NFL free agency is now three weeks old, meaning almost all the big names have long since signed new deals. Teams are now sorting through what’s left, hoping to find a quality player at a discount price among the second and third waves of free agency.
Here are the best players left on the open market:
S Reggie Nelson: He’s 32 years old, but he’s also coming off an impressive season in which he led the NFL with eight interceptions. Safeties sometimes age more gracefully than other positions, and Nelson’s 2015 season proved he isn’t slowing down. Does he want too much money? Is there some kind of undisclosed injury? Nelson still being available doesn’t make much sense. He’s too good to not have a team already.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: A journeyman with a 80.8 career passer rating, Fitzpatrick hit the jackpot by throwing for 31 touchdowns for the 10-win New York Jets in 2015. He’s now the biggest fish in a shallow quarterback market. Fitzpatrick watched a bunch of average players at the position cash in this spring, and he doesn’t want to miss out. His most likely destination is still going back to New York, but which side will blink first?
DE Greg Hardy: He’ll be untouchable for most teams, given his destructive past off the field. It’s also telling that the Cowboys, who desperately need more pass-rush, were more than comfortable letting him go this offseason. All that said, Hardy has a proven ability to disrupt the quarterback, and it’s probably only a matter of time before one desperate team gives him another opportunity.
WR Anquan Boldin: He turns 36 in October, but it’s still tough to bet against him producing one or two more good years, especially if he can land in a situation where he isn’t expected to be the man. After catching 69 passes for almost 800 yards from Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert in San Francisco last year, Boldin is now prioritizing a return to a winning culture. Tough as nails and a leader in the locker room, he’d be a strong addition for any contending team in need of depth at receiver.
S Walter Thurmond: The Eagles moved him to safety in 2015, and he thrived as a versatile defensive back for Philadelphia’s secondary. Still only 28, his best years could be ahead of him. But does he want to keep playing? A young, ascending player like Thurmond should have had multiple teams interested him early in free agency. The possibility of retirement might be the one hurdle keeping him on the market.
OLB Aldon Smith: His suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy will rob him of a big chunk of the 2016 season. However, pass-rushers with his history of production are always given second and third and fourth chances. Smith is only 26, with 47.5 sacks over five NFL seasons. He could energize a team’s pass-rush late next year.
RB Arian Foster: His recovery from an Achilles tendon tear means he’ll likely take his time on picking a team for 2016. And it’s certainly possible the injury—a devastating one for the running back position—sapped away anything he had left in the tank. But if healthy, Foster is a multitalented back capable of putting up big numbers.
CB Leon Hall: The veteran cornerback could enjoy a late-career renaissance in the slot or at safety. He’s physical and tough at the line of scrimmage, and few defensive backs are better tacklers. Over nine NFL seasons, Hall has 26 interceptions and 111 passes defended. He’s going to make a defense better right away.
OLB Dwight Freeney: The spin master turned 36 in February, but he also produced eight sacks and three forced fumbles over just 11 games for the Cardinals last season. Freeney might not be an every-down player, but throw him into a situational pass-rushing role and he could once again thrive. There’s clearly still quarterback-disrupting talent left.
LB Zach Brown: Still only 26, Brown has 10 sacks and six interceptions over 33 career starts. He can make big plays, but he’s struggled to stay on the field, mostly due to his own down-to-down inconsistencies. However, Brown has rare and coveted athleticism at linebacker. Surrounded by the right people in the right situation, Brown could still become a difference maker.
C Stefen Wisniewski: A year after waiting forever to find a suitor, Wisniewski is once again wasting away on the open market. He’s certainly not an All-Pro caliber player, but he has 77 starts at center over five NFL seasons—including all 32 since 2014. Teams around the league clearly don’t value his skill set, but there’s something to be said about reliability and availability, especially along the offensive line.
RB Tim Hightower: The former Arizona Cardinals running back burst back onto the NFL scene in 2015, producing over 500 total yards—with four rushing touchdowns and 129 yards receiving—over eight games and just three starts for the Saints. He’s going on 30 years old, but his versatility as a runner and receiver remains an attractive asset. Watch him sign late in the summer and make another surprising impact for a team as a low-cost, high-reward addition.