2019 NFL Free Agents: Hidden Gems Still on the Market

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 14, 2019

2019 NFL Free Agents: Hidden Gems Still on the Market

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Few things are actually over before they start. It's just a cliche. But in the case of the 2019 NFL free-agency period, it felt as though we came pretty damn close. 

    Technically, 541 NFL players became free agents at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, but much of the cream of that crop had already—let's say it one more time—agreed to terms well before the new league year kicked off. 

    That said, there are plenty of strong players still available on the open market as we enter the first full day of the free-agent signing period.

    Here are a dozen under-the-radar free agents who could prove to be hidden gems by making a major impact wherever they wind up. 

         

CB Bryce Callahan

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    There could be a bit of a delay before cornerback Bryce Callahan lands a new gig, simply because the 27-year-old is recovering from a broken foot that caused him to miss a late-season stretch with the Chicago Bears in 2018. 

    But the reality is Callahan is one of the top dedicated slot cover men in the NFL, and that's essentially become a starting position in today's game. 

    Despite the December injury, Pro Football Focus graded the four-year veteran as the 11th-best all-around corner in the league in 2018.

    The Bears missed Callahan down the stretch, but they've replaced him with Buster Skrine in free agency. That seems like an odd decision, but they might figure Callahan will be out of their preferred price range when he's able to show teams he's healthy again.

S Tre Boston

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that veteran safety Tre Boston remains on the free-agent market. Last offseason, the 2014 fourth-round pick had to wait until July to sign a simple one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals, even though he was coming off a five-interception 2017 campaign with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

    But the safety market was hinky in 2018, and Boston was still in prove-it mode. This year should be different based on all of the money that's been thrown at safeties already, in addition to the fact the 26-year-old is coming off another strong campaign in which he flashed playmaking ability. 

    After a three-pick season in Arizona, Boston now has more interceptions the last two seasons than all but five NFL players. 

    "For some reason, Boston’s name refuses to be mentioned when talking about quality safeties on the free agent market," wrote PFF's Michael Renner this week. "His loss will be some team’s gain though, as his 82.2 overall grade over the past two seasons is 15th-best among safeties in the NFL."

TE Jared Cook

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    A recent report from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport connected the dots between tight end Jared Cook and the New England Patriots, which makes sense considering New England still doesn't know what the future holds for Rob Gronkowski

    It's strange, though, that the 10-year veteran hasn't generated more buzz on the open market. After all, Cook's coming off a career year in which he caught 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns with the Oakland Raiders. 

    Sure, he'll turn 32 next month, but tight ends often have long shelf lives, and Cook certainly didn't show any signs of aging in 2018. 

    He's good enough to start and earn big money on a short-term contract in a lot of places. 

RB C.J. Anderson

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    When Todd Gurley was hurt and a stellar Los Angeles Rams offense was showing cracks in December, C.J. Anderson came in off the street and helped rescue a team that appeared to be taking on water. But the 28-year-old tweeted on the opening day of free agency that he hadn't yet received an offer from the team he helped reach Super Bowl LIII. 

    It might just be that he's a running back approaching 30, which is often considered toxic in the NFL world. But Anderson should have plenty of tread on his tires. He has just one 200-plus-carry season under his belt, and he was gently used in 2018. 

    Anderson has also put up better numbers than you'd expect for a player who has been consistently neglected in recent years. He's got a solid career yards-per-attempt average of 4.5 (higher than Gurley's career mark of 4.4), and let's not forget that his resume contains a 10-touchdown Pro Bowl season. 

    Now that Tevin Coleman and Mark Ingram have followed Le'Veon Bell off the market, Anderson's opportunity should be right around the corner. 

DT Darius Philon

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    Darius Philon might never be a superstar, but the 2015 sixth-round pick is coming off his best season yet as a versatile run-stuffer with sneaky sack-making ability for the Los Angeles Chargers. 

    Despite the fact he was only a full-time rotational starter in 2018, Philon has 8.5 sacks the last two years. And he was only 24 years old during the 2018 season, so there's plenty of growth potential for a player who was considered raw coming out of Arkansas. 

    This year's free-agent class featured plenty of top-notch defensive linemen, making it easy to look past a steady-but-not-flashy player like Philon, especially because he hails from a defense that features Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram up front. 

    Somebody is waiting to snatch him up at a discounted rate. 

OLB Shaquil Barrett

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    Despite flashing a strong skill set as a pass-rusher, Shaquil Barrett has been limited to a rotational role in each of his last four seasons with the Denver Broncos. And despite that limited role, the high-upside Colorado State product has posted strong grades from Pro Football Focus every year thus far. 

    The 26-year-old has the ability to flourish in the right environment—maybe one that doesn't already contain Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edge. 

    Barrett might have to wait for veteran pass-rushers Justin Houston and Nick Perry to find work, and when he gets an opportunity, it might be presented in the form of a one-year prove-it contract. But his age and trajectory are in his favor. 

    Don't be surprised if he winds up paying off better than both Houston and Perry. 

CB Darqueze Dennard

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    Darqueze Dennard has yet to live up to his draft status as a first-round pick in 2014, but he's flashed at times, and he's also been been a fairly reliable presence in the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary the last few years. 

    It's possible Dennard is still developing. His role has increased steadily over the years in Cincinnati, and he certainly has the skill set, the measurables and the physicality to become a great No. 1 cover man in the NFL. 

    But because he's lacked durability and has just three interceptions and three forced fumbles in five pro seasons, and because he's yet to prove himself outside of the slot, the 27-year-old will likely have to wait for a big-money second NFL contract (if it ever comes). 

    And because the cornerback market has moved slowly thus far in the free-agent signing period, that could mean Dennard will linger into next week. 

DT Malcom Brown

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    Speaking of late first-rouneders who haven't lived up to expectations, 2015 No. 32 overall selection Malcom Brown has hit the open market after the New England Patriots passed on his fifth-year option last offseason.

    Brown is just six weeks removed from his 25th birthday, and the big guy played a key role on three Patriots Super Bowl teams. Those factors should cause potential suitors to consider paying the man for what he might have ahead of him rather than what he's done. 

    The 320-pound Texas product is a strong run-stuffer with very limited pass-rushing skills. So if a team already has a good group of edge-rushers but is in search of a large body with plenty of upside as well as big-game experience within a model organization, Brown could be a steal. 

    The problem is there's a backlog of interior defensive linemen on the market right now, and Brown's age advantage might not be enough for him to leapfrog Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson and the aforementioned Darius Philon in the early stages of free agency. 

DT Christian Covington

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    Also working against Philon and Brown? They both share hidden-gem status at the same position. And they're joined by Christian Covington of the Houston Texans, who is also only 25 years old but was a mere sixth-round pick in 2015. 

    Unlike Brown, the Canadian out of Rice has surpassed expectations at the NFL level, earning a steady rotational role while making an impact on a strong defense as both a pass-rusher and run defender. 

    Covington is a disciplined player who has steadily improved throughout his career and is coming off his best season yet. 

    PFF's Rob Hamilton noted last month that Covington "could be a prime candidate for a breakout in 2019 with the right fit and opportunity." He just might have to wait for that opportunity to come to fruition. 

TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

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    Austin Seferian-Jenkins' skill set has yet to entirely come together, which explains why the 26-year-old tight end is looking to join his fourth team in six NFL seasons. 

    But there's still time for the 2014 second-round pick to take off, and he definitely has the talent, size and athleticism to become a special player. He's shown that at times in the NFL, but off-field issues with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and injuries with the Jacksonville Jaguars got in the way. 

    Between those stints, he flashed often enough during a steady 2017 stretch with the New York Jets to earn a two-year, $10 million contract with the Jags. Even though a report from The Athletic's Daniel Popper says ASJ played through two hernia tears early in 2018 before he was shut down in October, the Jaguars gave up and declined to exercise a team option for 2019. 

    That puts an enticing player back on the market, where he may have to wait for movement with Jared Cook. Could he wind up back on Gang Green?