Finding Homes for Under-the-Radar NFL Free Agents Before 2021 Season
The best NFL free agents left on the market ahead of training camps aren't hard to figure out.
Fans know the big names. Richard Sherman, Justin Houston, K.J. Wright and Melvin Ingram headline the list of top players left for the taking.
But what about the lesser-known names or underappreciated guys capable of making as big of an impact on a new team, if not more, than some of the household names?
Those lesser-known names are veterans with proven past production and plenty in the way of projectable upside in new homes. The best fits for each have the need and situation necessary to help produce that production.
These are the best under-the-radar free agents left and ideal homes for each.
S Malik Hooker
Had Malik Hooker been able to stay healthy after being the 15th pick in the 2017 draft, he'd easily be a household name.
The proof resides in the film and numbers, as the elite athleticism and instincts that made him a first-rounder showed up when he played 14 games in 2018 and posted a 79.1 Pro Football Focus grade, easily in starter range.
But that sort of attendance has very much been an anomaly for Hooker, as he suffered a season-ending injury halfway through his rookie season and to date has missed 19 games over the last three seasons.
Still, Hooker is a huge-upside get for a win-now team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said he had a recent visit there, and his rangy skill set would be the perfect complement alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Austin Reiter
As a seventh-round success story, Austin Reiter didn't generate a ton of headlines, even after breaking out as a starter for a Super Bowl contender.
Reiter, 29, joined the Kansas City Chiefs as a waiver claim in 2018 and eventually worked his way into a starting role. Last year over 15 games and 867 snaps, he didn't allow a sack or get called for a penalty en route to a 70.9 PFF grade.
Kansas City blew up the offensive line this offseason, and Reiter has yet to find a new home. He'd make an interesting buy for a contender like the Green Bay Packers, which lost star center Corey Linsley in free agency.
In Green Bay, Reiter would get a chance to compete for a starting job in one of the interior spots, which would equate to a win-win for all involved.
Best Fit: Green Bay Packers
DL Geno Atkins
It's debatable as to whether Geno Atkins was ever a household name during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals despite his ranking right alongside names like Aaron Donald as an elite interior pass-rusher.
Either way, Atkins fell all the way off the map last year after suffering a shoulder injury in training camp and limping through the season before getting shut down after eight games.
According to Rapoport, Atkins anticipates medical clearance by July 1 and has several interested teams. No wonder, as Atkins, now 33, has 76 sacks over 161 games and projects to excel quite well in a rotation.
It's fitting that Atkins' checkup will come with a Dallas Cowboys team doctor, as that rebuilding defense needs all the help it can get. Dallas is going back to basics after a convoluted scheme created disaster last year, and it doesn't get much more basic and effective than Atkins disrupting pockets from the heart of the trenches.
Best Fit: Dallas Cowboys
DL Jurrell Casey
It's incredibly easy to forget about defensive tackle Jurrell Casey because after nine seasons in Tennessee, he joined Denver last year and made it into just three games before tearing his bicep and missing the rest of the season.
Eventually a cap casualty, the 31-year-old Casey still has plenty to offer teams if he's fully healthy in 2021. He is, after all, the same player who put up a 74.6 PFF grade in 2019 over 14 games, tallying five sacks and a forced fumble.
Like Atkins, Casey is probably a better fit for a rotational role that will allow him to make maximal impact at this stage of his career. But his posting five or more sacks in every season from 2013-2019 and never missing more than two games in a season before 2020 speaks for itself.
A rebuilding team with defensive issues like the Cincinnati Bengals would be a great fit to let Casey loose on a rotational snap count during a one-year, prove-it pact.
Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals
RB Duke Johnson
If there's one free-agent running back who could join a new team, exceed expectations and classify as a steal after 17 games, it's probably Duke Johnson.
Going into his age-28 season, Johnson is one of those head-scratchers of a back who has strange usage in recent years. He's a capable three-down back who averages 4.2 yards per carry, but he hasn't received more than 100 carries in a season since his rookie year (2015).
Likewise, he's caught 40-plus passes every year except 2020, when a bad Houston team targeted him just 34 times over 11 games.
A team that wants to contend such as Miami comes to mind for Johnson. The Dolphins mustered just 3.9 yards per carry last year and didn't get a ton of production from backs on the ground. Adding Johnson to compete with Malcolm Brown would provide optimal results plus superb depth.
Best Fit: Miami Dolphins
WR Alshon Jeffery
Alshon Jeffery's tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles got off to a hot start in 2017-2018, highlighted by 15 total receiving touchdowns and a Super Bowl win.
But 2019-20 helped make Jeffery something of an afterthought on this year's free-agent market, thanks to a deep class and inbound rookies. He played in just 17 games and scored five times over the last two seasons, campaigns derailed by injuries.
Now 31, Jeffery would still have plenty to offer an offense as a big-bodied wideout for specific third-down and redzone packages, if nothing else. It's hard to imagine he can go back to being a lone No. 1 for an offense, but he's got the chance to fill a critical niche if healthy.
And that should interest a team like the New England Patriots, which has geared its offseason toward getting the most out of Cam Newton from under center. With production from a big investment like N'Keal Harry lacking, New England seems like one of the locales he'd have the best chance of finding notable playing time.
Best Fit: New England Patriots