NFLTR Review: 10 Potential Steals Left In Free Agency

Happy Friday! In this week’s issue of NFLTR Review: 

  • We go thrift shopping with 10 under-the-radar NFL free agents
  • Movement in the Deshaun Watson case?
  • Observations from the NFL schedule drop

Top 10 FA Bargain Bin Finds

Every year, there are always bargains to be found in NFL free agency even as the pace slows to an occasional drip during the summer. There are guys sitting at home right now who will be key role players, starters and even potentially more when the 2022 season comes around. 

Here’s a quick look at 10 possibilities that stand out. Most of these are on our Top Available 2022 Free Agents list. Not all of them though…

G Ereck Flowers

Cut by the Commanders in a cash-saving move, Flowers was actually quite effective as a player in 2021. He started the entire season at left guard and helped pave the way for a Washington offense that topped 2,000 yards on the ground, good for 12th in the league. 

For some people, he’s always going to be the first-round bust that washed out of New York and bounced around the league since. But he quietly has improved a lot as a pass protector since kicking inside to guard, especially the past couple of seasons. He quietly set career highs in PFF grades in 2021, both overall and as a pass blocker. 

So why did Washington cut him? Flowers was going to be due $10 million in 2022, which is on the expensive side for a guard especially after trading for QB Carson Wentz and his deal. They’re paying current projected starting left guard Andrew Norwell a fraction of that, as he’ll count less than $3 million against the cap in 2022, and Norwell shouldn’t be too much of a dropoff from Flowers. He has the added bonus of familiarity with the coaching staff. 

That doesn’t make Flowers chopped liver, though. A team looking for a powerful blocker to stabilize its left guard position could benefit from adding Flowers at some point this offseason. He’d be an excellent fit in Dallas if first-round OL Tyler Smith needs more development. The Titans are pretty wide open at left guard as well and Flowers would be right at home in their smashmouth system. 

C J.C. Tretter

Tretter’s certainly not under the radar, as he’s been consistently one of the league’s best centers as a starter for the past seven years in Green Bay and Cleveland. He’s also the president of the NFL Player’s Association, which gives him a little bit of a higher profile than most offensive linemen. 

For a player of that stature to still be available and unsigned at this point in the offseason, though, qualifies as a major bargain. Tretter has consistently been in the top 10 of PFF’s center grades the past several seasons. He’s still only 31 and isn’t coming off of any major injuries, so it appears the holdup is mainly waiting for the right fit. A lot of the money in free agency has been spent but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tretter do relatively well compared to most this time of year — and even then he represents a bargain. 

There are a number of teams to watch who would be strong fits for Tretter. The Dolphins have a ton of cap space compared to most teams and haven’t added anyone to challenge Michael Deiter yet. The 49ers could need a steady veteran presence if Alex Mack retires. The Vikings have former first-rounder Garrett Bradbury but just declined his fifth-year option. If they’re serious about contending and want to upgrade, Tretter could fit. 

CB Kevin King

Outside of quarterback, cornerback might be the hardest position to play in the NFL — and the rules definitely favor QBs more than CBs. It’s hard to consistently string together strong seasons, and sometimes guys at the position need the right circumstances to put things together. King could be one of those guys. 

A former second-round pick, King started the bulk of the 2019 and 2020 seasons for the Packers and had some solid moments. Unfortunately, he became a meme after getting picked on in the 2020 NFC Championship loss, then lost his job to first-rounder Eric Stokes and waive wire hero Rasul Douglas after he got hurt in 2021. Green Bay didn’t seem to push that hard to re-sign him and his market has been quiet as a free agent so far this offseason. 

Still, there are some signs King could have the kind of career revitalization Douglas experienced in 2021. He’s a tall and long corner at 6-3, so a system that emphasizes zone defense, keeping the play in front of you and can protect the secondary with a strong pass rush could be a fit. He’s good in run support, which matters for some teams. And he’s had moments of solid production, including five picks and 15 pass deflections in 2019. 

Teams like the Colts, Commanders, Seahawks and Rams, to name a few, could benefit from taking a flyer on King. 

RB Darrel Williams

By no means is Williams a flashy player. But he’s good enough at all the different aspects of playing the running back position — carrying the ball, receiving, blocking — that he’s the perfect depth player to help absorb the inevitable injury. Williams quietly compiled over 1,000 total yards in 2021 split almost evenly between rushing and receiving. 

Williams recorded the bulk of that in seven starts filling in for RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire when he was hurt, but even when the former first-rounder was healthy it was Williams who was trusted with third-down duties. He’s not going to rip off huge gains with any regularity, but he’s the kind of solid player that can help keep an offense on schedule. 

It’s usually not hard to find competent running backs but there are still a couple of teams like the Cardinals and Giants who could use reinforcements to their depth, especially given the injury history of their current starters. Williams has actually visited with Arizona, so that’s worth watching. 

G Oday Aboushi

When Aboushi went down with a torn ACL in Week 5 of last season, it was an under-the-radar big blow to the Chargers. It knocked out a second starter on the right side of the line since they were already playing with Storm Norton at right tackle instead of Bryan Bulaga. Losing Aboushi forced them to adapt even more, especially because he has improved into a legitimate starting-caliber guard. 

Los Angeles moved on with a long-term replacement in first-round G Zion Johnson, and Aboushi’s rehab is a complicating factor. Still, he tore his ACL early enough in the season that it’s possible he could be ready for training camp if things have gone smoothly. If not, he could potentially be a strong addition early in the season once injuries start to mount. 

C Trey Hopkins

The fact that Hopkins was able to start 15 games for the Bengals in 2021 after tearing his ACL in the final week of the 2020 season was a marvel. Unfortunately, Hopkins looked like he was impacted by the injury all year as he was one of many problems Cincinnati had along the offensive line. The team moved on from Hopkins to save salary and replaced him with veteran Ted Karras

The hope for a team signing Hopkins is that putting a full season between him and the injury will help him regain his previous form. He wasn’t a Pro Bowl player, but he had worked his way into a starting job for the Bengals and improved every year before 2021. Enough teams still need help at center that it’s worth taking what will certainly be a low-cost gamble on Hopkins. 

DT Star Lotulelei

Lotulelei has become typecast as a run-stuffing nose tackle the past few seasons, and there’s actually a good chance he wouldn’t have been on the Bills for the 2021 season had he not opted out in 2020 and had his contract toll. However, the 32-year-old veteran had a strong start to the season and flashed some of the underrated pass-rush ability he showed his first few seasons in the league with the Panthers. He finished 2021 with three sacks, four tackles for loss and 10 hurries, his best season in years especially when factoring in his more limited snaps. 

A bout with COVID-19 derailed Lotulelei’s momentum halfway through the season and the Bills moved on for the cap savings in March. Still, if Lotulelei is recovered and motivated to keep playing, there’s still a little more juice for a team to potentially squeeze. 

CB Trae Waynes

Through no fault of his own, Waynes’ tenure in Cincinnati was a disaster. He arrived as a big-ticket free-agent signing but just months after inking his deal he suffered a torn pectoral muscle that ended up keeping him out the entire 2020 season. In 2021, he was able to get on the field for a few games, but a persistent hamstring injury limited him and he lost the starting job to Eli Apple

Waynes was never one of the top corners in the league and will turn 30 in July. But he was a solid No. 2 when healthy, which still carries value for teams, and has relatively little mileage on his body given the injuries. If he can figure out how to stay healthy on a one-year prove-it deal with a team, it could turn into a win-win situation for both sides. 

TE Eric Ebron

As someone who’s followed Ebron since his college days, he can be a bit of an acquired taste. Paradoxically, he can also wear out his welcome quickly. The way his stints with the Lions, Colts and Steelers have ended back that up. He’s not an impact blocker and drops are just a part of his game you have to accept at this point as well. 

All of that being said, Ebron can still be a dangerous receiving threat. He has the combination of size and athleticism that makes for a potential mismatch weapon if deployed correctly. Pittsburgh pretty clearly was phasing him out of the offense in favor of second-round rookie Pat Freiermuth last season before he was hurt. He was deployed inline more instead of flexed out and his average depth of target plummeted. 

Given how any tight end with a pulse was garnering a decent free-agent market this year, Ebron still being available is a bit of a surprise. Asking him to repeat his 2018 season when he scored 13 touchdowns is probably unrealistic but a team with a creative offensive coordinator could exploit some matchups with Ebron as a receiving tight end still. 

QB Cam Newton

I’ll admit, I have a hard time quitting Cam. I thought he looked solid during the preseason with the Patriots and would have brought more of a dynamic element to the offense than Mac Jones did, but obviously it’s hard to fault them for going with their first-round rookie who was an OROY candidate. 

His second stint with Carolina also fizzled out but it’s hard to over-emphasize just how hard it is to be dropped into an NFL offense you have zero experience with in November, then have the team fire their offensive coordinator. Like Sam Darnold, he also looked a lot better when he had the benefit of Christian McCaffrey. He was 21-27 passing with three total touchdowns and no interceptions in a loss to Washington. The wheels came off the next week against the Dolphins when McCaffrey went down. 

Clearly Newton isn’t the same guy who won the league MVP award in 2015, or even the same guy from 2018 before injuries really picked up. He’s still a competent veteran, though, especially if he were to get the benefit of some stability instead of being dropped in midstream like his two most recent starting opportunities. You could argue he’s a better bridge option for the Panthers than Darnold, although it feels like the ship has sailed for good with the Panthers. He’d be better than either Drew Lock or Geno Smith in Seattle as well. 

At this point, however, it feels more and more like we may have seen the last of Newton in the NFL. 

This Week In Football

  • One of the last remaining unfinished storylines of this offseason is what will happen with Browns QB Deshaun Watson and his legal situation. Watson faces 22 civil cases from 22 different women all saying he committed varying degrees of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. Those cases have been meandering their way through the justice system and depositions are ongoing. But we have two developments that seem to point in opposite directions. The NFL met with Watson this week in a step people familiar with NFL disciplinary proceedings say indicates they’re close to wrapping up their investigation. However, the league in the past has waited until after a legal resolution before imposing discipline so as not to interfere. Both legal teams agreed to pause during the 2022 season, meaning no trial or other proceedings between August 1 2022 and March 1, 2023. Given how slowly the legal system works, that means Watson’s case could drag into 2023 without a resolution. So where does that leave things? The NFL could certainly still wait before suspending Watson and follow precedent, but it’s worth remembering they can do almost whatever they want under the personal conduct policy, and they’ve shown themselves to be very sensitive to public opinion in the past. 
  • The Packers ponied up big-time to retain star CB Jaire Alexander, resetting the market for the position by agreeing to a four-year, $84 million extension. It’s a strong deal for Alexander, as he’s basically tied to the Packers for the next two years and will make $45 million in that timespan. Green Bay can technically get out of the deal in 2024, albeit with $18 million in dead money. Still, barring injury or regression Alexander will be just 27 then and should still be playing at the high level that made him worthy of this kind of deal. Big contracts like this are always a risk, but Alexander is the exact type of player teams want to take those risks on. 
  • In other cornerback news, veteran James Bradberry found a new home and didn’t end up going too far from New York, signing a one-year deal with the Eagles that can be worth up to $10 million. The base value is $7.5 million, which is strong money for this time of year. In addition to a solid payday, Bradberry landed in an excellent situation in a scheme that suits his skillset and a solid running mate across from him in Darius Slay. It’s a big upgrade for Philly, too, who have sneakily assembled a pretty solid roster. 
  • There’s not so much of a hangover for teams that lose the Super Bowl as much as it’s really hard to sustain success in the NFL from year to year. Still, the situation with S Jessie Bates is the type of crack that’s worth monitoring for the Bengals. Bates has been eyeing an extension for a long time now, and he’s more than worthy. The 25-year-old is an impact player on the field (All-Pro in 2020) and in the community. But the Bengals don’t technically have to pay him at the top of the market yet thanks to the franchise tag and they’re drawing a hard line. Bates can hold out until Week 1 with no penalty, but sitting out games would eat into the $12.9 million tag, so his threats in that direction might not have real teeth. Especially because the Bengals just drafted another safety in the first round. Ideally both sides would prefer an extension but the financial gap might end up being too big. 
  • The makeover of the Saints’ receiving corps continued with the addition of veteran Jarvis Landry, who is leaps and bounds better than anyone New Orleans trotted out wide to catch passes in 2021. Landry’s on the downslope of his career but is still a tenacious and reliable possession threat. Between him, first-round rookie Chris Olave, a hopefully-healthy Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara out of the backfield, the Saints should be back to the normal complement of weapons we’re used to seeing, even if it’s Jameis Winston and Pete Carmichael behind the wheel and not Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
  • A brief note on Thomas: there was some thought that the Landry signing, combined with HC Dennis Allen referencing some “hurdles” remaining in his rehab from ankle injuries, was a bad omen for Thomas’ 2022 availability. And it could be. He was expected to return last year but things started going off the rails during the summer. It is worth pointing out the Saints recommitted to Thomas for this season, including restructuring his deal, when they technically didn’t have to, so I think there’s a good chance signing Landry was more about adding weapons than it was adding a contingency. 
  • Another NFC South team made a move for a receiver, with the Falcons trading for Raiders WR Bryan Edwards. The former third-round pick teased tremendous physical talent in Las Vegas but never consistency, and Las Vegas’ offseason additions at receiver would have left him as a bit player. The depth chart is more wide open in Atlanta.
  • The Dolphins added more to their pass rush by signing OLB Melvin Ingram to a one-year, $4 million deal. He’d visited with them twice in the past year or so and they finally talked him into signing. He’s more of a third pass rusher but still showed he can be an impact player as a rotational rusher last season.
  • Former Colts WR T.Y. Hilton still has some interest on the market, including from Indianapolis and two other teams, but is being patient. Money is a factor I’m sure, with teams probably not wanting to commit too much to the 32-year-old veteran. It’s probably a factor for Hilton, too, as if the Bears are one of the teams interested — which would make sense given their depth chart and the familiarity the coaching staff has with Hilton — he probably doesn’t have much interest in playing for the minimum salary on a losing team.

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

The Jets really have had a good offseason. But fans might be waiting a little bit longer for it to come together, because the start to their schedule is brutal…

New York opens up by running through the AFC North, then faces the rest of the division at home sandwiched around back-to-back road games against the Packers and Broncos. Three wins would arguably be an accomplishment unless Zach Wilson just takes a massive step forward. As we sit now, it’s hard to make a realistic argument he’s better than the 14th or 15th starting quarterback in the conference…

While we’re including schedule release videos, it’s impossible not to bump this one again. Masterpiece…

There are a few AFC teams with just killer month-long gauntlets due in part to how much of a meatgrinder the conference is. During the month of November, the Titans get the Chiefs, Broncos, Packers and Bengals, with the game at Green Bay on the road on a short Thursday week…

The Bengals better rack up as many wins as they can before the bye in Week 10 because things get real after that. Their “easiest” stretch games are divisional matchups against the Steelers and Browns. There are also matchups against the Titans, Chiefs, Bucs, Patriots, Bills and Ravens. A seven or eight-win start wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a playoff berth…

Denver will be able to ease Russell Wilson’s transition somewhat, with games against the Seahawks, Texans, Jaguars and Jets in the first half of the season. The big blockbusters come in the season-ending stretch against the Ravens, Chiefs, Cardinals, Rams, Chiefs again and Chargers…

We’ll find out very quickly if the Raiders’ aggressive offseason made them players in the AFC West, as three of their first five games before the bye are division games…

We’re going to learn about new Dolphins HC Mike McDaniel’s coaching chops real quick. Miami opens the season against the Patriots, Ravens, Bills and Bengals, making an 0-4 start a legitimate possibility. Then in December, the Dolphins get the 49ers, Chargers, Bills and Packers — the first three coming on the road. McDaniel’s got a unique style compared to his coaching peers and seems to relate well to the players so far, but there’s going to be plenty of adversity testing that…

Three reasons I like the Ravens for a big 2022: 

  1. They were the most hurt by injuries in 2021 — by far — and should have better luck this year. 
  2. They had a 6-6 record in one-score games. Over time those tend to average out to 50-50, but some good luck could push Baltimore’s record higher in 2022. 
  3. They have a favorable schedule with games against the AFC East and NFC South, plus intra-division matchups against the Jaguars and Giants thanks to finishing third in the AFC North last season. 

The Ravens feel like a great bet to rebound for double-digit wins, even in a loaded AFC…

Who knows if Deshaun Watson is going to be suspended this season, or how long. Something I don’t think is getting enough play, however, is that whenever he returns there will be hella rust to knock off given he hasn’t played an NFL game since 2020. He was one of the game’s best young quarterbacks on the field, so long-term he should be fine. Might be rocky at first though…

The Bucs got a good draw in terms of home vs road opponents. Their most difficult road game is either at Dallas or at San Francisco. They’ll take on the Packers, Chiefs, Ravens, Rams and Bengals all at home…

Speaking of easier draws…

The Cardinals’ trend of early success/late collapse under HC Kliff Kingsbury will be tested. They’re without WR DeAndre Hopkins for the first six weeks of the season where they’ll play vs KC, @LV, vs LAR, @CAR, vs PHI, @SEA, then have a short week into a Thursday home game against the Saints. Getting out of that stretch with four wins is critical…

After a bye in Week 13, Arizona closes with a home Monday night game against the Patriots, on the road against the Broncos, Sunday night home against the Bucs, at the Falcons and at the 49ers. Not many gimmes there…

The Carson Wentz familiar faces tour will be fun. The Commanders open the season against the Jaguars, helmed of course by former Eagles HC Doug Pederson. There are two games against the Eagles, with Wentz’s return to Philly in November, two weeks after his return to Indianapolis after an ill-fated season there…

Best-case scenario for Washington this year feels like a wildcard berth but those are some dramatic subplots to keep things interesting…

If Pederson gets Trevor Lawrence playing like people thought was possible when he was the top pick, and other players on the roster stop underperforming, seven wins isn’t out of the question…

Even if no one gets to see it, a last-place schedule and getting the AFC and NFC East in the rotation certainly won’t hurt the Lions’ chances of exceeding expectations in 2022…

Panthers HC Matt Rhule is entering 2022 on the hot seat and the timing of the team’s bye in Week 13 is interesting if owner Dave Tepper decides to move on. Let’s say Carolina is 3-9, which is reasonable looking at their slate. Does Tepper pull the trigger or give Rhule the final five weeks against SEA, PIT, DET, TB and NO to try and finish strong? That’s also a good point to insert third-round QB Matt Corral into the lineup, assuming he’s not already playing…

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin went 8-8 with Mason Rudolph starting at quarterback. Eight wins with either Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett is perfectly reasonable…

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