Free agency is always about the big names, and when the bell goes off Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. ET, all kinds of deals that had been “rumored” (read: “completed before the league's tampering period has actually ended”) will come to fruition. But it's what happens when the stars are off the table that tends to define teams in the short and long term. Often it's the underrated players who have a big impact when it comes to overall improvements and playoff berths, and those are the guys your team should be scouting as soon as possible. Here's my list of the most valuable second-tier free agents this season.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
Last summer, I hypothesized that the team signing former Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wouldn't regret it, as long as Fitzpatrick was in a favorable system and was directed against the more random nature of his game. Thanks for making me look smart, O Bearded One! But it wasn't really a longshot—Fitzpatrick had some good advanced metrics, and the tape backed it up.
In 2015, Fitzpatrick gave the Jets something they hadn't had in years: a reliable veteran quarterback. He completed 59.6% of his passes for just over 3,900 yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 picks. Moreover, he proved to be unusually prolific with the deep ball, completing 21 of 86 passes over 20 yards in the air—only Jacksonville's Blake Bortles had more deep attempts. Fitzpatrick is limited to a point, but his future is fairly bright: there are enough NFL teams in dire need at the position.
RB Lamar Miller, Chris Ivory
Long a favorite of the football cognoscenti, Miller carried the ball 194 times for 872 yards and eight touchdowns last season for a Dolphins team than inexplicably stopped using him down the stretch. Miller had less than 10 carries in six different games. The Dolphins lost each of those games, and yes, most of them were blowouts, but still... Miller tied for sixth in the league with 11 carries of 15 yards or more, so he could have added a level of explosiveness, especially given Miami's inconsistent passing game. Someone will use him more intelligently, and Miller will respond favorably.
As for Ivory, there were just three backs with more missed tackles caused last season—Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, and Jonathan Stewart—and the Jets would be unwise to lose another of their offensive table-setters.
WR Rishard Matthews, Travis Benjamin, Jermaine Kearse
Rumor has it that Matthews wants to price himself out of a return to Miami, and outside of a worrying drop rate (six drops in 59 targets), he could very well do so as an efficient target and a second or third man. Benjamin is one of the best deep targets in the NFL, and he established that reputation despite a truly horrific quarterback rotation in Cleveland.
Kearse is better known for his acrobatic catches than anything else, and he's not a number-one guy, but he's a good outside/slot hybrid player with a lot of potential.
OT Kelvin Beachum, Donald Penn
Outside of David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert, Beachum was the Steelers' best pass-blocker in 2015, allowing just three sacks and six total pressures in 187 total passing snaps before he tore his ACL in Week 6. Teams may be a bit wary with him coming off that injury, but he'd be a good mid-level signing for someone.
Now that the Raiders have reportedly given former Ravens lineman Kelechi Osemele one of the biggest contracts ever signed by an offensive lineman, Penn could find himself on the open market. His final season in Tampa (2013) was a disaster, but he worked his butt off that off-season and signed a deal with the Raiders. He's had two renaissance seasons since then, and though his 2015 wasn't quite as good as his 2014, he'll get a lot of looks as a veteran blind-side pass protector.
OG Evan Mathis
Mathis was one of the guys Chip Kelly decided to jettison after a contract dispute before the 2015 season, and he landed in the best possible place, winning his first Super Bowl ring with the Broncos. He allowed three sacks all season, none after Week 13, and helped the Broncos put together a decent run game for their backfield talent. Any team needing a leader in a zone-blocking system should jump at him.
DT Damon Harrison, Jaye Howard
Harrison has become perhaps the best run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL, which is why not a lot of people talk about him (big guys without sacks = unsexy). But if the Jets lose him, they'll have to go a long way in a deep defensive tackle class to replace him.
Howard was one of the few defensive guys the Seahawks let get away over the last few seasons—Pete Carroll admitted as much at the combine —and he'll command very good money after amassing a ton of pressures at both tackle and end. Any hybrid defense should be interested.
DE Robert Ayers, William Hayes
With the Giants re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal, Ayers may be too rich for their blood. The former Bronco played very well in his second season with Big Blue, amassing a career-high nine sacks, 13 hits and 25 hurries in just 581 snaps.
Ayers is getting up there in age, but he's got a few good seasons left as a strong-side pass-rusher who can also stop the run. Similarly, Hayes starred as a rotational end in pass-rushing and run-stopping roles for the Rams. Neither player will be a high-buzz signing as they each lope into their early thirties, but they can still produce.
LB Jerrell Freeman, Tahir Whitehead
In a year when Indianapolis' defense fell off a cliff, Freeman had one of his best seasons, with 66 solo tackles and three sacks. Now that Danny Trevathan is reportedly off the market with a move to the Bears, Freeman looks to be among the most attractive do-it-all inside 'backers.
Whitehead, who came into the league in 2012, finally got serious reps due to injuries in 2014, and he's one of the more under-the-radar and versatile linebackers in the league, especially on a rotational basis.
S Rodney McLeod, Walter Thurmond
It's not easy to be incognito in the Rams' defense, but riddle us this: how has McLeod, who's tallied at least 1,053 snaps in each of the last three seasons, not received more acclaim? More teams should want a free safety who allowed a 76.9 opponent passer rating on 21 targets, and put up 18 stops as well.
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Thurmond is the very definition of the modern defensive back. He can play deep safety, box safety to a degree, and flare out into the slot. Thurmond's injury history (which goes back to his days at Oregon) will scare some teams off, but he had 16 starts for the first time in 2015, and was a rare beacon of consistency in an Eagles defense that had far too little of that attribute most of the time.
CB Patrick Robinson, Brandon Boykin
In an era when slot cornerbacks are de facto starters, Robinson and Boykin are two of the most underrated ones in the business. Robinson was a shutdown inside cornerback for the Chargers, one year after serving the same purpose for the Saints.
Meanwhile, Boykin was among the most gifted slot cornerbacks for the Eagles in 2014, was traded to the Steelers last August, and surprised a ton of people when he rode the bench throughout most of the first half of the season. Once he was inserted into Pittsburgh's defense, he was as good as he'd been before. Robinson and Boykin are ripe for the picking among teams with the vision to understand that the slot is no longer a pejorative destination in the NFL.