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Teams always look to build through the draft first, but bringing in a bargain difference-maker can help transform a franchise

By Andy Benoit
February 17, 2016

It’s chic to denounce free agency and proselytize that the right way to build a team is through the draft. While valid on the surface, it’s not the absolute truth people make it out to be.

Look at the last three Super Bowl champions. None of them would be wearing rings if not for their big free-agent acquisitions. For the Broncos, it was Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. For the Patriots, Darrelle Revis. The Seahawks, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. (Seattle also traded for Marshawn Lynch in 2010, which, in some ways, is like signing a free agent but at a higher cost.) To be clear: the draft is the long-term way to build. It needs to be your entrée. But a good side dish of free agency produces a complete meal you can enjoy now.

The downside of free agency is that you can overpay for guy whose previous teams ultimately chose not to retain him. (There’s always a reason guys are available.) But on the flip side, you can also find a bargain difference-maker if you insert a dark horse acquisition into the right system. Here are 10 of those best candidates heading into 2016 free agency, as determined by their talent and the size of contract they’re likely to garner.

 

10. Terrance Knighton, NT, Washington (age 29)

 

He gets a one-year contract in free agency every year because teams are afraid he’ll eat himself into oblivion. But maybe this is the year someone gives him multiple years and a big chunk of money up front. He played well enough last season to earn it. Knighton has by far the thickest lower body in football, making his nimble feet and change-of-direction quickness downright jaw-dropping. What could keep his price tag low is the fact that he’s really just a base package nose tackle (either aligned head up on the center in a 3-4 or tilted over the center’s shoulder in a 4-3). That means he might only play 25-30 snaps a game.

 

9. Mitchell Schwartz, RT, Browns (age 26)

 

He’s not a dark horse to NFL insiders. A majority of teams could use an upgrade at right tackle. The fifth-year pro, who was drafted in the second round by the Browns and quietly improved each season, is as steady as they come. The rise in shotgun formations has diminished the whole blindside thing, making left tackles only nominally more valuable than right tackles. Don’t decry your team if it signs Schwartz to a nearly eight-figure annual deal with more than $25 million guaranteed.

 

8. Nick Fairley, DT, Rams (age 28)

 

Teams shied away from the former first-round pick in free agency last year because they couldn’t trust his on-again, off-again motor. Fairley took a humbling one-year deal to be a backup in St. Louis. There, he played extremely well, showing constant energy and effort, plus the surprising first step that once made him so appealing. Some team will gamble and sign him long-term. Then, that team will hold its breath waiting to see if a richer Fairley indeed becomes an everydown player like he was in Detroit or whether he proves best suited to come off the bench.

 

7. Malik Jackson, DT, Broncos (age 26)

 

He’s not really a dark horse after a sterling Super Bowl performance capped his dynamic late-season push. The Broncos are supposedly “negotiating in earnest” with Jackson, but he fits the profile of a guy who gets offered big dollars elsewhere. Can’t you just see him signing with a nondescript team in either the AFC or NFC South? When he does, the contract will be huge and fans might say he’s another Paul Kruger—a decent player who got paid like a great one after winning a ring. True, guys like that hit free agency all the time. But what separates Jackson from the Krugers of the world is his explosive traits. You can only do so much to teach a man quickness or initial burst off the ball; most of it just comes naturally. Jackson is an elite gap-shooting three-technique in nickel packages, plus he’s a blocker-eater on stunts and a gap-plugger on base downs, making him an all-around force. He can upgrade any defense regardless of its scheme.

 

6. Jaye Howard, DL, Chiefs (age 27)

 

Think of him as Malik Jackson lite. True, they have different styles and body types. But their impacts are similar. Jackson is a dominant sub-package player who surprises with his effectiveness on base downs against the run. Howard is a dominant base down run defender who surprises with his effectiveness as a pass rusher.

 

5. Husain Abdullah, S, Chiefs (age 30)

 

His price will be lower because he missed so much of the second half of this past season with a concussion. In fact, it might be in Abdullah’s best interest to take a one year “prove it” deal. He’s one of the league’s better box safeties, particularly as a de facto linebacker in the über-versatile three-safety dime packages (which more and more teams are playing these days). In 2014, Abdullah often covered top-tier tight ends man-to-man, with mostly good results. That plus his run defense in a lightened box present significant value in the right system.

 

4. Akiem Hicks, DL, Patriots/Saints (age 26)

 

Two years ago, Hicks, a third-round pick of the Saints in 2012, was as destructive as any defensive end or tackle in the NFL. But he had a somewhat quiet 2014 campaign and was shipped to New England in 2015, where he came in midseason and never quite found a niche. His niche can be that of a power interior edge player, either as a 3-4 defensive end or a strongside 4-3 end. Hicks doesn’t just shed blocks, he erupts off of them.

 

3. Tahir Whitehead, LB, Lions (age 25)

 

In 2014 Whitehead and DeAndre Levy formed the fastest nickel linebacker tandem in the NFL. (Yes, in terms of pure speed, it was even faster than Carolina’s punch of Luke Kuechly-Thomas Davis.) But last year, Whitehead had a poor preseason and struggled to find his footing in Detroit’s linebacker rotation. With Stephen Tulloch back from an ACL injury and Josh Bynes improving as a third-down player, Whitehead sat out a lot of nickel snaps, which is where defenders really earn money these days. And so he’ll be a bargain for whoever signs him this spring. Assuming he plays with discipline (which he’s improved upon), Whitehead can be at least in the NFL’s second-tier of run-and-chase ball-stoppers.

 

2. Brandon Thompson, DT, Bengals (age 26)

 

It’s a testament to Bengals veteran Domata Peko that Thompson never worked his way into the starting lineup as a nose shade. Thompson was tremendous against double-teams when forced to fill in at this position for a few games in 2013. Last season, he played mostly as a three-technique, backing up Geno Atkins. Thompson doesn’t have Atkins’s combination of movement and raw strength (few do), but he plays with natural leverage and balance. Whoever signs him will get a potential three-down force.

 

1. George Iloka, S, Bengals (age 25)

 

Don’t be surprised if Iloka scores one of the 10 biggest contracts in free agency this year. Safeties are increasingly valuable in today’s NFL, and he’s one who can play centerfield or in the box. He also has experience as a corner from his days at Boise State, though he’d have to be used unexpectedly and sparingly in this capacity. At 6’4”, 225 pounds, and with arms so long he can practically tie his shoes without bending over, Iloka has the innate physical traits to be elite.

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