The biggest impact signings of free agency involved high-level stars like Ndamukong Suh leaving the Lions and signing with the Dolphins, Darrelle Revis waving goodbye to Bill Belichick and the Patriots and going back to the Jets, and running back DeMarco Murray taking off from Dallas and signing with Philadelphia.
While the tendency is to focus on superstars and big names, there have been a number of signings involving solid players – but non-superstars – who should become impact players next season.
While most involve players who left their previous employer and signed with a new team, the one that could have the biggest impact involves running back Justin Forsett, who came into his own last year with the Ravens and chose to remain with John Harbaugh and stay in Baltimore.
Forsett is on the verge of stardom after one excellent season with the Ravens. While he had been a decent backup with the Seahawks earlier in his career, he had become a non-factor with the Texans and Jaguars in 2012 and ’13.
Forsett largely got his opportunity as a result of the Ray Rice incident, and he took advantage of his chance with 1,266 yards, eight touchdowns, and an eye-opening mark of 5.4 yards per carry. Forsett’s ability to run the ball between the tackles and take it outside takes considerable pressure off of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
Forsett may have taken some opponents by surprise last year, but his quickness into and out of his cuts should allow him to remain a top-five running back in the league in 2015.
When Stevie Johnson signed a free-agent contract with the San Diego Chargers, it didn’t make much of a national splash. Johnson didn’t fit in very well with the San Francisco 49ers and he became an afterthought in their system.
However, Johnson has a much better chance of success with Philip Rivers throwing him the ball in San Diego. Johnson was a bit erratic with the Bills from 2008 through 2013, but he averaged 79 catches a season from 2010 through 2012 and his size (6-foot-2 and 210 pounds) and speed allowed him to become a fairly dangerous deep threat.
Rivers wants to stretch opposing defenses and that’s why Johnson will have a chance to become an impact player with the Chargers. San Diego could use more big-play threats, and Johnson will have a chance to establish himself.
Lovie Smith did not like what he saw very often in his first year as head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs. The former Chicago Bears head coach is known for his ability to build athletic and resourceful defenses, and he has attempted to help that unit out by signing ex-Cowboy defensive tackle Henry Melton as a free agent.
Melton, of course, had played under Smith in Chicago from 2010 through 2013. Melton was not a superstar with the Bears, but he carried out his assignments on the defensive line with impressive consistency.
That’s all Smith wants to see from Melton in Tampa. He wants him to be responsible, fill gaps and allow Tampa Bay’s linebackers to make plays consistently. Melton (5.0 sacks in 2014) is smart and savvy, and he should be in an excellent position to help the Bucs show quite a bit of defensive improvement.
Bill Belichick is often seen as being two or three steps ahead of the competition, and the Patriots’ decision to sign former Cleveland Brown outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard may offer an example as to how the Patriots’ head coach stays in the lead.
Sheard had 15.5 sacks in his first two seasons with the Browns, but that total slipped to 7.5 sacks the last two seasons. Sheard started just five games in 2014, and he appeared to lose his grip with the Browns.
While he was not deemed a vital cog by the lowly Browns, Belichick saw Sheard as a tough, athletic player who can help the Super Bowl champions remain in contention. Sheard has excellent hands and quickness, and he appears to be a better fit as a defensive end than an outside linebacker. Look for Belichick to give Sheard the majority of his snaps at the defensive end position.
Terrance Knighton developed a national presence because of his memorable “Pot Roast” nickname with the Broncos, and his all-around play as a run stuffer was one of the main reasons the Broncos defense was able to play with toughness and a backbone throughout the 2013 season.
Knighton (three passes defensed and 2.0 sacks in 2014) hit free agency and while the Broncos did not seem especially keen on retaining him, Jay Gruden and the Washington Redskins were not about to let Knighton slip through their grasp.
Knighton is a powerful force who can plug the gap yet still move with the quickness needed to get through a crack and get into the backfield. He has an excellent chance to become one of the better defensive players on the Redskins, who need as much help as they can get on that side of the ball.
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