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The Best Bargain NFL Free-Agent Signings so Far

Russell S. BaxterContributor IMarch 24, 2013

The Best Bargain NFL Free-Agent Signings so Far

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    As we all know, free agency is not only about adding the right players to a respective team, but getting them at the right price.

    So we took the time to point out a few unrestricted free agents, and a salary-cap casualty as well, that could prove to be great investments in 2013 and beyond.

    In this instance, we won't talk about franchises re-signing their own players. The focus here is on teams adding new players that fill needs in a big way.

    We picked out a dozen performers who we felt teams didn’t necessarily break the bank on but will reward their new employers with quality play. The following list is in positional order: offensive players followed by the defense and one particular special teamer.

    All contract information for the players in this piece comes courtesy of spotrac.com.

Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    It’s safe to say that 2012 was a forgettable year for running back Rashard Mendenhall.

    Actually, it began a bit before then. The two-time 1,000-yard rusher for the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like he would make it three such campaigns in a row in 2011. But in the season finale at Cleveland, Mendenhall injured his knee, which forced him to miss the playoffs.

    When it was all said and done, Mendenhall’s final season in the Steel City proved to be less than scintillating for numerous reasons. Limited to six games, the former first-rounder rushed for 182 yards on 51 carries and lost three fumbles.

    A one-year deal worth $2.5 million from the Cardinals means there’s not a lot of risk involved for a team that ran for a total of 1,204 yards this past season, the worst in the NFL.

    New head coach Bruce Arians knows the team's new back very well from their mutual time with the Steelers. If healthy, Mendenhall could be just the tonic Arizona’s ground game needs.

Donnie Avery, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster career for new Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Donnie Avery.

    A second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2008, the wideout totaled exactly 100 catches in his first two seasons with the club, good for 1,263 yards and eight touchdowns.

    But instead of the third season being the charm for Avery, he missed all of 2010 with a knee injury. The Rams cut him, and he eventually found his way to the Tennessee Titans, playing in eight games and catching three passes in 2011.

    The Indianapolis Colts were his next stop, and a year ago with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, Avery totaled career highs in receptions (60) and yards (781) while catching three scores.

    Now he comes to the Chiefs courtesy of a three-year, $8.55 million deal. Avery will fill the void left by the release of veteran Steve Breaston and should give new quarterback Alex Smith a dangerous third or fourth option.

Brandon Myers, TE, New York Giants

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    For those not aware, tight end Brandon Myers led the Oakland Raiders in receptions in 2012.

    Who?

    All kidding aside, Myers totaled 79 catches for 806 yards and four touchdowns this past season for a club that finished 4-12. Hence, when you play for a franchise that hasn’t managed a winning season each of the last 10 years, notoriety can be somewhat elusive.

    Still, it surprised many that the Silver and Black let the former sixth-round draft choice (Iowa) test the market. The New York Giants were happy to take advantage, inking Myers to a four-year, $14.25 million deal earlier this month.

    When you consider that former Giants tight end Martellus Bennett received a four-year, $20.4 million deal from the Chicago Bears this offseason, Myers is indeed a bargain. And you can be assured that Eli Manning will make the most of this new investment, one that could pay big dividends from Week 1 of the 2013 season.

Dustin Keller, TE, Miami Dolphins

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    Any time you can take a solid player from a divisional opponent, it’s a win-win for your organization.

    That’s just what the new-look Miami Dolphins, most notably on offense, will count on with the addition of talented tight end Dustin Keller.

    The New York Jets’ second first-round pick in 2008 from Purdue, Keller was a steady performer for the Green and White for his first four seasons.

    The downfield target played all 16 games each year and caught at least 45 passes in each of those campaigns. In five seasons with the Jets, Keller totaled 241 catches for 2,876 yards (11.9 average) and 17 touchdowns.

    Ah, that fifth season. Injuries limited Keller to only eight games in 2012. The results were just 28 receptions, two for scores.

    The Dolphins grabbed Keller and signed him to only a one-year deal ($4.25 million). He could be quite the option for quarterback Ryan Tannehill as defenses concentrate on new deep threat Mike Wallace and emerging wideout Brian Hartline.

    With a one-year contract, it’s a sound investment for a Miami franchise looking to make some noise in 2013.

Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks

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    Given the way the team closed in 2012, there are a lot of people excited about the direction the Seattle Seahawks are headed.

    Given the way defensive end Michael Bennett performed last season, he could prove to be an excellent addition to a club already garnering Super Bowl XLVIII consideration.

    The fact that the Seahawks secured Bennett for one season and just $4.8 million makes this a very solid move. The four-year performer and former undrafted free agent, who first came into the league with Seattle in 2009 but never played for the team, led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with nine sacks in 2012.

    Combined with the addition of defensive end Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million), the Seahawks will bring the heat this season. If defensive end Chris Clemons, recovering from a late-season knee injury, gets back sooner rather than later, this already potent defensive unit could be monstrous.

    Don’t be surprised if Bennett pushes incumbent Red Bryant for starting time at left defensive end. That will be a nice problem for head coach Pete Carroll to have.

Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos

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    Sometimes you have to take a closer look at the numbers.

    That’s exactly what the Denver Broncos did when looking at a defensive unit that was amongst the best in the league against the run.

    Maybe...

    The Broncos brought back defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who will now team with former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton inside.

    The duo will look to make the Denver defense much more formidable against the run.

    While only two clubs in the league allowed fewer rushing yards in the regular season than John Fox’s Broncos, we saw coordinator Jack Del Rio’s defense exposed in this area more than once, most notably in the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

    Knighton comes off a season in which he started only five games for a Jaguars team that just suffered through the worst showing in franchise history. But Del Rio coached the Jaguars when Knighton was drafted in 2009 and got the best out of him.

    With the Broncos adding him via a two-year, $4.5 million contract, the investment seems relatively low for a player whose ceiling could be much higher.

Nick Roach, LB, Oakland Raiders

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    Here’s a little bang for the buck—perhaps literally.

    The Oakland Raiders defense could certainly use some help. Only four teams in the league surrendered more points than Oakland's 443 in 2012, and Dennis Allen’s club gave up 46 offensive touchdowns.

    General manager Reggie McKenzie has revamped his entire starting linebacking corps with Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland Browns) in the middle and outside linebackers Kevin Burnett (Miami Dolphins) and Nick Roach (Chicago Bears).

    Roach is the focus here.

    The versatile performer was a primary starter in the Windy City in three of the last four seasons. In 2009, he filled in for Brian Urlacher, who missed the season after the first week. The last two years, he’s been one of the main men at outside linebacker.

    McKenzie and the Raiders signed Roach to a four-year, $13 million deal in March. It means they get a player that has proved he can play both inside and outside, giving Oakland plenty of options in training camp.

    A bargain indeed.

Antwan Barnes, LB, New York Jets

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    No matter where he’s gone, outside linebacker Antwan Barnes has made a habit out of getting to the opposing quarterback.

    A former fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, Barnes never cracked the starting lineup in three seasons with the team (very understandable considering the Ravens’ talent at linebacker).

    After a two-game stint with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, Barnes wound up finishing the season with the San Diego Chargers. In 11 games with the Bolts, he totaled 4.5 sacks.

    A year later with San Diego, Barnes played in 16 games, made five starts and amassed a little over one-third (11.0) of the team’s 32 sacks. All told, in 38 games with the Chargers, the six-year veteran rolled up 18.5 sacks.

    Now Barnes joins the new-look New York Jets, who signed him for three years and just $4 million. He could pay immediate dividends for a club in the midst of a massive roster overhaul.

LaRon Landry, SS, Indianapolis Colts

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    For years, the Indianapolis Colts' defensive units have taken a backseat to their offensive counterparts.

    Be it quarterback Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at the helm, the team has been known for its ability to put points on the board. On the other side of the field, it’s been a "bend but hopefully don’t break" group that has struggled against the run but played well with the lead thanks to pass-rushers such as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

    Despite making the playoffs in 2012, the Colts were woeful on defense. The team gave up more points (387) than it scored. Only six teams in the NFL surrendered more total yards, and only three clubs were worse against the run. Add in the fact that Indianapolis totaled only 15 takeaways, and the “Help Wanted” sign was out.

    Enter LaRon Landry, a Pro Bowler last season with the Jets. The one-time first-round pick of the Washington Redskins (2007) gives the Colts a hitter in the secondary that they haven’t seen since the likes of safety Bob Sanders.

    While Landry’s price tag may not suggest he’s a remarkable bargain (four years, $24 million), the Colts may not be able to pay enough for the impression he’ll make on their defensive unit.

Adrian Wilson, SS, New England Patriots

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    When you score 500 or more points in four of the last six seasons and you still can’t win the Super Bowl, it may be time for some self-evaluation.

    That’s the dilemma facing head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, perennial contenders for the Lombardi Trophy. But after three titles in a four-year span from 2001 to 2004, the team has found ways not to win a championship as of late.

    Last year, the Patriots took a step in the right direction on defense with the drafting of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the first round. Via trade they added talented cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Now enter veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson, who was let go this offseason after 12 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. A five-time Pro Bowler in Arizona, Wilson will team with Devin McCourty, the one-time Pro Bowl cornerback who made the transition to free safety last season.

    The Pats signed Wilson for three years and just $5 million. But even if they can get a big year from him in 2013 via his savvy and leadership, it’s relatively little money very well spent.

Glover Quin, FS, Detroit Lions

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    It took defensive back Glover Quin a few seasons to truly find himself.

    Now, after four solid seasons with the Houston Texans, he may be ready to really make a big splash in the league.

    A former fourth-round draft choice in 2009, Quin went from starting cornerback for two seasons to starting safety under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The team reaped the benefits.

    Quin will line up with talented Louis Delmas as the Lions’ last line of defense at the safety spots. If the latter can remain healthy this season and recapture his playmaking form, head coach Jim Schwartz could have something going with this team in 2013.

    Consider that Detroit signed the former Texans performer to a five-year, $23.5 million contract. Now take into account that should circumstances dictate such a move, Quin could return to cornerback if injuries become a factor at that spot again.

    That’s some nice flexibility to have if you’re the Lions.

Shane Lechler, P, Houston Texans

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    Last but not least is one of the league’s star performers who recently joined a new team.

    After 13 seasons with the Oakland Raiders, seven-time Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler is a member of the Houston Texans. It’s a franchise that wasn’t even in the league when the Silver and Black drafted Lechler in the fifth round in 2000.

    Houston inked one of the best in the business to a three-year, $5.5 million deal in mid-March. Consider that the Texans finished 20th in the league in 2012 in opponent’s punt return average, there was certainly a need for a change here, and this makes a lot of sense.

    It’s great when you can add a player who has proved to be one of the all-time best at his position. Lechler owns a career punting average of 47.5 yards and in 1,014 attempts has only ever had four kicks blocked.

    A solid investment indeed for a Houston team that once again has its sights set on a first-ever Super Bowl appearance.

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