5 bargain free-agent signings that will make an immediate impact
While the NFL’s marquee names generally steal the spotlight once free agency begins, PFF often looks back to the top under-the-radar signings that go on to create big impacts for their new teams.
In 2015, Jabaal Sheard was arguably the best free-agent signing in regards to the contract and production on the field. The then 25-year-old pass-rusher (formerly of the Cleveland Browns) signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the New England Patriots. Sheard, who went on to have the best season of his young career, posted 8.0 sacks and graded out as PFF’s fourth-ranked 4-3 DE in the league.
With that in mind, let’s take a look ahead at five players that could make substantial impacts in their first year with a new organization.
1. Nick Fairley, DT, New Orleans Saints
Nick Fairley has had the luxury of playing beside two of the most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL since being drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft. His first four years in Detroit were alongside Ndamukong Suh, while his 2015 campaign was spent in St. Louis with Dwight Stephenson Award-winner Aaron Donald.
Consistently a productive player, it’s fair to wonder why Fairley struggles to land a multi-year contract in the prime of his career (he also signed a one-year deal in 2015).
As a Ram in 2015, Fairley recorded the 11th-highest overall grade among DT/NTs. Despite this, he found his market rather dry and settled for a one-year, $3 million contract in New Orleans.
The Saints ranked 31st in the league in run defense in 2015 (129.8 yards per game allowed), and last in yards per carry allowed (4.9). Fairley seems like an ideal fit in the middle of a defense that has been gashed time and time again in a division with three other teams who run the ball well.
2. Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Chicago Bears
Replacing franchise players is never easy—something the Chicago Bears found out when Brian Urlacher retried following the 2012 season (which was also the last productive year for LB Lance Briggs, as well). After struggling to find solid replacements for a few seasons, the Bears were able to lure away Pernell McPhee from the Baltimore Ravens as a free agent in 2015, who was PFF’s fourth-highest-graded 3-4 OLB.
While the Bears’ defense improved, it still ranked 20th in the league in rushing yards allowed (120.9 per game) and was in need of an inside linebacker in 2016. For three-years and $12 million, Chicago landed former Indianapolis Colt ILB Jerrell Freeman, who was PFF’s fourth-highest-graded ILB in 2015. Also consider the signing of ILB Danny Trevathan (four-year, $24.5 million), and the Bears suddenly appear loaded at the linebacker position once again.
3. Ladarius Green, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers
For 11 years, Heath Miller was “Mr. Reliable” for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Miller announced his retirement shortly after the Super Bowl in February, the Steelers didn’t waste any time finding his replacement.
Ladarius Green (formerly of the San Diego Chargers) signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Steelers not long after free agency began in March. Only 25, Green has been lurking in the shadow of Antonio Gates in San Diego since entering the league as a fourth-round pick in 2012. He has shown the ability to step up in Gates’ absence (whether suspension or injury), as evidenced by his highest-graded game of 2015—Week 4 versus the Cleveland Browns (a contest Gates was suspended for).
With the news that standout WR Martavis Bryant will be suspended for the 2016 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, the signing of Green looks even more important now. Bryant averaged just under 70 yards per game in the regular season (11 games) and exploded for nine receptions and 154 yards in the AFC Divisional Game at Denver in the playoffs. In such a high-flying offense that will be without a dangerous threat on the outside for the whole 2016 campaign, expect Green to be busy in the middle of the field and in red-zone situations all year.
4. Rishard Matthews, WR, Tennessee Titans
Much like his former teammate, running back Lamar Miller (now a Houston Texan), Rishard Matthews was a very skilled, but highly-underutilized, member of the Miami Dolphins’ roster during his four years with the team.
Despite showing the ability to be a starting-caliber wide receiver in limited opportunities from 2012–2014, Matthews was never truly given the chance to show what he can do on a full-time basis. That all changed in 2015—more by necessity than anything else—when first round pick DeVante Parker had a setback with a lingering foot injury that prevented him from starting until Week 13.
Before going down with a rib injury in Week 12 that kept him out the final five games of the season, Matthews posted an impressive 43 receptions, 662 receiving yards, and four touchdowns, finishing the season as PFF’s 35th-ranked WR. The Tennessee Titans rewarded his efforts with a three-year, $15 million contract in free agency.
Matthews appears to be a great fit with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is coming off an impressive rookie season of his own. As a wide receiver that does most of his damage over the middle of the field (71 percent of his total yards came from receptions in the middle of the field in 2015), Matthews should be a prime target for Mariota, who also thrives in this area (59 percent of his total passing yards came in the middle field, as well as 14-of-19 touchdown passes).
5. Karlos Dansby, ILB, Cincinnati Bengals
With the news that the league upheld Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s three-game suspension for an unnecessary hit to Steelers WR Antonio Brown in the playoffs, the Bengals suddenly found themselves scrambling for depth at the position.
Luckily for them, the Cleveland Browns cut veteran ILB Karlos Dansby this offseason, and the Bengals were able to sign him to a team-friendly, one-year, $1 million contract. Aside from filling in for Burfict to open the season, Dansby figures to provide—at the very least—quality depth at the position in 2016.
Although the 34-year-old is no longer the run defender he once was (ranked 66th among LBs in that facet of play last season), he is still an elite coverage linebacker, where he was PFF’s sixth-highest-graded LB in coverage.