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At this time of year, the NFL free-agent market is largely reserved for contenders. The most notable free agents are looking to join Super Bowl contenders in hopes of winning a ring.
For instance, Akiem Hicks decided this month to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
However, teams with their sights set lower than the Lombardi should still look at the free-agent market. Struggling teams might not attract top talents like Odell Beckham Jr., Duane Brown and Ndamukong Suh, but they have options to explore.
Each of these players either has upside that could increase the overall talent on the roster or brings experience to guide younger players to their full potential.
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The USFL is providing a new vein of talent for the NFL to draw from.
Many in the new spring league have already had a shot at the NFL, but we’ve seen players earn another chance through alternative leagues and go on to help NFL teams.
Donald Parham Jr. is a recent example. He turned an XFL stint in 2020 into a gig with the Los Angeles Chargers and caught three touchdowns last season.
Chris Odom has been a big beneficiary of the USFL. The pass-rusher last saw NFL action for the Washington Commanders franchise in 2019 but has found new life as a member of the Houston Gamblers.
He has been a level above any other edge-rusher in the USFL. He’s racked up 50 pressures while the next-highest player has 38, and he has a pass-rush win rate of 25 percent, per Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus. He leads the league with 11 sacks.
The Falcons were among the worst pass-rushing teams in the league last season. Going into 2022, they still don’t have a proven quarterback hunter.
While they signed Lorenzo Carter and drafted Arnold Ebiketie, they just have a collection of young guys and are hoping someone breaks out. It wouldn’t hurt to add the 27-year-old Odom to the mix.
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Will Fuller V has been fool’s gold in free agency before, but he’s well worth a flier this late in the process.
Last year, the Dolphins were burned on their one-year investment. They handed him a one-year, $10.6 million contract, and he only played in two games.
Injuries have long been an issue for Fuller. He played in 14 games as a rookie in 2016 but hasn’t hit that mark since.
His extensive injury history might scare away contenders. They are looking for someone they know will be in the lineup come playoff time.
Meanwhile, the Bears should do everything possible to position Justin Fields to succeed.
If Fields showed one thing in his rookie season, he’s a capable deep-ball passer. He led the league in air yards per completion. Darnell Mooney and his 4.38 speed helped Fields get to that number.
Adding another sub-4.4 burner in Fuller to his receiving corps would aid Fields in taking the next step as a passer in 2022.
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Dan Campbell is entering a crucial second season as the Detroit Lions head coach. Going 3-13-1 in his first season was understandable given the roster he inherited.
He and general manager Brad Holmes have had an offseason to build their culture and impact roster decisions. The Lions will have to show improvement in 2022.
It’s easy to like the offense. They’ve invested in a good offensive line, drafted Jameson Williams and signed DJ Chark to team up with Amon-Ra St. Brown, and have a solid running back tandem in D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
The defense could still use additions to feel like an improved unit. The Lions drafted Aidan Hutchinson, but the only notable free-agent additions were Jarrad Davis, Mike Hughes and DeShon Elliott. Chris Board may provide some depth at linebacker, but he was mostly a special teams player in Baltimore.
Kwon Alexander would offer another veteran with experience and some upside in the middle of the defense. Both Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were in New Orleans for the 2020 season when the Saints traded for Alexander.
Alexander will be 28 next season. He was a disruptive presence in the Saints defense last year with seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits in 12 games.
He would be an upgrade over what the Lions have at linebacker.
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The Houston Texans have shown some faith in Davis Mill going into Year 2, but they haven’t surrounded him with weapons.
Last year, the quarterback had Brandin Cooks, who topped 1,000 yards, and not much else. Nico Collins was second in receiving yards and only had 446.
The Texans retained Cooks, but outside of drafting John Metchie III in the second round, they didn’t do much to change the receiver room.
USFL standout KaVontae Turpin could be an under-the-radar signing that would help.
Turpin leads the new league in receiving yards and has emerged as the New Jersey Generals’ best weapon. At TCU, he was a burner who led the Big 12 in punt-return yards in 2017.
Since then, he’s bounced around various professional leagues. He’s made appearances in the Fan Controlled Football League as well as with a team in Poland. He’s still just 25 years old.
The speedster would give the Texans a dynamic returner at minimum. He scored the first punt-return touchdown in the USFL on Saturday and is dangerous in the open field.
At best, he could provide Davis Mills with an easy yards-after-catch specialist.
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Landon Collins’ time with the Washington Commanders might not have worked out, but he’s still a capable defender if given the right opportunity.
The 28-year-old did not live up to the six-year, $84 million contract he signed in 2019. He was a liability in coverage within Washington’s system and gave up a passer rating of 121.4 when targeted last season.
He’s still useful when utilized as a box player, though. He had seven tackles for loss and was third on the team in tackles.
Matt Bowen of ESPN named the Jacksonville Jaguars as the best fit for Collins. There’s a lot to like about the match.
Bowen drew the connection between the way Jordan Whitehead was utilized at Tampa Bay and the hiring of Mike Caldwell as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator after Caldwell coached inside linebackers with the Buccaneers for the last three seasons.
Andre Cisco is a second-year player, and Rayshawn Jenkins ranked 75th among 92 safeties graded by PFF. Adding a safety would bring much-needed flexibility to the secondary and elevate the defense closer to league average.
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The group of running backs on the New York Giants roster indicates they are banking on Saquon Barkley to have a bounce-back season.
The only move general manager Joe Schoen has made in the backfield this offseason is bringing in Matt Breida. The journeyman running back last played for the Buffalo Bills where new head coach Brian Daboll was the offensive coordinator.
Barkley’s injury history is concerning. Coming off the ACL injury he suffered in 2020, he averaged just 3.7 yards a carry and missed four more games in 2021, adding an ankle injury to his list of ailments.
Breida is an experienced back who can play a role, but he’s played for three different teams in each of the last three seasons. If Barkley goes down, the Giants will wish they had more depth.
That’s where Justin Jackson can help. The 26-year-old back was effective when called upon with the Chargers last season. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry in four seasons in L.A.
Jackson made two starts last season. In the second, he had 11 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns with eight catches for 98 yards.
Someone who could make a spot start and put up those kinds of numbers would be big for the offense.
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The Philadelphia Stars’ Channing Stribling is another big winner of the USFL. The former Michigan Wolverine has been one of the most productive defensive backs in the league, leading the way in interceptions with seven.
Stribling bounced around a few NFL practice squads after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2017.
Since then, he’s played in the AAF, XFL, Canadian Football League, The Spring League and the USFL. His work in the newest league should grab the attention of the NFL.
Top speed has always been an issue for Stribling. He was clocked at 4.60 in the 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine.
However, he’s showing great instincts for the ball and nuance in baiting quarterbacks to throw the ball his way.
The 6’1″ Stribling would do well in a system that plays a lot of zone and allows him to keep things in front of him. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Seahawks played zone coverage at the second-highest rate in the league (66 percent).
The Seahawks don’t have a lot of answers at corner. Fourth-round pick Coby Bryant could compete for a starting spot opposite Sidney Jones IV.
Stribling is 27, so he isn’t a young building block, but he’s young enough to play a role for a few years if he works out.