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#pounditFriday, March 5, 2021

5 under-the-radar NFL free agents

Austin Ekeler

The new league year is coming up soon, and that means the NFL’s most wild time — free agency — will be here before you know it. The run on top free agents will last roughly 48 hours before things settle down and organizations look to what remains in an attempt to not only fill out their rosters, but to also find diamonds in the rough.

Here’s a look at five players who could be impact signings but will likely fly under-the-radar initially.

5. Kenyan Drake, running back

Drake continues to draw praise from me, but until NFL executives and coaches get it right and make this guy a bell cow, he will end up on these types of lists. After beginning the season with the Miami Dolphins and performing moderately well, Drake was traded to Arizona. In Week 9, he erupted with 160-plus scrimmage yards and a score. Drake carried that through the remainder of the season, finishing the year with a career-high 817 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to go along with 50 receptions for 345 yards. Drake is not currently considered a top 50 free agent (seriously, how is that possible?), and will be an absolute steal for someone out there. Still just 25 years old, Drake’s prime is coming.

4. Shelby Harris, nose tackle

Free agency will be stocked full of quality defenders at all levels this year, which will allow players like Harris to very legitimately fly under-the-radar. In 2018, Harris became a more well-known name as a dominant rotational guy, which led the Denver Broncos to increase his role in 2019. However, more substantial playing time led to some visible weaknesses in Harris’ game, and he trailed off a bit down the stretch (one sack over his final nine games). That’s not uncommon for a relatively young player with an increased workload, but as a result, his value will drop below players like Chris Jones, Arik Armstead and Leonard Williams, who are also hitting the open market. But don’t sleep on Harris, who has a clear upside and a lot of growing to do. It’s only going to take one GM to see that.

3. Troy Hill, cornerback

At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Hill’s lack of size is going to cause many to turn away and assume he just can’t excel at the NFL level. He’s already proven that to be a false reality. While Hill does struggle against some of the larger and more physical wide receivers that are becoming prevalent in today’s NFL, he has proven himself to be a valuable shutdown No. 2. That will cause some to cringe because who’s really looking for a great No. 2? Well, the answer is anyone with a quality No. 1. Once Jalen Ramsey arrived in Los Angeles, Hill suddenly found his niche, dominating secondary receivers and finishing the season allowing just 45.1% of passes thrown in his direction to be caught for a passer rating of 54.9.

2. Austin Ekeler, running back

Ekeler isn’t quite as “under-the-radar” as some of the other players on this list due to his emergence as a quality fantasy football option, but when teams go out looking to sign running backs, his name isn’t likely to top the list. Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon III and Kareem Hunt will draw the lion’s share of attention, but like Kenyan Drake, Ekeler has a tremendous upside, and we saw a glimpse of that when he started in place of Gordon, who was holding out early in the season. Ekeler finished the season with 1,550 scrimmage yards (557 rushing yards, 993 receiving yards). He is a restricted free agent, which adds a little murkiness to the waters, but depending on what the Chargers decide to do with Gordon, Ekeler could become a viable option for several teams in need of a versatile running back.

1. Joe Schobert, linebacker

Schobert is an interesting player who took an equally interesting path to the NFL. He went from college pass rusher to professional linebacker, where he excels not against the run or getting after the quarterback, but also in coverage. In fact, Schobert is one of the better coverage linebackers in football (four interceptions in 2019), and although he experienced a bit of a slump in 2019, it’s clear the arrow is pointing up. Coverage backers are rapidly becoming key components against today’s spread offenses, but in the right system, Schobert could hone in on that college pass rushing experience and become more of a dual threat. Yes, he’ll need to improve against the run, but that can be coached if he lands in the right place. The potential is there, the pieces are there and the will is there … someone just needs to help Schobert put it all together.

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