The Most Underrated NFL Free Agents Still Available Ahead of Training Camps
The onset of NFL training camps is when some of the bigger remaining free-agent names start to find homes.
Lurking behind big names like Richard Sherman, David DeCastro and Justin Houston, though, are underrated veterans lucky teams will find at a bargain with the potential to get big value out of on the field next season.
The most underrated names aren't of the household variety, or have lost that status over the years and sit behind other free agents of bigger stature. Yet they have the potential, especially with the right team, to give the signing franchise a superb return on value, in hindsight classifying them as steals.
Here's a look at the most underrated free agents left on the market, plus a best fit for each.
C Austin Reiter
Austin Reiter is far from a household name compared to offensive line free agents like DeCastro and Mitchell Schwartz, to name a few.
But he's been quite productive over the past few seasons. After entering the league as a seventh-round pick, Reiter joined the Kansas City Chiefs off waivers in 2018 and eventually became a starter in front of Patrick Mahomes.
While Reiter was part of the massive line overhaul in Kansas City this offseason, he earned a 70.9 Pro Football Focus grade, a starter grade. That was over 15 appearances with zero penalties or sacks allowed.
Now 29, Reiter would be a superb depth signing for a team, if nothing else. Think the Cincinnati Bengals, a team still waiting on starting center Trey Hopkins to come all the way back from a season-ending injury suffered late last season.
Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals
LB K.J. Wright
There was a time when K.J. Wright was one of the more recognizable names on a Seattle Seahawks defense littered with big presences.
But Wright is now going into his age-32 season and, after his release from Seattle, hasn't had much noise around his name on the market. A strong free-agent and draft class, plus his age (31), have likely played big factors.
Yet 2020 wasn't a bad appearance for Wright. He appeared in all 16 games, picking off a pass and recording 65 solo tackles on his way to a 75.3 PFF grade. One could argue he's seeing reduced looks, as he played on 86 percent of the defense's snaps last year, his lowest mark since 2013 (not counting injury-shortened 2018).
But reduced looks doesn't mean ineffective, and most teams would be hard-pressed to find a linebacker who can contribute so much in the middle of July in most offseasons. Wright getting back to familiar surroundings makes the most sense for both parties.
Best Fit: Seattle Seahawks
WR Dede Westbrook
Dede Westbrook, a fourth-round pick in 2017, never got a fair chance at shining on a national level while spending four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Westbrook only got in seven games as a rookie during Jacksonville's anomaly of a sprint to the AFC title game. Over the following two seasons he missed just one game, posting 1,377 receiving yards and eight touchdowns despite an iffy quarterback situation.
A torn ACL derailed Westbrook's 2020 season, where he seemed poised to make one big, final statement in pursuit of a massive deal in free agency. Instead, he'll likely have to settle for a short-term contract of the prove-it variety.
But projecting Westbrook into a pass-happy attack like the one in Atlanta makes the most sense for all involved because he'll finally be in a quality offense with a chance to make good on all the whispers of upside for years.
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons
S Tre Boston
Tre Boston has had one of the stranger journeys for a pro defender in recent memory.
Boston put in three years of work in Carolina after being a fourth-round pick, then bounced through two different teams on prove-it deals despite putting up some noteworthy numbers. He then went back to Carolina for two seasons and is a free agent once more, getting cut less than a year after signing a three-year extension.
Owner of two or more picks in four of his last five seasons and three or more in three of his last four, Boston just has a knack for being around the football. He's also reliable, having played 85 or more percent of his defense's snaps in each of his last four seasons.
Boston might make sense in...Boston, where the New England Patriots need a rangy ballhawk to replace Duron Harmon.
Best Fit: New England Patriots
DL Kawann Short
It's all too easy to forget about Kawann Short.
Not only does Short arguably fall behind other free agents like Geno Atkins in terms of name recognition, he was a cap casualty in Carolina after playing in just five games over the past two seasons.
If Short checks out medically though, he's got some amazing upside and projectable return on value for a team surely only giving him a prove-it deal laced with incentives. Short, 32, was quietly a disruptive interior presence for years, tallying 32.5 sacks over 99 games, including six or more in three consecutive seasons. For context, Short's last big stint of playing time in 2018 saw him produce an 83.7 PFF grade.
A team like the Las Vegas Raiders, which has routinely failed to field a strong complementary defense opposite a strong offense, could use a disruptive, rotational burst up the middle.
Best Fit: Las Vegas Raiders
RB Duke Johnson
Duke Johnson isn't Todd Gurley or Le'Veon Bell in terms of name, but he's got the ability to be better than both in 2021.
Johnson was lost over the last two seasons in Houston, where a floundering franchise just didn't use him enough. He's an elite pass-catcher, hence 72 receptions for 645 yards over two seasons with the Texans. Last year was the first time in his career a team hadn't bothered to target him at least 60 times.
Similarly, Houston only gave Johnson double-digit carry attempts three times over two seasons. An odd choice, given his career 4.2 per-carry average and the options he presents given the versatility.
Regardless, one team's cap cut can be another's treasure. He'd be a nice fit as a receiving back in a rotation such as that belonging to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he could spell first-rounder Najee Harris for an offense that loves to turn it loose through the air.
Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers