The Most Underrated 2021 NFL Free Agents Still Available

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

The Most Underrated 2021 NFL Free Agents Still Available

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Along with Pro Bowlers and high-end starters, NFL teams can find underrated veterans to fill roster holes early in free agency. Because of the declining salary cap this year, we should see several hidden gems linger around the open market.

    Young, unheralded players may prefer one-year deals in the hope of increasing their market value with a more flexible cap situation in 2022. They'll draw interest because of their upside and potential for growth in bigger roles.

    Older veterans who consistently produce solid numbers without a Pro Bowl season could still land decent short-term contracts and make the most of their opportunities at new destinations.

    As is the case for every player under the radar, they want to find the right fit in terms of a team's scheme and position need.

    We'll profile eight underrated veterans available and the best landing spot for each of them.

DT Adam Butler

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Adam Butler lined up in multiple spots across the New England Patriots defensive line through four seasons. He's suitable for even- and odd-man fronts as a 3-technique defensive tackle, nose tackle or defensive end.

    Regardless of his position, Butler knows how to generate pressure and disrupt plays in the backfield. He's recorded 20 tackles for loss and 15 sacks for his career. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6'5", 300-pounder ranked third on the Patriots in quarterback pressures (27) this past season. 

    However, Butler hasn't played more than 47 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps in any of his four seasons. And according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, New England have agreed to terms with versatile defensive lineman Henry Anderson.

    With an expanded workload elsewhere, Butler's production could spike.

    The Las Vegas Raiders won't re-sign Maliek Collins, who agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Houston Texans, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Gus Bradley's defense needs a versatile interior lineman alongside Maurice Hurst, who hasn't played more than 50 percent of defensive snaps in any of his three seasons. 

    Butler and Hurst can band together to give the Raiders a respectable interior pass rush. The former has shown enough strength and leverage on early downs to improve Vegas' run defense, which ranked 24th in 2020. 

    Best fit: Las Vegas Raiders

TE Gerald Everett

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    For most of his four years with the Los Angeles Rams, Gerald Everett served as the backup tight end behind Tyler Higbee. The former's offensive snap count increased every season but never exceeded 57 percent

    Everett has recorded 127 career receptions for 1,389 yards and only eight touchdowns, though he's flashed enough potential to garner starter appeal on the open market, per Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic. 

    "Given Everett's age and athletic traits, there's a good chance that he will be viewed as a starter on the open market," Kapadia wrote. "If a team thinks there's untapped upside, a deal in the neighborhood of $7 million to $8 million per year could be in play."

    The Carolina Panthers should make an effort to find an upgrade for tight end Ian Thomas. 

    Thomas played a career-high 672 offensive snaps this past season but caught only 20 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown. He's going into the final year of his rookie deal. Everett could slide into the starting role as a big-bodied target (6'4", 260 pounds) to complement speedy wideouts DJ Moore and Robby Anderson in the Panthers' aerial attack.

    Best fit: Carolina Panthers

S Duron Harmon

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    With the Detroit Lions in 2020, Duron Harmon played a full-time starting role for the first time in his eight-year career. He lined up for 98 percent of the defensive snaps across all 16 contests.

    Harmon logged 73 tackles (54 solo), five pass breakups and two interceptions for a unit that gave up the most points and yards in the league. However, he wasn't responsible for all of the Lions' defensive woes. Detroit recorded the fewest quarterback pressures (105) of any team, which put tremendous responsibility on the secondary.

    Harmon has consistently made impact plays in coverage over the past few seasons, amassing 12 interceptions and 21 pass breakups since 2017. He could force turnovers and provide over-the-top help for a team with young cornerbacks on the boundary. 

    The Minnesota Vikings could lose safety Anthony Harris in free agency. With cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler going into their second seasons, Harmon can erase some mistakes on the back end if the two young cover men go through growing pains.

    Safety Harrison Smith cannot plug Minnesota's holes in coverage alone. In 2020, the Vikings gave up the third-most yards per pass attempt (7.3).

    Best fit: Minnesota Vikings

WR Rashard Higgins

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Going into his age-27 season, Rashard Higgins should find a new team with a pass-heavy offense or a unit that doesn't have two star players ahead of him in the pecking order. He won't see many targets within the Cleveland Browns' run-first offense with Pro Bowl wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. on the roster.

    Higgins showcased his potential in 2018 and 2020. In both seasons, he eclipsed 570 receiving yards and scored four touchdowns. After averaging 16.2 yards per reception with a 71.2 percent catch rate this past season, the Colorado State product could land a decent role on another team. 

    Higgins may see a fair number of targets with the Tennessee Titans despite their run-heavy offense that's reliant on Derrick Henry. 

    Tennessee lost two of its top three pass-catchers in wideout Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith via free agency. This past season, they combined for 157 targets.

    Higgins could soak up some of those looks in the passing game opposite of A.J. Brown. 

    Best fit: Tennessee Titans

CB Jourdan Lewis

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys selected Jourdan Lewis in the third round of the 2017 draft. He's played in two systems under former defensive coordinators Rod Marinelli and Mike Nolan, lining up in the slot and on the boundary.

    Lewis will draw interest from teams because of his playmaking versatility. In addition to his coverage skills, the inside-out cover man can make an impact in the opponent's backfield as a run-stopper and occasional pass-rusher. 

    He's recorded 19 pass breakups, four interceptions, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks through four seasons. 

    The Detroit Lions cut cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman this offseason. Aaron Glenn played the position and coached defensive backs before he joined Dan Campbell's staff as a defensive coordinator. He should be able to optimize Lewis' skill set.

    With Amani Oruwariye fit to line up on the outside opposite of Jeff Okudah, Lewis can replace Coleman in the slot and provide some physicality on the back end. The 25-year-old would suit up in his home state of Michigan, where he played college football.

    Best fit: Detroit Lions

RB Marlon Mack

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Coming out of South Florida as a 2017 fourth-round pick, Marlon Mack rose through the ranks in the Indianapolis Colts backfield. After spending one season in a reserve role, he racked up 2,184 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage between the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

    Slated to share the backfield with Jonathan Taylor this past season, Mack tore his Achilles in Week 1. However, the 25-year-old running back expects to fully participate in training camp, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.

    Mack's injury hurts his market value, but he's in the prime of his career and is capable of a bounce-back season in an early-down role.

    The Arizona Cardinals could lose Kenyan Drake in free agency. Coming off career highs in rushing yards (955) and touchdowns (10), he'll likely garner interest from multiple clubs. Arizona could sign Mack as a cost-effective complement to Chase Edmonds. 

    Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters that Edmonds has the capacity to handle the lion's share of touches out of the backfield, but the third-year pro has yet to log more than 97 rushing attempts in a single season. Mack would likely have a chance to replace Drake in the featured role with the Cardinals. 

    Best fit: Arizona Cardinals

WR Josh Reynolds

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Through four seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Josh Reynolds had limited opportunities as a backup. He saw more than 43 targets in only two out of his four years with the team.

    In 2020, Reynolds recorded career highs in catches (52) and receiving yards (618). He made the most out of his role in three-wide receiver sets.

    The 26-year-old could take the next step in his development on a wideout-needy club.

    The Washington Football Team doesn't have an established perimeter playmaker opposite of Terry McLaurin in the passing game. Among the team's wideouts, Cam Sims ranked second in receptions (32) and yards (477) this past season.

    Reynolds would upgrade the No. 2 receiver spot for a passing offense that ranked 25th in yards and tied for the third-fewest touchdowns (16) in 2020.

    Best fit: Washington Football Team

DE DeMarcus Walker

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    DeMarcus Walker had a rough start to his career. During his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos, he shifted between the defensive end and outside linebacker positions in an odd-man front, which may have stunted his early growth.

    Over the last two seasons, Walker has developed into a disruptive defensive end. After logging a pair of sacks and two tackles for loss through his first two years, he's recorded 8.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss since 2019.

    On Monday, the Denver Broncos re-signed Shelby Harris on a three-year, $27 million deal. They also employ Dre'Mont Jones as a rotational interior defender. Walker may be forced to realize his potential elsewhere.

    The Baltimore Ravens could welcome a new addition to their front line. Although they re-signed Derek Wolfe on a three-year deal, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Calais Campbell is going into the final year of his contract and turns 35 in September.

    Walker could develop alongside the two grizzled veterans and see an increase in his snap count over a short period of time.

    Best fit: Baltimore Ravens