For NFL front offices, weaving through free agency is like a game of chess. They search for places where they can take shots while avoiding risk, all the while managing the ever-pressing salary cap.
Fans want aggressive, big-name signings, but history shows throwing money around when the gates open isn’t always the smart play. The true free agency finds are diamonds in the rough.
Signing big names like Richard Sherman and Jordy Nelson comes with the expectation they will perform well. But if they play poorly, someone’s job could be on the line.
Where general managers can really make an impact on their roster is the second wave of free agents: Mid-tier players who are looking for a fresh start on a “prove it” deal with hopes of landing a big payday down the road. Marquise Goodwin and Donald Penn are recent examples of mid-tier free agency finds.
Goodwin originally signed a two-year deal with the 49ers last offseason and, after having a breakout season, he received a $20 million contract extension. Back in 2014, the Raiders signed Penn to a two-year deal, and he has now received two multimillion-dollar extensions.
Finding quality, low-cost players later in free agency can also help the draft process. Filling a need with a cheap contract prior to the draft takes pressure off a franchise reaching in the draft off pure need for that position.
Two underrated moves for both the Raiders and 49ers standout as low-risk, high-reward signings that could pay serious dividends during this season. First, let’s take a look at new San Francisco pass-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu.
Attaochu was taken in the second round by the San Diego Chargers in 2014 after breaking the all-time sack record at Georgia Tech. Attaochu showed serious potential, racking up 6.0 sacks in 2015, but injuries and lack of playing time derailed his 2016 and 2017 campaigns.
At only 25 years old and on a one-year deal, Attaochu could blossom into the player he was hyped to be early in his career. Last season, the 49ers coaching staff showed the ability to develop young players who weren’t working out elsewhere, like Goodwin and edge-rusher Cassius Marsh, who was claimed off waivers after being cut by New England. Marsh had two sacks in six games for the 49ers and was later given a contract extension.
With the Chargers, Attaochu played behind two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. With the 49ers, he should have many opportunities to rush the passer. Attaochu also fits defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme as the outside edge-rusher, a position dependent on speed, something Attaochu has show he has, running a 4.57 40 at his Pro Day in 2014.
With a limited amount of premier pass-rushing prospects in the draft class, the Attaochu signing could bump the need for an edge-rusher down on the 49ers draft board, allowing them to look at linebackers in the first round. The pressure will be on Attaochu to perform quickly and, if he delivers, he could line himself up for a nice payday next offseason.
The Silver and Black had to get creative in free agency with little cap space, bringing in a handful of defensive veterans to upgrade their defense that ranked 23rd in the NFL last season. If the Oakland defense does improve, new linebacker Tahir Whitehead will be in the middle of it. Whitehead spend the first six season’s of his career in Detroit before landing in Oakland on a three-year deal this offseason.
The Whitehead signing could benefit the Raiders roster with his versatility. Players being able to fit in multiple position and schemes is becoming a valuable commodity in the modern day NFL. Whitehead’s ability to play every linebacker position will not only cause confusion for opposing offenses, but will create opportunities for the young Raiders linebackers like Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow to play to their specific strengths on the field.
The Raiders lacked consistency in the middle of their defense last season until NaVorro Bowman was signed. But now that Bowman is gone, Whitehead looks be the one manning the middle regularly for the Raiders. Not to mention Whitehead is a tackling machine, leading the Lions with 110 tackles last season. Safety Reggie Nelson lead the way for the Raiders with 89 tackles.
Throughout the draft process the Raiders have been linked to top linebacker prospects Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds. If neither are on the board when the Raiders are on the clock, Whitehead at least provides a safety net.
Front offices have less than two weeks to find the final free agent diamonds in the rough and put the last stamp on their rosters heading into the NFL draft.