NFL Free Agents 2014: Highlighting the Hidden Gems of the Market
Bargain-hunting in NFL free agency is like whaling in the Mississippi River: You're just not going to find what you're looking for.
The value of anything is whatever someone is willing to pay for it, and an NFL free agent can cost an astronomical total. This season, with the unexpectedly high salary cap, there are likely to be few sellers, a lot of buyers and not many players of any worth on the open market.
After all, the old saw about free agency says that if the players were really worth the money they're asking for, their old team would have happily paid to keep them around.
Try as any NFL team might, they're just not not going to land a proven, difference-making starter under the age of 28 without injury or discipline red flags without ponying up seven digits worth of guaranteed money.
That said, there are a few young role players with upside and some older veterans who've been overlooked who just might go for less than what they'll bring to the field in 2014.
Vincent Rey, Linebacker
Since 2010, Vincent Rey has been the other guy named "Rey" in the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker corps, taking a back seat to starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
In 2013, though, the 26-year-old backup outside linebacker and special teams ace got a chance to shine.
When Maualuga sprained an MCL, Rey stepped into the starting lineup. His first career start came on Halloween, and he managed five solo tackles.
The following game against the Baltimore Ravens, per Pro Football Reference, Rey exploded with three sacks, 10 solo tackles, five assists and an interception. He got one more start against Cleveland, adding seven solo tackles and five assists before returning to his rotational role.
The special teams captain seems ready to take the next step.
Though he's a restricted free agent, the Bengals have a number of players they need to get back under contract this season—and, as Bleacher Report AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst wrote, a second-round RFA tender is a lot to pay for a rotational player.
Tarell Brown, Cornerback
Remember that "tough, physical" San Francisco 49ers secondary everyone talked about during the 2013 season? A key player from that unit is coming free, and I'm not talking about safety Donte Whitner. I mean cornerback Tarell Brown.
Brown, 29, has only been a starter for the last three seasons, so he's still got plenty of tread left on the tires.
After 2012, Brown looked liked an ascending superstar. He had six interceptions and 89 solo tackles in 32 games as a starter, and Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Matt Miller named him the No. 5 overall cornerback in his annual B/R 1000 scouting series.
"Brown was targeted often in 2012," Miller wrote, "but he did a good job limiting receptions while establishing himself as an elite tackler."
In 2013, Brown was hampered by a rib injury for much of the latter half of the season. He didn't pick off a single pass, and his 38 solo tackles were his fewest of his three years as a starter.
Fully healthy, there's no reason Brown wouldn't return to form and be a great value for a team that needs a strong tackler on the outside.
Pat McAfee, Punter
Pat McAfee's 39.2 net-punting-yards average was his lowest since 2010, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Just by looking at that, it may seem like the 26-year-old had a season to forget in 2013.
Besides being one of the better punters in the NFL, McAfee also handled kickoff duties for the Colts last season. Any team with a need at punter, a kickoff specialist or both should be queuing up for McAfee.
Shaun Hill, Quarterback
Last we saw Shaun Hill, starting quarterback, he was filling in for "injury-prone" sophomore Matthew Stafford in 2010.
Three straight seasons have gone by without Stafford missing a start, and Hill's thrown only 16 passes in those intervening years.
Nevertheless, Hill is the best pure statistical passer available in this year's free-agent class (see the infographic in this piece I wrote about Michael Vick). Despite starting 16 games for the 2009 and 2010 Detroit Lions, Hill is still .500 as a starter and can boast a career NFL passer rating of 85.9, per Pro Football Reference.
At age 34, Hill isn't a long-term solution. Then again, he's only a year older than Vick, is the same age as Josh McCown and will almost certainly be cheaper than either. Best of all, he's a free agent.
The Kansas City Chiefs had to give up two second-round picks for Alex Smith—the man against whom Hill successfully competed for a starting job in San Francisco before coming to Detroit.
Jon Asamoah, Guard
Poor Jon Asamoah. He was on track, per Pro Football Focus, to have his fourth consecutive season of improvement before an injury forced him out of the lineup—and Geoff Schwartz in.
Schwartz had a fantastic finish to the season, seemingly locking down the Chiefs' right guard spot. Asamoah, it seems, has been Wally Pipped.
By PFF's reckoning, Schwartz and Asamoah are the two best guards with expiring contracts. Since Schwartz is the better run-blocker and able to play more positions on the line, it's likely he's the one the Chiefs choose to keep.
Asamoah is a starting-caliber offensive lineman with a special knack for pass protection, and he'll turn just 26 this summer. Should the Chiefs not re-sign both him and Schwartz, he's the kind of in-demand player teams can't often find in free agency.
Randy Starks, Defensive Tackle
Randy Starks might not be an unknown—in fact, he shouldn't be an unknown; he's made two Pro Bowls in the last four years.
Nevertheless, many NFL fans don't know just how valuable Starks has been to the Miami Dolphins' defenses of recent years. Starks has averaged 28.7 solo tackles, 8.7 assists and 4.33 sacks over his six seasons in Miami.
In 2013, at age 29, Starks may have had his best season ever. He racked up 36 solo tackles and 13 assists, along with four sacks. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus' seventh-best interior defensive lineman.
Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports the Dolphins would be "fine with Starks testing the market," presumably with the intent of matching or beating offers below a certain threshold.
All another team has to do is offer a little bit more, and they'll get a versatile difference-maker in the middle of their defensive line.
Rashad Jennings, Running Back
It's no secret NFL teams have devalued running backs over the past decade.
That said, a 6'1", 234-pound tailback with low mileage over five years in the NFL, who's averaged 4.3 yards per attempt with 13 total touchdowns in very limited carries? Yeah, that player has value.
Last season, Rashad Jennings of the Oakland Raiders overtook and outproduced the mercurial Darren McFadden, leading the Raiders with 733 yards and six touchdowns on 163 carries (a 4.5 yards-per-carry average).
Perhaps the Raiders will let McFadden, their No. 4 overall pick from the 2008 draft, walk. Maybe they'll re-sign "Run DMC" to a multiyear deal and let Jennings go. Depending on what happens, some lucky team may have a chance at a legitimate starting-caliber player at less than full market price.
Anthony Collins, Offensive Tackle
A 28-year-old swing guard/tackle backup is a player of a certain worth. A starting left tackle with less than two years of starts on his odometer is a player worth much, much more.
Whether Anthony Collins is the former, a versatile backup, or the latter, a starting-caliber blindside protector, will be decided over and over by each team as they pick through his tape and asses his strengths and weaknesses.
Collins did a great job of keeping quarterback Andy Dalton clean when filling in for injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth in 2013; Pro Football Focus charted him allowing zero sacks. Since Whitworth is also due to be a free agent, the price has to be right if the Bengals to keep both.
Will Collins command the kind of money proven tackle Jake Long did around this time last season? Certainly not, but it's easy to see him going for more than the Bengals are willing to spend.
Whichever team pays for Collins just might end up with a steal.