The 2013 NFL free-agent class is littered with big names, but there are several high-profile players who are high-risk, high-reward acquisitions.
In particular, a couple of explosive running backs and two impact players in the secondary come to mind. Should teams hit on these specific playmakers, though, they could be franchise cornerstones for the remainder of their respective careers.
Here is a breakdown of some of the most intriguing players on the market who will require intensive examination before being awarded a lucrative contract.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB
After rehabbing a torn ACL and suffering a setback with an Achilles injury, the 25-year-old skipped Pittsburgh's game against the San Diego Chargers. That led to a one-game suspension, as originally reported by ESPN's John Clayton.
It's easy to see why Steelers president Art Rooney II wasn't exactly singing Mendenhall's praises after the season (via Steelers.com):
The season Rashard was not what we would have hope for. ... Obviously, we knew he was coming back from an injury so there were some unknowns there. So, without getting into the real specifics with Rashard, it's fair to say that we are going to need a better performance out of the running back position if we're going to be successful.
When the Steelers reached the Super Bowl following the 2010 campaign, it was clear Mendenhall could shoulder the load as a workhorse back. He carried the ball 324 times for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Considering that Mendenhall is just 25 years old, he has plenty of productive years left if his health holds up. He could easily thrive in a new environment with a much better offensive line than the one he had in Pittsburgh.
Kenny Phillips, S
The New York Giants' standout is one of the better safeties in the game when he can stay on the field. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case as often as Phillips or the Giants would like.
Tom Coughlin's team collapsed down the stretch of the 2012 season, and the defense finished 25th against the run and 28th against the pass.
That seems to suggest that re-signing a player of Phillips' caliber should be one of the offseason's top priorities, but his history makes him a liability.
He was two years removed from microfracture surgery and missed only one game between 2010 and 2011. However, this season saw Phillips miss nine games of action due to a sprained MCL and the setbacks it involved.
The team has already released running back Ahmad Bradshaw, linebacker Michael Boley and defensive tackle Chris Canty in an effort to alleviate their cap situation. The team is also working out long-term deals for star wideouts Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, as noted by ESPN's Dan Graziano.
But Phillips is still young (26) and underrated, with exceptional skills in coverage and in supporting the run. He would be an instant upgrade for teams searching for a safety and not in a high enough draft position to select University of Texas star Kenny Vaccaro.
Reggie Bush, RB
The 2011 season saw Bush revitalize his career with the Miami Dolphins. Despite another respectable showing this past year in which he ran for nearly 1,000 yards for the second straight year, the Dolphins don't seem intent on bringing him back.
GM Jeff Ireland recently gushed over 2012 fourth-round pick Lamar Miller, as reported by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post:
Lamar really showed some great signs of really some explosive play opportunity. ...He kind of shoots out of the cannon when he hits the hole. He’s got very good hands. I thought he did a very good job in his pass protection, which keeps him on the field all three downs.
The Dolphins also invested a second-round selection in former Kansas State back Daniel Thomas, who has flashed promise in his first two pro campaigns. Between Miller—who Ireland says can play all three downs—and Thomas, the team appears to have two viable options for the foreseeable future.
Speculation aside as to what his future in Miami holds, whoever does land Bush will be getting a much-improved runner between the tackles who is also one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the NFL out of the backfield.
It will still be a couple of years before Bush hits that daunting 30-year-old wall that has stymied so many running backs in recent memory. But he did register just one 100-yard game after an explosive 174-yard performance in Week 2.
Giving him a lucrative three-year deal seems wise, but many teams may prefer less costly options to Bush—whether it be through the draft or free agency.
Aqib Talib, CB
Off-field troubles have plagued the talented corner, who spent the beginning of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being traded to New England during the 2012 season.
Talib brought a physical presence to the Patriots secondary and a legitimate force to shut down the opposition's No. 1 target. Despite his baggage, that skill set could be enough to keep him in Foxboro under Bill Belichick's no-nonsense approach.
However, defensive secondary depth is becoming a higher priority than ever with offenses becoming increasingly reliant on the passing game. Should Talib still be considered one of the game's best, though?
MassLive.com's Nick Underhill references ProFootballFocus.com's stats, which indicate that Talib was the second-worst corner in the league in terms of yards allowed per each snap he was in coverage.
In that context, it's unclear what the market will be for Talib, but teams desperate at cornerback may take the plunge and offer him a long-term deal.
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