13 Available NFL Free Agents Who Could Start for Contending Teams
Now we’re changing the rules a bit and heading in a different direction.
As we know, it’s early April, and every club is in the hunt for Super Bowl XLIX. For the sake of this piece, we are going to look back at a baker’s dozen that either reached the playoffs or won 10 or more games in 2013 and consider them all playoff contenders.
While some of these teams' starting lineups appear set (and others don’t), who is available on the open market to step in and start on opening weekend?
As for the order of the teams, we put the Arizona Cardinals first. The club finished 10-6 but missed the playoffs a year ago. The remaining 12 clubs are listed according to their win-loss record and how far they went in the playoffs.
Understand that we are not discounting the other 19 teams in terms of being Super Bowl contenders. We have just opted to draw a line somewhere, and in this instance, we excluded the six teams (Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers) that finished 8-8 in 2013.
What’s left when it comes to free agency, and which of these clubs will benefit the most from not looking foolish in April?
Arizona Cardinals: SS Quintin Mikell (UFA-Panthers)
2013: 10-6 (Third Place, NFC West)
The Arizona Cardinals surprised many people this past season by doubling their win total from 2012. Under new head coach Bruce Arians, the team finished 10-6 and fell just short of a playoff appearance.
Now the Cards have to deal with not having a couple of key pieces from their impressive defense.
In 2013, no team in the league gave up fewer yards on the ground than Arizona, which also finished sixth in the NFL in total defense. However, the club won’t have its top two tacklers from a year ago, as inside linebacker Karlos Dansby joined the Cleveland Browns and strong safety Yeremiah Bell remains on the open market.
Veteran safety Quintin Mikell did an excellent job with the Carolina Panthers in 2013, finishing with 59 tackles, three sacks, six passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles. He could pair with talented Tyrann Mathieu to give the Cards a nice one-two punch on their last line of defense.
Green Bay Packers: FS Mike Adams (UFA-Broncos)
2013: 8-7-1 (Lost NFC Wild Card Game)
As usual, the Green Bay Packers have not been overly busy during free agency.
However, it’s obvious what the team’s needs are and what needs to be fixed if the Packers are to reach the playoffs for a sixth straight season and win a fourth consecutive NFC North title.
Mike McCarthy’s club scored a respectable 417 points despite going with four different starting quarterbacks in 2013.
However, when it came to the other side of the ball, the Pack allowed 428 points and finished 25th in total yards allowed in the NFL. This offseason, the team added linebacker/defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Letroy Guion from the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, respectively.
So what about another veteran in 10-year pro Mike Adams, who spent the last two seasons with the Denver Broncos? For now, Green Bay has young Sean Richardson, who has played in only 11 games the past two seasons combined, penciled in at free safety.
In 2013, Adams amassed 64 tackles, knocked down six passes and collected a pair of takeaways for the eventual AFC champions.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Terrell Thomas (UFA-Giants)
2013: 10-6 (Lost NFC Wild Card Game)
When you finish dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed, there are bound to be changes.
Then again, the Philadelphia Eagles roster isn’t short on talent when it comes to just about every position.
Still, Chip Kelly’s club has spent the 2014 offseason concentrating on the secondary. The club signed former first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins away from the New Orleans Saints to play free safety. The Birds also added free-agent cornerback Nolan Carroll from the Miami Dolphins to push starters Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. The latter did not a have terrific debut season in Philadelphia, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
So why not add a familiar face in the NFC East in the form of free-agent defender Terrell Thomas, who has rebounded nicely after missing both the 2011 and 2012 seasons with knee injuries?
This past season, he totaled 67 tackles, knocked down seven passes and had one of each in the sack, interception and forced fumble departments with the New York Giants.
Back in 2010, the talented pro collected team highs in tackles (101) and passes defensed (21), to go along with five interceptions, four forced fumbles and one sack. Asking Thomas to return to that form may be pushing it, but edging Williams out of the starting lineup could be a possibility.
Kansas City Chiefs: FS Thomas DeCoud (Released by Falcons)
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Wild Card Game)
When you begin a season 9-0, give up only 111 points over that stretch and don’t allow an opponent to score more than 17 points in any contest, there’s cause for celebration.
When you drop six of your last eight games, allow 239 points over that stretch and blow a 28-point third-quarter lead in the playoffs, there’s cause for concern.
The Kansas City Chiefs were an 11-5 football team in 2013 after winning only two games in 2012. But despite a lot of defensive talent, this club ranked closer to the bottom in the rankings than the top. Granted, key injuries were a major part of the slide. However, so was poor performance, and one of those targeted was free safety Kendrick Lewis, who struggled down the stretch and is now with the Houston Texans.
Free safety Thomas DeCoud isn’t with anyone these days after a poor performance in 2013 saw the Atlanta Falcons release the one-time Pro Bowler. But Andy Reid’s club has a hole in the defensive backfield that could be filled by DeCoud, who would partner with perennial Pro Bowler Eric Berry.
Cincinnati Bengals: OLB James Anderson (UFA-Bears)
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Wild Card Game)
Four of the top five defenses in the NFL in terms of fewest yards allowed resided in the NFC in 2013.
The lone exception was the Cincinnati Bengals, who ranked third in this category behind the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.
Now head coach Marvin Lewis looks to not only overcome the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who took the head coaching job in Minnesota, but deal with the free-agent defection of steady defensive end Michael Johnson, who joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There’s also the loss of veteran outside linebacker James Harrison, a 10-game starter in 2013 who racked up 30 tackles in 15 games. Cincinnati released the 10-year pro this offseason.
How about swapping a Harrison for an Anderson? James Anderson remains unsigned after a less-than-stellar year with the problem-plagued Chicago Bears defense. Still, he led the club with 102 tackles in 2013 and could get a new lease on life playing alongside Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga. The duo finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the Bengals in tackles this past season.
San Diego Chargers: NT Isaac Sopoaga (Released by Patriots)
2013: 9-7 (Lost AFC Divisional Playoffs)
You have to like what you saw out of the San Diego Chargers late in 2013 and so far this offseason.
Mike McCoy’s club won its last four games a year ago, rolled the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round and hung tough with the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional Round.
This year, we have seen them add running back Donald Brown and fullback/tight end David Johnson in order to accentuate the ball-control attack that served them so well this past season. Having proven depth behind running backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead is a big plus.
The team also added former Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Kavell Conner to the fold, hoping to add depth to a defense that finished 12th in the league against the run.
But who will be the starting nose tackle in 2014? Veteran Cam Thomas signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Bolts experimented with a number of other options this past season.
Could veteran Isaac Sopoaga help? He split time with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, playing nose tackle with the Birds and inside with the Pats in 2013 and was released by New England this offseason. Or could the franchise bring back a familiar face in Aubrayo Franklin, who started nine games for the Bolts in 2012? Nod to Sopoaga in this instance.
Indianapolis Colts: RB Chris Johnson (Released by Titans)
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Divisional Playoffs)
This past season, the Indianapolis Colts were 11-5 for the second straight year and reached the playoffs.
The move in the backfield backfired. Donald Brown wound up leading the team in rushing, and Richardson was an enigma, looking nothing like the player who was the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Brown is now a member of the San Diego Chargers. Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw remain on the roster, and Vick Ballard returns after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 a year ago.
In 2013, the Colts were tied for 20th in rushing. They averaged 108.9 yards per game on the ground, but they might do better with a familiar face from the AFC South.
On Friday, as expected, the Tennessee Titans released three-time Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson. A number of teams, including the New York Jets, as discussed by Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, were interested in acquiring the six-year pro via trade prior to his release.
General manager Ryan Grigson surprised everyone last fall by trading for Richardson. Does the savvy executive have one more surprising move up his sleeve?
New Orleans Saints: C David Baas (Released by Giants)
2013: 11-5 (Lost NFC Divisional Playoffs)
In 2009, New Orleans was the home of the Super Bowl champions.
This upcoming season, it will be the home of Champ…as in Bailey.
The 12-time Pro Bowler and 15-year NFL veteran, released by the Denver Broncos this offseason, is now a member of Sean Payton’s club. And Bailey likes what he’s hearing from the Super Bowl-winning head coach.
“I like a head coach who's almost as competitive as the players on the field, or even more,” Bailey told Mike Klis of The Denver Post. “I always knew that about him and heard that. But to sit down and talk to coach Payton, and (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan and hear their thinking on the game — It was impressive.”
Back to the matter at hand, which is New Orleans’ offensive line—particularly center. For now, the team has not opted to re-sign Brian de la Puente. The emphasis is on “for now.”
Could Tim Lelito do the job in his second season? It is certainly possible. But the addition of a proven veteran like Davis Baas, who looks to bounce back from a 2013 campaign that caused him to miss 13 games, may be a nice solution. The nine-year pro spent the first six seasons of his career with the San Francisco 49ers and the last three with the Giants, starting all 16 games in 2012.
Carolina Panthers: WR Santonio Holmes (Released by Jets)
2013: 12-4 (Lost NFC Divisional Playoffs)
Could the opportunity to play at Tampa Stadium at least once per year entice wide receiver Santonio Holmes to sign with the Carolina Panthers?
It’s doubtful; however, the opportunity to be a starter for a team that finished 12-4 and won the NFC South in 2013 is a much better incentive.
The eight-year wideout had the greatest moment of his career at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl XLIII in his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The former first-rounder caught nine passes for 143 yards and the game-winning touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals, earning MVP honors.
Now Holmes looks to jump-start his career again after four up-and-down seasons with the New York Jets, who released him in March. The Panthers are looking for a few good men at wideout with the release of Steve Smith and the free-agent departures of Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.
Carolina has added free agents such as Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but Holmes could press for a full-time job.
New England Patriots: SS Yeremiah Bell (UFA-Cardinals)
2013: 12-4 (Lost AFC Championship Game)
There’s safety in numbers. Over the last few days, the New England Patriots have been dealing with a number of safeties.
As Around the League writer Dan Hanzus of NFL.com reminds us, the Pats brought back strong safety Patrick Chung on Thursday. He was released by the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason after one year with the club. On Friday, the team also let go of veteran Adrian Wilson, who was signed by New England a year ago but never took the field in 2013 due to an Achilles injury.
So while one former Arizona Cardinals defender didn’t work out, can another work in his place?
Veteran strong safety Yeremiah Bell has spent the majority of his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, so it’s safe to say Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is more than familiar with what he can do.
A year ago, Bell finished second on the Cardinals with 76 tackles, knocking down 10 passes and picking up a pair of interceptions. He could help a New England defense that had its struggles against the run last season due to some key injuries.
San Francisco 49ers: C Brian de la Puente (UFA-Saints)
2013: 12-4 (Lost NFC Championship Game)
The San Francisco 49ers believe in running the rock, just like their Super Bowl champion counterparts in the NFC West.
Yes, Pete Carroll’s club ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing in 2013, just one notch below Jim Harbaugh’s squad at No. 3.
The Niners are often mentioned when it comes to the best offensive lines in the league. They are loaded with former first-round picks in tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati.
At the moment, there appears to be a hole in the middle. To date, the club has not re-signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin, who has started every game the last three seasons with the club.
So why not get a little younger up front by adding an experienced pivot in 28-year-old Brian de la Puente? He has started all 16 games for the New Orleans Saints each of the last two seasons and received high marks from Pro Football Focus in 2013.
Denver Broncos: MLB Patrick Angerer (UFA-Colts)
2013: 13-3 (Lost Super Bowl XLVIII)
They’re breaking up that old Super Bowl gang in the Mile High City.
The Denver Broncos ranked 19th in the NFL in total defense (27th versus the pass) and gave up 399 points in 2013. You think there were going to be changes?
General manager John Elway has already added defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward to the lineup. But is he getting ready to add a new middle linebacker as well?
Wesley Woodyard began the season as a starter but would give way to well-traveled Paris Lenon. The former is now a member of the Tennessee Titans, and Lenon remains unsigned.
Pat Angerer is a former second-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts who has had issues staying healthy in recent seasons, which is why he’s still on the open market. But he could be a nice addition for a Denver team that is looking to make amends for a dismal 2013 defensive showing.
Seattle Seahawks: FB Le’Ron McClain (Released by Chargers)
2013: 13-3 (Won Super Bowl XLVIII)
You don’t get much more consistent than Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
In just two seasons, he has helped guide the franchise to a pair of playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title. His ability to play the position is perfectly suited for a club that stresses the run and plays incredible defense.
In his first NFL season in 2012, the former third-round pick threw 26 touchdown passes and committed 10 interceptions. This past season, he once again threw for 26 scores and gave up the football just nine times.
In 2013, the Seahawks were ranked fourth in the league in rushing. In 2012, only two teams in the NFL gained more yards on the ground than Pete Carroll’s club.
Veteran fullback Le’Ron McClain, a salary-cap casualty of the San Diego Chargers this offseason, could add a little oomph to Seattle’s ground attack. As shown via Pro Football Focus, the well-traveled blocker graded out well when called upon in 2013.