A quick look at the abundance of defensive talent still left in the NFL free agency market.
The 2016 NFL free agency period has been in full force for over a week now. With many signings already happening, most of the best free agents are already off the board. However, there is still a substantial amount of talent left for teams to sign before the start of the 2016 season. Going through these players, position by position, we can uncover some of the hidden gems left in the free agent market.
Possibly the deepest position at the beginning of free agency, the defensive linemen were quick to get signed. Some, such as Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon, were able to cash in on monumental contracts, while others, like Nick Fairley, are still waiting for the right offer to come their way. While Fairley is a very solid option at defensive tackle, he isn’t the only good option left because there is also Terrance Knighton. Both of these players are very good run stuffers who also possess the ability to go after the quarterback. While Fairley is younger, 28, compared to Knighton, 29, you can count on both of these players to stay healthy for a full season, as they have both shown over the course of their careers.
As far as defensive ends are concerned, there are not many left that are worth signing in free agency. The only remaining impact player is Greg Hardy and he comes with the baggage of his off-field problems. While he has top ten talent as far as purely physical ability is concerned, he comes with past issues which makes it hard for teams to see him worth the investment and trouble.
Based purely on talent, the best player in free agency that is still unsigned is Aldon Smith. As one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL, Smith has shown he is capable of being one of the best in the league at rushing the quarterback. However, he is also a player that comes with a lot of off-field issues, especially considering his suspension since mid-November. With all of the issues he has off the field, it will be interesting to see if any team is willing to take a risk on him, knowing what he is capable of once he gets onto the field. Another expert in the pass rushing game in free agency is Dwight Freeney. While he is 36 years old, he has proven he is capable of making plays with eight sacks in just eleven games last year with the Cardinals. Although teams are taking a risk in signing a player who has played 15 seasons, there is great potential for Freeney to produce eight or more sacks again in 2016.
Also left for free agent linebackers are specialty options Mike Neal and Courtney Upshaw. While Neal is a highly versatile linebacker who can play any position from an outside linebacker to a defensive tackle, he isn’t the best playmaker, only recording one interception and a career high of just five sacks. That being said, Neal is a solid option for teams in need of a versatile linebacker who they can count on to be out there for 16 games. Another specialty option linebacker available is Courtney Upshaw, a run-stuffing specialist. While he has all the talent in the world, he has not reached his anticipated potential in the NFL, with a career high of just two sacks and 55 tackles. Upshaw is reliable as he has never missed a game in his four year career. He is a player, like Mike Neal, that will be signed by a team simply looking for a linebacker that they can count on being on the field for 16 games.
Another area of free agency that has yet to be depleted is cornerback, where there are still many talented players yet to be signed. The best two cornerbacks remaining in the free agency market are Patrick Robinson and Brandon Boykin. While Robinson had a resurgence in his career last year in San Diego due to his move to full-time slot corner, Boykin has made a career out of slot corner for the past four seasons. Both of these players deserve to be paid similar to at least the top-30 cornerbacks in the NFL, as they have proven to be over last few seasons. Another solid cornerback left in free agency is Leon Hall. Unlike Robinson and Boykin, Hall has played basic outside cornerback in his nine seasons in the NFL. At 31 years old, Hall is on the downside of his career and could be a risk for teams looking to sign a corner this offseason, not knowing if this will be the year that his production drops off. However, Hall will still be signed in the 2016 season based on his ability to still play top-50 corner and be reliable for the full 16 game season.
When it comes to playmaking ability left in free agency, safety is definitely the deepest position left. With multiple players who had three or more interceptions last year, this position has a lot of talent left. This class is highlighted by the NFL leader in interceptions a year ago, Reggie Nelson. Along with Nelson, Rashad Johnson is also a ball hawk, tied for sixth in interceptions last year. Both of these players are some of the best playmakers in the secondary in the NFL, both getting at least four interceptions for the past two seasons. While Nelson may be demanding a larger contract, Johnson may be one of the best deals left on the market. One more solid option left at the safety position is recently converted cornerback, Walter Thurmond. In one season of playing at the safety position, Thurmond was able to be very productive, recording three interceptions, two sacks, and two forced fumbles in 16 games. With this impressive ability to make plays, Thurmond will surely be paid by a team looking for a playmaker in the secondary.
While free agency is an essential part of forming any team, overspending during free agency can lead to years of regret for most teams. So, while every player on this list deserves to be on someone’s NFL roster, it takes time for both the players and the teams to come to terms with what each player values. However, in the 2016 season, barring injury, retirement, or suspension, every one of these players will be suited up and ready to play come kick off.
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