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Flashy names like Tom Brady, Amari Cooper and Jadeveon Clowney will draw the most attention during free agency, but teams can find high-level contributors in the bargain bin.
Last offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett to a one-year, $4 million deal, and the former Denver Broncos linebacker proceeded to record a league-leading 19.5 sacks in 2019.
The New Orleans Saints signed Teddy Bridgewater, arguably the best backup quarterback in the league, to a one-year, $7.25 million deal. He threw more touchdowns (nine) as a fill-in starter than Nick Foles (three), who signed a four-year, $88 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The former started five contests compared to four for the latter.
Some of the least expensive free-agent investments can yield significant production. Teams should dig deep to preserve cap space and find low-cost assets to fill roster voids. Front offices would have to take risks on players coming off injuries, veterans with just one standout year because of limitations in past roles or talents who have shown promise and inconsistencies.
We’ll focus on eight impending free agents, zooming in on impressive small-window stretches to shine a light on next year’s crop of potential bargain-bin gems.
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Among the top free-agent quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota hits the market at the most inconvenient time. Sure, Philip Rivers had a down year and Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions, but the Tennessee Titans signal-caller lost his starting job to Ryan Tannehill midway through the 2019 season.
Mariota will need to re-establish himself as a potential starter if he signs with a club that has a question mark under center. His next team won’t hand the offense over to him simply because of draft status.
As the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft, Mariota clearly has potential, but he only showed finite flashes during his five-year run in Tennessee. He fits the profile of a modern-day quarterback with his mobility, rushing for 1,399 yards and 11 touchdowns on 242 carries.
For the most part, Mariota protects the football when throwing downfield, logging more than 10 interceptions in only one out of four seasons in a full-time starting role.
Mariota seems unfazed in critical situations. In 2017, the 26-year-old engineered four game-winning drives—only one of five signal-callers to do so that season. During the wild-card round of the 2018 postseason, he led Tennessee to a comeback victory over Kansas City when down 21-3 going into the third quarter.
Based on Mariota’s success at Oregon, he’s most effective in a spread offense with a complementary ground attack. In all three of his collegiate seasons, the Ducks fielded a top-25 rushing offense.
Mariota doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he’s fairly accurate, registering a 68.9 percent completion rate during his last full season under center. Teams can work off his solid ball placement, mobility and starting experience to stabilize an offense.
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Unfortunately for Crowell, he tore his Achilles during a spring workout and spent the entire 2019 season on injured reserve. Don’t bury him deep in the bargain bin.
Crowell isn’t an injury-prone veteran on his last legs. Assuming he bounces back from an Achilles tear, the 27-year-old still has multiple prime years left.
More importantly, Crowell has the skill set of a featured tailback. Through his first four seasons (2014-18), he ranked 12th in yards from scrimmage (4,725) with the second-fewest touches (997) among the dozen running backs leading the former category. In 77 games, the fifth-year veteran has 117 receptions for 922 yards and a touchdown.
Although Crowell hasn’t eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, he’s led his teams on the ground between the 2015 and 2018 campaigns—three consecutive terms with the Cleveland Browns and one for the New York Jets.
If we dig further into the numbers, Crowell showed the ability to overcome shaky offensive lines. In three out of the four seasons as his team’s lead rusher, he ran behind five-man fronts that ranked 28th or worse in run-blocking adjusted line yards, per Football Outsiders.
If the Raiders don’t re-sign Crowell to spell Josh Jacobs, another team can acquire him as a solid component to a one-two punch out of the backfield.
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Breshad Perriman just needed an opportunity. Mostly considered a first-round bust from the 2015 draft, he played up to those lofty expectations in the final quarter of the 2019 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin battled hamstring injuries in December. Their seasons ended after Weeks 14 and 15, respectively. In the absence of his top two perimeter threats, quarterback Jameis Winston turned to Perriman as the lead target in the passing game.
Perriman posted impressive numbers in head coach Bruce Arians’ aggressive aerial attack. In Week 15, the fifth-year wideout logged his first 100-plus-yard game as a pro and eclipsed the century mark in the following two outings as well.
Between Weeks 13 and 17, Perriman ranked third in receiving yards (506) and listed as one of four players with five touchdown receptions. The big-play wideout averaged 20.2 yards per catch during that span.
In 2019, Perriman saw a career-high in targets (69), which coincides with his best totals in receptions (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (six). He took full advantage of his expanded role late in the season.
Among an uninspiring free-agent wide receiver group, aside from Amari Cooper and A.J. Green, Perriman is worth a gamble. Front-office executives may be skeptical about his flash-in-the-pan production this past season, but he could continue to blossom into a consistent playmaker.
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Daryl Williams had a rough 2019 season, mostly because he played out of position. The Carolina Panthers made a puzzling decision to re-sign him with Taylor Moton entrenched in the right tackle spot.
The Panthers used Williams in a utility role, filling in for injured starters across the offensive line. He opened the season at left tackle as rookie Greg Little battled lingering symptoms from a concussion. The fifth-year veteran shifted to right guard in place of Trai Turner (ankle) and finished the term at left guard with Greg Van Roten (toe) on injured reserve.
This past season, Williams played few snaps at right tackle—his natural position. As a result, he struggled with pass protection, allowing 11 sacks, per STATs (via the Washington Post).
On top of his unstable role, Williams came off an injury-riddled 2018 campaign. He suffered two knee injuries between training camp and Week 1. The team placed him on injured reserve following the season opener that year.
Likely a bit rusty while learning to play in multiple spots, Williams encountered the perfect storm, which will hurt his value on the open market. However, as a steady right tackle, he allowed just 5.5 sacks in 39 games between 2015 and 2018, per STATs (via the Washington Post).
If Williams sticks to right tackle at his next destination, he should have a bounce-back season as a solid perimeter pass protector.
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As a unit, the Buffalo Bills defense garnered well-deserved praise for stifling offenses throughout the 2019 campaign. All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, Pro Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and standout rookie defensive tackle Ed Oliver all come up in conversations about the stout group.
We don’t hear much about Buffalo’s top pass-rusher. Jordan Phillips led the Bills in sacks (9.5) and ranked second on the team in quarterback pressures (20). This sounds like hyperbole, but aside from Aaron Donald, he had arguably the most impressive year among interior defenders.
Focusing on interior tackles only, Phillips listed second behind Donald in sacks and tackles for loss (13) while only playing 52 percent of defensive snaps. Lining up for about half of the plays on his side of the ball, the massive 6’6″, 341-pounder made a significant impact within a vaunted unit.
Potential suitors on the market may not buy into Phillips’ breakout 2019 campaign because he logged just 5.5 sacks through his first four seasons.
At 27 years old, as a 2015 second-rounder, Phillips may be a late bloomer. He’ll likely sign a one-year prove-it deal with a new team or push to provide further confirmation of his disruptive play on a short-term pact in Buffalo.
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Like several bargain-bin options, Kamalei Correa had limited roles in previous seasons. Aside from his 2016 rookie term, he’s avoided injury but served as a backup. The Boise State product has started 13 out of 54 contests.
The Baltimore Ravens selected Correa in the second round of the 2016 draft, but he didn’t make an impact until arriving in Tennessee via trade. Over the last two years with the Titans, the 6’3″, 241-pound edge-rusher has 8.5 sacks—the third-most on the team in that span.
During the 2019-20 campaign, Correa found his pass-rushing groove down the stretch, registering at least one sack in six of his last eight games, which accounts for postseason action. Even more telling, the Titans increased his snap count on defense between Week 17 and the AFC Championship Game.
With more time on the field, Correa showed he could apply pocket pressure and finish the job with sacks. The fourth-year veteran’s production has yet to match his second-round draft pedigree, but he’s worth a modest deal for his contributions on the edge.
Although he profiles as a situational defender, Correa could become a solid component to a fierce pass rush. He played 39 percent of the snaps on defense in 2019. If the high-motor pocket-pusher sees an uptick in play count, we could see him reach new statistical highs.
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In recent years, the Dallas Cowboys defense has featured a strong cornerback group with great depth. The unit featured three players selected within the first three rounds of their respective classes. Anthony Brown, a 2016 sixth-rounder, showed versatility. He lined up on the inside and outside but performed best as a slot defender.
Lining up across the slot receiver, Brown flashed natural ball-tracking instincts as shown in LockedOnCowboys host Marcus Mosher’s tweet. Going downhill, the 5’11”, 196-pound cornerback isn’t afraid to track down ball-carriers on the run, bursting through traffic to make a stop.
Brown’s physical nature allowed him to accumulate 172 tackles, eight for loss, three sacks, 32 pass breakups and four interceptions in 56 contests. With that said, there were some rough patches. The Cowboys benched him during the 2017 campaign, and his defensive snap count percentage declined in the following season. Because he’s more effective in the slot, teams may limit his role to nickel duties.
In Week 11 of the past season, Brown tore his triceps and landed on injured reserve. He finished with five pass breakups and zero interceptions through nine games, which included four starts.
As a solid slot cornerback for stretches through four campaigns, expect Brown to remain in that role going forward. Because of his season-ending injury and some coverage lapses during his time in Dallas, clubs may hesitate to offer him big money. Nevertheless, he could emerge as a top-tier inside cover man in the near future.
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In 2016, Sean Davis came into the league with some ambiguity concerning his natural position in the secondary. He moved around at Maryland and continued to do so with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 26-year-old lined up in the slot and both safety spots but never focused on one role, which may have factored into his uneven production.
Last offseason, Davis made it clear that he prefers to line up in center field in off-man coverage, per Chris Adamski of Triblive.com.
“I am still capable of doing nickel or going into the box or whatever, because we have to be versatile,” Davis said. “But ideal situation for me, I would like to be in the post (free safety) — in all subpackages and everything. The failsafe, the last man on defense, all the time.”
Davis didn’t have a chance to settle at free safety during the 2019 term. He suffered a shoulder injury, his second in three years, and landed on injured reserve after Week 1. The Steelers acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade with the Dolphins, so Davis will likely sign elsewhere to play his ideal position.
In 48 outings, Davis had some bright spots in coverage and as a box safety closer to the line of scrimmage. For the 2017 campaign, he logged 92 tackles, seven for loss, a sack, eight pass breakups and three interceptions.
Davis had mixed results during the 2018 term. On one hand, quarterbacks only completed 55.1 percent of their passes when targeting him. However, he allowed five touchdown receptions and missed 15 tackles. If the fourth-year veteran can tighten up in the red zone, his next team would have a blanket over the top.
At 6’1″, 202 pounds with a physical presence on the field, Davis may not escape run-support duties. Teams may prefer he play downhill rather than backpedal in coverage, which would go against his preference.
The discrepancy between Davis’ desires and his natural strengths can lead to an awkward fit with any team. Yet, in a steady role at free safety, he could become a solid deep-ball defender who’s also an equipped tackle in the open field when pass-catchers break free after the catch.