Well, over the years, if the NFL has proven anything it’s that that sometimes personnel men get it wrong. Very wrong. How else do you explain living in a world where Kevin Kolb signed a six year, $65m contract? Or where the Buccaneers re-signed Davin Joseph for the princely sum of $52.5m over seven years after handing Quincy Black a five year, $29m deal despite the fact he’d never played in a three-down role during his NFL career.
What has been shown is that free agency is something of a gamble. So why not lessen that risk by looking at players who are under appreciated in a market that doesn’t seem to understand how good players actually are or could be? Look at how the Seattle Seahawks have turned their roster around by picking up players like Alan Branch, Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock. The NFL is a league where one man’s trash is another’s treasure, so as we did in 2011 when we said both Antwan Barnes and Evan Mathis would be a bargain for any team picking them up, we’re going to look at 10 players who could be the bargains of free agency this year.
Geoff Schwartz, OT/ OG
When the Carolina Panthers opted against tendering Schwartz, there was a collective gasp from the PFF team. Sure Ron Rivera wasn’t in charge when Schwartz managed to finish 2010 with a PFF grade of +12.3 despite playing two positions, but it wouldn’t have been hard to watch some tapes and see he’s got more talent than anything they can currently put out on the right side of their line. Schwartz offers the kind of versatility and talent that brings to mind a poor man’s Marshal Yanda; good enough to make him the best right tackle available and possibly the best value guard too. He has a very real chance to be this year’s Evan Mathis for a team with a diligent scouting department.
Derek Landri, DT
It was back in the summer of 2011 that Sam Monson and I had one of our random chats about Landri, declaring him to have as good a first step as any DT in the league. Hyperbole perhaps, but watch his finish to the year with the Eagles and you see a guy who is a nightmare for guards and centers with his ability to get up the field. Best suited to a heavy rotational role (he wore down after a positive start with the consistently high snap count in Carolina), Landri finished 2011 our fourth-ranked defensive tackle on the year with positive grades in both run defense and pass rushing.
Joel Dreessen, TE
If Martellus Bennett has the kind of upside that makes him the No. 1 tight end available, Dreesen is the proven commodity with whom you know what you’re going to get. Expendable by the Texans as they try to get James Casey on the field more, Dreesen ended the year our sixth-ranked tight end with better work in the passing game than his 353 yards would suggest, and some excellent work as a blocker. A complete, every-down tight end, teams unable to find the next Gronkowski or Witten would be wise to count on him.
Jerricho Cotchery, WR
His 2010 year, playing with an injured hip, was pretty horrible, but even factoring that in it was surprising that no market developed for Cotchery. Hopefully, a solid year in Pittsburgh has now got people seeing his last year with the Jets as something of a blip. The veteran offers tremendous upside as a guy who can handle playing in the slot and, if required, step in for an underperforming starter. Worth noting that in 2009 the 29-year-old was our eighth-ranked WR.
Anthony Collins, OT
One of the biggest gambles here, every time the Bengals’ fourth round pick from the 2008 NFL draft has seen the field (outside of his rookie year) he’s looked like an NFL player. The problem is he hasn’t seen the field enough, only managing 834 snaps (including plays wiped out by penalties) over the past three years. The last two in particular have provided few opportunities (one of those being the league’s only third-down right tackle), but it should be noted he’s given up only four hurries on 225 pass blocking snaps. A small sample size for sure but in a very sparse field for right tackles you’d figure he’s got to be worth a shot.
Chris Carr, CB
It seems like Carr–an undrafted free agent from the 2005 NFL draft–has been around for ages, yet he’ll be just 29 when 2012 season kicks off. Surplus to requirements in Baltimore, Carr didn’t embarrass himself in 2011 after an impressive season starting for Ravens a year earlier. A competent outside corner, he brings with him the versatility of being able to play in the slot (he spent 47.9% of his snaps in 2010 there) and his contract demands will have been slashed after he found such a tough market in August last year. There aren’t enough capable cornerbacks in the league for someone like Carr not to find a job.
David Vobora, LB
One of the most entertaining linebackers to watch in the league, Vobora has something of the Bart Scott attitude in him. The ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ of the 2008 NL draft is just 25 and comes with little risk, and lots of reward. Take his 2009 season where he finished sixth in our 4-3 OLB rankings despite being limited to just 403 snaps, or 2010 where he finished the season with a +4.3 grade despite playing only 232 snaps. You need to watch all of those snaps to truly appreciate what he can do for a team on gameday.
Philip Wheeler, LB
You may have noticed last year, but the Colts were pretty bad. So bad that anything mildly encouraging about them was overshadowed by the cloud of failure that loomed over a franchise that had failed to build any contingency for life without Peyton Manning. Well, one thing that was encouraging was how Wheeler played in his role as two-down linebacker. Pat Angerer got most of the attention as the Colts scorers infatuation with him coupled with Indianapolis’ inability to get off the field gave him ‘impressive’ tackle numbers (though not so impressive on the defensive stops front). However, Wheeler was the one who caught our eye. A solid tackler, he took a leap forward with his play, and is coming off a better year than Quincy Black had when he earned his big deal last off season.
William Hayes, DE
The majority of talk about the Titans free agents has revolved around Jason Jones, Cortland Finnegan, and in recent days the combo of Jake Scott and Dave Ball. A man who hasn’t garnered much attention after a disastrous 2011 is Hayes, the backup DLE. Hayes looked ready to break out after an encouraging 2010 showing he was capable of playing both pass and the run and highlighted his year in Week 12 with an absolute roasting of the usually excellent Eric Winston. Unfortunately, following a shoulder injury in week 1 last year he didn’t really get going and played over 200 snaps less than in 2010. He’s the type of player that you bring in for depth, but could very possibly play himself into a starting role if things go his way.
David Garrard, QB
Amenable to a backup role, it’s often forgotten just how solid a quarterback Garrard was for the Jaguars, even if he did fail to push them on. If his back heals fully after a season off, Garrard could prove a relatively cheap (talent wise) option at the QB spot that could provide competition for a struggling starter, or reliable backup for a team concerned with their quarterbacks health. On proven talent levels alone, Garrard trails only Manning in the passers available.