The secondary, post–May 8 wave of NFL free agency has come and gone, and when the Panthers signed defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a one-year deal last week, they grabbed the last remaining All-Pro-caliber player on the market. But while free agents with McCoy’s talent are pretty much unheard of this late in the offseason, there are a handful of players still out there who could make an impact in 2019. None of these guys are likely to be stars. Most won’t even be starters, and a few may have to wait for other players to suffer training camp or preseason injuries before they’ll receive much interest. But each has the ability to play a key role for the right team this year. Here are a few of the best unsigned free agents, along with teams that could make good fits.
RB Jay Ajayi
Ajayi made a free-agent visit to the Colts in late March, but left without a deal. Overall, the market’s been pretty quiet for the 25-year-old back, who is still searching for a new team. The 223-pound runner was a key pickup for the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles back in 2017 (they acquired him in a midseason trade with the Dolphins). Ajayi averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 112 totes in 10 games with the team (including playoffs) and got off to a solid start last season, rushing 45 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns in four games before a torn ACL cut his season short. The health of his knee likely remains the biggest obstacle for Ajayi’s next contract, but the veteran still has the talent and elusiveness to contribute as an early-down bruiser for the right squad.
Given the Eagles’ decision to select Miles Sanders in the second round in April’s draft, a reunion doesn’t make much sense in Philly. The Texans, on the other hand, could be a logical landing spot: Houston, which fired GM Brian Gaine on Friday, didn’t do much during the offseason to bolster a thin running backs group led by Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman. The new regime may look to quickly rectify that potential vulnerability. Miller has underwhelmed in three seasons with the team, and while Foreman has talent, his slow recovery from a torn Achilles in 2017 makes him a big question mark heading into the year. Ajayi could be had for relatively cheap, would provide insurance for Foreman’s heel, and would bring a physical dynamic to complement Miller’s slashing style. He’d have to beat out only a pair of undrafted free agents: Damarea Crockett and Karan Higdon.
The Buccaneers are another team that comes to mind. Tampa Bay’s running back depth chart, which features Ronald Jones II, Peyton Barber, Andre Ellington, and rookie Bruce Anderson, remains, shall we say ... muddled. There could be an opportunity there for Ajayi to step in and play a role on early downs.
RB Darren Sproles
Sproles lost most of the 2018 season to concussion and hamstring injuries, but the 35-year-old free agent said recently on the Pro Football Doc podcast that he wants to return in 2019. Sproles, a dynamic playmaker, appeared in just six games last year for the Eagles but caught 15 balls for 160 yards and two touchdowns while adding 29 rushes for 120 yards and a score. At this point in his career, Sproles can’t be leaned upon to carry a big load, but he could be a nice fit for a team that knows how to deploy its running backs as pass catchers and space players. He’s not as explosive as he was earlier in his career, but Sproles can still make defenders miss with jitterbug jukes, and he’s highly experienced as a receiving back.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter recently name-checked the Eagles, Saints, and Chargers as potential landing spots for Sproles. The Eagles and Saints could certainly make sense; Sproles can still be a good change of pace and third-down option to complement Sanders and Jordan Howard in Philly’s backfield. He’d be a fun option in New Orleans, too, and it’d be intriguing to see how teams would line up against an offense that featured both Sproles and Alvin Kamara on the field at the same time. The Chargers’ backfield is already pretty deep with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, but there’s plenty of familiarity there between Sproles and quarterback Philip Rivers, and L.A.’s offense heavily uses running backs in its passing game.
Outside of that trio of teams, Sproles could be a nice addition to the Chiefs’ explosive offense. Damien Williams is the presumptive bellcow of that backfield, but Sproles could certainly still do some damage in Andy Reid’s wide-open scheme.
WR Michael Crabtree
Crabtree failed to live up to the three-year, $21 million deal he signed with the Ravens last offseason and lasted just one year with Baltimore. He underwhelmed in the team’s anemic passing attack under both Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson, and struggled with drops while reeling in just 54 of his 100 targets for 607 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. But while Crabtree quickly proved to be a poor fit in the team’s run-heavy scheme, the 31-year-old veteran could still be a factor for a team looking to add an experienced possession receiver and red zone threat to their depth chart.
The Redskins could be a good landing spot, particularly if rookie Dwayne Haskins wins the starting job at quarterback. The team’s more experienced cadre of pass catchers features disappointing former first-rounder Josh Doctson, the oft-injured Paul Richardson, and veteran Brian Quick, who hurt his knee in practice last week. Add in the young group—second-year pro Trey Quinn and rookies Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon—who still must develop their respective pro game, and Washington’s left without a reliable outside option. Meanwhile, after shipping Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns the Giants could use reinforcements for a shallow receiver group, and the Vikings continue to search for a no. 3 option behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The Saints are another team without an established tertiary option behind receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.
OT Donald Penn
Penn was one of the top left tackles in the league in both 2016 and 2017, a steady and reliable blindside protector for the Raiders who earned Pro Bowl nods both years. Things started to fall apart for Penn last season, though, and after the Raiders selected Kolton Miller with their first-round pick, new head coach Jon Gruden moved Penn to right tackle. He struggled there, suffered a groin injury that cut his season short after just four games, and was cut by the team during the offseason. At 36, Penn still has a chance to revive his career and should have the ability to play at a high level for another season or two—he wrote in a farewell post to Oakland fans that he’s “got a lot of football left.” The question, of course, is where he will play.
One potential fit could be in Washington, a team that will have a major vacancy at left tackle if Trent Williams is granted his wish for a release or trade. The Patriots are always a potential landing spot for talented veteran cast-offs, and Bill Belichick and Co. may not feel totally comfortable heading into 2019 with Isaiah Wynn—who missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles tendon—installed as the starting blindside protector for their soon-to-be-42-year-old passer. The Texans always need help on the offensive line, and the Cardinals may not fully trust D.J. Humphries to protect rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.
DE Nick Perry
Perry’s career seemed to be ascending after he posted 11 sacks in 2016, and the former first-round pick inked a five-year, $59 million contract extension to stay in Green Bay following that performance. But that deal guaranteed Perry just $18.5 million, and after struggling badly in performance and with injuries last season (when he grabbed 1.5 sacks in nine games), the team released him. The former Packer is now looking for a new home, and while he may never turn back into a double-digit sack producer, Perry could contribute as a rotational player for a pass-rush-needy team.
After losing Cameron Wake, Andre Branch, and Robert Quinn during the offseason, the young Dolphins front certainly has a need. Miami, who heads into 2019 leaning on a pass-rush group led by disappointing former first-rounder Charles Harris and guys like Jonathan Woodard, Tank Carradine, and Nate Orchard, could use an infusion of experience and proven production. The Ravens, who lost Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith during the offseason, could also be a fit, and the Bills could definitely use more depth behind Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy.
DE Derrick Morgan
Morgan hit free agency this spring after finishing out the four-year, $27 million contract he signed with the Titans back in 2015. This last season was his worst in the league: He posted just 0.5 sacks—a huge drop-off from 2017 (7.5 sacks) and 2016 (9.0)—and now 30, he’s no longer the type of featured pass rusher who’s bound to get major snaps. But like Perry, he could play a key reserve or rotational role with a team looking for experience and depth, and he has played in even- and odd-front defenses.
I’ve already mentioned the Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills as teams that could add depth to their pass-rush groups, and there is a handful more teams who could benefit from adding a veteran like Morgan. Even after drafting pass rushers Clellin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, the Raiders are still thin―and very young―at the defensive end position. The Buccaneers, who released Vinny Curry during the offseason and will be without Jason Pierre-Paul for a big chunk of the year due to a neck injury, need to add depth to their pass-rush group. And the Jets, who head into 2019 with an edge rusher group headlined by Brandon Copeland, Jordan Jenkins, and rookie Jachai Polite, need all the edge-rush help they can get.
DT Corey Liuget
Liuget is a disruptive defensive tackle with 103 starts, 275 tackles, and 24 sacks on his résumé. The former first-round pick has played his entire eight-year career with the Chargers, but is now looking for a new team after L.A. declined his contract option for 2019. The 6-foot-2 300-pounder missed the first four games of 2018 due to a PED suspension and finished on the injured reserve with a torn quad, but managed 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and five tackles for a loss in six games. He’s 29 and is able to play in a rotational role as both a run defender and penetrating pass rusher.
Liuget would be a fit for a handful of squads. He was previously linked to the Seahawks, who signed Al Woods instead, but could help boost depth playing in a similar scheme under Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Sticking with the NFC South, the Saints, who added former Patriot Malcom Brown in free agency, could still use an infusion of veteran experience on their defensive interior: Sheldon Rankins is still working back from a torn Achilles tendon and the team lost Tyeler Davison in free agency. And don’t rule out a reunion with the Chargers, who drafted Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery in the first round but could use an insurance policy in case Tillery is slow to develop.
CB Morris Claiborne
Claiborne never lived up to his billing as the sixth overall pick by the Cowboys back in 2012, but he’s quietly developed into a solid cover corner who racked up two picks and 14 passes defensed for the Jets last year in 15 games. Injuries plagued Claiborne during his five seasons in Dallas, but the 29-year-old vet has missed just two games in the past two seasons and has the talent to boost the depth of a number of defensive secondaries around the league.
The Chiefs could add a little bit of insurance behind free-agent addition Bashaud Breeland, who played just seven games last year while battling hamstring and groin injuries. The Jets are anything but set at the position and would make sense as a return location. And the Cardinals lack experienced depth, especially early in the year when Patrick Peterson will be serving a six-game suspension. Claiborne reportedly turned down a veteran minimum offer in Tampa Bay to hold out for a better offer. He could end up getting one in the next few weeks, but could gain a little leverage by waiting to see whether any teams suffer injuries at corner during training camp or the preseason.
An earlier version of this piece misstated where Jerry Tillery went to school; he went to Notre Dame, not Stanford.