5 bargain free-agent signings that will make an immediate impact

Ryan M. Smith takes a closer look at five of the most underrated signings of the 2016 NFL free agency.

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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.

Ryan Smith has been with PFF since 2015 and is a media correspondent for the Miami Dolphins and Iowa Hawkeyes.

  • Rob Fagiano-Gleason

    Pace gets a solid A+ for this signing and overall an A. What a fkn relief to have some legitimacy out of the GM position. All thanks to Ted Phillips for NOT doing his job!

    • SkolBro

      lol, okay… Freeman is 30 something and had “a” good year (coincidentally a contract year), Danny is a role player that looked like an all star with the talent he was surrounded with, good luck w/o Von getting constant pressure…

      Spielman had the best grade in the off season, SKOL!

      • Dr

        Jerrell freeman has been a good linebacker for a while. Before contract. Danny trevathan had a great year before Denver had a defense lol. Back when they were known for their offense. You’re just scared Vikings fan

      • Rob Fagiano-Gleason

        Minimize it all you want, I dont give a shit. Fact is they were some of the better ILB in the league and we arent payin a lot at all!? You barely won last year, with the crap we had!? Congratulations!?

        • Mike Gray

          Go getting Rob!

      • Rob Fagiano-Gleason

        Plus Dannys FAR from a role player. He has outstading instincts and coverage skills. He blanketed Gronk.
        Thanks for coming over and lettin us know your thoughts!

      • Craig W.

        I love us trying to revamp the O-line, but we signed a lot of good but not great starters. We’ll see if it works out. If it does, the division might be ours for a few years. If not, we might be at the same place next year looking for upgrades.

        • NAJ

          With Kalil, Loadholt, Smith, Berger and Harris all becoming free agents the end of this year, there will be plenty of changes for sure

      • Jones

        Haha Vikings fan trying to troll, I love bridewaters 14:9 Td/int ratio, just mad you got shit online in fa

        • Cant FixStupid

          I assume you’re a Bears fan right?? Us Packers, Lions and Lions fans may not always get along, but I think it’s safe to assume we all realize some of these Vikings fans are the absolute worst and most delusional of any fan base by far, right?? These mofos act like they’re the NE Patriots and have won 4 Super Bowl in the last 20 years and are favorites every year, sh!ts ridiculous!!

      • RRDRRD

        Freeman is not thirty, he had a very typical year for him last year but statistically only his third best, and the combination of McPhee, Houston, Young, Goldman, and Jenkins got as many sacks per snap as Miller, Ware, Barret, Wolfe, and Jackson. Freeman will do just fine as a Bear, troll
        BTW – NFL>com only gives you a B- on this offseason.

        • Mike Gray

          Good job.

      • James King

        Lol you imply one player only did well because of everyone around him, then site one player specifically being responsible what a contradiction. I guarantee Fangio is chomping at the bit to use these LBs. Bears did fantastic considering their circumstances last year and have gotten far better in free agency.

    • RRDRRD

      Freeman is not thirty, he had a very typical year for him last year but statistically only his third best, and the combination of McPhee, Houston, Young, Goldman, and Jenkins got as many sacks per snap as Miller, Ware, Barret, Wolfe, and Jackson. Freeman will do just fine as a Bear, troll

  • Adam Fogarty

    I don’t think Jerrell freeman is that good I know Chicago fans are sensitive it’s ok calm down, he had one good year in his career and in a contract year at that, how many times will we see this before teams get smart, we’re supposed to believe that at 29 years old he’s just coming into his prime c’mom let’s get real, Indianapolis had more than enough money to lock him up and they didn’t and with all the holes on that defense nobody is going to question why

    • Any sane person

      Because Ryan Grigson is a garbage GM

      • Adam Fogarty

        Or they’re not getting fooled by the contract year bs that gets at least 1 team every year

    • RRDRRD

      His contract year is really only his third best year statistically – http://www.rotoworld.com/player/nfl/7472/jerrell-freeman
      but its all been in a narrow range. Really don’t know what you are talking about here.

      • Adam Fogarty

        I base my findings off of pro football focus who doesn’t just base rankings off of stats and this past year was his best by far, pro football focus is a more trusted site

        • RRDRRD

          Far more trusted than actual NFL stats on tackles, sacks, passes defensed, etc – not hardly.
          PFF has its uses but it is only one of a dozen or so alternative stat sites. It consists of a bunch of guys with no football credentials turning their subjective viewpoints into what looks like objective statistics but still depend on what an individual “thinks” a player should or should not have done on a given play. Is it useless? NO! It provides some valuable stuff – but still less than half the NFL uses PFF preferring to rely on other sources. Don’t try to claim it is something that it is not.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Don’t look too far in on number of tackles there guy because that’s all about repetition if you throw a guy out there for 200 running plays up the middle and the other his guys suck then yea he’s gonna rack up a lot of tackles just like a running back if you give the guy 30+ carries a game obviously his yards are gonna be bloated the better running backs turn 20 carries into 100+ not 30, don’t base your whole argument on stats

          • RRDRRD

            Don’t base your whole argument on…. nothing? Made up stuff? Nonsense?
            For the four years Freeman played for the Colts they have fluctuated as a defense but have been well within the normal range of the bell curve in yards and points allowed and especially in rushing attempts per game. He gets his tackles despite playing with another great ILB and he is one of only three linebackers with at least 4 interceptions and 8 forced fumbles in that time.
            Even your source (PFF) rates him the 3rd best linebacker (Trevathan was #1), the 5th best player, and in the top five deals of this year’s free agency period. Face it, you made a fool of yourself with this line of thought and you have nothing to back it up.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Hold on he played next to a great linebacker who is that?

          • RRDRRD

            You are becoming too foolish to respond to but I suppose in a world where stats don’t matter, a ten season career averaging over 100 tackles per season is not great.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Funny how you won’t tell me who this great linebacker is

          • RRDRRD

            Funny how you claim to know about football but cannot figure it out.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Exactly why I’m so confused their middle linebacker position has been so bad for so long

          • RRDRRD

            Only in your mind. The data is there – read something useful before you post again.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Are you referring to dqwell Jackson as great lol omg he’s alright sure but he is far from great

          • RRDRRD


          • Adam Fogarty

            I can’t believe you actually think he is a great player I actually thought you had some legit knowledge apparently not, conversation over

          • RRDRRD

            Apparently it went over your head; you were previously dismissed.

          • Adam Fogarty

            Please learn some football next time you address me I don’t have time for ignorance, typical Chicago fan

          • RRDRRD


    • James King

      Did you even look at the numbers? If anything he was better in 12 and 13 as an impact player. 15 was simply better against the run and an overall good player. Nobody said he was the best. Its about value there aren’t many talented players at his position you could get for that price.

  • 100%

    Kind of misleading having Grimes up there but not in the article

    • John

      Well that’s rishard Matthews so…

  • http://pickinbolts.blogspot.com/ SoCalPete

    I LOVED Green’s athleticism when the Chargers drafted him but drops and poor route-running (not being buried behind Gates) limited his production. A starting role may motivate him but I have my doubts. I think the Steelers overspent…