Bargain-Bin Free Agents Who Can Still Help NFL Teams in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2021

Bargain-Bin Free Agents Who Can Still Help NFL Teams in 2021

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    While the heavyweight names command all the attention, sometimes bargain-bin NFL free agents have a bigger impact.

    Last year, Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Daryl Williams inked a small one-year deal and responded with a 79.4 Pro Football Focus grade over 1,050 snaps—earning him a three-year extension worth $24 million this offseason.

    The remainder of the 2021 free-agent market offers players who don't figure to get big money or long-term commitments from their next team. But for a select few, outplaying those deals and expectations seems a given based on past production and projection.

    Here's a look at the best bargain-bin free agents.

DT Geno Atkins

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins has fallen into prove-it territory, having appeared in just eight games last year and becoming a cap casualty this offseason.

    Atkins, who comes in the Aaron Donald mold and has been one of the league's foremost interior pass-rushers over the last decade with 75.5 sacks over 161 games, still has plenty to offer as he turns 33, provided he's healthy.

    Last year, Atkins suffered a shoulder issue in training camp that hampered him before he hit injured reserve in December and required January surgery. But even in 2019, he was still his usual effective self, registering 4.5 sacks and 20 pressures on 76 percent of his defense's snaps, earning a 76.2 PFF grade.

    NFL Network's Ian Rapoport noted Atkins' shoulder "will be cleared well before the season." Should the tackle land in more of a traditional 4-3 front in a rotational role, he'll outperform whatever contract he might get.

OG Kelechi Osemele

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Kelechi Osemele will need to settle for another prove-it deal after dual knee injuries limited the guard to five games last season with Kansas City.

    Osemele, who will turn 32 over the summer, only appeared in three games with the New York Jets in 2019 thanks to shoulder surgery. He's had an odd ride with rebuilders and contenders alike, yet he remains a bully of a run-blocker.

    During Osemele's last full season in 2017, he put up a 76.1 PFF grade with just two sacks allowed over 1,006 snaps. If he's healthy—and he appears to be progressing well—a team can tap into that and get starter-quality play on a short, low-risk deal.

Edge Justin Houston

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Justin Houston's name will keep coming up until he either finds a team or retires.

    There hasn't been any buzz about the latter, but it's worth pondering because it's otherwise hard to explain the lack of noise around a 32-year-old pass-rusher who had eight sacks last year and has had at least that many in four consecutive seasons.

    Houston only played 59 percent of Indianapolis' defensive snaps in 2020 to hit that eight-sack mark too. He's squeaked above 65 percent one time over his last four seasons, which speaks to how efficient he remains.

    Scheme-versatile and still wildly productive, Houston could boost pretty much any defense on a rotational basis, even if his age means he gets a short, cheap deal.

LB K.J. Wright

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    K.J. Wright is a big name playing at a devalued position because he isn't strictly a pass-rusher.

    A smart team will take advantage of the market and get a steal.

    Last season alone, the linebacker posted a solid 75.3 PFF grade with 65 solo tackles for the Seattle Seahawks. Wright's on pace for the 1,000-total tackle mark (941) as a superb fourth-round success from the 2011 draft and about to turn 32 in July with no major signs of slowing down.

    Wright doesn't have to be an every-down guy, but it's worth pointing out he's played at least 86 percent of his defense's snaps in all but two seasons since 2012.

RB James Conner

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    James Conner was always going to have a hard time on the free-agent market at a devalued position. He also carries the perception he's partially a product of an explosive offense and was jockeying for attention against names like Kenyan Drake, Chris Carson and Aaron Jones.

    Still, a cheaper deal for a lead running back going into his age-26 season will help the buying team quite a bit. Conner appeared in 13 games last season, rushing for 721 yards and six scores on a 4.3 per-carry average.

    Even better, Conner has consistently shown he can contribute through the air, catching 34 or more passes in each of the past three seasons.

    He's yet to play in a full 16-game campaign, but even if he lands in a rotational backfield, he could provide firepower in a way that will have him outperforming whatever contract he lands.

Edge Aldon Smith

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Aldon Smith returned to the NFL last year with the Dallas Cowboys after sitting out from 2016 through 2019 amid suspensions for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and serving jail time after a reported domestic violence incident.

    The edge-rusher appeared in all 16 games and put up five sacks and 20 pressures while becoming a mainstay on the struggling unit, playing 73 percent of the snaps.

    Still, ESPN's Ed Werder reported the Cowboys won't bring Smith back. He might be going on 32, but last year made it clear 2011's seventh overall pick has plenty left.

    Given the age and risk, Smith won't get a massive payday from his next team. But as a rotational pass-rushing weapon, he'll be a valuable addition and can boost an entire unit.


    Stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.