NFL fans want to believe one big splash in free agency will make the big difference, but it's often the guys who don't receive much hype that end up making the biggest difference of all.
For example, Keenan Lewis was a critical key to the turnaround on defense in New Orleans this past year under Rob Ryan. Lewis signed a reasonable five-year deal with the Saints in 2013 worth $25.5 million, and he ended up impacting his club far more than the high-priced free agents of last year's class.
There are a few players who are coming up for new contracts who, like Lewis, will become critical players in 2014 for their respective teams without breaking the bank.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Injuries are always brutal, but they're especially tough to handle in a contract year, which is what happened when Jeremy Maclin shredded his knee before the start of the 2013 season.
Before getting injured, Maclin was one of the league's premier route-runners. He has a knack for getting open under difficult circumstances, and he possesses breakaway speed and quickness, which helps him make big plays after the catch.
In four seasons before his injury, the former Missouri Tiger never caught less than 56 passes and four touchdowns in a single seasons (his rookie campaign), totaling 258 catches for 3,453 yards with 26 touchdowns.
Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com believes the Eagles will attempt to retain Maclin on a one-year deal: "With [Riley] Cooper and Maclin slated to be free agents, it’s unlikely that both will be back. The hunch here is that Cooper walks in free agency and Maclin comes back under a one-year deal."
Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer confirmed the team's interest in Maclin, while adding Cooper could be retained as well:
It'll be interesting to see if another team is willing to take a risk on a player recovering from major reconstructive knee surgery by offering him a multi-year deal to lure him away from Philly.
Either way, you can be sure Maclin's production in 2014—if he stays healthy—will outweigh the bargain-rate contract he's going to sign.
Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears
Henry Melton didn't get through three games in 2013 before falling to an ACL injury, thus ending his season. Like Maclin, his injury will adversely affect the amount of guaranteed money he's going to see in a new deal, but it isn't the only thing that will do so.
Melton was arrested in a bar altercation right before Christmas in 2013, which, as noted by B/R's Michael Schottey, isn't exactly what the doctor ordered for his contract year:
That said, if Melton can return to the form we saw before his injury, then he's going to be a tremendous bargain for either the Chicago Bears or the new team that signs him.
Melton finished the 2012 season with the No. 7 overall rank, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), racking up 44 tackles and six sacks one year after he tallied seven sacks from his defensive tackle position.
A disruptive player with long arms, Melton uses violent hands to wreak havoc on offensive linemen, breaking up running and passing plays alike. He'll be highly productive in 2014 and likely playing with a big chip on his shoulder after losing out on the chance to strike a big new deal.
Chris Clemons, S, Miami Dolphins
Chris Clemons isn't going to make jaw-dropping plays every week like Troy Polamalu in his prime, but he's a rock-solid safety who has proved highly productive the past couple of years in Miami.
Clemons racked up 190 tackles during this stretch, adding three interceptions. He finished the 2013 regular season as PFF's No. 19-ranked safety, showing up especially well in coverage.
He has said he wants to come back and play for Miami, as relayed by ESPN's James Walker, and in the end he may just get his best deal by doing so:
With notable free-agent safeties like Jairus Byrd (Buffalo), T.J. Ward (Cleveland), Donte Whitner (San Francisco) and others hitting the market at the same time, it's a bad year to be a decent safety looking for a shiny new contract.
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