It’s been less than a week since the free agency market opened, and many of the upper-echelon players have already been picked up. From DeMarcus Ware moving on to the Denver Broncos, to Eric Decker signing with the New York Jets, player movement has been taking place in rapid fashion over the past six days. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t solid options still out there.
As we prepare for the second wave of free agency, some teams that remained quiet through the first week will come calling in order to fill holes on the cheap. They’ll likely be in the market for Pro Bowl performers such as Antonio Cromartie, Jared Allen, Knowshon Moreno and Henry Melton to name a few. Here are The Sports Daily‘s 15 best remaining NFL free agents who are still on the market, with predictions on where each might land.
15) Miles Austin, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys
Austin is really only one year removed from being a decent No. 2 receiver. He recorded nearly 1,000 receiving yards and six touchdowns for the Cowboys back in 2012. There are a lot of teams that would take those numbers from their secondary receiving target. The issue here is that he’s now considered injury prone after missing a total of 11 games over the past three seasons.
Dallas decided to cut ties with Austin for a number of reasons, mainly due to his ridiculous cap number in 2014. The good news here for potential suitors is that Austin should come on the cheap after a disastrous 2013 campaign. There hasn’t been much news on this front since he was cut loose by Dallas.
We’d likely have to look at teams who have been on the market for a receiver, but have missed out. In that, the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are two possible destinations. Carolina’s current WR corps lacks a receiver that caught a single pass last season! Meanwhile, Austin could serve as the 49ers primary slot guy behind Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
14) Zach Strief, offensive tackle, New Orleans Saints
(UPDATE: Strief and the Saints agreed to a 5-year deal hours after this article was published.)
Consistent and underrated, Strief has quietly been a good offensive tackle for the Saints over the years. He’s started 39 games at right tackle over the past three seasons and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ third-best pass-protecting offensive tackle last season. He allowed just four quarterback hits in 1,062 snaps. Not too shabby at all.
Strief has actually been turning down visits left and right since the start of free agency, according to NOLA.com,. We have to wonder exactly what this means. Is it possible that he’s thinking about hanging it up after just eight NFL seasons? If not, there are plenty of teams who will continue to show interest in him as a starting right tackle. It just remains to be seen whether he will line up any visits in the not-so-distant future.
13) Michael Vick, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles
To say the market hasn’t been kind to Vick thus far would be an understatement. He has yet to visit with a team through nearly one week of free agency and isn’t drawing a ton of interest as a stopgap starter option.
The market for Vick seems to be thinning out. But Vick remains the New York Jets’ top choice to compete with Geno Smith for the starting gig, according to the New York Post. And the Oakland Raiders are in serious discussions with the Houston Texans for Matt Schaub. This would limit the market for Vick even further.
Other teams that could possibly show interest in Vick moving forward include the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and the aforementioned Texans. Then you have this…
Michael Vick likely to wait until after draft to sign with team; #Raiders waiting to see what happens w/ Schaub, also interested in Freeman
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) March 12, 2014
Tafur is 100 percent correct here. Vick may indeed wait until after the draft to seek out the best possible option. Say a team like the Texans pass up on a quarterback near the top of the draft to go for one of the best pass rushers in the class. That would make them an extremely attractive destination, especially if Schaub is traded between now and then.
12) Donald Penn, offensive tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It was just a few seasons ago that Penn was a Pro Bowler for Tampa Bay. He’s started all 16 games in each of the last six seasons and has been among the most consistent pass protectors during that span. Before putting up a negative grade on Pro Football Focus’ official grading metric this past season, Penn finished with positive grades in each of the last two campaigns. In fact, he graded out just outside of the top 25 in pass protection from the offensive tackle position back in 2011.
Whichever team signs Penn will be getting stability on the left side of the line. He might not be anywhere near elite, but Penn can act as a serviceable stopgap option. Penn visited the Oakland Raiders late last week. He left Oakland without a deal and has already moved on to a visit with the Washington Redskins.
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) March 15, 2014
While Washington may want Penn to play right tackle, it seems that he would be a better fit to play left tackle in Oakland. The Raiders inked former New York Jets tackle Austin Howard to a five-year contract last week. Howard is nothing more than a right tackle at this stage in his career. Washington already has a franchise book end in the form of Trent Williams.
11) Jermichael Finley, tight end, Green Bay Packers
Finley seemed all set to sign with the Seattle Seahawks last week, but it didn’t work out simply because the medicals haven’t checked out yet. There is “mutual interest” between the two sides, according to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport,Though, it’s also important to point out that current Seahawks starting tight end Zach Miller agreed to a contract restructure and the team retained free-agent Anthony McCoy on a one-year deal.
If for some reason Finley doesn’t end up with the defending Super Bowl champs, there are a few different teams out there that could show interest, depending on how his medicals check out. The New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders come to mind first. As it is, Finley is a starter-caliber tight end in the NFL. It’s now all about finding the right match with a team in need of an actual starter.
10) Shaun Hill, quarterback, Detroit Lions
Hill is among the best backup quarterbacks in the entire NFL and could even be starting for a handful of teams out there. While that isn’t likely, one of these teams that are targeting a quarterback early in the upcoming draft may want to look into Hill as either a stopgap starter or experienced veteran backup.
It might fly under the radar, but Hill has thrown 41 touchdowns compared to 23 interceptions in nine seasons. He might not be flashy, but he gets the job done and avoids the dreaded mistakes—something that Vick needs to work on.
Texans 5 Offensive Free Agency Needs/Fits: 1) Mike Vick / Shaun Hill 2) Brandon Pettigrew 3) Austin Howard / Zach Strief 4) Andrew Hawkins..
— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) March 11, 2014
The Texans would be a mighty fine fit, especially if they go quarterback No. 1 overall. Either as a one-year starter or backup, he’d bring a lot to the table for that team. The idea of Hill being one snap away from starting has to make more sense than say Case Keenum or T.J. Yates.
9) Owen Daniels, tight end, Houston Texans
Could Matt Schaub and Daniels be a package-type deal in Oakland? As I’ve mentioned before, the veteran quarterback could very well be on his way to Northern California. If that happens, why not pair him up with a player that has been one of his favorite targets in Houston over the years? While Mychal Rivera is a nice young tight end, Oakland has both the need and the money to get something done on this front.
Daniels has met with both the Washington Redskins and Green Bay Packers since Houston cut him loose earlier this month (via Adam Caplan, ESPN). Green Bay retained backup Andrew Quarless last week, but is still in the market for a starter due to the likely departure of the aforementioned Finley in free agency. As it relates to the Redskins, they don’t seem like a real fit with youngster Jordan Reed entrenched in as their starting tight end.
8) Shaun Phillips, linebacker, Denver Broncos
After nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Phillips caught on with the Denver Broncos last season and recorded a team-high 10 sacks. He’s an aging pass-rush specialist who isn’t necessarily limited by scheme. The 32-year-old played with his hands up at outside linebacker during his days in San Diego, but was seen more with his hands down in the Broncos 4-3 scheme last year.
Interest in Phillips has been tepid, at best. Prior to the start of free agency, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean indicated that the Tennessee Titans were going to show interest in the pass rusher.
I still have Shaun Phillips as a possible vet LEO option. A little light. Could be had for $2M on a 1 yr deal I bet and possibly get 8+ scks
— Brian Nemhauser (@hawkblogger) March 12, 2014
Phillips would be beneficial as a pass-rush specialist in Seattle’s front seven. He’d be able to come in and spell the likes of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in obvious passing downs.
7) Maurice Jones-Drew, running back, Jacksonville Jaguars
Even after retaining Darren McFadden on a non-guaranteed one-year deal, the Oakland Raiders seem to be interested in Jones-Drew. The two sides are apparently set to meet at some point this week. As one of the best all-around running backs of our generation, we can expect there to be somewhat of a decent market for Jones-Drew on a short-term deal.
Coming off a career-worst season that saw him average just 3.4 yards per rush and with turning 29 later this March, there is little reason to believe he is going to be a long-term solution. The idea here is to sign him for a year or two as a stopgap measure. It also appears that the Jets are showing “serious interest,” per New York Daily News.
Then you have the 49ers, who could actually make the decision to replace an aging Frank Gore with a cheaper veteran option or team the two up to form a dynamic backfield. Jones-Drew is a local boy and has in the past indicated how much he’d love to play in California. With that said, Oakland is the likeliest of the two Northern California teams to land him.
6) Antonio Cromartie, cornerback, New York Jets
The elder Cromartie might want us to believe that he’s headed to the desert to team up with Patrick Peterson in Arizona, but that’s a two-way street. There is no word on the Cardinals perceived interest. Meanwhile, Rich Cimini of ESPN New York has indicated that Cromartie would like to return to the Jets, who already hosted his cousin over the weekend.
In any event, Cromartie is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign that saw him record three interceptions and 10 passes defended for the Jets. Pro Football Focus, however, graded him out as the second-worst cornerback in pass coverage last season. Talk about a major split between real production and the Pro Bowl itself.
Other teams that might show interest in the veteran cornerback include the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans. For their part, the 49ers didn’t seem willing to give either Tarell Brown or Walter Thurmond III $3.5 million on a one-year contract. It’s hard to imagine them being able to find the cash for Cromartie. In the end, it looks like he’ll end up with one of the New Jersey teams.
5) Henry Melton, defensive tackle, Chicago Bears
It seems as if Melton is following the same path as Allen (report from NFL.com).. He met with Seattle over the weekend and left without a contract. The defensive tackle is now set to meet with Dallas today. Melton, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl after an impressive 2012 campaign, missed all but three games last season due to injury. Interestingly enough, he’s among the highest-touted free agents during this second wave of free agency.
Dallas is now without all four of its defensive line starters from two seasons ago and haven’t really gone about replacing them. Melton would come in and be a solid interior pass-rush threat in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme. As it relates to the Seahawks, they retained starting defensive tackle Tony McDaniel and still have the underrated Brandon Mebane on the roster. It’s hard to imagine Melton getting a ton of playing time unless he moves outside in the Seahawks 4-3 scheme, which isn’t where he excels. And at 280 pounds, is that a fit? It seems more like an attempt to fit a square peg into a hole.
4) James Jones, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
It really is a mystery that Jones hasn’t received much play on the free agent market, especially with the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and even Julian Edelman signing deals. Jones has had his issues with drops in the past, but rectified those problems over the past two seasons. He’s dropped just five passes on 181 targets over the past two seasons after dropping six on just 54 targets back in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus.
Green Bay may still be in play for Jones’ services, but it has a younger and cheaper alternative in Jarrett Boykin, who impressed in expanded playing time last season. In reality, it doesn’t make sense for Ted Thompson and Co. to retain Jones at this point.
James Jones would ‘love’ to play for the Panthers. In other news, Carolina has 0 WR’s left who caught a pass in 2013 http://t.co/v8TTBz7tiL
— Eye on Football (@EyeOnNFL) March 16, 2014
Considering how thin the Carolina Panthers are at WR, they would be a logical fit for Jones. Jones nearly signed with his hometown San Francisco 49ers a couple years back. They’re also in the market for a receiver, as evidenced by their interest in Hakeem Nicks, Julian Edelman and Emmanuel Sanders.
3) Jared Allen, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings
After visiting with the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend, Allen takes his show to Dallas for a visit with the Cowboys on Tuesday (via The Seattle Times). As the best pass rusher left on a slowly dwindling market, Allen should be a sexy option for teams looking to add a veteran to the front seven. Dallas released long time defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware last week and is looking to fill that hole with yet another veteran. Meanwhile, the Seahawks had to part ways with Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, who were both slated to count a lot against the cap in 2014. It’s hard to imagine the Seahawks being able to afford someone of Allen’s caliber at this point.
Teams that strictly run a 4-3 defense are going to be the main ones interested in Allen’s services, which does make the market for him quite smaller in the modern NFL. It does seem that Dallas is the best fit right now, but Jerry Jones and Co. might not have the cash to strike a deal with the future Hall of Famer.
Allen had previously met with the Denver Broncos before they inked DeMarcus Ware to a three-year, $30 million contract. It seems that they are not viable suitors at this point. Other teams that could potentially show interest in the defensive end are the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals.
2) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, cornerback, Denver Broncos
In what has become somewhat of an odd situation, Rodgers-Cromartie is currently in New Jersey taking a physical with the New York Giants. This comes on the heels of him already being vetted by the New York Jets medical staff and turning down a six-year, $54 million contract with the Broncos (via The Denver Post).
Remember, there was talk prior to the start of the new league year that Rodgers-Cromartie might in fact decide to hang up his cleats (per CBS Sports). If he’s 100 percent committed to playing in 2014 and beyond, he’s likely the best remaining free agent on the market. However, that previous report may force some teams to look long and hard about giving him a lot of guaranteed money.
Outside of the Jets and Giants, there are teams out there that both have the need and have showed interest in cornerbacks this offseason. The Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals among them. Rodgers-Cromartie started 13 games for the defending AFC champs last season, breaking up 19 passes and racking up three interceptions.
1) Knowshon Moreno, running back, Denver Broncos
For someone that produced nearly 1,600 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns last season, Moreno hasn’t received a ton of play on the open market. Maybe teams were waiting to see how the Ben Tate situation played out, but we should start to hear more on the Moreno front in the not-so-distant future.
No negotiations between the Broncos and Knowshon Moreno. Sources tell me he will shop.
— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) March 11, 2014
Assuming that the Broncos aren’t in play, the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are two teams that could be interested. Miami had a hell of a time running the ball last season with Lamar Miller, who was inconsistent to say the least. He averaged four yards per rush, but put up 20 yards or less in seven different games.
As it relates to the Jets, they do have both Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory on the roster. Adding Moreno to the mix means that one of those two would likely get their walking papers. Moreno would not only be a solid rushing running back in New Jersey, he would add a lot in terms of pass protection and receiving out of the backfield.