NFL's Biggest-Upside Free Agents Who Could Find Homes Before Training Camp

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2021

NFL's Biggest-Upside Free Agents Who Could Find Homes Before Training Camp

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    This year's NFL free-agent market isn't as headline-worthy as a year ago, when players like Jadeveon Clowney were readily available into the summer. 

    But that doesn't mean teams can't find immense value on said market. 

    While a seemingly endless number of over-30 veterans remain available, more interesting might be the high-upside names that have yet to find homes. Think: players with injury histories or those who are simply taking their time signing somewhere and have yet to hit their primes or just entered them. 

    These are the remaining high-upside free agents to know. 

LB Kwon Alexander

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Injuries have dogged linebacker Kwon Alexander, as he's played in a full 16-game season just once since he entered the league in 2015.

    After participating in just six contests in 2018 (torn ACL) and eight in 2019 (torn pectoral), Alexander got in 12 games with the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints last year. Just as he was making a big impact on the Saints defense during a postseason push, though, he suffered a torn Achilles in Week 16. 

    Alexander remains on pace to be ready for training camp, per the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, but the Saints cut him in a cost-saving measure. That means a team will get to try him out and eventually sign him, possibly finding an upgrade as he heads into his age-27 season. 

    Even last year, having played with two teams thanks to a November trade, Alexander put up 57 combined tackles, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a sack, making it his third-best season by Pro Football Reference's approximate value.

    Speedy 'backers with his upside aren't usually available at this stage of the summer, making him a steal if he checks out medically. 

CB Gareon Conley

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Cornerback Gareon Conley seems to check all the boxes: He's a 2017 first-round pick, will be just 26 years old next season, has yet to realize his immense potential and plays a premium position. 

    Conley got in just two games as a rookie because of a shin injury, played 15 as a sophomore and then split his third season between two teams before missing all of last year after an ankle setback and complications during rehab. 

    Yet the same traits that made him a first-rounder remain. Conley even ranked as a top-110 free agent at Pro Football Focus, which noted: "He's graded in the 69th percentile in single coverage compared to just the 37th percentile in zone since entering the league. He's also forced incompletions on 22.2 percent of his targets, the second-best rate in the NFL since 2017."

    It's safe to wonder if scheme and coaching fits in Las Vegas and Houston harmed Conley's development, never mind the injuries. Now that he's picking his next team and scheme via free agency, he could start realizing his upside. 

WR Dede Westbrook

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Thanks to a deep free-agent market and draft class, NFL teams weren't exactly hurting for help at wideout. 

    Yet Dede Westbrook will qualify as a bounce-back candidate for whichever team signs him. 

    Westbrook, 27, tore his ACL in Week 7 last season, logging just two games in Jacksonville amid a pre-injury tumble down the depth chart. It was the second time in four years he's put in single-digit games on the attendance sheet, having missed several contests with a core muscle injury as a rookie in 2017.

    Still, when Westbrook gets on the field, he's a clear difference-maker. With double-digit appearances in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he had at least 600 yards in each campaign and eight combined touchdowns. Keep in mind the poor quarterback situation in Jacksonville, too, as he competed on Blake Bortles and Gardner Minshew II-led attacks. 

    Westbrook could be a major sleeper if he lands in a better offense with a stable quarterback. It's safe to presume contenders will have an eye on him as the summer continues. 

RB Duke Johnson

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Running back might be a devalued position, but there's still plenty of value in a pass-catching back like Duke Johnson

    A 2015 third-round pick heading into his age-28 season, he has never really been able to break out of a committee role. Johnson's had more than 100 carries in a season just once, but more importantly, he's caught 44 or more passes in every year except 2020. 

    Last season was surely frustrating for fantasy footballers who relied on Johnson, as a bad Houston team inexplicably only fed him 35 targets (he had previously never received fewer than 62) out of a backfield that included David Johnson (147 carries, 46 targets). 

    Considering Duke Johnson has averaged 4.9 yards per carry or better in three of his last five seasons and has averaged 9.2 yards per catch for his career, he's bound to put up bigger numbers in an offense that will better utilize his skill set.

S Malik Hooker

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Safety Malik Hooker might be the personification of this list. 

    The 15th pick from the 2017 draft had it all entering the pros thanks to his superb athleticism that paired well with an elite ability to anticipate. That made him an ideal center fielder when not many teams had one.

    But the warning signs were there immediately. Though he picked off three passes, he only got in seven games as a rookie thanks to season-ending ACL and MCL tears in Week 7. Since, he has yet to play in a full 16 games and has played more than 38 percent of his defense's snaps in just two of his four seasons. 

    Still, Hooker has hinted at the major upside when healthy. In 2018, over 14 games, he had a 79.1 PFF grade (solidly in the starter range) and two interceptions.

    It's rare to get a 25-year-old with Hooker's upside at this stage of free agency. Rapoport noted Hooker had recent visits with the Pittsburgh Steelers and other teams. As a potential rotational presence with room for much more, Hooker has the most upside of any free agent left. 

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