jeremy macline2

When goods or services come at a steeply discounted price, we assume we’re considering the purchase of something that’s broken, expired, or an evil scam. Maybe the moving company you just hired isn’t really a moving company at all, and maybe that yogurt is about to turn a different color tomorrow. Nothing in life is free, son.

In the NFL when the first wave of free agency is over by mid-March, we often do the same with football humans.¬†And we’re usually right, but the second and third and fifth waves of free agency should still be embraced and hugged warmly. That’s where an injured player with a high upside can be found, or an aging player who can still contribute if optimized properly.

Operating under the assumption that the names below become free agents officially on March 11th (one of them, Will Smith, already is a free agent), I dug through the impending open market rubble to find three players who could be employed at a bargain rate.

1. Jeremy Maclin

If Maclin hits the open market (he wants to stay and the Eagles will retain either him or Riley Cooper, but not both) there will be lingering uncertainty following his ACL recovery, as at the start of next season Maclin will only be just over a year removed from his injury. As we’ve learned from the Adrian Peterson-to-Robert Griffin III juxtaposition, no two mends from major knee muscle ripping are quite the same despite the fact that it’s 2014 and our world has developed fine medical technology.

But we’ve also learned from another case study that if a team is willing to make what should be a minimal financial investment — or at least a manageable one — and embrace whatever risk still resides in Maclin’s knee, the reward could bring them great joy. A year ago Brent Grimes was seven months removed from his ACL tear, only a little over a month ahead of where Maclin will be in a few weeks. For that reason he waited until the second tier of free agency, and had to settle for the proverbial one year “show me” or “prove it” deal, or whichever widely repeated March money slang you prefer. He sat until the end of the month until the Dolphins tossed him a one-year deal worth only $5.5 million.

A year later after Grimes had by far his best season while not giving up a touchdown and recording 16 passes defensed, he’s set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. Will Maclin have similar post-injury success? I don’t know, you don’t know, and my eight ball said to ask again later. But with three +800 yard seasons and 26 touchdowns over four years, there’s a safety net of established past production to fall back on at a discounted price.

2. LeGarrette Blount

He’s a large rumbling mass of humanity, and he could be yours for a nominal fee.

As great and fun as it was to watch LeGarrette Blount set team post-season single-game rushing records for touchdowns (4) and yards (166) during a divisional round win over Indianapolis, running backs are expendable in this 2014 version of NFL football. That’s especially true for the Patriots since they also have Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden, and last year New England didn’t bother outbidding San Diego when they offered Danny Woodhead a two-year deal for $3.5 million. Now the educated estimate is that they’ll offer Blount at most $2 million over two years.

That’s also a fine gauge for about what Blount should cost if and when he takes a dive into the grand free agency pool, which is an affordable cost for a an up-the-middle bruiser. The downside, of course, is that Blount contributes nothing or pretty much nothing in the passing game, which is why he’s best suited for an offense that has another capable set of hands to do that on passing downs. If that role is filled, Blount is free to do this…

That’s a 73-yard run with impressive open-field speed for a man weighing in at 250 pounds, and it came during a three-week stretch when Blount scored eight times while running for 431 yards.

Because of his build and running style, making Blount a feature back as he was during his 1,007-yard rookie season in Tampa won’t end in the desired returns. But if he’s signed by a team that needs a hammer for its tandem to whack away for 12-ish carries per game, Blount’s your guy at an appealing price. In 2013 he averaged a moderate 9.6 carries per game, and he turned that into five yards per carry.

3. Will Smith

This is some deeper hunting, and it likely won’t be a sexy splash. And really that matters little, because what we’re looking for from Smith and anyone of his ilk is a key contribution in a situational role. He can do that, and he can do it at a nothing price too.

There’s a Maclin similarity here: Smith is recovering from a torn ACL of his own suffered about a month later near the end of the preseason. For what it’s worth, after he was released by the Saints — an inevitable move prompted by both his injury and his inflated $11.55 million salary due in 2014 — Smith said he’s feeling close to fully recovered now.

Set to huff out 33 candles on his birthday pie before next season kicks off, Smith’s current professional and life situation resembles that of John Abraham’s a year ago. Abraham was released by the Falcons for similar reasons: he was even older and about to turn 35, he limped through the end of 2012 with an injury and was ineffective, and he was also due buckets of money. Then he was gobbled up by Arizona, where he recorded 11.5 sacks in a situational role.

With double-digit sacks only twice in his career, Smith won’t match those numbers. But if he’s used as a 4-3 defensive end on passing downs — a role ideally suited for his skillset — he can make a valuable contribution. Over his past two healthy seasons Smith has crumbled opposing quarterbacks 12.5 times, which makes him perfect Bill Belichick cheap veteran restoration candy.