting running back two months after the start of the new league year.
LeGarrette Blount signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with the Eagles on May 17. In doing so, Philadelphia added last year's league leader in rushing touchdowns. Blount experienced a career season with the New England Patriots in 2016 by setting personal bests in carries (299), rushing yardage (1,161) and rushing touchdowns (18).
While the Eagles won't expect Blount to replicate last year's production with Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey and (perhaps) Ryan Mathews in a crowded backfield, the 250-pound back will provide a much-needed physical presence.
"Oh, Doug [Pederson] communicated it himself," running backs coach Duce Staley said, per ESPN.com's Tim McManus. "He talked about running the ball: 'We're not bringing these guys in here just to sit them up on the shelf. We want to run the ball, and we want to impose our will.'"
The veteran's ability to pound the ball between the tackles is still valuable enough to offset any regression due to the dreaded 30-year-old plateau. Furthermore, Blount's game isn't built around speed or quickness. According to Pro Football Focus, the two-time Super Bowl champion broke 76 tackles since the start of the 2015 campaign, which ranked fourth among running backs.
Blount can be a successful short-yardage/red-zone specialist in a rotation that features smaller and more explosive options.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Oakland Raiders
After signing with the Oakland Raiders, Cordarrelle Patterson can shirk the label of first-round bust and be viewed as the player he really is.
The Minnesota Vikings chose Patterson with the 29th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, but he never developed into a complete wide receiver during his four seasons with them. Once the Vikings allowed him to leave in free agency, Patterson signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Oakland Raiders, who are an ideal fit for his skill set.
The Raiders won't ask Patterson to be a front-line wide receiver with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree already on the roster. Instead, the speedy target will serve as the team's vertical threat. The 6'2", 220-pounder with 4.42-second 40-yard-dash speed gained a league-leading 72.2 percent of his yards last season after the catch, per Pro Football Focus.
Patterson excels on special teams and earned his second Pro Bowl berth as a returner last season. Throughout his career, the 26-year-old has averaged 30.4 yards per kick return and scored five touchdowns. In fact, he provided at least one 100-plus-yard kick return in three of the past four campaigns.
Oakland ranked 22nd overall last season with an average of 20.5 yards per kick return, while the Vikings finished first with 27.3.
Patterson is a solid third option in the passing game and a dynamic special teams presence at a discount price.
TE Anthony Fasano, Miami Dolphins
The NFL wants athletic tight ends who create mismatches in the passing games. Blocking tight ends don't receive the same recognition even though they can be a big part of the offense, too.
Anthony Fasano was the NFL's best run-blocking tight end last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The 33-year-old agreed to a one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Miami Dolphins back in March.
On the surface, Fasano's arrival in Miami helps offset the team's losses of Dion Sims and Jordan Cameron, as both he and Julius Thomas provide a new look to the Dolphins' tight end room. In addition, Fasano's presence as an extra lineman on the field bolsters the Dolphins' burgeoning identity.
"I think [blocking] is an important part of the position—somewhat of a lost art in the NFL nowadays—so it's something I take great pride in," Fasano said after signing, per the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero. "I do believe to be a good football team you need to be a good running team, and good running teams have good blocking tight ends.
Head coach Adam Gase built a bruising rushing attack last season around running back Jay Ajayi behind a talented offensive line. Fasano's inclusion will help the Dolphins gain the edge against defenses, and Ajayi should be even more effective running off tackle.
Though Miami will primarily use Fasano as a blocker, defenses can't forget about him in the passing game. Thomas will serve as the top receiving threat, but the 6'4" Fasano is still a legitimate red-zone target with 35 career touchdowns.
C Jeremy Zuttah, San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan became the San Francisco 49ers' new head coach due in part to his success as the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons offense reached another level in 2016, and it wasn't solely because of quarterback Matt Ryan or wide receiver Julio Jones, who have always been special. The team previously lacked a consistent presence at center, but after bringing in Pro Bowl blocker Alex Mack, the Falcons had a general along its offensive line.
Center serves as the linchpin for Shanahan's offensive system and sets the tone in his zone-heavy scheme. Not only is he expected to make all of the line calls, but his block often influences where the running back decides to cut.
With Mack unavailable, the 49ers traded for another Pro Bowl center in Jeremy Zuttah by flipping sixth-round draft picks with the Baltimore Ravens. The 31-year-old blocker is exactly the type of veteran Shanahan needs to stabilize his offensive front.
Zuttah graded better than any lineman on the 49ers roster last season, according to Pro Football Focus [via 49ers Web Zone's Al Sacco]. He's also a reliable and experienced option, having started 73 of his last 80 games.
The Ravens originally acquired Zuttah in 2014 to play in the same system as Shanahan's, as Gary Kubiak was Baltimore's offensive coordinator at that time. Shanahan previously served on Kubiak's Houston Texans staff from 2006-09, including two seasons as offensive coordinator.
NT Bennie Logan, Kansas City Chiefs
At one point in his career, Dontari Poe ranked among the league's best nose tackles. But with little salary-cap space to re-sign both Poe and All-Pro safety Eric Berry this offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs had to choose between the two.
The Chiefs went with the latter, signing Berry to a new six-year, $78 million contract extension, while Poe left in free agency and agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Falcons. In turn, Kansas City signed former Philadelphia Eagles nose tackle Bennie Logan to the same one-year, $8 million contract Poe took from Atlanta.
This trade-off is a matter of value versus production, as Poe was no longer performing at a Pro Bowl level.
Logan is more of a traditional nose tackle. He excels at the point of attack. After a down year in 2016 due to a system change under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former third-round pick returns to his role as a 0-technique. In said role during the 2015 campaign, Logan managed 45 defensive stops and ranked second behind Damon Harrison with a 14.8 run-stop percentage, per Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson.
The Chiefs defense creates more pressure and turnovers than any team in the league, yet the unit finished 26th overall against the run last season. Logan should provide a sturdier presence in the middle than Poe did.
DT Timmy Jernigan, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles landed a strong two-for-one during an offseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens.
In exchange for the No. 74 overall pick, Philadelphia acquired defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and Baltimore's 99th overall pick. The Eagles used said selection to draft West Virginia cornerback Rasul Douglas, who is already competing for a starting spot.
While Douglas has a lot of potential, Jernigan could make a major impact along the Eagles' defensive front.
The previously mentioned Bennie Logan didn't fit well within Jim Schwartz's more aggressive scheme. After he experienced a down campaign in 2016, the Eagles allowed him to leave in free agency. In response, they traded for Jernigan to play him alongside Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle.
The 24-year-old Jernigan is younger and more explosive than Logan, which helped him become one of the NFL's best run defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, Jernigan led all 3-4 defensive ends in run-stop percentage last season.
The Florida State product also brings a dynamic Logan never did. The Eagles' previous nose tackle managed 5.5 sacks in four seasons. Jernigan had five last season and 13 total over the previous three campaigns.
With Douglas and Jernigan, the Eagles appear to have landed a pair of starters by trading down 25 spots in the third round of April's draft. Philadelphia's defensive front is especially intimidating with Jernigan's inclusion alongside Cox, Brandon Graham and first-round pick Derek Barnett as well as Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and Chris Long for depth.
DE Connor Barwin, Los Angeles Rams
There's no place like home. In Connor Barwin's case, home can be found in Wade Phillips' defensive scheme after he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams.
"I loved playing for Wade [while with the Houston Texans in 2011-12], just in general," Barwin told ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "But I think playing in this system will be good for me to keep playing for a couple more years, because it takes advantage of what I do well. It allows me to still play every single snap."
Very few talents transcend scheme. Barwin is a perfect example. His play diminished when he moved to defensive end as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in Jim Schwartz's scheme. He's at his best when he's allowed to play multiple roles as a linebacker.
With 50.5 career sacks, the 30-year-old veteran adds a much-needed punch to the Rams' pass rush after the team traded Williams Hayes to the Miami Dolphins. Hayes wasn't an ideal fit in Phillips' one-gap 3-4 front, but Barwin should step in as an instant starter opposite Robert Quinn at outside linebacker.
The Rams also added a veteran presence to the locker room. Since the 2011 campaign, Barwin started all but one game, per NFL.com.
Aaron Donald remains the focal point of the defense with Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron forming a talented front seven. Barwin's experience in the system and his versatile skill set will help ease the transition under the team's new coaching staff.
LB Kevin Minter, Cincinnati Bengals
The linebacker market developed slowly after the start of free agency. Off-the-ball linebackers don't hold the value around the league they once did. The Cincinnati Bengals waited patiently and signed Kevin Minter 10 days after the start of the new league year.
On paper, the organization merely flipped Minter for multiyear starter Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker. However, Minter is an instant upgrade since he's a younger and a more reliable option.
At 26 years old, the former second-round pick finished third on the Arizona Cardinals last season with 81 total tackles. He also started 33 straight regular-season contests, whereas Maualuga hadn't played a full 16-game slate since 2012.
More importantly, Minter is not as limited as Maualuga became later in this career. Granted, Minter isn't the fastest linebacker to grace the field, but he plays faster than his times indicate because of his instincts.
"He understood what the offense was trying do," Nick Vigil said of his new teammate during minicamp, per the Cincinnati Enquirer's Jim Owczarski. "He's been playing a long time and he's seen it all. Nothing is going to surprise him, he's just got to get down the lingo and kind of get in sync with everybody around him. He plays fast. He plays fast."
Vontaze Burfict sets the tone among the Bengals linebackers, and Vigil and Vincent Rey will see the field as well. Minter became a solid addition to complete the team's second line of defense without having to overpay in free agency. In fact, the fifth-year linebacker agreed to a one-year, $4.25 million prove-it deal.
The Bengals' primary goal is a return to the postseason after they snapped their five-year playoff streak by going 6-9-1 last season. The roster isn't complete, but linebacker isn't a concern with Minter on board.
LB Zach Brown, Washington Redskins
Much like Minter, Zach Brown had to wait before reaching an agreement with a new team in free agency. Brown's case is even more surprising, as he finished second in the league last season with 149 total tackles but didn't sign with Washington until April 3.
"I'll make other head coaches pay for not drafting me or picking me up," Brown said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "I feel [people] still don't respect me, so for me I have to prove myself again. I always play with a chip on my shoulder. If you don't respect my game, I will make you respect my game."
The 27-year-old defender should feel disrespected. He eventually signed a one-year, $2.3 million after making the Pro Bowl and being named second-team All-Pro. He's not even guaranteed a starting spot in Washington, however, as he'll compete with Will Compton and Mason Foster to start at inside linebacker.
It shouldn't be much of a competition since Brown outperformed the other veterans in total run tackles, total run stops and run-stop percentage, per Pro Football Focus.
The sixth-year linebacker isn't a liability in coverage, either. He touts 4.50-second 40-yard-dash speed and did everything for the Bills last season. Not only did Brown lead the team in total tackles, but he also contributed four sacks, four deflected passes, an interception and two forced fumbles.
"I can play with the best of them," Brown told Keim. "I'm not just another linebacker that can be replaced. I feel I'm one of the top guys in the league at inside linebacker. I can do everything."
He'll just have to prove himself all over again.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina Panthers
Captain Munnerlyn has been one of the league's best nickel corners for a while, yet he receives little to no attention for his play. Seeing as nickel corners are starters in today's NFL, those performers deserve to be recognized as such.
Shorter corners without preferred top-end speed were almost always typecast as nickel corners, but the position has grown in recent years to feature some of the league's best cover corners. The 29-year-old Munnerlyn came into the league eight years ago, though.
He graded as the league's 23rd-best cornerback last season, per Pro Football Focus. Among defensive backs who primarily covered the slot, however, he ranked second only behind Lamarcus Joyner of the Los Angeles Rams.
Munnerlyn won't just serve as a nickel corner during his second stint with the Carolina Panthers. The South Carolina product spent his first five seasons in Charlotte before signing a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings. He returned this fall when he agreed to a four-year, $17.5 million contract.
"He's a veteran guy," head coach Ron Rivera said when asked about Munnerlyn's role, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "He knows how to do things."
If James Bradberry or Daryl Worley falter in starting roles on the outside, Munnerlyn can take over for either of them. Until then, he's the perfect complement as a nickel corner with those longer and more aggressive second-year backs matching up against the NFL's top receivers.