Training camps are set to open around the NFL later this month, and teams will soon begin settling depth charts and whittling down rosters to 53 players.
In the process, teams will identify weaknesses. Many of them will look to the free-agent market to address them or even further strengthen key position groups. Fortunately, several quality veterans remain unsigned.
While many fans will focus on former Pro Bowlers like Joe Haden, Jason Pierre-Paul and Duane Brown, they aren’t the only ones who can help provide a boost going into camp. Here, we’ll examine less-heralded free agents who may not be household names but who are definitely worth scooping up.
We’re looking specifically at players without a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod on their resumes. We’ll examine eight underrated free agents, how they can help teams in 2022 and some potential landing spots for each.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
The remaining free-agent market includes several former Pro Bowl defensive backs—Landon Collins, Xavier Rhodes, Tashaun Gipson and Haden top the list. Mackensie Alexander has never received all-star accolades but has long served as a talented and valuable role player.
This past season was a down year for Alexander, as he allowed an opposing passer rating of 119.2. However, he still notched 51 tackles and five passes defended in 16 games and five starts. Alexander also played 61 percent of the defensive snaps.
In the three previous seasons—two with Minnesota and in 2020 with the Cincinnati Bengals—Alexander was fantastic. During that stretch, he played no fewer than 13 games and didn’t allow a season-long opposing passer rating above 84.3.
Still only 28 years old, Alexander should still have plenty left in the proverbial tank and can return to top form. He’s solid in run support and can play both in the slot and on the perimeter. He’s a valuable utility player who could help a variety of teams.
A return to Cincinnati would make plenty of sense. Alexander played well there, and the Bengals have yet to re-sign Waynes and Vernon Hargreaves—they also saw Darius Phillips depart for the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Dallas Cowboys could also use additional depth in the secondary. They ranked 20th in passing yards allowed last season, and senior defensive assistant George Edwards is Alexander’s former defensive coordinator in Minnesota.
Best Fits: Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys
Will Fuller is largely underrated because of his injury history. He’s played more than 11 games only once in his six-year career and missed 15 contests last season with a broken finger. It’s easy to forget what sort of weapon Fuller can be when healthy.
Fuller is a speed merchant who can take the top off a defense—a skill that is extremely valuable in most passing schemes. His best statistical season came in 2020 when he caught 53 passes for 879 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Cleveland Browns would seem like a logical fit, as they traded for Fuller’s former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson this offseason. However, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“Fuller is not currently on the radar, even though a source told cleveland.com he’d love to come here and play with Watson,” Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com wrote.
Another AFC North team could use Fuller’s services, though. The Baltimore Ravens have one of the league’s most underwhelming wide receiving corps and traded away speedster Marquise Brown during the draft. Fuller could step right in as Lamar Jackson’s new deep threat on the perimeter.
The Tennessee Titans could also be a prime landing spot. Tennessee added Robert Woods and rookie Treylon Burks this offseason. However, they also traded A.J. Brown and parted with Julio Jones. Fuller could bring big-play ability and capitalize on the attention created by play-action and star runner Derrick Henry.
Fuller’s offensive coordinator in 2020, Tim Kelly, now serves as the Titans’ passing game coordinator.
Best Fits: Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans
Off-ball linebackers often fly under the radar unless they really rack up the tackle numbers or find their way into the Pro Bowl. Anthony Hitchens has never been an all-star and has topped 100 tackles only once in his career.
However, Hitchens can be a valuable asset in run support. He has tallied no fewer than 78 tackles in any of the past six seasons and missed only 10 games during that span. In addition, Hitchens was quite adept in coverage in 2021.
Last year with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hitchens allowed an opposing passer rating of only 83.4 in coverage and was credited with only four missed tackles.
A return to the team that drafted him, the Cowboys, would benefit both parties. Hitchens would find a few familiar faces on the Dallas defense, including DeMarcus Lawrence, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. The Cowboys could use additional depth at linebacker.
Depth after Micah Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch is questionable, and the Cowboys didn’t draft a linebacker in the 2022 draft until taking Damone Clark in the fifth round. A year ago, Dallas ranked 25th in yards per carry allowed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers should also be interested in Hitchens. The Steelers have their own questions marks at linebacker, star pass-rusher T.J. Watt aside. While Pittsburgh did add Myles Jack this offseason, it ranked dead-last in both rushing yards allowed and yards per carry surrendered.
Best Fits: Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers
Offensive tackle Riley Reiff was never going to generate headlines in free agency. He’s a 33-year-old journeyman looking for his third team in three years, and he’s never been considered among the league’s best tackles.
Still, it’s surprising that Reiff is still available. He’s a starting-caliber tackle who has been relatively durable over the years. Since starting eight games as a rookie in 2012, Reiff has started every game he’s appeared in and made at least 12 games in every campaign.
Reiff started 12 games for the Bengals in 2021 and helped Cincinnati reach Super Bowl LVI. According to Pro Football Focus, he was responsible for only four sacks allowed and a single penalty last season.
The Steelers should have a tremendous amount of interest in Reiff, who has experience at both tackle spots. Last season, left tackle Dan Moore Jr. was responsible for five penalties and seven sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor was responsible for two sacks allowed and 11 penalties, per PFF.
As a team, the Steelers allowed 38 sacks and ranked 29th in both rushing yards and yards per carry.
The Browns could use Reiff as insurance for right tackle Jack Conklin. Conklin is a two-time first-team All-Pro but is coming off of a torn patellar tendon that he suffered in late November. Reiff might not be a bargain-bin insurance policy—he played on a one-year, $7.5 million deal last year—but Cleveland happens to lead the league in cap space.
Best Fits: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns
Mike Remmers is the definition of a journeyman lineman, having played for six different franchises. While that resume might not generate a ton of attention, his versatility should.
Remmers has started every position along the offensive line except center, giving him the sort of experience and versatility teams want in an understudy. He only appeared in four games and two starts with Kansas City last season before landing on injured reserve. However, he started at least 10 games in each of the previous six seasons.
In 2020, Remmers was responsible for only four penalties and zero sacks surrendered, according to Pro Football Focus.
As a swing tackle who can also play guard, Remmers would be a tremendous target for the Las Vegas Raiders. Las Vegas’ line is its biggest question mark heading into 2022, with uncertainty at both right tackle and right guard.
2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood was responsible for 14 penalties and eight sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus, despite playing most of the season at guard. With guard Denzelle Good expected to return, Leatherwood should get another opportunity at tackle—though Good is working back from a torn ACL.
Remmers would also be a fine depth piece for the Dallas Cowboys, who are in the process of replacing both guard Connor Williams and tackle La’el Collins. Rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith should get a crack at left guard, but he’s an unproven and raw prospect. Projected right tackle Terence Steele was responsible for eight penalties and two sacks allowed, according to PFF.
Best Fits: Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys
Raiders fans are probably very familiar with running back Jalen Richard. Those outside of the Las Vegas fanbase, however, probably aren’t.
Richard is a true complementary back and has been used sparingly as a runner in recent years. He logged fewer than 40 carries in 2019 and 2020 and had only nine in 2021 following the arrival of Kenyan Drake and a stint on injured reserve with a leg injury.
However, Richard is a tremendous receiving back and is woefully underrated in that role. Even after missing seven games last season, Richard has averaged 32 receptions in his six years as a Raider. And while Richard isn’t a high-volume runner, he’s averaged an impressive 5.0 yards per carry in his career.
Richard’s best season came in 2018, when he appeared in all 16 games and tallied 866 scrimmage yards.
A return to Las Vegas would be logical. New head coach Josh McDaniels frequently used multiple running backs in his offense with the Patriots. The Raiders could also use depth, as Drake is coming off of a broken ankle.
The Los Angeles Rams should also take a long look at Richard. The Rams parted with Sony Michel this offseason, and running backs Cam Akers (Achilles) and Darrell Henderson Jr. (MCL) are both returning from injury-hampered campaigns. Both were ineffective during the postseason—Akers averaged 2.6 yards per carry, while Henderson averaged 1.8 in the playoffs.
Los Angeles’ senior offensive assistant, Greg Olson, was also the Raiders’ offensive coordinator during Richard’s breakout 2018 campaign.
Best Fits: Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Rams
Linebacker Malcolm Smith has had some exposure in the NFL. Notably, he was named MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII, a game in which he tallied 10 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery and one defensive touchdown.
However, Smith was largely an unknown before that game and has remained one since. He’s played on six teams in his career and is coming off a two-year stint with the Browns.
While Smith is an aging journeyman, he can still be a productive part-time linebacker. Last season, he played 43 percent of the defensive snaps and tallied 51 tackles, three tackles for loss and two interceptions.
Just about any team seeking linebacker depth should have some level of interest in the 33-year-old.
Dallas would be a logical landing spot for Smith. We’ve already touched on their need for linebacker help. Additionally, Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn held the same position with the Seattle Seahawks during Smith’s 2013 and 2014 campaigns.
Smith played with the Cowboys for part of the 2019 season.
The New York Jets should also be kicking the tires on Smith. Head coach Robert Saleh spent two years with Smith as defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Smith didn’t play in 2017 because of a torn pectoral but suited up for 12 games the following season.
Smith could be a big asset as a depth player and veteran leader. The Jets could certainly use the help. Last season, New York ranked dead-last in both yards and points allowed.
Best Fits: Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets
The last player on our underrated list is center JC Tretter. Though not a high-profile player, he’s emerged as a tremendously reliable lineman over the past five seasons in Cleveland.
Tretter missed one game in 2021 on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He didn’t miss any other games with the Browns and played 100 percent of the offensive snaps when active during that span.
In those 80 games with Cleveland, Tretter surrendered only six sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Vikings would be a logical fit for Tretter. General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah—formerly Cleveland’s VP of football operations—knows what sort of stability Tretter can bring to an offensive interior. Projected starter Garrett Bradbury, meanwhile, has been responsible for seven sacks allowed and 12 penalties over the past two seasons, according to PFF.
The 49ers are another team that should take a long look at Tretter. Alex Mack retired this offseason, leaving San Francisco with little experience at center. Jake Brendel has just three career starts on his resume. Daniel Brunskill could be an option at center, but that would create another hole at guard after Laken Tomlinson departed in free agency.
The only other center on the roster is undrafted free agent Dohnovan West. Adding Tretter would solidify San Francisco’s situation in a hurry.
Best Fits: Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers
Cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.
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