Similar to the hunt in each draft, NFL free agency provides a deep market littered with sleeper veterans who have plenty left in the tank.
While it is easy in today's NFL with a team-friendly CBA to not take gambles on the market and instead get production out of cheaper rookies, there is still plenty of value to be had if teams look in the right place.
Just ask the Baltimore Ravens about how veteran linebacker Daryl Smith worked out last year (more on that in a bit).
While the big names are sure to steal the spotlight, keep an eye on the following players. They are sure to provide a boost to new teams after signing to little or no fanfare.
Justin Tuck, DE
It is easy to forget about Justin Tuck.
Now 31 years old by the time next season rolls around, Tuck may prove to be a pricey item in a league where rookie rushers are a better alternative.
But Tuck had a comeback campaign a season ago with 11 sacks and is ranked as the No. 7 overall 4-3 defensive end in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). While he had just five sacks in 2011 and four in 2012, Tuck's rebound is an encouraging sign.
It seems Tuck's days with the New York Giants are over. The team offered him a contract before the legal tampering window opened, but the two sides could not come to an agreement, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
Tuck has been training hard as he heads to the market, which will make him even more attractive to contenders. He told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger that he is trying to compensate for his age through intense workouts:
"I’m realizing my old age now," Tuck said, smiling, when asked why he decided to start working out early. "This is the future for me. We’re not doing super-intense workouts right now, but I don’t want to be behind the 8-ball come March. Why not just work out all year long?"
"I’m trying to outdo anything I’ve ever done," he said.
With likely one contract left in his pro career, it can be assumed Tuck would like to play for a contender and remain a starter. Tuck has plenty to offer and currently remains under the radar, but contenders are sure to come calling.
Daryl Smith, LB
Smith is the perfect example of an unheralded signing that works out perfectly.
The Baltimore Ravens were in a horrible cap situation last offseason, but they still managed to scrounge up enough cash to bring on Smith, who had spent the prior nine seasons in Jacksonville while quietly being one of the best strong-side linebackers in the league.
Smith played on the interior in Baltimore and recorded 123 total tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. While he will be 32 by next season, Smith's alarming consistency speaks for itself.
As Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun points out, the Ravens have made Smith a priority, but nothing is close to getting done:
Once Smith hits the market, it may drive his price out of Baltimore's range. Plenty of teams, such as Denver and Tennessee, have a major need at the spot, so Smith going somewhere else is not out of the question.
Regardless, expect to once again be singing Smith's praises as a surprise of the free-agency class.
Sidney Rice, WR
At first glance, Rice's stat box while a member of the Seattle Seahawks is not all that appealing:
|Sidney Rice's Numbers in Seattle|
As savvy fans know, stats mean little in some cases.
This is one. Rice played on a run-first Seattle squad and shredded his knee back in October, which would help to explain why he has received little to no interest on the market. But as Tom Pelissero of USA Today points out, not only is Rice healthy, he's a rare breed to whom teams will flock once he checks out medically:
Rice will certainly not be a highlight of free agency. He may not even contribute in the preseason. But as a deep threat in an offense like Carolina's, Rice is sure to be a name many circle as a steal when they look back on free agency.
Darren McFadden, RB
The market for running backs is silent as the position continues to become less important in today's NFL, and Darren McFadden can be viewed as a major risk considering he has never played in a full 16-game season and has been a major disappointment the last three years:
|Darren McFadden Statistics|
Backs are simple to find these days, as most teams take a committee approach, which would explain why guys like Maurice Jones-Drew and McFadden should temper expectations on both cash and playing time with new teams.
But that same committee approach will help McFadden be one of free agency's nice surprises. There is no question he is one of the most talented runners in the league when healthy, so his not being asked to carry the full load on his own will help him potentially play a full season.
With Oakland seemingly intent on letting McFadden test the market, it is easy to expect a contender in need of a complementary back to come calling. It will be a hard proposal for McFadden to resist and a fit that allows him to prolong his career while making meaningful contributions in a rotation.