An Early Look at Potential 2016 NFL Free-Agent Bargains

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2016

An Early Look at Potential 2016 NFL Free-Agent Bargains

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    We're still a week out from Super Bowl 50 and the official end of the 2015 season, but the 2016 NFL calendar year is right around the corner. At 4 p.m. ET on March 9, the new league year will begin, and with it, free agency will officially open.

    For the teams not participating in Super Bowl 50, free agency is already an immediate focus. The period is a very important time for teams looking to keep their core of players intact and for those looking to supplement their existing rosters. 

    Of course, adding or keeping proven veteran talent comes with a price. For highly coveted pending free agents like Denver Broncos  pass-rusher Von Miller or Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, that price is likely to be a hefty one.

    However, this doesn't mean NFL teams have to spend big to win in the free-agent frenzy. In fact, there are some real deals to be had in the 2016 open market. Whether a team is looking to snag a few great seasons out of an aging veteran, gamble on a talented player coming off a down year or injury or pluck away an emerging talent, there is value to be found in the proverbial bargain bin.

    Today, we're going to look at some pending 2016 free agents who could prove to be steals for the right bidder. These guy aren't likely to be at the top of anyone's free-agent wish list and probably won't be signing blockbuster deals five minutes after the market opens, but they should be valuable targets nonetheless. 

     

    *All contract information for pending 2016 free agents via Spotrac.com.

Ian Williams, DT, San Francisco 49ers

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    San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ian Williams became a 16-game starter for the first time in his five-year NFL career this past season, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity.

    The Notre Dame product racked up 65 tackles, 1.0 sacks, one pass defended and a forced fumble. Pro Football Focus rated him ninth overall among all defensive tackles for the season.  

    At 6'1" and 305 pounds, Williams possesses the heavy, compact frame that teams traditionally look for in an anchor nose tackle. His play in 2015 proved that Williams has the skills to excel as a regular starter. However, he isn't likely to command the attention given to other pending free agents at the position.

    Other defensive tackles scheduled to hit the open market include the Detroit Lions' Haloti Ngata, the St. Louis Rams' Nick Fairley, Terrance Knighton of the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers' B.J. Raji.

    Williams will rightfully deserve some sort of raise in his next contract, as his 2015 base salary was a mere $1 million. However, the one-time undrafted free agent has worked his way up the NFL ranks, is just 26 years old and could potentially anchor a defensive front for several more years.

    He ultimately should prove to be a bargain. 

James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers running back James Starks probably won't make it on a lot of free-agency hot lists in the coming weeks for a couple of reasons. For one, Starks will turn 30 before the new league year even begins. He's also spent the vast majority of his career in a backup role, albeit very effectively.

    Also, this is a very running back rich free-agent class. Other backs headed to market include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin, the New York Jets' Chris Ivory, Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears, Lamar Miller of the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris.

    If you're a team looking for a back who is both cheap and efficient, though, Starks might be your man. He earned nearly $1.8 million in base salary this past season, but he shouldn't command the money of free-agent backs like Martin or Forte.

    Starks finished the 2015 season with a solid 601 yards rushing and a 4.1 yards-per-carry average. He's averaged 4.3 yards per carry over the course of his career. According to Starks, his age shouldn't have an effect on his efficiency. 

    “I didn’t lose no speed. I didn’t lose no burst,” Starks said, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I know everybody has their stereotype of a certain age. But I still feel young. Not a lot of wear and tear. I still feel good.”

    Whether or not the Packers decide to keep Starks as insurance for the inconsistent Eddie Lacy—or he lands with another team in 2016—the veteran back should provide a veteran value. 

Travis Benjamin, WR, Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin had a breakout year in 2015, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns. He has game-changing speed and finally seems to have added some polish to his all-around game.

    However, Benjamin is also an undersized receiver at just 5'10", 175 pounds, and he has only one strong season on his pro resume. He was the de facto No. 1 receiver in Cleveland, but he is realistically a complementary player on another team.

    Because of these factors and because of other receivers heading toward free agency, Benjamin may well find himself in the second tier of pending free-agent players. Other receivers scheduled to hit the open market include the Miami Dolphins' Rishard Matthews, Anquan Boldin of the 49ers, the Cincinnati Bengals' Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones and Alshon Jeffery of Chicago. 

    Whether he returns to Cleveland or lands with another team, though, Benjamin will carry a lot of value. He is a young—he just turned 26 years old—emerging player and he brings special teams value.

    Benjamin returned 27 punts for 324 yards and a touchdown in 2015 and was rated 11th overall among return specialists by Pro Football Focus. He has produced three punt-return scores in his four NFL seasons.

Chris Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    We've already mentioned that this year's free-agent pool is chock full of productive running backs. This is precisely why Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson would be a major steal. Age—he'll turn 31 in September—and injury could keep him in the bargain bin.

    However, Johnson proved to be an extremely productive back for the Cardinals in 2015. He rushed for 814 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 11 games before suffering a fractured tibia

    Though Johnson broke his leg late in the season—and overcame a gunshot wound to the shoulder last offseason—it seems the eight-year veteran is already planning ahead to next year, if not with the Cardinals, then elsewhere.

    “Just praying that the right situation happens for me. Would love to be back here,” he said, per Craig Grialou of ArizonaSports.com. “I’m going to take a couple of weeks off and just see where I go from there.”

    For the right team, Johnson could provide a lot of value on a one- or two-year deal, like he did with Arizona this past season. The Cardinals paid him just $870,000. If he can return to Arizona or land with another contending team in need of running back help, then it could create a win-win situation for both team and player. 

Reggie Nelson, FS, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Safety Reggie Nelson had the type of season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015 that should make him one of the hottest free-agent commodities on the market. 

    He finished the year with 77 tackles, 14 passes defended and a whopping eight interceptions. He was rated 13th overall among all safeties by Pro Football Focus for the year. Nelson was also named to the 2016 Pro Bowl, though he will not play due to an ankle injury suffered in Cincinnati's playoff loss.

    The only downside with Nelson is that he is likely nearing the back end of his pro playing career. The Florida Gators product will turn 33 shortly after the start of the 2016 season.

    Because of his age, Nelson is likely to earn either a short-term deal or a long-term deal that is front-loaded in terms of guarantees. A deal structured in this way would allow a team to part ways with Nelson—with little financial windfall—if his play declines after a few seasons.

    This doesn't mean that Nelson will come cheap on the open market, however. He should make for a bigger bargain than some of the other safeties who might be out there, at least for a team looking to peak within the next couple of seasons. 

    Nelson is only about a year-and-a-half older than fellow safety Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers, but he is substantially more advanced in football age than pending free agents like Kansas City's Eric Berry (27), Rodney McLeod of the Rams (25, restricted free agent) or the Philadelphia Eagles' Walter Thurmond (28). 

Zach Miller, TE, Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller is the epitome of an NFL journeyman. 

    Not to be confused with the other Zach Miller—the one who played with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks—this Miller first entered the league back in 2009 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, he only appeared in 33 games with five starts before this season.

    Called upon in part because of injuries to Martellus Bennett and other members of the Bears' receiving corps, Miller emerged as a true weapon in the passing game. Though it was his first regular-season action since 2011, Bennett managed to finish with 34 receptions for 439 yards and five touchdowns. 

    He played on a base salary of just $660,000 in 2015.

    Miller isn't likely to command a big multiyear deal because of his history of limited playing time and because of his age (31). Yet he should bring plenty of value to a team looking for an upgrade or an additional weapon at the tight end position. 

    Pro Football Focus rated Miller sixth overall among tight ends for the season.

    Other tight ends headed toward free agency include San Diego's Antonio Gates, Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints and Arizona's Jermaine Gresham.

Ryan Wendell, G, New England Patriots

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    New England Patriots guard Ryan Wendell was essentially non-existent during the 2015 season. According to Pro Football Focus, he played just 13 snaps before landing on injured reserve. Because of this, Wendell may well be an afterthought when teams start examining the free-agency landscape.

    However, Wendell can provide a ton of value to the right team and in the right situation. He has yet to hit the age of football decline—he will turn 30 just before the start of the new league year—and he carries with him plenty of experience. Wendell had been a regular starter along the offensive line for three seasons prior to 2015, and he started at right guard for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.

    Wendell was rated 11th among all guards in run blocking by Pro Football Focus in 2014.

    Adding to Wendell's value is his versatility. At 6'2" and 300 pounds, the Fresno State product is ideally built to be an interior lineman, and he has started games at left guard, right guard and center for New England. 

    Other guards scheduled to enter free agency include Alex Boone of the 49ers, Denver's Evan Mathis, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ramon Foster and J.R. Sweezy of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tashaun Gipson, FS, Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson had a stellar 2014 campaign (52 tackles, six interceptions, one forced fumble and one touchdown) but was unable to cash in with a big contract, as the Browns signed him to a second-round tender as a restricted free agent.

    Gipson's 2015 season wasn't nearly as impressive, and it will likely cost him dollars on the open market. He finished with four fewer interceptions and saw his rating among safeties by Pro Football Focus drop from 14th overall in 2014 to 182nd overall in 2015. 

    Gipson also missed three games due to injury, bringing his missed-game total to eight over the past two seasons. 

    Because of a down year, and because of injury risk, Gipson is likely to find himself behind pending free agents like Weddle, Berry and Thurmond in the safety pecking order.

    Gipson could prove to be a real steal if he can figure out a way to replicate the ball-hawking skills he demonstrated two seasons ago. He was ranked No. 67 on NFL Network's Top 100 Players list last year, and at the time, he looked to be one of the hottest young players in the league.  

    Now teams just might be able to pick him up at a fraction of what his cost would have been a year ago.

Dwayne Allen, TE, Indianapolis Colts

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    This year's free-agent pool isn't quite as deep at tight end as it is at some other positions, but there are likely to be a few big names on the market. This is why a tight end like Dwayne Allen of the Indianapolis Colts could wind up in the bargain-price range.

    Allen has spent his entire four-year pro career with the Colts and most of it with standout quarterback Andrew Luck. But despite playing with an upper-tier quarterback in a pass-oriented offense, Allen has rarely put up eye-catching numbers on the field. He had just 16 receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown in 2015, as most of the tight-end targets went to teammate Coby Fleener.

    This is also why Allen may be seen as a good-but-not-great addition to potential suitors. However, a good addition at a good price just might equal a great value in Allen's case.

    Allen has proved to be a well-rounded and effective tight end when healthy and on the field. He can be a red-zone threat—he had eight touchdowns in 2014—and is an efficient in-line blocker. Allen was rated ninth overall among all tight ends by Pro Football Focus for the 2014 season.

    Allen will be a bit of risk, of course, as 2015 was unquestionably a down year for him. However, he has athletic potential and youth—he'll be 26 this year—on his side and could prove to be a terrific steal for the right team and the right system.