The first wave of players have long been signed to NFL rosters, leaving second- and third-tier players to scrounge for what’s left of teams’ salary cap space. That’s not to say the players remaining are scrubs—far from it, in fact.
Most positions still have an amount of talent remaining to be had by general managers who need to fill holes before and after the draft.
Teams in need of a quarterback should look to the draft or trade at this point. Other than that, solid depth and a bevy of starting-caliber players still reside on the free-agent market. Let’s go over the 10 best players remaining on said market.
10. Red Bryant, Defensive End, Jacksonville Jaguars
This massive 31-year-old defensive end is among the best at his position against the run. Bryant finished the 2014 campaign as the third-best run-stuffing player at his position in the NFL (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required). That came after years of tremendous success in a similar role with the Seattle Seahawks. Look for Bryant to catch on at some point after the draft when the compensatory formula is no longer relevant. In fact, Seattle might very well be a solid fit.
9. Jermaine Gresham, Tight End, Cincinnati Bengals
He made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and again in 2012 averaging 60 receptions, 667 yards, five touchdowns and dropping 10.4 percent of catchable passes thrown his way. It’s clear playing tight end is about more than being a great receiver, because Gresham is not that.
To his credit, Gresham’s hard work has paid off of late, as he led all tight ends last season with a 1.59 percent drop rate, according to Pro Football Reference (subscription required).
He is, however, one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL, as shown by the Cincinnati Bengals’ willingness to keep him in for blocking purposes in 2014—he was one of four tight ends in the league to log more than 100 pass-blocking snaps and was fourth in pass-blocking efficiency (PBE), again via PFF.
Gresham is a solid red-zone target. Since his rookie season, only five tight ends have more red-zone touchdowns than his 21 (Jimmy Graham 41, Rob Gronkowski 41, Antonio Gates 31, Tony Gonzalez 28, Jason Witten 23, Vernon Davis).
8. Anthony Collins, Offensive Tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Collins went from free-agent hero to Sunday zero in less than a full season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his final year with the Bengals, he allowed no sacks and just 12 quarterback pressures in 14 games while being rated as one of PFF’s top 15 left tackles.
Last season while in Tampa, he allowed a sack and 29 total pressures while playing in 10 games thanks to various injuries. The Bucs released him this offseason, saving them $3 million toward their cap space and paving the way for either Demar Dotson or a rookie in 2015, whichever way head coach Lovie Smith chooses to go.
Collins won’t be 30 until November and, if healthy, should be considered a solid starting option for a team in need. However, it has to be for the right price, which could be the reason he’s still on the market.
7. Justin Blalock, Offensive Guard, Atlanta Falcons
Blalock has come a long way since allowing 11 sacks, 46 total pressures and being rated as PFF’s worst offensive tackle as a rookie in 2007; he has allowed just 18 sacks in seven seasons since.
Despite being 31 years old and past his prime, Blalock can still provide a team with good depth and leadership along the offensive line. He is durable, having missed just three games in eight seasons—he hardly even showed up on an injury report while with the Falcons.
The only question regarding Blalock is how much longer he will—or can—play before calling it quits.
6. Quintin Demps, Safety, New York Giants
It took Demps longer than he would have liked to become an impact player, but the past two seasons have shown he has the skills to be a starting free safety somewhere in the league.
Quintin Demps has been targeted 57 times in the past two seasons and has 8 INT as a part-time safety. 14.04% INT rate. Whew
— Shaun Church (@ShaunChurch84) April 10, 2015
Eight interceptions on 57 targets over the past two years is not the best in the league (Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson has 11 interceptions on 53 targets since 2013), but it is really good considering Demps wasn’t a full-time starter.
He is a ball-hawk with soft hands and some return ability, should a team need him in that role—he took a kick 95 yards for a touchdown in 2013 while with the Chiefs.
5. Tommy Kelly, Defensive Line, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals signed defensive tackle Tommy Kelly late last offseason after Darnell Dockett tore his ACL during the first week of training camp. All Kelly did was finish seventh among 3-4 defensive ends with 41 quarterback pressures while providing the occasional fantastic soundbite.
Kelly just turned 34. While it remains to be seen whether anyone signs the 11-year veteran, it must be said that he can still play and provides an amount of vocal leadership to a locker room. That is an underrated aspect to his game as a whole, but you can be sure NFL general managers know what he means to a locker room.
Last November, Cardinals defensive line coach Brenston Buckner thanked New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for releasing Kelly, according to Michael Silver of NFL.com:
Tell Bill (Belichick) I said, ‘Thank you.’ Kelly’s been great for us. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
4. Brandon Spikes, Inside Linebacker, Buffalo Bills
One of the more talented run defenders in the league, Spikes’ attitude has gotten in the way of him becoming a locker-room leader and permanent on-field force for a franchise.
The Patriots took him in the second round of the 2010 draft and earned a part-time role as a run defender as a rookie. He became a full-time starter for the 2011 season and was outstanding during the 2012 campaign, finishing with 72 total tackles and 34 stops in the run game while earning the highest ILB grade against the run, according to PFF. He played just as well the next year, his final with New England.
His attitude made it easy for the Patriots to move on after his rookie contract ran out following the 2013 season. The Buffalo Bills picked him up on a one-year, $3 million deal, making him a part-time player. He again excelled in stopping the run.
Bills GM Doug Whaley told Mike Rodak of ESPN.com he would like to bring Spikes back in 2015, but said the team is all but “tapped out” with regard to the salary cap and that any remaining free-agent deals would likely be “minimum-salary guys.”
3. Knowshon Moreno, Running Back, Miami Dolphins
Moreno played in only three games last season thanks to elbow and knee injuries, but he wasn’t the starter for Miami before going down for the season. That said, he was productive in those three games, averaging 4.8 yards per carry—most of the damage coming Week 1 against the Patriots (24 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown).
He is just 27 years old and was coming off a 1,000-yard season when he signed a one-year, $3 million prove-it contract with the Dolphins. If healthy, Moreno could again be a threat in a NFL backfield.
At 5’10” and a thick 215 pounds, he has enough behind his pads to carry a rushing attack on his back or provide relief for a smaller, speedier back on short-yardage and goal-line downs.
Injuries have been a bugaboo for Moreno, however, and that could be what is keeping a team from biting.
2. Ray Rice, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens
Rice is a controversial player because of his off-field incident that made worldwide news. However, if you’re into forgiveness and second chances, Rice is your guy.
He is eager to get back to football, as he told New York Magazine (h/t CBS Baltimore):
I’ve still got a whole lot of game and I’m not ready to call it quits.
He had a lot of game before his incident, and all it would take is one team to give him a chance to show he’s still a top-caliber option out of the backfield.
The former second-round pick out of Rutgers has rushed for 6,180 yards in six seasons and has added another 3,034 yards receiving. His 9,214 yards from scrimmage is a Baltimore Ravens record, edging out Jamal Lewis’ 9,166 yards, which the Pro Bowl back accumulated from 2000 through 2006—a full season more than it took Rice to break the record.
1. Stefen Wisniewski, Center, Oakland Raiders
Thought of as the top available center entering free agency, Wisniewski still sits waiting for the right contract in the right city while seven of his positional peers have signed new deals, including the former Kansas City Chiefs’ Rodney Hudson, who will replace him with the Oakland Raiders on a fat, five-year, $44.5 million contract.
Wisniewski allowed six total pressures and nary a sack last season while earning PFF’s third-highest PBE rating among centers.[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]Wisniewski allowed six total pressures and nary a sack last season while earning PFF’s third-highest PBE rating among centers. [/mks_pullquote] In fact, he never ranked outside the top-five in PBE since taking over Oakland’s starting center spot full time in 2012.
A combination of asking price and shoulder surgery likely gives justification to his still being available. There is no other reason a top center would be on the market this long. Teams need a leader along the offensive line. That role systematically goes to the center; it’s a role that suits Wisniewski to a T.
Photo: USA Today Images