The NFL’s free-agency whirlwind did not disappoint, producing a handful of blockbuster, big-money deals. The Vikings went all in for Kirk Cousins, the Jets signed cornerback Trumaine Johnson to a lucrative deal, the Bears shelled out a combined $100 million to the pass-catching trio of Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, and the Giants made Nate Solder the highest paid left tackle in the NFL. But while those big-name pacts were busy grabbing most of the headlines, dozens of other important deals were getting done—but with far less fanfare.
The players on these under the radar contracts run the gamut from talented up-and-comers to underappreciated veterans; there are proven playmakers coming off an injury, those looking to rehabilitate stalled careers, and a little of everything in between. Here are a few of free agency’s best value signings: players who look poised to outplay their contracts and make a major impact for their teams in 2018.
DE Julius Peppers and CB Ross Cockrell, Panthers
If Maslow put together a hierarchy of football-specific needs, getting after the passer would be somewhere near the base of the pyramid, equivalent in NFL terms to food or water. Peppers helps satisfy that need for Carolina; he ranked 11th last year among all players with 11.0 sacks, and after re-signing with the Panthers on a one-year, $5 million deal, he comes in 35th (per average annual value) among defensive ends. At 38, Peppers isn’t the explosive force off the edge that he used to be—but the nine-time Pro Bowler proved last year he’s still effective as a rotational pass-rusher, and that’s not an easy player to find.
In a division with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, coverage in the back end is going to help a lot, too. After Bashaud Breeland failed his physical, the Panthers enacted what looks like a nice backup plan in signing former Giants cornerback Ross Cockrell. Throughout his career, the 6-foot, 191-pound vet has been reliable in coverage when healthy, and finished last year 16th among all corners in opposing quarterback rating when targeted (69.7), picking off three passes and deflecting another 11 in 16 games. As a 26-year-old starting-caliber corner who fits the Panthers’ zone-coverage-heavy scheme, a two-year, $6.8 million deal looks like a bargain for Carolina.
WR Mike Wallace, Eagles
This tweet sums it up nicely:
When you replace Torrey Smith with Mike Wallace, who has been far more productive over the last two years, for half the cost. pic.twitter.com/GrGFSO0ZCU— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) March 22, 2018
Torrey Smith was due to count $5 million against the Eagles’ 2018 cap, but after failing to emerge as a reliable deep threat during the team’s Super Bowl season, he was dealt to the Panthers in early March in exchange for cornerback Daryl Worley. With that trade and the Wallace deal—a one-year contract worth up to $2.5 million—Philly GM Howie Roseman not only added a talented cornerback with two years left at his rookie salary but also upgraded the team’s deep-threat role at a reduced cost. The 31-year-old veteran pass catcher has bounced around from Pittsburgh to Miami to Minneapolis to Baltimore, but outside of a down 2015 season, he’s been consistently productive (and underrated) throughout his career. He caught 124 passes for 1,765 yards and eight touchdowns in the last two years with the Ravens, averaging 14.2 yards per catch while reeling in 21 receptions of 20-plus yards. Wallace can still do exactly what he was signed to do: take the top off a defense.
DE Adrian Clayborn, Patriots
The Patriots took a big step toward upgrading their pass-rush unit by signing Clayborn to a two-year, $10 million deal. The former Falcons pass rusher doesn’t boast elite speed or explosiveness off the edge, but his power—both in his base and in his hands—and nonstop motor should make him a disruptive presence on New England’s line. Clayborn notched 54 pressures on 394 pass-rush snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus, and collected 9.5 sacks: Compare that production to that of Vinny Curry (47 pressures, 3.0 sacks on 333 snaps in 2017), who just signed a three-year, $23 million deal with the Bucs; or to Olivier Vernon (38 pressures, 6.5 sacks on 363 pass rush snaps), who’s set to count for $17 million against New York’s cap this year—and you see a player who could quietly end up being a steal this season.
DE Muhammad Wilkerson and CB Tramon Williams, Packers
Wilkerson is a relatively cheap but high-upside gamble for Green Bay. Sure, the powerful defensive lineman is two years removed from his last Pro Bowl campaign, but at just 28 years old, he should be plenty motivated to earn a big payday in 2019 on a one-year “prove it” deal worth $5 million. He’s in a perfect situation to get back to his dominant ways, too, playing alongside Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark in the Packers defensive front under former coach Mike Pettine. When he’s on, the 6-foot-4 315-pounder can be a three-down impact player who can defend the run and provide push as a pass rusher. That would be big for Green Bay, who must contend with what looks like an offensive arms race developing in the division between the Vikings and Bears.
Williams could factor heavily for the Packers defense in 2018, too. The veteran corner returns to Green Bay on a two-year, $10 million deal after pit stops in Cleveland and Arizona, and brings depth and experience at a position of dire need for the team. The 35-year-old is coming off an impressive stint with the Cardinals, during which he allowed an opposing passer rating of just 44.0 and surrendered zero touchdowns on 312 snaps, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
C Mike Pouncey, Chargers
The Chargers wasted no time in wooing Pouncey after he was released by the Dolphins, signing the three-time Pro Bowler to a two-year deal worth $15 million, an average yearly value that ranks 13th leaguewide at the center position. The move could complete L.A.’s offensive line remodel, and Pouncey will slide into the middle of a unit that already includes left tackle Russell Okung, guards Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp, and right tackle Joe Barksdale. A degenerative hip injury is a concern, and it caused Pouncey to miss all but five games in 2016, but he’s got the upside as a top-tier center and is coming off a season with the Dolphins in which he played a team-high 971 snaps. As offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt points out for the team’s website, Pouncey is an experienced and athletic veteran who has a quick first step, is great blocking on the move, and can anchor at the point of attack in pass protection.
S Tyrann Mathieu, Texans
It didn’t take long for Mathieu to showcase his playmaking skills in the NFL, and the Honey Badger quickly ascended to superstardom. But injuries (including two ACL tears) and a down year in 2017—when he failed to make the type of impact we saw early in his career despite playing an NFL-high 1,263 snaps for the Cardinals—limited his market to a one-year, $7 million “prove it” deal in Houston. Mathieu now finds himself at a career crossroads, and the Texans stand to benefit first should he regain his form. It’s a bet that I’d be willing to take, and the upside for Houston is a top-tier cornerback/safety/sub-package linebacker hybrid who’s capable of playing all over the secondary, is a proven ballhawk, and can make impact plays in coverage, as a run defender, and as a blitzer.
CB Rashaan Melvin, Raiders
Melvin made the most of his opportunity to get major playing time for the Colts last year, coming on in relief of injured starter Vontae Davis to emerge as one of the team’s most efficient defenders. Melvin started 10 games and racked up three picks and 13 passes defended, surrendering an opposing passer rating of just 60.3, per Pro Football Focus, good for 11th best leaguewide. The journeyman defensive back spent time with four teams before breaking out for Indy last year, and has a chance to prove he’s the real deal on a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Raiders. If he can play for Jon Gruden’s squad like he did down the stretch last year, Oakland will have a major bargain on its hands—and he’ll earn himself a big payday in 2019.
OG Josh Sitton, Dolphins
It’s hard to figure out what the Dolphins are doing this offseason as a whole (namely, trading away Jarvis Landry, releasing Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey, trading for Robert Quinn, and signing Frank Gore, Danny Amendola, and Albert Wilson in free agency) but I can’t fault their decision to hand Sitton a two-year, $15 million deal after the vet was released by the Bears. Sitton may be 31, but he finished 2017 with a pass-blocking efficiency of 97.4 (tied 13th among guards), allowing just two sacks, one hit, and nine hurries on 361 pass-blocking snaps—and he graded out sixth best as a run blocker, per Pro Football Focus.
S Bradley McDougald and DT Tom Johnson, Seahawks
McDougald showed his value as a versatile fill-in at both safety positions for the Seahawks last year, taking Earl Thomas’s place in weeks 9 and 10 and then later Kam Chancellor’s spot when Seattle’s starting strong safety missed the final seven games of the year to a neck injury. With Thomas reportedly on the trade block and Chancellor’s future still up in the air, GM John Schneider wasted no time in locking in the team’s dependable third safety for the long term, inking McDougald to a three-year, $13.5 million deal. Both Thomas and Chancellor could ultimately return in 2018, making this signing less important—but if either (or both) of them do not, Seattle’s got a proven back-up plan.
Up front, the addition of veteran free-agent defensive tackle Tom Johnson softens the blow of losing Sheldon Richardson to the Vikings. Johnson offers upside as a rotational interior pass rusher for Seattle, coming off a season in Minnesota in which he posted 31 pressures, per PFF, tied for 12th among the league’s interior defenders. He’s not as dynamic as Richardson (who posted 36 pressures on 82 fewer snaps) and he’s not as good against the run, but at 33 years old, Johnson gives the Seahawks some bang for their buck on a one-year deal worth up to $2.7 million.
TE Tyler Eifert, Bengals
When healthy, Eifert is a proven and versatile playmaker, a top-tier red zone target who can line up anywhere in the formation and who has averaged more touchdowns per game played than any player since 2015. The problem, of course, is that he actually has to play in games to score those touchdowns, and he’s struggled with injuries throughout his five-year career: The 27-year-old vet has missed 22 games over the past two years due to back and ankle injuries, and has never played a full season as a pro. That injury history limited his market, and he chose to stay with Cincinnati on a one-year, $5.5 million deal worth up to $8 million with incentives. Now healthy, he’s got a chance to shed those injury concerns and turn back into one of the top tight ends in the game. With just $3 million guaranteed at signing, the potential reward far outweighs the risk.
OG Jack Mewhort, Colts
Mewhort has missed 17 games over the past two years to a knee injury, but the 26-year-old veteran offers the team versatility as a contributor at either guard spot, center, or right tackle. The former second-rounder must stay healthy in 2018 to prove his value, but on a one-year, $1.5 million deal (worth up to $3 million with incentives), he’s just about as risk free of a quality starting-caliber offensive lineman as the Colts could get. At best, a healthy Mewhort could help them solidify their offensive line. At worst, he offers quality depth at nearly every offensive line position.