The bargaining period with NFL free agents (whose number can only negotiate with their own teams until 4 p.m. Thursday) is on and the speculation rampant about just who will end up where come the proverbial trading bell.
Of the big name, big money free agents rumored to be in the crosshairs of new teams we have Redskins QB Kirk Cousins potentially going to San Fran, Patriots TE Martellus Bennett apparently looking for $9 million a year from anyone crazy enough to pay him that kind of money and Tampa Bay said to be planning a strong push to add WR DeSean Jackson.
Those are but a few of the biggest names — and it will be interesting to see where Tony Romo ends up — who will test the market at mid-afternoon Thursday.
But what of the lesser-light (but not necessarily lesser talented) players who may not command a massive contract or whose signing will spark a Twitterstorm of adulation or derision — depending on the signer and the money?
The NFL has graciously put out their list of Top 101 free agents. We’ve analyzed it and have come up with 15 better bargain, less hype players that NFL teams would do well to have on their roster.
15. Darius Butler, DB – Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were pretty good on offence last season, scoring 411 points — third in the AFC — only problem was, they didn’t do a good enough job defensively, surrendering 392 points (fifth worst in the AFC). Even still, they finished 8-8 and with a little luck, could have won the moribund AFC South, which Houston did at 9-7. One player who acquitted himself well in the Colts defensive secondary was Darius Butler, a free agent as of 4 p.m. Thursday who showed great versatility. He has been used most exclusively as a corner, particularly effective as a slot CB. The eight-year veteran, who turns 31 later this month, played 12 games last season and recorded 33 tackles, a forced fumble, seven passes defended, and three interceptions. He made $3 million against the Colts’ cap last season.
14. Kenny Stills, WR – Miami Dolphins
Alshon Jeffery will be the big prize on Thursday afternoon, but there are a few other decent wideouts who can be had for a fraction of what the Chicago Bears’ star is going to command — or be over paid. Four-year veteran Kenny Stills, who was a bargain for the Fish at just over $1.5 million last season, turned himself into a consistent red-zone threat last year, nabbing a career best nine receiving TDs. In all, he caught 42 of 81 passes targeted his way for 726 yards (17.3 yards/catch). The Philadelphia Eagles have shown interest in signing Stills. He would be the fast, deep threat that second year QB Carson Wentz could use in 2017. Stills won’t come too cheaply, but he won’t be in Jeffery money territory.
13. D.J. Swearinger, S – Arizona Cardinals
It’s been an up-and-down career for Cardinals’ safety D.J. Swearinger, who has seen enough controversy over a couple pre-season hits (like the wallop he laid on Wes Welker in 2014) to last a career. He was good in his first two seasons with Houston (2013-14) and then bounced between Tampa Bay and Arizona in 2015, where it looked like his career was being derailed. However, the South Carolina alumnus bounced back in a big way in 2016, playing all 16 games. He made 66 tackles, recorded two sacks, eight passes defended, four stuffs and had three interceptions. The Chicago Bears, who need a lot of help in their defensive secondary, are rumored to be linked to Swearinger. While the Cardinals more heralded safety Tony Jefferson is also available, the versatile and tough Swearinger wouldn’t be a downgrade on a cheaper contract.
12. Brian Hoyer, QB – Chicago Bears
With cranky QB Jay Cutler’s Chicago tenure all but over and former USC standout pivot Matt Barkley not quite ready for prime time, rumor has it that the Bears want back-up veteran Brian Hoyer to return to the fold in free agency. Hoyer was good in relief of an injured Cutler last season, only to sustain a season-ending injury himself. The Michigan State product reeled off four straight games of 300 or more yards after grabbing the starting reins, including six touchdowns against zero interceptions. He was injured early in the 26-10 loss to Green Bay on Oct. 20 and finished with 1,445 yards passing and a 98.0 rating. Hoyer, originally signed as an undrafted free agent by New England in 2009, made $2 million last season and could be a cheap upgrade for a multitude of teams looking for a veteran no. 2 man.
11. Datone Jones, LB – Green Bay Packers
A look at Datone Jones four-year resume with the Packers wouldn’t cause many football analysts or scouts to raise an eyebrow in surprise. The Packers first round (26th overall) pick in the 2013 draft has been very quietly effective in a back-up role to the likes of OLB Clay Matthews. In 2016, he had 22 tackles in 15 games, along with a sack, two successful pass defences and two stuffs. His role in Dom Capers’ defence has been well defined, if not a bit disappointing in that the Packers were looking for him to be more of a playmaker, and his loss in free agency wouldn’t be insignificant. Julius Peppers is likely gone in free agency, and Jones will get to test the market come four bells on Thursday. Yet, the Pack may end up re-signing Jones at a team-friendly rate should he find no suitors.
10. Andre Branch, DE – Miami Dolphins
After four sub-par years up the coast in Jacksonville, DE Andre Branch found new life in SoBe with the Dolphins in 2016. He salvaged his career and could be in for a bigger payday by outplaying the likes of more expensive DE Mario Williams. The Clemson product played all 16 games for the first time since 2013 with the Jags and recorded a career high 49 tackles along with 5.5 sacks. Branch also forced two fumbles and had seven stuffs. Rumor has it that after a season like that, Branch could command $7-9 million on the open market, putting him in range of the disappointing Williams. After earning $2.75 million on a “prove-it” one year pact in 2016, Branch certainly deserves a pay bump and will get it, if not from Miami then someone else needing a proven DE.
9. John Simon, LB Houston Texans
On a top-ranked defence that includes poster boy J.J. Watt, former Ohio State star John Simon is the kind of quiet, lunch-bucket guy the Titans utilized to great effect that last three seasons. Drafted in the fourth round by Baltimore in 2013, Simon got in just seven games with the Ravens before being waived. Houston has been the beneficiary of his inexpensive services, especially the last two seasons. After playing in all 16 games in 2015 (53 tackles, five sacks), Simon got in 11 last year due to a late season injury (five starts), but still made 51 tackles and got in on 3.5 sacks. The market for his services is rumored to be a very strong one and Houston would do well to re-sign him, though at a greater rate than 2016 ($1,671,000).
8. Kendall Wright, WR – Tennessee Titans
Five-year veteran wide receiver Kendall Wright might best be described as a free agent reclamation project. Not that he wasn’t productive in 2016 with the Titans (29 catches, 416 yards, 3 TD in just 11 games), it was just that he hasn’t come anywhere near his production from 2013 (94 catches, 1,079 yards). Thus, a change of scenery might do Wright well. And there have been many rumored suitors for his services, including the Detroit Lions, who would likely use him in three wide situations and short pass situations. His name has also been linked to Buffalo, which could employ him in a slot receiver role or on the outside opposite Sammy Watkins. Ditto the Denver Broncos, who have several wideouts on expiring contracts and didn’t have a reliable slot option in 2016.
7. Latavius Murray, RB – Oakland Raiders
With guys like Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles also likely hitting the market on Thursday, Latavius Murray will fly under the radar and if Oakland doesn’t re-sign their top rusher from 2016, another team like the New York Giants will be happy to oblige. Murray played in 14 games last season, rolling up 788 yards on 195 carries (4.0 yds/rush average) and scored a career high 12 touchdowns. He added 33 catches out of the backfield for another 264 yards too. The Giants only have Shane Vereen and Paul Perkins under contract for 2017 and could use a Murray’s bulk (6’3″, 230 lbs.) as an eminent goal line running back. Murray was a bargain at just over $700,000 last season and will be testing the market Thursday for a big bump in pay.
6. Julius Peppers, LB – Green Bay Packers
It’s been a long, long time since LB Julius Peppers donned a Carolina Panthers uniform (eight years to be exact), but at least one former teammate wants to bring back the 37-year-old veteran of 15 seasons. Charles Johnson, who apprenticed under Peppers from 2007-09, re-signed with the Cats for two years and lobbied the GM to bring back his old mentor. Peppers has been a durable sack machine his entire 234-game career, missing just six games in 15 seasons and none in the last nine campaigns. He has 661 career tackles, 143.5 sacks (he had a career high 14.5 with the Panthers in 2008), 47 force fumbles, 11 interceptions and 76 pass defences. Peppers made $10.5 million last season, but may have to take a bit of pay cut heading into his 16th season.
5. Torrey Smith, WR – San Francisco 49ers
The 2016 campaign for the Niners was painful for all concerned. Not many more so than former Super Bowl champion wideout Torrey Smith. The speedy pass catcher out of Marlyand played in just 12 games last year (after getting into all 80 games the first five years of his career) and caught a career low 20 passes for 267 yards and three TDs. In his first season in San Fran, he hauled in 33 passes for 663 yards, translating to a league-leading 20.1 yards per catch. The team voided the five-year, $40 million deal he signed in 2015 but cutting him this year, but Smith is still just 28 years old and possesses the speed and hands that many teams will be interested in.
4. Mike Glennon, QB – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are very few proven quarterbacks available this off-season, which means someone might likely overpay for the services of the very tall Mike Glennon. The 6’6″ pivot did not see a lot of action last season, playing in just two games in relief of Jameis Winston, one year after not playing at all. Glennon completed 10 of 11 passes last year for 75 yards and a touchdown. His best year was his first in 2013, when the N.C. State grad got in 13 games, completing 247 passes for 2,608 yards and 19 TDs, against just nine interceptions. With just two relief jobs in 2016 and nary a start in three years, Glennon is rusty, but free agency is a buyers market and he will get signed somewhere. The Bears, who need a proven pivot and may pick one early in the draft, have been linked to Glennon’s name.
3. Nick Fairley, DT – New Orleans Saints
The Detroit Lions thought enough of Auburn DT Nick Fairley in 2011 to pick him 11th overall in the draft. The beefy (6’4″, 300 lbs.) lineman was faster than many expected off the snap and he proved it over four seasons, recording 13.5 sacks in 46 games with the Lions. A free agent in 2015, he signed with the St. Louis Rams and while he made enough tackles (29 in 15 games) he had just one half sack to his credit. The Saints signed him to a one-year, $5 million pact before the 2016 campaign and he did an admirable job rebuilding his explosive credentials by registering a career-high 43 tackles (as well as 20 quarterback hits), 6.5 sacks and four stuffs. That deal was incentive laden and held clauses for three years, but the Saints voided the options, making Fairley a free agent yet again. He will have a few suitors, for sure, come 4 p.m. Thursday.
2. Pierre Garcon, WR – Washington Redskins
It’s hardly a secret now that the San Francisco 49ers intend to sign Pierre Garcon when the free agent gong is smacked on Thursday, but until then, there is still a slim chance he could sign with someone else. However, Garcon will likely follow former Redskins OC Kyle Shanahan to the Bay Area (he’s now the Niners head coach) since posting his first 1,000 yards plus season since 2013. There is also rumor that Garcon’s QB Kirk Cousins could be wooed into making the cross-continent trek to guide the 49ers offence in 2017, making it even more likely that Garcon also inks a deal there. The graduate of tiny Mount Union College enjoyed a solidly spectacular season in 2016, catching 79 passes for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns. The estimation on his rumored deal with San Francisco will include a salary of $16 million in 2017.
1. Tony Jefferson, S – Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals are already on the hook for big cap hits on cornerback Patrick Peterson (almost $14 million) and free safety Tyrann Mathieu ($8.1 million), leaving leading tackler Tony Jefferson as the odd man out and likely headed to a new team on Thursday. The four-year vet out of Oklahoma upped the ante on his services in 2016, quietly becoming one of the best strong safeties in the league. As we stated, he led the Cards in tackles with 96, recorded two sacks, two forced fumbles, five pass defences and 11 stuffs. Jefferson’s name has so far been linked to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, who would likely have to pony up in the ranged of $7-10 million to attain Jefferson’s services. The Jets have the cap room at $35 million, making them a contender.