Every year, there are several low-key players who are signed without much fanfare, but then go on to play crucial roles for their new team. Last year, it was linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles midway through last season following Jordan Hicks’s season-ending Achilles injury.
While Ellerbe did not play much at first, he started the final two games of the season and excelled in coverage. Then, he played a key role in the Divisional round game against the Atlanta Falcons, helping to hold Atlanta’s tight ends to just 15 total yards in a tight, 15-10 victory en route to the Eagles’ eventual Super Bowl championship.
The previous year, it was wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. After being waived by the Cleveland Browns, Gabriel was subsequently claimed by the Falcons and quickly became the team’s primary deep threat behind Julio Jones, recording 579 yards and a career-high seven total touchdowns. While not a superstar by any means, Gabriel played a key role in helping the Falcons become the league’s most dynamic offense.
Although most fans have probably heard ad nauseam about the big fish like Colin Kaepernick, Dez Bryant, Eric Reid, Bashaud Breeland, Junior Galette, and a handful of others, it is often the Gabriels and the Ellerbes of the world that fill out contending rosters and give teams a slight edge when it matters. So, with most of the cuts and waiver claims in the rear-view mirror, here are five of the best under-the-radar free agents still remaining that could make an impact this year:
1. Orleans Darkwa, RB
Even though he started eleven games for the New York Giants last season following fellow RB Paul Perkins’s rib injury, a regime change proved to be Darkwa’s death knell in New York, and his was contract was not renewed once the Giants chose to sign veteran Jonathan Stewart. Now, despite having worked out for both the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins in the off-season, Darkwa remains unsigned.
This is surprising as, albeit in a limited role, Darkwa was highly efficient for the Giants last season. Totaling 751 yards on 171 carries, Darkwa averaged 4.4 yards a rush, which may seem pedestrian out of context, but, considering that the Giants averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a team, indicates that Darkwa outperformed the talent around him. Seeing as the Giants’ offensive line was ineffective last season, placing 29th in Football Outsiders’ power run success rate, Darkwa has a solid chance to be productive for another team, especially one with a better set of blockers in front of him.
Furthermore, Darkwa has maintained excellent ball security throughout his career, fumbling just once over four seasons, making him potentially valuable to a coach who prioritizes minimizing turnovers.
2. Dontrelle Inman, WR
Desperate to spark a putrid wide receiver group headlined by Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, and Tre McBride, the Chicago Bears sent a conditional seventh-round pick to the Los Angeles Chargers at the trade deadline for the CFL product who had been quickly losing snaps to Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, and Travis Benjamin. On the Bears, Inman never developed a strong chemistry with rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky, but still showed off flashes of the size and athleticism that guided him to a career-high 810 yards in 2016.
Inman does his best work on slants, beating corners one-on-one with sharp cuts and using his long arms and 6’3 frame to make contested catches through contact. This could make Inman an intriguing option for teams around the league, particularly ones looking for a “big slot” weapon. One team to watch is the Miami Dolphins. They have familiarity with Inman, as their current offensive coordinator, Dowell Loggains, was the Bears’ OC last year. They could look to add size and quickness to their wide receiver room by way of the lanky 29-year-old if DeVante Parker continues to miss time.
3. David Bass, OLB
Originally drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders, David Bass also spent time with the Bears, Titans, and Seahawks during the early seasons of his career before finally making some waves after being claimed off waivers last year by the New York Jets. In his first two games, Bass recorded two sacks and six total tackles, showing off his sneaky closing speed while wrapping up Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.
Although he slowed down from then on, recording just 1.5 sacks the rest of the season, Bass continued to flash, showing off a strong swipe move off the right edge while taking down Broncos QB Trevor Siemian. Ultimately, though he failed to put up gaudy numbers, Bass remained a stout edge presence for the Jets throughout the season, and finished with the team’s highest grade among edge defenders, per Pro Football Focus (79.1).
Although he was cut at the end of this year’s preseason, he could still help a team like the Chargers, who may need back-end edge depth if DE Joey Bosa continues to miss time.
4. Andrew Adams, S
Despite starting out as an undrafted free agent in 2016, Andrew Adams got his career off to a fast start with the New York Giants. With fellow safety Landon Collins in the midst of his breakout campaign, Adams started 13 games in place of injured 2016 third-round pick Darian Thompson, during which he picked off future All-Pro QB Carson Wentz and broke up five passes. For a raw rookie, Adams showed off surprisingly fine-tuned instincts while playing the Giants’ high safety role, and looked to have a bright future, even though he ended up losing playing time to Thompson in 2017.
This past summer, Adams again competed with Thompson for the starting free safety role, and, in a shocking move, both were cut in favor of Curtis Riley and undrafted rookie Sean Chandler. While both Adams and Thompson are intriguing free agent options, and Thompson may actually be the more well-rounded of the two, Adams offers more upside by way of his ball skills, and could see valuable snaps in a reserve role for a team like the New England Patriots, who tend to play two high safeties and may begin to phase out the aging (31) Patrick Chung.
5. Landry Jones, QB
As much as people tend to rag on him for his unspectacular style of play and his lack of elite athleticism, Landry Jones has been fairly productive — as far as backup quarterbacks go — for the Steelers over the past few seasons, and has kept them in a number of games. He has started each of the team’s Week 17 games against the Browns for the past two years — winning both — and was near-perfect in last year’s contest, completing 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards and a 100.5 passer rating to seal Cleveland’s 0-16 season.
Considering that the Browns were 1-14 and 0-15 respectively heading into each of these tussles, and played a vast majority of their starters in an honest attempt to win, Jones’s performance cannot be dismissed, especially since he went into both match-ups without the league’s top wideout (Antonio Brown) or his All-Pro running back (Le’Veon Bell). Earlier in 2016, Jones also kept the Steelers close in a key 27-16 loss to the New England Patriots, and dropped a dime in the back of the end zone to WR Darrius Heyward-Bey.
While he won’t wow you with any part of his skill set, Jones is an adequate decision maker with NFL-caliber accuracy, and could catch on with several backup-needy teams. The best fit would be the Los Angeles Rams, as they feature a vertical passing scheme similar to the Steelers, with many quick-hitting and packaged plays that would keep Jones from going through long progressions.
Honorable mentions: S Darian Thompson, LB Hau’oli Kikaha, TE Coby Fleener, QB Josh Johnson, WR Malcolm Mitchell