Teams that “get it” know that what to really look for in free agency: young veterans at the end of their first contracts who are still improving and have the ability to anchor an offense or defense for at least four or five seasons to come.
With that in mind, here are 10 players fans may not be focused on but should be.
OG Andrew Norwell – At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, Norwell was arguably the best guard in the NFL last season. He has started 35 consecutive games, and Norwell will not turn 27 until halfway through the coming season. It is possible Norwell is still improving and could very well anchor an offensive line for the next five or six seasons.
WR Allen Robinson – There is certainly a risk here with Robinson trying to rebound from a 2017 season lost to a torn ACL. But if healthy, he has elite tendencies, piled up 201-2,841-22 (14.1 YPC) receiving in his first three years in the league — including 80-1,400-14 (17.5) in Year Two — and Robinson will not turn 25 until the end of training camp.
TE Trey Burton – Burton was No. 3 in Philadelphia behind TEs Zach Ertz and veteran Brent Celek, and at just 6-3, 230, he’s not for everybody. But Burton is a classic No. 2, a ‘move’ TE who can split a seam and take the top off a defense while creating matchup nightmares in two-TE sets. Burton turns 27 on November 1st.
RB Jerick McKinnon – Mckinnon is a converted quarterback out of Georgia Southern with the size, speed, quickness and rushing and receiving skills to be the classic third-down back in the NFL — and possibly the next Darren Sproles — and he doesn’t turn 26 until May.
CB Kyle Fuller – Fuller is riskier than the rest of the players on my list because of questions about his ability to play through pain and why he didn’t emerge as one of the top cover corners in the league until his fourth season. But he was all that in 2017 and appears to be still getting better. He just turned 26 in February, but a club will have to prepare its best offer for Fuller, who received the transition tag from the Bears.
WR Sammy Watkins – Like Fuller, Watkins has been an underachiever his first four seasons in the league. But coming out of Clemson four years ago, he was one of the best prospects in the draft and had 1,047 yards, a 17.5-yard average and nine TDs his second year in Buffalo. He played in 15 regular-season games last season for the Rams and won’t turn 25 until June.
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins – Seferian-Jenkins was a troubled young man coming out of the University of Washington, but he seemed to find himself the last season-and-a-half with the Jets. He’s massive at 6-foot-6 and 262 pounds, remarkably athletic for his size and is only 25 years old.
S Eric Reid – A former first-round pick of the 49ers, Reid has shown flashes of being an elite safety but seemed to hit a wall after his first two seasons in the league, about the time the 49ers fell on hard times. He is 6-1, 215 pounds, still just 26 years old, and if he stays healthy, a fresh start could be exactly what he needs to excel.
S Kenny Vaccaro – Vaccaro was tabbed 3 spots ahead of Reid in the 2014 draft, and many thought that he’d be the next Eric Berry or Earl Thomas. Like Reid, he’s shown real flashes but now will need a clean medical after missing the final four games of 2017 with a torn abductor muscle and having both groin and wrist surgeries this offseason. Vaccaro is still only 27.
EDGE Trent Murphy – Murphy was developing into an outstanding pass rusher with a nine-sack season in 2016 before missing all of last year with a torn ACL. At 6-6, 260, he is a true load coming off the edge, has had a full year to rehab his knee and is still just 27 years old.