NFL Free Agency: Looking at 10 Potential Free Agent Bargains
Fans and pundits alike knew that free agency in an uncapped year had the potential to be a spending madhouse, and owners have yet to disappoint on that front.
In the first weekend of free agency, the NFL saw Leonard Weaver become the highest-paid fullback in NFL history, Julius Peppers snag a guaranteed $42m from the Bears, and Nate Burleson—yes, the Nate Burleson who averages 43 catches, 581 yards and a handful of touchdowns per full season—set the bar at receiver with his five-year, $25m deal.
So much for a market one NFL executive described as “the old, the injured and the unwanted,” eh?
But just because marginal players are getting exorbitant money doesn’t mean that it won’t work the other way around. There are still bargains out there, they just need to be properly identified and underpaid as such.
Before the start of free agency, I identified a list of the Top 5 Potential Free Agent Bargains.
Already, two of them are off the board. While one wasn’t so much of a bargain (Texans WR Kevin Walter re-upped in Houston to the tune of four years, $21.5m) the other was in theory.
Sure, the Bears gave Chester Taylor $12.5m over four years (or an average of $4.125m per), but $7m of that is guaranteed over the first year—meaning Chicago’s only on the hook for about $1.75m per over the final three.
It’s going to be feast or famine out there, but for what they can give vs. what they will make, these 10 players are quite possibly the biggest “bargains” a team can find at their respective positions.
NOTE: Much like my previous slideshow, this will only look at unrestricted free agents or outright releases. Even if a team gets a “bargain” on a restricted free agent, they’ll have to give up a draft pick to do it—which kind of negates the savings.
AUTHOR NOTE: Shortly after this article went to press, Pennington was re-signed by the Dolphins to a one-year deal. The contract calls for a $2.5m base with incentives (unlikely, but there) that could make it worth nearly $6m...so the point stands.
Go ahead, laugh.
But if Chad Pennington has anything left in his right arm and can do his best impression of Gary Busey in "Rookie of the Year," he’s going to be a steal for anyone willing to sink $2m-3m into him for a couple years.
He’s a veteran presence, and as maligned as he’s been over the last few years, you must remember this: everyone thought he was done in 2008, but he threw for 3,653 yards and 19 TD and led the previously 1-15 Dolphins to the playoffs.
The shoulder injury he’s recovering from now is completely unrelated to his previous issues, and if he can even be half the signal-caller he was two years ago, he’s better than anyone else on the unrestricted pile—including Jake Delhomme.
You don’t think a guy like Joe Flacco or even Josh Freeman can’t learn anything from Pennington? Chad Henne did, and the Dolphins are clearly on the rise.
Whoever picks up Pennington should be able to say the same thing.
In my previous article, I had Willie Parker along with Chester Taylor as the top bargain backs. I still think Parker could be a good value for the right team, but I think more so of Fargas.
Fargas shares a bond with Taylor, namely that he’s a couple years removed from being a full-time starter (and having a career season) and was replaced by a ballyhooed first-round pick from the Southeast.
Taylor’s a better receiver and much more heralded, so Fargas won’t get near that much money. Hell, he only made an $850k base last season.
Fact is that Fargas still has good speed, and at 6’1”, 220 pounds, he can still be an effective “thunder” to the lightning of an emerging back like Shonn Greene or Fred Jackson.
And don’t put much stock in the fact that he fell out of favor in Oakland; he was the best running back on that team over the last few years, and besides, the management still believes JaMarcus Russell is a legitimate NFL starter.
For maybe $3m-$4m over two years, a team can get themselves a very productive rotation back and a huge surprise before Fargas truly hits the wall.
And yes, here is Parker.
Not too long ago, Parker was one of the top backs in the league. He ran for nearly 4,000 yards and 20 TD in a three-year span from 2005-2007.
Then, injuries and Rashard Mendenhall stepped in, and suddenly “Fast Willie” was ground to a near halt. Bad for him, great for whichever team gives the 29-year-old back a shot this off-season.
Parker only has 308 carries over the last two seasons, and even when he was healthy last year, he was reduced to being Mendenhall’s backup.
That’s a good thing though, as if he’s completely healthy, he should still have enough gas left in the tank to be at least the lead back in a good rotation for three or four more years.
And even if he is, his lack of production since 2007 means he won’t get anywhere near the $3.9m he made last season. Heck, his value has already been undermined by his own (former) employer, who said they won’t even offer him a deal unless he’s still around later in the free agency period.
Again, bad for Willie, good for whichever of the other 31 franchises decides he can still get ‘er done.
Wide receiver is an interesting minefield.
Nate Burleson and Kevin Walter (a pair of No. 2 receivers at best) have set a high bar, and outside of Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant, the rest of the unrestricted field is full of underachievers, aging veterans (like Torry Holt or Laveranues Coles) or special-teamers.
Oh, and former Chiefs, which is a better category for Wade to be in.
See, the Redskins released Antwaan Randle El last week, and he caught on almost immediately with his old team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Well, Bobby Wade is Randle El-Lite—he may not be as good, but he’s comparable at a fraction of the cost.
Wade is the same size, nearly as fast and a year younger as Randle El, and has been a fairly productive slot receiver for four different teams now.
Released by the Vikings after back-to-back 50-catch, 650-yard seasons, Wade caught on in Kansas City in 2009 and still put up okay numbers (36/367/2 TD) in an anemic offense that featured Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, and later Chris Chambers.
Before 2009, Wade had steadily improved over the previous three seasons, and is only bound to cost about $1m tops.
For a team that needs an inexpensive yet steady hand at the No. 3 receiver spot—New Orleans, Carolina, Miami, I’m looking at you—Wade could be a huge steal.
And here’s the other half of that duo, the forgotten veteran.
Chambers went from San Diego’s No. 1 receiver to an afterthought in a hurry, and was deemed expendable about halfway through last season.
But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and in nine games in KC, Chambers caught 38 balls for 608 yards and four TD—or, roughly half of what he did in 31 games in San Diego.
Again, that’s in Kansas City, where their offensive identity starts at “awful” and gets worse.
Even though he’ll be 32 this season, Chambers is still a vertical threat and would be a great complement to an established (or even an emerging) No. 1 receiver. In other words, if the Pats got their hands on this guy, the league is
Instead he’ll probably settle for a couple million bucks from his fourth team in five years, but make no mistake: whichever team that is will be getting a guy who can still go.
He’s not as big of a threat as he used to be, but Benjamin Watson is still a very good tight end.
Watson is now three years removed from his “breakout” season of 2006, when he hauled in 46 balls for 643 yards. He’s certainly not going to rack up 50 or 60 catches, but he’ll get the job done.
For starters, even though he only caught 29 balls last year, his 13.9 YPC average was third among tight ends, behind only Antonio Gates and Marcedes Lewis. That means he still has the ability to stretch the field and/or turn a good route into a big play.
Secondly, he’s still a huge red zone threat—he had six scores last year, and 13 of his 87 catches over the last three seasons have found the end zone.
And, he is still a decent blocker. It’s not as if the Patriots have had a dazzling running game…well, ever, but he does have those skills.
Again, he’s not a superstar. At age 29 (he’s 30 in December), Watson is probably best suited as a blind-side tight end on a run-heavy team or a starter on a run and gun team (like New Orleans or what used to be Arizona).
He’s probably worth about $1m all said, which is less than luminaries like Robert Royal, Randy McMichael and Jeff King made last year, and can be a great weapon if used in the right capacity.
There are only a handful of centers available, so the price might be a bit inflated…but that doesn’t make Rabach any less of a bargain for a team needing an anchor.
Even at $3m, Rabach is worth it and then some. Yes, that’s a lot for a center, but he brings a lot to the table.
Comparatively, the draft has maybe eight guys with even third-day grades, and outside of Rabach the UFA class of centers includes exactly three guys—John Wade, Casey Wiegmann and Kevin Mawae—who are all older than Rabach yet are set to command something big.
Mawae was a Pro Bowler last year and someone will overpay for him, Wiegmann will be overvalued because he was a “cap casualty” that hasn’t missed a game in a decade, and Wade is another of those “fell out of favor in Oakland” guys.
Then there’s Rabach, who at 32 is experienced, intelligent, young by comparison and one of the best in the league at making protection calls.
He’s also just as durable, as he’s missed only one game in the last six years—a feat made more impressive when you remember he was a Redskin for most of that.
All things considered, he’s the best option and might be the cheapest. That makes him a bargain in my book.
Some will shake their heads at this because Ogunleye is 33 years old.
Well, Julius Peppers is 30 and just got a bazillion dollars from Ogunleye’s old team to be the dominant pass rusher they thought Adewale was going to be.
That’s fine by everyone, especially the team that takes a flyer on Ogunleye.
Yes, he’s aging, and he’ll never again come close to the damage he did in his prime, or probably even reach double digits in sacks again.
But it’s not as if he’s fallen off a cliff. He’s been a starter his whole career, and since turning 30 he still has 150 tackles and 20 sacks as a rotational off-side end.
He can still get the quarterback, can still make plays in the run game, and can still be an effective starter—especially if he goes to a 4-3 team that has a very good or excellent end on the other side (Philly or the Giants, I’m looking at you).
So while Peppers laughs his way to the bank, Kyle Vanden Bosch counts his $26m (again, with the qualifier that $10m of it is due in year one), and Jarvis Green awaits his Brinks truck, Ogunleye will be lucky to get $3-$4m.
Which for what he’ll being to the table is quite a bargain.
As an Eagles fan, I’m upset that they released Witherspoon.
Sure, I can understand it; they have Omar Gaither, Akeem Jordan and Stewart Bradley under team control and didn’t want to pay Spoon $5m to either be a backup or stunt their growth.
Fine, but whoever snaps him up is getting a damn good linebacker. Remember, just two years ago, he put up 110 tackles and seven sacks on a bad St. Louis defense, and last year he had over 90 tackles and five passes defensed total.
Also helping Witherspoon’s cause are the facts that he’s versatile (can play weakside or middle backer), is good in run coverage and can get at the quarterback in a blitz situation.
Even though 4-3 seems to be a dying breed, there are spots Witherspoon can excel—New York, Jacksonville and maybe even Indianapolis among them.
But there’s a two-fold problem for him: even with Gary Brackett off the board, he’s not a good enough MLB for teams to overpay for him there…and there’s not a high demand for weakside backers on the market.
Still, someone will sign Witherspoon as a consolation prize, get him relatively cheap (say, $3m?), and have themselves a steal.
There are a lot of cornerbacks available, but most of them are either aging veterans or guys who will command high salaries—Leigh Bodden and Dre Bly, I’m looking at you.
Then there’s Sapp, who is peaking at just the right time.
Sapp took over for Antoine Winfield as a starter roughly halfway through the year and played well. His numbers showed it, as he set career highs in tackles, passes defensed and fumbles forced.
He just turned 29 and with so many “top” corners and stopgaps still available, he may slip through the cracks and be available to the smartest bidder.