NFL fans are excitedly awaiting the start of the highlight of the NFL offseason, the start of free agency, on March 8th. On this day, teams can start to contact superstars like Michael Bennett, Eric Decker, and Henry Melton. However, as history shows, big free agent acquisitions do not add up to wins. Instead, it is the underrated, under the radar free agents who sign relatively small contracts that make a huge difference in the season. This is the countdown of the five most underrated free agents that, like Michael Bennett last season, end up being a key factor to a team’s success.
Position: Defensive Tackle
Height: 6’7 Weight: 305 Age: 29
College: University of Tennessee
Career History: Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006. Played mostly as a backup from 06-09. Traded to the Miami Dolphins for a 7th Round Pick in 2009. Played a reserve role from 09-12. Signed a one year contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. Started all 16 games for the Seahawks last year.
Season Stats: 53 combined tackles (23 solo, 30 assist), 2.0 sacks, 1 Pass Deflection.
McDaniel was a veteran journeyman entering the Seahawks last year. He was your average NFL nobody who was probably one or two years away from being totally irrelevant. It is these types of players who thrive in Pete Carol’s locker room and McDaniel was no different. In training camp, he earned a starting role in one of the league’s best defenses.
His stats are even more impressive than they seem. According to Pro Football Focus, McDaniel was the third best defensive lineman last year at stopping the run with a run stop percentage (the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop.) of 11.9%. To provide perspective, Ndamakung Suh, widely considered the best defensive tackle in the league, only had an 8.6 run stop percentage. Haloti Ngata had a 8.4 run stop percentage. It’s no secret that having a big defensive tackle who can stop the run is an absolute necessity in the NFL. McDaniel went above and beyond expectations, anchoring the best run defense in the NFL last year.
Additionally, McDaniel was a major part of the Seahawks playoff success. While the statistics don’t tell much, McDaniel would often take up 2 or 3 offensive linemen. Meanwhile, the pass rushers were able to break through and create pressure on the quarterback.
McDaniel thrived in the Seahawks system. Unfortunately, that will also be his biggest criticism from potential buyers. How much of his success this year was him? After all, Seattle has a great front seven and the best secondary in the NFL. In addition, McDaniel’s one season seems more like a fluke than a legitimate starter. He started five games in his first seven NFL seasons, and no one wants to be the GM that signs a player to a big contract after one good season.
Most of the criticisms against McDaniel are clichés. The fact that McDaniel has played in the league for so long as a backup proves that teams have always thought he has potential. Very few players in the NFL can maintain status as a backup for over 7 years. All it took was the right system for him to explode. He definitely has the size and athleticism to play in the league at the level he does now. All you have to do is watch the tape.
He is good, really good, and is especially good against the run. The fact that he doesn’t accumulate the stats is a testament to how much teams have to adjust to stop him. Michael Bennett looked unstoppable last year because of McDaniel. There were times when he looked unblocked because McDaniel was lining up next to him, consuming multiple blockers. Also, compare Seahawks run defense this year vs. last year. It was good last year and unstoppable this year. The difference wasn’t Michael Bennett or Dan Quinn. While both of those additions improved the defense as a whole, McDaniel was the reason why teams had trouble running the football against the Seahawks. He deserves a multi year contract this offseason.
Seattle Seahawks- McDaniel flourished in the Seahawks system- so it seems to make sense for Seattle to offer a multi year extension here. McDaniel will probably take a little less to stay with Seattle since he has so much success in that system. It is a mutually beneficial deal, if it can happen.
Seattle is in a difficult cap situation. While they have cap room this year, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson (the team’s two best players), are going to demand more money in the next few years. McDaniel may be someone they have to let go.
Dallas Cowboys- Speaking of the cap, the Cowboys have the worst cap situation in the NFL. But, they also have a huge whole at defensive tackle with Jason Hatcher leaving for free agency. The Cowboys are also masters at getting players they want and there is a lot to like about McDaniel in Rod Maranelli’s system. It’s unlikely given the cap constraints but McDaniel would do well next to DeMarcus Ware.
Houston Texans- The Texans defense was a major disappointment last year, despite the fact that J.J. Watt was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL last year. The Texans started the miserable Earl Mitchell at nose tackle, who is a free agent now. McDaniel would be also be a good fit here although he would have to transition to a more traditional nose tackle.
Fast Facts: Position: Defensive EndHeight: 6’4 Weight: 251 Age: 29College: North Carolina State
Career History: Second Team All SEC in 2009, Drafted in the 7th Round by the Detroit Lions in 2010. Backup from 2010-2012. Started every game in 2013.
Season Stats: 47 tackles (29 solo, 18 assit.) 3.0 sacks, 5 Pass Deflections
Willie Young, like McDaniel, had his breakout year this year when given the opportunity to start. According to Pro Football Focus, Young was the 15th best pass rusher last year, ahead of Carlos Dunlap, Lamaar Houston, and Chandler Jones. He was also 3rd in total QB hurries, only behind the criminally underrated Brian Robinson and defensive player of the year candidate Robert Quinn. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who was seen as a 7th round, mediocre edge rusher throughout his career. Most impressively, he was 2nd in the NFL for 4-3 ends against the run.
It’s unbelievable that Young has gone this unnoticed considering how effective he was last year. Young was a part of a defensive line that is arguably the best in the NFL. Many people will focus on Suh, Fairley and Ansah but he was the quiet but extremely effective fourth member. He deserves credit, and to get paid, this year.
As with McDaniel, Young will be labeled as a product of his system. He is also a one year guy but, unlike McDaniel, doesn’t have the pedigree of experience. He is also seen as inconsistent. He was pretty bad against Green Bay in week 5, which was surprising given the lack of an offensive line there. He will probably have to look for another short, “prove it” deal this offseason because of these criticisms.
Defending Young is a little harder given that some of these are just true. Yes, he was benefited by playing next to Suh. Yes, he was inconsistent last year. However, with guys like Young, you have to look at potential, especially given how much cheaper he will be than guys like Greg Hardy or Henry Melton. Young clearly had his moments last year and should get money this offseason. His delimma will be choosing between a big contract with a bad team, or a one year “prove it” deal with a good one.
Cincinnati Bengals- Assuming Michael Johnson does not return, Young could sign a one year “prove it” deal with the Bengals. He would be a great fit playing next to Geno Atkins and could show the rest of the league that he is, in fact, underrated. Plus, he would be playing for a good team so he would have a shot to become a Michael Bennett type player with the Bengals.
Jacksonville Jaguars- On the other hand, if Young wants to cash in now then the Jaguars make sense. Jason Babin is old and this defense was ranked 31st in pass rushing ability. Young could contribute here, though Jacksonville is in a major re building process right now.
Carolina Panthers- Let’s say Greg Hardy doesn’t resign- who’s next up? The Panthers would love a guy like Young to complete this great defensive line. His situation here would be much akin to that in Detroit, which worked out well for Young last year. Still, this one is unlikely given that Hardy is the priority for the Panthers this season.
Position: QuarterbackHeight: 6’4 Weight: 213 Age: 34College: Sam Houston State
Career History: Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 3rd Round in 2002… Played in Arizona from 02-05, starting most of the 04 season and some of the 05 season…Signed with the Detroit Lions in 06 and played backup in 06…. Signed with the Oakland Raiders in 07 and started 9 games… Signed with the Carolina Panthers in 08 and was a backup…. Went to the UFL In 2010 and had success…. Signed with the bears in 2011 and played backup from 2011-2013.
McCown has had a journeyman’s career with very few highs entering last year. Seen as a mediocre backup, Chicago fans were not optimistic when Jay Cutler went down with an injury early in the season. Boy were they wrong. McCown played in 8 games, starting 5 of them. McCown was 3-2 as a starter that included impressive wins against the Packers, Cowboys, and Ravens.
Considering the Bears had, arguably, the worst defense in the NFL last year, it is important to look at stats for just how good McCown was. McCown threw 13 TDs and just 1 INT for a QB rating of 109. He had a 66.5 completion percentage. Those numbers are good and, if extrapolated across an entire season, they are all pro good. But, that is just the start. According to advanced statistical analysis by Pro Football Focus, McCown was the 4th most accurate QB last season, had the 4th best QB rating, and the best QB under pressure. He was playing at a very high level last year and it was by far his best season in the NFL.
McCown is 34 years old, which in NFL years, is ancient. The truth is McCown only has a one or two good years left in him. But, not even that is a safe bet. If it weren’t for last year, McCown wouldn’t have a shot at a starting job this year. Even though the prospects look better this year, the chances of him being able to lock something down (especially with the deep QB class in this year’s NFL draft) are slim to none.
Look, I’m not trying to say that McCown deserves a Jay Cutler type contract. But, for a one year deal, McCown is for sure one of the best bets in the league. He is accurate as anyone in the league and can throw almost any pass. For a team that is looking to make a serious run and is in need of “one last piece” McCown is the guy. He is not going to be Drew Brees, but he will provide a team some stability at the most important position in the league.
Also, quick aside: you do not need an elite QB to win a title. Look at the last few Superbowl winners. Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning- none of these guys are in the top five QBs in the league. The fact that McCown isn’t going to the Hall of Fame does not mean that he can’t help a team have a legitimate chance of winning it all.
Cincinnati Bengals- Josh McCown is the anti-Dalton. He is very accurate, consistent, and will provide the missing piece of the puzzle to one of the most talented teams in the league. Dalton can still be the long term solution to this team’s QB needs. But, McCown for a year or two, is an ideal fit if the Bengals want to be taken seriously as contenders. He can, in a way, complete this team. I love this fit.
New York Jets- Same thing here as with the Bengals. Geno Smith was, at best, inconsistent last year. McCown provides the stability that this team needs to regain status as a legitimate threat to the Patriots in the AFC East. Now, this team could be trying to look for a QB in the draft, but I doubt it considering they just took Smith last year. McCown is a nice guy to bring in for a year to gage whether this team has the potential that the roster claims they do.
Washington Redskins- This one seems weird so let me explain. Assuming Kirk Cousins gets traded, then the Redskins have a need at backup QB. Of all the backup jobs available, McCown would be best served to go to the Redskins. RG3 is a question mark both in terms of injury and ability. McCown can guide the young QB if need be and replace him if the NFL is too much for the college star. Either way, the Redskins make sense if his role is to be a high quality backup.