Potential Under-the-Radar NFL Free-Agent Steals in 2019
With free agency preparing to open across the NFL on March 13, there's been speculation galore of late as to who's going to end up where.
Most of that speculation centers on the biggest of names. Players like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Le'Veon Bell, New England Patriots tackle Trent Brown, Dallas Cowboys edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence and New York Giants safety Landon Collins.
However, for every huge free-agent signing that works out, there's another that doesn't. And even the big-name FAs that do pan out are just giving teams what they paid for.
The real value in free agency lies in second- and third-tier players. Guys who are available at a discount who go on to outplay their paycheck by a substantial margin. Maybe it's an aging veteran. Or a player coming off an injury. Or a youngster who has yet to live up to expectations.
Whatever the reason, it's the under-the-radar free agents who often turn out to be the biggest steals.
Now, who's up for a little larceny?
RB Spencer Ware
Back in 2016, Spencer Ware appeared to be a tailback on the rise. In 14 games with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ware carried the ball 214 times for 921 yards. He averaged 4.3 yards a carry, added another 447 receiving yards and found the end zone five times.
At the time, then-Chiefs OC (and current Chicago Bears head coach) Matt Nagy talked up Ware while speaking to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star.
"What I know is he comes to work every day, he never complains or bickers," Nagy said. "He never asks for the football. He just shows up and asks what he can do."
Sadly, things have gone downhill for Ware since. A knee injury wiped out Ware's entire 2017 season—a season in which Kareem Hunt took the reins in the Chiefs backfield. After Hunt was released last November, Ware was again pressed into action. But while Ware averaged 4.8 yards per carry in limited duty, he again couldn't stay on the field.
Now, with Damien Williams almost certainly ahead of Ware on the depth chart and Kansas City not in the best of shape relative to the salary cap, the 27-year-old will more than likely hit the open market.
If Ware can stay healthy—and that's admittedly a robust "if"—the 5'10", 229-pounder has shown a well-rounded skill set and the ability to carry a big workload. In that breakout 2016 season, Ware topped 15 carries seven times.
At the very least, Ware is capable of being a complementary back and depth piece. At best, he's capable of serving as a featured back for a relatively inexpensive cost.
ILB L.J. Fort
It's been quite the journey to free agency for inside linebacker L.J. Fort.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, Fort played in all 16 games as rookie. From there it was a journey around the NFL. A futures contract with Denver. A stint with the Seattle Seahawks as a fullback. Some time on the practice squad in Cincinnati. Two weeks with the New England Patriots in August 2015.
Fort spent the last four years in Pittsburgh, and in 2018 the 29-year-old saw easily the most extensive playing time of his career—15 games, two starts, 48 total tackles and a sack. Per Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Fort said it was simply a matter of getting an opportunity to show what he can do.
"There was a stretch there where I feel like we made some adjustments that enabled not only myself but the other linebackers to be more successful," Fort said. "But experience always helps a ton, so playing those few games definitely made me a lot better player."
Fort acquitted himself well in 2018—especially against the run. But he wasn't just a part-time player—the Steelers thought enough of Fort's coverage skills to put him on the field in some passing situations.
It's that last part that will most appeal to NFL teams in need of linebacker help this spring. Cheap linebackers who aren't massive liabilities in coverage don't grow on trees.
WR Rishard Matthews
The 2018 season did not go well at all for veteran wide receiver Rishard Matthews.
After leading the Tennessee Titans with 53 catches for 795 yards in 2017, Matthews signed a one-year, $7.75 million extension to remain with the team. But an injury-marred summer led to a sluggish start, Matthews had a falling out with the team and by the end of September, Matthews had asked for and been granted his release.
Matthews eventually signed on with the New York Jets, but his seventh NFL season essentially wasn't—five catches for 24 yards with two teams.
There's no denying that Matthews' ugly departure from the Titans will give many NFL teams serious pause. That especially true given that Matthews' tenure with the Miami Dolphins also didn't end especially well. Prior to the 2015 season Matthews, who was unhappy about his role and that the team acquired Kenny Stills and drafted DeVante Parker, skipped a number of voluntary offseason workouts and requested a trade, per the Miami Herald.
To say that there isn't going to be a stampede to acquire the 29-year-old is an understatement.
But after Matthews finally showed up back in 2015, he put together a decent 43/662/4 stat line in which he averaged a career-best 15.4 yards per catch. Matthews followed that up with 65 grabs for 945 yards and nine scores in his first year with the Titans.
He's going to have convince his new team that his head is on straight, but Matthews has shown the ability to be a sure-handed, productive possession receiver.
One that's going to be available on a cheap "prove it" deal in 2019.
DE Benson Mayowa
Like many of the players in this article, Benson Mayowa has gotten around. The 6'3", 265-pounder, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by Seattle in 2013, has spent time with four teams in six years—the Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals.
Prior to kicking off his lone season in the desert, Mayowa told Darren Urban of the Cardinals website that he uses all those stickers on his luggage as motivation.
"Every time you go somewhere new or every time something happens you can’t control, it’s a chip on your shoulder," Mayowa said. "There is always a chip on my shoulder. When you come to a new situation with new coaches, it has to be a boulder."
Mayowa didn't post eye-popping numbers with the Redbirds last year—38 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble in 15 games (including four starts). In six NFL seasons, Mayowa has only amassed 13 sacks.
But most of those sacks (11) came over the last three seasons—including six with the Cowboys back in 2016.
"Under the radar" is a relative concept—given the sky-high demand for capable edge-rushers, any guy with a pulse is going to have his fair share of suitors.
But teams in need of pass-rushing help who aren't in the mood to hand out a knee-buckling contract (or can't) would be well-served to get Mayowa's agent on the phone when the "legal tampering" period begins on March 11.
OT Ty Nsekhe
Much like with edge-rushers, under-the-radar offensive tackles are slightly rarer than bionic unicorns. Even mediocre tackles get massive contracts in free agency.
Looking at you, Nate Solder. And you, Riley Reiff.
However, when the free-agent class of 2019 is discussed at tackle, there's at least one player who isn't getting the run he should.
Ty Nsekhe of the Washington Redskins isn't a young player about to hit the open market for the first time. He's a 33-year-old veteran who broke into the NFL in 2012, was out of football for two years after that and then resurfaced in Washington in 2015.
However, over the past four years, the 6'8", 330-pound behemoth has shown to be a valuable reserve for Washington, starting 16 games over the span—including four last year.
As Andrew Krammer wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nsekhe is also capable of kicking inside. "Nsekhe, 33, has been a standout replacement for Washington," he said, "including 11 spot starts in front of Kirk Cousins [from 2015 to 2017]. He’s versatile, proving so again last season with starts at left tackle and left guard."
Were it not for Washington's stout tackles, Nsekhe would have started more games. There are more than a few NFL locales where he'd be an upgrade at one of the tackle spots.
Throw in that he can play guard and won't require a long-term deal because of his age, and there's a lot to like here.
S Adrian Phillips
It might not be entirely accurate to say Adrian Phillips is flying under the radar. The five-year veteran set a career high with 94 total tackles with the Chargers in 2018 and made the Pro Bowl for his exploits on special teams.
But in a deep class of free-agent safeties that includes Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Earl Thomas, Phillips also isn't getting the notice he should.
In today's NFL, versatility in the secondary is key. And as ESPN.com's Eric Williams reported, Chargers DC Gus Bradley believes you won't find a more versatile safety than Phillips.
"First of all, he's extremely intelligent," Bradley said. "He can play strong safety, free safety, dime [linebacker] and nickel [linebacker] for us, and we'd feel extremely comfortable if he was in any of those positions. So that intelligence, he's got a football IQ that is, to say compare him to anybody, he's just one of the most elite guys in that area that I've ever been around."
Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Texas—the same college, coincidentally, as Thomas.
Phillips might not be the biggest name in a loaded class of free-agent safeties. He probably won't get the biggest contract—in fact, the Chargers would be wise to make every effort to retain him.
Because by the time the dust settles on the 2019 season, Phillips will have provided the most bang for the buck of the bunch.
TE Demetrius Harris
At first glance, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Demetrius Harris doesn't appear to be under the radar so much as off it entirely. In 2018, the five-year veteran caught just 12 passes for 164 yards—although three of those grabs were touchdowns.
Harris' career numbers (57 receptions, 605 yards, six touchdowns) look like a decent season for one of the league's bigger names at the position.
Of course, Harris has quite the excuse for his relatively paltry career to date.
A depth chart in Kansas City topped by the man some consider the best tight end in the NFL in Travis Kelce.
Harris, a former basketball player from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, could now be getting his moment in the sun—his opportunity to display the athleticism that got him signed as a UDFA by the Chiefs back in 2013.
As Jeff Eisenberg wrote for Yahoo Sports in 2013, that athleticism is indeed impressive. "His 4.52-second 40-yard dash was faster than all but one tight end prospect ran at the NFL Scouting Combine," he wrote. "His vertical jump of 36.5 inches and broad jump of 10 feet, 2 inches outclassed most of his peers as well. And though he only managed to bench-press 225 pounds twice, that wasn't a huge surprise considering he had done minimal weightlifting during basketball season the past six months."
In the intervening years, Harris has not only gotten stronger but also shown that he belongs in the NFL.
This is his chance to show now that he's ready to start.
CB Jason Verrett
There was a time when the notion of Jason Verrett being an under-the-radar free agent would have been dismissed as kooky talk. As Avery Duncan wrote for the Toro Times, Verrett has had spurts of play as good as any cornerback's in the NFL.
"Verrett, a 2015 Pro Bowl selection, is unquestionably talented," he said. "In 25 career games, the TCU product produced 80 total tackles, 19 pass deflections and five interceptions."
The problem is that those 25 career games have come over the course of five seasons. Do a little quick math, and you'll see that Verrett's missed almost 70 percent of his career with injuries.
In 2014, it was a labrum tear and rotator cuff. In Verrett's Pro Bowl season of 2015, he missed two games with a bad foot. In 2016, a torn ACL cost him 12 games. Verrett played in just one game in 2017 before the same knee felled him again. And last year Verrett tore his Achilles—on the first day of training camp.
Talk about snakebitten.
There's no ignoring the injury history of a player who has missed 43 games the past three seasons. That history's also to make Verrett a cheaply available signing—the poster child for a "prove it" deal.
If he can somehow stay healthy and come anywhere close to his past level of production, Verrett could be the biggest steal of free agency at any position.
OG Quinton Spain
The number of teams looking for help on the offensive line in 2019 is the same as it is every other year—32.
There's no doubt that in the early days of free agency, some offensive linemen are going to hit the proverbial jackpot. Trent Brown is going to get a huge deal. So will Ja'Wuan James. And Daryl Williams.
As a rule, interior linemen don't generally cash in as much as tackles. But Rodger Saffold of the Rams is also probably going to be in the market for a new boat in a few weeks.
That's all well and good for those players and the teams who sign them—provided the players meet expectations. But the best values on the offensive line are in second- and third-tier signings.
Say a player like 27-year-old guard Quinton Spain.
Spain wasn't drafted out of West Virginia in 2015, but by his second season with the Tennessee Titans, Spain was a full-time starter at left guard. Over the past three seasons, the 6'4", 330-pound mauler made 42 starts for the team.
Granted, Spain struggled somewhat in 2018. But that was as much due to a change in offensive scheme as a reduction in his level of play. Spain's not an agile blocker well-suited for a zone-blocking team with lots of spread concepts.
He's a road-grader best-suited at just running over the guy in front of him.
And while there aren't as many man-blocking teams in the NFL as there used to be, there's still enough for Spain to have quite a bit of value to his new team.
OLB Shaquil Barrett
As Zack Kelberman reported for 247Sports, while appearing on Denver Radio station back in December, Broncos edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett made it clear that he loved the Mile High City—even if was all but certainly soon leaving it.
"I want to be a starter," he said. "I would never want to leave Denver. I don't want to leave Denver, but it's a possibility that's looking more realistic day in and day out."
It's a numbers game—with Von Miller on one side and Bradley Chubb on the other, there just aren't a lot of snaps to go around for the likes of Barrett and Shane Ray. Both will more than likely be somewhere else in 2019.
That's good news for Barrett's accountant and 3-4 teams looking to bolster the pass rush.
Now, this isn't to say that Barrett's going to break the bank. The 6'2", 250-pounder didn't make a start for the Broncos last year, managing just three sacks over 275 snaps, per Pro Football Reference. The former UDFA has shown flashes here and there, but he's yet to show he can set the edge and get after the quarterback consistently—areas that are pretty important for a full-time player.
The potential appears to be there, though. Given that elite edge-rushers like Dee Ford probably won't ever hit the open market and that those who do (like Baltimore Za'Darius Smith) will command massive salaries, Barrett is as good a bet as any to provide pass-rushing help on a budget.