Now it’s time to highlight “7 Sleeper Free Agents” that may pique general manager Chris Ballard’s interest in the upcoming free agency period.
7. Darius Philon, DT, Los Angeles Chargers
Originally a 2015 6th round pick out of Arkansas, Darius Philon emerged as a solid starter for the Chargers last season, recording 33 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and a forced fumble in 16 games (13 starts).
The 6’1”, 300 pound defensive lineman flashed impressive interior pass rush push in his first season as a regular starter for the Bolts defense and could be a potential diamond in the rough for any suitor in free agency:
Under-radar candidate for big FA deal (or FA steal): #Chargers DL Darius Philon.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) February 14, 2019
Popped as 2017 reserve, then came up huge in absences of Liuget-Bosa-Mebane in 2018.
Came out of Arkansas young; just turned 25.
Weird measurables (6'1/298) will immediately turn some teams off.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Philon was their 72nd best rated interior defensive lineman with a +67.8 grade overall, but that may not paint the entire picture of his effectiveness.
For perspective, here’s one of Philon’s sacks from last season:
Stilly only 25 years old, there seems like there could be a bit of “Denico Autry” to Philon’s game, as a young defensive lineman who simply hasn’t quite come into his own fully yet and might just need a new change of scenery to get there.
6. Bashaud Breeland, CB, Green Bay Packers
Once fully healed, Bashaud Breeland signed with the Green Bay Packers in late September of last year and eventually recorded 20 tackles, 4 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions (1 for a touchdown) in 7 games (5 starts).
Breeland isn’t the best player at his position in free agency, as fellow cornerbacks like Ronald Darby, Bradley Roby, and even the Colts very own Pierre Desir are all arguably better, but unlike his free agent peers, he could come at a significant discount.
For a Colts front office that appears willing to let Desir “test his market”, Breeland may not be a bad consolation price without having to spend $10M+ annually on a new starting cornerback.
Still only 27 years old and with his foot injury fully behind him, Breeland could be poised to be a nice bounceback candidate at cornerback.
5. Deone Bucannon, LB, Arizona Cardinals
Having been selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Deonne Bucannon saw immediate success in the desert as a PFWA All-Rookie Team member before falling out of favor the past few seasons—and subsequently, onto the trade block.
He’s coming off a season for the Cardinals in which he had 38 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in 13 games (6 starts).
At one point, at an undersized 6’1”, 211 pounds, Bucannon looked like the modern prototype at linebacker with his ability to help cover spread offenses and make plays all over the field—as a defender who oftentimes, looks more safety than linebacker.
However, with a new coaching regime, Bucannon was eventually phased out in Arizona.
The former first rounder still has a lot of natural ability and could be similar to other first round reclamation projects that Ballard has taken a chance on—including former Colt Barkevious Mingo and current Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron.
The only question is, can Bucannon regain his earlier career form or is he closer now to the player that struggled in coverage and in run defense when trying to play/learn a new defensive scheme over the past few seasons?
As Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce showed in the playoffs, the Colts could use another linebacker/safety hybrid who can hold up in coverage over the middle of the field.
While some fans are rightfully high on 2nd-year linebacker Matthew Adams, there could still be a starting spot up for grabs next to Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker going forward.
4. Shaquil Barrett, DE, Denver Broncos
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado in 2014, Shaquil Barrett has emerged as an effective situational pass rusher during his tenure in Denver—bringing a lift off the Broncos bench.
The 6’2”, 250 pound defensive end is fresh off a season where he recorded 28 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and a pass defensed in 13 games. He was playing in the Broncos pass rushing rotation behind the likes of Von Miller and first rounder Bradley Chubb last season.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), he was their 22nd best rated edge defender with a +75.9 grade—including a +72.5 pass rushing grade.
Having had only 38 team sacks last season—which was only the 19th most in the league, the Colts could certainly use more pass rushing help.
Barrett is only 26 years old, and while he won’t be confused as an “alpha dog” pass rusher anytime soon, he’s the type of young pass rusher who could contribute 7-10 sacks per season for the foreseeable future in a more regular role—and no one should be surprised.
3. Adrian Phillips, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas in 2014, Adrian Phillips has quickly gone from special teams standout to 2018 Pro Bowler.
The 5’11”, 210 pound hybrid safety recorded 94 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception in 16 games (7 starts) for the Chargers defense last season.
He’s a bit similar to Buffalo Bills Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde, who got his start on special teams, but is a “Swiss Army Knife” at safety who can do a lot of things well.
With Clayton Geathers as a free agent, the Colts could be in the market for safety help, and the team could look to add a hybrid type regardless—as Travis Kelce tore their secondary apart in the playoffs as mentioned.
Asking Phillips to be a “Kelce stopper” would be simply unfair, but with his versatility and highly regarded locker room presence, he could be a nice addition to the backend of the Colts secondary and special teams.
2. Chris Conley, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
The former 2015 3rd round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs could never quite get fully going under head coach Andy Reid, but is blessed with impressive physical tools at 6’3”, 205 pounds—having run a blistering fast 4.35 forty time and posted a vertical jump of 45.0 inches at the NFL Combine 5 years ago.
In 2018, Conley had 32 receptions for 334 receiving yards (10.4 ypr avg.) and 5 touchdown receptions in 16 games (13 starts).
Of course, Chris Ballard should be all too familiar with Conley, as he previously served as the Kansas City Chiefs Director of Football Operations in 2015 when he was drafted.
For the record, I can’t see Ballard committing big years and dollars to Conley, but if he gets into a 1-year, Ryan Grant “prove it” territory on a new deal, he’d make a lot of sense for the Colts as a potential athletic flyer.
Only 26 years old, Conley has the type of big body and deep speed that would theoretically be a perfect complement to star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton—that is, if he can finally fulfill his unreached potential. The young wideout has to improve his overall consistency.
1. Ronald Darby, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Okay, one could easily make the case that Ronald Darby doesn’t belong on this list at all as arguably the best cornerback option in this year’s free agent market.
However, he’s coming off a torn ACL, isn’t a household name, and if nothing else, this provides me a perfectly good excuse to write about him.
As a former 2015 2nd round pick of the Buffalo Bills, the 5’11”, 193 pound cornerback has quietly emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in football—when healthy.
He recorded 43 tackles, 12 passes defensed, and an interception last season in 9 starts before a season-ending torn ACL derailed yet another productive season.
Per Pro Football Focus, Darby was their 39th best rated cornerback before the injury with a +70.6 grade overall. The advanced grades web site notes that since entering the league, Darby has forced 50 incompletions, which ranks 12th among all cornerbacks with at least 100 targets over that span.
The Philadelphia Eagles want him back, and it’s being speculated that the 25 year old cornerback could command at least $12M annually on his next deal.
As mentioned, the Colts have their own financial decisions to make regarding fellow free agent cornerback Pierre Desir. However, Darby is arguably the better talent, and the Colts might make the more prudent decision of investing in the slightly younger cornerback, Darby—if push comes to shove on a lucrative multi-year deal.