2019 NFL Free Agents: Top Specialists Still Available

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2019

2019 NFL Free Agents: Top Specialists Still Available

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    As the free-agent market slowly dries up, serviceable role players remain available for teams that need to fill specific roster gaps.

    In today's NFL, a coordinator may aim to attack a linebacker who's weak in coverage—that's an ideal job for a pass-catching running back. Teams can counter pass-heavy offenses with a high-end slot cornerback. The Detroit Lions paid a hefty price for Justin Coleman to play that role. He's set to earn $36 million over four years, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    We're going to witness a shift from an emphasis on starters to matchups and skill sets. As coaches focus on what a player can do rather than his limitations, specialists become more valuable.

    The available free agents below may not serve as starters for every team in the league, but they excel in specific roles at their positions. Slot wide receivers and cornerbacks are included since it's not a starting spot for all rosters.

         

RB LeGarrette Blount

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Specialty: Short-Yardage/Goal-Line Back

    It's too late to call upon LeGarrette Blount to handle 15-20 carries per contest through a 16-game slate, but he's still capable of barreling through multiple defenders for a first down or a touchdown.

    Blount averaged 2.7 yards per carry on 154 rush attempts with the Detroit Lions last year. Headed into his age-33 campaign, it's fair to expect the nine-year veteran to take on a minimal role if he signs a new contract.

    In 2016, Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns (18) and ranks fifth in the category between the 2010 and 2018 terms. He's only reached paydirt on the ground seven times over the last two seasons, and his number of carries has declined in that span. Nonetheless, he's recorded 58 first downs on the ground since the 2017 term.

    Now, in the latter stage of his career, a lighter workload could keep him refreshed throughout the season. At 6'0", 247 pounds, he's a solid option inside the 10-yard line and on 3rd-and-short for those tough yards in between the tackles.

RB T.J. Yeldon

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    Specialty: Third-Down Back

    In his first two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, running back T.J. Yeldon served as the lead ball-carrier, logging 25 starts in 27 contests. He took a backseat to Leonard Fournette over the last two terms.

    Through 51 games, Yeldon has averaged four yards per carry as a physical tailback, but he's also equipped to stay in the backfield for pass protection. His ability to pick up blitzes may go unnoticed, but it's a crucial skill on third down. Furthermore, the 25-year-old logged 50-plus catches during the 2016 and 2018 terms with 1,302 receiving yards in four seasons.

    While Yeldon doesn't profile as a featured running back, he's a high-end third-down option in the backfield. The 6'1", 223-pounder can block, catch and take a handoff, which allows the quarterback multiple pre-snap audible options. The fourth-year veteran won't command a costly deal, but he'll bring a versatile skill set to a team's running back stable.

RB Ty Montgomery

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    Specialty: Pass-Catching Back

    Ty Montgomery lined up at wide receiver for four terms at Stanford. The Green Bay Packers selected him in the third round of the 2015 draft, and he converted to running back during his sophomore season.

    Despite the position change, Montgomery didn't completely abandon his pass-catching duties out of the backfield. He caught 44 passes for 348 yards in 2016. Unfortunately, the dual-threat running back struggled to stay healthy and missed half of the 2017 campaign because of rib and wrist injuries. In that term, tailbacks Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones emerged as a solid tandem.

    In 2018, Montgomery accumulated more yards as a pass-catcher than ball-carrier (235-188) through a split-season stint with the Packers and Baltimore Ravens. Now available on the market, a club can utilize his receiving skills as a threat to linebackers and box safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.

    As a former collegiate wideout with pro experience as a dual-threat out of the backfield, Montgomery can carve out a role as one of the top pass-catching running backs in the league if he's able to stay healthy.

WR Randall Cobb

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    Peter B Joneleit/Associated Press

    Specialty: Slot Wide Receiver

    Based on wide receiver Randall Cobb's resume, he took the field as a starter for the Packers, opening contests with the first-team unit in 73 of 105 outings. The 28-year-old served as the primary slot wideout, which isn't a starting role with every NFL team, particularly clubs that don't begin the game with at least three wideouts on the field.

    Cobb can line up on the outside, but the film shows the majority of his work and production on the inside, working the slot position. In 2014, he lit up defenses with 91 receptions, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns but saw a significant drop-off in the following seasons.

    Last year, Cobb suffered a hamstring ailment and concussion symptoms, which limited him to nine appearances; he didn't start in three of those contests. Still, he worked mostly from the slot position and logged 10.1 yards per reception.

    Although Cobb isn't the best option as a No. 2 wide receiver on the perimeter, the eight-year veteran can still win one-on-one matchups against slot defenders with sharp cuts and veteran savvy.

TE Jared Cook

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    Specialty: Receiving Tight End

    In recent seasons, tight end play has further evolved in the passing attack. An increasing number of players at the position are also top-notch pass-catchers capable of beating defenders on intermediate and deep routes.

    Among active tight ends, Jared Cook lists seventh in receiving yards (5,464) between the 2009 and 2018 seasons. He recorded single-season highs in yards (896) and touchdowns (six) with the Oakland Raiders in 2018.

    As a younger crop of players at the position emerges—George Kittle, David Njoku and Evan Engram to name a few—Cook can still attack the seams or beat defensive backs on outside routes downfield. Before his two-year stint with the Raiders, he hadn't started a full 16-game term. Moving forward, expect coaching staffs to focus on his strong suit as a pass-catcher in a specific role.

    According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, Cook could command $8-9 million per year on the open market, which is comparable to slot wide receiver money. He'll likely serve as a big-body safety blanket in a spread offense.

IDL Rodney Gunter

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    Specialty: 3-Technique Defensive Tackle

    Rodney Gunter reinvented his game at an opportune time—thanks in part to former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks.

    Wilks shifted the Cardinals defense to a 4-3 base scheme with four defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. Initially, Gunter served as a stout run-stuffer and then transitioned to a consistent interior penetrator in the new alignment. He experienced his best season, logging 32 solo tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

    At 27 years old, on the open market, Gunter could draw interest from teams regardless of scheme because of his proven versatility. In a three-man front, he's able to eat up blocks and clog running lanes or provide pocket pressure up the middle as a pass-rusher in an even front.

    Gunter only has 25 starts on his resume, but he's yet to miss a game in four seasons. As an underrated veteran talent, the 6'5", 305-pound defensive lineman could become one of the biggest free-agent steals if asked to pursue the quarterback at his next stop.

EDGE Pernell McPhee

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Specialty: Designated Pass-Rusher

    Pernell McPhee carved out a decent pass-rushing role with three clubs, the Ravens, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, through his eight-year career. He's logged 31 sacks in 109 contests, which include just 23 starts.

    McPhee recorded more than half his starts during the 2015 season with the Bears, but he didn't see a major spike in sack production (six) compared to other years in a backup role.

    Coming off a down year without a sack, the 30-year-old can bounce back in his usual reduced but decent role. In Washington, McPhee settled for a light workload, playing just 203 snaps, which explains his disappointing campaign. Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan each logged at least 79 percent of the defensive reps off the edge.

    If McPhee is able to stay on the field for close to 500 snaps, the veteran edge-rusher should finish the year with a handful of sacks in 2019. At a premium position, he'll likely have another shot to re-establish himself as a productive designated pocket-pusher.

CB Darqueze Dennard

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Specialty: Slot Cornerback

    Darqueze Dennard brings toughness to his play style in the slot. He hasn't forced many interceptions (three) or earned credit for a high number of pass breakups in five years (17), but he's still a talent with upside. The 27-year-old has played 68 career games because of multiple injuries to his shoulder, ankle and hamstring during his tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    As a former first-round pick, Dennard has underwhelmed, but he's shown moderate improvement in coverage over the years. The Michigan State product logged six pass breakups in each of the last two terms and typically tackles well in open space. The fifth-year veteran listed second on the team in combined tackles behind linebacker Vincent Rey in 2017.

    Of course, Dennard will need to boost his production in pass defense to elevate his status as a slot cornerback, but it's not out of the question to see him flourish in that role. If the Bengals re-sign him or another club inks him to a new deal, it's likely based on what he could become in a few years.