2018 NFL Free Agents: Hidden Gems Still on the Market

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2018

2018 NFL Free Agents: Hidden Gems Still on the Market

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    Though big names such as DeMarco Murray and Ndamukong Suh remain on the open market as the first week of free agency comes to a close, we're now entering the time frame when teams start looking for gems.  

    Gems, meaning low-cost players with big upside who will perform well in the right situation. Think Case Keenum's signing a one-year deal before leading the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs. Or Alshon Jeffery's outplaying a yearlong pact, earning an extension and a Lombardi Trophy. 

    Granted, some apparent gems turn out to be quite fake, like Terrelle Pryor or Mike Glennon from a year ago. But so it goes in shopping this sort of market—the potential production for the cost is worth the risk. 

Dontrelle Inman, WR

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    Fans won't hear a ton about Dontrelle Inman for a while yet, though he will eventually appear on the radar for those hunting for a bargain. 

    The 29-year-old went undrafted in 2011 and joined the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL for two years before linking up with the then-San Diego Chargers. Over a two-season span (2015-16), he snagged seven touchdowns and north of 1,200 receiving yards while performing well as a blocker. 

    This past season, Inman was traded to the Chicago Bears and caught 23 passes for 334 yards and a touchdown over eight games, including three outings with more than 60 yards. Not bad considering his late arrival, playing with a rookie quarterback and the lack of talent on offense around him. 

    Inman isn't going to cost his new team much, and despite his relatively unknown status, his superb blocking and playmaking may put him on the map.

Jordan Matthews, WR

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    Jordan Matthews is 25 years old and underwent three operations last year, a statement sure to drive most away. 

    But let's backpedal. Matthews had a nightmarish 2017. He underwent thumb, knee and ankle surgeries and was shipped from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Buffalo Bills. 

    We're still talking about a guy who caught 16 total touchdowns over his first two seasons in the league before the Carson Wentz era. He's still a bigger (6'3") slot guy who can reel in contested catches and keep an offense moving. 

    Understandably, Matthews isn't going to have a major market. But if he lands in the right location and his body can hold up, he has a good shot at producing like he did in his rookie and sophomore seasons, when he reeled in 152 total catches for 1,869 yards and 16 touchdowns in 32 games. 

    Matthews visited the Arizona Cardinals on Friday, according to Mike Jurecki of Arizona Sports Station 98.7 FM.

Christine Michael, RB

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    Yes, we're starting the Christine Michael hype train again this offseason. 

    Michael has been an incredible disappointment since 2013 in large part because of his jaw-dropping physical traits that have mostly gone to waste as a result of iffy vision and fit. He's also just been a victim of circumstance at times, like when he bounced from the Seattle Seahawks to the Dallas Cowboys and then back to the Seahawks in the same year. 

    Through it all, Michael is a career 4.3 yards-per-carry rusher, and all seven of his rushing touchdowns (six with Seattle, one with Green Bay) came in 2016 during his last full season; that was impressive in its own right given how terrible the blocking for him in Seattle was before he joined Green Bay.

    This past year, Michael was placed on injured reserve with Indianapolis before training camp began. If he's fully healthy, though, he's going to be a valuable member of a committee.

Thomas Rawls, RB

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    Another Seattle castaway, the guy who once looked like the next Marshawn Lynch has major upside if he's healthy and has regained his former athleticism. 

    We're talking about Thomas Rawls, of course, the guy who rushed for 830 yards and four touchdowns at a league-leading rate of 5.6 yards per carry with the Seahawks as an undrafted rookie in 2015 over 13 games (seven starts). 

    Since then, though, Rawls has scored three touchdowns over two years while missing 11 games. Rawls may not look the same after returning from an ankle injury, but as mentioned in the previous section on Christine Michael, he wasn't exactly dealing with the best offensive line in Seattle. 

    If he's healthy and can be part of a rotation, Rawls could be a steal behind better blocking. It's not often a 24-year-old back with his upside hits the market, and the poor conditions around him the last couple of years could camouflage major production to come.

    Rawls visited with the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

Austin Howard, OT

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    By now, fans should understand just how hard it is to find quality offensive linemen and how much teams are willing to cough up cap space to obtain them. 

    It's interesting, then, that Austin Howard slipped to the market as a cap-saving maneuver.

    Still only 30 years old, Howard started on the right side for the Baltimore Ravens a year ago, predictably acting as a mauler in the running game and ranking 25th out of 49 in our NFL1000 rankings of right tackles. 

    How Howard performs in the passing game could vary with the offense, as he isn't the kind of athlete able to hold his block on big vertical plays. But he's a solid starter on the right side despite his lack of buzz, which is something teams covet.

Cameron Fleming, OT

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    The NFL places a premium on the tackle position right now given the lack of talented linemen coming from the collegiate level and the league's inability to consistently groom them. 

    Which makes the lack of buzz surrounding Cameron Fleming a bit odd. The Patriots would like him back, and he'll visit with the Dallas Cowboys, according to Ian Rapoport, but it's been a slow-developing market at a busy area. 

    A fourth-round pick in 2014, Fleming mostly served as quality depth for the New England Patriots until last year. He was utilized as a swing tackle in 2017, only yielding four sacks, according to Rotoworld.

    25-year-old swing tackles standing a gigantic 6'6" and 320 pounds aren't readily available. A team that actually gives Fleming a full offseason of work with a starting unit could find itself a quality starter on the left or right side for quite a while.

Terence Newman, CB

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The prospect of a cornerback turning 40 years old in September will turn most away, but this is Terence Newman we're talking about. 

    Newman hasn't generated much hype this offseason, which is fitting because his is one of the best, most overlooked stories in the NFL. 

    Despite the demands of the position, Newman keeps chugging along and putting up quality production. With Minnesota in 2017, he still ranked as the 11th-best slot corner on B/R's NFL1000, only trailing notables like Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Harris Jr. 

    Newman needs the right fit and usage like he's had in Minnesota, but that's not too much to ask if a coaching staff wants another consistent year out of him in a rotational role. 

    According to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Newman wants to be back with the Vikings.

Marquis Flowers, LB

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    Marquis Flowers didn't get much of a chance to prove himself with the Cincinnati Bengals over the first three years of his career as a 2014 sixth-round pick. 

    Naturally, the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick found a use for him after striking a deal with the Bengals in a trade. 

    Injuries shifted the special teams standout into a bigger role on the path to Super Bowl LII, and Flowers responded by playing tough against the run and tallying 3.5 sacks, which all came over the final two games of the regular season. 

    The question now is simple: Where can Flowers go from here? He looks the part of a linebacker-safety combo and is guaranteed to perform well on special teams. The upside is whatever else he might develop into at only 26 years old.

    Michael Giardi of NBC Sports Boston reported Flowers is starting to receive a few calls.

Willie Young, LB

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    There's no such thing as too many quality pass-rushers on a team, so the one that quietly plucks Willie Young off the market at a low price will get a big win. 

    Young is 32 years old and tore his triceps last year, appearing in four games, which would explain the lack of buzz. But he tallied two sacks over those four appearances and registered 26 total sacks in four seasons with the Chicago Bears, with 6.5 or more in three consecutive seasons. 

    To put it in perspective, Young had been reliable and durable with the exception of last season while playing on a team undergoing a massive rebuild, meaning opposing offenses could afford to single him out and try to stymie his productivity. 

    The injury last year is cause for concern, but if it healed properly, Young should pick up where he left off as a quality rotational rusher who wears down offensive lines over the course of four frames.

Clinton McDonald, DT

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    Clinton McDonald quietly broke through the old cliche of "undersized" defensive tackles. 

    McDonald, 6'2" and 297 pounds, was a seventh-round pick in 2009 who didn't get much of a chance until 2013 in Seattle. Since, he's tallied 19 career sacks and spent the last four years in Tampa Bay. 

    While he hasn't been the most durable (he's missed 19 games over the last four years), McDonald has the burst off the snap to make a difference in passing situations. His low leverage helps him against the run, too, though it certainly isn't the appeal of his game. 

    A superb success story, McDonald won't cost much at 31 years old and as a rotational presence. But the productivity, coming off a five-sack season over 14 games, should stick around for another year or two. 

    According to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, McDonald visited the Oakland Raiders last week.

Tom Johnson, DT

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    The market at defensive tackle has been interesting, to say the least. Obvious guys like Sheldon Richardson and Dontari Poe have found homes, but so have gambles like Chris Baker and Jarvis Jenkins. 

    Then there's Tom Johnson. 

    Johnson might be 33 years old, but he remains one of the more productive tackles in the NFL, odd as it sounds given his lack of name recognition. 

    Not only is Johnson solid against the run, but he's tallied 16 sacks over the last four years from the interior, hence ranking 15th among defensive tackles in 2017 in the NFL1000

    Age is but a number for Johnson, who doesn't look like he's close to slowing down as a rotational force. 

    NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Johnson will visit the Seahawks on Monday.


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