A lot of NFL franchises will be under tight salary cap constraints when the free-agent market opens on March 9. That makes it worth analyzing players searching for new destinations who will be serious bargains, considering the potential impact they would bring to a new team.
Some players seeking a fresh start have a background of turbulence, whether it be with their former team or in their life away from the field. But that's the risk teams have to take in taking a flier on a fresh face.
Here is a breakdown of two offensive and defensive players who are some of the most cost-effective options available this offseason.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB
This has more to do with age and the volatility that occurs at the running back position in today's game than the tangible production Stephens-Howling had with the Arizona Cardinals.
For teams who don't want to make a heavy investment in other top options like Rashard Mendenhall—who has struggled to stay on the field—Reggie Bush, Cedric Benson or others, the man they call the Hyphen is not a bad alternative.
Stephens-Howling averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in 2012, but the fact of the matter is, he played behind the worst offensive line in the entire NFL. No one ran the ball effectively for Arizona, but he led the way with 352 yards for the season.
What makes Stephens-Howling so intriguing is not only his shiftiness in the open field and big-play potential in the return game, but also his proven ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
In college at Pittsburgh, he lost his starting job to LeSean McCoy and as a result wasn't picked until the seventh round in 2009. The Cardinals opted to draft Beanie Wells in the first round that same year, and spent a 2011 second-round pick on Ryan Williams.
In other words, Stephens-Howling hasn't gotten a fair shake yet. He may be the most under-the-radar back available, and with his solid all-around skill set, could be an outright steal for teams strapped at the position.
Mike Wallace, WR
Yes, he will command a rather hefty contract, but after not getting paid by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he will be eager for a fresh start to prove his worth as one of the game's top receivers.
Wallace is among the most dangerous deep threats in the game thanks to his blinding speed. Links have already been made to the Steelers' AFC North rival Cleveland, and the Miami Dolphins reportedly have him as their top free-agent target, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel.
Kelly believes that Wallace will cost roughly $12 million per season, which is quite a big hit to cap space, but one that teams should absorb and embrace with Wallace in the fold.
Prior to the 2013 season, Wallace will be just 27 years old. That gives him at least five more quality years assuming he can stay healthy—and he still has plenty of room to grow.
With his ability to beat opponents deep and exceptional, improving vision after the catch, there's no limit as to what Wallace could do on a team that he actually wants to play for.
Younger than fellow top receiver targets Wes Welker and Dwayne Bowe, Wallace may carry some baggage, but he is the best bang-for-your-buck premier receiver on the market and is without any injury history.
Rey Maualuga, LB
The Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of cap room to work with this offseason, but with the emergence of undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict, Maualuga isn't likely to be a priority.
The former USC Trojan star notched a career-high 122 combined tackles. The Bengals are likely to let him walk and slide Burfict to middle linebacker, according to Adam Caplan of TheSidelineView.com.
Maualuga has a history of getting into trouble off the field, including a DUI charge from 2010 (h/t Los Angeles Times). That led him into rehab, and although he's avoided trouble since, his past may hurt his leverage in negotiating for a lucrative contract in free agency.
But even if teams do have to fork over something in the $4 to $5 million price range, they will be getting a 26-year-old linebacker who is exceptional against the run and still has plenty of upside.
Unfortunately for Maualuga, he proved to be an extreme liability in coverage, which isn't exactly ideal for a player roaming the middle of a 4-3 scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, he yielded 35 first downs and two touchdowns, making him the second-worst cover LB in that regard.
It's possible that Maualuga would be a better fit on the inside of a 3-4 scheme—or even as an outside linebacker. If he's able to find a solid organization that can help him develop, it would be a relatively low-risk, high-reward proposition to sign the talented Maualuga.
Patrick Chung, DB
The longtime New England Patriot has proven his versatility as a safety and as a cornerback. But his value is significantly down after a 2012 campaign that saw him benched in favor of Devin McCourty at safety after the acquisition of CB Aqib Talib.
Chung's fate depends largely on what the Pats decide to do with Talib and how they draft. As Nick Underhill of MassLive.com points out, though, Chung played just three snaps in two postseason games.
It was a surprising role reduction considering what Chung brings to the table in coverage—especially with how New England struggled to contain the Baltimore Ravens' passing attack in the AFC Championship game.
As Mike Rodak of ESPN Boston alludes to, the Pats already have 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson on the roster to hopefully play the role that Chung played over the years.
For a while it seemed that Chung was the only asset in the Patriots' defensive backfield, but now he appears to be deemed expendable by Bill Belichick.
It's discouraging that Chung was benched in a secondary that still ranked near the bottom of the league against the pass, but depth in that area of the defense is as paramount as ever in the modern era.
A team that makes even a modest investment in Chung should get massive returns no matter where he lines up.
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