One of the better parts of the NFL offseason is the jockeying of players changing teams during the free agency period.
Let’s analyze which acquisitions this summer will be good fits with their new teams. But rather than boring you with a list of obvious players that we know will succeed due to their pedigree, let us focus on some underrated acquisitions that some may not realize how big their impact may be.
Chris Canty: Despite a mass exodus of Ravens players and conversely a mass acquisition of replacements for said defections, Chris Canty is one name that always falls under the radar. Canty played only a portion of the 2012 season with the Giants, as he started the year on the PUP. In 2011, he played a big role in the Giants run defense allowing them to finish in middle of the pack against the run. All signs point to Canty being completely healthy and if he is able to regain his pre-2012 form, where he typically averages near 40 tackles per season, Canty will fit in perfectly at the 5-technique spot, next to Haloti Ngata as a force on the end of a 3-4 defense. He has great leverage to stop the run and he has some quickness to rush the passer. On passing downs, look for Canty to move to the inside as a traditional 3-technique and cause plenty of havoc up the middle.
Dominik Hixon: Giants fans will tell you that this was one defection that they were not too pleased with, especially with the uncertainty with Victor Cruz’s contract. Regardless, Hixon had struggled through so many injuries and with the emergence of Reuben Randle and potentially Ramses Barden, it made sense to not pay the veteran wide receiver. Carolina pounced on him and I look for him to have a big year with an outside shot at 800-1000 yards. Hixon has very good speed and good hands, combined with solid size. His value lies in his versatility to be able to play the split end position or run routes in the slot. He was finally able to stay healthy for most of the season and had 39 catches and 567 yards as a 3rd option. Filling in nicely for Hakeem Nicks, he showed he could be a great deep threat or a player who can exploit the intermediate areas of the defense. Looking back on games he performed admirably in against the Eagles (11 catches, 114 yards) and 49ers (6 catches, 78 yards), there is no doubt that when faced with the potential of a bigger role that Hixon’s relatively bargain contract and his ability to perform could make him one of the more underrated acquisitions this offseason. He fits in well with the play-action deep passing game that will be implemented in Carolina. Hixon and Brandon LaFell will be vying to take the lead as 2A and 2B wide receivers, behind Steve Smith.
Isaac Sopoaga: Once the Eagles announced the switch to a 3-4 defense, it was widely known that they would need to beef up their defense front seven. One of the key players in that regard was Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga will be asked to fill the valuable 0-technique (nose tackle) position for the Eagles. Sopoaga has experience anchoring that same position for the 49ers. Typically his position does not get much limelight, but his addition is one of the most important that the Eagles have made. Considering how woeful their run defense has been, Sopoaga’s role as the primary defender to hold off multiple blocker and provide penetration to stop the run in its tracks is a vital one. His ability to provide an impact at that position will prove to be important if the Eagles plan to get better production from their middle linebackers. If he can sustain double teams as well, look for Trent Cole and Connar Barwin, who will both be asked to adjust from 4-3 defense ends to 3-4 rushing linebackers, to have bounce back season’s.
Ultimately, his statistics will not tell the whole story. He does not rack up an exorbitant amount of tackles, nor does he accumulate sacks. He is not in the mold of a Haloti Ngata or Vince Wilfork, two players who are mainstays as the best 0-technique players. However, Sopoaga provides underrated production at a low cost and for the Eagles, his addition will definitely help turn their run defense into a respectable unit.
James Casey: Sticking with the Eagles, with their new offensive scheme, which will be predicated on a heavy dose of option-read plays, the need for a solid blocking tight end, to compliment a receiving one like Brent Celek, becomes pivotal. At Oregon, Kelly emphasized the use of 2 or 3 tight ends at the same time because he felt that position exuded a plethora of matchup problems. That same thought process has been repeated multiple times through Eagles camp, which is the need for each one of his tight ends to be versatile, either as in-line blockers next to the tackle, as an h-back who lines up typically just behind the right tackle, 2 or 3 yards from the line of scrimmage, or as a fullback. James Casey has proven to be one of the most athletic tight ends in the league and also one of the best blockers. He has underrated hands and the ability to line up in all 3 of the above spots, that Chip Kelly plans to exploit. Many laud him on his 4.6 speed as a tight end, which will surely be used by Kelly to create some interesting lineups and route combinations with his skill players. Factoring in the loss of Jeremy Maclin, I could easily see Casey doubling on his catching and yardage total (34 catches and 330 yards) from last season. His addition will have positive impact on the running and passing game of the Eagles in many facets.
Dominique Rodger-Cromartie: The last two seasons for Eagles defenders were trying times. Every defender that came to the Eagles, either as an elite performer or just a notch below, left the team as a battered player whose skill and talent became questioned. The man known as ‘DRC’ was one of those players who, in my opinion and the opinion of others who analyzed the Eagles defense, was greatly misused in Juan Castillo’s defense. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, out of 113, Rodgers-Cromartie ended up ranking 98th.
DRC’s strong suits are man-to-man defense and he is adept at press-man coverage. He has tremendous speed with the ability to turn his hips and recover when he is beat. In Philadelphia, he was used as a slot cover corner, which was not to his strengths, as receivers would often beat him with a quick move because he was not playing at the line of scrimmage.
DRC will alleviate some pressure off of Champ Bailey and be able to take the assignment of covering the speedier receivers on the outside. We saw how badly Torrey Smith torched Bailey in the Divisional playoff round. Considering how soundly Rodgers-Cromartie can turn his hips and can re-cover if he does get beat (an aspect of Champ Bailey’s game that has dwindled as he has gotten older), he will be much better suited to run with the likes of Danario Alexander and Dwayne Bowe.
Dustin Keller: The tight end position for the Dolphins has been one that’s been mired in inconsistency for the past half-decade. Anthony Fasano is a solid player, but better suited as an in-line blocking tight end and not someone you want to rely upon to make numerous plays as a pass-catcher. Dustin Keller’s signing is one that will be extremely beneficial to both Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace. Keller is one of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL and was often Mark Sanchez’s most reliable pass-catcher. The former Purdue Boilermaker has the ability to find the open zones across the intermediate and deep middle of the field, while also being able to beat safeties and linebackers in man coverage. If used correctly, he will act as a key factor on third downs to move the chains and facilitate the deep passing connection of Tannehill to Wallace when the defense and safeties are keying in on Keller’s intermediate prowess. I would not be surprised if Keller tallies more catches than Mike Wallace and gets back to his 2011 form, where he totaled 65 catches, 811 yards and 5 touchdowns.