The first two days of free agency have gone with a flash, with billions of dollars worth of contracts being spent right, left and center as teams try to position themselves for a run at the Lombardi Trophy this season. We’ve already seen big money deals, some more deserving that others, but one of the things which has held true throughout the years is that the real winners in free agency are often the teams who make smart, low budget signings to add to their rosters.
So with the likes of Darrelle Revis and DeMarcus Ware off the market after just a couple of hours, we’re going to take a look at 10 players who could potentially provide their eventual employers with something of a steal on the field in 2014.
James Starks, HB
2013 Grade: +5.6
Summary: Arriving in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick out of Buffalo in 2010, Starks burst onto the scene with a performance in the 2010 Wild Card Round against the Philadelphia Eagles that saw him force four missed tackles and account for 132 yards of offense. He wound up playing a big role for the Green Bay Packers that postseason and showed his shiftiness with an Elusive Rating on 33.1 en route to the Super Bowl. Fast forward to the end of the 2013 season and what you have is a back who hasn’t produced on a full starters load but has shown himself to be tough to tackle with an elusiveness that should make some team very happy for bringing him on board this offseason.
Good Fit: Cleveland, Arizona
Jerricho Cotchery, WR
2013 Grade: +10.3
Summary: Perennially undervalued, and now on the wrong side of 30, Cotchery is unlikely to command too hefty an asking price this offseason. That’s fantastic news for whoever picks him up, because his career body of work suggests he should have earned a lot more throughout his career. Sporting a pair of reasonably safe hands, Cotchery dropped four of the 50 catchable passes thrown his way in 2013, good for a Drop Rate of 8.00 which was 44th amongst the 94 receivers with enough qualifying snaps. More importantly, he’s a valuable red zone threat, particularly from the slot where he pulled in six of his 10 touchdowns in 2013.
Good Fit: Pittsburgh, Carolina, Denver
Shelley Smith, OG
2013 Grade: +7.0
Summary: After barely playing in his first two seasons in the league, Smith has played 731 in the past two years for the St. Louis Rams, not getting the chance to start full time, but coming onto the field as an injury replacement. 2013 was our best look at him to date and, while you do have concerns about his pass blocking, where he graded below -2.0 in each of his two starts, he is a very good run blocker. So good in fact, that just three guards had a run blocking grade higher than Smith’s +12.3 last season.
Good Fit: Kansas City, New England, Miami
Usama Young , S
2013 Grade: +2.5
Summary: We were a bit baffled by the Oakland Raiders’ decision to play Brandian Ross over Young in 2013 but that’s only going to serve to make him an even bigger bargain this offseason. Despite playing just 208 snaps last season, Young still managed to catch our attention and if you look back over his career, it’s easy to see that he’s at least a very capable starter in the NFL. He took over as a starter for the Cleveland Browns in Week 10 of the 2011 season and proceeding to earn a +13.9 between 2011 and 2012. Indeed, he’s just a year removed from finishing the season as our 12th highest graded safety and, in a market that is quickly drying up, is arguably the best free safety available along with Chris Clemons.
Good Fit: Baltimore, Buffalo, Green Bay
Robert Ayers, DE
2013 Grade: +8.1
Summary: Ayers is an interesting one, in that his 2013 production and the fact that he’s still under 30 should result in him being a hotter commodity than he appears to be. However the problem for Ayers is that, until midway through the 2012 season, he had been largely inconsistent for the Denver Broncos. Better against the run than he is as a pass rusher, Ayers has come on considerably as a player recently, but is likely a candidate for a one year “prove it” deal to show that he can maintain that form.
Good Fit: Dallas
Kavell Conner, LB
2013 Grade: +3.3
Summary: Another player who had been much maligned in the past, Conner is one of the few linebackers available who could be a solid candidate to be a three down linebacker for whichever team brings him on board in 2014. His run defense is definitely better than his play in coverage, but that has improved considerably since a treacherous 2011 campaign that saw him grade out as the worst linebacker in coverage in the league. It’s improved to the point that the Colts were comfortable having him as their nickel linebacker at times during the 2013 season which, combined with his stellar run defense, would make him a smart pickup for a lot of teams.
Good Fit: San Diego
Pat Sims, DT
2013 Grade: +14.7
Summary: After four uneventful seasons in Cincinnati that saw the 2008 third round draft pick improve as a player slowly but surely, Sims produced his best season on a one-year deal with the Raiders in 2013. The problem with Sims has always been consistency, with not enough substance to back up the splash plays, but over the second half of 2013 he was much better, with just two games with a small negative grade. In fact, over the final nine games of the season he had a grade of +19.1, excelling against the run and as a pass rusher and, based on the second half of last season is one of the better players left in an interior defensive line market that is drying up fast.
Good Fit: Chicago
Alex Carrington, DL
2013 Grade: N/A
Summary: Carrington is an interesting player in this year’s free agent market in that he has shown some serious potential in the past but missed almost all of 2013 through injury. He seemed to get lost as the Buffalo Bills switched defensive schemes in the past but looked really impressive as an interior pass rusher in 2012, racking up a +9.6 pass rushing grade on limited duty that was bettered by only 11 other defensive tackles. His best fit is likely as an interior pass rusher in passing situations and he makes a lot of sense for any team trying to emulate that aspect of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks defense.
Good Fit: Jacksonville, Cleveland, St. Louis
Scott Chandler, TE
2013 Grade: -3.6
Summary: Another former Bills player who fills us with intrigue, Chandler had his struggles in 2013 as he rebounded from an ACL injury late in the 2012 season. Despite that he has managed to rack up 1,226 yards as a receiver in the past two seasons, leading the Bills in receiving yards in 2013. He’s not a fantastic run blocker, though the tight ends who are seem to be few and far between these days anyway, but isn’t a liability either, with a couple of poor performances bringing down his run blocking grade considerably as opposed to him being consistently poor.
Good Fit: Detroit, Green Bay, Buffalo
Drayton Florence, CB
2013 Grade: +7.2
Summary: At 33 years old, Florence is going to struggle to find teams that want to commit to a long term, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good fit for a team on a one year deal again in 2014. He played 600 snaps for the Carolina Panthers in 2013 and gave a decent account of himself, though he did have two big mistakes in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, committing a defensive pass interference penalty and missing a tackle on Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown run. Still, in a league that becomes more about passing by the day, good corners are a must, and Florence is that.
Good Fit: Carolina
Follow Gordon on Twitter.