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2018 NFL Free Agency: Who’s Left?

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Here are Matt Weston’s favorite remaining unrestricted free agents.

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

I needed some pants. $80. I scoffed. The next week an email digitally floated into my box, pestering me with the perks of capitalism: the same pants, made in Sri Lanka, now $35, directly told to me via targeted marketing. I gave thanks to my browser history and that great capitalist pig. I completed the ritualistic sacrifice by buying two pairs of pants for less than one all because I waited. Man, do I love deals!

NFL free agency is the same way. Aside from top talent, where voluptuous contracts can be worth it to snag players who can dictate the scheme and philosophy of a team, the rest can wait. The difference in a week can be millions in savings. By staying away from the first week of free agency, teams can avoid overpaying for mediocrity, which is the quickest way to derail a salary cap and create a fetid situation.

Like buying shorts in November, there are savings to be found. These are the best pickings still stuck to the ribs of the carrion left by lazy vultures.

Running Back: Thomas Rawls

There’s always running backs to be found. Late in the draft, undrafted, or snipped in free agency. There are more consistent players available than Rawls. Teams can pull the lemon back out of the trash can and try to get a splash more juice out of DeMarco Murray or Frank Gore or Darren Sproles. They can talk themselves into Orleans Darkwa since he has yet to play behind a competent offensive line. They can make Eddie Lacy happen again. They can give Charles Sims a chance to actually start instead of wasting behind worse players Doug Martin and Peyton Barber.

My favorite of the leftovers is Rawls. As a 24 year old scratch off he’s one of the rare players who offers the possibility to transform a run game. The out of nowhere successor to Marshawn Lynch averaged 5.6 yards an attempt on 147 carries in 2015. He was smashing through tackles, and led the NFL in DYAR with 216 and was second in DVOA at 26.4%, all while playing behind Seattle’s notoriously hideous offensive line. Seattle was able to thrive, and keep their all-time great defense together because of Russel Wilson and Lynch’s ability to break tackles and transcend the offensive line. Rawls was this. Then he broke his ankle.

The last two seasons things have been, like the past often is, very sad. Rawls has 167 carries for 506 yards. That’s 3.02 yards a carry. He managed to pick up just 2.7 yards a carry and failed to score. Rawls was unable to stand out among the five other Seattle running backs who failed to meet 100 carries.

I don’t know if Rawls can ever fully recover from the ankle injury that now looks to have ruined a potential All-Pro career. But it’s a possibility. On a one-year deal the upside outweighs the risk for a team who needs a second running back. Like former first round picks who continue to receive contracts based on draft pedigree alone, oooo Greg Robinson is a free agent maybe he we can move him back to guard, Rawls should because of his 2015 season. It was that incredible.

Wide Receiver: Dontrelle Inman, Jeremy Maclin, Terrelle Pryor

Inman received the opportunity to start at wide receiver for an entire season once in his entire career. Keenan Allen was hurt. He started all 16 games. And in it he caught 58 of 97 passes for 910 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Last year he once again played and didn’t play, and saw his rates stay the same while his targets dropped down to 44. He’ll forever be underrated. His biggest issue is the passing of the clock. He’s 29. Regardless, he’s a rummaging possible #2 wide receiver.

Jeremy Maclin started 12 games in 2016 and 2017. Last year his yards per reception dropped from 12.2 to 11.0, his catch rate from 57.9% to 55.6%, his DYAR from 62 to -37, his DVOA from -4.3% to -19.2%. The Joe Flacco effect. He became one of the most ineffective and inefficient receivers in the league. He’s gotten older, and lost some spice. But I’d bet on him bouncing back on a team that doesn’t employ the least valuable player in football. At a minimum he can catch some screens, and smokes, and line up in the slot and run really fast and far downfield.

Scheme is important. Talent can’t rise above everything, just most things. After playing in a sideline isolation heavy offense Terrelle Pryor moved to the west coast in Washington, and was strangled in a quicker passing game designed to get guys moving after the catch and set up simpler Kirk Cousins throws. Pryor wasn’t himself in this other scheme. His yards per reception dropped from 13.1 to 12.0 while maintaining a similar catch rate. He needs to be left working outside on his own. The talent is undeniable. Leaving him outside against smaller defensive backs would be a great time.

Offensive Tackle: Cameron Fleming, Austin Howard

Fleming started for the majority of the Patriots’ 2018 season, but was benched for LaAdrian Waddle when the postseason began. A knee injury pulled Fleming back into the starting role, and from there he was excellent at right tackle. In pass protection he stops edge rushes despite being a slower mover because of technique. He uses a drop step to get deep against edge rushers to stay square at the point of attack, and make up for his inability to get there moving diagonally. When he meets the edge rush, square and in time, the rest of the block is over. Fleming is too big to bulrush, and his arms are too strong to slap and knock away.

He’s still a little rough. He’ll cross his feet at times in pass pro. He’s sloppy in the run game. You have to be wary of any offensive lineman leaving New England and blocking in an offense that doesn’t chip often and have a quarterback that masters the line of scrimmage and gets the ball out quickly. Fleming is on the verge of putting it all together though, is still 25, and is a bit of time and work away from being a consistent above average offensive lineman. At around $7 million, in this tackle market, that’s a robbery.

Howard was the worst piece of the best pass blocking offensive line in football in 2016. He was a plus run blocker who needed help in pass protection. The Raiders and Ravens released him the past two seasons to clear $7.9 million in cap space after each gave him a multi-year deal. If you are a power running team, who can scheme around leaving him on the edge all by himself too often, or need a competent sixth offensive lineman, he’s worth the sniff. Like a blubbering behemoth, Howard is still big and strong and mean.

Offensive Guard: Jack Mewhort, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Brian Schwenke, Jonotthan Harrison

The future doesn’t exist. The past is dead. The only thing there is is right now. Time is a human construct created for order and to benchmark our path to the end. Although time doesn’t exist, this messed with me. Mewhort has already completed his rookie contract. I’m now one of those 47 year olds wondering where does it go? Mewhort was great his rookie year, and then injuries leading to inconsistent playing time ruined things. The talent is there, and hey, it’s better than bringing in Luke Joeckel.

Su’a-Filo is strong now. He can move the first level of the line of scrimmage all on his own. He has the feet to reach his landmark and get up to the second level. The problem has been, and always has been since his days at UCLA, the inability to punch and grab the chest. If he can get a teacher like Anne Sullivan who can show him how to stick to blocks by punching and grabbing, he’d be a very good guard. But he can’t do this. He shoves the second level, which extinguishes runs too soon. He whiffs in pass protection, and boy-O, does he whiff, creating immediate pressure and leading to the masses calling him the worst player of all-time. If a team has faith in its coaching staff to correct this issue and needs a guard, he’d be worth it.

Harrison and Schwenke are two football hipster loser nerd players I’ve grown to like when they were younger. Harrison has been all over the place. Schwenke lost his starting spot because of injury and a Ben Jones signing. Each can play guard and center. They’re nice interior backups to have in a game of attrition.

Edge Defenders: Kony Ealy, Pernell McPhee, Charles Johnson, Elvis Dumervil

In Super Bowl 50, a clash between two garish color schemes, remnants of late 1990s, it’s the future we need bright color fashion, Von Miller had one of the most dominant performances from an edge rusher ever. He forced a fumble, had 2.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and deflected a pass. This spectacular performance capped off an all-time postseason run. He pretty much won a Super Bowl all on his own.

What does this have to do with Kony Ealy? Ealy was on the other side of the field, rushing from the interior. If the final score was reversed, we’d be talking about Ealy instead when Super Bowl 50 is mentioned. Ealy had 3 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss, a pass deflected, and 3 quarterback hits. He was traded to New England for a second round pick. He was then released by New England and signed by the New York Jets. He’s still a free agent mainly because he had one sack last year. But in addition to that singular end result, he had 9 deflected passes and 21.5 hurries. Interior pressure is hard to find, and it’s more disruptive than exterior pressure. Ealy has shown flashes of dominance. Someone needs to put him over guards in pass rushing situations and let him work.

4, 4, 6, 7.5. As an edge defender, these are Pernell McPhee’s sack totals. He was monstrous until arthroscopic knee surgery knocked him out of the 2016 season. Then last year a shoulder injury knocked him out of games. No one knows what you can get out of damaged goods. Reminiscent of Sen’Derrick Marks, an unheralded great player who also suffered a traumatic injury, McPhee may end up like him and never get back to where he was. At 29, this is probable. But the opportunity for something better is there. Even if he never gets the edge rush ability back, McPhee is still a plus run defender for first and second downs and has the strength to open up looping defensive ends.

I love bullpen pass rushers. They play 15 snaps a game on third downs and late game situations. While everyone is gassed, they’re fresh to scream, yank, rip, and chase after quarterbacks. Johnson didn’t have a sack on almost 400 snaps last year. His back bothered him. He missed four games thanks to Obama and a PED suspension. He’s been a productive pass rusher consistently before. Only use him in this setting. Pay him 800k. That’s like finding a perfectly good right shoe in a blood and urine alleyway goulash.

This argument for Charles is the same one I made for Dumervil last year. He played in this role and had 6.5 sacks to bring his career totals to 105.5 and 29.5 pressures. A contending team should continue to Tommy Hunterfy him and keep using him as a relief pitcher.

Defensive Tackle: Johnathan Hankins

What a sad world we live in. Teams no longer value the hunk of cheese in the middle of the bowels to constipate a team’s interior rushing attack. Hankins signed late last year in Indy to a three-year, $30 million contract and was released this offseason because of ‘scheme changes’. The Colts are supposedly moving to a 4-3. Who cares? Make him play strong side DT on first and second downs.

Hankins was still great last year at hogging the center of the line of scrimmage. Despite having zero talent at inside linebacker, the Colts finished 16th in adjusted line yards against middle of the line of scrimmage rushes. Hankins was the reason for that. All on his own, he was able to keep the Colts interior run defense hitting mediocrity. Don’t overthink it. Hankins is great and will probably end up being forced to sign for less than his worth.

Cornerback: Alterraun Verner, Delvin Breaux

The former surprise TITAN UP Pro Bowler signed a big deal to play bad in Tampa Ba and then played well in Miami last season. He was targeted 19 times, gave up 6 yards a pass, and had a success rate of 79%. Teams tried to pick on him deep and he shut it down. There’s always older corners to be found on short contracts. Guys like Prince Amukamara come in on a one-year contract, have success, and stick around after that. I could see Verner doing something similar.

Breaux was the only good defensive back for the Saints in 2015. He fractured his fibula in 2016 and wasn’t able to be a good defender on the first great Saints defense since...I don’t know, ever. He was good enough in 2015 to be given a shot in 2018. If you want some media presence, he has a life story Pam Oliver would love on Sunday morning.

Safety: Eric Reid, Ron Parker

Reid can do a lot of different things. He can cannonball into the quarterback as a free rusher. He can play deep middle safety. He can play in the box as a nickel linebacker next to a Herculean starting linebacker. He can cover tight ends. He can do all of that; he’s just not great at any of them and has been a letdown from where he was drafted. But versatility is important, and there aren’t a lot of safety options available at this moment in time.

Ron was fine in Kansas City. Their league-worst defense wasn’t because of him. He turned down a pay cut to stay in Kansas City. He’ll probably be fine again somewhere else.