Free Agent Stock Watch

Free Agent Stock Watch: Eric Reid

It’s the first week of May and several notable NFL names are still floating in free agency. That list includes edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, quarterback and one-time MVP Cam Newton, the once unstoppable Devonta Freeman, and a well-accomplished safety on the right side of 30 in Eric Reid

[RELATED: Three Years Ago Today, The Panthers Signed Christian McCaffrey To His Rookie Deal]

It’s familiar territory for the 28-year-old, who waited all the way until September to find his home for 2018. In that offseason, Reid was coming off of yet another solid campaign as a starter for the 49ers. He was also viewed as controversial by some, thanks to his friendship and partnerships with Colin Kaepernick. Teams say otherwise, but the national anthem protests surely hampered Reid’s market. But, in the interest of equal time, it’s worth noting that other standout safeties – guys like Tre BostonTyvon BranchRon Parker, and Kenny Vaccaro – were also left waiting by the phone that year.

This time around, Reid still offers plenty of upside, though his platform year wasn’t as strong. His new career-high of 130 tackles – including four sacks – seems solid, but a deeper glance shows a few cracks. Pro Football Focus, for example, wasn’t fond of his work, which saw more than 77% of throws completed in his vicinity. After the season, the Panthers released Reid from the remaining year on his contract.

What’s next for Reid? There are several teams that make sense, but also far fewer clubs that are in desperate need of safety help post-draft. His younger brother, Justin Reid, is making a strong case for him to join up with the Texans. After releasing Tashaun Gipson last week, Reid would profile as a major upgrade to an underperforming secondary. The Cowboys, Raiders, and other contenders should also take a good look at him, especially since he can probably be had on a low-cost one-year deal. With that, and a strong season, Reid could be in position to cash in as a free agent next year – hopefully, in March this time.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Arik Armstead

While teams will surely apply the franchise tag to a number of the best pass rushers on the market, one has seemed to receive much less buzz than warranted. 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead failed to live up to his first-round selection early in his career but has quietly become a difference-maker along the San Francisco front four.

In free agency rankings and previews Jadeveon Clowney, Shaquil Barrett, and Yannick Ngakoue have all consistently ranked ahead of the 17th overall selection in the 2015 Draft. However, there is a pretty compelling argument that Armstead is the best player of the bunch.

Few experts would argue that Armstead wasn’t the most productive of the group last season. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Armstead was the 6th highest graded edge defender last season of the 107 qualified players. Clowney ranked 20th, Barrett ranked 25th, and Ngakoue ranked 36th. Barrett accrued a league-leading 19.5 sacks (Armstead recorded 10, Ngakoue had 8, and Clowney just 3), but recorded fewer hurries than Armstead, which tend to be more predictive of future sack production.

It seems that most experts view Armstead as a one-hit-wonder, only producing in his contract year, but the evidence is a bit more complicated. With the exception of the 2016 season (when he missed 8 games with injury), Armstead has always graded out by PFF as a solid defensive lineman (receiving grades of 79.0, 70.1, and 74.8 in 2015, 2017, and 2018) who was particularly effective against the run. There’s no denying that Armstead reached another level of productivity in 2019, but it appears a bit disingenuous to say it came entirely out of nowhere.

Most impressive of all, even as Armstead built his reputation on run-stopping ability, he has generated hurries at the greatest rate of the group, not in 2019, but over his entire career. Armstead has generated a hurry on over 9.2% of his pass-rush snaps over his career, according to PFF, none of the other three have surpassed 7.8%.

Of course, the 49ers have been especially baron along the defensive line (aside from DeForest Buckner) for most of Armstead’s career. Obviously the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford this offseason turned one of the team’s previous weaknesses into its greatest strength. But, some evaluators attribute Armstead’s jump to the improvement in his teammates more than a true change in him as a player.

Injuries, which were problems for Armstead in his second and third NFL seasons, have been a nonfactor over the previous two seasons and especially this season-when he played on 912 snaps between the regular season and playoffs as a part of the 49ers NFC Championship run.

At just 26 years of age, Armstead, an Oregon alum, appears poised to enter his prime of productivity, but will the market view him that way? Or will teams remain skeptical that his elite production in 2019 is sustainable without an elite supporting cast alongside him?

The top of the market for a player like Armstead would likely approach Frank Clark‘s 5-year, $104MM contract with the Chiefs last offseason, on the flipside, Armstead’s floor is probably around his teammate Dee Ford‘s 4-year, $85MM deal. Reports have suggested the 49ers want to resign Armstead, but limited on cap space following their Super Bowl loss to Kansas City, the team will have to shuffle some money around to make a new deal feasible (ironically, a new deal for Armstead could result in the release or trade of Ford).

If they are unable to resign him, San Francisco, already short of draft capital, could very likely recoup a strong return for Armstead via a tag-and-trade move, but the team would need to clear the necessary cap space to apply the franchise tag before they made any move.

Since most focus remains on Clowney, Ngakoue, and Barrett, few rumors have tied Armstead to any other teams, but don’t be surprised if teams seem to evaluate Armstead at the same level (or maybe even above) some of the other options.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Dak Prescott

With all the talk surrounding Tom Brady‘s impending free agency, it’s almost like you could forget about Dak Prescott‘s scheduled trip to the open market. Almost. 

At the start of the season, it seemed like Prescott was right on the cusp of a brand new multi-year deal with the Cowboys. Back in September, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said a new deal was “imminent.” Then, Jones & Co. spent the rest of the year deflecting questions about a potential extension. Now, the pressure is on for the Cowboys to hammer out a mega-deal that will keep Prescott under center for the foreseeable future.

Both sides have ample reason to get something done, but the Cowboys, understandably, have reservations about tying up a ludicrously high percentage of their available dollars in a handful of players. Back in September, the Cowboys offered up a contract that would have paid Prescott an average of $33MM/year. However, Prescott held off during his insanely hot start, and he was probably eyeing Russell Wilson‘s league-leading $35MM/year average.

The Cowboys’ second-half dip cost them a playoff berth and hurt Prescott’s leverage. Through the first seven games of the year, Prescott completed more than 70% of his passes with 12 TDs and seven INTs. On the back nine, Prescott completed just 61.5% of his throws with 18 touchdowns against four interceptions.

Still, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Cowboys’ drop, and much of it fell on Jason Garrett. Prescott, who won’t turn 27 until July, figures to cash in, one way or another. If the Cowboys can’t come to an agreement with Prescott on a long-term deal, they can keep him from free agency via the franchise tag, which is projected to come in at roughly $26.9MM for quarterbacks. The former fourth-round pick would surely prefer the security of a four-year contract, but that’s still a substantial pay bump from the $2.025MM base salary he earned in the final year of his rookie deal.

What will it take for the Cowboys to get a deal done with Prescott? After he finished second in passing yards (4,902) and fourth in passing touchdowns (30, a new career-high), it won’t be cheap. By betting on himself, Prescott has all but assured that he can top Jared Goff‘s four-year, $134MM deal, which averages out to $33.5MM/year. Meanwhile, his camp surely has Goff’s $110MM in guarantees – an NFL record – in the crosshairs.

The stats and comps are only part of the equation as the prospect of multiple franchise tags looms large. Sure, the Cowboys can cuff Prescott for 2020 at ~$27MM, but what about 2021, when the cost would rise another 20% to more than $39MM? (Assuming the franchise tag rules remain in tact after the new CBA.) After that, a third tag would be downright absurd – a 44% jump would cost upwards of $55MM for the 2022 season.

We’ve been fooled before, but all signs still point to a long-term accord between the QB and JJ. If the Cowboys are unwilling to top Wilson’s AAV, it’s possible that the two sides can meet in the middle on a three-year deal, which would allow Prescott to cash in at untold levels when he’s 30 years of age and the league’s revenue climbs even higher. Or, maybe they’ll cave and give Prescott just enough to edge Wilson on a four-year deal and claim victory. In any case, the Cowboys do not want to wait for Patrick Mahomes to land his next deal, which could top $40MM per annum. And, failing all of that, a tag is surely coming.

Prescott, technically speaking, is due for free agency in March, but we’d be shocked if he gets there.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Trey Flowers

Sack artists tend be among the highest earners in free agency, but in 2019 we’ll find out whether the same applies to a defensive end who has generated a ton of pressure against opposing QBs without a ton of sack dances. We’re talking about Patriots standout Trey Flowers, who will look to cash in among a star-studded class of edge rushers. 

This spring, teams will be champing at the bit for free agents like Frank Clark (10 sacks), Dee Ford (9 sacks), DeMarcus Lawrence (9.5 sacks), Jadeveon Clowney (7 sacks). Flowers, meanwhile, has just 3.5 sacks through ten games this season, meaning that he’s on pace for less takedowns than his seven sacks in 2016 and his 6.5 sacks last year.

Of course, sacks don’t tell the whole story when it comes to evaluating edge rushers. Flowers has been terrorizing opposing QBs all season long and Jets signal caller Josh McCown can attest to that after he was hit four times by the Arkansas product last week. Heading into the meat of Week 13, Flowers ranks as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 ranked edge defender, behind only Texans superstar J.J. Watt. That’s not too shabby for a player who won’t turn 26 until August.

Watt, by the way, is under contract through 2021 thanks to the six-year, $100MM contract extension he inked in 2014. Given the widespread need for high-level pass rushers, the increase of the salary cap, and the advancement of the market for DEs, it’s possible that Flowers can flirt with or best Watt’s $16.67MM average annual value.

The Patriots typically don’t shell out big bucks for defensive linemen, but they may want to make an exception here. The Patriots’ group of defensive ends beyond Flowers is far from star-studded and they should have the cap room to make his salary fit. A long-term extension with Flowers would cost no less than $13MM annually, so if they’re unwilling to commit, they can franchise tag Flowers for about $17.1MM.

If Flowers hits the open market, what kind of contract will he command? Which teams do you think will be in the mix for him? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Johnathan Hankins

Last year, Johnathan Hankins was among the league’s most sought-after free agent defensive tackles. In July 2018, Hankins is without an NFL home. 

Hankins’ market dragged a bit last year due to his asking price, but he settled for less in April when he signed a three-year, $27MM deal with the Colts. In March of this year, the Colts surprised many by terminating his contract.

Hankins finished out the year as Pro Football Focus’ No. 20 ranked interior defender and the Colts had – and still have – an abundance of cap room. The Colts’ change from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 setup likely played a part in their decision, but Hankins had only worked out of a 4-3 scheme prior to joining Indianapolis. Hankins did not offer much against the pass in 2017, but he was exceptional against the run, which is the primary goal of any defensive tackle.

Since his release, Hankins has met with the Redskins and Jets, but did not sign with either club. So, what gives?

We haven’t heard much on Hankins in recent weeks, but it stands to reason that his asking price is keeping him from landing a deal. In 2017, Hankins’ camp told teams that he was looking for $15MM per year. Soon after, the asking price was reduced to a more reasonable $10MM per season, and he eventually accepted a $9MM/year pact from the Colts.

After turning in a solid season – nearly the best of his career, according to PFF – Hankins may be unwilling to take anything less than what he received from the Colts. It’s the only logical explanation for one of the league’s best run-stuffing DTs being left in limbo.

That position may seem foolish since many teams have already blown their wad in the first and second waves of free agency, but there are still plenty of dollars available, particularly when it comes to his potential suitors. The Jets, who might not want to bank on 32-year-old Steve McLendon in the middle, will still have about $14MM in cap room after they sign top draft pick Sam Darnold. The Packers, who might not have complete confidence in Kenny Clark taking the next step in 2018, have nearly $11MM in space after inking their entire draft class. The Cowboys, who will start the year without David Irving, have nearly $15MM to work with.

Between now and the start of the year, it’s entirely possible that a team could open up the checkbook to meet Hankins’ demands. In addition to the aforementioned clubs, there are still 16 teams with eight figures in cap room. Beggars can’t be choosers at this stage of the summer, but all it takes is one GM to cave.

Alternatively, Hankins may wind up taking his salary demands down a notch or two, which would greatly open up his possibilities. The Lions, for example, have just $9MM in space, but they may want to consider Hankins to beef up their line, even after signing Sylvester Williams in March.

If the market doesn’t meet his demands, Hankins may be willing to settle for a one-year platform contract in the $7MM range to reestablish his value. If quality defenders like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Jadeveon Clowney, and Geno Atkins are taken off of the 2019 free agent list with extensions, Hankins could be on the path to riches next spring.

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Free Agent Stock Watch: Justin Blalock

With Michael Crabtree and Stefen Wisniewski finding new homes last week, only one free agent on PFR‘s Top 50 list — tackle Justin BlalockJoe Barksdale — remains unsigned. Barksdale (whom I profiled last month) might be the biggest name left on the free agent market, but there are other steady options available, including those who, like Barskdale, play along the offensive line. One such player is guard Justin Blalock, who didn’t earn a spot on our Top 50 list, but did garner a honorable mention.

Blalock was released by the Falcons — his only NFL team for all eight of his pro seasons — in late February, a few weeks before the start of free agency. As PFR’s Luke Adams noted at the time, the transaction was a bit of a surprise, given that Blalock had been a productive contributor during his time in Atlanta. However, he was set to count nearly $8MM against the salary cap in 2015, which would have been the third-highest figure on the club. Additionally, there were concerns that Blalock, a successful guard in a power scheme, wouldn’t be a fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan‘s zone-blocking concepts.

The 31-year-old Blalock has generated a fair amount of interest since his release, and given that he’s been linked to teams with severe offensive line issues, it’s a tad stunning that he hasn’t found a new home yet. The Rams immediately displayed interest in Blalock, and were reportedly set to meet with him at some point (though it’s unclear if that meeting ever took place). Blalock did take a visit with the Lions, while the Buccaneers also showed some level of intrigue.

The level of interest engendered by Blalock shouldn’t come as a surprise, because he’s certainly been a good player throughout his career. His rookie season notwithstanding — he had the dubious honor of being ranked as the league’s worst guard in 2007 — according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Blalock has been remarkably reliable, topping out with a No. 12 finish in 2010 before settling in as a top-30 guard since. The former second-round pick has also been incredibly durable, as he’s missed just two games during his eight-year career.

Blalock should be able to latch on with a new team soon, and it’s conceivable that one of the clubs mentioned above could still sign him. St. Louis, in particular, has a gaping hole at right guard, where Barrett Jones is currently projected to start, as does Tennessee, where career backup Byron Stingily is atop the depth chart. The Patriots, Chargers, and (if they don’t want to rely on Chris Williams) Bills are clubs that both have a vacancy at guard and run a man-blocking scheme.

Outside of the Rams, I think the Lions could present the best fit for Blalock. They’ve already shown interest in him, and they currently a hole at left guard, pending the outcome of their talks with their owner free agent guard, Rob Sims. Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew indicated last month that the team was in negotiations with Sims, but nothing has come of those discussions as of yet. Blalock was the better player in 2014 (Sims was PFF’s No. 40 guard), and while Blalock earned more last year, I’d bet the two will ultimately earn similar money in 2015.

Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com pointed to Blalock as a option for the Lions earlier this month, so it could be that Detroit is waiting for either Blalock or Sims to accept an offer that’s already on the table. Responding to a Twitter question today, Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com argued that the club’s most pressing need was at left guard as opposed to right tackle — at RT, says Twetyman, the Lions at least have LaAdrian Waddle, who has some experience, while the team has no such option at left guard. An addition of Blalock would give Detroit a line of (left-to-right) Riley Reiff, Blalock, Travis Swanson, Larry Warford, and Waddle, a solid (if uninspiring) group.

Left guard isn’t a highly-paid position, and Blalock won’t be able top Geoff Schwartz‘s $4.2MM AAV from last offseason. While he plays a different position, Wisniewski recently received $2.5MM from the Jaguars, and while he’s probably a better player than Blalock, he’s also recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, lowering his value. I’d guess that Blalock will ultimately come in around $2-3MM, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions or the Rams were the club that signed the Texas alum.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Greg Jennings

Hundreds of NFL players have found themselves on the free agent market at some point this offseason, but few seem to have had as much fun with the process as Greg Jennings.Greg Jennings

The veteran wideout has kept his fans up to date on his latest free agent visits by not-so-subtly alluding to them on Twitter — during a week that included meetings in Jacksonville and New Orleans, he wrote that he had the urge to visit a Jaguar dealership, and suggested he had a craving for some Popeyes. Of course, earlier in the process, Jennings indicated that he was set to announce his new team at 10:00pm pacific time on March 31, but that “announcement” was ultimately an April Fool’s gag.

At some point though, Jennings will find a new home, and it will be interesting to see where he lands and how he adjusts to his new situation. The ex-Packer was one of Aaron Rodgers‘ top weapons in Green Bay, where he spent the first seven years of his NFL career. During the three seasons in which he played all 16 games, from 2008 to 2010, the former second-round pick posted three straight 1,100-yard seasons, averaging about 75 receptions, 1,223 yards, and eight touchdowns per year.

That production in Green Bay earned Jennings a massive five-year, $45MM deal from the Vikings which almost immediately looked like a mistake. With the quarterback situation in Minnesota unsettled, Jennings was catching passes from a combination of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and even Josh Freeman during his first year with the Vikes, and never appeared to be an ideal fit. Even after Teddy Bridgewater emerged as the starter in 2014, Jennings’ production was unspectacular — he recorded just 59 receptions for 742 yards last season.

With his cap number on the rise and his performance on the decline, Jennings was an unsurprising cap casualty last month, as the Vikings opted to add another pricey veteran wideout – Mike Wallace – in his place. Now, as Jennings searches for his next NFL team at age 31, potential suitors will attempt to determine whether the veteran is past his prime, or if he could have a bounce-back season in the right situation.

Within the last few weeks, Jennings has been linked to a number of receiver-needy teams, including the Panthers, Dolphins, Jaguars, and Saints — all of whom he’s visited, and all of whom are certainly logical fits. Miami and New Orleans jettisoned many of their top pass catchers from a year ago, as the Fins parted ways with Wallace, Brandon Gibson, and Brian Hartline, while the Saints traded Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham. Jacksonville has some promising young wideouts on the roster, including Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns, but the Jags could use a veteran presence in that group. As for the Panthers, their receiving corps was depleted last year, and adding Jarrett Boykin in free agency didn’t change that.

If Jennings is going to bounce back, it will likely be in situation opposite to the one he found himself in with the Vikings two years ago — in that instance, he was the go-to target, but didn’t have a top quarterback capable of getting him the ball consistently. If he were to join a team like the Saints or even the Panthers, Jennings wouldn’t be at the top of the receiver depth chart, but he could become a steady, reliable weapon for a QB like Drew Brees or Cam Newton.

I think the 31-year-old could also be a fit for a veteran team like the Patriots or the Ravens. Oakland doesn’t really meet my criteria, and the team just signed another veteran receiver in Michael Crabtree, but the Raiders shouldn’t be ruled out entirely — after all, GM Reggie McKenzie was in Green Bay’s front office when the Packers drafted Jennings, and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was the OC in Minnesota when the Vikes signed Jennings in 2013.

At this point in his career, the days of five-year, $45MM contracts are long behind Jennings, who will likely have to settle for a modest one-year pact. A team with plenty of cap space, like the Jaguars, would probably be more willing to spend a few extra bucks on the veteran wideout this spring, but he may be better off settling for something closer to the minimum with a team like the Saints, where he could catch balls from a Pro Bowl quarterback and improve upon his Minnesota numbers. That sort of bounce-back year could potentially buoy him to one last multiyear deal with a little guaranteed money a year from now.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Hakeem Nicks

After Michael Crabtree signed with the Raiders earlier this week, Hakeem Nicks suddenly became the most intriguing free-agent wide receiver still on the market. Greg Jennings might have something to say about that, but in terms of potential upside, Nicks presents the best opportunity for a low-risk investment to pay significant dividends.

At just 27, Nicks already has a fairly impressive resume. In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the former 29th-overall pick averaged 78 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns for the Giants. He was also a major contributor to New York’s Super Bowl title in 2011, averaging seven receptions and 111 yards per game over the team’s four-game playoff run (including a 10-catch, 109-yard performance in Super Bowl XLVI). He also grabbed four touchdowns during that stretch. Combined with Victor Cruz’s breakout 2011 season, it appeared as if Eli Manning would have one of the most dynamic pair of receivers in the league at his disposal for the foreseeable future.

Hakeem Nicks (vertical)

Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Nicks as the Giants prepared to defend their title. During OTAs in May 2012, Nicks fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and was forced to undergo surgery. As a result, he missed valuable training camp time, and even when he returned to the field, he had to play through pain. He landed hard on his right knee during the Giants’ Week 2 contest that year, and he ultimately missed three consecutive games due to knee swelling.

Although he suited up on game days the rest of the season, he was rarely able to practice with the team, and it was clear that the injuries had sapped a great deal of his explosiveness and playmaking ability. His numbers—and the Giants’ offense—suffered as a result. In the last two games of the season, Nicks failed to record a single catch, playing just one snap in the finale.

The former North Carolina standout enjoyed a statistical uptick in 2013, but he failed to crack 900 receiving yards and did not catch a single touchdown despite playing in 15 games. He therefore signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Colts last season, but he was unable to prove much of anything. Nicks was lost in the shuffle of an otherwise explosive aerial attack led by Andrew Luck, who favored Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Coby Fleener. Nicks recorded a mere 38 catches for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and he was targeted just 68 times after receiving over 100 targets in each of his previous four years with the Giants.

The once-promising wideout is consequently looking for another team to offer him the same opportunity the Colts did. Nicks has visited with both the 49ers and Titans, but has otherwise failed to generate a great deal of interest. It is somewhat telling that the Dolphins, who are known to be in the market for a veteran receiver, were apparently more interested in Crabtree, Jennings, and Wes Welker.

Nicks may not be able to recapture his 2011 form, but given his relative youth and record of productivity, one would have to think there is some truth to his assertion that he is “nowhere near finished.” Perhaps on a team like Tennessee or Miami, which feature several talented but young receivers, Nicks would be able to succeed. But if San Francisco is still interested, the 49ers may represent the best opportunity for him. He offers some of the downfield ability of Torrey Smith but is more akin to Anquan Boldin in terms of his route-running and good hands, and is therefore a quality complement to both. Guided by a capable quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, Nicks could thrive in the Bay Area.

But regardless of where he lands, it would be a surprise for him to get much more than the one-year, $3MM deal that Crabtree just signed. And if his 2015 numbers do not show a marked improvement over what he compiled in 2014, he may, in fact, be finished, as the promise of 2011 gets pushed further into the rear-view mirror.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

 

Free Agent Stock Watch: Dwight Freeney

Using the 2015 franchise tag figures as a gauge, it’s evident that edge defenders are considered, and compensated as, one of the most important position on the field, second only to quarterbacks. While the QB franchise number for the upcoming season is set at $18.544MM, the figure for pass rushers (which I determined by averaging the franchise salaries for defensive ends and liDwight Freeneynebackers) will be $13.854MM.

The need for high-quality edge defenders was borne out in free agency, where the best available rushers garnered top-end contracts. Jerry Hughes signed a five-year, $45MM pact to stay with the Bills, the Bears handed Pernell McPhee $38.75MM to lure him away from Baltimore, and Brandon Graham was retain by the Eagles on a four-year, $26MM deal. The market for rushers (and defenders as a whole) is mostly picked over now that we’re a month removed from the beginning of free agency, but there are a few options still remaining, one of whom is veteran LB/DE Dwight Freeney.

Entering his age-35 season, Freeney obviously isn’t the player he once was during his prime when the Colts, with whom he averaged 10 sacks per year from 2002-12 (including a league-leading 16 in 2004). But the Syracuse alum still has a lot to offer on the football field, including the ability to stand up and play outside linebacker, the position he manned during the past two seasons in San Diego. Freeney didn’t rack up the same gaudy sacks totals with the Chargers that he did with Indianapolis — he posted just four total sacks from 2013-14 — but a deeper look his statistics shows that he’s still capable of affecting an opposing club’s passing attack.

Freeney played on approximately 55% of San Diego’s defensive snaps last year, rushing the passer or defending the run on nearly every play (he saw just 14 coverage snaps). While he accrued just 3.5 sacks, he placed third among qualifying 3-4 OLBs with 40 quarterback hurries, and 14th with nine QB hits — as such, he graded as the sixth-best at his position in terms of pass-rush productivity, an all-encompassing metric from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) that seeks to measure a defender’s total pressure output. Subscribing to Josh Norris of Rotoworld’s theory that “disruption is production” — in other words, sack totals aren’t the only way to judge a pass rusher — it’s clear that Freeney has quite a bit left to offer.

Unlike the other edge rushers mentioned above, Freeney shouldn’t require a multi-year deal or any significant amount of guaranteed money. That might seem like an odd statement given his production last season, but given his advanced age, and the fact that he’s yet to draw any known interest since announcing his intention to play this season on March 2, it seems like Freeney will have to end up accepting a one-year deal with minimal risk attached for the team.

Freeney, a three-time All Pro, is coming off a contract that paid him nearly $4.5MM annually (though he eventually accepted a pay cut from the Chargers), but he probably won’t be able to match that figure again. Fellow OLB Sean Weatherspoon recently signed a one-year, $3.875MM pact with the Cardinals, and while Weatherspoon does have a lengthy injury history to account for, he’s also eight years younger than Freeney. As such, I’d guess that something like $3MM over one year, perhaps with some incentives available, would be a fair deal for Freeney.

There a quite a few teams that could use a situational rusher like Freeney, and because he has experience both with his hand in the ground and standing up, I wouldn’t think he’d be limited to one scheme. That versatility could prove handy, especially for clubs that like to mix up their defensive fronts. One such team, the Patriots, always seem to be able to coax out the last bit of production from veteran players, so Freeney could be a fit in New England. Elsewhere, the Falcons, Packers, Bengals, Bears, and Chiefs all finished among the bottom-10 in adjusted sack rate, and might be interested in adding edge talent. For his part, Peter King of TheMMQB.com opined last month that the Buccaneers could also be a possible fit, while I recently suggested another NFC South club, the Panthers, could find a bargain in Freeney.

One club that won’t be signing Freeney is the Chargers, as general manager Tom Telesco told Freeney in March that San Diego wouldn’t be retaining him. Personally, I find that a bit surprising, as San Diego’s pass rush was nothing special last season — the team finished 29th in sacks and 20th in adjusted sack rate. Following the retirement of Jarret Johnson, the Chargers don’t have much depth at outside linebacker, so unless they’re especially high on 2013 sixth-round pick Tourek Williams (the projected starter at LOLB), I’m confused as to why San Diego wouldn’t welcome Freeney back.

One reason that could help explain why Freeney remains unsigned is that free agent contracts are still tied compensatory draft picks for another month. In the past, the cutoff date for draft pick compensation was June 1, but the league recently moved that deadline up to May 12. Based on Zack Moore of Over the Cap’s calculations, Miles Austin‘s $2.3MM deal with the Browns is currently the least-expensive contract tied to a compensatory pick. So if Freeney is asking for the ~$3MM that I estimated for him, interested clubs might be wary of possibly forfeiting the chance at a comp pick to sign him (even if that pick will only be a sixth- or seventh-rounder). As such, we’ll probably have to wait until after that May 12 date so see Freeney (and other veterans like him) find new homes.

Like I noted when I profiled fellow free agent Brandon Spikes, I think NFL teams are wise to focus on what a player can do, instead of what he can’t do. Spikes is out of his element in pass coverage, but he’s an effective run defender when given the chance. Freeney is 35 years old and needs to have his playing time monitored, but as a part-time pass rusher who sees 35 snaps per game, he can still be highly productive. A club could do much worse than to hand Freeney $3MM or so and insert him into it’s edge defender rotation.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Brandon Spikes

Last March, coming off a five-year stretch with the Patriots, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes had to settle for a one-year deal with the division-rival Bills that netted him just $3.25MM. That contract, while likely below Spikes’ salary target, was signed within days of the start of the free agent period. This year, however, we’re nearly a month separated from the beginning of free agBrandon Spikesency, and Spikes is still unsigned.

There are a myriad of reasons that could help explain why Spikes is still on the market, but chief among them is probably the devaluation of the inside linebacker position. Not only are ILBs not (for the most part) getting paid in free agency, but two-down run-stopping specialists, such as Spikes, are rapidly falling out of favor in today’s NFL.

The advanced metrics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) actually paint a relatively positive picture of Spikes’ pass-coverage abilities, as he ranked fourth-best at his position in yards per coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception. Each of those statistics, however, are dependent on a player’s total coverage snaps, of which Spikes had few. The 27-year-old saw just 222 snaps in coverage, the 16th-fewest among qualifying inside linebackers. Small sample size is obviously an issue here, as the consensus among most observers is that Spikes isn’t cut out for three-down duty.

But for a club looking for a force against the run, there are certainly worse options than Spikes. Overall, he graded as PFF’s 13th-best inside linebacker in the league last season, and his total ranking was buoyed in large part by his run-stopping acumen, as he placed ninth in that department. Spikes’ 2014 run-defense numbers are no fluke, as he ranked No. 1 against the run in both 2012 and 2013.

Of course, Spikes’ on-the-field limitations and/or strengths might not be the only factors playing into his current availability. Clubs also take into account soft factors, and Spikes has a history of (relatively minor) off-the-field incidents. He’s been called a “headhunter” by other players (and has been fined heavily for certain hits), posted offensive material on social media, and been lambasted by former teammates. Perhaps most seriously, Spikes was suspended for four games in 2010 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. On their own, none of the above episodes are overly consequential, but taken together, they paint Spikes as a player who could be more of a distraction than he’s worth.

But yet, as Steve Palazzolo noted on a recent PFF Podcast, in a league where 31-year-old David Harris is worth $21.5MM over three years, it’s possible that Spikes is being undervalued. Yes, two-down linebackers are increasingly less important, but as Palazzolo added, a team could sign Spikes, draft a coverage linebacker, and replicate the production of a Harris-type linebacker for half the cost.

One potential path for Spikes could be returning to Buffalo, which still had interest in re-signing its free agent linebacker as recently as March 27. Back in February, however, Bills general manager Doug Whaley said that Spikes would only return as a two-down linebacker, adding that if Spikes wanted a larger role he would have to look elsewhere. Of course, at this point, an early-down role looks like the only route for Spikes, regardless of team, but overall, Buffalo doesn’t seem overly invested in retaining Spikes.

Other clubs have expressed their interest in Spikes, including the 49ers (reeling from the loss of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland) and the Vikings. Minnesota, though, proceeded to sign fellow ILB Casey Matthews, which reportedly signaled the end of the team’s interest in Spikes. The Dolphins were also mentioned as a potential suitor, but it sounds like Koa Misi will man the middle in Miami.

So now that the dust has settled on free agency, where could Spikes fit? I’d think the Browns could make a play for him, as he’d act as a good complement to Craig Robertson, who is a solid coverage linebacker. Elsewhere, the Titans, Cardinals, Packers, Chiefs and Texans all currently list at least one inexperienced player atop their inside linebacker depth charts, so Spikes could add something of a veteran presence to each of those 3-4 schemes. Among clubs who play a 4-3 front, the Falcons could look for an upgrade over the smallish Paul Worrilow, and Spikes (at 6’2″, 255 pounds) could be an improvement.

Spikes will probably have to settle for another one-year deal, and because he’s still unsigned into April, he might have to take even less than he received in 2014. A.J. Hawk, by any measure a less-talented linebacker, will earn a $1.625MM AAV with the Bengals, a figure that should act as a floor for Spikes. Nate Irving, a good comparison for Spikes, will garner a shade less than $2.5MM per year per his deal with the Colts, so I’d guess that Spikes will earn something in that range. A team willing to play to Spikes’ strengths, and perhaps pair him with a coverage-centric linebacker, could end up finding a bargain.