Free agency isn’t just about going out and getting the best players. Everyone knows Nnamdi Asomugha is an elite cornerback, and that Ray Edwards is a hard-to-stop defensive end.
While, in an ideal world, you’d be able to upgrade your roster with both men, the simple facts are that teams will be clamoring for their attention and they can only choose one. More so, they’ll cost big money and that’s not something every team has the capacity to take on.
So instead, franchises need to look for guys who contribute, but aren’t quite as sought after, or won’t cost quite as much. Last year, a number of teams found big time contributors in this regard. We’re looking at Houston with Wade Smith, Seattle with Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons, and Tennessee with Jason Babin.
If you’re prepared to look, there are some bargains to be had. And if you’re not prepared to look, just listen to what we have to say as we name our top ten bargain free agents. After all, we wouldn’t lie to you.
Antwan Barnes, DE / OLB
It’s pretty hard to get noticed as a rush specialist when you’re a Raven. You know Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson aren’t coming off the field, and so it proved for Barnes. In 2008 and 2009 combined, he managed less than 300 snaps, though he did show some promise. Fast forward to 2010 and after seeing some action for the Eagles (and generating pressure) he finally got a real opportunity as a pass rusher in nickel situations with the Charger. The outcome? He was the sixth most productive pass rusher in the whole of the NFL with 32 quarterback disruptions on just 202 roles. Maybe he can’t translate to an every down end, but he could star in sub packages.
Atari Bigby, S
72 snaps. That’s all Bigby saw in 2010 as the Packers found partners for Nick Collins in the shape of Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah. A year earlier he got 757 regular season snaps and responded with four interceptions and a ninth place ranking in our safety grades. He’s not great in coverage and will give up some plays, but he’d represent a cheap upgrade for a number of teams in a safety market crowded with players looking for top dollar.
Brandon Jackson, HB
You’ll never confuse Jackson with a top running back. Simply put, when you hand him the ball he’s not the most productive runner in the league. But the NFL is a passing league more now than it ever has been, so you need backs who make you better in that regard. While others are looking at Darren Sproles and Jason Snelling, check out Brandon Jackson and you won’t go wrong. The past two years he has excelled when the Packers have got him the ball in space, and he backs that up with some impressive blitz pick up.
Evan Mathis, G
We’ve recognized the play of Mathis on more than one occasion to no avail. For whatever reason, the Bengals just didn’t see fit to get him on the field consistently after an incredible start to the 2009 year. It’s a shame for them (he was much better than Nate Livings), and a shame for offensive line aficionados. Mathis was dominant when he was on the field, rarely giving up pressure and pushing around defenders in the run game. Even when he came in for some cameo snaps in 2010, he highlighted his talent with a series of good plays. Some team will get excellent value with him.
Fred Evans, DT
Ironically, with Pat Williams moving on, the best fit for Evans would be with the Vikings. They have room for a tackle who can eat some space and contribute on two downs. That’s the kind of guy Evans can be, only he found himself dropping down the depth chart for Minnesota this year. Still, we’d look back to 2009 and particularly 2010, when, in limited snaps, Evans was a real force on running downs. Plenty of teams could do with getting stouter in this regard.
Jason Spitz, C/ G
Back in 2008, he played like one of the best linemen in the league, despite being shifted about at right guard, center and left guard. He had some bad performances, but more often than not he won his battles and earned our recognition for it. Moving to the present day and, in those two seasons since, he’s managed just 301 snaps. He hasn’t looked great in them, but then spending most of them at left guard was probably asking too much. A proven commodity at center and right guard, there aren’t enough good offensive linemen in this league for Spitz to not be on the field.
Nick Roach, LB
He made an impression in 2008, and took advantage of an injury to Brian Urlacher to really show off how talented a linebacker he is in 2009. Unfortunately, the Bears are deep at linebacker and he only got on the field for 131 snaps last year. The shame in that is that whenever Roach is on the field he tends to have a positive impact (as long as you have him going forward). Could prove a very nice pick up for a team looking at a two down linebacker while not prepared to spend on a bigger name.
Omar Gaither, LB
The last time Omar Gaither got on the field for a significant amount of time he was making a big time impression before injury ended his 2009 season. His play in the first five games of that season was as good as any linebacker at the time. Sure, he isn’t the best dropping into coverage, but his work in 2009 (and 2008 before that) are the work of a man who needs to be on the field. Get the impression he could flourish in a number of defensive systems.
Scott Mruczkowski, C
When Nick Hardwick was out injured, in stepped Mruczkowski and you know what? He actually played better than Hardwick that year. Unfortunately, with the pedigree of the Pro Bowler, Mruczkowski was never going to get into the starting lineup, and understandably so because Hardwick had a great year. But now as a free agent in a league that could use some better centers, someone could save themselves a lot of money (and get better production) with the man out of Bowling State Green.
Victor Abiamiri, DE
After missing all of 2010, it would be easy to forget about Abiamiri, but he’s still young at just 25, and for those that do remember, was actually pretty decent in 2009. He showed the kind of ability that a complete defensive end has, as good against the run as he is rushing the passer. He may never put up the kind of dominant numbers that win you Pro Bowl appearances, but he can go in and do a job for a team.
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