2012 NFL Free Agents: 6 Biggest-Value Free Agents on the Market

Brad HillContributor IFebruary 20, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: 6 Biggest-Value Free Agents on the Market

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    The San Francisco 49ers' 2011 free-agent class was noticeably lacking big names; players like Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Jonathan Goodwin were brought into the fold, while other teams spent big money on well-known "name" players like Nnamdi Asomugha and Johnathan Joseph.

    At first glance, the Niners' free agent class looked underwhelming at best, but little did we know just how good GM Trent Baalke would be at finding bargains.  He was able to bring Rogers in on a one-year deal worth around $4 million, and Whitner and Goodwin were signed to three-year pacts worth $11.75 million and $10.9 million, respectively. 

    Many felt the 49ers had gone cheap in free agency and figured they'd get what they paid for.

    When the dust settled on the 2011 season, Rogers made the Pro Bowl on the strength of six interceptions and a 61.9 quarterback rating allowed on passes thrown in his direction.  Whitner and Goodwin were both named Pro Bowl alternates, and Baalke took home the Executive of the Year award.  Armed with their bargain-bin free agents, the 49ers lost by a hair in the NFC Championship Game.

    This year's free-agent class will feature big names such as Houston's Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson of the Chargers and popular Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, but the real bargains are to be found elsewhere. 

    Here are six potential impact players who could find themselves undervalued in this year's free-agent market.

Evan Mathis, Offensive Guard, Philadelphia Eagles

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    It’s not easy to statistically evaluate an offensive lineman’s play.  Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus give it a shot, but for the most part, the only way to accurately evaluate an offensive lineman is by watching tape.

    According to people who watch tape, Evan Mathis played at an elite level in 2011.  How can a guard be elite one year only to potentially be a bargain signing the next?  Simple: injury history.

    Mathis’ career has been marred by numerous injuries; he has played a total of 73 game in eight seasons, an average of approximately nine games per season.  He was only a starter for three of those eight seasons: 2006, 2009 and 2011.

    In limited action in 2009 and 2010, Mathis ranked in Pro Football Focus’ top-20 offensive guards, despite playing a fraction of the snaps most teams’ starters played.  He carried that success over to his new full-time starting role with the Eagles in 2011 and graded as PFF’s highest-rated guard, leading running back LeSean McCoy to an All-Pro, 1,309-yard, 17-touchdown season.

    Mathis will turn 31 during the 2012 season; he’s no longer a young player with upside.  In essence, he is who he is, and no one knows how much longer he can continue to play at his current level.  For now, though, Mathis is an elite guard and should be valued as such.

    With younger guards like Carl Nicks of the Saints and Baltimore’s Ben Grubbs on the market, Mathis likely won’t be the top-rated guard on many teams’ free-agent boards.  But, a team that loves what Mathis brings to the table should be able to get elite-level production—or close to it—for a very reasonable price.

Jason Jones, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans

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    Jones' 2011 stats were disappointing; he managed only three sacks, four quarterback hits and 15 pressures in 14 games.  It was a big departure from his previous two seasons, where he racked up four sacks, four hits and nine pressures in seven games in 2009 and 3.5 sacks, two hits and 34 pressures in 2010.

    The difference?  Jones played defensive tackle in 2009 and 2010, but moved outside to defensive end in 2011.  Though Jones was primarily a defensive end in college, he found his greatest success on the interior as a penetrating defensive tackle.

    With defensive line coach Jim Washburn and his trademark "Wide Nine" defensive-line formation having departed for Philadelphia, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray decided to go with a more traditional defensive line, and he felt Jones would be a better fit in a traditional defensive-end role.  Jones held his own against the run as a defensive end, but struggled to beat offensive tackles one-on-one upon moving outside.

    Jones would be a great fit for a team looking for a penetrating defensive tackle to rush the passer.  He ranked as Pro Football Focus' sixth-best defensive tackle in 2010 and should greatly benefit from moving back inside, which seems to be his best position.  Given his production in 2011, Jones' contract demands shouldn't be too hefty, but his production could easily surpass his pay in 2012.

Robert Meachem, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints

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    It's not difficult to be overshadowed by Drew Brees.  The Saints' record-setting quarterback has been the face of the franchise since his arrival in 2006, and for good reason: He's one of the league's best quarterbacks, and he makes everyone around him better.

    Marques Colston has been Brees' go-to guy, and Lance Moore has been his safety valve.  Devery Henderson has been the deep man.  Where does that leave Robert Meachem?

    During his tenure in New Orleans, Meachem has tried hard to carve out a role for himself.  He missed what would have been his rookie season with a knee injury and spent the next season trying to come back from it.  Not to be deterred, in his first full season he caught 45 balls for 725 yards and an impressive 16.1 yards-per-catch average.  Meachem hauled in nine touchdown passes and didn't drop a single ball.  A star in the making, right?

    Not quite.  Meachem put those numbers up in limited opportunity; he finished third among the Saints' wide receivers, having run a total of 428 pass routes, but Lance Moore spent most of the season injured and was unable to make an impact.

    In 2010, with Moore back at full strength, Meachem's routes dipped to 346, down to fourth on the team.  His stats, however, were still solid; he grabbed 44 balls for 638 yards and five touchdowns, despite the drop in playing time.  Meachem's playing time increased slightly in 2011, but he was still third on the team in pass routes and managed 40 catches, 620 yards and six touchdowns.

    The point?  Meachem has never been in the top two on his team in pass routes run.  He has never had a chance to be a full-time starter, only starting 25 of a possible 62 games as a Saint.  With the opportunity to play a more consistent role, Meachem could potentially blossom into a solid No. 2 receiver.

    Is he a talented young player ready to break out, or was he simply a product of Drew Brees' greatness?  Some team should get a chance to find out for themselves in 2012.  In an offseason with an absolutely stacked corps of free-agent wide receivers, Meachem slots in around the third or fourth tier of available receivers, but he has the potential to produce at a much higher level than the contract he'll demand.

Andre Carter, Defensive End, New England Patriots

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    Following the 2010 season, it seemed like Andre Carter might be done, having only put up five sacks in a full 16-game season at the age of 31.  Carter didn't fit well in the 3-4 defense the Redskins had installed; a change of scenery was in order.

    Enter the New England Patriots, who had switched back to a 4-3 defense prior to the 2011 season.  Carter not only fit in with the Patriots; he was one of the league's best all-around defensive ends in 2011.  He compiled 10 sacks, 16 hits and 24 pressures in only 14 games and ranked as Pro Football Focus' third-best 4-3 defensive end against the run.

    Carter will turn 33 before the 2012 season starts, and his days as an every-snap defensive end are likely over, but he's still a versatile end who can both rush the passer and stop the run.  Though he's not likely in line for a big payday, Carter's production on the field may very well end up having warranted one.

    With bigger names like Mario Williams, John Abraham and Robert Mathis likely to hit the free-agent market, Carter is far from the most popular pass-rushing target, but whoever ends up "settling" for Carter will get themselves a heck of a football player.

Antonio Garay, Nose Tackle, San Diego Chargers

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    The 2010 season was Antonio Garay's first full season back from a horrific leg injury suffered in 2007, and he proved his health with a dominant performance as the San Diego Chargers' starting nose tackle.  Garay racked up 5.5 sacks—a nice total for a nose tackle—and helped the Chargers to the league's No. 1-ranked defense.  He was also a force as a run-defender, ranking as Pro Football Focus' seventh-best defensive tackle against the run.

    Garay's performance in 2011 wasn't quite as impressive.  He only sacked the quarterback 2.5 times, finishing 47th in PFF's rankings against the run.  However, Garay's stats as a pass-rusher were not that different from 2010; though he actually sacked the quarterback three less times, he still finished 2011 with six quarterback hits and 20 pressures, compared to five hits and 18 pressures in 2010.

    Turning 33 in 2012, Garay is no spring chicken.  However, he is a deceiving 33 years old, as most players Garay's age have played many more games than him.  Let's use Oakland's John Henderson as an example; he and Garay are the same age.  Henderson came into the league in 2002, whereas Garay entered the league in 2003.  However, Henderson has played a total of 146 games as an NFL player.  Garay?  Only 48.

    Sure, he could be nearing the end of his tenure as a viable NFL starter like most players in their early-to-mid-30s, but given the consistency of his pass-rushing stats over the past two years and the fact he has very little wear on his tires, it seems he could still have a lot to offer 3-4 teams looking for a dependable nose tackle.  Garay's contract is likely to be relatively small, but the impact he could potentially have is much, much larger.

Peyton Hillis, Running Back, Cleveland Browns

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    It was just two years ago that Peyton Hillis was one of the league's best running backs.  He racked up 1,177 yards on 270 carries, totaled 477 receiving yards on 61 catches and scored 13 touchdowns.  It was a great season that came out of nowhere.  Not only was Hillis not expected to put up such outstanding numbers, but he wasn't even expected to start; the starting job belonged to rookie running back Montario Hardesty until he tore his ACL during the preseason.

    Hillis proceeded to make everyone forget all about Hardesty.  His performance earned him a Pro Bowl alternate spot, and he became the face of the Madden 2011 video game after winning a fan vote to decide the cover.  It was the quintessential "out-of-nowhere" season.

    2011 was a completely different story.  Hillis struggled with injuries all year and was only able to play 10 games.  His yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.4 in 2010 to 3.7 in 2011, and he only scored three times.  Which Hillis is the real Hillis?

    Neither of them.

    Coming out of Arkansas in the 2008 NFL Draft, Hillis was seen as a pass-catching fullback who could make an impact both as a lead blocker and a receiver out of the backfield.  He didn't project as a full-time lead back in the NFL, and I still believe he does not.  He is, however, a versatile weapon of which a smart team could make very efficient use.

    Hillis' best role is as a part-time player who can line up as either a tailback or fullback.  He can carry the ball, catch the ball and occasionally throw a lead block.  Peyton Hillis is the ideal jack-of-all-trades for any team's offensive backfield.

    Coming off a down year, Hillis should be looking for a one-year deal to rebuild his value.  If he catches on in the right situation, a one-year deal could pay off big-time for both Hillis and the team that signs him.  If Hillis ends up with a team that needs a strong, bruising back to convert short-yardage situations, help chew up the clock at the end of games and catch the ball out of the backfield, he could be a huge bargain for whatever team lands his services.