When NFL free agency kicks off, we see teams come out of the gates with the checkbooks in hand, looking make a splash. Going on a spending spree generates headlines for the teams and buzz with fans, but it rarely leads to victories or smart decisions. Instead, the players signed after the initial wave subsides are usually the players who make the biggest contribution for their respective teams. Players like Detroit receiver Golden Tate, Bears' defensive end Willie Young, and the Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders, all signed after day one of free agency, gave their teams tremendous value and production last season. What played a big role in each player’s success was choosing the right fit for themselves, whether that was defensive or offensive schemes, coaching staffs, or talented teammates that helped bolster their own talents. Looking back to this past March’s free agent frenzy, here are four players who I feel could blossom into impact players with their new teams.
Pernell McPhee – Chicago Bears2014: 27 Tackles 7.5 Sacks 1 Forced Fumble (with Baltimore Ravens)
McPhee’s best season in Baltimore was his final season as the versatile linebacker notched a career high 7.5 sacks while playing a little over 500 defensive snaps. In his four years as a Raven, Pernell only started six games, mainly due to the fact he was playing behind the likes of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. With Chicago, McPhee will see his playing time more than double, and expectations are that his production will follow. The Bears' new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, is leading the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 hybrid base and looks to utilize McPhee at right outside linebacker. In Fangio’s scheme, the outside linebackers are the primary pass rushers. Over his years in Baltimore, McPhee has shown the ability to rush the passer while also displaying versatility to play anywhere along the defensive line. In a game last season versus Carolina, we saw McPhee lined up over center, at defensive end, and as an outside linebacker in a two-point stance, all in one drive. McPhee plays fast and violent, displays quick feet and change of direction to shoot a gap, but is also stout against the run. He has shown the ability to come around the edge with speed or simply bull rush the offensive lineman into the quarterback's lap. Pernell also does a terrific job of using his hands, using the dip and rip, and arm-over techniques to also help generate pressure when lined up on the defensive line. At just 26 years old, McPhee is about to enter the prime years of his career. With the type of scheme versatility he has displayed, plus the coaching of John Fox and Vic Fangio (two highly respected defensive coaches), the stage is set for McPhee to finally step out from behind the shadows of Dumervil and Suggs and have the spotlight shine on him.
Darren McFadden – Dallas Cowboys2014: 155 Attempts 534 Yards 2 Touchdowns (with Oakland Raiders)
Darren McFadden was the fourth overall pick out of Arkansas in the 2008 NFL draft and was considered by many as a “can’t miss prospect”. Well, seven years playing in Oakland coupled with a number of nagging injuries, McFadden now finds himself battling for a chance to start for the Dallas Cowboys. When the Cowboys lost running back Demarco Murray to the Eagles this offseason, speculation was that Dallas would find his replacement by trade (Adrian Peterson) or surely in the draft (Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon). With McFadden, the Cowboys feel they have a talented, 27 year old, running back, who was playing on bad teams in Oakland, with not much talent surrounding him. In seven seasons with the Raiders, McFadden played for five different head coaches, and had only two non-losing seasons in 2010 and 2011, when both years, they finished 8-8. 2010 was also the year McFadden had his best season, rushing for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in just 13 games. In Dallas, McFadden will be playing with an established quarterback, a Pro Bowl receiver, and more importantly, an offensive line that has three Pro Bowlers on it. McFadden is also a good fit in the zone running attack the Cowboys like to deploy. He has shown to have good vision and the ability to cut back and quickly get through a hole. He displays patience in allowing his blocking to develop, plus the speed and quick feet to break the run to the outside. Injuries have been a problem for McFadden, as 2014 was the first time he had played in all 16 games of a season. To offset any injury concerns, the Cowboys plan on rotating McFadden with both Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar, in hopes that this will keep them healthy and fresh throughout the year. McFadden has said coming to Dallas, getting acclimated to a new winning atmosphere, and knowing he is playing on a better team has rejuvenated him. Look for McFadden to have a very good year and help compliment the passing attack led by Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and company.
Jabaal Sheard – New England Patriots2014: 44 Tackles 2 Sacks 0 Forced Fumbles
After Sheard’s first two seasons in the league, the Cleveland Browns figured they had hit on a talented pass rusher with their 2011 second round pick. Sheard registered 15.5 sacks after his first two seasons and had shown the Browns brass that he might be a building block on their defensive line. Then, the Browns fired Pat Shurmur and his staff and brought in Mike Pettine who switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This meant Sheard had to go from a hand in the ground defensive end to a stand-up outside linebacker. After the switch, Sheard's sack numbers took a dive. In Pettine’s first season, Sheard had 5.5 sacks. Then, last season, that number dropped to just two. Sheard only started six games and had only 690 snaps on defense. Although Sheard denied that switch affected him, instead taking responsibility for his lack of production, there was no doubt Sheard was not the same player after the change in scheme. The Patriots signed Sheard to a modest 2-year 11 million dollar contract this off season, and plan on using Jabaal as both a defensive end and outside linebacker. The Patriots' hybrid defense, with a 4-3 base, allows them to use Sheard in multiple positions. Scheme versatility is something Bill Belichick is always looking to add to his roster. There was talk that on passing downs we would see Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Chandler Jones all rushing the passer. Sheard has also recognized the culture and stability surrounding the Patriots' organization early on in OTA’s, and has mentioned this reassures him that he will be placed in the best position to succeed. The Patriots have a history of taking other teams discarded players and turning them into vital contributors to their teams, Jabaal Sheard appears to be the next in line. At just 26 years old, and already having tasted success in the league, Sheard and the Patriots appear to be the perfect match to help resuscitate a once promising career.
Da’Norris Searcy – Tennessee Titans2014: 65 Tackles 0.5 Sacks 2 Forced Fumbles 3 Interceptions
Right before the start of free agency, the Titans released last season’s starting strong safety Bernard Pollard. Finding his replacement was a top priority for the Titans' brass. That’s why they made Da’Norris Searcy one of their first signings. Searcy, a former 4th round pick of the Bills, was coming off a productive 2014 campaign, where he started 13 games for Buffalo. Searcy is an aggressive player on the field, one who plays the game with passion and confidence. Searcy has played both safety positions in the past, but is more suited to play strong safety, where he can use that aggression and tackling ability to come up and play closer to the line of scrimmage. Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton and Assistant Head Coach/Defense Dick LeBeau were together with the Steelers when they had safeties the likes of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. I can envision them utilizing Searcy in a similar manner where he will be a big part of their blitz packages, asked to come up and be an extra defender on run support, while also dropping back in pass coverage. Searcy, who helped solidify the Bills secondary, is coming into Tennessee with a chip on his shoulder. Feeling he was overshadowed in Buffalo by a talented defense, Searcy is out to prove he is an ascending player who will be viewed as one of the stalwarts on the Titans' defense. Horton has praised Searcy for coming in and taking on a leadership role within the team early on during OTA’s. Teammates have noticed the swagger and confidence he brings, along with the passion he has for the team and the game. Entering his fifth NFL season, Searcy, for the first time in his career, will be heading into training camp as the clear cut starter at one of the safety positions. Having the backing of his coaches and teammates, Searcy appears primed to have his best season yet.
Danny Shimon is a graduate of Introduction to Scouting and Scouting Boot Camp. Follow Danny on Twitter @dshimon56