The combine is over and the free agent season is officially upon us. Before NFL teams can really begin to evaluate their draft needs, they’ll have to see what kind of talent they can rustle up from the free agent pool. More than almost any other professional sport, NFL free agency is nearly as much of a crap-shoot as the draft. Derek Jeter or Michael Jordan in the prime of their careers could have been plugged in just about anywhere, on any team, and been great. But the same isn’t true for football.
Success in the NFL is dependent on so many things. Scheme, chemistry, and coaching, among countless other things, play crucial roles in each player’s success. Just because he was a stud with one team doesn’t mean he’s a lock to do the same for yours—cough, Mike Sims-Walker. And of course, the opposite is also true. A guy who never found traction with his first team can come in to the right situation and find himself in a starting role—i.e. Joe Barksdale.
With that said, it’s time to jump into the 2014 free agent pool, where Fisher and Co. will be looking to find the next diamond in the rough, and we’ll be trying to guess who that will be. First up: AFC North.
UFAs: Michael Johnson (DE), Anthony Collins (T), Brandon Tate (WR), Taylor Mays (S), Brandon Ghee (CB), Mike Pollak (G), Alex Smith (TE), Chris Crocker (S), Dennis Roland (T), Bernard Scott (RB), Tank Johnson (DT), Zoltan Mesko (P)
RFAs: Vincent Rey (OLB, LB), Andrew Hawkins (WR), Dane Sanzenbacher (WR)
It’s slim pickin’s with the Bengals which really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Bengals are well on their way to AFC North dominance and good teams find ways to retain their talent. There are a couple of players that the Rams might be interested in, but probably not in much more than a role player capacity.
Mike Pollak (G): The Rams are in desperate need of offensive line depth, especially on the interior. Pollak hasn’t lived up to his second round draft status, but he’s been able to string together some respectable performances, especially at the end of 2013. He also brings five years of experience to the table, while still providing a relative upgrade in the youth department at “only” 29. The big concern with Pollak is his injury history, but for a depth player that’s not as much of an issue, and it likely drops the price way down.
Vincent Ray (OLB): Rey is a restricted free agent, so the Rams couldn’t just lure him away uncontested, but if they don’t’ think they can find their guy in the draft, he might be worth a shot. Rey will be entering his fifth season in 2014, but really only his second as a full time player. He had his ups and downs in 2013, but he ended his season on a very high note, and in total finished the season with positive grades in run defense, pass coverage and pass rush. Again, he’s likely not a starter, but anything’s an upgrade over Will Witherspoon.
UFAs: D’Qwell Jackson (ILB), Alex Mack (C), Shawn Lauvao (G), TJ Ward (S), Billy Cundiff (K), Oniel Cousins (G/T), Willis McGahee (RB)
Unlike a budding contender like the Bengals, a team in ruins like the Browns is much more prone to letting their studs walk. As such, there’s a lot more quality on a much shorter list for Cleveland.
TJ Ward (S): The Rams would likely have to do a lot of roster and contract shuffling to make a splash like TJ Ward this offseason, but if they could, they’d have a chance to take Safety from a position of need to a position of strength in one fell swoop. The biggest knock on Ward for the Rams would be fit. He plays almost exclusively strong safety–which the Rams already have in TJ McDonald–but for a player that talented I’m sure they could find a spot for him. This may all be moot anyway since re-signing Ward is likely a top priority for Cleveland, but man is it fun to think about.
Alex Mack (C): Center could very well be the Rams greatest position of need this offseason, so I’m not sure why it hasn’t been talked about more. Scott Wells is the NFL’s most fragile man, and his backup, Tim Barnes, while promising, is undersized, underexperienced and undrafted. Alex Mack, on the other hand, is one of the best around, earning a +17.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) for 2013, good for fourth in the league. Of course, being in the elite echelons of your position also gets you an elite asking price, but generally interior offensive linemen do not command the kind of money that more illustrious positions do. He could be a guy to keep an eye on.
UFAs: Brett Keisel (DE), Ryan Clark (S), Evander Hood (DE), Emmanuel Sanders (WR), Jericho Cotchery (WR), Jason Worilds (OLB), David Johnson (FB), Michael Palmer (TE), Al Woods (DE), Plaxico Burress (WR), LaRod Stephens-Howling (RB), Greg Warren (LS), Will Allen (S), Felix Jones (RB), Guy Whimper (G), Fernando Velasco (C), Stevenson Sylvester (ILB), Mat McBriar (P), Jamaal Westerman (LB), Rashad Butler (T)
RFAs: Eric Olsen (C)
This may sound like a cop out. Maybe it is. But I don’t think there’s a single player on this list that the Rams would have any interest in. The Steelers are a rapidly aging team on the verge of a major rebuild, but before that, they’ll have to purge their current over-the-hill roster, including this bunch.
The only player on this list that I’d be personally interested in is Emmanuel Sanders, but the St. Louis brass has made it clear that they don’t see receiver as a priority, and even if they did, Sanders doesn’t fit the mold of what they need. Besides, he’s also just about the only guy on this list that the Steelers will be interested in resigning.
UFAs: Vonta Leach (RB), Michael Oher (T), Jacoby Jones (WR), Jameel McClain (LB), Corey Graham (CB), Dennis Pitta (TE), Arthur Jones (DE), Ed Dickson (TE), Daryl Smith (ILB), Jeromy Miles (S), Terrence Cody (DT), James Ihedigbo (S), Dallas Clark (TE), Eugene Monroe (T), Tandon Doss (WR)
RFAs: Albert McClellan (ILB), Josh Bynes (ILB), Anthony Levine (S), Adrian Hamilton (OLB)
Not much here either. Really the Ravens are in much the same boat as the Steelers. The perception is that they’re better because they won a Super Bowl just a season ago, but that was just the culmination of a miraculous run by a team on its last leg. So once again, it’s mostly purge central for the Ravens. However, there is one free agent the Rams could and should have a legitimate interest in.
Corey Graham (CB): The Rams have two very good young corners they’re looking to develop further in the coming season, but the options at nickel corner leave something to be desired. Jeff Fisher definitely looks out for his guys, and Cortland Finnegan is just that, but the only way Finnegan is keeping his custom horned cleats for 2014 is at a drastically reduced pay grade. Even that may not be enough. More likely is that the team will look to fill the position in free agency and/or the draft, and Corey Graham is just the type of player that could fill that role. Though not dominant, Graham has posted a positive grade on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 3 seasons. If Finnegan gets cut, Graham could provide a veteran presence for Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins.
Overall, there’s not a lot to be desired of the AFC North 2014 free agent class. The division is currently comprised of one young contender surrounded by three franchises in varying stages of rebuild. That’s great for the Cincinnati Bengals, but not so great for teams looking to fill roster holes. Despite all that, it’s hard to say which players from which teams will catch Snead and Fisher’s attention and end up in blue and gold in 2014.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check back tomorrow to see which former AFC Southerners could be donning horns in 2014. Also, don’t forget, the podcast will be back on Sunday March 9th.
“The Blue and Whites are always clean.” – Carl Citchen