Which NFL free agents could take the next step with new teams?
Cecil Shorts III always gets excited around NFL playoff time, as he feels what he describes as a "hunger, a drive that gets you up and gets you going, like, ‘Let’s go.’"
There’s been a problem for Shorts, though. He’s been a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the first four years of his career, so the playoffs have been little more than a rumor to him and his teammates. And when some of the games have come on TV …
"Yeah, it came to that point a couple of times, where I’d get a little frustrated just not being able to be on the field, so I turned it off and went to play with my kids to calm down. I didn’t want to rile myself up when I can’t do anything about it," Shorts told FOX Sports by phone this week. "This year’s playoffs was most frustrating for me because I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘I know I can help the team. Arrrgh! I can’t wait to get in the playoffs.’ So a lot of the games I just turned off."
Now, there’s a little something Shorts can do about his idle Januarys.
The veteran wide receiver is slated to hit the free-agent market on Tuesday, meaning he’ll finally have some more control over whether he plays for a competitive team. So far, Shorts and the Jags have been unable to strike a deal. The team wants him back and Shorts believes general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley are building the kind of team that won’t have to watch the playoffs from home, as Jacksonville has done for each of the past seven seasons. But Shorts is intent on finding the right combination of financial security and competitive football, so chances are he will reach free agency and see what’s available.
So what’s he seeking?
"Uh, winning. I just care about winning, man," he said with a laugh. "When it comes down to it, I’m kind of fed up with this losing stuff. I’d do anything I can to help this team win. But you’re going to get a reliable guy. I’m not going to be any trouble during the season or the offseason. Just a reliable guy that’s going to be there and show up on Sunday."
Money is also a factor, of course. The market has become logged with veteran receivers cut recently, but Shorts is hopeful teams will value his potential. Each year, there’s a heavy focus on the established big names available — the Ndamukong Suhs and Randall Cobbs of the world — but there are often some interesting mid-range free agents with upside who net solid deals for teams that believe they haven’t yet reached the peak of their careers.
Shorts, 27, could fit that category well.
A former Division III player for Mount Union in Ohio, Shorts caught only two passes in 10 games as a rookie season. In 2012, though, he nearly cracked 1,000 yards, finishing with 979 yards and seven touchdowns on 55 catches. The highlight of that season was an 80-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the last minute of a comeback victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
"I didn’t see the ball until the last second. I caught the back end of the football," Shorts recalled. "When I caught it, I’m like, ‘Don’t get caught.’ So I showed a little bit of the wheels. I was running fast. I had to dive at the end, but it ended up working out."
The following season, Shorts caught 11 more passes for a total of 66, though he had only 777 yards and three touchdowns. This past season, a banged-up Shorts had just 53 receptions for 557 yards and one touchdown for the 31st-ranked Jaguars offense.
Herein lies the problem for potentially interested teams in trying to gauge Shorts’ value: Was his drop-off in production the past two seasons due to overall issues with the offense? What would he have done with a proven veteran quarterback presence instead of Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne and a not-yet-ready Blake Bortles? And how much did playing for three head coaches and three coordinators in four years (including Jedd Fisch, who was fired after this season) affect Shorts? If there had been consistency in those areas, would he have made more plays like the one in Indy or the game-winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns in 2013, when he got Joe Haden to bite on a beautiful slant-and-go route?
"It’s difficult, it is. Not to make excuses, but it’s harder," Shorts said of all of the changes at the quarterback and coaching positions. "If you played in the same offense for four years and with the same quarterback for four years, it’s a lot different. You have chemistry, you understand the ins and outs, you don’t have to think on the field. You don’t have to think about the hots, the checks or the reads. You just play ball. It’s a big difference."
He added, "But I think Blake is going to be a superstar. He’s going to be a great quarterback in this league. A stud."
Shorts knows the knock on him around the league, which is that he’s been injury-prone. He’s yet to play a full season and missed much of last offseason and training camp with calf and hamstring injuries. The latter kept him out of the Jags’ first two games last year, thus getting his season off to a terrible start.
"I had a couple of ticky-tack injuries the last couple of years. Nothing that serious like an ACL or anything like that," Shorts said. "When I sit back and look at myself, I think it’s because of how I’ve been training a little too hard around this time. I just have to pace myself more when I train and understand I need to last 16 games. It’s understanding my body a little more. That’s part of being a professional, figuring out what works for you, what doesn’t.
"So I wouldn’t say I’m injury-prone. I can’t wait until next season to show where I am, play a full season and be healthy. We’ll see."
And maybe play in the postseason as well.
"I’m looking for a culture of winning, I’m looking for a stable franchise that’s on the upside and that knows how to win or that’s close to being a winning franchise," Shorts said. "When I was in college, I lost three games. I was 57-3, so I didn’t know much about losing until I got in the NFL.
"I really care about winning, that’s my main thing."
Shorts is one of a number of free agents who aren’t at the top of their class but could get decent money on the market and could also see their careers take off with new teams. Here are five other free agents who could surprise at the bank and on the field as well:
DE/LB Derrick Morgan: Much of the focus on pass rushers leading up to free agency has centered on Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jerry Hughes, Pernell McPhee, Greg Hardy and Jason Worilds. But don’t sleep on Morgan and his potential to both get a sizable deal and have a big impact for his new team.
The No. 16 overall pick in 2010, Morgan has good athletic ability and could be better served to return to a 4-3 scheme as an end after making the switch to a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. Despite the change to an unnatural position and the fact he had to drop into coverage on occasion, Morgan still managed to register six sacks. Look for some 4-3 teams to make a strong push for him.
OT Jermey Parnell: Word started to spread at the scouting combine in Indianapolis that Parnell was going to do very well in free agency. An undrafted free agent in 2009 as a defensive end for the Saints, Parnell made the switch to being a full-time offensive tackle with the Cowboys in 2012. He’s played well in spot duty for Dallas, particularly last season when starter Doug Free was injured. With Bill Callahan in Washington now as the Redskins’ offensive line coach, Parnell could stay in the NFC East and make some good money in the process.
S Jeron Johnson: The upside to being a member of the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary is the chance to learn behind some very good players. The downside is those players don’t cede playing time. So it’s been for Johnson, a former undrafted free agent who has backed up Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Johnson has done a fine job on special teams and led the team in tackles when he started in Chancellor’s place against the New York Giants last season.
Johnson is a heady player who reads plays quickly. He’ll need to find a team looking to employ him as a true strong safety in a scheme similar to Seattle’s. Maybe former Seahawks defensive coordinator and new Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn could use Johnson’s experience in the system.
S Major Wright: Another safety? Yes, because the market there will be pretty good. Wright spent last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after four years with the Chicago Bears. He served as a third safety for the first half of the season and became the starter when Tampa dealt Mark Barron to the St. Louis Rams.
Wright impressed down the stretch, particularly in a 13-tackle performance in his first start after the Barron trade. Wright can hit and run — always a good combination for a safety.
LB Andrew Gachkar: A former seventh-round pick who had served as a special-teams contributor for the San Diego Chargers the first few years of his career, Gachkar had five starts last season because of an increased role in the team’s nickel defense. Gachkar had eight tackles for loss — the second-most among free agent inside linebackers, despite playing only 36 percent of the snaps.
It might be time for Gachkar to secure a role with a new team that will have him on the field a lot more than San Diego did. Joe Barry, Gachkar’s position coach in San Diego, is now the Redskins’ defensive coordinator. Connect the dots there.