The most impactful signings of the NFL offseason aren’t always the big-ticket deals we see in the first 48 hours of free agency. Last year, the Eagles waited out the market and signed the likes of Patrick Robinson and LeGarrette Blount to one-year deals at a fraction of the price of what other players got in free agency. Both were regular contributors all the way to the Super Bowl. The Vikings found Case Keenum for $2 million. Cheap can be effective.
After a wild spending spree on wide receivers and offensive linemen in March, there are still plenty of veterans with track records of success wasting away on the free market. Even as recently as 12 months ago, the idea that players like Dez Bryant or DeMarco Murray would be available in free agency without any aggressive bidders would have seemed bizarre. Things are different now.
Some of these players are on their last legs. Others might suddenly look like useful contributors in the right scheme or in a more appropriately sized role. Finding that fit could be the difference in extending a player’s career. Keenum was closer to being out of football than he was to a big-money contract last season; after finding a stable home in Minnesota, he was able to parlay a successful season into a two-year, $36 million pact with the Broncos.
Let’s run through 15 veteran free agents who are on the outside of NFL rosters looking in, and try to find them a new home. And let’s start with the most prominent free agent left standing, and finish with a future Hall of Famer.
The market some might have expected to open up for Bryant hasn’t really developed, and that really shouldn’t be a surprise. The former Cowboys star became available only in mid-April, after most teams with wide receiver concerns had already signed replacements. Six wideouts then came off of the board across the first 51 picks in the draft, which further capped Bryant’s ceiling. The only offer the 29-year-old has reportedly received is from the Ravens, who offered something similar to the three-year, $21 million pact they handed Michael Crabtree.
Bryant declined that contract in the hopes of finding a one-year deal and potentially parlaying a big season into a more lucrative deal in 2019. He’s going to find a roster spot, but it might not even hit that $7 million mark in 2018. Bryant’s big-play ability has been sapped since undergoing foot surgery, and while he’s still a physical target capable of manhandling smaller cornerbacks, the same guy who had four 100-plus-yard games in 2014 has had just four such games over the three ensuing seasons.
Ironically, the team that could use Dez the most is Dallas, but that bridge has been burnt, mortared, demolished, engulfed, sabotaged and blown to smithereens. Most of the other candidates are out of the running. The Ravens, who already have a player with a similar skill set in Crabtree, appear to be out. The Bills had a need for a wide receiver with Zay Jones out indefinitely, but general manager Brandon Beane said Buffalo doesn’t expect to make Dez an offer. Jason Witten suggested on The Adam Schefter Podcast that the Saints could be in the running for Bryant, but they have less than $4 million in cap space and would be blocking newly acquired wideout Cameron Meredith by adding Bryant. The Seahawks went in an alternate direction by signing Brandon Marshall. The 49ers apparently aren’t interested.
There aren’t many other options for Bryant out there. The Cardinals could theoretically find a spot for Bryant if they don’t think second-year wideout Chad Williams is ready for a bigger role. The Giants haven’t expressed much interest in Bryant and don’t want to go three-wide as frequently in 2018, which would mean that Bryant would be taking snaps away from Sterling Shepard if he signed. They also gave Cody Latimer a one-year, $2.5 million deal, suggesting they think the former Broncos disappointment can contribute in three-wide sets. The Steelers could carve out a part-time role for Bryant at the expense of Justin Hunter, but with $5.2 million in cap space, they’ll probably want to put the money they have toward pass-rushing help.
We’re left with the other team Witten suggested might be in line to add Bryant: the Packers, who seem to fit Bryant’s desires. Green Bay has a hole in their three-wide lineups after letting go of Jordy Nelson, and while they could promote Geronimo Allison into that spot, Bryant would be an upgrade. They have Aaron Rodgers, whose résumé does not need to be reiterated here. The Packers are likely to be a playoff team and have more than $10 million in cap space, which would allow them to fit Bryant in for a one-year deal in the $4 million range while retaining some flexibility. Bryant’s long-term future probably isn’t in Green Bay, but he could certainly fit in the short term.
New Home: Green Bay Packers
The former Eagles standout likely hoped to parlay his one-year deal with the Ravens into a new contract, but Maclin continued to decline during his lone season in Baltimore. The 30-year-old saw his receptions, receiving yards and yards per catch fall for the fourth consecutive season. Over the past two years, among 94 qualifying wideouts, Maclin ranks 71st in catch rate and 89th in average yards after catch, which is a bad combination for a player who averaged just 11.6 yards per reception over that timeframe.
At this point, Maclin is realistically best as a slot receiver who can use his experience to create space and throwing lanes. He could fit in Oakland, where the Raiders have spent the offseason stockpiling veterans and could use an upgrade on Seth Roberts, whose 7.7 percent drop rate over the past two seasons is tops among wideouts. Maclin also has plenty of experience playing underneath Gruden chum Andy Reid in the West Coast offense, so he should be a quick study in Gruden’s scheme.
New Home: Oakland Raiders
Titans fans will always have Decker’s game-winning touchdown catch during last season’s playoff victory over the Chiefs, but the 31-year-old never seemed to settle under Mike Mularkey in Tennessee. Decker’s season was downright boring; he had seven games with three catches totaling between 10 and 40 yards, which tied for the second most in any single season since the merger. After racking up 51 touchdowns in 81 games over his first six seasons as a starter in the NFL, Decker had just one during his 16 games in Tennessee before the game-winner in the wild-card round.
It makes sense that Decker would look up one of his former coaches from his time in Denver. Adam Gase probably isn’t a good fit given how much the Dolphins have invested at wide receiver, but a logical landing point would be with the Cardinals, who have a relatively middling wide receiver depth chart and former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy taking over in that same role. Decker might not be able to beat out Chad Williams or Christian Kirk for regular snaps, but it’s probably worth a try for Arizona.
New Home: Arizona Cardinals
Breeland started 58 games for Washington over his four-year rookie deal and had struck a three-year, $24 million deal to join the Panthers this offseason, but a foot injury Breeland suffered on vacation resulted in a failed physical and a silent free-agent market. Breeland recently met with the Colts and Cardinals, each of whom are desperate for cornerback help, and the fact that the two sides weren’t able to consummate a deal might in itself be telling.
At this point, Breeland’s probably looking at a one-year deal in advance of hitting the market again in 2019. Rashaan Melvin was able to parlay a successful season with the Colts into a larger contract with the Raiders, but even that only became a one-year pact for $5.5 million. A better fit might lurk with the Chiefs, who are perilously thin at cornerback after trading Marcus Peters and could give Breeland a chance to shine in a more productive defense before seeking a long-term deal again next offseason.
New Home: Kansas City Chiefs
It’s a surprise to see DRC still on the market, but the 10-year vet doesn’t appear to be in much of a rush. In March, Rodgers-Cromartie said he hoped to sign in April. Last month, Cromartie set a target for training camp. It’s fair to wonder whether the two-time Pro Bowler is yet to see an offer worth signing, but Rodgers-Cromartie can also afford to be choosy and wait until camp. Nobody in the pass-happy NFL ever says it has too many cornerbacks.
It seems likely that Rodgers-Cromartie, 32, will wait for someone to get injured or for a contender to realize that its cornerbacks aren’t any good in training camp. Failing that, DRC already met with Washington, which lost Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller this offseason and only replaced them by adding Cowboys veteran Orlando Scandrick. Rodgers-Cromartie would be an upgrade on Scandrick, especially if Washington tries to play Scandrick outside of his usual home in the slot.
New Home: Washington
Once the bright spot in a turgid Saints defense, injuries have limited Breaux to just six games over the past two seasons. The breakouts of Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley and the return of Patrick Robinson led the Saints to non-tender the former Louisiana high school star this offseason, and he has yet to find a home in free agency.
The risk-reward ratio for Breaux is enormous. Given his injury history, it’s difficult to imagine Breaux commanding more than a one-year, $2 million deal. His upside, though, is as a legitimate starting cover corner in a league in which those often cost $10 million per season in free agency. The Patriots have a track record of taking shots on similarly talented players, and while they traded for Jason McCourty and drafted Duke Dawson this offseason, Bill Belichick has a way of finding uses for talented cornerbacks.
New Home: New England Patriots
Breaux’s former teammate has had an up-and-down career since being selected with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft, and that includes last season. Vaccaro was benched early in 2017 before finding his way back into the lineup and carving out a role at multiple positions, including everything from safety to slot cornerback to sub-package linebacker.
Vaccaro’s best role is as a box defender, where his athleticism and physicality can play up. The Saints have moved on after replacing Vaccaro in their rotation with Kurt Coleman, but there’s a landing spot in the division that might make sense. The Panthers are relatively thin at safety after releasing Coleman, and while they could sign one of several former Carolina players in Tre Boston or Mike Mitchell, the Panthers would be able to upgrade on 38-year-old Mike Adams or former Titans backup Da’Norris Searcy by adding Vaccaro.
New Home: Carolina Panthers
Arguably the best edge defender left in free agency, Ayers has been a useful two-way defender over the past several seasons, albeit while missing four games in each of the past four seasons. A Broncos first-round pick in 2009, he averaged a credible six sacks per season from 2013 to ’16, only to see that total fall to two sacks last season. A closer look suggests that that drop-off was unlucky. In 2016, Ayers generated seven sacks on 19 quarterback knockdowns. Last season, Ayers knocked opposing passers down 16 times, but those hits generated only two sacks. Edge rushers usually turn about 45 percent of their knockdowns into sacks, so typically, Ayers would have come away with seven sacks for his efforts.
At worst, Ayers should be a useful reserve defensive end in a league in which the Eagles just rode their defensive line rotation into the Super Bowl. Half of the league could use a player like that. The Saints have former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen running things and drafted Marcus Davenport to play across from Cameron Jordan, but they could use depth at the position with Alex Okafor returning from a torn Achilles. The Chargers might have the league’s best one-two punch on the edge with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but there’s precious little behind their two stars if one of them gets hurt. Ayers would be a high-quality reserve.
If anyone needs help on the edge, though, it’s a Rams team that’s in win-now mode and bereft of talent at defensive end after trading away Robert Quinn. Ayers probably wouldn’t be an every-down player in Los Angeles, but he could easily give the Rams 500 valuable snaps at a position of need for less than the $4.3 million the Rams currently have available on their cap.
New home: Los Angeles Rams
For the second offseason in a row, the league hasn’t shown much interest in the former Giants defensive tackle. Last year, Hankins sat in free agency for a month before signing a three-year, $27 million deal with the Colts. After Indy changed schemes this offseason, they released Hankins one season into his deal. The 26-year-old has taken a number of visits since, but he hasn’t yet caught on with a new team.
Hankins might end up looking at a one-year deal, but there’s a team could take advantage of its opportunity to sign a talented young player for something less than his typical market value: the Browns, who have typically been forced to pay premiums to attract talent to an organization that has gone 1-31 over the past two seasons. New general manager John Dorsey traded away Danny Shelton this offseason without adding any help at defensive tackle, so Hankins could be a viable piece of an emerging defensive line.
New home: Cleveland Browns
Bowman got relatively good reviews for his brief stint with the Raiders, but Oakland showed what it thought of the three-time Pro Bowler by signing Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson this offseason. It seemed likely that Bowman would be able to help as a run defender, but the Raiders were slightly worse with Bowman on the field. Oakland last season averaged 4.1 yards per carry and a 22.2 percent first-down rate on the ground with Bowman in the lineup and 3.9 yards per rush with a 20.1 percent first-down rate while he was in San Francisco or off the field.
Even if Bowman isn’t the superstar linebacker we saw before his serious knee injury, it’s a surprise that there isn’t more of a market for a veteran with his level of leadership. There’s one contender with a huge weakness on the interior: the Steelers haven’t really added anyone to replace Ryan Shazier, who won’t be able to play in 2018, besides special-teamer Jon Bostic. Pittsburgh could still bring back Lawrence Timmons, but Bowman’s probably a better player at this point.
New home: Pittsburgh Steelers
Chargers QB Philip Rivers says that Antonio Gates will be ready if he is called upon to the return to the team.
The Chargers announced that they didn’t intend to re-sign Gates as part of their plan to finally give No. 1 reps to Hunter Henry, but Henry tore his ACL in OTAs and will miss the 2018 season. You can imagine how awkward it might be for the Chargers to go back to their longtime stalwart, hat in hand, but there’s not really a better option for them on the market. Gates, who will soon be 38 years old, is essentially limited to drag routes and pick plays at this point, but he’s still a better option than Julius Thomas or Brent Celek.
New(ish) home: Los Angeles Chargers
The second-best quarterback available on the market outside of Colin Kaepernick, Moore has been effective in a reserve role for the Dolphins but didn’t help his case with two ugly starts last season. Moore averaged 9.6 yards per attempt and threw three touchdowns against one pick in two games as a reserve, but in starts against the Patriots and Ravens, Moore averaged just 5.0 yards per pass and racked up four interceptions against his lone touchdown.
Across 214 pass attempts over the past two seasons, Moore posted an 87.8 passer rating and a 56.6 Total QBR, the latter of which ranks 19th in the league. The Dolphins have moved on by signing Brock Osweiler, but Moore is still good enough to justify a roster spot. Truthfully, he might be better than a few of the league’s starting quarterbacks.
The Jaguars clearly committed to two more years of Blake Bortles by extending their quarterback this offseason, but what happens if Bortles gets hurt or suffers a serious downturn in performance? Jacksonville’s backup is Cody Kessler, who was barely capable of getting on the field for the Browns last season. Their third-stringer is sixth-round pick Tanner Lee. Moore is just ineffective enough to not spook Bortles, but solid enough to fill in if Bortles is unable to play.
New home: Jacksonville Jaguars
After his yards per carry declined for four consecutive seasons, Morris finally took a leap back toward effectiveness by averaging 4.8 yards per rush across his 115 attempts. Some of that was thanks to a 70-yard run, but Morris finished 10th in DVOA and seventh in Success Rate, suggesting he was a consistently effective back. Ezekiel Elliott was better in both categories, so the offensive line clearly helped out Morris, but there’s a useful zone runner in here.
Morris’ most impressive season came as a rookie in Washington under Kyle Shanahan, so you can probably guess where I’m suggesting he could head. The 49ers made a major investment in Jerick McKinnon this offseason, but McKinnon wasn’t an effective back in Minnesota and hasn’t carried the ball more than 20 times once in a single game as a pro. After losing Carlos Hyde in free agency, the primary backups to McKinnon are Matt Breida and Joe Williams. Morris could figure in as an insurance policy and change of pace for McKinnon.
New home: San Francisco 49ers
After a return to form in 2016, Murray fell off of a cliff in Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth scheme last season. The Oklahoma product was dramatically outplayed by Derrick Henry and became a bit of a cause celebre for Titans fans, who weren’t particularly upset when Tennessee cut Murray during the offseason and replaced him with Dion Lewis.
Murray probably shouldn’t be a team’s primary back, but he still offers enough as a pass protector and occasional receiver to justify a roster spot as a team’s RB2. He famously prefers to get the ball from a quarterback under center, so ideally, we would be able to find him a team who operates from center in need of a reserve halfback.
I’m trying to limit teams to one addition here, but I’ll make an exception and throw the Rams out as a natural home for Murray. Los Angeles ran the ball 388 times from under center last season, which ranked second in the league behind the Saints. Todd Gurley is obviously going to get the bulk of those carries, but if Gurley gets hurt, Los Angeles’s primary backup is Malcolm Brown, who has averaged 3.6 yards per carry without showing much as a receiver at this level. Murray might not be needed for more than 60 carries if Gurley stays healthy, but he would be a much-needed insurance policy for a back with a history of knee issues.
New home: Los Angeles Rams
The future Hall of Famer had two wildly productive games with the Cardinals, but AD ran the ball 93 times for a mere 236 yards in his other eight games, an average of just 2.5 yards per rush. He also didn’t score in any of those eight appearances, finishing the season with just two touchdowns on 167 touches. You can squint and maybe make a case for Peterson’s struggles — he never found a steady role behind two superior backs in New Orleans and was playing behind a beat-up, replacement-level offensive line in Arizona — but it’s clear that we’re coming close to the end of Peterson’s career.
If this is it, perhaps now is the time for a long-rumored dalliance to come into existence. The Cowboys are left with just Rod Smith behind Elliott, and while Smith has been a reasonable backup, it seems plausible that Peterson could still be an upgrade as a 100-carry back while playing a couple of series per game. At the very least, he would sell plenty of jerseys for a team that isn’t exactly teeming with skill-position weapons behind Elliott.
New home: Dallas Cowboys