LaMarr Houston, James Jones among potential bargains in 2014 NFL free agent class
While the big names will rule the day in free agency, don't ignore those underrated players who provide specific attributes at bargain prices. Every successful team will have a few such players, and those players can turn around and cash in big if their impact is felt enough. Here are 10 players who could be among the best bargains in 2014.
The debits are obvious. Vick will turn 34 in June, he's played in all 16 games in just one season, and he still gets balky under pressure at times. (For those reasons, Chris Burke has Vick among his potential free-agent busts.) But when Adrian Peterson tweeted out on Thursday that Vick would make Peterson's Vikings a playoff contender, he brought up a valid point -- Vick is significantly better than any quarterback Minnesota had on its roster last year, and he'd outdo the starters for at least a handful of teams on a no-matter-what basis. Add in the way he dealt with the Nick Foles situation in Philly, and you have a veteran player who has proven he'll work with a younger quarterback. Vick won't get starter money anymore, but he's an acceptable risk.
In 2013, Jennings finished eighth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted season-cumulative efficiency metrics, and fifth in per-play efficiency. He did so for a Raiders offense that finished 25th in FO's offensive line metrics and didn't have much to offer in the passing game. The former Jaguars' backup came to Oakland on a one-year deal, and put up career-highs in carries, yards and touchdowns. He'd be an interesting change-of-pace option for a team interested in a back who can transcend a moribund offense to give real production.
Due to rib and knee injuries, Jones wasn't able to match his 14-touchdown 2012 season in '13, but he's been one of the league's more efficient receivers over the last three seasons -- both outside and in the slot. Any team looking for a solid No. 2 receiver at a reasonable price should take a good look.
It says something (not good) about the Jets' passing game that Cumberland led the team with four receiving touchdowns in 2013, but it also says something (underrated) about Cumberland's ability to get open and make plays. Cumberland won't put up Jimmy Graham numbers at any point, but he's a nice cog for any offense looking to feature a lot of two-tight end formations.
Collins was Cincinnati's swing tackle in 2013, and he did a great job -- especially in pass protection, where he gave up no sacks, one quarterback hit and a handful of hurries in six starts. This allowed former left tackle Andrew Whitworth to kick inside to left guard. The Bengals will let him test the market, and they might regret it.
1. LaMarr Houston, DL (Oakland Raiders)
It's not known why the Raiders, in desperate need of great players all along their roster and with $65 million in cap space, haven't sewn up one of their few legitimately high-quality homegrown prospects. But Houston said last December that he feels the Raiders are ready to move on without him, a notion that head coach Dennis Allen doesn't share. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Houston is amazingly versatile -- he can play three-tech tackle, end and even outside linebacker with consistency and effectiveness. Houston bagged a career-high six sacks last season, plus 27 quarterback hurries. And if playing in Oakland has decreased his profile enough that he's not seen as a near-elite player around the league, someone's going to get an enormous bargain.
Denver's best cornerback in 2013 wasn't the recently released Champ Bailey, nor was it slot superstar Chris Harris. It was DRC, who showed his impressive physical gifts consistently in a football sense. Rodgers-Cromartie ranked fifth overall in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings, allowing a 67.8 opposing quarterback rating on a team whose opponents were passing all the time to try and keep up. (DRC also appeared on Burke's list of potential busts, for fear that he might flounder outside of Denver's system.)
3. Mike Neal, OLB/DL (Green Bay Packers)
Neal has played everywhere from defensive tackle to outside linebacker for the Packers, and everywhere from 275 to 300 pounds. There are few NFL players as effectively versatile, and Neal's doing it at the right time -- the modern league places a premium on varied defensive personnel packages, and that makes Neal a captivating free agent and relative bargain. Some will downgrade Neal because he's not an explosive sack artist, but teams with multiple fronts should be very interested.
4. Shaun Phillips, DE (Denver Broncos)
It wasn't thought to be a big deal when the Broncos signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million contract with a couple million more in incentives last year, but as Denver's defensive line took injury hit after injury hit, the 32-year-old Phillips kept things rolling with 10 sacks, his highest total since 2010. He added 11 quarterback hits and 40 hurries to that total, making him a ridiculous bargain for the Broncos. Phillips has lost some of his edge speed, but he has a great knack for getting past blockers with inside moves and stunts. If the Broncos don't re-sign him, Phillips could be a great situational pass-rusher for any number of teams.
5. Walter Thurmond, CB (Seattle Seahawks) Thurmond was more than a bit player in the Legion of Boom, playing outside corner opposite Richard Sherman after Brandon Browner became ineffective and then suspended. Thurmond's own four-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policies didn't help his case (and it allowed Byron Maxwell to come in and shock everyone by playing at an elite level), but Thurmond is certainly worth a reasonable contract as a slot corner, if nothing else. In 2013, he allowed a 69.5 passer rating in the slot, picking off one pass and allowing no touchdowns.