With NFL free agency starting in less than a month, NFL teams are putting together their target lists of players they believe fit their schemes and systems. Most general managers and personnel executives will break down the unrestricted lists into tiers.
Tier 1 is made up of players who will command high salaries yet deserve the money. These players are expected to start from day one and become Pro Bowl-caliber players, if they aren't already.
Tier 2 players are ones who have starting ability but may have a part of their game that needs improvement. This tier will also include players who have had injuries or have not played as much because they were behind Pro Bowlers.
Tier 3 players belong in the NFL but have more of a niche or role for a particular skill set. This may include a nickel cornerback, a designated pass-rusher or a special teams player. Members of this tier will not command huge contracts but are vital to any team's success.
Here is a list of players who may not be household names right now, but in the right system on the right team, they can help get a franchise to a Super Bowl.
Chase Daniel is a forgotten man in terms of media hype for quarterbacks who are free agents in 2013. Most pundits consider Daniel a system quarterback. While Daniel will never impress with his size or speed, the former Missouri Tiger will be one of the best values on the free-agent market.
Daniel has only attempted nine passes in his NFL career, but he has completed seven of those throws. He has played well in preseason action and has learned behind one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Drew Brees. Having head coach Sean Payton as a mentor and coach only helps Daniel's stock on the open market.
The Saints will do everything they can to re-sign Daniel, but do not be surprised if the Kansas City Chiefs or Jacksonville Jaguars make a play for him. A sleeper team is the Chicago Bears as a backup to Jay Cutler, because new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer coached Daniel in New Orleans.
In 2011, Hillis was the cover boy for the Madden video game and was one of the best running backs in the NFL. Though rarely used in 2012 as he backed up Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, Hillis showed he is still a very good player.
Hillis rushed for 309 yards on the season, but his best game came in Week 16 when he rushed for 101 yards against the Indianapolis Colts. The former Arkansas Razorback is only 27 years old yet has 24 career touchdowns.
Hillis would be a fantastic addition to a team like the St. Louis Rams should they lose Steven Jackson, or to the Green Bay Packers, where he can complement breakout star DuJuan Harris. Hillis can be used as a fullback as well; his versatility increases his value.
While Minnesota Viking Jerome Felton and Jacksonville Jaguar Greg Jones may be bigger names at the fullback position, the man worth every penny he will get is Mike Cox. He has played for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons in his career.
Cox has one career touchdown in five seasons and has only rushed for three yards. But where Cox’s value lies is in his ability to clear out the running lanes for his backfield mates. In 2009 and 2010, Cox led the way for Jamaal Charles in Kansas City as he rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard-plus seasons.
In 2011, Cox helped Michael Turner gain over 1,300 yards. In 2012, the Falcons as a team rushed for 1,397 yards. Cox is the one who did the heavy lifting.
Cox would be an excellent addition to the Tennessee Titans if they lose Quinn Johnson or the Jacksonville Jaguars if they lose Jones.
Much has been made about the landing spots for Mike Wallace, Wes Welker, Greg Jennings and Dwayne Bowe. But for the money and future production, the best bargain at wide receiver in 2013 is Brian Hartline.
Hartline has played in 60 games over the past four seasons and has been a solid weapon for the Dolphins. The 2012 season was his best; the former Ohio State Buckeye had 74 catches for 1,083 yards. The downfall for Hartline in 2012 was that he only had one touchdown reception.
Smart front-office executives will use Hartline’s lack of great production in his first three years to lower his asking price. But Hartline can point to a myriad of quarterback issues and offensive changes in his time in Miami.
Whichever team signs Hartline will get a quality player with an arrow going up. Hartline may never be a top-tier player like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson or Houston’s Andre Johnson, but he could start from day one for a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opposite Vincent Jackson or the Minnesota Vikings, who have a messy situation at the wide receiver position.
Look for Hartline to fit a role like Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson holds down for the Packers on whatever team he signs with in 2013.
Whatever team signs Brandon Myers in 2013 is getting one of the best young players at the tight end position. Myers had a huge season for the Oakland Raiders in 2012. The former Iowa Hawkeye caught 79 passes for 806 yards and added four scores.
Myers is a good enough athlete to play H-back and is a very good blocker as well. As the tight end becomes more of a threat in the passing game, Myers’ value will only increase.
While NFL teams will see big names like Dustin Keller and Jared Cook, the best value signing will be Myers. Look for him to fit in nicely in Arizona under new head coach Bruce Arians or in San Diego as the Chargers turn the page on future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.
There are a lot of big-name players up for free agency at the offensive tackle position this free-agent period. Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert, Gosder Cherilus, Sebastian Vollmer and Jermon Bushrod will all be looking for large-money contacts.
However, New York Giant free agent Will Beatty offers the best bang for a buck an NFL team looking for a starting tackle can get. The 6’6” monster of a man played in 967 regular-season snaps in 2012. He played 15 total games at left tackle and one game at right tackle. This versatility is coveted in the NFL when some teams only dress seven offensive linemen.
According to profootballfocus.com, Beatty was ranked the 12th-best offensive tackle in the NFL. His grade is actually higher than that of Long and Bushrod. Teams like the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots that could have potential holes at tackle are outstanding spots for Beatty to get signed.
The journeyman offensive lineman has played for the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots. The 2012 season was his best and could not have happened at a better point of his career.
Donald Thomas played in every game this season for the Patriots but was not a full-time starter. He showed his versatility by playing both left and right guard. Thomas has shown in his career he can handle the center position as well. Profootballfocus.com ranks Thomas the 17th-best offensive guard in the NFL for 2012.
He will not command the salary that free-agent guard Andy Levitre will bring, but Thomas proved in 2012 he is a viable starter in the NFL. He will be a bargain for a team like the Chicago Bears or Indianapolis Colts.
In a weak offensive center free-agent market, Fernando Velasco is by far the best bargain of any of the players available. The Tennessee Titan played 843 snaps in 2012, according to profootballfocus.com. In those snaps, Velasco did not give up a sack.
Velasco is a restricted free agent, but since he was not drafted, if the Titans do not put at least a first-round tender on him, another team may try to sign the former Georgia Bulldog away.
Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals that will be looking to upgrade the center position are viable options.
The 26-year-old Oakland Raider is one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL. In a free-agent defensive end class dominated by pass-rushers like Cliff Avril and Michael Johnson, Matt Shaughnessy brings value as a 4-3 defensive end that can also play that role in a 3-4 defensive front.
The former Wisconsin Badger is strong at the point of attack and understands how to play with leverage. His 15.5 career sacks are not too bad either. Shaughnessy will never be a speed rusher, but he can push the pocket and help a speed rusher on the other side gain sacks.
Shaughnessy will not break the bank in terms of a contract, but he will bring great value to whichever team signs the high-motor player. Look for a team like the Detroit Lions or Tampa Bay Buccaneers to sign Shaughnessy.
The Oakland Raiders could lose four defensive linemen to free agency in 2013. Along with Matt Shaughnessy, Richard Seymour and Andre Carter are also free agents. The best out of the four, though, is Desmond Bryant.
Bryant is one of the best interior rushers in the NFL, and his ability to force the quarterback out of the pocket will make him a major find for the right scouting department. The former Harvard star had three sacks in 2013 but recorded a number of hits or hurries on the quarterback.
Profootballfocus.com ranks Bryant the sixth-best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012. Though he will not get a contract like the Bears' Henry Melton or even the Dolphins' Randy Starks, Bryant will be a huge coup for some scouting department this March. Look for Bryant to end up with the Denver Broncos or New Orleans Saints.
Antwan Barnes' off year in 2012 was the product of injury and position depth with the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers signed Jarret Johnson from the Baltimore Ravens before the season and drafted Melvin Ingram in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Barnes had a pulled hamstring that landed him on injured reserve after only playing 189 snaps. But out of those plays, he had three sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
In 2011, profootballfocus.com ranked Barnes as the sixth-best rush linebacker in the NFL after he finished that season with 11 sacks. If Barnes can show that he is healthy and able to play up to his 2011 form, he will be a major get for a team like the Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns.
Nick Roach is not in the limelight like Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs, but Roach was a very important part of the Bears defense the past five seasons. In that period of time, Roach had 231 total tackles, five forced fumbles and 14 passes defended.
Roach is not a huge linebacker, but he plays fast and is solid in pass coverage. He understands angles very well and will make a great addition to whatever team signs him. Roach is also a very good special teams player when asked to handle those duties.
Roach will not break the bank but will give the right team a solid starter who has good leadership skills. The 27-year-old can play all three linebacker positions. He would be a great value signing for the Cincinnati Bengals or St. Louis Rams.
Brad Jones is a very good player who does not get much hype outside of Green Bay. Profootballfocus.com ranked him as the 10th-best inside linebacker in football in 2012. Including the playoffs, Jones had 92 stops on the season.
The former seventh-rounder out of Colorado has seven career sacks and is a very solid pass defender. He can play any linebacker position in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Jones' value fits any NFL team.
Look for a player like the Baltimore Ravens' Dannell Ellerbe to set the market for inside linebackers. However, Jones will be a bargain for a team like the Oakland Raiders or Kansas City Chiefs, which both have former Green Bay front-office executives as their general managers.
Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and New England’s Aqib Talib may get more hype as the top cornerbacks in the 2013 free-agent market, but the best value is E.J. Biggers. He ranked as the 35th-best cornerback in the NFL in 2012, according to profootballfocus.com
Biggers is not the most physical player, but he has the speed and quickness to stay with the top receivers in the NFL. He may not be a No. 1 cornerback for a team, but for a bargain player, Biggers is a solid No. 2 and very good third cornerback.
Biggers will not command a huge contract but will offer teams with cornerback needs a solid veteran who understands different defensive schemes. A good fit would be rejoining former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris with the Washington Redskins. Biggers played college football at Western Michigan, so a fit with the Detroit Lions also makes sense.
James Ihedigbo is one of the best special teams players in the NFL and is a solid spot starter at safety. The former UMass star has played in the last four AFC Championship Games and the past two Super Bowls.
He won a Super Bowl ring as a vital part of the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. When injuries knocked starters Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard out of action, Ihedigbo stepped in and played very well.
Ihedigbo will not command the kind of contract a player like Jairus Byrd will receive, but he is a winner who understands his role. He would be a great signing for a team like the Houston Texans or Atlanta Falcons.
With the success of rookie placekickers in 2012, most NFL teams will be looking young if their team needs a player at that position. However, former Charger and Dolphin Nate Kaeding is a solid option.
Injuries have derailed his career the past two seasons, but if Kaeding is healthy, a team can gain a former Pro Bowler who has made some clutch kicks over the years.
Dustin Colquitt is coming off a Pro Bowl season, so his price tag may be high. But with his ability to change field position, his price tag is a bargain no matter the price. Any team searching for a punter needs to look to Colquitt first.
Colquitt had an average of 46.8 yards per punt and put 45 punts inside the 20-yard line. He is the best option, even with Shane Lechler a free agent as well.