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The NFL offseason is packaged hope. Say what you will about the league, but the NFL knows how to command attention. Sure it is easy during the season, with the weekly build-up to a slate of games, but the league might do some of its best marketing work in the late-winter and early-spring. How? By selling fans hope.
Hope in the form of incoming rookies via the draft, and hope in the form of franchise-changing veterans via free agency.
When the 2021 league year begins on March 17. some huge names are going to be on the open market. Players like Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Trent Williams, Anthony Harris, and more. Fans will soak up very bit of information when this process begins, believing that one acquisition or two could be the difference between a 10-6 season and a Lombardi Trophy.
The NFL offseason is packaged hope, and we love every second of it.
Yet some of the best franchises do their work on the “secondary” free agent market. While teams pay top-dollar for the big names, other organizations nibble around the edges of free agency and spread out smaller contracts to players that are flying under-the-radar. If that sounds like the kind of team you root for, then this is your kind of piece. Here are the most underrated players to watch on the offensive side of the football when free agency begins.
1. WR T.Y. Hilton
(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
T.Y. Hilton is a few seasons removed from some of his most productive years in the NFL, such as the 2016 campaign when he caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards and six touchdowns, and his evaluation might be clouded by the quarterback play this past season in Indianapolis, when Philip Rivers was perhaps running on fumes near the end. But when you dive into his film and ignore the numbers Hilton is still a dangerous weapon, even as a downfield target. Hilton caught 56 passes this year on 93 targets for 76 yards and five touchdowns, but there were certainly opportunities for bigger plays that were left on the field. Take this post route against the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Hilton gets behind the coverage but the pass is slightly underthrown and intercepted: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/HiltonVideo1.mp4">[/video] Or this seam route where Hilton gets behind the coverage, but the throw is late and broken up: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/HiltonVideo2.mp4">[/video] Sure, Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin and other options are going to draw the bulk of attention at the start of free agency. But on that secondary free agent market, after the splash deals are made, is where playoff teams are often crafted. Look at it this way. Spotrac provides a "market value" for well-known free agent options each off-season, based on production, age, similar contracts and other data. Robinson carries a market value of $20 million annually under their analysis, Golladay checks in at $17 million, and Godwin at $17.1 million. Some other names? Sammy Watkins ($10.6 million), Marvin Jones ($10.5 million) and Will Fuller ($16.8 million). That makes the Hilton number of $10.1 million look like a bargain. He might be older than those players, but given that he still has something left in the tank - as the film shows us - Hilton could be a steal.
2. OT Daryl Williams
(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)
Looking back, one of the best signings of the previous free agency cycle was when the Buffalo Bills inked offensive tackle Daryl Williams to a one-year, $2.25 million contract. What did the organization get in return for a tackle at that price? A player who started all 16 regular season games and all three playoff contests, and allowed just three sacks during the regular season. This is a huge improvement for Williams, who allowed a whopping 12 sacks during the 2019 campaign when he saw time at left tackle, left guard, right guard and right tackle for the Carolina Panthers. The drawback, of course, is the fact that Buffalo only signed him for the single season. Williams placed a huge bet on himself and now, thanks to his career-best season, he’ll be staring a potential big payday in the face. What propelled Williams to a career year? Perhaps his combination of fluid footwork and powerful hands, which showed up both in pass protection and as a run blocker. You can be sure the Bills would love to have him back, but teams that are looking to bolster their offensive line -- and perhaps protect a young quarterback -- are going to be calling. Given the contracts that players like Trent Williams and Taylor Moton are going to command, Daryl Williams might be the kind of secondary signing that makes a huge difference...just like he did last season.
3. TE Gerald Everett
For a creative offensive mind, Gerald Everett could be the key to unlocking the potential of a modern NFL offense. Everett’s movement skills and quickness make him a matchup nightmare against linebackers, and given that Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay found a variety of ways to ensure that Everett would get favorable matchups this season, and then exploit them after the snap. Everett’s ability was a big reason that Los Angeles used a lot more 12 offensive personnel the past few seasons, including using that package 29% of the time this past year. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, the Tennessee Titans, and the Arizona Cardinals used that two tight end package on a higher percentage of their offensive plays. Beyond that, what could make Everett attractive in free agency is two-fold. First, there is the fact that both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith might command more money on the open market, making Everett perhaps more attractive as a cheaper alternative. Then there is this: Tight end is becoming, next to quarterback, perhaps the toughest position for incoming rookies to learn. Given how the college game implements tight ends, there is a steeper developmental curve for younger players. It might be a season or two before a rookie can contribute. That means veterans are perhaps a more alluring option, particularly for teams in a window of contention. It would not surprise me at all if teams that are looking to contend and need help at tight end look to Everett as an option.
4. OG Kelechi Osemele
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
After a long and winding road brought Kelechi Osemele to the Kansas City Chiefs, it looked like the NFL veteran was finally going to find his next NFL home. Having spent time with the Ravens, the Raiders and the Jets, Osemele slotted in as the Chiefs starting left tackle to begin the 2020 season. Through four games, Osemele was impressive as both a run blocker and a pass blocker, and our own Doug Farrar credited him with making the Chiefs offense even tougher to defend after his performance back in Week 1. But then Osemele was injured early in Kansas City’s Week 5 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, and the left guard was lost for the season with torn tendons in both knees. That marked the second year in row that Osemele’s season was cut short, as he lost the bulk of the 2019 due to a shoulder injury that required surgery; an incident that ultimately led to his release from the Jets after the team did not approve the surgery. Osemele’s toughness and status as a true road grader up front will make him an asset to almost any NFL offense, and given the Chiefs’ issues with protecting Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl, one might expect Kansas City to try and bring him back for the 2020 season. If such a deal is not reached, teams looking for some toughness and the ability to run a course of gap/power designs are going to be calling, even with the injury concerns. Sure, the guard market will be driven by the two players at the top (Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney) but given what Osemele showed in his brief action last season, there is a lot to love about his game, and it will probably come at a discount.
5. OT Cam Robinson
(Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
Given that the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to be -- in all likelihood -- protecting rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence it seems unlikely that their current starting left tackle hits the open market. But if he does...teams will be calling. Other than missing the bulk of the 2018 season with a torn ACL, Robinson has been the starting left tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars since being selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft. Robinson played a career-high 991 snaps last season during Jacksonville’s 1-15 campaign, and did allow five sacks and 29 quarterback hurries as charted by Pro Football Focus. Robinson has solid footwork and hand technique for a left tackle in the NFL, and is athletic enough to be a force in the outside zone/wide zone game. There are moments on film where he is dominant in the run game, particularly when he can work to the second level in gap/power designs. The sacks allowed might be an issue for some teams, as in addition to the five he allowed in 2020 he also allowed eight back in 2019, but you could chalk that up to some of the offensive pieces around him. When you step in as a rookie and allow just two sacks, you certainly have some talent. Again, it is unlikely that he sees free agency, but if he does, he'd be a very attractive option.
6. C Alex Mack
(Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)
For virtually his entire NFL career Alex Mack has been listed among the game’s top centers, and it is likely that the final stop of his NFL journey is in Canton. After starting his career with the Cleveland Browns Mack has spent each of the past five season with the Atlanta Falcons, and was a critical component of their offense when the Falcons made the run to Super Bowl LI. One area of his play that slipped a bit last year was his pass blocking. Pro Football Focus charted him with allowing just one sack and seven quarterback hits, but he did give up 25 pressures and on film he seemed to struggle a bit with quicker defensive tackles who could penetrate off the snap with an explosive first step. Whether that’s a cause for concern, or just the fact that the guys on the other side of the ball are good too, will be the deciding factor in the kind of deal he commands this offseason. The center position is an odd one this free agency cycle, and it looks as if Corey Linsley is going to be the top name available. The opportunity to sign one of the sport's best at a given position, even at this stage in his career, could be appealing to a number of teams looking to make a deep playoff run next season.
7. WR Nelson Agholor
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
One of the more surprising revelations this season was the emergence of Nelson Agholor as a downfield threat for the Las Vegas Raiders. Coming out of USC, Agholor was viewed as more of a fit in a pure West Coast offense, with experience at running that route tree and some ability after the catch. That’s why his landing spot in the draft, with the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2015, made sense given the offense the team was running under Chip Kelly. Then with the hiring of Doug Pederson and his background, it seemed like Agholor was primed to break out. That never truly happened for him in Philadelphia, and in his final season with the Eagles Agholor struggled with drops. But last year with the Raiders Jon Gruden used him both underneath, and as a vertical threat. That is where Agholor seemed to shine. Agholor could be an ideal fit in a team looking for a third option at receiver, and one that can operate both underneath, as well as in the downfield passing game. As we discussed earlier with T.Y. Hilton, the primary free agent market at wide receiver will be driven by players like Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay and Chris Godwin. Teams looking for a West Coast receiver with some vertical chops might be wise to wait a bit, and explore Agholor as an option after the initial wave of free agency crashes upon the league's shores.
8. C David Andrews
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
New England Patriots center David Andrews just narrowly missed out on Touchdown Wire's Top 101 free agents -- a fact that has made me persona non grata back home in New England -- but that speaks to positional value more than anything else. Yet given how this off-season is shaking up at the center position, Andrews could be a highly-coveted player should he hit free agency. After missing a season due to blood clots in his lungs, Andrews returned to help solidify the Patriots offensive line in a season of transition. He did miss time with a hand injury, and his injury history might be a reason teams will not value him as highly as say Corey Linsley, but when he was healthy he was a standout in both pass protection and run blocking. He did have some struggles down the stretch, allowing four charted pressures (according to Pro Football Focus) in a Week 15 game against the Miami Dolphins and then a pair of pressures the following week against the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots have a lot of cap space this off-season, so they will probably look to ink Andrews to an extension. If, however, Bill Belichick lets Andrews test free agency, teams that miss out on Linsley or even Alex Mack will be calling.
9. QB Dak Prescott
(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
I know what you are thinking, dear reader. Probably something like this: "Mark. Come on. Dak Prescott is the top-ranked free agent in Touchdown Wire's list of 101 players. He is a quarterback. He might get the franchise tag for the second-straight year, which would pay him a whopping $37.7 million this season. So how in the name of all that is holy is this guy actually underrated?" Hear me out for a second. This off-season so far has been dominated by quarterback movement, both real and potential. First there was the Matthew Stafford trade -- and the price the Los Angeles Rams paid to acquire him -- and then the Carson Wentz trade. Now speculation centers upon Deshaun Watson and what he might cost in terms of a trade, as well as what teams might have to pay in terms of trading up in the draft to select an incoming rookie. There there is Prescott, potentially hanging out there as an option in 2021. Perhaps it is due to the fact that it seems unimaginable that he will see the open market, but he seems to be flying under-the-radar right now. There is discussion about sending three first-round selections and perhaps a standout defensive player for Watson (which makes sense given his talent) but then what would Prescott be worth? After all, you are discussing a player who also has elite traits at the position, has led his team to the playoffs and has delivered post-season victories. Usually that is worth millions at contract time. But now were are seeing discussion of teams trading up future first-round picks to draft Mac Jones... The knock on Prescott? That he's expensive, and he is a "good" quarterback, not a "great" one. $40 million might seem expensive, but you know what is more expensive? Having to replace your quarterback on the open market or selling the farm to trade up to draft a relatively-unknown commodity. So yes, given how this off-season has started to play out, Prescott almost seems underrated at this point.
10. WR A.J. Green
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Injuries and age might be grinding the great career of A.J. Green down, but the veteran receiver still has some good football left to play. Green missed the entire 2019 season with an ankle injury, and played just eight games back in 2018. He returned to the lineup this past season and was targeted 104 times, catching 47 passes for 523 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He seems to have lost the explosiveness to his game, and at this point in his career he might be more of a possession receiver than a downfield vertical threat. Still, there are things that Green does as a receiver that will make him an intriguing option in free agency. He remains a great route-runner and can work himself open on quick game concepts against both press and off coverage. He is savvy enough to operate in contested catch situations and adjusts well to the football on underthrown passes or on designed back shoulder throws. And even at this point in his career, he can still run by a defender in the vertical game: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/03/GreenVideo.mp4">[/video] Teams that rely more on West Coast concepts would be smart to look at bringing in Green, as he still has a few more years of solid WR play left.
11. RB Chris Carson
(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
While this might be the age of "running backs don't matter," that does not mean there is not value to be found in that position during free agency. Since being drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft out of Oklahoma State, Chris Carson has been almost a cult hero among both Seahawks Twitter and fantasy football Twitter. Of course, back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons might also have something to do with that, which Carson posted in both 2018 and 2019. Back during that 2019 campaign Carson ran for 1,230 yards on 278 carries, and also caught 37 passes for 266 yards and a pair of touchdowns. There are some concerns with Carson going forward. First there is the injury history. Carson’s 2019 season was cut short with a hip fracture, and he also missed time this past year with a sprained foot. Then there are the fumble woes. This dates back to his time with Oklahoma State, where he was benched for losing the ball, and continues into his NFL days. Back in 2019 Carson fumbled seven times -- including four lost fumbles -- and was also inconsistent at the mesh point with quarterback Russell Wilson which led to some fumbles that were charged to the quarterback. Those two factors are going to play in any negotiation this offseason. But the opportunity to add a running back with a pair of 1,000 yard seasons is going to intrigue most front offices, especially one that can also contribute in the passing game.