Dwight Freeney, Jermaine Gresham among best available free agents
We're well past the point when any free agent signing makes serious headlines. More than two months after the start of the league year, any player who's still unsigned has several dings on his game tape or overall perception. But championship teams are built with more than just superstars, and you never know when the perfect mix of scheme and player can pay massive dividends on a cheap contract. Among the players still available, here are the ones most likely to succeed and surprise in the right environment.
Running back Pierre Thomas: Thomas is a 30-year-old career reserve running back with a little bit of bounce left in his step, along with the ability to block well and understand protections. He's also highly productive as a receiver out of the backfield. For any team with a rotational backfield and the need for versatility (especially teams who pass a lot), Thomas could be a good fit. He gained 222 yards on 45 carries for the Saints last season but added to his value with 45 catches for 378 yards. Thomas missed five games with a rib injury in 2014, so he may improve on those numbers with a full season. The Redskins and Ravens are among the teams with some interest, and the Patriots and Colts should take a closer look.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham: The Bengals took Gresham out of Oklahoma with the 21st pick of the 2010 draft, expecting him to be their next major target. Instead, Gresham has been a fairly significant underachiever relative to his draft status, maxing out at a career high of 64 catches for 737 yards in 2012. He's made two Pro Bowls, but his 7.4 yards per catch average in 2014 might be one reason he's still on the open market. He was expected to be a more explosive weapon in an NFL offense, and perhaps he can be in a system with a more reliable quarterback than Andy Dalton. He did catch 79.5 percent of the balls thrown to him last season, and Pro Football Focus ranked him second behind Panthers tight end Greg Olsen in pass-blocking efficiency, with just one hit and one hurry in 100 pass-blocking snaps. Maybe the trick with Gresham is understanding that he's a possession player with great blocking skill who could help any run-heavy team. The Cardinals are reportedly interested in his services.
Center Chris Myers: Houston decided to move on from Myers after 128 straight starts, a pretty amazing number for any player who spends his time getting beaten up by defensive tackles and linebackers. Myers is the typical veteran center in all the right ways: smart, tough and relentless. He turned 33 last September and certainly didn't look like a guy past his prime, playing every one of the Texans' 1,124 snaps in 2014 and allowing one sack, three hits and 10 hurries. Given the dumpster fire the Texans had at quarterback, that's not bad at all. The Broncos and Raiders explored signing Myers earlier this spring, and any team with powerful guards and a need for leadership in the middle of their line (Hello, Seattle) should do the same.
Offensive guard Justin Blalock: The 31-year-old Blalock, who had been the Falcons' starting left guard since he was selected in the second round out of Texas in 2007, was released in a salary cap move, most likely because his power style wouldn't fit with the zone schemes new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan prefers. Blalock has been an up-and-down player throughout his career, but 2014 was a bit of a rebound year for him. He allowed just three sacks (two in the season finale), six hits and 20 hurries in 998 snaps, and kept at the league average in run-blocking. Several teams have looked at him and will most likely wait until his bargaining power dwindles. Blalock might be a major bargain at a veteran minimum price point.
Offensive tackle Anthony Collins Collins was at his best doing what he did for the Bengals in 2013 as a reserve/rotational guy on the offensive line. He gave up no sacks in 673 snaps in that role, leading the Buccaneers to believe that he could be their full-time left tackle in 2014 and beyond. That didn't work at all: Collins regressed with the extra workload, and Tampa Bay's offense had no structure due to the coaching turnover. He's received little interest on the open market so far ... so maybe teams need to forget about his time as a Buc and look at how he worked in a reduced role.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney: Yes, Freeney turned 35 in February, and yes, that's past the age where most edge rushers have seen their production fall off a cliff. But Freeney beat the age curve in 2014, amassing four sacks, nine hits and 40 hurries in just 590 total snaps. That's the model statistical definition of a situational pass rusher, and Freeney has said that he wants to give it at least another year before he hangs it up. The Chargers decided to move on from him, but Freeney will likely get another shot even with the age concerns. The ability to disrupt quarterbacks is simply too important in today's NFL to leave any stone unturned.
Defensive end Red Bryant: Bryant was drafted by Seattle years ago as a defensive tackle, but he gained his NFL fame as an enormous run-stopping end for the Seahawks. Former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley brought Bryant to Jacksonville when he became the Jags' head coach, and Bryant did do well against the run in his one season before he was released. Conditioning is always a concern with Bryant, as he needs to keep his weight under control, but he's still got a few years left in a specific role, and he's praised as a leader in the locker room.
Defensive tackle C.J. Mosley: No, we're not talking about the great young linebacker for the Ravens. This C.J. Mosley subbed in for an injured Nick Fairley on Detroit's defensive line last season. There is an issue regarding his marijuana-related team suspension, but the veteran played very well down the stretch, amassing some quarterback pressure and looking very stout against the run. Mosley will probably be one of the last men standing on the market, but any defense in need of a bowling ball at tackle (especially within a rotation) could do a lot worse on a short-term deal.
Safety Dawan Landry: Landry was Pro Football Focus's ninth-ranked safety in 2014, and he played free and strong safety for Rex Ryan. He was a bit vulnerable in pass coverage, allowing a 102.4 opposing quarterback rating, but he was a fierce hitter against the run and allowed just two receiving touchdowns in 970 snaps and 40 targets. He had 70 tackles, two sacks and 24 stops, which raises the question: Why is this guy still out there? He's visited Ryan in his new home in Buffalo, so perhaps a reunion is on the way.