The NFL playoffs are hard to crack, so don't fret if your team missed the cut. It's never too early to start considering the treasures available in free agency. Yes, Michael Vick and Maurice Jones-Drew will be on the market, but here are five under-the-radar players away from the skill positions who could make a big splash in free agency.
Karlos Dansby, Linebacker, Arizona Cardinals
The NFL is a crazy place where a linebacker can record 134 tackles in a season and then get cut. That's what happened to Karlos Dansby after he set a career high in the category as a Miami Dolphin in 2012.
Dansby returned to familiar territory with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 and turned in a sparkling campaign. Aside from surpassing 100 solo tackles for the second straight season, he also corralled four interceptions and returned two of them for touchdowns.
He did not get an invite to the Pro Bowl, but he played like a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year on a potent Cardinals defense. Dansby will come at a discount because he's 32 years old, and teams should be fighting for a chance to sign this voracious veteran.
Alex Mack, Center, Cleveland Browns
Type "Alex Mack" into Google and you will get a bunch of results concerning a TV show about a teenage girl who could morph herself in a manner eerily similar to the T-1000 portrayed by Robert Patrick. That is the wrong Alex Mack.
The one you should be looking for is the 6'4" lineman who tips the scales past 300 pounds and never misses a snap. The Browns center captains the offensive line well enough to have earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2011. And Mack is so tough he once played a game while suffering from appendicitis.
Another Pro Bowler on Cleveland's O-line, Joe Thomas, stressed the importance of re-signing Mack. As Thomas told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com about the the 21st overall pick from 2009: "He’s one of the best centers in the NFL, and if we don’t bring him back, now we have a big hole to fill at center, which is one of the most important positions on the offensive line."
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner agreed on the importance of retaining Mack and summed up the Browns situation quite well: "When you play three different quarterbacks and you have a lot of change, and playing the defenses we play, he’s got a lot of responsibility in terms of getting us into the right calls, right protections. So, he’s awfully valuable to this team."
If he's that valuable, then other teams will be looking to steal him away. Cleveland also has a front office that likes to wheel and deal as they swapped 2012 first-rounder Trent Richardson midseason and dangled wideout Josh Gordon in talks with other teams before he put up video-game numbers later in the season. The franchise's intentions for the future remain as indiscernible as ever.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks
Bennett went undrafted in 2009 out of Texas A&M, but he caught on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and developed in a potent pass-rusher who posted nine sacks in 2012. With the Seattle Seahawks, he tallied 7.5 sacks despite logging just three starts in 2013.
The Seahawks are absolutely stacked up front, and the 28-year-old Bennett would be a starter on most teams. If he receives an offer of more money and more playing time, expect him to bolt for that. Seattle has the depth to absorb the loss.
Bennett is also the brother of Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Want another fun fact? He's an excellent dancer:
Eugene Monroe, Offensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens acquired Eugene Monroe from the Jacksonville Jaguars in a midseason trade, which is fairly rare around the NFL. Baltimore parted with two latter-round draft picks despite the fact that he faces unrestricted free agency.
The Ravens understandably want to retain Monroe and will look to lock him up to an extension according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. Monroe would probably like to stay with the Ravens since it's the only positive football environment he's experienced since trudging through four seasons with Jacksonville.
Monroe was the eighth overall pick in 2009, and Baltimore clearly favors him over Michael Oher. That obvious preference on the part of the Ravens front office could give Monroe some serious bargaining power, and other teams will target the talented tackle until the ink is dry on a contract.
T.J. Ward, Safety, Cleveland Browns
T.J. Ward busted out in the final year of his rookie contract with 104 tackles, seven passes defended and two interceptions, one of which he returned for six points. He would seem like a no-brainer for the Browns to keep aboard, but he may not fit into the future plans for a team in flux.
As Ward told Tom Withers of the Associated Press, via The Columbus Dispatch, "I love the organization. We haven’t had many wins, but I think we’re building something here, and I think it’s being built the right way. Sometimes things don’t happen right away. It takes a little bit of time, but good things are worth the wait in a lot of cases."
The kid is earning a paltry $630,000 this year per Spotrac.com, so he will be seeking a fat contract from a needy suitor. And he sorely deserves that. If Cleveland won't pony up the dough, then I wouldn't bother waiting on the Browns' ongoing building project.