The NFL's Best Under-the-Radar Free Agents in 2018
The best NFL free-agent signings aren't always the ones you expect.
Look at the Philadelphia Eagles, who just finished their first Super Bowl parade. Yes, they paid Alshon Jeffery a boatload of money to become their No. 1 receiver, but it was the less-heralded acquisitions that really put the Eagles over the top.
Stealing running back LeGarrette Blount and edge-rusher Chris Long from the New England Patriots; signing receiver Torrey Smith and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. These signings, though they didn't make much of a dent in the news cycle, were crucial for the NFL champs.
Every year, teams look to make their biggest possible splash in free agency based on their positional needs and salary-cap space, hoping to acquire that generational player who will turn things around. But they'll derive most of their success by targeting players who best fit their schemes, and by completing contracts for players who provide a higher hit rate based on specific athletic potential.
It will be no different when the 2018 league year begins on March 14, as teams can openly negotiate with unrestricted free agents and make offers for restricted free agents under contract.
These under-the-radar names may not excite fans right off the bat, but they could make a big difference once the regular season gets underway.
QB Josh McCown
Imagine this: You're Josh McCown, a 38-year-old journeyman quarterback at the start of the 2017 season. You play for the New York Jets, a team that has undergone two salary dumps in the past few years. As a result, your team is regarded as the one with the least amount of talent in the NFL, and more than one prognosticator has picked your team to not win a single game.
Yet McCown, who last started 13 games in a season in 2004, did just that in 2017, leading the Jets to a 5-8 record before suffering a broken left hand in December. He set career highs in completions (267), passing yards (2,926), completion percentage (67.3) and passing touchdowns (18), and he made stars of receivers Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse.
McCown is more mobile than you might think (five rushing touchdowns in 2017), and his arm is underrated. The team that signs him isn't expecting a later-career Brett Favre, but if a franchise has a young quarterback with a need for veteran mentorship—and perhaps a few high-quality spot starts in 2018—it could do a lot worse.
QB Case Keenum
Case Keenum started his NFL career as a backup for the Houston Texans before joining the Rams in 2015 under Jeff Fisher, a subpar situation from which several quarterbacks such as Jared Goff and Nick Foles have moved on to greater things.
Keenum became the most unexpected of the three to have a positive starting turn, when a Vikings team dealing with the oft-injured Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater needed a reliable veteran.
He had by far his best season under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes but was no mere game manager: He often peppered opposing secondaries with accurate deep passes to receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, as he did in Week 3 against the Buccaneers.
Keenum will need the right system with defined openings and receivers who can quickly beat coverage. He was outstanding in Minnesota's offense and may re-sign with the Vikings. It remains to be seen whether he's become a scheme-transcendent quarterback, or if he was the right guy in the right place in 2017.
But he could be the best bridge quarterback on the market. As the Philadelphia Eagles just proved behind Foles, you can win a Super Bowl with a bridge quarterback.
RB Dion Lewis
The New England Patriots have preferred a running back by committee over the last few seasons. Dion Lewis, however, was able to break out of the pack late in the 2017 season. He rushed for 398 yards in December, and in the postseason added 135 yards and 16 catches for 111 yards. Lewis is a versatile player: He can run inside and outside zone, find holes in power-blocking concepts, run a credible route tree and block well.
Lewis doesn't look like a power back at 5'8", 195 pounds, and his size may limit his potential as a feature back on another team, but don't be fooled—pound-for-pound, he's one of the toughest inside runners in the NFL, and he's expert at breaking contact for additional gains.
Lewis placed fourth in NFL1000's running back rankings, and in the right system, he can dispel doubts about his ability to handle a heavier workload.
WR Paul Richardson
Paul Richardson's injury history is the only limiting factor in his status among the most coveted free-agent receivers. The Colorado alum has started just 19 out of a possible 64 games in his career. When he is on the field, however, he has proven to be one of the league's most explosive deep threats.
2017 marked the first season in which Richardson was able to play in 16 games, and he started 13 of those, setting career highs in catches (44), receiving yards (703) and touchdowns (six). Richardson isn't just a straight-line speedster, either—he has an innate sense of how to use his body to sink in and out of cuts on option routes, and his overall route-running has improved as he's been able to get on the field more.
Richardson ranked 30th in NFL1000's outside receiver rankings for the 2017 season, but he has top-10 potential.
His injury history may have teams balking, but it's just as likely that his 2017 game tape will have other teams looking to write Richardson a very large series of checks.
C Matt Paradis
Matt Paradis started every game for the Denver Broncos over the last three seasons. The 2014 sixth-round pick out of Boise State continued a long tradition of offensive linemen who may not have been highly thought of but fit perfectly into the Broncos' zone running game.
Most impressively, Paradis had his best season in 2017, placing sixth in NFL1000's center rankings despite a quarterback situation that was the NFL's worst. Not only did he improve his root strength as a run-blocker at the line of scrimmage and to the second level, but he also kept the passing game together and allowed few pressures on his own. He did so while his quarterbacks meandered around and out of the pocket, putting themselves in harm's way more often than they should have.
Paradis is a restricted free agent, but anyone with a center vacancy should consider him.
OG Andrew Norwell
Only the Pittsburgh Steelers' David DeCastro finished above Andrew Norwell in NFL1000's 2017 offensive guard rankings. When you watch Norwell play, it's easy to see why he's so highly-regarded—and why he's about to become one of the NFL's highest-paid guards.
The Carolina Panthers prefer a power run game, and Norwell can handle that. Though he's tall for the position at 6'6", he comes off the snap with good leverage to drive-block defenders out of the way. But his agility and versatility make him special—and why he could be even better on a pass-heavy team.
Norwell is exceptional in pass protection and rarely falls for stunts and other line games. He's also quick to hand off his defender in zone-blocking schemes and is as fast on the move as any guard. Any team with a serious aerial attack and a need for a top-level left guard should back up a Brinks truck to Norwell's house.
DE Dion Jordan
Dion Jordan's rough NFL journey is a cautionary tale, but the comeback portion of the story doesn't get enough of the spotlight—perhaps because it just began. The Miami Dolphins selected him third overall in the 2013 draft, but a lack of positional dominance and top-flight technique curtailed his tantalizing athleticism.
In addition, off-field issues caused him to miss the 2015 and 2016 seasons and limited him to one combined start in 2013 and 2014. That included a yearlong suspension for violations of the league's substance-abuse policies.
The Seahawks signed him before the 2017 season and activated him from the reserve/injury list in November. He then quietly posted a small but impressive sample of his true potential. Per Pro Football Focus, Jordan amassed four sacks, three knockdowns and five hurries in just 71 pass-rush snaps over five games.
It's tricky to infer what Jordan will do over a full season, but as a rush end in a four-man front, he looked quite good. He brought solid play strength, which translated to a fine bull rush, and he has the agility to get around tackles and crash the pocket. Moreover, he's quick enough to make run stops behind the line of scrimmage.
He's worth a short-term contract, and if his game holds up, he could be one of the bigger 2018 free-agent bargains.
DE Alex Okafor
Alex Okafor spent his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and put up above-average sack numbers as a hybrid linebacker in multifront defenses. The New Orleans Saints signed him to a one-year, $935,000 contract in 2017 and put him in coordinator Dennis Allen's four-man front. Until he tore his Achilles tendon in late November, Okafor seemed determined to prove he could be one of the league's better bargains. He put up 4.5 sacks in 10 games and was strong run-stopper for someone with a 6'4", 261-pound frame.
Because he's played in multiple systems, every team in need of additional pass pressure should covet him—which is all of them. However, his best role is as a pure edge-rusher in a four-man front as opposed to a pass-rushing linebacker further outside the formation.
He has strong hands to stack and shed blockers against the run and an excellent burst off the snap as a pass-rusher. He also has the agility to sneak past a tackle to the pocket or to draw his opponent outside and fool him with a foot fake. Assuming he's healthy heading into the 2018 season, Okafor can be a difference-maker.
DT Sheldon Richardson
Sheldon Richardson was one of the NFL's strongest interior defenders when with the New York Jets, earning 2013 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a 2014 Pro Bowl berth. However, off-field issues and the Jets' inexplicable decision to make him more of a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid in 2016 negated his speed and strength.
When the Seahawks traded for him last September 1, head coach Pete Carroll knew exactly which role he wanted Richardson in: the disruptive, run-stopping 3-technique tackle in a four-man front. The defender then showed the attributes that should make him a hot commodity on the open market—at least to teams who understand his positional value.
As a pure pass-rusher, Richardson has an estimable bull rush and surprising speed to and through the pocket for his 6'3", 295-pound frame. He has violent hands when dealing with blockers and will shed quickly to get to the quarterback. As a run defender, he'll move through gaps to get his man, and his open-field speed is something to behold.
One of the NFL's most talented tackles, Richardson merely needs the right position to make everything work. Seattle gave him that chance and put him back on the map.
LB Avery Williamson
The Tennessee Titans' fifth-round pick out of Kentucky in 2014, Avery Williamson came into his own when Dick LeBeau became the Titans' defensive coordinator in 2016. LeBeau, who's been as creative with his fronts and blitzes as any coach in NFL history, put Williamson in inside blitz packages with fellow linebacker Brian Orakpo to great effect. Williamson had just three sacks in 2017, but you have to watch the tape to see the pressure he applied.
Williamson is more than just a blitz-package player. He has exceptional vision from the inside and outside linebacker positions and the speed to move through gaps quickly and shut down the run. In coverage, he's agile enough to play Tampa 2 roles in which he drops back to safety depth, where his field intelligence shows.
He knows how to stick with a route and is rarely fooled. Any team in need of an inside linebacker who can fill multiple roles behind multiple fronts would do well to sign him.
LB Demario Davis
Demario Davis had his best season in 2017. The six-year veteran set career highs in sacks with five and tackles with 97. He's generates pressure from the line of scrimmage and from linebacker depth by reading open lanes and crashing through at high speeds. He's also quick enough in short spaces to drop into coverage and reverse course to get to the quarterback.
You can put him on the edge in passing downs, and he'll do a credible job of pushing back an offensive tackle and creating pressure.
A strong run-stopper as well, Davis was the Jets' defensive shot-caller last season. He has a stellar ability to make pre-snap reads and quickly drop into short and intermediate coverage. He's a versatile linebacker who does nearly everything at a plus level.
CB Patrick Robinson
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles benefited enormously from moving two outside players to the slot: receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Patrick Robinson. The latter had been an outside man through his first seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts.
Robinson is known for his pick-six in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, but he played well all year, grabbing four regular-season interceptions and becoming a crucial part of Philly's nickel and dime packages.
And though he's a better slot corner than an outside man, that categorization doesn't have the same stigma it used to. In an NFL where sub-packages have become base defenses, it's just as important to have a great slot defender as it is to be tight on the outside.
We placed him fourth in our NFL1000 slot-defender rankings thanks to his ability to handle quick angular routes over the middle as well as take faster receivers up the seam. At 30, Robinson's prime may be just beginning.
CB E.J. Gaines
Part of the trade that sent Sammy Watkins from Buffalo to Los Angeles, E.J. Gaines excelled when healthy—thought that's a major caveat. He struggled to play through shoulder, hamstring and knee injuries most of 2017 and still ranked 34th in NFL1000's outside cornerback rankings. At 5'10", 185 pounds, he has issues matching up with bigger receivers, and smaller, faster receivers can upend his coverage with quick foot movement.
But as an off-coverage and bail-coverage cornerback, Gaines does a more than credible job. He might be even more of an asset as a slot cornerback in the right defense. If he stays healthy, his ceiling is still ahead of him.
FS Lamarcus Joyner
Lamarcus Joyner switched to safety for the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 after three seasons as a corner. He produced excellent tape as both a deep safety and slot defender, placing fifth in NFL1000's strong safety rankings. Joyner hadn't had an interception before 2017 but grabbed three for 104 yards and a touchdown to go along with nine passes defensed.
Joyner has the field speed and range to cover deep receivers to either side at the center field position, and he adds great versatility with his ability to align with receivers in the slot. He sets up deeper than most slot defenders—evoking Tyrann Mathieu's positioning—but he's also learned the intricacies of playing deep safety.
That alone could make him a highly sought-after free agent, as a true deep-coverage safety is one of the modern NFL's most important, rarely filled positions.
FS Corey Graham
Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz asks his safeties to do many things, especially when they go to their frequent dime formations. In these instances, safeties may have to play deep on one play and then come down and read the run on the next.
The Eagles' dime defense is so effective in part because every defender plays assignment-correct football at a high level.
Corey Graham, now an 11-year veteran, proved to be a natural for his new surroundings after signing with the Eagles in 2017. He can play the deep half in Cover 2 and quarters coverage, can play the slot as a pass defender or force defender against the run, and is excellent at crashing gaps at the line of scrimmage.
He'll be a good short-term utility player for a team that needs a smart, rangy pass defender in the short to intermediate areas.
SS Tyvon Branch
Throughout his seven years with the Oakland Raiders, Tyvon Branch was a safety in name only. Though he occasionally covered short passes, he was more of a run-stopping linebacker. Deep coverage wasn't his focus, and it showed. After spending 2015 with the Kansas City Chiefs, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals, who expanded his responsibilities.
The difference was startling in 2017. All of a sudden, Branch was showing a new, expert ability to trail deep receivers on seam and post routes. Though he didn't have an interception, he broke up more than his share of passes.
He suffered a torn ACL in Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks, which was a shame, because in that same game, he had what was his season's best play. Branch caught up to speed receiver Tyler Lockett on an underthrown pass from Russell Wilson (pictured above) and batted the ball away in front of the end zone.
Assuming he comes back healthy, Branch will be an asset to any secondary as a tough, smart player whose late-career skill set has unexpectedly widened.