NFL

Five Signings in NFL Free Agency You Probably Missed

on

With the free-agent market drying up fast, now is a great time to look back and assess some of what has happened. While even casual NFL fans know Ndamukong Suh signed in Miami and DeMarco Murray picked the Eagles, there have been several meaningful transactions that received so little fanfare that many people missed them altogether.

With that in mind, here are five free-agent signings that may have missed your radar.

RB Roy Helu Jr. (to Oakland from Washington)

It was a big to-do when Darren McFadden left the Raiders for the Cowboys, but hardly a peep was made when Helu moved to the Bay Area. Although he was stuck behind Alfred Morris in Washington, he proved himself to be an extremely efficient and versatile back. Last year, he caught 42 passes for a career-high 477 yards while also making the most of his 40 rushing attempts, averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry (a full 2 yards better than McFadden).

Helu will resume his role as a change-of-pace back in Oakland, coming off the bench behind either Latavius Murray and/or Trent Richardson. But let’s be clear … the only way Richardson finishes with more all-purpose yards than Helu is if the Raiders stick the ball in T-Rich’s gut 400-plus times.

“I think it will be a competitive situation,” said head coach Jack Del Rio.

WR Leonard Hankerson (to Atlanta from Washington) 

Here we have another former Redskins player who flew under the radar, but this time for a different reason. Hankerson tore his ACL late in the 2013 season and was not able to get up to full speed in time to make a meaningful impact last season. But before the injury, Hankerson was an ascending player with the chance to be a top-tier No. 2 receiver.

During the 2011-2013 seasons, when new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was calling plays in the nation’s capitol, Hankerson racked up 81 receptions for 1,081 yards and six touchdowns. Now more than a year removed from surgery, Hankerson should pick up where he left off by stepping into Harry Douglas’ old role (before he was released and signed by the Titans).

Said Hankerson: “I’m going to be doing the same thing I’ve been doing … Taking it into the offseason, work hard, do what I got to do to get better every day, stay on the grind. That’s all I can do, control what I can control.”

OG Erik Pears (to San Francisco from Buffalo)

In the turd that has been San Francisco’s offseason, this shrewd pickup stands out like a kernel of corn.

A former undrafted free agent who battled his way into a 10-year career (and counting), Pears has done the bulk of his work with the Broncos (2005-2008) and Bills (2010-2014). He has been a full-time starter the last four years in Buffalo; he missed nine games due to a hip injury in 2012 but came back strong and has started every game since.

Pears played right tackle in 2013 and slid inside to right guard last season. He really shined on the interior line, allowing just 2.5 sacks despite blocking for a couple mediocre quarterbacks (to put it kindly). In San Francisco, he could step in for the departed Mike Iupati (who signed with the Cardinals), but his versatility gives the 49ers some options and only adds to his value.

LB Sean Weatherspoon (to Arizona from Atlanta)

Like Hankerson, Weatherspoon fell off the map because of an injury. He has been limited to just seven games over the past two years, including missing all of last season with an Achilles injury. But when Weatherspoon is healthy, as he is now, he is one of the most exciting linebackers in the game.

“I just have to get back to practicing a little bit more and being on that steady routine,” he said. “But I definitely think it saved my legs being off of them for the past two years.”

Weatherspoon will bring a lot of things to the Cardinals, including speed and savvy. But it is another “s” attribute that will help the most: swagger. Arizona’s defense oozed with swagger most of last year, but that faded late in the season when the unit wore down while trying to compensate for a neutered offense. Losing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and cornerback Antonio Cromartie to the Jets didn’t help, either, but adding Weatherspoon will restore that lost swagger and then some. He is a vocal leader who will talk all game long and keep everyone fired up and on the same page.

SS Marcus Gilchrist (to New York Jets from San Diego)

Gilchrist made the biggest play of San Diego’s 2014 season, intercepting Rams QB Shaun Hill in the end zone during the final minute of a Week 12 victory. What people forget is that he almost made another game-winning interception in Week 1, but he let a Carson Palmer pass to bounce off his hands and Arizona went on to score and eke out a one-point victory. Watching that play first-hand was Coach Bowles, who will add Gilchrist to a remade secondary that also brought in Cromartie, Darrelle Revis and Buster Skrine.

Gilchrist will never be considered a ballhawk (just five interceptions over the last four years), but he can play strong safety in the base defense and then cover slot receivers in nickel and dime situations. He should look even better in that role in New York, where he will be surrounded by far more defensive talent than he ever had in San Diego.

Gilchrist signing with the Jets resulted in a three-team secondary swap involving a pair of big names from the 2010 draft. After Gilchrist signed in New York, the Chargers — who also lost Shareece Wright in free agency — added former Saints first-round pick Patrick Robinson, who was replaced in New Orleans by former Jets first-rounder Kyle Wilson.

Want to talk more about free agency’s most neglected headlines? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question right now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.