6 best free-agent bargains
With free agency kicking off next week, we took a look at the top bargain players set to hit the open market.
1. Isa Abdul-Quddus, SS (Lions)
Nothing has come easy for Isa Abdul-Quddus in his NFL career. After entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2011, Abdul-Quddus developed into a serviceable backup for the New Orleans Saints in his first couple of years. It wasn’t until 2015 that he was afforded an extended run as a starter in Detroit, and he responded with an impressive sequence of performances. Abdul-Quddus bounced back from a terrible game against the Bears in Week 6 by finishing with a +9.4 cumulative grade in his last eight games. Ultimately, he finished the year with an 80.1 grade, ranking 19th amongst safeties. Abdul-Quddus was particularly effective against the run, recording a stop percentage in the top 20, as well as positive grades in coverage and as a pass-rusher. Considering his experience both at centerfield and in the box, Abdul-Quddus is one of the more intriguing options in this stacked crop of free agents safeties.
2. Joe Barksdale, RT (Chargers)
Barksdale may never be able to shake the “bust” tag after becoming synonymous with Al Davis’ athleticism obsession, especially after he lasted just one year with the Raiders, but he has more talent than your typical journeyman. Barksdale also has the unfortunate habit of joining teams with terrible supporting casts. The Chargers’ offensive line was dreadful in 2015, but Barksdale was not to blame. He finished the year with a 79.3 overall grade, ranking 17th in pass protection amongst NFL tackles. Barksdale allowed only 12 combined QB knockdowns (six sacks and six hits), but will aim to reduce the further 34 pressures he allowed. Still, 46 combined pressures allowed on 685 dropbacks is solid production. If Barksdale can iron out the inconsistencies in his game (he too frequently recorded back-to-back poor grades), he could prove to be an outstanding free agency addition. Coming from a division in which he faces Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Justin Houston twice a year, Barksdale’s production is even more impressive.
3. Akiem Hicks, DT (Patriots)
Despite the Patriots’ capacity for generating production from limited talent on the defensive line, Akiem Hicks’ year stands out as genuinely impressive. A 76.3 overall grade is not particularly compelling, but his 14th spot in our defensive tackle rankings illustrates Hicks’ production in limited reps in New England. He proved to be an absolute bargain after being traded for TE Michael Hoomanawanui early in the season. It took five consecutive negatively-graded games for the light to go on, but Hicks’ impressive form saw him record a +15.9 cumulative grade in his next 13 outings. Hicks amassed 18 combined pressures on just 167 rushes, giving him a pass-rush productivity of 8.5 (seventh-best among DTs/NTs). Far from selling out to get to the quarterback, Hicks added 11 stops in 116 snaps, snagging a top-20 ranking in run-stop percentage. There are a number of explosive interior defensive lineman set to hit free agency, but Hicks provides the best value for money.
4. Ladarius Green, TE (Chargers)
Green has been forced to play second fiddle to legendary artist Antonio Gates for the entirety of his four years in the NFL. The enduring nature of Gates’ Hall of Fame career has forced Green to wait patiently for his opportunity. His patience may well be running thin, with Gates showing little desire to retire. Green’s underperformance—considering his boost in snaps in 2015—is somewhat concerning. He caught just 37 passes for 429 yards and four TDs, but his four-year output is pretty impressive. Career statistics of 82 catches (from 117 targets) for 1,128 yards, eight scores, and nine broken tackles offer hope that Green can be an impact starter, rather than just a useful role player. His relatively quiet 2015 season might also boost his value on the open market.
5. Tim Hightower, HB (Saints)
It’s rare for an NFL player to return to the league in better shape than when he left, but Hightower appears to be the exception. The former Arizona and Washington running back flashed more talent in a handful of games in 2015 than he had in his previous four years in the NFL (2008-2011). Despite receiving just 197 snaps, Hightower finished as our 13th overall running back with an 82.4 grade. He carried 96 times for 375 yards, four touchdowns, and 13 broken tackles, showing surprising burst, vision, and elusiveness. Throw in a positive receiving grade—a result of 12 receptions for 129 yards—and Hightower’s redemption appears complete. He’ll need to prove it over a longer period of playing time, but early signs suggest Hightower’s comeback has a strong chance of being successful.
6. Zach Brown, LB (Titans)
A season lost to injured reserve in 2014 has curtailed Brown’s career somewhat, but he remains a solid option at linebacker. He’s a prototypical weak-side 4-3 outside linebacker, proving most effective in space. While Brown struggles a little to shed blocks, he’s a reliable tackler and has the quickness and athleticism to stick with backs and tight ends in coverage. In 2015, he allowed just 22 receptions on 31 targets for 198 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a pass defense. The 61.0 QB rating he allowed was bettered by only Josh Mauga and Luke Kuechly. Couple Brown’s contributions in the passing game with a top-10 tackle efficiency—he missed just 5-of-77 attempted takedowns last year—and his appeal to NFL evaluators should be obvious. The value of reliable linebackers with coverage skills has never been higher, making Brown an excellent free-agency investment.