In under two months, the NFL world will be thrust back into its busiest time: free agency.
All 32 organizations will dive head-first into a deep pool of available players in an attempt to find their missing pieces. And although the initial flurry is always focused on the top-end free agents, it’s the second and third wave of players who tend to shore up key loose ends.
In 2021, just as it’s been in each year prior, there will be several under-the-radar players who sign at a discount and go on to make all the difference. Here’s a look at five unrestricted free agents who could very well fit that bill.
5. Tyrod Taylor, QB
Tyrod Taylor isn’t “under-the-radar” in the sense that he’s an unknown, but he is “under-the-radar” in the sense that he’s a quality quarterback capable of starting in this league but just can’t seem to find the right situation. Many believed he had it in 2020, but a botched injection by a team doctor caused Taylor to miss some time and ultimately paved the way for Justin Herbert’s emergence. It was an unfortunate break for Taylor, but at just 31 years of age, there’s still time to find that ideal fit. In a league so heavily influenced by offense, Taylor’s ability to pass and run without turning the ball over is going to appeal to someone.
4. Romeo Okwara, EDGE
Romeo Okwara entered the league as an undrafted free agent, signing with the New York Giants and playing an extremely limited role until he joined the Detroit Lions in 2018. That season, Okwara flashed some very real talent, recording 7.5 sacks in 15 games. However, he was relegated to a reserve role in 2019, and his sack total dropped to 1.5, leaving many to wonder if the prior season had just been a flash in the pan. But in 2020, Okwara reemerged with a career-high 10 sacks despite starting just nine games for the Lions. He earned an 85.4 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus and was credited with an impressive 61 total pressures. At just 25 years of age, it’s entirely possible that Okwara’s best and most dominant football remains ahead of him.
3. Mike Davis, RB
Mike Davis wasn’t able to gain a foothold in San Francisco, Seattle or Chicago. Despite a solid 2020 campaign, he may not be able to find one in Carolina, either. The argument against Davis is that he gained just 3.9 yards per carry last season and averages just 3.7 yards per carry throughout his career, all while never coming close to the 1,000-yard mark. All of that may be true, but there’s more than meets the eye here. Davis is a hard runner similar to Derrick Henry or Marshawn Lynch in that he forces missed tackles. In 2020, he forced a mind-blowing 65 missed tackles (43 as a runner and 22 as a receiver), leading to a 75.0 overall grade courtesy of Pro Football Focus. He’s also an excellent option out of the backfield and has a career catch rating of 80.1% (84.3% last season). Someone somewhere is going to get a bargain.
2. Keelan Cole, WR
A one-time undrafted free agent, Keelan Cole substantially boosted his value with a 55-reception, 642-yard performance in 2020 that included five touchdowns. It was Cole’s best season since his rookie campaign in 2017, and it showed that he’s capable of playing multiple roles to success. Although Cole is not likely to secure a WR1 position anywhere, he can be a very productive WR2 or WR3 in the right system, playing both outside and in the slot. He is in the 60th percentile of creating separation, which is something several teams desperately need, and he’s also good at bringing down contested balls (52%). But perhaps the most noteworthy improvement of Cole’s game is ball security — something that was an issue early on in his career but has become a strength over the previous two seasons.
1. Matt Milano, LB
As a fifth-round pick in 2017, expectations for Matt Milano were tempered. However, he rapidly developed into a consistent presence on the Buffalo defense beginning in his second season when he took over as a starter. That continued with a career-year in 2019 before Milano suffered a torn pec this past season and was relegated to a backup role upon his return. However, despite a significant reduction in snaps, the 26-year-old continued to play well, recording a career-high 3.5 sacks while compiling a 78.5 pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus. Although the injury clearly derailed Milano and opened the door for others, his entire body of work cannot be ignored. He’s proven himself to be good in coverage and as an ascending pass rusher. If Milano can clean up his tackling, he will become a very underrated signing for someone this offseason.