NFL News & Analysis

10 sleeper free agents who could bring surprise upside

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 3: Outside linebacker Julius Peppers #56 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates after a sack during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 3, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images)

Free agency isn’t all about the big splash and the $100 million contract. Some of the best and most savvy investments are the ones that come in the second wave of the free-for-all, and fly under the radar both in terms of publicity and financial numbers.

So, if your team doesn’t go crazy in the opening period of free agency, console yourself and instead take a look at some of the sleeper players of this period that could make major positive impacts on the team that signs them:

1. Andrew Whitworth, T

Whitworth might be stretching the definition of sleeper a touch because he is far from an unknown force in the NFL, but he remains one of the league’s most underrated and underappreciated players, and enters free agency at 35 years of age, which will limit his potential market. Whitworth though is still one of the league’s best left tackles, allowing just 14 total pressures in 2016. Teams always throw big money at younger players, but any tackle-needy team could likely get two or three solid years out of Whitworth for a fraction of the price, and could potentially kick him inside to guard for a final year when his physical tools do start to wane.

2. Duron Harmon, S

The NFL has changed schematically on defense over the past decade, and now more and more teams play with a single-high safety and one in the box, as opposed to schemes that call for two-high safeties. That single-high free safety is becoming something of a unicorn (mythical beast, impossible to capture, etc.) for NFL personnel people, and finding a guy who can play well in that role can have a transformative effect on an entire defense. Harmon has only ever been a role player for the Patriots, and has never played more than 650 snaps in a regular season, but his role has been the deep-lying free safety and he has consistently graded well in that role. Everybody is looking for their version of Seattle’s Earl Thomas to play that position in their defense, and while Harmon might not be Thomas, he is a player who could potentially have a much more valuable role as a full-time starter at free safety outside of New England.

3. Julius Peppers, Edge

Peppers has become a situational player as the years have advanced, but that has enabled him to stay relatively fresh and productive, and as a situational rusher in Green Bay’s rotation last year he was excellent. Peppers posted 37 total pressures over the season and ranked 23rd among all edge rushers with a PFF pass-rush grade of 78.8, ahead of players like Cliff Avril and the NFL’s sack leader, Vic Beasley. Peppers still has plenty of gas left in the tank, and with a thinning group of quality pass-rushers available in free agency a team could turn its attention to Peppers as more of a short-term stopgap at the position while it targets the future through the draft.

4. J.C. Tretter, C

Tretter has impressed every time he has taken the field for the Packers as the team’s backup center, and this past season he was called on to start for the first eight weeks of the season. At that point he was the fifth-ranked center in the game before he took his seat back on the bench with the return from injury of starter Corey Linsley. Tretter has improved each season he has seen the field, and his most recent play was the most encouraging. He has earned a shot to start for some team, but between playing an unglamorous position like center, and still working from a limited resumé of tape, his price tag likely won’t be very high. Some team could bag itself a bargain by signing him long-term and solving its center woes.

5. John Simon, Edge

Another player that has earned himself a starting role in limited play, Simon could be a more attractive option to teams given the relative dearth of proven pass-rushing talent that is scheduled to hit the open market. Simon was a significant part of Houston’s formidable defensive front last season but injury cost him the majority of the second half of his season. Over the first half of the year only the New England Patriots were able to blank him from a pass-rushing standpoint, and he had three games in which he recorded at least one sack, hit and hurry. Simon has been an impressive situational rusher for the past few seasons, but may have earned himself a shot to start for somebody in 2017.

6. Ronald Leary, G

Leary was a player that had a starting spot at guard until the Cowboys found La’el Collins falling into their laps given his controversial draft day. Collins was a player seen as having first-round talent, but slipped out of the draft entirely after legal issues began to swirl around the draft. Dallas decided to sit Leary down to make way for Collins at left guard, but an injury to Collins early in 2016 opened the door back up for Leary to resume his starting spot and put together a fine season. This is an excellent offseason to want help at guard, with several quality ones available, and as such Leary could prove to be an under-the-radar option at the position. He didn’t allow a single sack last season and had the 14th-best PFF run-blocking grade (82.5) at the position.

7. Chris Baker, DI

Baker has been extremely impressive for Washington over the past two seasons, and has seen his playing time ramped up in response. Last year saw him on the field for a career-high 782 snaps, and also match his career high in total pressures with 42, while posting the best grade in run defense of his career. Baker is a big body that has shown the ability to play all three downs and be a factor against the run and pass over the past two years, and could be a big addition to some team’s defensive line in more ways than one.

8. Gerald Hodges, LB

Players with a very small sample size of play are some of the riskiest free agents around, but they can also provide major upgrades for minor investments if the sample size is small enough to keep them under the radar of most teams. Gerald Hodges played 584 snaps for the 49ers this past season. It was actually his third straight season with between 500 and 600 snaps, but was the first in which he put it all together instead of just flashing one facet of his game. Hodges became a major factor in the run game for the 49ers, notched three sacks and nine total pressures on the blitz, and improved his play in coverage – dropping his passer rating allowed by more than 25 points over his previous career high. Hodges only really has one season of quality play to his name, but that season points to significant upside if a team can replicate that form.

9. Bennie Logan, NT

Logan is a true nose tackle, effectively limiting him to being a two-down player, which in today’s NFL has never been less valuable in terms of contract dollars. He has the ability though to make a major impact on those two downs if a team is willing to embrace the type of player he is. This past season he was a poor fit for Philadelphia’s new, aggressive, one-gap defensive front, but the year before he notched 45 defensive stops, fourth in the league among all interior defenders despite playing just 597 snaps in total. Only Damon Harrison had a better run-stop percentage than Logan’s 14.8 percent, a figure that would also have been second to Harrison this season. Embrace the two-gapping, run-stuffing ability and you could transform your run defense for pennies on the dollar.

10. Tony Jefferson, S

If the deep-lying single-high free safety has become the target of every NFL defense, the box safety has also become a more specialized position, but seems far easier to fill. That being said, finding a good one can still have a big impact on your defense. Jefferson became that player last year for the Arizona Cardinals and was excellent against the run in particular, ending the year with a PFF grade of 98.0 in that area. Jefferson though also held up in coverage in a way some other run-stuffing box safeties can’t, and would make an excellent impact player on a team looking for a quality strong safety.

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