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NFL Draft

5 Under-The-Radar Free Agent Deals Paying Off So Far

  • The Draft Network
  • October 14, 2020
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With every year, free agency gets wilder and contracts get bigger. It’s a ton of fun to watch the top players in the league find new homes, as teams look to reload their rosters in the Super Bowl hunt.

But of course, we always end up talking about the same deals for the same players. The Titans tagged Derrick Henry; Bryan Bulaga is finally gonna fix the Chargers offensive line; Jameis Winston should have been paid. And some of the best deals slip in underneath the radar.

Through the first five weeks of the season, I wanted to highlight those deals: a re-signing, a waiver pickup, and three free-agent grabs that have paid huge early dividends to their teams. Are these franchise-changers? Not necessarily, but they’re great bargains that deserve their day in the sun.

Seattle Seahawks OT Brandon Shell

You never really expect any Seahawks offensive tackle to be good. Even now, when I see Duane Brown playing well at left tackle, I’m pleasantly surprised. 

Of course, Seattle lost two tackles to free agency last year: both Germain Ifedi and George Fant left for bigger deals elsewhere, with Fant signing a fat deal with New York Jets to replace Shell. Shell, in turn, signed a moderate deal with the Seahawks. Fant has been just fine for New York, but Shell has really impressed in Seattle.

With the immediate success of rookie right guard Damien Lewis and the hit on fellow free agent left guard Mike Iupati, the Seahawks’ pass protection is hanging in on Wilson’s deep drops and keeping the running game rumbling. Kudos goes to John Schneider for getting cheaper and better in the trenches.

Las Vegas Raiders WR Nelson Agholor

Here’s a graph that argues that Nelson Agholor is the best wide receiver in the NFL in 2020.

Not really, of course. But when the Raiders target Agholor, they’re getting completions, first downs, and explosives: no player has a higher passer rating when targeted than Agholor does. When Agholor was brought in during March free agency, he was given over $1M on the veteran minimum—a clear signal of a depth signing on a team that would eventually add rookies above him on the depth chart come April. And the Raiders did: Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards both had all the hype that Agholor lacked entering the season.

But injuries kept them off the field, and Tyrell Williams was also lost for the season, creating an opportunity for Agholor to shine. Always a quality route-runner, many of Agholor’s struggles in Philadelphia seemed baked into the jersey: he was underconfident, suffering from critical drops, and eventually falling out of favor with Carson Wentz. With the slate wiped clean in Las Vegas, he’s looking like the first-rounder he once was.

Denver Broncos iDL Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris was probably the biggest bang for the buck in free agency this year, bar none. It’ll be a tough sell against some of the bigger and sexier deals, but Harris was deserving of a sexy deal after the 2019 season with Denver: he was a 16-game starter with six sacks and eight TFLs from a primarily run-stopping, two-gapper role. The Broncos had resigned themselves to the idea that Harris was going to get a bigger deal elsewhere, but when Harris’ market was quiet, they brought him on a one-year, $3M deal. 

With Jurrell Casey and Mike Purcell beside Harris, Vic Fangio had the voracious run-defending three-man front he’s always dreamed of. It only lasted for a few weeks, as Casey was lost for the season with a torn bicep—but Harris and Purcell remain one of the staunchest defensive tackle duos in the league. 

It remains to be seen if Harris is paid next year—we thought he was going to get paid last year—but he’s a perfect Fangio DT. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to hold on to him long-term, and pay the 30-year-old defender accordingly. 

Carolina Panthers CB Rasul Douglas

Douglas wasn’t a free agent signing like many of the other players on this list; instead, he was claimed off of waivers in the immediate wake of roster cutdowns in early September. Originally a third-round pick by the Eagles in 2017, Douglas ended up starting 18 games across three seasons for Philadelphia due to injuries, but never played well enough to hold down the job when the starters returned.  

But Douglas was also never used in Philadelphia like he’s been used in Carolina. An upright corner without ideal transitional quickness or long speed, Douglas was successful in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 defense because it allowed him to play far off the line of scrimmage, giving him room to turn and run against speed receivers, and letting him play short-breaking routes with his eyes in the backfield. In Carolina, defensive coordinator Phil Snow is running a lot of different stuff, but his base defense at Baylor last year was the 3-3-5.

Snow has done a good job keeping Douglas in alignments that will work well for him: he’s playing with safety help and given the freedom to play aggressively in short zones. He may not be a full-time starter on the outside for when Donte Jackson and Eli Apple return from injury, but the Panthers will continue to find ways to get him on the field. For a September pickup, Douglas has been a critical addition to a surprisingly effective defense.

Dallas Cowboys EDGE Aldon Smith

This list couldn’t end with anyone else besides Smith, who is the best argument for top bargain over Harris in this year’s class. Harris’ market is a bit more difficult to understand, but Smith’s market was so low given his off-field history. For both a domestic violence incident and DUIs, Smith has been suspended from the league on multiple occasions and hadn’t played since 2015 when the Cowboys signed him.

They needed any EDGE help they could get, and their gamble has paid dividends thus far. Smith has been one of the most productive pass-rushers in the league, and his four sacks on the season rank top 10 in the NFL. If the Cowboys could get any leads and force teams to throw the football, that number would likely be higher.

Why Smith was such a value is clear, and the hope is that he can remain on the straight and narrow for the Cowboys season and keep their EDGE room strong. If he can springboard from this season into a full return to the league, that’s excellent news for a player who has always demonstrated mouthwatering talent.

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