Ranking the NFL's Most Underrated Free Agents Left on the Market Entering April

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2022

Ranking the NFL's Most Underrated Free Agents Left on the Market Entering April

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Every year, free agents slip through the cracks during the initial wave of signings and go on to have a big impact.

    Case in point: De'Vondre Campbell didn't sign with the Green Bay Packers until last June as a relative afterthought on a one-year, $2 million contract. 

    One All-Pro season later and the team didn't wait long to ink him to a new five-year deal. 

    A few big names remain on the market. Tyrann Mathieu, Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore and Odell Beckham Jr. are far from underrated. However, the biggest values are the free agents who are likely to make a team look smart on a prove-it contract.

    Based on their ability to provide significant value at a low cost, here are the most underrated free agents left.

7. T/G Daryl Williams

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    The Buffalo Bills added another solid offensive lineman to the free-agency pool when they released Daryl Williams in mid-March. 

    Outside one second-team All-Pro season in 2017, the 29-year-old hasn't been one of the league's best. He has, however, been a legitimate starter. Last season, he was the second-highest-graded player among the Bills starting line, per Pro Football Focus

    In each of the last two seasons, the Oklahoma product has given up four or fewer sacks, according to PFF's data, and can play both right guard and right tackle. That positional versatility is big for teams that are still unsettled with their starting five. 

    The Las Vegas Raiders seem like a good fit. With Alex Leatherwood playing—and struggling—at both right tackle and guard last season, Williams could ensure that at least one of those positions will have a competent starter. 

    Best Fit: Las Vegas Raiders

6. Edge Jerry Hughes

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    Jerry Hughes likely just played his last season as a starter as he enters his age-34 season. 

    But if he's your team's third pass-rusher, that's a good situation.

    Hughes' two sacks were his lowest output since 2011, and his snap share dwindled to 52 percent last year with the Buffalo Bills. Still, he was winning his one-on-one matchups at a good clip. According to PFF, he has posted a 90th percentile pass-rush grade and pass-rush win rate over the last three seasons.

    He could latch on to a contender that is willing to give him a specialized role and send him after the passer. 

    The Chiefs would make sense from that perspective. They have yet to re-sign Melvin Ingram III and could use a cheap pass-rusher. Frank Clark led all Kansas City defensive ends with 4.5 sacks in 2021.

    Best Fit: Kansas City Chiefs

5. Edge Justin Houston

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    Entering his age-33 season, Justin Houston brings just about everything Hughes does, but it's dialed up a bit.

    Like Hughes, Houston was a starter last season but was in a part-time role with 61 percent of the defensive snaps.

    His 4.5 sacks for the Baltimore Ravens were his lowest output since 2016, when he only played five games because of injury. The days of Houston as an elite pass-rusher are done, but he's likely to reward whatever team signs him and won't come at a high cost.

    What's most appealing about Houston is his experience. In suiting up for Baltimore, the Indianapolis Colts and the Chiefs, he has played for three strong organizations with different schemes and has been successful at every stop. 

    With Jadeveon Clowney still unsigned and few proven pass-rushers outside Myles Garrett, the Browns would be wise to sign Houston. 

    Best Fit: Cleveland Browns

4. CB Steven Nelson

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    De'Vondre Campbell was the epitome of a bargain find last season, but Packers teammate Rasul Douglas wasn't far behind. After struggling in Philadelphia and Carolina, Douglas was dominant for Green Bay in giving up a 44.5 passer rating

    If there's someone who can duplicate that kind of rebound, it's Steven Nelson. 

    After a rocky season made him a cap casualty in Pittsburgh, Nelson's play did not get better last year with Philadelphia. He's yielded 12 touchdowns and over 1,300 yards in his last two campaigns. 

    He's capable of playing much better, though. In his first season in Pittsburgh, he was lights-out, giving up no touchdowns and a passer rating of 65.8 when targeted while playing 99 percent of the defensive snaps. 

    He's also only 29. It's well-worth the gamble to give him a one-year deal, as he can still be a No. 2 outside corner and might return to peak form. 

    The Bengals should be looking into signing Nelson. His PFF grade was actually one point higher than the 60.5 starter Eli Apple posted last season. 

    Best Fit: Cincinnati Bengals

3. S Terrell Edmunds

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    There's a lot to like about Terrell Edmunds, especially with the kind of deal he'll probably get.

    For starters, he's only 25 years old. Most free agents at this stage of free agency are well into their 30s or coming off major injuries. Edmunds does not bring any of that baggage and could reasonably be signed to a multiyear deal. 

    He has four years of starting experience with a well-run, well-coached organization in the Pittsburgh Steelers. The only real criticism of his track record is that he does not have much ball production. Just five interceptions in four years is a concern for a safety. 

    However, he has improved in coverage every year and shown he could thrive as a box safety. He gave up a passer rating of just 63.7 on 53 targets last season. 

    The Chicago Bears have not made a move to find a running mate for Eddie Jackson on the back end of the defense. With Jackson's ability to play deep, Edmunds could slide in alongside him. 

    Best Fit: Chicago Bears

2. LB Alexander Johnson

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Alexander Johnson has been lights out when on the field. He was the Denver Broncos' highest-graded run-defending linebacker, per PFF, in both 2019 and 2021. However, that 2021 campaign was cut short after six games because of a torn pectoral muscle. 

    The injury risk combined with the fact that Johnson will be 30 years old this season have to be contributing factors to his prolonged free-agency process. 

    But the tools are there for him to thrive in the right role. In addition to his ability to fly to the ball in the run game, he can hold his own in coverage. Johnson gave up just four yards per target last season. 

    The Washington Commanders linebacker room is fairly unremarkable. Cole Holcomb was the highest-graded of the bunch last year and ranked 41st among NFL linebackers, per PFF. By contrast, Johnson carried an 81.0 mark and would instantly improve the group.

    Best Fit: Washington Commanders

1. Edge Trey Flowers

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    Trey Flowers' time with the Detroit Lions gets a bad rap, but it was only disappointing in the context of his contract. 

    When he inked a five-year, $90 million pact in 2019, it brought the expectation that he would build on his success in New England after he had 14 sacks in his final two seasons with the Patriots. 

    As it turns out, his potential was already maximized. Flowers had seven sacks in his first season with the Lions but has had 3.5 sacks in the last two years combined while only playing 14 games due to injuries

    That injury history probably explains why Flowers hasn't found a home yet. At this stage, most free agents have baggage, but this is a player looking to prove something and carries upside. 

    Flowers is a solid starter when healthy. He's only 28 years old and was consistent with at least 6.5 sacks in each season from 2016 to 2019. 

    A return to New England makes sense. The Patriots could use an additional pass-rusher after releasing Kyle Van Noy, who was second on the team in sacks last season with five. 

    Best Fit: New England Patriots


    Statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.