Splashy free agency moves always get fans excited, but they rarely lead to championship success. More often, it’s the understanding of how to utilize underrated NFL free agents that make the biggest impact long term.
The upcoming free-agency frenzy in March should be a bit crazier than usual, because there is so much money to spend. There are 19 teams with more than $30 million in cap space heading into the new league year.
We took a look at the teams in the best position, flush with cash to crush free agency, which you can read about here.
In short, there is a lot of money to go around.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at 10 underrated players who are set to rake in some serious cash this spring.
Robert Woods, wide receiver
Woods is a guy who has been underutilized in Buffalo the past couple of years playing with Tyrod Taylor, who isn’t exactly a pocket, precision passer, thriving on timing and reading defenses before the snap.
His best campaign came in 2014 (Woods’ second season out of USC) when he caught 65 passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns. The team’s starting quarterback most of that season was Kyle Orton, who is more of a traditional pocket quarterback.
A tremendous route runner, Woods also possesses excellent hands and has the ability to control his body on tough catches on the perimeter and in the end zone. And Woods isn’t slow by any measure, despite being labeled as a possession receiver. He logged a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine and has a career reception average of 12.1 yards, which isn’t shabby whatsoever.
We don’t expect Woods to haul in $10 million-plus per year, but he’s going to have some serious suitors for his services. Pair him with a quarterback like Tom Brady (who always needs skilled perimeter guys) and you’re going to see quite the uptick in production.
Mario Addison, defensive end
Unless you’re a fan of the Carolina Panthers or just watch them play a lot, you probably don’t know who Mario Addison is. And you shouldn’t feel bad about that. Addison was originally an undrafted free agent out of Troy who spent his first two NFL seasons bouncing around four different teams and earning just one start.
He then caught on with the Panthers in 2013 and finally stuck. The past three years, he’s been a situational pass-rusher for Carolina, racking up 22 sacks, including 11 this past season.
He’s gotten better each year he’s been in the league, and at the age of 29 it’s about time Addison — a guy who’s earned just over $5 million in six years — got paid for his efforts.
Carolina is starved for talent on the edge and could try to keep Addison from hitting the open market in March. He’s going to want to find a landing spot where he can be a featured player and starter, and he’s going to want some guaranteed money coming his way. The Panthers need him to stay but perhaps might be more inclined to pay Kawann Short, who is a beast inside (more on him later) and/or pay for talent on the offensive line.
This means Addison very well could become a coveted free agent, in which case he’ll have the best chance to make some big money.
Jack Doyle, tight end
Stuck behind Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen his first three years in the NFL, Doyle barely showed up as a blip on the radar, catching 35 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
Then the New Orleans Saints overpaid for Fleener’s services, leaving Doyle to rise up in his stead. And he didn’t disappoint. Catching 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdown, Doyle was the second-leading receiver for the Indianapolis Colts last season.
Though his ability as a blocker remains a work in progress, Doyle showed he’s capable of making big plays in the passing game — a huge plus in today’s NFL. According to one report, he’s expected to test the open market in March. It makes sense, because he might land a bigger contract on another squad, and this could be his best opportunity to land a nice pile of guaranteed money.
Doyle will be just 27 years old when the 2017 season starts. He still has plenty of room to grow as an NFL tight end. His upside was clearly seen this past season and he should earn a nice new contract this spring, either with the Colts again or with another tight end-needy team with cash to spend.
Kawann Short, defensive tackle
Aside from Luke Kuechly, perhaps no one player is as important to Carolina’s defensive success as Short.
Rivera: "Kawann Short is a big part of what we do."
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) February 7, 2017
He just finished out his rookie contract and is in line to make serious dough this spring.
Short is one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the NFL. Though, he’s rarely mentioned as an equal to the likes Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy and Fletcher Cox receive praise in the national media. And that’s a shame.
He is equally dangerous against the run or the pass and has racked up 17 sacks the past two seasons, which is a huge total for a defensive tackle.
The Panthers aren’t going to let Short walk. If they cannot work out a long-term contract before March 1, then he will receive the franchise tag designation. This means his salary for 2017 would be right around $13.5 million. Even if he’s tagged, Short’s representatives will continue working with Carolina to attempt striking a long-term deal.
Either way, he’s about to get paid.
Kenny Stills, wide receiver
It’s pretty incredible Stills isn’t talked about with more enthusiasm on a national level. All this guy has done the past four years is catch 164 passes for 2,738 yards and 20 touchdowns. And he had a breakout campaign playing in Miami this past year, hauling in nine touchdowns and averaging 17.3 yards per catch.
Deep threats who are consistent scorers are rare in this league, and Stills is proving to be one of the best in the business. Therefore it’s not surprising that the Palm Beach Post considers re-signing Stills to be the top priority for the Dolphins, though it will cost them.
“If a team like the Eagles, Rams or 49ers chooses to offer him more than $8 million per season, perhaps Stills jets,” writes Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post. “The hope is Stills relishes his connection with head coach Adam Gase and his fit for the offense and accepts a deal in the range of $6.5 million per season.”
It may be wishful thinking that Stills would turn down a much larger offer because he likes working with Gase.
Stills made just $3.35 million his first four seasons. He’s going to be looking to cash in on his tremendous 2016 success. And really, who can blame him?
A.J. Bouye, cornerback
Many GMs believe Houston CB A.J. Bouye's breakout season could be legit and consider him the most intriguing free agent on the market pic.twitter.com/nyG3dPUk0S
— Bleacher Report NFL (@BR_NFL) February 15, 2017
Those who study film and follow the NFL closely don’t underrate Bouye. But he’s not a name most fans will recognize, either.
An undrafted free agent out of Central Florida, Bouye’s NFL career got off to a rough start. He signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent and spent six games on special teams, registering two tackles before a hamstring injury landed him on IR to end his season.
Then he exploded onto the scene in 2014, leading Houston with three interceptions, including a pick-six. He’s only gotten better since then, emerging this past year as one of the premier cover corner/safety combos in the NFL. He was all over the darn field against the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots in the playoffs this past month, nabbing interceptions in both games.
While some general managers might be hesitant to roll out the red carpet and money bags for Bouye, we’re confident at least one team will make him a very rich, very happy young man.
T.J. Lang, offensive guard
An interior lineman who excels in pass protection, Lang is one of the NFL’s top guards and is a perfect fit for any team featuring a top-flight quarterback. Kind of like the one he actually has played for the past eight years, the Green Bay Packers.
Lang has stated he wants to return to the Packers, but the franchise has yet to reach out to him about re-signing this spring.
— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) February 13, 2017
Originally a fourth-round pick out of East Michigan, he wasn’t making much his first three years in the league. Then the Packers gave him a four-year extension worth $20.8 million in 2012. He’s only gotten better since then and stands to make more per year than he did on that deal.
If the Packers feel that moving on is in their best interest, then Lang will have no problem signing with another team.
Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker
This was Melvin Ingram when Browns gave LB Jamie Collins 4-year/$50M contract… pic.twitter.com/RyZyBhtQbL
— Chargers⚡️Hype (@ChargersHype) January 23, 2017
Entering the NFL as the No. 18 overall pick in 2012, Ingram was certainly expected to make a big impact for the San Diego Chargers. Unfortunately for him, his career was derailed early by injuries, and he only started 12 games in his first three years, during which time his statistical and overall impact was nominal.
The past two seasons, however, have shown us what Ingram’s truly capable of doing at the highest level of competition. Starting in all 32 games, he has tallied 125 total tackles, 18.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles.
The best thing about Ingram is that he’s devastatingly good against the run in addition to being a phenomenal pass rusher off the edge.
If the Chargers are smart, they’ll figure out a way to retain him, especially now that Joey Bosa has emerged as another offensive line wrecker.
It might take the franchise tag to lock him up before he hits free agency, because we’re betting Ingram’s representatives are going to be pushing for a big number. Elite pass rushers are getting paid almost as much as quarterbacks these days, and Ingram’s not far from the top of the heap.
Rick Wagner, offensive tackle
The Baltimore Ravens don’t want to lose Wagner. They’re already trying to get him signed, but he’s reportedly rebuffed their initial offer, and at this point it’s a given he will take his talents to the open market to see what kind of deal he can land.
Wagner is a fluid pass protector who can immediately upgrade many offensive lines around the league. And there are a few high-profile quarterbacks in dire need of protection, including Cam Newton, whose Carolina Panthers must invest money into their offensive line.
The past three years in Baltimore, Wagner has not only been excellent protecting Joe Flacco but has been durable as well, starting 45 games.
He’s not going to land an elite-level contract this offseason, but Wagner’s contract will likely raise some eyebrows when it’s all said and done.
Tony Jefferson, safety
A young safety with low mileage who has just started scratching the surface of his potential, Jefferson will have some serious interest around the league.
He logged 930 snaps for the Arizona Cardinals this past season before an MCL injury landed him on IR to close out the season. A player who can stuff the run or blitz off the edge in the box and who is also more than capable of making big plays deep, the sky is the limit for Jefferson, who has started just 31 games thus far in his four-year career.
One of the teams that could make him a big offer is the Oakland Raiders, a team that desperately needs help on the back end of its defense. It’s also a team that Jefferson seemingly has highlighted as one he’d like to join.
— The Raiders Wire (@TheRaidersWire) February 15, 2017
Oakland won’t be alone pursuing Jefferson, however. He stands to make a nice pile of cash this offseason and appears destined to leave the Cardinals, who don’t have as much room as some other competitive teams, including the Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans and even the champs, the New England Patriots.