The Most Underrated NFL Free Agents Still Available Ahead of Training Camps
Training camps are set to open around the NFL in a few days, yet plenty of quality free agents remain unsigned.
Last week, we examined the best free agents still available on the verge of camps—players such as Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen and Larry Warford. However, those players won't necessarily appeal to every team.
According to Spotrac, 22 of the league's 32 teams currently have less than $20 million in available cap space. Those teams are likely to be seeking budget options rather than big-name players ahead of camp.
Fortunately, plenty of budget options remain available as well.
Here, we'll examine eight of the most underrated players still floating in the free-agent pool. While many of these guys aren't household names, they're proven veterans who have been strong (if underappreciated) contributors in the past and can be again in the right opportunity.
S Tavon Wilson
For teams that are looking for an experienced box safety and aren't eager to trade for Jamal Adams, Tavon Wilson should be an intriguing option. Though he isn't a multiple Pro Bowler like Adams, he is a seasoned pro with 110 games and 43 starts on his resume.
Wilson remains productive at 30 years old, too. In 16 games with the Detroit Lions last season, he amassed 98 tackles, five passes defended and a sack.
If the New York Jets wind up trading Adams, Wilson would be a logical replacement. His aggressive style would mesh with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and he would be an asset in run support. Wilson would also make sense for the Philadelphia Eagles, who currently have converted cornerback Jalen Mills in line for a starting role.
In Philadelphia, Wilson could also reunite with cornerback Darius Slay, whom the Eagles acquired from the Lions via trade this offseason.
Best Fits: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles
TE Jordan Reed
How healthy is Jordan Reed? That's the most pressing question for any team still looking to add a veteran tight end before camp.
Reed was a Pro Bowler back in 2016, but he has also suffered numerous concussions throughout his seven-year NFL career. He missed the entire 2019 season after suffering one during the preseason last August.
Reed cleared the concussion protocol in February, according to Ben Standig of The Athletic. He has at least three teams interested in him, and he plans to play in 2020, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
One of those teams might be the Dallas Cowboys, who need a replacement for free-agent departure Jason Witten to round out their receiving corps. The Carolina Panthers would also make sense, as veteran tight end Greg Olsen also departed in free agency.
If healthy, Reed would be a sensible replacement for Olsen or Witten. In 2018, he appeared in 13 games and caught 54 passes for 558 yards and two touchdowns.
Best Fits: Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers
S Tony Jefferson
Like Reed, safety Tony Jefferson carries health concerns. He suffered a torn ACL in October and may not be back to 100 percent in time for camp.
When he is healthy, however, the 28-year-old should be a high-level starter for whichever team employs him.
A former mainstay of the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens secondaries, Jefferson has appeared in 98 games and has 66 starts. With Baltimore in 2018, he racked up 74 tackles, six passes defended and an interception.
The Lions, who ranked last in pass defense last season, could be an intriguing destination for Jefferson. Head coach Matt Patricia often used multiple safeties as defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, and a trio of Jefferson, Duron Harmon and Tracy Walker would give him a lot of flexibility.
The Cleveland Browns, who took a flier on strong safety Karl Joseph this offseason, could also benefit from adding their former division foe.
Best Fits: Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns
QB Blake Bortles
The idea of quarterback Blake Bortles being underrated may seem laughable, but that's what he is at this point in his career. He has 73 regular-season starts, more than 17,000 passing yards and 103 touchdown passes on his resume.
Most teams won't find that kind of experience in a potential backup quarterback in late July.
That's where Bortles' value lies. He's arguably the best backup still on the open market, and he would make a lot of sense for a team with questions at the position.
The Pittsburgh Steelers could use a proven backup behind Ben Roethlisberger, who is returning from a significant elbow injury. The duo of Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph proved incapable of leading the Steelers to the playoffs in Big Ben's stead last season, but Bortles is an upgrade over both of them.
Bortles could also be a fit for the Buffalo Bills, as he has a similar athletic profile to starter Josh Allen. Buffalo ideally won't have to rely on its backup at any point in 2020, but if it does, Bortles could allow for a more seamless transition than current backup Matt Barkley.
Best Fits: Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills
OG Ronald Leary
While Larry Warford is the cream of the remaining offensive line crop, he isn't the only option for guard-needy teams. Former Cowboys and Denver Broncos guard Ronald Leary remains available and is another starting-caliber option.
While Leary is a bit of a health risk—he finished both 2017 and 2018 on injured reserve and missed another four games in 2019—he's also started 76 of his 77 career games. He could be an option for the Cleveland Browns, who are heading into camp with no clear starter at right guard.
If Leary is willing to take a backup role, he could return to the Cowboys to provide depth behind Connor Williams and Zack Martin. He might even have a shot at unseating Williams on the left side. For his part, Leary doesn't seem opposed to the idea.
"I do still have my crib in Dallas," Leary tweeted back in March.
Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys
WR Taylor Gabriel
Though he has never been a high-volume receiver, Taylor Gabriel is a fine complementary pass-catcher and one of the fastest players in the entire league. According to Chicago Bears receiver Anthony Miller, Gabriel was clocked at 24 miles per hour in practice in 2018.
That season, Gabriel caught 67 passes for 688 yards and two touchdowns.
Realistically, Gabriel would make sense for any team seeking a speed merchant in its lineup. The Green Bay Packers are such a team, as they lack a reliable deep threat opposite No. 1 receiver Davante Adams.
The San Francisco 49ers would also make a ton of sense for Gabriel. Starter Deebo Samuel is recovering from a foot fracture that could keep him out until October, according to NBC Sports' Peter King, although Samuel has since denied that timetable.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan also previously coached Gabriel as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.
Best Fits: Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers
RB Theo Riddick
Running back Devonta Freeman headlines the free-agent running back market, but he apparently isn't willing to be a budget option.
"He's asking for a lot of money," Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said of Freeman, per Jon Ledyard of Pewter Report.
However, receiving back Theo Riddick might be willing to take on a complementary role for a fair price. The 29-year-old missed all of 2019 with a shoulder injury, but he was one of the NFL's most underrated weapons before that.
In six seasons with the Lions, he racked up 285 receptions for 2,238 yards while also rushing for 1,023 yards. He caught at least 50 passes in each of his final four seasons in Detroit.
Riddick would be an ideal fit for the aforementioned Buccaneers. He could be the sort of reliable backfield receiver quarterback Tom Brady had in James White with the Patriots.
Riddick could also be a fit for the Tennessee Titans as a pass-catching complement to Derrick Henry, filling the role Dion Lewis had before Tennessee phased him out of the offense.
Best Fits: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans
LB Mark Barron
Linebackers who can move well in space and cover pass-catchers are in high demand. The three-year, $35.25 million deal Cory Littleton signed in free agency should be proof enough of that.
While he might no longer be in his prime like Littleton, former Los Angeles Rams teammate Mark Barron would be a much cheaper option at this point in free agency. The converted safety appeared in 15 games for the Steelers last season and finished with 82 tackles, 3.0 sacks and three passes defended.
Barron was a cap casualty in Pittsburgh, and a return to the Steelers would make sense if he's willing to agree to a reduced salary. He would also be a valuable asset for the Lions, who could use help at the second level while trying to improve their 32nd-ranked pass defense.
2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis was supposed to be the sort of sideline-to-sideline defender that Barron has been throughout his career, but he has fallen short of expectations. Detroit declined Davis' fifth-year option this offseason.
Best Fits: Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions
All cap and contract information via Spotrac.