Normally around this time of year, many NFL teams are more than willing to bend over backwards to sign that over-priced marquee free agent thinking he is the last piece to their Super Bowl puzzle. Unfortunately for those general managers, championships are rarely won by allocating large amounts of capital in free agency.
The smart way to approach team building is to seek out hidden gems in the free-agent market hoping to land affordable yet valuable contributors to your football team without mortgaging the future in the process.
With that in mind, this list ranks just a few of the free agents who have more than a fighting chance of becoming the biggest bargains available.
Duke Ihenacho was an undrafted free agent out of San Jose State two years ago. I remember being shocked that this kid who made plays all over the place in college somehow didn't get picked up. He would go on to make the Broncos active roster numerous times during his rookie campaign as Denver him moved back and forth from the practice squad.
In only his second year as a pro and less than a year removed from being a practice squad player, Ihenacho eventually won over the starting strong safety position and would finish the year with 67 solo tackles and three forced fumbles.
Ihenacho is considered an “exclusive restricted free agent” by league policy, which means he has accrued no more than two NFL seasons and is forced to sign back with the Broncos as long as they make the minimum required offer. If however, they decide not to make Duke an offer, he will be free to sign with any interested team, per Spotrac.
Whether he stays in Denver or moves on, this 24-year-old playmaker with enormous potential will be acquired for fall less than his actual value.
Mario Manningham is trying to climb back from a debilitating knee injury which sidelined him for nearly a year. Manningham did return to action midway through the 2013 season, but failed to generate anything in terms of production, catching only nine balls for 85 yards in six games.
You might be asking how a guy with only five receiving touchdowns in his last 30 games would make a list like this.
Well, if you put on tape of him before the knee injury, you will see one heck of a wideout who knows how to break tackles and has extremely reliable hands.
In fact, in 2012 only one receiver broke more tackles with less catches than Manningham, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In 2010, Manningham’s only season where he played in all 16 games, he totaled 944 yards receiving while averaging 15.7 yards per catch with nine receiving touchdowns. Clearly this guy can play when healthy.
Teams not looking to spend big in free agency should consider taking the limited risk in a young, talented guy like Manningham.
The best thing about Chad Rinehart is that he can play well almost anywhere on the offensive line. Last season he left Buffalo and headed out west to play guard for the San Diego Chargers.
This transition was Chad’s long-awaited opportunity for a full-time starting gig. It marked the beginning of his ascent into the league’s upper-echelon of blockers. Unfortunately for him, 2013 turned out to be a year of inconsistency relative to what he did in Buffalo over the last three seasons.
At 6’5” and 320 pounds, Rinehart is a talented athlete with quick feet and sound technique.
If the Chargers happen to let him walk, he should be able to fit in nicely with a team in need of a left or right guard. Rinehart is one of the most underrated blockers in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), in 2011 he finished ninth among all guards in his accumulative season grade with 16.1.
It seems reasonable to suspect the Chargers have seen enough out of him to bring the guy back, but stranger things have happened.
Given that he has only been a starter for one year—a year in which he was just decent most of the season, at best—Rinehart will probably demand just a modest contract. In any case, rest assured he is a much better blocker than his deal will stipulate.
First of all, the running back position in general is becoming dramatically devalued across the NFL. Of the 64 players who counted at least $10 million against the salary cap in 2013, the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Titans' Chris Johnson were the only running backs on the list, according to Spotrac.
That should give us some idea of how team execs are pricing this position as league rules continue to favor pass-first offenses.
However, LeGarrette Blount is nowhere near the $10 million price range and likely never will be. Blount’s maximum asking price has to fall somewhere between the $1-4 million per year range.
I come to this figure because Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson were last year’s top free-agent running backs, and they each accounted for just over $4 million against their new team’s cap in 2013. Shonn Greene rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and he counted just $3.2 million against the cap last year after signing with the Titans in the offseason.
Blount averaged five yards per carry in New England and had a career-high seven rushing touchdowns to go with his 772 yards on the ground. He certainly proved to be a valuable member of the Patriots offense, and if coach Bill Belichick is unable to retain his services, he will be a dangerous weapon at an affordable cost to whoever brings him in.
Keep in mind that Blount is a 27-year-old running back with extremely low mileage, which means he is worthy of a long-term investment at a low price range.
This 6'5" receiver put up some impressive numbers in his first year with the San Diego Chargers back in 2012, tallying 17.8 yards per catch for 658 receiving yards in only six starts and 10 games.
In 2013, he was all set to have a breakout year before suffering a torn right ACL during training camp practice. He was then placed on injured reserve a few weeks later.
Danario Alexander has the speed and length to stretch a defense and is just beginning to tap into some very promising potential. However, this is the second knee injury of this young receiver’s career, and teams will undoubtedly be worried about his ability to not only recover from the incident, but to remain healthy as well.
At age 25, Alexander has only appeared in 28 NFL games. There is not much to go off of in terms of his body of work, but this coupled with his injury history is exactly why a team can really hit the jackpot with an affordable offer for his services. Consider this—in each of the three seasons that he did play in, he has averaged at least 15 yards per catch. That should tell you what type of downfield ability he has.
A team like the Carolina Panthers or the New York Jets would be wise to pursue him once free agency begins.
By now, most of the country is at least somewhat aware of whom Richie Incognito is, which ironically contradicts his very surname.
Trouble seems to have a way of finding this guy, or perhaps the other way around. In any case, one thing that keeps getting overlooked or forgotten amidst all of the drama surrounding the bully incident is that Incognito is a pretty darn good football player. And, whether you like it or not, good football players at an incredibly cheap price are beyond difficult to find.
According to Bleacher Report’s Lead Writer Mike Freeman, most NFL execs believe Incognito will almost certainly be on a roster for the 2014 season. Freeman also learned this about Richie’s pending return:
I've been told that teams have been combing through Incognito's background for any incidents not generally known, so as to eliminate any potential surprises should they sign him.
"He's not a good guy," said one general manager, "but we're not a league of good guys. There are some bad guys in football, but it's football, not the Salvation Army. He can play, if the commissioner allows it, he'll get another job."
It’s worth noting that nearly the entire Dolphins locker room defended Incognito as the story developed back in October.
Incognito is a former Pro Bowler and team captain who is known for his ferocity and aggression on the football field. But after numerous issues surrounding his character over the years, this guy is sure to come at an incredible bargain. Most teams will probably steer clear of him altogether, but there will always be those desperate few looking to fill a glaring hole in their roster.
.Although Josh McCown had the best season of his 11-year career in 2013, leading the league in Total QBR with an 85.1, according to ESPN, his value on the open market is not likely to yield him ungodly riches. Why? He is a bit long in the tooth at the ripe old age of 34.
This means that should he vacate Chicago for a new home, it would likely be as a temporary fix to a team desperately in need of a capable quarterback now. Several teams will no doubt inquire about bringing him in as an elite backup option, but this is likely not his first choice in the twilight of a suddenly illuminated career.
Whether McCown finds a starting roster spot or not, there won’t be many teams bidding on him with starting quarterback dollars. This likely scenario will push his monetary value way down, ultimately making him the biggest free-agent bargain at the quarterback position this year.
Besides, as Bleacher Report’s Lead Writer, Ty Schalter points out, it’s good to invest in a quality backup.
Teams looking to upgrade or add depth to the position will do well by adding the savvy veteran. If he does land a starting role, it will probably come with the contingency that he serve a dual role as a temporary band-aid and mentor to a developing youngster.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player who now writes for Bleacher Report.
Follow Ryan on Twitter.