Point/Counterpoint: Which valuable free-agents-to-be are currently flying under the radar?

Andrew, a couple weeks ago, we debated which of the potential 2013 free agents would be most coveted once the market opened on March 12.  (Factoring in which pending free agents would eventually be unavailable due to franchise tags was part of the game, so my choices of Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer now add up to a major fail.  Sigh.)

Now that free agency is almost upon us and the franchise tags have been put in place (only eight, down from 21 last year), let’s take a look at the player market one more time, but from the other end of the spectrum.  The question now, with several hundred players about to flood the market, is which ones are currently flying under the radar?  That is, can you identify a player or two who hasn’t generated much buzz yet but might end up being a very valuable lower-profile signing?

We’ve all heard the top names expected to be on the market, the Mike Wallaces and Cliff Avrils and Dashon Goldsons.  Let’s find a few players outside of the obvious who can make a difference.  And, unlike in our previous exercise, let’s take the Buccaneers’ own needs into consideration.  That is, your selections should be players who not only have value, but have specific value to the Bucs at this time.

I magnanimously grant you first choice.

Andrew Norton: As much as I love being able to say that my two “most coveted” free agents are still ripe for the picking, it does seem far more gratifying to me to hear you admit that you were wrong. I will say this though, I don’t know that many people outside of the Cowboys’ offices thought that Spencer would see another tag.

Really, I do enjoy the gloating, but that was just a clever device I used to buy myself some time to think about the question for this week. While I know a lot of people will be yelling for a defensive back of some sort, I can’t easily peg down any of the top candidates as flying under the radar. There is a wealth of talent at cornerback, and most of the notoriety is going to a handful of names, so there is a good list of sleepers here. The same can be said at safety.

But there is another aspect of the defense that has quite a bit of an effect on stopping the pass. And that would be rushing the quarterback. The Buccaneers had the third fewest sacks last year with 27. DE Michael Bennett accounted for nine of them. Filling out the secondary through free agency or the draft is a good call, but bringing in a proven, below-the-radar pass-rusher might just be what it takes to turn the passing game around.

With pass rushers like Paul Kruger, Cliff Avril, John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney drawing a lot of the attention, I think that Houston Texan DE/LB Connor Barwin would classify as just the sleeper candidate at a position where the Bucs could use some help.

Admittedly, Barwin is coming off a massive down year; he amassed 44 tackles, but his sack total dipped from 11.5 in 2011 to just three in 2012. There was also an injury that kept him out in 2010. But he has shown that he has the potential to be a pass-rusher in the NFL, and at 6’4” 268-pounds, he could come in to Tampa and transition to defensive end. If the Buccaneers can sign Michael Bennett, the combination of the two could be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

Word on the street is that the Texans are looking to hold on to Barwin and make him an offer. If that is the case, I’m going to also throw out Matt Shaughnessy, DE from the Oakland Raiders. He has lined up at defensive end and recorded 123 tackles and 15.5 sacks in four years. His best year was in 2010 with 56 tackles and seven sacks. He was once one of the league’s most underrated players and definitely has room to capitalize on his potential.

Scott Smith: Man, try to show a little humility around here and someone just jumps all over you.  Yes, my two guys were tagged and your two guys were not.  That may have had something to do with you trying to claim that Reggie Bush would be the most coveted free agent on the market (!).  Yeah, you nailed that dive with the 1.2 difficulty level.  I made a little splash trying to hit a 4.8.

You definitely added a few twists and rolls to your dive this time, though.  Can Connor Barwin transition to end from a 3-4 rush ‘backer?  I don’t know, but it’s certainly outside-the-box thinking.

On the other hand, I’m going to go straight to the position you chose to avoid.  Yes, it’s a pretty intriguing group of cornerbacks available this year, but I say that depth has served to bury a couple of the more interesting possibilities.  The more everybody talks about Brent Grimes, Sean Smith, Aqib Talib, DRC, Chris Houston, Cary Williams and the rest, the more Pittsburgh’s Keenan Lewis flies – say it with me – under the radar.

Why are we not hearing much about Mr. Lewis as he approaches his first crack at free agency?  Well, he has just one interception in four NFL seasons, so his raw statistics aren’t really drawing much attention.  And he wasn’t even a starter in Pittsburgh until this last season.  If those things keep his profile low, then good, because he’s a 26-year-old riser with his best years in front of him.  Lewis has good enough size at 6-0 and about 200 pounds and he drew very strong reviews for his work as a cover man last year.  No, he didn’t have an interception in 2012, but he was second in the NFL in passes broken up, with 23.  According to this analysis on ProFootballFocus.com, Lewis was the third most undervalued player on the Steelers’ roster.  He counted $1.2 million against their cap and returned a value of $4.6 million.  Assuming he’ll want to close that gap this offseason, Lewis is a good bet to leave because the Steelers are heading into 2013 with some significant cap problems.

I don’t think Lewis will draw more attention than Smith or Grimes or Rodgers-Cromartie.  I’m not even saying he’s going to be a better signing than any of those, though he could end up being the better value.  I’m just saying that some of the best signings in free agency involve a player who was just starting to come into his own with his first team finding an even more favorable situation elsewhere.  Maybe Lewis becomes an above-average starter, or maybe he’s a great nickel back.  You know, those nickel backs are on the field ALL the time these days; it’s an underrated and valuable position and we found out last year how quickly a team can burn through its cornerback depth.

Andrew Norton: At least I can guarantee that more teams will be talking to Bush and Goldson than either Melton or Spencer. From where I stand, you didn’t even land in the pool.

Anyways, no need for me to argue your selection. It’s a good one. That was my original point about the depth in the free agent class at the cornerback position. With so many big names garnering all the attention, there is definitely some value in those who fall to the “second tier.” I would even include Mike Jenkins and Bradley Fletcher to your case. Really any of the top 15-20 cornerbacks in this year’s class are starting caliber, in my opinion.

Well, I don’t know if it was something I ate today or perhaps I’m hitting an incredibly early mid-life crisis, but I feel like living a bit on the edge. Which is why I’m going wide receiver with my next under the radar selection. Well, make that wide receiver/return man: Josh Cribbs.

Eight different players fielded kickoffs and punts for the Buccaneers last season. (I am not counting the Ahmad Black or Vincent Jackson who fielded onside kicks.) In total, the players amassed 954 total return yards, averaging 9.0 yards on punts and 20.3 on kickoffs.

Last season, Josh Cribbs had 1,635 total return yards, averaging 12.0 on punt returns and 27.4 on kickoffs. In his eight-year career, Josh Cribbs has never had fewer than 1,050 total return yards. His career average is 11.0 on punts, 25.9 on kickoffs. In fact, two times in his career, Cribbs has more than doubled the 2012 Bucs return yardage (2,214 in 2007 and 1,994 in 2009).

And I have yet to mention that he is atop the NFL record books with eight career kickoff return touchdowns. Or that he is fifth all-time in kickoff return yards. Or that he is sixth all-time for total return yardage. Or that he 29-years old with some good years ahead of him. Or that he isn’t too shabby of a wide receiver when called upon, his best year was in 2011 with 518 receiving yards and four scores.

Josh Cribbs can certainly come in (for a very valuable price, I might add), and immediately contribute to the team. The Buccaneers struggled in their return game last season and Cribbs could answer a lot of questions, giving one of 2012’s most explosive NFL teams one more dynamic threat.

And I think he qualifies as a sleeper having not even cracked the top 85 (or even honorable mention) in NFL.com Gregg Rosenthal’s Top 85 Free Agents list. If the Browns don’t get through the negotiations with him, and Cribbs hits the open market, he is going to make the special teams for some NFL team much more special.

Scott Smith: Gotta admit, I like that one a lot.  My only quibble would be with your assumption that Cribbs won’t cost much.  He has indicated that he would take a little less money to stay with the Browns, so that tells me if he gets a particularly affordable deal it’s going to be at home.  If he goes elsewhere, it’s going to cost his new team more, though he has also said he would be fine with a contract heavy on performance incentives.

If I could name one under-the-radar position in this year’s free agency pool, it would be tight end.  I mean, Jared Cook is all the way down at #39 on that list you link to above, and he reportedly almost got the franchise tag from Tennessee.  There are some who believe that he is on the verge of being a pass-catching star.  Personally, I think he has drawn too much attention to be underrated, and the same goes for Martellus Bennett and Fred Davis.

But that still leaves such potential signees as Dustin Keller, Brandon Myers, Anthony Fasano and Delanie Walker.  Which one I choose pretty much depends on how “under-the-radar” I have to go.  I certainly believe that Fasano is underrated and a real two-way player at the position, which is nothing to sneeze at, but I like the dynamic play-making possibilities of the other three better.  Myers came out of nowhere last year, but I’m not sure I’m ready to trust that he can repeat his big numbers, while Walker is an intriguing player, a backup to a star at the same position and a guy that also could dominate on special teams.

But, if you’ll grant me a little license with the definition of under-the-radar, I’ll go with Dustin Keller.  It might be a stretch to say that he has escaped attention, playing under the New York Jets microscope, but I would still claim he is underrated.  Keller missed eight games last year due to hamstring and knee injuries, and the Jets’ offense when he did play was…uh, underwhelming?  It wasn’t a great season for quarterback Mark Sanchez (66.9 passer rating) and the New York offense ranked 30th in the league in passing yards.

In Keller’s first four seasons in the league he averaged 53 catches for 640 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per year.  Those are good numbers, if not jump-off-the-page-and-shake-you-by-the-collar numbers.  But he’s only 28 and I believe he could raise his production during his prime years if he landed in the right offense.  The Buccaneers may or may not be looking for a tight end this spring, depending upon what happens with Dallas Clark, but if they are, Dustin Keller would be a nice addition, in my opinion.

One comment on “Point/Counterpoint: Which valuable free-agents-to-be are currently flying under the radar?

  1. Bill Byrne on said:

    Some very interesting names and I agree with all the evaluations. However, I believe the Bucs have a very important year ahead of then, beginning with free agency. They could have $40 million under the cap available this year01010101010101010101010101010101010101010101, however, if they “go-cheap” they will lose an opportunity to bring the fans back and we will continue to see thousands of empty seats on game day.

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