Finding Homes for Under-the-Radar NFL Free Agents Before 2020 Season

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    Ed Mulholland/Associated Press

    As fans try to stay up to date on reports about quarterback Cam Newton and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, NFL teams can still find quality help under the free-agent radar.

    Behind the biggest names on the open market, several serviceable veterans can fill holes and potentially earn starting jobs. Some of them have little buzz because they accepted a lesser role in the previous season, missed most or all of the 2019 campaign with an injury or hit the market as an offseason cut.

    With those circumstances in mind, we’ve found homes for eight veterans whose names won’t pop up in flashy headlines but are more than worthy of a roster spot with the ability to produce in decent roles.

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    In April, the Carolina Panthers signed Christian McCaffrey to a four-year extension with $38.2 million in total guarantees, but that doesn’t mean head coach Matt Rhule should run his star tailback into the ground.

    Since McCaffrey took over the lead role in 2018, the Panthers haven’t had a solid No. 2 option to spell him. Last season, wide receiver Curtis Samuel recorded the second-most rushing yards (130) on the team.

    Carolina selected Jordan Scarlett in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, but he only registered four carries for nine yards in nine outings.

    The Panthers could have veteran competition between Mike Davis and Lamar Miller for primary backup duties, even though the latter hasn’t been on the radar since he tore his ACL and MCL in August 2019.

    Miller had the chance to build off a 2018 Pro Bowl campaign before he went down with a knee injury, and still 29 years old, he may have another solid season or two left in him. 

    With McCaffrey set to handle most of the touches, Miller can pick his spots and become an effective No. 2 option out of the backfield.

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Isaiah Crowell’s tenure with the then-Oakland Raiders started and ended during the 2019 offseason when he tore his Achilles.

    Crowell can grind out tough yards between the tackles on early downs and catch out of the backfield, and he’s recorded 4,725 yards (3,803 rushing, 922 receiving) and 28 touchdowns from scrimmage. He could fill in the gaps within a young committee, which makes him a perfect fit for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Ronald Jones II took a second-year leap, though he only recorded 33 more touches than the No. 2 option, Peyton Barber, who signed with the Washington Redskins this offseason.

    The Buccaneers selected Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round of April’s draft, which suggests head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will continue to split touches among the backs. 

    In case Vaughn isn’t ready right away, the Buccaneers can add Crowell as veteran insurance. Beyond his ability to run and catch, he’s a serviceable pass-blocker, and Jones struggled in that area last year. Arians and Leftwich may feel comfortable with a more experienced player to handle that responsibility.

    Also, Crowell led the New York Jets in rushing yards (685) while Todd Bowles served as Gang Green’s head coach, so the Buccaneers defensive coordinator has some insight on him.

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins need wide receiver help. Other than Terry McLaurin, the group doesn’t have a playmaker who flashed much upside last season, and he finished as the team’s only pass-catcher to eclipse 378 receiving yards. 

    At 5’7″, 168 pounds, Taylor Gabriel isn’t a dynamic playmaker, though he’s capable of a spot in three-wide receiver sets. The 29-year-old finished second or third in receiving yards with each of his three teams (Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears). In two campaigns, he averaged at least 16.5 yards per catch.

    In 2019, with the Bears, Gabriel battled lingering issues from concussions, which cost him seven games. In February, Chicago released him, but assuming he’s over his injury woes, he can latch on to Washington’s depth chart as a serviceable threat for an aerial attack that needs a spark. 

    If the Redskins want to see quarterback Dwayne Haskins progress in his second season, they must add viable talent around him.

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Cordy Glenn had a rocky two-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals riddled with injuries (back and concussion) and conflict, which resulted in a one-game suspension.

    He hasn’t played a full 16-game slate since 2015, missing 28 games over the last four terms. At 30 years old, with an extensive injury history, he’s not a reliable starter, though he can fill a void for a team that desperately needs help at left tackle.

    The Los Angeles Chargers traded Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers, opening up a vacancy on the offensive line, and Sam Tevi has struggled primarily at right tackle, giving up 11.5 sacks since 2018, per STATS (via the Washington Post). Trey Pipkins, meanwhile, remains unproven as a starter, logging just 251 offensive snaps for his career. 

    Instead of going with an ineffective or inexperienced starter at a premium position, the Chargers can allow Glenn to earn the first crack at the starting spot. If he stays healthy, Los Angeles may have a decent first-string left tackle who would likely sign on a cheap deal because of his spotty availability in the recent past.

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    In 2019, the Chicago Bears tied for 24th in sacks (32) with the Las Vegas Raiders, who traded edge-rusher Khalil Mack to them. That’s not a good look for defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in his first season with the club.

    Chicago released edge-rusher Leonard Floyd and signed Robert Quinn to pair with Mack. As a duo, they should revitalize the Bears pass rush, but if either battles injuries or performs below optimal levels under Pagano, the front seven will need a third rotational pocket-pusher.

    Aside from the 2017 campaign, Vinny Curry has made a living as a situational playmaker off the edge, and he’s recorded 29.5 sacks and 43 tackles for loss in his career.

    As offensive assistants for the Philadelphia Eagles, head coach Matt Nagy and John DeFilippo saw what Curry can do with limited snaps, as the 31-year-old has the motor to cause constant disruption behind the line of scrimmage. He can beat Barkevious Mingo for primary duties behind Mack and Quinn.

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Darron Lee won Super Bowl LIV with the Kansas City Chiefs as primarily a special teamer. He only played 160 snaps on defense, a stark difference from his starting role as a linebacker for the New York Jets between 2016 and 2018. 

    In 2018, Lee had his best season, registering 74 tackles, five for loss, five pass breakups, three interceptions and a touchdown. Two of those picks and the score came in the first week, but he started to show some flashes before Gang Green fired Todd Bowles and his staff.

    Lee, a 2016 first-rounder, could bounce back and land a bigger role with the Los Angeles Rams, who don’t have a clear-cut starting inside linebacker.

    In terms of defensive snaps, Kenny Young is the Rams’ most experienced player at the position, and the front office acquired him before the 2019 trade deadline.

    For the remainder of the offseason, Lee could compete against Young, Micah Kiser and Travin Howard for a starting role as the Rams scramble to replace inside linebacker Cory Littleton, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders during free agency.

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos have two locks at cornerback: A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan. During the summer, someone will have to emerge to round out the top three.

    Isaac Yiadom, a 2018 third-rounder, hasn’t done enough to carve out a steady role even though he started in the final five games of the 2019 term. The Boston College product allowed a 70.4 percent completion rate and finished with four pass breakups without an interception.

    The Broncos can sign Morris Claiborne, who can compete for snaps on the perimeter. He’s just two years removed from his best pro campaign, logging 14 pass breakups, two interceptions and a touchdown with the New York Jets.

    Callahan missed the entire 2019 season because of a foot injury. He could line up inside or outside, but the 5’9″, 188-pounder became a solid slot defender in Chicago under Vic Fangio, who served as the Bears defensive coordinator. The versatile cornerback recorded 12 pass breakups and four interceptions between 2017 and 2018. 

    Claiborne didn’t play a significant role with the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs. With that said, he’s 30 years old and seemed to turn the corner in his last stint as a full-time starter.

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    In 2019, Reshad Jones only suited up in four contests because of chest and ankle injuries, which will likely suppress his market value. The Miami Dolphins released him in March—days before the free-agent legal tampering period.

    Nonetheless, Jones has a knack for forcing turnovers, logging 21 interceptions in his career. The 6’1″, 215-pounder can play both safety spots and provides solid deep coverage when healthy.

    Since the Arizona Cardinals plan to use Isaiah Simmons at linebacker, the secondary needs a consistent starter alongside safety Budda Baker. Although versatile, Baker doesn’t have an interception in three seasons, and Jones, who’s had sticky hands in coverage, would fit well next to him.

    Baker and Jones can interchange roles at the position, but the former Miami Dolphin gives the defense a chance to flip the field more often. That would generate more possessions for an offense that features an intriguing duo in quarterback Kyler Murray and wideout DeAndre Hopkins.

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