Bargain-Bin Free Agents Who Can Still Help NFL Teams in 2020
NFL free agency isn't all about stars. Sure, we want to know where quarterback Cam Newton and edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney will suit up next season. Yet teams need bargain-bin signings who turn into cost-effective solutions.
Last offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs signed safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million contract, but they also added cornerback Bashaud Breeland on a one-year, $2 million deal.
Mathieu and Breeland helped elevate the team's pass defense from 31st in 2018 to eighth in 2019, combining for six interceptions and 20 pass breakups.
Before the start of the third week of free agency, let's take a look at underrated veterans on the market—players without an All-Pro or Pro Bowl season. We'll highlight each selection's strengths and connect them to a primary suitor—giving alternative landing spots—based on team needs.
RB Isaiah Crowell
Last March, the Las Vegas Raiders signed Isaiah Crowell, but he tore his Achilles during a team workout. The 27-year-old had an opportunity to complement Josh Jacobs but spent the year on injured reserve.
Assuming Crowell has recovered, he should land another rotational role. The six-year veteran can run and catch, having logged 4,725 yards from scrimmage (3,803 rushing, 922 receiving). Teams may be hesitant to sign him following a major injury, but he's still on the right the side of 30 years old.
The Detroit Lions need a No. 2 tailback behind Kerryon Johnson, who's missed 14 games in two seasons because of knee injuries. Last year, the coaching staff cycled through multiple reserves, including Ty Johnson, J.D. McKissic and Bo Scarbrough. The last of that trio finished second on the team in rushing yards (377).
Scarbrough hauled in one reception out of four targets. Crowell would add a pass-catching dimension to the No. 2 spot, which gives offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell play-calling flexibility when Johnson is on the sideline.
Best Landing Spots: DET, NYJ, LVR
RB Carlos Hyde
In 2019 with the Houston Texans, Carlos Hyde rushed for a career-high 1,070 yards. According to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, the running back turned down a two-year deal worth about $10 million from the club.
The Texans acquired running back David Johnson as part of the trade for wideout DeAndre Hopkins in mid-March, which means Houston will have a new lead ball-carrier—though Duke Johnson remains as a backup.
Fortunately for Hyde, he performed at a high level on an expiring contract. Last season, the 29-year-old showed he can make one cut and go downhill, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
The Buffalo Bills haven't re-signed Frank Gore. They could add a running back who's seasoned but not in his mid-30s and close to retirement. Devin Singletary can lead the backfield, but he's 5'7", 203 pounds. The Florida Atlantic product scored one of his two rushing touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line last season.
Instead of Singletary banging bodies near the goal line or Josh Allen grinding out yards on quarterback keepers, Hyde could serve as the short-yardage ball-carrier. The six-year veteran adds a physical presence on the ground and has the experience to help in pass protection.
He's an ideal complement to Singletary.
Best Landing Spots: BUF, CAR, LAC
WR Rashard Higgins
With the Cleveland Browns, Rashard Higgins showed improvement every year since being drafted in 2016 before a drop-off last season.
In 2018, despite being fifth on the team in targets, Higgins produced solid numbers, catching 39 passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns with a 73.6 percent catch rate.
Last year, wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry dominated the target share—about 52 percent between the two of them. Higgins also battled a knee injury, which factored into his slow start to the season. Still, he proved to be a quality contributor in the No. 3 spot during his time in Cleveland.
The Minnesota Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to the Bills on March 16, and although the Vikings may fill their wide receiver void during the draft, Higgins could be a placeholder in case the front office takes a different approach with its two first-round picks.
Still in the early stages of his career, Higgins has intriguing upside and big-play ability, averaging 14.7 yards per reception in 2018. He can line up on the perimeter if the Vikings select a rookie such as LSU's Justin Jefferson, who's effective in the slot.
OG Ronald Leary
Ronald Leary had a three-year stop in Denver. He missed 19 games because of back, Achilles and head (concussion) injuries. The Broncos didn't pick up his 2020 contract option.
If Leary can stay healthy, he's a solid guard who can play on both sides of the line. Through 29 outings with the Broncos, the eight-year veteran allowed just three sacks, per STATs (via the Washington Post).
Eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro Marshal Yanda retired earlier this month after 13 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. For the most part, he lined up at right guard. On the left side, Bradley Bozeman allowed four sacks in 16 starts, per STATs (via the Washington Post).
If one considers his five-year tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, Leary has more experience on the left than the right. He can start as an upgrade over Bozeman or compete with Parker Ehinger and 2019 fourth-rounder Ben Powers for the starting job on the opposite side.
Either way, Leary would give the Ravens a capable starter at a thin position.
Best Landing Spots: BAL, DET, SF
OG Michael Schofield
Through six seasons, Michael Schofield has gone through career peaks, valleys and a position change.
In 2014, the Denver Broncos selected him in the third round. The following year, he started 13 contests at right tackle and allowed 10 sacks, per STATs (via the Washington Post). After a move to right guard for 2016, the Michigan product surrendered just a half-sack in 16 starts.
Still, the team waived him before the 2017 campaign.
With the Los Angeles Chargers, Schofield played right tackle in a reserve role but settled in at guard. In 2018, he gave up five sacks, but that number dropped to 1.5 last year.
Coming off a solid 16-game season, Schofield could fill a starting spot for a guard-needy team, specifically a club that may value athletic interior linemen.
The Cleveland Browns addressed right tackle, signing Jack Conklin, but the team hasn't found a long-term replacement for right guard Kevin Zeitler, who the previous regime traded to the New York Giants during the 2019 offseason. Eric Kush, Wyatt Teller and Justin McCray split snaps at that spot.
Kush and McCray signed deals with the Las Vegas Raiders and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, leaving Teller in the pole position to start, as he did during the second half of last season.
Schofield's starting experience and solid play should enable him to bump Teller out of the position or at least create a legitimate offseason battle for the spot. The 29-year-old would be another upgrade to an offensive line that ranked 17th in pass protection last year, per Football Outsiders.
Best Landing Spots: CLE, MIN, CHI
DE Jabaal Sheard
Although Jabaal Sheard hasn't had a double-digit sack season, he's registered at least 4.5 in each of the last five years. Nonetheless, the Indianapolis Colts can go young on the edge with 24-year-olds Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu, which squeezes the 30-year-old out of a roster spot.
Yet, Sheard can help a team that needs an experienced edge-rusher by boosting a thin rotation in a reserve role. The nine-year veteran has been a solid playmaker with three franchises (Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots and Colts), logging 51.5 sacks.
In 2019, Rasheem Green led the Seattle Seahawks with four sacks. Jadeveon Clowney recorded 30 quarterback pressures, but the free agent is not a lock to return.
According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:
"One growing thought around the league is that Clowney could take a while to find a new team, with some wondering if he could even wait into training camp. ... So far, Clowney hasn't gotten offers anywhere close to what he wanted, which is a multi-year deal in the $20 million-a season-or more range. If he had, he'd have signed long ago."
Per Condotta, the Seahawks offered Clowney $13 million to $15 million annually, but the defensive end's patience could force the front office to consider other options. Seattle has agreed to terms with Bruce Irvin, who could play the "Leo" role. Sheard would bookend a revamped line that needs an extra push on passing downs.
Best Landing Spots: SEA, DAL, NE
OLB Markus Golden
Last season, Markus Golden recorded his first double-digit sack campaign since 2016, when he registered 12.5 with the Arizona Cardinals.
Golden led the New York Giants in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (13) in 2019 under the team's former defensive coordinator, James Bettcher, who coached the outside linebacker for three seasons in Arizona.
Even though the Giants turned over their coaching staff, Golden remains open to re-signing with Big Blue, per ESPN's Josina Anderson.
On the market, Golden could find a good spot with the Houston Texans, who need an edge-rusher opposite Whitney Mercilus.
Behind Mercilus, the Texans didn't have a defender eclipse four sacks in 2019. Defensive end J.J. Watt sat out eight contests with a torn pectoral. He brings a consistent push near the pocket, but the 31-year-old has missed 32 games since the start of 2016 because of significant back, knee and chest injuries.
In three out of five seasons, Golden recorded fewer than five sacks, but he showed his potential with the Giants. As a starter, the 29-year-old could continue to rack up sack numbers and seal the edge for the league's 25th-ranked run defense.
Best Landing Spots: HOU, NYG, BAL
CB Ronald Darby
Ronald Darby would likely have a Pro Bowl season on his resume if he stayed on the field for a full campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles, but that didn't happen.
Since the Buffalo Bills traded Darby to the Eagles during the 2017 offseason, he's missed 20 games because of ankle, knee, hamstring and hip injuries. Still, the 26-year-old performs at a high level, logging at least 11 pass breakups in four out of five campaigns.
With $34.19 million in cap space, the New York Jets can afford to roll the dice on a one-year deal with Darby. Gang Green would have the solution to its inconsistent pass coverage on one boundary. The defense ranked 17th in yards and touchdowns allowed through the air in 2019.
The Jets swung and missed with cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who the team released before the third season of a five-year, $72.5 million contract. The front office signed Pierre Desir, but he's an average cover man at best, logging double-digit pass breakups in one out of six seasons.
On a prove-it deal, Darby would have to show he's durable, but the 2015 second-rounder is talented and provides sticky coverage.
Best Landing Spots: NYJ, ATL, CAR
Post-publish note: According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Darby agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with the Washington Redskins.
CB Bashaud Breeland
In 2018, Bashaud Breeland signed with the Carolina Panthers, but a failed physical (because of a foot injury) voided the contract. He settled for a one-year prove-it deal with the Green Bay Packers and logged 20 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions in seven games.
Because of an abbreviated tenure in Green Bay, Breeland didn't have a robust market last offseason. He inked a one-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs but earned a starting role, registering 48 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions in 16 contests.
Breeland produced his best years with the Washington Redskins, logging double-digit pass breakups in all four seasons from 2014 to 2017.
His career could come full circle if he signs with Washington, playing under the same head coach, Ron Rivera, who nearly welcomed him in Carolina.
The Redskins traded Quinton Dunbar to the Seattle Seahawks for a fifth-round pick, which opens a spot on the boundary. Still 28 years old, Breeland can handle a full-time starting role and limit opposing passing attacks with stingy coverage. The six-year veteran allowed a 48.4 percent completion rate in 2019.
Best Landing Spots: WAS, NYJ, ATL
S Damarious Randall
Teams will have to overlook Damarious Randall's low-impact 2019 to envision what they'd sign in a defensive back who can play both safety positions and cover the slot.
At an inopportune time, Randall had his least productive season, registering a career-low six pass breakups and zero interceptions for the first time.
From 2015 to 2018, he recorded 14 interceptions, which ranked fourth leaguewide. In addition to his ability to force turnovers, he's registered 47 career pass breakups.
Last season, the Raiders finished 29th in interceptions with only nine. They signed safety Jeff Heath who's picked off one pass since the start of 2018 and registered more than five pass breakups in one out of seven seasons.
The Raiders secondary needs a ball hawk alongside Johnathan Abram, who tore his labrum in the 2019 season opener. He's played just one game and still needs to show what he brings to the field. At Mississippi State, the 23-year-old built a reputation as a thumper who has decent intermediate coverage qualities, but his pro range remains questionable.
Until Abram proves he can cover the deep ball, Randall can take on that role and roam around the back end and pounce on errant passes and tipped balls.
Best Landing Spots: LVR, ARZ, JAX
Salary-cap info via Spotrac.