The first few days of free agency have been filled with high-profile signings that have impacted the NFL's balance of power, but not every great signing draws rave reviews immediately.
Many of the biggest names are already off the market; however, there is still plenty of value to be had. Oftentimes teams that wait to fill their needs are rewarded since they can sign good players at a lesser price after the competition has already used up its cap space.
Here are three free agents who are still unsigned for now but will ultimately prove to be great additions with reasonable contracts.
Sidney Rice appeared to be on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL's top wide receivers in 2009 when he caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns for the Minnesota Vikings with Brett Favre as his quarterback. Rice ultimately parlayed that into a big contract with the Seattle Seahawks, and his production inevitably dropped off. Rice missed at least seven games in two of his three seasons with Seattle, and he entered free agency as damaged goods due to an injury.
Rice missed half of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL, so he was not available when the Seahawks went on their run through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. Knee injuries are always a concern, but Rice is expected to be ready to return by April, according to Tom Pelissero of USA Today:
Sidney Rice is on track to be cleared for the start of his new team's offseason program in late April, I'm told. Coming off ACL injury.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 7, 2014
If Rice is healthy and ready to go in time for the regular season as expected, he is definitely a player who is worth gambling on. Even if it takes some time for him to get back to full speed, he can be an effective player based on his size alone at 6'4". Rice has incredible leaping ability, and he towers over essentially every cornerback in the league.
Rice is also firmly in his prime at 27 years of age, and he is far better than his stats in Seattle suggest. The Seahawks weren't a pass-first team, and Rice's numbers suffered because of that. If Rice ends up signing with a team that has a good quarterback in place along with a commitment to the passing game, then he should bounce back in a big way.
As a rule, offensive linemen generally fly under the radar when compared to their skill-position teammates. A select few receive mainstream exposure if they make the Pro Bowl on a yearly basis, but the rest are fairly anonymous. Offensive tackle Zach Strief falls into that latter category. Despite being a full-time starter at right tackle for the New Orleans Saints in each of the past three years, Strief is far from a household name.
Strief is the perfect example of how far a player can come when they put in the necessary work, though. Strief was a seventh-round selection out of Northwestern in 2006, so there were no guarantees that he would even make the team to begin with. After proving to be a versatile backup for five seasons, Strief finally got his opportunity to start in 2011, and he has thrived ever since.
In fact, he is one of the few Saints players from their Super Bowl team who has survived the waves of roster cuts in recent years, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
#Saints now down to seven players remaining from Super Bowl roster (including free agents Zach Strief and Robert Meachem).— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) March 11, 2014
Strief may not be in Cajun country for much longer, though. He figures to demand a contract that is out of New Orleans' price range since the Saints have to be cap conscious, but he can provide plenty of value to another team. Strief should have several solid years remaining on the horizon at the age of 30, and he has the work ethic necessary to prevent complacency once he finally does receive his new contract.
Which free agent will prove to be the best signing?
The New England Patriots defense has been fairly stout over the past couple seasons against all odds. Despite constant injuries and turnover, New England has somehow held it all together on that side of the ball. Perhaps the biggest reason for that has been the play of linebacker Brandon Spikes. With 86 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons, Spikes has essentially been the backbone of the Pats defense.
Despite that, Spikes' tenure with the Patriots ended in turmoil. Spikes played in all 16 regular-season games for New England in 2013, but he was placed on season-ending injured reserve prior to the playoffs. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the decision stemmed from the fact that Spikes was late for practice.
That obviously soured the relationship between Spikes and the Patriots, and he admitted that signing elsewhere is a strong possibility, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe via NFL Network.
Everybody says you never want to burn a bridge, but I just feel like both sides could benefit from a fresh start. Any team that is willing to take a chance on me is going to get a playmaker, a guy that is very aggressive on the field looking to be a difference-maker. A captain, a leader on the defense — a guy who is ready to lead the charge.
Spikes is a big, stout middle linebacker, and he is just 26 years of age. He has already proved capable of leading a defense, and the Pats would probably love to have him back if not for the disagreement that marred things last season.
It can be argued that Spikes is a bit of a character risk because of that, but he always played hard on Sundays, and he can be a defensive star elsewhere at what figures to be a somewhat discounted price.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter