Tuesday's franchise and transition tags removed many of the best players from the Free Agent Pool, leaving behind a thinned-out class for needy teams to sift through. After examining what's left, I came up with a list of 20-plus players who could become bargains on the open market. The NFL's widespread and overwhelming amount of salary cap space probably means a handful of these players won't come at bargain costs. But for now, at least, these players don't seem to be generating much buzz and a few may prove free agent steals.
1. Rishard Matthews -- Matthews held off first-round pick DeVante Parker for a starting job before a late-season rib injury last year, shining as an intermediate complement to Jarvis Landry's slot-possession game. While inferior talents like Mohamed Sanu have been propped up by the media, Matthews is flying under the radar even in a thin wideout class. Still only 26 years old, Matthews' average of 10.85 yards per target paced last year's Dolphins, besting Parker (9.88), Kenny Stills (6.98), Landry (6.97), and Greg Jennings (5.78). In fact, Matthews' 10.85 yards-per-target average is the highest in this year's free agent wide receiver crop.
2. Ian Williams -- A 26-year-old nose tackle, Williams was quietly the most consistent player on San Francisco's defense last season, stamping out the run and creating backfield havoc while logging 58% of the 49ers' defensive snaps. A fire hydrant at 6-foot-1 and 319 pounds, Williams is an overachieving former undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame who's generated surprisingly little buzz as free agency draws near. He's a zero-technique nose in 3-4 defenses and would probably also excel as a one-technique tackle in 4-3 fronts.
3. William Hayes -- Primarily a rotational defensive end, Hayes has at least four sacks in four straight seasons and broke out last year playing in place of injured LE Chris Long, posting 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as an 11-game starter. Hayes excelled as both a run stuffer and pass rusher, earning Pro Football Focus' No. 6 overall grade among 48 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends. Turning 31 in May, Hayes' price tag should be lowered by his age. The Rams reportedly want Hayes back to replace Long full time in 2016.
4. Patrick Robinson -- Drafted 32nd overall in 2010, Robinson had all the appearances of a first-round bust across five seasons with the Saints, missing time with a high ankle sprain, arthroscopic knee surgery, and a devastating ruptured patellar tendon in 2013. Signed to a one-year, "prove-it" deal with San Diego last offseason, Robinson turned his career around as a quality bookend for Jason Verrett. Down the stretch, Robinson replaced Brandon Flowers in the Chargers' base defense. Robinson can play slot and outside, and he doesn't turn 29 until September. He's seemingly gotten lost in a cornerback market where Josh Norman, Trumaine Johnson, Janoris Jenkins, Prince Amukamara, and Sean Smith are hogging headlines.
5. Tyvon Branch -- Branch appeared to be developing into a premier NFL safety when the Raiders franchise tagged him in 2012, before signing Branch to a four-year, $26.6 million deal. Plagued by hard-luck leg and foot injuries, Branch played just five games for Oakland in 2013-2014, getting released two Februaries ago. In 2015 free agency, Branch settled for a one-year, $2 million prove-it deal with Kansas City and reemerged as a playmaking third safety in the second half of the season. Coming out of UConn in 2008, Branch blazed a 4.31 forty time at 5-foot-11, 204. Now 29 years old, Branch should land a starting job on the open market.
6. Derrick Shelby -- At 6-foot-3, 266, Shelby spent 2012-2014 giving Cameron Wake breathers at left defensive end in Miami, before replacing Wake (Achilles') as the Dolphins' full-time left end last year. 27-year-old Shelby made the most of his opportunity, earning PFF's No. 8 run-defense grade among 4-3 defensive ends and chipping in 3.5 sacks with two forced fumbles. Shelby isn't a dominating edge pass rusher, but he's a very useful part of a rotation. He seems likely to leave Miami after the team transition tagged RE Olivier Vernon.
7. Akiem Hicks -- After a promising beginning to his career in New Orleans, Hicks fell out of favor with Saints coaches and was shipped to New England in exchange for blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui late last September. Hicks rehabbed his stock almost immediately in Foxboro, earning a critical rotational role as an interior disruptor. A gargantuan presence, Hicks stands 6-foot-5, 318 with 35 1/8-inch arms. He has experience at defensive tackle in 4-3s and five-technique end in 3-4s, and is only 26 years old.
8. Jeremy Lane -- Perhaps best known for suffering a fractured arm and torn ACL on the same play in Super Bowl 49, Lane has missed all but 13 games over the last two seasons. Lane has been highly effective when on the field, however, and provided a huge lift to Seattle's 2015 secondary after Cary Williams proved a free agent disaster. At 6-foot, 190, Lane is a top-notch athlete, running 4.48 with a 42-inch vertical and 10-foot-10 broad jump at his 2012 Pro Day. He's spent most of his time covering the slot for the Legion of Boom.
9. Jeff Allen -- A left tackle at Illinois, Allen has made NFL starts at right tackle (2) and left guard (36), and even one start at left tackle as a 2012 rookie. Although he's been a quality lineman when healthy, Allen should come at a discount due to bad injury luck. His 2014 season was cut 15 games short by elbow surgery, and Allen didn't regain his starting job until midway through last year. Allen turned 26 in January.
10. Tahir Whitehead -- Overshadowed by bigger names DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, Whitehead has quietly been the Lions' most reliable linebacker the past two seasons. Whitehead replaced an injured Tulloch at middle linebacker in 2014, before spending last season shuttling between all three spots in DC Teryl Austin's 4-3. Whitehead even played special teams while doubling as a defensive starter. Turning 26 in April, 6-foot-1, 233-pound Whitehead should appeal to 4-3 teams willing to sacrifice some size at linebacker in favor of Whitehead's versatility, plus athleticism, and playmaking ability in pursuit.
11. Cedric Thornton -- Run-plugging 5-technique DE in 3-4. Turns 28 in June.
12. Rodney McLeod -- Undersized FS has forced 12 turnovers last 3 seasons.
13. Brandon Boykin -- Slot corner was difference maker in PIT late last year.
14. Tyrunn Walker -- Talented young 3-technique DT coming off broken leg.
15. Bilal Powell -- Cheap all-purpose back had best year of his career in 2015.
16. Zach Brown -- Injury-plagued 4-3 OLB with sideline-to-sideline speed.
17. Demario Davis -- Once-promising ILB flopped in Todd Bowles' system.
18. Sterling Moore -- 26-year-old journeyman was Bucs best CB last season.
19. Craig Robertson -- Poor man's Wesley Woodyard. Nickel/dime 'backer.
20. Sean Weatherspoon -- 4-3 WLB proved a misfit in Arizona's 3-4 defense.
Other Intriguing Bargain Bin Free Agents: LB Nigel Bradham, RB Bobby Rainey, WR Brian Quick, LT Will Beatty, WR Rod Streater, DE/DT Adrian Clayborn, OG Geoff Schwartz, OT Joe Barksdale, OG Mike Harris, OG Amini Silatolu