NFL Free Agency starts Wednesday, officially, and it's going to be very easy to get caught up in the big-name, big-money deals that happen. Those astronomical contracts are likely to be the most influential, sure, but lost in the glitz and glam around them are those solid and strategic veteran additions that bolster depth and fill key roles for teams, all for relatively small amounts.
My favorite example of this last year was the in-season addition of veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney, who came to the Cardinals in October after they had suffered a spate of injuries. Freeney has a specific set of skills that the Cardinals used in their pass-rush package, and he went out and produced eight sacks down the stretch. Freeney was ignored when free agency opened up and so he waited it out, looking for the right situation. That came in the form of Arizona.
Another under-the-radar veteran free agent signing was Minnesota's decision to bring in cornerback Terence Newman, despite relatively good depth at the position. The 37-year old reunited with former coach Mike Zimmer and produced for him, starting 16 games while defending 12 passes and picking off three. That's value at $2.5 million.
So, who might be a few Freeneys and Newmans this free agency season? Let's take a look at a few that could still play key roles in 2016 for the right teams.
Andre Johnson, WR, age 34
Johnson is one of the all-time greats at the receiver position but underwhelmed in Indianapolis last season, catching just 41 passes for 503 yards and four touchdowns after signing a three-year, $21 million contract. Of course, Andrew Luck struggled as he battled numerous injuries, was replaced by Matt Hasselbeck after seven games, and the Colts passing game was a mess. They finished 22nd in yards per game, 31st in yards per pass attempt and dead last in completion percentage, and Johnson ended up fourth on the team in targets. He wasn't a significant part of the game plan as the year went on.
Obviously, even great receivers tend to fall off a cliff of production at 34 years old, but I'm not convinced Johnson is completely done as a pass catcher. In the right role and with the right quarterback, I think he could still be very productive. He's still big, physical, and savvy -- and if he could find a system that fits, and a quarterback that trusts him, he could still be an asset. He definitely doesn't believe that his time is up, either.
Roddy White, WR, age 34
White is another receiver whose insane production has dropped significantly over the past few years. White is interesting, however, because one of the main reason he finds himself in free agency could be because of major disagreements with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Now, it could just be that White is making excuses, but he was phased out of Atlanta's passing game pretty unceremoniously this year. White started the first two games of the year without a catch, publicly grumbled about it and it would appear that shattered the relationship.
"I expected to play a bigger role in the offense, and that's what I wanted to do," said White. "But he didn't have that in his desires. He had other people that he wanted to play my role, so he wanted me to be out of the [offense]. That was the whole thing. And it is what it is."
So, would White fit elsewhere? That's the big question.
Like Johnson, I think that White could carve out a role with a new team as long as the offense suits his skill set. I doubt White's going to outrun any corners these days but if you need a possession receiver with a ton of experience and some size, he might be an option. Of course, you're going to have to deal with grumbling if he doesn't get the kind of targets he's expecting, I would guess.
Dwan Edwards, DT, age 34
Paul Soliai, DL, age 32
Teams throw the ball more than ever these days, but defensive coordinators still need run stuffing defensive tackles for base downs.
Dwan Edwards and Paul Soliai have both been solid in that area for years. Statistically, Edwards had his worst year in 2015 as he played in a rotation on Carolina's fearsome defensive line, but if there's a team looking for a base defensive tackle to absorb blocks and play with discipline, they could do worse. Same could be said for Soliai, and I think that he could have a bounceback season in 2016 in the right system. He's scheme versatile, as well, able to play in a 3-4 or a 4-3 system.
Brandon Mebane, DT, age 31
Terrance Knighton, DL, age 29
Along the same lines, Mebane and Knighton are two nose tackles that could find new homes in free agency and effectively plug holes in the middle of someone's line in 2016. Mebane is an underrated run defender who can easily stack and shed double teams or hold at the point of attack, and Pot Roast is a similar, and slightly younger player. Signing either of these guys isn't going to be a flashy move, but they'll play key roles.
As of Wednesday morning, the Seahawks were working to re-sign Mebane.
Chris Long, DE, age 30
The former second overall pick has just four sacks in the last two seasons after racking up 41.5 from 2010-2013, but his production dipped badly while battling injuries the last two years.
He's already getting some interest in the free agent market, from Dallas and Washington so far, and would make for a good candidate as a sub-package rusher for some team looking to add some pass rush teeth -- particularly in a rotational role. Could Long be what Dwight Freeney was for the Cardinals last year?
Evan Mathis, OG, age 34
Jahri Evans, OG ,age 32
Mathis refused a pay cut from Chip Kelly last year and landed in Denver, grabbing a Super Bowl ring on the way while starting 12 games. He's 34 and there were rumors that he's mulling retirement, but for a zone blocking team that needs an experienced, quality guard, Mathis might make a pretty tempting target. Evans may end up being this year's version of Mathis -- he has been a high quality guard for the Saints for years but recently rejected a pay cut there, and finds himself out on the open market.
Neither player is going to be an elite tier guard at this point in their careers most likely, but both are extremely experienced and reliable. 2015 was the first time in Evans' 10-year career that he missed any significant time.
There's another group of younger guards that could also fill key roles in free agency, including Louis Vasque (age 28), Alex Boone (age 28) and Ramon Foster (age 30, also likely to re-sign with the Steelers).
Daryl Smith, LB, age 33
Derrick Johnson, ILB, age 33
It's hard to find a more respected and reliable linebacker than Daryl Smith, and Derrick Johnson is still one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL. Both will find suitors on the open market if they're not able to come to terms with their former teams in the Ravens and Chiefs, respectively.
Smith is well-known for his tackling prowess and led the Ravens in tackles this past season, but got substituted out in obvious passing downs. He could return in 2016 as a base down defender specializing in stopping the run. On the other hand, pass coverage is one of Johnson's specialties, and it makes him extremely valuable because he can play on all three downs. Both of these guys will play important roles for some team in 2016. Of course, Johnson was a second-team All Pro in 2015, so he may not really belong on this list, but he may not get top dollar because of his increasing age. That's the key variable at play here.
Reggie Nelson, S, age 32
Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2015 after picking off eight passes, and is coming off a career year. A rangy yet stout strong safety at this point, he's got the speed to drop back into middle-deep coverage, if necessary, but can also play in the box and stuff the run. He's versatile and talented, and like Johnson above, as a Second Team All Pro in 2015, he might not belong on this list, but his age will certainly give a few teams pause. Regardless, he's going to get some interest around the league.
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This is obviously not an exhaustive list of veteran free agents that could find roles on new teams in 2016, but it's a snapshot across the positional spectrum. And, by the way -- Dwight Freeney and Terence Newman are both still free agents as of writing this list. Those two could end up extending their remarkable careers in 2016, as well.
As for the rest of the list, some of these guys will fall off the proverbial cliff next year as age catches up to them and their bodies break down. That's a risk all teams know they're taking when they sign players north of 30. However, some will use their high level skill to make up for a loss of speed or power and make some front office and fan base really happy. It's a subpackage league, and if you can find a guy that can give you 20-30 quality, effective snaps a game in certain situations, that's valuable.