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Some general managers look at their rosters in the same vein as Bob Ross painting a picture. When everyone else thinks they’re done, they decide to add one happy little…defensive lineman or wide receiver or blocker to complete their latest masterpiece.
One signing can provide a significant boost even this late in the process.
NFL free agency isn’t done. It just feels that way after teams splurged at the start of the new league year in March and often spent the majority of their budget on those players they initially targeted.
At this juncture, specific veterans have yet to sign. This is usually due to age, injury histories, contract demands or some combination of all three.
Players work their entire careers to build up their worth. Just when they reach the peak of what should be their earning prowess, teams no longer want to pay as much because they’re on the downside of their careers. But their worth to a roster can’t be defined solely by monetary compensation.
The following seven free agents are potential masterstrokes to complete a team’s portrait.
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Injuries that require surgery often go as follows: The player goes through “successful” surgery before being “ahead of schedule” in his rehabilitation. After all, these are world-class athletes, and their ability to bounce back is beyond typical human recovery times.
Odell Beckham Jr. took a different journey.
The three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver suffered a torn left ACL during the 2020 campaign. He returned the following season only to find himself on the outs with the Cleveland Browns. After being released in November, he joined the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Unfortunately, Beckham tore the same ACL in Super Bowl LVI when it looked like he was well on his way to winning the game’s MVP award.
In April, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport told the Pat McAfee Show: “When Odell tore his ACL with the Browns, the surgery didn’t go as well as anyone had hoped. … This past surgery went really well and probably will extend his career.”
The mercurial target won’t be ready for the start of the 2022 campaign, but if he does return stronger than he was prior to his second ACL tear, he could become the deciding factor for a team on another playoff run.
OBJ’s career hasn’t gone as planned. Yet he can still be a dynamic contributor in a passing attack. Once he’s ready to play again, he should receive a lot of interest, though he won’t get top dollar based his availability as a midseason addition.
“Do I think a healthy Odell is a contributor for all 32 teams in the NFL? Yes,” Rams COO Kevin Demoff said this month during an interview on The Athletic’s 11 Personnel. “I think that’s probably the point we’re at.”
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Larry Ogunjobi agreed to a life-changing deal with the Chicago Bears this offseason. Then it fell apart. The 28-year-old defensive tackle failed the physical needed to secure the three-year, $40.5 million contract.
“As I said before, Larry Ogunjobi embodies everything we are looking for in a Bear,” general manager Ryan Poles said in a statement. “During the league’s negotiating window earlier this week, we agreed to terms with him, subject to him passing a physical here.
“After a standard and thorough physical and medical review with Larry yesterday afternoon, our medical team deemed him to have failed his physical and there, unfortunately, we are not signing him today. This is difficult and it is emotional for everyone involved, but ultimately is what is in the best interest of protecting the Chicago Bears.”
Ogunjobi is coming off a career-best performance with seven sacks and 16 quarterback hits. He has starting experience as a 1- and 3-technique. He shows good initial quickness to get into opposing backfields, though he can be inconsistent at the point of attack.
With all of this in mind, Ogunjobi isn’t going to get the type of deal he dreamed of entering free agency. Apprehension now exists after he suffered a foot injury during the Cincinnati Bengals’ wild-card playoff victory over the Las Vegas Raiders and the failed physical.
When healthy, though, the five-year veteran can help solidify the middle of a defense as the top remaining available interior defender.
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Landon Collins was once the game’s highest-paid safety in both total value and average annual value. Two problems now exist.
First, Collins is no longer employed after the Washington Commanders released him with a June 1 designation this offseason. Secondly, teams may no longer view Collins as a safety after he made the transition to linebacker last season.
The hang-up in a new deal, though, may be because Collins wasn’t particularly happy to play linebacker.
“I’m a team player,” Collins told reporters in October. “Do I like playing down there? I’m good at it. If I’m good at it, I’ll play there. If I need to be played there, cool. Other than that, do I like playing linebacker? No. No, I don’t. I don’t like hitting big linemen, getting big linemen off me. I’m undersized for being a linebacker. So yeah, I don’t want to play down there, but if need to, yeah, I’ll do so. I’m good at it.”
Despite missing four games and being placed on injured reserve because of a foot injury, Collins finished third on the team with 81 tackles and second with seven tackles for loss.
The 6’0″, 218-pound hybrid defender didn’t make a single All-Pro or Pro Bowl squad with the Washington franchise despite his financial standing. He also hasn’t played a full regular season since the 2016 campaign with the New York Giants, though he’s clearly a capable contributor and a good teammate based on how he made the switch last season.
At this time, potential suitors are probably trying to figure out how Collins fits into their system and what he’s willing to take in a deal.
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Jason Pierre-Paul has already enjoyed a long and successful career. The two-time Super Bowl champion doesn’t appear to be done, though.
“Ain’t s–t,” the 33-year-old defensive end wrote on Instagram after offseason shoulder surgery. “Watch me kill s–t when I get back! I’m saying it now, ‘I told you so!'”
The 12-year veteran did miss five games last season and saw his sack production drop to 2.5 after he registered no fewer than 8.5 during his first three campaigns with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
How much the injury or his age had to do with the downturn is unclear. While some decline in Pierre-Paul’s play should be expected, he’s only 16 months removed from an all-time effort in Super Bowl LV when he and Shaquil Barrett dominated the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive front. The duo combined for an impressive 16 pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
Therein lies the sweet spot for Pierre-Paul.
He shouldn’t be expected to post 10 or more sacks anymore. Yet he’s a capable edge defender with the experience to help a young group of edge-rushers and provide quality reps as part of a rotation.
The ability to consistently create pressure, come at opposing quarterbacks in waves and disrupt passing attacks is critical in today’s game. Furthermore, the difficulty of finding a capable edge-rusher at this point in the year is monumental. Beyond Pierre-Paul, quality alternatives are few and far between.
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It’s rare for one of the best players at his position to remain available as the dog days of summer begin.
The Cleveland Browns released center JC Tretter in March because the move saved them $8.25 million in cap space, he’s dealt with knee issues and they drafted his replacement in 2020 in fifth-round selection Nick Harris.
Tretter sees the move as an opportunity to help another ascending team.
“My family and I look forward to the next adventure and helping our next team pursue a Super Bowl,” Tretter, who also serves as the NFLPA president, wrote in a goodbye letter to the Browns organization and city of Cleveland.
The nine-year veteran turned 31 earlier this year, and those knee problems could give another team pause. Yet his level of play hasn’t diminished since he became a member of the Browns five years ago.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tretter graded as the second- or third-best center during each of the previous four campaigns, including ranking second in 2021. He thrives with the mental aspects of the game by calling protections, pickups and in pass-blocking. These traits may be overlooked when it comes to overall offensive play, but teams know how valuable they are.
Offensive linemen are more difficult to find than ever. Typically, those still playing at a high level don’t become available. Meanwhile, developing younger options is more taxing because of the limitations placed on full-padded practice reps and a decrease in traditional line play based on the spread offenses at the collegiate level.
Tretter is an available high-end starter for any team in need of a center. If he played a position with greater overall worth—at least among the NFL’s positional hierarchy—he might have gone even higher than No. 3 on this list.
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Left tackle is still considered one of the NFL’s premium positions, and filling the blind side can be a yearslong affair. Whoever signs Duane Brown will find an immediate, albeit short-term, Band-Aid to address a critical roster spot.
Brown is now the elder statesman among offensive linemen. With Andrew Whitworth and Alex Mack both retiring this offseason, the soon-to-be 37-year-old Brown has played more offensive snaps than any other blocker since the start of the 2009 campaign, according to Pro Football Focus’ Nathan Jahnke.
Unlike others on this list, Browns has played every single game in the last two seasons. He even made the 2021 Pro Bowl, though it’s understandable why teams would be wary of making a significant investment in a much older left tackle.
But Whitworth and Mack both joined new teams later in their careers and helped solidify those fronts. Brown can provide a similar presence for a team in need of an anchor.
The 14-year-old veteran did hold out last preseason in pursuit of a contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks. Instead, the organization restructured his previous deal and didn’t add any future years.
“I had my expectations for what I wanted,” Brown told reporters at the time. “And they had in their minds what they thought they could get done. What we came to wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it’s OK. It’s a business, and we came to a compromise. I’m happy about it. They are happy about it.”
Whatever financial expectations Brown holds, he’ll likely have to compromise like last year. However, he’ll be with a new franchise after the Seahawks chose Mississippi State left tackle Charles Cross with this year’s ninth overall draft pick.
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Set Number: X163913 TK1
Maybe the greatest tight end of all time, Rob Gronkowski, remains available, although his actual availability may be limited.
No one can deny that Gronkowski is the best two-way tight end of his generation and possibly ever. He’ll stroll into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. After all, his 108 total touchdowns prior to turning 33 (including the postseason) are the most-ever by a tight end, according to the NFL on CBS.
No other player at the position is within 20 of that number. And he should still have at least one good year left in him, particularly if he continues to play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gronkowski flirted with the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this offseason. He sees what’s on the horizon for Joe Burrow and Co. But the tight end’s heart belongs to Tom Brady and the Bucs.
Retirement remains an option for the 33-year-old free spirit. The right price is probably the bigger sticking point. Well, that and the fact that he doesn’t need to beat up his body through mandatory minicamps or even most of training camp.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler discussed the situation Monday on SportsCenter (h/t Dustin Lewis of Bucs Gameday):
“The people I’m talking to believe that he will play in 2022, but he has not made a firm decision. So the Bucs continue to wait patiently. I continue to hear that the Bucs are optimistic, that he will sign before or around training camp. But they’re giving him his space right now.
“Only a few people really truly know what he is going to do. He hasn’t even made a decision yet. Recently he’s played at about $8-9 million per year. He could get a bump in pay the longer he waits, if he takes a vacation, takes his time. And the Bucs know he’s stayed in shape, so they’re not really worried about an extended absence right now at all.”
Tampa Bay remains a Super Bowl contender with Brady returning for another year. Gronkowski might have one more run left in him to help further secure his legacy.