Bargain-Bin Free Agents Who Can Still Help the NFL's Top Teams
There's a lot in common between the NFL bargain bin and the one in your local grocery store currently overflowing with marked-down Easter decorations.
Bargain bins often hold a collection of forgotten or discarded items that are flawed in some way. They're outdated, broken or have fallen out of fashion. Time has moved on, just as it does with veteran free agents or others recovering from a major injury.
Amid the heaping mess of those bins, there's always the opportunity to discover a hidden treasure, a player who can grow into a key contributor on a championship team.
The past two Super Bowl-winning teams made an important discount signing during the latter stages of free agency.
The 2016 New England Patriots signed running back LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal in early April. He then went on to rumble for 1,161 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Patrick Robinson became a core contributor for the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles on a one-year deal. After signing in late March, Robinson played 68.9 percent of the team's defensive snaps (second-most among cornerbacks) and finished with a team-high four interceptions.
There are a number of potential options still out there for the NFL's top teams (listed here according to the 2017 regular-season standings), including linebacker NaVorro Bowman and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Let's try to connect the contenders with the best bargain free agent.
Minnesota Vikings: Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver
The Minnesota Vikings have possibly the NFL's best wide receiver tandem in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, both of whom are young and either in or just entering their prime years (Diggs is 24 years old, while Thielen is 27).
The problem is the Vikings' wide receiver depth chart is a little top-heavy. If one of their top two receivers suffers an injury of any significance, it could be an issue.
Thielen has never missed a game in four years in the NFL, and his injury luck could run out at any time. Diggs, meanwhile, still hasn't logged a 16-game campaign, missing eight regular-season games over three years.
The Vikings have a need for depth and a receiver who can at least perform passably as a short-term fill-in, which might be the best way to describe Jeremy Maclin at this stage of his career.
Maclin was once one of the league's better slot receivers, and there's reason to have faith he can return to that level. Turning 30 in May, Maclin posted back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons in 2014 and 2015. He finished with 87 catches for 1,088 yards, all for a Kansas City Chiefs offense that sputtered otherwise and averaged just 203.4 passing yards per game (30th).
Then in 2016 he was derailed by a groin injury. Maclin missed four games and never really recovered. He was limited once again by something out of his control in 2017: Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens' inept offense.
No one, including possibly the Vikings, should be asking Maclin to be a No. 1 receiver anymore. But his floor is high in a limited depth role, and if he's healthy, Maclin's ceiling might be even higher in the right scheme.
Philadelphia Eagles: NaVorro Bowman, Linebacker
Somehow NaVorro Bowman is only about to turn 30 years old in May. The number of candles on his cake might say that, but the three-time Pro Bowler's body aged much faster after he suffered a severe knee injury during the 2013 AFC Championship Game.
He missed the entire 2014 regular season and hasn't been quite the same since. Bowman was once among the NFL's most versatile linebackers, excelling both against the run and in coverage. He posted three straight seasons with 140-plus tackles for the San Francisco 49ers along with 22 passes defensed and three interceptions.
Injuries have robbed him of a longer time playing at that level. However, Bowman is starting to rebound after performing well for the Oakland Raiders in 2017. He played 10 games after being signed in mid-October and finished tied for the team lead with 89 tackles. Even more impressively, he recorded eight pressures on just 40 pass-rushing snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
All of which makes him the ideal veteran rotational linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The road to defending a championship is often built on existing strengths. The Eagles had the league's best run defense in 2017, giving up an average of 79.2 yards per game.
However, there's at least some uncertainty about Jordan Hicks' status heading into 2018 after he tore his Achilles halfway through the 2017 season. Nigel Bradham filled in admirably at middle linebacker and was re-signed, but better depth is needed beyond him.
New England Patriots: Julius Thomas, Tight End
The New England Patriots need to have one of the better second-string tight ends in the league for reasons that have become painfully clear.
Rob Gronkowski managed to make it through nearly a full season in 2017, appearing in 14 games. He still collected more dings on his well-worn body, though, and sat out one game with a thigh issue. And there was at least some uncertainty about his status heading into the Super Bowl after a concussion suffered during the AFC Championship Game.
Gronkowski is still only just approaching 29 years old, yet he's missed 26 games over an eight-year career. His physical style of play lends itself to more injuries and bruises, which is why the Patriots are often in search of quality depth behind him.
They tried to find it by trading for Dwayne Allen, but he caught just 10 balls for 86 yards and a touchdown despite getting chances with Gronkowski injured or suspended.
Allen cost the Patriots a fourth-round pick. Now they can take another swing at tight end depth but at a much lower price. Two-time Pro Bowler Julius Thomas caught 24 touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos alongside Peyton Manning during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
A combination of injuries and awful quarterback play has kept Thomas from reaching those heights during stops with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. But he remains a large-bodied target who can, at worst, be a quality red-zone option. That, combined with his past success, makes Thomas the ideal Bill Belichick scrap-heap reclamation project.
New Orleans Saints: Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver
The New Orleans Saints offense became a little less pass-happy in 2017 with the rapid emergence of rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who finished with 1,554 yards from scrimmage.
But quarterback Drew Brees still ranked among the top 10 in pass attempts, finishing ninth with 536. He's always spread the ball around, and that didn't change in 2017; the Saints had four pass-catchers with 50-plus receptions.
However, two of those pass-catchers were running backs. The Saints offense would benefit from a third receiver stepping up and giving Brees another downfield option, even in a limited role. And there's a young one still available who won't cost much in free agency.
Jordan Matthews has the height (6'3") to be a trusted red-zone option and, when healthy, the route-running skills to sting defenses from the slot. He used both in abundance earlier in his career for the Philadelphia Eagles. Over Matthews' first three seasons in the NFL, he caught 225 passes for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Then he was slowed by knee and ankle problems after moving on to the Buffalo Bills in 2017, with both issues requiring surgery. At only 25 years old, Matthews is a prime bounce-back candidate heading into 2018.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jerrell Freeman, Linebacker
Jerrell Freeman's 2017 season was washed out due to a 10-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drugs policy. But really, that ban was the second and final blow to his season, as Freeman was already on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle.
He's set to turn 32 in May. However, Freeman has still logged 100-plus tackles in four of his six NFL seasons, included 110 in 2016 over only 12 games with the Chicago Bears.
His tank may be beginning to run low, but there's still something left, and he can help out a depleted Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker corps adjusting to life without Ryan Shazier. That transition will take time and may come with growing pains. Shazier is set to be out for at least the entire 2018 season, as Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert confirmed in February.
Shazier needs to focus on regaining his quality of life. The Steelers, meanwhile, must improve a run defense that gave up an average of 4.4 yards per carry in 2017, and signing a proven veteran like Freeman will help in that effort.
Los Angeles Rams: Alfred Morris, Running Back
When Sean McVay took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, he gave Todd Gurley's career a swift kick in the hind region.
Gurley, the running back who was named offensive rookie of the year in 2015, had been reduced to a dust cloud in his second season, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.
Under McVay he returned to being a cutting, slashing and pass-catching dynamo. Gurley ended the 2017 regular season with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. But there was a physical cost tied to that production.
Gurley ended the regular season fourth in carries (279) and third in touches (343). His 23-year-old body can still take plenty of punishment, especially with the bulk to absorb it at 6'1" and 226 pounds. However, that heavy workload early in his career can add up fast. And remember, Gurley still isn't too far removed from tearing an ACL during his final year at Georgia in 2014.
He can and should be the centerpiece of the Rams offense. But having a more capable backup to lighten the load a bit would be wise. Enter Alfred Morris, who's still a free agent after showing late-career life with the Dallas Cowboys in 2017.
When Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended, Morris had to take over. He started five games and finished the season with 547 yards on 115 carries for a solid 4.8 yards per attempt. He can be effective as a short-term replacement if Gurley gets injured, which is exactly what a team with a load-bearing back already in place needs.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Kevin Minter, Linebacker
The Jacksonville Jaguars went from being a three-win team in 2016 to going 10-6 in 2017, winning their division and coming agonizingly close to knocking off the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And defense was at the root of that quick turnaround.
But a unit that finished second in both yards (286.1) and points (16.8) allowed per game during the 2017 regular season still had a soft spot, and the retirement of linebacker Paul Posluszny didn't help.
The Jaguars' run defense ranked 21st while giving up 116.2 rushing yards per game. That weakness isn't about to get better with Posluszny gone. He's just one year removed from a 133-tackle season. In 2017, he played a lesser but still important early-down role as a run defender, resulting in 61 tackles on 46.2 percent of the Jaguars' defensive snaps.
The Jaguars need a rotational run-defending specialist and a linebacker who can excel after being plugged into that role, which means they need Kevin Minter.
Minter's 2017 season was shortened to only nine games due to injury. But prior to that, he recorded 81 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016.
He also played well even in his short time with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 prior to being sidelined. As PFF observed, the 27-year-old recorded 13 stops on just 116 run-defense snaps. At the time of his injury, Minter had the third-best run-stop percentage among 51 inside linebackers with 100 or more snaps against the run (11.2).
He's the perfect fit for a defense in need of run-stuffing help.
Atlanta Falcons: Connor Barwin, Defensive End
The Atlanta Falcons' pass rush has drifted between adequate and fine over the past two seasons. But despite the presence of Vic Beasley, the 2016 sack leader, the unit has never been able to take that next leap.
The Falcons ranked tied for 16th in sacks during the 2016 season (34), and that was even with Beasley's brilliance. They marginally improved in 2017, finishing joint-13th in sacks (39).
They need support for Beasley, and that's expected to come from 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley. The defensive end needed some time to get going as a rookie, but he took off in the second half of the season and finished with six sacks.
The Falcons could still use more pass-rushing depth, even if McKinley continues to rise. And they can get it from veteran pass-rusher Connor Barwin.
Barwin will turn 32 years old midway through the 2018 season. He's not fading away yet, though, and has been productive in a rotational role. In 2017 he recorded five sacks in 61.1 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps. His career peaked in 2014 with 14.5 sacks, but Barwin has produced five-plus sacks in each of the three seasons since.
He can provide the jolt of energy the Falcons need up front at a low cost while replacing the 9.5 sacks that left when Adrian Clayborn departed as a free agent.
Carolina Panthers: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback
Like the Jaguars, the Carolina Panthers had a strong defense in 2017. It wasn't quite on the Jaguars' level, but giving up an average of 317.1 yards per game (seventh) and 20.4 points (11th) made for a solid return.
Also like the Jaguars, the Panthers have one throbbing sore spot on their defense: the secondary, which ranked 18th with 229.1 yards allowed per game. They were also scorched in and around the red zone during a season in which the Panthers coughed up 25 passing touchdowns (22nd).
To give quarterback Cam Newton a depth option at wide receiver and acquire Torrey Smith, the Panthers had to trade away cornerback Daryl Worley, a third-round pick from 2016 who had shown promise at times. The hole in their secondary grew even larger, and it's one that can be addressed at least partially by signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The soon-to-be 32-year-old isn't done yet. There's always some caution needed with a cornerback of that age, and his price should reflect that. But Rodgers-Cromartie still performed well in 2017, even in a year when the entire New York Giants defense around him was engulfed in flames.
He received a positive grade from Pro Football Focus (77.2) and is only one season removed from snatching six interceptions to go along with 21 passes defensed. Even better, throughout his career Rodgers-Cromartie allows just a 79.9 passer rating when targeted, per PFF.
He can bring the shutdown presence the Panthers desperately need.
Kansas City Chiefs: Quintin Demps, Safety
Losing five-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry for the season in Week 1 left a deep and early bruise on the Kansas City Chiefs defense in 2017. Berry does a bit of everything for their defensive backfield and at a high level.
He should be healthy for the start of the 2018 season (in early February he was gliding through change-of-direction drills), but his absence exposed the need to get him a better wingman in the secondary.
The Chiefs had a 29th-ranked pass defense that was ripped apart regularly and allowed 247 yards per game. A better ball-hawking safety needs to be inserted alongside Berry, and veteran Quintin Demps is a sneaky bargain option.
Demps has become the ultimate journeyman and is now searching for his fourth team over the last five years. He's moved around so much partly due to injuries. Demps never really found his footing with the Chicago Bears in 2017 before breaking his arm three games into the season.
But mostly, Demps' age and late-bloomer status have kept his price low, making him a quality short-term solution entering his age-33 season. Remember, in the very recent past (2016), Demps recorded a single-season career-high six interceptions.