Top 10 under-the-radar players about to hit free agency

Analyst John Kosko runs down the list of the best NFL free-agents-to-be currently flying under the radar.

| 2 months ago
Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Top 10 under-the-radar players about to hit free agency


With the offseason now here for 28 NFL teams, the start of the new year will be here before you know it, and with it, the opening of free agency. March 9 is the big day, but a lot can happen between now and then—including franchise tags, re-signings, and cuts. Here is an early look at the best players about to hit the open market that will likely fly under the radar.

1. Ricky Wagner, RT, Ravens (84.5 overall grade in 2016)

Right tackles continue to be overlooked in the NFL, and will therefore fly under the radar. Ricky Wagner fits this mold, as he’s been a solid RT for the Ravens over the past three seasons. Seemingly an outlier year in 2015, Wagner graded as a top right tackle in the NFL in 2014 and 2016. He started the year off shaky, surrendering three sacks and four hits through six games, but didn’t allow a single sack or hit on the QB in his final eight games (he missed two games). Wagner’s knock is his run blocking, as that facet of his game is below-average, but in a passing league, his pass-blocking ability should be coveted.

2. J.C. Tretter, C, Packers (84.1)

Tretter is currently slated to hit free agency, but expect GM Ted Thompson to try to re-sign the fourth-year career backup. Tretter has been a valuable piece for a Packers’ team that has seen injuries hit the O-line in recent years. Tretter has played every position on the line for Green Bay, but when he stepped into C Corey Linsley’s shoes, there was no drop-off in play. With Green Bay starting RG T.J. Lang also set to hit free agency (at 30 years old), expect Thompson to let Lang to walk and sign Tretter. With a relatively weak draft class in terms of offensive line talent, however, Tretter may be wise to test the market and have a team overpay for him.

3. Chris Baker, DI, Redskins (82.2)

Redskins interior defender Chris Baker will turn 29 in 2017, but he has been a very good all-around player on the defensive line for two seasons. Baker gets consistent pressure on the quarterback, but is an even better run defender, as you’ll rarely find the veteran out of position. While Baker’s production took a slight step back in 2016 from 2015, he still is a reliable and dependable option for teams looking for stability on the D-line.

4. Mario Addison, ED, Panthers (83.6)

A former undrafted free agent, Addison has always been a decent pass-rusher, but took his game to the next level in 2016, cracking double-digit sacks for the first time his in career. Ranking second among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity, Addison totaled 10 sacks, five hits, and 51 QB pressures on just 294 pass rushes. In addition to becoming a more impactful pass-rusher, he had his best season in run defense, recording career highs in tackles and defensive stops. Addison will be 29 years old in 2017, so his prime window will be shorter than most, but he’ll prove to be a good sub-package pass-rusher for teams.

Mario Addison

5. Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Ravens (87.9)

A mostly dead position in the NFL, true fullbacks rarely see the field in today’s pro game. Kyle Juszczyk is bucking that trend, as he totaled 465 snaps in 2016, which would have ranked him 27th among all HBs. The former Harvard bruiser brings a dynamic element to the position, as he is the best all-around blocking back, and pairs that with good usage as a receiver and runner. Juszczyk won’t be coveted by many teams because of his position, but his ability as a receiver can extend drives and change games.

6. Gerald Hodges, LB, 49ers (82.4)

Gerald Hodges was traded to San Francisco in 2015 by the Minnesota Vikings for C Nick Easton and a 2016 sixth-round pick that was used on WR Moritz Boehringer. While neither player really panned out well for the Vikings (Boehringer was released by Minnesota in September, then signed to the practice squad, and Easton earned a 45.9 grade in 414 snaps this season), Hodges, after initially struggling to adapt to his new team, has played very well for the 49ers. A good run defender and an effective pass-rusher, Hodges’ 9.3 run-stop percentage ranked 13th among linebackers, while his 16.4 pass-rushing productivity mark was 10th-best. His improved coverage in 2016 is what boosted his overall grade, as he allowed a passer rating of 87.3 after surrendering a 125.5 mark in 2015, and 114.3 in 2014. Hodges’ versatility should make him a solid option for any team in free agency.

7. Duron Harmon, S, Patriots (78.5)

Harmon is an intriguing play for free agency, as he’s always been a backup in New England—with a few spot starts when needed—and has played very well. Harmon plays almost all of his snaps at deep FS, and is rarely targeted (30 targets in his career), but makes the most of those targets, coming away with nine interceptions and three pass breakups (not all INTs were when he was primary coverage player). Harmon has allowed 20 catches for 254 yards, but just eight catches for 122 yards the past two seasons combined. The biggest question for Harmon whether he is just a part-time role player, or if can he blossom into a bonafide starter and build on his impressive numbers.

8. Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings (81.6)

The Vikings had a tumultuous season with an offense in disarray—largely due to  the revolving door on the offensive line—but Adam Thielen was a steady and consistent player, finishing as the No. 19 WR in terms of overall grade. When Bradford targeted Thielen, the QB yielded a passer rating of 121.9 that ranked third among WRs with a minimum of 62 targets. A versatile weapon, Thielen caught 80 percent of his catchable targets from the slot, seeing 20.5 percent of his targets there. There is still some projection to Thielen’s game, but his production this season warrants consideration and provides upside for many teams.

[Editor’s note: Adam Thielen will be a restricted free agent, not an unrestricted free agent.]

9. Rex Burkhead, RB, Bengals (74.5)

Burkhead is an intriguing free agent this offseason, as he shows good ability to make defenders miss, with an elusive rating of 49.9 (albeit from a limited sample size). Burkhead has good vision and burst, with very little wear and tear with just 89 career carries. This past season, Burkhead finally got his chance following the injury to Giovani Bernard, and graded very well. On 74 carries, Burkhead averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry, with 3.0 coming after contact. In the final game of the season, the Bengals fed the former Nebraska Cornhusker 27 times; he turned those opportunities into 119 yards, two touchdowns, and two missed tackles forced against one of the best run defenses in the NFL (Baltimore). While Burkhead probably isn’t an every-down back, he should be valuable to teams looking to add a change-of-pace back.

10. Bradley McDougald, S, Buccaneers (79.0)

An undrafted free agent from the University of Kansas, McDougald has worked his way into a starting role with the Buccaneers. Not particularly great in any one area, McDougald is a solid all-around safety that isn’t a liability on the back end. The former Kansas Jayhawk has allowed just three touchdowns in his career, and has seen his allowed-catch percentage drop each season, despite seeing the most targets in his career in 2016. With five career interceptions and 13 pass breakups, McDougald is the type of free agent that will command a very affordable contract for above-average play.

| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • Carl A Brodin

    Adam Thielan will not make it to F/A the Vikings need the good receivers that they have.

    • Famfirst

      SKOL! Looking forward to seeing how this all shapes up.

  • Carl A Brodin

    If the Vikings were smart they would offer Wagner a contract.

    • cka2nd

      Agreed. Tretter, Juszczyk and Burkhead might be nice, too, but the Vikes would have to clear out more cap space to afford them, I think. I’m optimistic about Easton but as much as I’d like to have Hodges back, I doubt he’d want to play for Zimmer again and I’m not sure he’ll ever be good enough in coverage for Zimmer’s system.

  • GBPFan12

    Let TJ Lang walk, resign Tretter and move Corey to Guard… Keep the line young.

    • Anthony Schroeder

      Tons of cap space, and I see absolutely no reason to “let Lang walk”. Yea getting rid of Sitton hasn’t been a deal breaker, but he is still playing far better than GBs replacement for him, so I wouldn’t call that a success either. Throwing away talented offensive linemen is just stupid.

      • Nelson Cobb

        Ton of cap space, and more than just a few players to re-sign. Perry is a must re-sign, and he’s not gonna be cheap at all, but he has to be brought back with the state of our OLB position. Cook needs to be re-signed, and he’s gonna get a nice little raise. Micah Hyde is showing his worth over the last few weeks, and doing his best to raise his offer. Bringing Lacy back on a 1 year prove it deal might be the wise move to make too. Plus, we might need to go into free agency and actually replace our #1 CB this year, cause it’s pretty clear, neither of the young guys we have, are really ready to take on that role, and adding another young CB isn’t gonna fix it. So the money Shields clears, might need to go towards replacing him. When it comes down to Tretter and Lang, It’s likely gonna have to be 1 or the other. NFL is a game of replacement, otherwise your salary cap is gonna be a mess. Gotta find that right balance, and investing 12 mil, 7-8 mil, 7-8 mil and 7 mil in the offensive line will be tough. Plus, Linsley is going into a contract year, and that’s likely another 7 or so mil per. Can only spend so much on 1 position group. I predict our Oline will be Bak, Taylor/Spriggs, Linsley, Lang and Bulaga next year. Tretter will be the one we let walk because of the injury concerns.

    • Nelson Cobb

      Why would you move a guy to Guard who hasn’t played Guard, basically probably ever??? Wouldn’t you move the guy who has actually shown versatility to Guard before the guy who hasn’t shown any??? Hell, Corey Linsley has performed just as good at Center as Tretter, and one thing he does so much better than Tretter, he gets those free plays. He is as good as anybody in the NFL at snapping the ball when a Dlineman jumps. Tretter never could seem to get that down. Linsley has to stay at Center going forward. And as for Tretter over Lang, I’m not so sure that’s a great move. For 1, although Tretter has shown versatility, he hasn’t played any Guard. 2, he’s also getting hurt and missing games. There isn’t a year yet that he hasn’t been injured. Lang on the other hand, iron man, and continues playing at an All Pro level. He’s only gonna be 30, that’s not old for a Guard, no reason to believe he can’t continue playing at a high level for another 3-4 year contract. Gotta show some loyalty to your veterans that play at the level that Lang does, otherwise guys might become a little hesitant to re-sign in Green Bay, knowing once they get 29-30, they’re likely to get replaced for a younger guy even if they are still playing at a high level. Might be wise to keep Lang around.

  • DaStrongSKRAWN

    Harmon sucks

  • Matthew Geiger

    Viking are broke and have no first round pick. Lions go steal adam t

    • cka2nd

      He’s a restricted free agent, so the Vikings will keep him unless someone is willing to offer him a crazy amount of money.

      • Nelson Cobb

        It don’t have to be a crazy amount of money, just more than Minnesota can afford. What might keep teams from doing so though, is the fact that they will probably put a 2nd round tender on him. Not sure anybody will be willing to give up a 2nd round pick for him.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Vikings are looking to unload the heavy contract that Adrian Peterson holds and if they can manage that their cap situation will improve and open up some options for them.

  • Nelson Cobb

    I also assumed that Thompson would let Lang walk to keep Tretter, but I’m not so sure anymore. Lang is an iron man. He rarely misses time, even when he is hurt, he still plays at an All Pro level. Dude broke his foot this year and was back on the field after just 3 weeks. Tretter on the other hand, has been injured every year, missing a ton of time. The Center job was his, but he got hurt, and Linsley returned and has played at the same level and took it back. With as much as Tretter has been injured, Thompson might choose to go with the veteran who is reliable, rarely missing time and still playing at a high level. Don’t see why Lang couldn’t continue playing at this same level for the next 3-4 years. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    i guess he might be under the average fan’s radar but ricky wagner is going to get PAID, either by a team like denver or via the franchise tag by baltimore, cuz he is the prize pony of the class.

  • crosseyedlemon

    McDougald probably isn’t under the radar at 2.5 mill per year which is 4th highest among FS hitting the market. Micheal Thomas of the Dolphins might interest some value shoppers though.
    Dion Sims at TE?

  • Patrick Bigay

    Sure hope da Raiders are looking at Ricky Wagner. Really need a pass blocking RT !!!

  • Tav1

    Raides pay atttention to RT ricky remebe oakland got osemele from Baltimore last year and that turned out great and austin howard or menliik watson are not going to cut it so reggie meckenzie better get on this we need carr to stay up right a healthy raiders team is the only one that could of knocked of new england

  • Famfirst

    Thielen needs to be a Viking next year. Remove AP to make room for him, Patterson and upgrade the O-Line. SKOL!