Skip to main content

The Under-the-Radar Free Agents Who Are About to Cash In Big

Tyrell Williams went unnoticed out of high school and undrafted out of college, but next week he’ll likely sign an NFL free-agent deal that will set him and his family up for life and maybe make him the centerpiece of an offense—payback for all the years when self-belief and hard work were what kept him going.

Because the Chargers were 12-4 and had designs on getting to Atlanta, it wasn’t easy for Tyrell Williams to walk off the Gillette Stadium turf on January 13 after the Patriots eliminated L.A. in the divisional round.

But it was a relief, for a very specific reason. The fourth-year wide receiver can be candid about that now, some seven-plus weeks later. His 2018 season was ending, of course. The rest of his life was beginning. And for that to happen as it did, he needed a certain kind of luck that no football player is guaranteed.

“For sure, you go through those four years and you get to that last season—I mean, you try to just push those thoughts back and not even think about them, but it definitely creeps in, game after game,” Williams said over the phone on Wednesday night. “I was absolutely, completely relieved to get out of [the season] completely healthy.”

It’s understandable, if you realize the path Williams had to take to arrive at this point, on the precipice of the kind of life-changing money every player dreams of.  He had one scholarship offer out of tiny Cascade High in Oregon. He got one free-agent offer after going undrafted out of Division II Western Oregon in 2015. At every stop it’s been about getting his foot in the door.

And now Williams is about to kick in the door to a Brink’s truck.

This week I reprised a story from 2017, when I set out to find free agents who’d get more cash than the public expected, and spotlighted A.J. Bouye as a prime example. As part of the process, I canvassed team analytics people, cap guys, scouts and player agents to get a feel for where the market was, coming out of the NFL’s annual celebration of tampering (you may know it as the combine) in Indy.

After going through the process again, the parallels between Williams and Bouye are hard to miss. Bouye was overlooked, though not to the degree Williams was, coming out of high school. Both were undrafted. Both had to fight for roster spots, then playing time in crowded position-group rooms filled with pedigreed teammates. Each got just enough opportunity to prove his worth. Each capitalized on that chance.

Bouye wound up with a five-year, $67.5 milion deal from the Jaguars. Williams might not quite get $13.5 million per. But the smart money puts him close to that.

“The main thing is my family will be taken care of forever,” Williams said. “Knowing that I can do anything for them, if they ever need anything, I’m always there to be able to help them in that way. And just to be comfortable, that’d be the other thing—to be able to take trips to see the world and all that stuff, and be able to have my family there to do it with me.

“I mean, that’s always the first thing that comes to my mind, just anything to do with my family. Being able to help them is the main thing for me.”

Williams always believed was good enough. And he’s been lucky enough, too. So now he’s at peace and waiting for next week.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to hit your questions on why Landon Collins is about to become an ex-Giant, the future of the Redskins, how the Jets and Colts will spend their money, the plans of the Vikings and Ravens, and why teams value draft picks the way they do.

We’re starting with the free-agent project. And we’ve got a list of players down below who’ll get more on the market, based on the aforementioned research, than you might think, as well a rundown on the most cap-rich and cap-strapped teams. But first, we’ve got Williams, who’s about to gallop into the national conversation six days from now, led along by outsized contract numbers.

I’d expect Williams to get somewhere around $12 million per year, which would put him comfortably in the top 20 players at his position in terms of salary. Based on what happened in Indy, that money could come from the Browns, Raiders, Colts or Bills, or maybe the Jets or Lions. One way or another, it’s almost certainly coming.

And that’s pretty amazing.

As a high school senior, Williams was a 6'3", 150-pound receiver playing in a wing-T offense, which explains (as does his 700-enrollment school) how he slipped through the recruiting cracks. Just as vividly, Williams can recall the Chargers cutting him in Week 2 of his rookie year, days after he celebrated making the team. He spent most of that 2015 season on the practice squad.

“I really had no idea on the business of it,” Williams said. “So for a while I thought it was over. I didn’t know other teams had the opportunity to pick you up, or you could land on a practice squad or anything like that. I was kind of nervous, I really didn’t know what to expect. And so once I got put onto the practice squad and I started feeling things out, talking my agent, I used that time on the practice squad just to get better.

“And I was going against guys like Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett every single day. I was able to have success in practice so I knew I just needed the opportunity to get in the game. But, definitely, looking back on it, it’s just crazy how quickly things can change for you if you just keep going.”

That’s pretty much how Williams did it. He fought to keep his head above water in Year 1, being brought back up to the active roster in November 2015. In Year 2, 2016, Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson got hurt. That put the ball on the tee for Williams, and he knocked it through the uprights, finishing with 69 catches for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns.

Getting a better understanding of the business side as a rookie made what came next for Williams challenging. Four months after the conclusion of his breakout year, the Chargers spent the seventh overall pick on Clemson receiver Mike Williams. Allen also returned to health in 2017. And so Tyrell Williams became a role player, which he knew could have a lasting effect on his earning power.

“You definitely have that frustration,” he said. “Even coming in as a rookie. I knew with guys like Malcom [Floyd], Stevie and Keenan, it was a tough room to break into, because it was already deep room. That’s when I go back and I say I’m just going to try to do something every single day, whether it’s special teams or receiver, to make it impossible for them to cut me.

“And then once I became a starter, I was doing everything I could every single day to make it impossible for them to make me a backup guy. So over those four years, I really feel like I was able solidify myself.”

What other teams see now is a 6'4", 205-pound burner who has potential to be the focal point of an offense. Even with Allen, Mike Williams and a loaded skill crew around him, he had 41 catches for 653 yards and five touchdowns in what was almost certainly his final season as a Charger.

And he knows, with the money that’s being dangled, someone’s going to be asking him to do a whole lot more next year—which is music to his ears.

“It’s going to be a team that’s wanting to win, has the pieces to win, but also, I just want the opportunity,” Willliams said. “I feel like my options were definitely limited these last two seasons. So not getting the opportunity to go out there and prove the type of player I am has been tough. That’s another big one—a team that’ll give me the opportunity to prove the type of player I am and what I can bring.

“I feel like I can be the best receiver in the league. And I never want to stop until I feel like I’ve gotten to that point.”

That’s the other thing about Williams—he promised that the big money I expect he’ll get won’t change his approach. He says he’ll still be the guy who fought his way through the fringes of the league and into a very, very nice payday.

“I’m going take that to whatever team I do go to, that kind of mindset, and have it continue to push me,” he says. “I definitely have things I want to prove to every team in the league that passed on me then and will pass on me now.”

There are a lot of fewer that would now than there were four years ago, for sure.

To set up the list of other less-heralded players like Williams looking to cash in big, here’s a rundown of the teams with the most and least cap space going into next season, per a league ledger that went out Tuesday (which doesn’t include moves over the last 24 hours, like Jamie Collins being cut in Cleveland):

Top 25%
Jets, $103.55M
Colts, $101.52M
Bills, $75.32M
Texans, $73.34M
Browns, $71.97M
Raiders, $69.61M
Niners, $64.36M
Titans, $42.80M

Bottom 25%
Jaguars $1.93M
Buccaneers $2.67M
Saints $3.67M
Vikings $4.56M
Falcons $5.99M
Chiefs $8.43M
Dolphins $8.84M
Steelers $11.43M

And now, here are seven players who, along with Williams, will likely make more than you think when free agency opens next week:

Patriots LT Trent Brown: Teams need offensive linemen, as evidenced by what happened last March—the market produced the richest tackle, guard and center contracts in league history. And Brown was solid as Nate Solder’s replacement in Foxboro, setting him to, perhaps, get in the neighborhood of what Donovan Smith just received—three years, $41.5 million—in Tampa.

Redskins WR Jamison Crowder: Based on what I’ve heard he’s turned down, it wouldn’t shock me to see him land somewhere between $8 million and $10 million per. Slots are more important, and more valued, than ever, which is good news for Crowder, Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley, as well as third-contract candidates Golden Tate and Randall Cobb

Eagles CB Ronald Darby: He tore his ACL in November, which isn’t ideal. But Darby’s high-end ability flashed in both Buffalo and Philly over the last four years, and he may well be in position to take advantage of a weak crop at his position. He’d be an interesting dice roll for a team with a need, like Houston, and it wouldn’t be stunning to see him land in the $12 million per neighborhood.

Patriots DE Trey Flowers: One beneficiary of all the pass rusher tags, Flowers has had 21 sacks over the last three years, and is versatile enough to play inside and out on passing downs, and in run support. On top of that, you have natural landing spots, like Detroit and Miami, where fit would be easy, with his last two defensive coordinators in charge. So $15 million or $16 million per sounds about right.

Dolphins RT Ja’Wuan James: James hasn’t been a great player in Miami, but talented offensive linemen are getting paid, and this former first-round pick is a talented player. Don’t be stunned if this natural right tackle walks away next week with a deal at about $12 million per.

Redskins OLB Preston Smith: Teams I’ve talked to see Smith as having been a tough scheme fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker—and he still wound up with 24.5 sacks over four years as a Redskin. As such, the feeling is there’s a boatload of untapped potential in the 26-year-old, and a payday probably between $10 million and $12 million per waiting for him.

Ravens OLB Za’Darius Smith: He played one year of high school football, and spent two years in junior college before starring at Kentucky and landing in the NFL. So it’s been a long road, and Smith had to find his way at a position the Ravens always keep well-stocked. That’s why he has only 16 career starts, eight of them coming in 2018. And it’s why it took until last fall for his 8.5-sack breakout season during which he showed havoc-wreaking ability. Look for a deal in the neighborhood of $12 million per year.


From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Who will bring Landon Collins on board and what the hell is wrong with him that NY is letting him go?

Let’s start with the second part of that, and I’ll say something unpopular here: I get what the Giants were doing. Collins, for better or worse, is a box safety—an excellent tackler, a playmaker, but not a good cover guy. And in coordinator James Bettcher’s defense, that limited Collins. Bettcher’s ideal, which you could see with Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson in Arizona, is to have interchangeable safeties. Collins isn’t that.

So taking that into account, Collins’ fit in the Giants defense was a little more linebacker-ish. That’s fine, of course. But is a player in that position worth $11.15 million ayear, which is the safety tag? No. Which is to say, I think the Giants would’ve liked to keep Collins, just not at that price.

As for where he goes, I’ve been told by a couple people that his best value would be playing the Kam Chancellor role in a Seattle-style defense. Atlanta has Keanu Neal. The Chargers have Derwin James. So maybe San Francisco would be a fit? Or even the Seahawks themselves? Should be interesting, since most of the highest-paid safeties in football are cover safeties.

From Strick 9 (@SpiderStrick): Do the Skins free up enough space to make a splash or two and reinvigorate a deteriorating fan base? Or does Bruce Allen concentrate on below-average FAs for below-market deals again, then with a dead smile claim they’re close, after a 5-11 season in ’19?

I wouldn’t be totally stunned if the Redskins took a big swing or two. Maybe it’s Antonio Brown. Maybe it’s Josh Rosen. Their biggest problem in pulling off the former (not so much the latter, since Rosen is cheap) relates to their cap situation. And that’s why some eyes have been on Washington players who could wind up on the chopping block.

Josh Norman is on the books for $14.5 million against the cap and $11.5 million in cash for 2019, and cutting him would give the team an extra $8.5 million under the cap. Maybe one of the pricey tight ends—Vernon Davis or Jordan Reed—is gone?

Point is, logistically it’d be hard for the Skins to have a splashy March. But it wouldn’t be impossible.

From Scott Lakin (@Soxnation0613): Is there real interest between Golden Tate and the Patriots?

I can tell you that there absolutely was in the fall, but that doesn’t mean there is now. My feeling is that the Patriots like Tate as a player. I also think this may be the offseason they work to get a little younger at receiver. Julian Edelman turns 33 in May and is the only proven receiver they have under contract. Chris Hogan turns 31 in October and a free agent now.

So does it makes sense to add Tate, two months older than Hogan, to the mix? Or would you rather spend on Jamison Crowder, who could come cheaper, is only 25 years old, and could be the heir apparent to Edelman’s place in the Troy Brown/Wes Welker slot-receiver lineage? Tate’s been a really, really good player for a long time, so it’s not as simple as looking at birthdates. But that should be a factor.

From Countryboi567 (@Countryboi567): Chiefs/Landon Collins—match made in heaven??

Steve Spagnuolo’s presence in Kansas City certainly helps—Collins’ development happened chiefly on Spags’ watch as Giants DC, and he had his best season (2016) when Spags was running the defensive show in Jersey. Plus, we’ve seen Spagnuolo get the most out of thumper-type safeties in the past (going back to Michael Lewis being that guy for Jim Johnson’s defenses in Philly all those years ago).

So yes, the Chiefs would make sense in a perfect world. Unfortunately for K.C., in the real world they only had $8.43 million in cap space going into Tuesday. They’ll make some back when Justin Houston comes off the books, and could get more if Dee Ford is dealt. But if that happens, the pass rush becomes a big need. Maybe Eric Berry is gone? But Collins is a different type of safety, so that would create another need.

Collins-to-KC could happen. Getting there just won’t be simple.

From Patrick Minton (@PatrickMinton): Jets and Colts have a ton of money. Who will be their first calls?

Start with the Jets. There are needs, so the question is where you match one with quality in the free-agent group. I’d start with an edge rusher to juice Gregg Williams’ scheme, maybe a Preston Smith or a Za’Darius Smith, with untapped upside. And I wouldn’t rule out a linebacker like C.J. Mosley or Anthony Barr (who’d be a fun Swiss Army knife in that defense), given how Williams’ teams have invested at the position.

From there, because the Jets have nine figures in cap space, the offense can be addressed. The line could use work. And an offensive playmaker will be in the mix. Yes, it could be Le’Veon Bell, but only if the price tag is moderate. Otherwise a young guy without as much tread on the tire, like Tevin Coleman, could make sense.

I’d be a little surprised if the Jets traded any draft capital to get a veteran, unless it was a pick-swap type of deal, only because New York is already without its second-rounder, gone to Indy in the trade up to get Sam Darnold last year.

As for the Colts, I’d look first and foremost at the pass-rushers. Either of the Smiths could be in play, or maybe a trade for Dee Ford. I do think they’ll play it more conservative than the Jets. But I would rule out the idea that they could at least explore the trade market for a No. 1 receiver.

From Terry Varichak (@dobsy1971): Please tell me the Vikings are going to do something/anything! Thanks.

I wouldn’t hold your breath. The Vikings have a couple big-name free agents on defense in Barr and Sheldon Richardson, and not much room to work with—as of earlier this week, Minnesota was just $4.56 million under the salary cap. So I think they make some room (guys like Everson Griffen and Anderson Sendejo could be in jeopardy), make a run at hanging on to their own (depth pieces Anthony Harris and Nick Easton are up, too), and stay quiet on the open market.

The Vikings do have needs, and the good news is their first four slotted picks (18, 50, 81, 114) are intact, and the draft class looks to line up nicely with what they’ll be looking for. Minnesota very easily could get a defensive piece in the first round, and two starting offensive linemen with the two Saturday picks.

From Tom Strachan (@tstrachanedit): Are the Ravens on the cusp of a complete rebuild?

They’re more in the middle of a cap cleanup, which looks to be a priority in the early days of the Eric DeCosta era in Baltimore. And this relates back to the Joe Flacco contract. Before drafting Lamar Jackson last year, the Ravens actually studied how Flacco’s production matched up with the resources (cap, etc.) they were sinking into him. And they believe that, from a value standpoint, they’re in a better spot now.

I’d expect the Ravens to think that way across the board. Two years ago they carried $23.5 million in dead money. Last year that number was down to $13.9 million. They’ll carry a bunch this year, with Flacco’s prorated money hitting the books. But I’d expect that the days of chasing old deals and mortgaging contracts forward to be numbered.

Also, remember that the team routinely has let big-money free agents (like Za’Darius Smith will be) leave to score comp picks in return. That’s not new. The Ravens got a third-rounder this year for letting center Ryan Jensen walk last March.

From Brian (@elliottbp): Why do NFL teams overvalue draft picks when it comes to veteran trades?

So this one’s easy—don’t just look at the player, look at his price. The Saints had Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams for a total of $14.6 million in cap dollars last year. That seven starter-level players, all from two draft classes, taking up just 8.2 percent of New Orleans’ salary cap.

Throw in the Saints’ first very productive first two picks in 2018, Marcus Davenport and Tre’Quan Smith, and that number goes up to $17.8 million, or 10 percent of the team’s cap. That’s nine good-to-great players, all starter-level, accounting for 16 percent of the roster and making 10 percent of the money.

All of this is liberating for a team. It frees you to bring in veteran free agents like Demario Davis and Larry Warford. It frees you to use picks as capital, because you don’t need the young talent as badly as others—and the Saints did use picks that way in moving up for Davenport, and trading for Teddy Bridgewater and Eli Apple last year. It just makes everything easier.

The Seahawks of 2012 and ’13 are a perfect example of this. Their quarterback was making nothing, nor was most of the rest of their young core, which allowed for big swings at players like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett and, ultimately, set up a Super Bowl winner.

That was a little long-winded, but that’s why draft picks are important. And why they’re routinely valued by teams over bringing in expensive veterans.

Question or comment? Email us at