This year’s NFL free agent market is littered with big names, from Dak Prescott to Allen Robinson to Chris Godwin. That’s not even including the half-dozen quarterbacks who could still be moved via trade, or the high-profile veterans — from Teddy Bridgewater to Von Miller — who could be cut as cap casualties. But big names aren’t the only veterans worth pursuing on the open market. Sometimes, it’s the underrated bargain additions, or the calculated surprise gambles, that pay off more than anyone.
Below, we’ve identified 10 free agents who are flying at least somewhat under the radar. Some will be starters in 2021. Some will be deep reserves. But all of them deserve a long look when the 2021 offseason officially kicks off March 17:
Note: AAV denotes average annual value.
For a guy who twice took over as an emergency full-time starter in Indianapolis, Brissett sure feels like an afterthought right now, and Carson Wentz’s arrival via trade all but ensures he’s headed elsewhere. No one should be viewing him like a surefire No. 1; in two years as a 15-game starter, he was thoroughly conservative — safe and mostly steady, but rarely a game-changer. Still, his mettle, underrated mobility and experience in winning systems makes him a top-end backup and/or bridge QB. He’d be the perfect veteran to pair with a young No. 1 or starter-in-waiting, and he’s more than capable of holding down the fort for weeks at a time.
Running backs are increasingly free agent taboo, and the truth is you can find serviceable reserves at just about any price. But if you’re looking for the sweet spot between shelling out big bucks for a play-maker such as Aaron Jones and taking a swing on an unproven late-round rookie, it’s Davis. Best known by fantasy owners as the guy who filled in for Christian McCaffrey throughout 2020, he’s never been a home-run threat on the ground, averaging 3.7 yards per carry for his career, but more as a volume bulldozer. But he’s also been one of the NFL‘s most reliable pass-catching RBs when utilized — a plug-and-play, short-yardage and third-down option.
Davis is not an anonymous figure, by any means, going fifth overall in the 2017 draft and breaking out with a career-high 984 yards and five scores in 2020. But in a crowded WR market featuring splashier names such as Allen Robinson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he’s probably not getting quite the attention he deserves. His eventual contract will likely suggest otherwise, but everything says he’s worth the gamble: He’s young (just turned 26), has been an ascendant big-play threat and endured middling QB play before Ryan Tannehill’s emergence. On a contender such as Baltimore or Green Bay, he’d be primed for an even bigger breakout.
Projected AAV: $8-10 million
Logical suitors: Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, Giants, Packers, Patriots, Ravens, Washington
In terms of name recognition, he’s even bigger than Davis. It’s not surprising he’s now a bit overlooked league-wide, considering he’s 31 and injuries have sapped him of nine games over the past three years. But even if Hilton isn’t the same big-play speedster who quietly eclipsed 1,000 yards in five of six seasons from 2013-18, he’s still got more than enough juice to warrant a starting job. You can’t count on No. 1 production at this point in his career, but you could do a whole lot worse for a No. 2 wideout. A whole lot. Like Davis, his ideal landing spot would be with a contender, where he can revive a field-stretching role opposite other talent.
Projected AAV: $8-12 million
Logical suitors: Bears, Colts, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots, Raiders, Washington
When the former first-rounder got just over $1 million to join the Raiders ahead of 2020, his deal seemed curiously small, even for a guy whose mental miscues made his Eagles career a roller-coaster ride. This time around, he’s sure to get a pay raise, and deservedly so: While Agholor’s had too many hiccups to justify being a team’s top target, his Las Vegas breakout was the realization of big-time athleticism flashed before. When his confidence is up and the QB chemistry is there, his quick-twitch abilities make him a threat with the ball in his hands. His best move may be a return to Vegas, but he’s got the natural talent to make it work elsewhere.
Projected AAV: $3-5 million
Logical suitors: Eagles, Jaguars, Patriots, Texans
Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that he was one of the NFL’s busiest tight ends of mid-2020. From Weeks 7-11, the former Packers backup filled in for an injured Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert to post 15 catches for 246 yards and two scores in five games. That’s an incredibly small sample size, but extrapolated over a full season, you’re looking at over 800 yards. In no scenario should Rodgers warrant anything more than a chance to compete for a backup spot. His ceiling is low. In terms of reliability, though, he’s offered quite a bit as a seven-year vet and rotational piece. If you need an experienced body at tight end, he can be trusted.
Projected AAV: $9-12 million
Logical suitors: Bills, Broncos, Browns, Falcons, Jaguars, Jets, Raiders, Ravens, Texans
Of all the free agents on this list, Hendrickson might be the most likely to break the bank. His profile practically begs for a lucrative payday: He’s a freshly 26-year-old pass rusher coming from an elite defense, and his 2020 contract year resulted in a career-high 13.5 sacks to go along with 25 QB hits and 12 tackles for loss. Still, as a surprise breakout, he doesn’t carry the clout of a J.J. Watt or Shaquil Barrett or Jadeveon Clowney. Anyone in need of a long-term pass rusher should be in on the Saints‘ former third-rounder, who flashed in just three starts the year prior, when he logged 4.5 sacks and nine QB hits behind Cameron Jordan and Co.
It remains to be seen whether Hilton is viewed as highly around the NFL as he is in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers rewarded his rise from undrafted rookie with a 2020 second-round restricted free agent tender. The young corner certainly isn’t shutdown material; at 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, he’s been restricted to the slot and posted so-so coverage grades. He is, however, somewhat of a torpedo (in a good way), making a name for himself as a blitzer and play-maker. His physical limitations dictate that he’ll likely have to remain inside, but he would bring a consistent feistiness to any defense.
Projected AAV: $7-9 million
Logical suitors: Broncos, Cardinals, Colts, Cowboys, 49ers, Packers
It wasn’t long ago that Rhodes would’ve qualified as an overrated free agent. After bombing out as an aging starter with the Vikings, who enjoyed his prime as a big-bodied No. 1 before paying him big bucks, the former first-rounder rebounded in a big way with the Colts, quietly progressing as 2020 went on to become a staple of Indy’s stingy defense. Entering his age-31 season, Rhodes can’t be considered more than a year-by-year answer on the outside, but in today’s NFL, anything more than serviceable play at corner is a victory. In a comfortable system with talent around him, he can still be a top-half-of-the-league starter.
Projected AAV: $1-3 million
Logical suitors: Browns, Eagles, 49ers, Raiders, Vikings, Washington
Unlike Rhodes, his Colts secondary mate, Hooker’s banking on the past rather than recent success to drive his market. Two games into 2020, after Indy had already declined his fifth-year option, the former first-rounder suffered a torn Achilles to land on injured reserve for the second time in four years. The medical history is daunting: A torn ACL and MCL in 2017 limited him to seven games, hip and foot issues sidelined him at the end of 2018, and knee surgery delayed his 2019 start. When healthy, however, he’s flashed the ability to be a ballhawk, intercepting seven career passes. At just 24, he’s a low-risk bet to start as a deep safety.