Ranking the Most Underrated Free-Agency Moves as the 2018 NFL Draft Nears

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 9, 2018

Ranking the Most Underrated Free-Agency Moves as the 2018 NFL Draft Nears

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    In free agency, the big bucks get the headlines. 

    There's been no shortage of stories written about Kirk Cousins and his fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Or the five-year, $66.5 million pact that made Andrew Norwell the highest-paid guard in league history. Or the whopper paydays wide receivers Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins received from the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.

    More often than not, though, the whopper deals don't wind up having the biggest impacts. It's the second-tier signings that put squads over the hump and into the postseason.

    Sometimes these signings are just great values. Other times, the fit is ideal. Some teams even get fortunate and kill both birds with one rock.

    Whatever the case, while megadeals have a huge impact in cap space, the underrated ones sometimes make the bigger dent in the win-loss column.

    Here are the 10 most underrated free-agency moves, ranked using a combination of value, talent, fit and potential, as the 2018 NFL draft at the end of the month approaches.

10. Rashaan Melvin to Oakland Raiders

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    The Oakland Raiders and new head coach Jon Gruden have caught some flak for a few free-agent moves this spring. Cutting Michael Crabtree and then signing Jordy Nelson, who's going into his age-33 season, would have made a lot more sense two years ago. Ditto for signing tailback Doug Martin.

    Given that, it's only fair to offer credit where it's due.

    The Raiders struggled in a big way against the pass last year, ranking 26th in the NFL with 241.1 yards allowed per game. And after losing T.J. Carrie in free agency, the cornerback position was an even bigger area of need.

    Signing Rashaan Melvin to a modest one-year, $5.5 million contract was one of the better unheralded moves over the past month.

    To be fair, durability is a legitimate question mark with the 28-year-old, who missed six games in 2017 with the Indianapolis Colts. But when Melvin was on the field, he was the best corner the Colts had last season.

    As a former coach of Melvin's told Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "You guys are going to love him if you get him. ... He is ready to be a No. 1 guy."

    The Raiders got him.

9. Weston Richburg to San Francisco 49ers

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    To be fair, the five-year, $47.5 million contract the San Francisco 49ers gave center Weston Richburg is one of the riskier moves on this list. They gave him $28.5 million guaranteed—a lot of cheddar for a player who missed three-quarters of the 2017 season with a concussion.

    However, if Richburg can stay healthy, this could be a huge signing. The 26-year-old started 46 of 48 regular-season games over the first three years of his career, allowing just two sacks over that span, according to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. The 6'4", 300-pounder has the sort of quickness and agility that should shine in head coach Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.

    Per Joe Fann of the team's website (via NBC Bay Area's Doug Williams), Shanahan certainly thinks so:

    "When you have a center of the level of Alex (Mack) or Weston, it changes a lot of things, things that people don’t totally realize. Sometimes you have to get in certain personnel groupings to help someone have an angle to a Mike linebacker (strong-side inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense) so you can help your center out with the guard. Sometimes you go into a one-back (formation) and now the Will (weak-side inside linebacker) has to walk outside the box and the angles to the Mike aren't as good, but you've got a center who can get there on his own and doesn't need the help."

    One thing's for sure—the NFC West isn't going to be boring in 2018.

8. Terrelle Pryor to New York Jets

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    The New York Jets were one of the most active teams in free agency this year. They shelled out big money for cornerback Trumaine Johnson and added help on both sides of the ball with the likes of inside linebacker Avery Williamson, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Isaiah Crowell.

    One of New York's quieter signings may have been the best of the lot.

    Terrelle Pryor Sr.'s 2017 season was nothing short of a nightmare. After signing a one-year, $6 million deal with the Washington Redskins, he fell off the face of the earth. By season's end, he was injured, off the field, out of favor with the coaching staff and had managed just 20 catches for 240 yards and a single touchdown.

    During the 2016 season in Cleveland, Pryor reeled in 77 passes and topped 1,000 yards. He's a big-bodied wideout (6'4", 228 lbs) with sub 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash and has the potential to serve as the No. 1 receiver the Jets lacked last year.

    In Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and the returning Quincy Enunwa, the Jets have some talent, but all three are more complimentary receiver than lead dog.

    If you believe that last year was an aberration, Pryor has the potential to be both that No. 1 pass-catcher and a badly needed go-to in the red zone. That whole 6'4" thing comes in handy down there.

    If it works out, not only will Pryor provide Josh McCown or Bridgewater with another weapon through the air and take some defensive pressure off New York's other receivers, but he'll also do so for the bargain-basement cost of $4.5 million.

    It's not just a low-risk move. It's essentially a no-risk move.

7. Jerick McKinnon to San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Calling the Jerick McKinnon signing "underrated" may be a stretch, given how many eyebrows went up when the 49ers inked the 25-year-old to a four-year, $30 million contract.

    In fact, Shanahan told the Adam Schefter podcast even he was a bit surprised by how much demand there was for the tailback:

    "We liked Jerick more than anyone. He was our top guy. And it surprised me too, because anytime someone doesn't have a ton of stats and everything, I'm always thinking that maybe I'm the only one who's going see him that way, that, all right, and we'll get this guy middle-of-the-pack compared to all the other free agents, but we'll be excited because we think he's the best one. And then you go through negotiations like that, and you know, it wasn't a secret. Other teams saw it on tape too. But he was our target. That's the guy we wanted."

    Still, that fat paycheck may wind up looking like a bargain.

    McKinnon, who piled up a career-high 991 total yards last season with the Vikings, is a virtual clone of Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons. The backs are close in height—Freeman is 5'8", McKinnon 5'9"—and just over 200 pounds. Both are excellent receivers out of the backfield.

    Freeman became one of the most dangerous running backs in Shanahan's offense in Atlanta. It's an ideal scheme for what he and McKinnon do well.

    A big season's coming. Book it.

6. Michael Crabtree to Baltimore Ravens

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Thank heavens for mulligans. And for late cuts.

    Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome made possibly the worst deal in free agency when he agreed to sign wide receiver Ryan Grant to an eye-popping four-year, $29 million contract—which the team voided after Grant failed his physical.

    That it came on the same day the Raiders released veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree is purely coincidental.

    No, really.

    Stop laughing.

    It was.

    In any event, Newsome wasted no time in making a push for the 30-year-old Crabtree, agreeing to terms on a three-year, $21 million contract with $13 million in guarantees two days after Oakland cut the wideout.

    Yes, Crabtree's catches (58) and yardage (618) were down significantly relative to the year before. But he was a 1,000-yard receiver as recently as 2016, and he's found the end zone at least eight times in each of the last three seasons.

    It's no secret that wide receiver was one of Baltimore's biggest areas of need in 2018, but the team wasn't in a position to enter the bidding wars for Robinson or Watkins.

    It's a whopper of an understatement to say that getting a pass-catcher of Crabtree's quality and resume for $7 million per season was a nice consolation prize.

    It was a godsend.

5. Justin Pugh to Arizona Cardinals

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    New Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks made it clear to offensive lineman Justin Pugh that the Redbirds were serious about bringing him from New York to the desert.

    "Everything we do starts up front, and that's the reason why we're so intrigued with you, just being one the premier guards in the league," Wilks told Pugh, according to Flight Plan (via Jess Root of USA Today's Cards Wire).

    The Cardinals then ponied up $15.75 million in guarantees as part of a five-year, $45 million deal.

    Pugh has experience playing at both guard and tackle, although the 27-year-old stumbled a bit in the latter spot last year. As offensive line coach Ray Brown told Flight Plan, that won't be a problem in Glendale.

    "We're going to put him at guard and play him [at] one position," Brown said.

    Smart man.

    The Cardinals led the NFC in sacks allowed in 2017 and ranked 17th in run blocking and 25th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. This team needed all the offensive line help it could get.

    Getting a 2013 first-round pick who can play up and down the line for less than $10 million a season in his prime is a big step in the right direction.

4. T.J. Carrie and E.J. Gaines to Cleveland Browns

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    Rich Barnes/Associated Press

    Cornerback is a premium position in today's NFL, and that can get pretty dang expensive. Malcolm Butler got over $12 million per season from the Tennessee Titans. Trumaine Johnson received over $14 million a year from the Jets.

    Cleveland was able to add a pair of starting-caliber corners for less than what either of those players cost by himself.

    Granted, injuries have been an issue for E.J. Gaines, who got a one-year, $4 million deal after playing in 11 games for the Buffalo Bills last year. He has missed an eye-popping 27 games the last three campaigns, including all of the 2015 season.

    But when on the field, Gaines was one of the best in the business in 2017. As ESPN pointed out, Pro Football Focus graded Gaines 13th among corners last season.

    Carrie got more coin (four years, $31 million) after a career campaign in which he started 16 games and tallied 84 tackles while serving as arguably the best corner for the Raiders.

    These guys aren't big names. They don't have a history of big-money deals like Johnson or postseason heroics like Butler. But both are solid NFL starters.

    And Browns general manager John Dorsey didn't have to break the bank for either of them.

3. Morgan Burnett to Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers came into free agency with precious little cap space. But Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert made fantastic use of his limited resources by signing veteran safety Morgan Burnett to a three-year, $14.4 million pact, getting an impact player for a reasonable sum.

    The 29-year-old Burnett, who spent his first eight seasons in Green Bay, was a jack-of-all-trades for the Packers in 2017. He played some strong safety, free safety, slot cornerback and even some dime linebacker.

    That sort of versatility is appealing in this day and age.

    Burnett isn't just versatile and experienced. He's also been productive. His 68 tackles in 12 games last year isn't an eye-popping number, but as recently as 2016, he had over 90 stops with three sacks and two interceptions. Burnett has topped 100 total tackles for the season three times, including a career-high 130 stops (94 solos) in 2014.

    Pittsburgh didn't just get better at safety, although Burnett and Sean Davis are a sneaky-good pair at the position. Burnett's ability to be a sub-package linebacker could come in handy with Ryan Shazier already ruled out for 2018 because of his back injury.

2. AJ McCarron to Buffalo Bills

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    The Bills missed out on the bigger names in the free-agent quarterback merry-go-round. Cousins landed a massive contract with Minnesota. Case Keenum got a nice payday with the Denver Broncos. Sam Bradford landed with the Cardinals.

    And that might be for the best.

    From a financial standpoint, it's hard to argue Buffalo didn't get a good deal when it signed former Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron to a two-year, $10 million contract.

    Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Tim Graham of the Buffalo News that the team got a winner.

    "AJ's always been a really confident player in himself and his abilities," Lewis said. "He's had a great deal of success, and he believes that he will always continue to have success. That's part of him."

    Just about everyone believes the Bills will still make a push to trade up in this year's draft to select a quarterback—$5 million a year isn't a contract that shows a ton of confidence in McCarron long-term.

    But the Bills don't have to sell their souls to do so. If the price is too high for them to move up, they have a Plan B. The 27-year-old McCarron has shown (albeit in a small sample size) the ability to have some success as a starter at the NFL level.

1. Sheldon Richardson to Minnesota Vikings

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    From the moment that Ndamukong Suh landed in Los Angeles, pundits have been breathlessly forecasting how formidable the Rams will be with Suh joining Aaron Donald up front.

    Minnesota's signing of Sheldon Richardson to a one-year, $8 million contract may not have generated the headlines that Suh's move did, but it could wind up being every bit as impactful—or perhaps even more so.

    Richardson, who had 44 tackles and one sack for the Seattle Seahawks in 2017, isn't a huge numbers guy. He piled up eight sacks and made the Pro Bowl with the Jets in 2014, but he has just 7.5 sacks in the three seasons since.

    However, the numbers don't tell the whole story. In his first year in a four-man front last season, Richardson showed the potential to be a disruptive 3-technique in the mold of, well, Suh.

    The Vikings, who had the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2017, now sport a front four that features a pair of ends with 15-sack ceilings in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, one of the league's better nose tackles in Linval Joseph (who has topped 65 tackles two years running) and Richardson.

    That's going to be a hard unit to beat in the trenches.

    And teams that win in the trenches win on the scoreboard.