If you’re not shopping for bargains in free agency, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s not to say certain doom follows when major, marquee names are chased. Just look at signings that fall under that label thus far through the first week of free agency: an aging DeMarcus Ware will still have plenty left in Denver, Darrelle Revis is the best cornerback in football not named Richard Sherman (you’re free to disagree with that), Alterraun Verner is a young corner just entering his prime, and although Jairus Byrd was given a tiny continent of cash, he led this free agent class.
They’re examples of the exception. Costly exceptions, and perhaps even exceptions with contracts that may become painful. But as we sit here right now they’re top of the market additions who fill a core need.
Fine, but overall free agency is littered with problems, and looming question marks. That’s always an inherent reality, as barring a major cap crunch teams don’t just let a crucial piece go unless he’s one of a few things: injury prone, expendable, or underproducing. The risk of each signing then is minimized by sifting through the overflowing heaps of scrap, and now in the second week — and the second wave — we’re arrived at the time when another man’s garbage has turned into glistening gold.
The second and third waves of free agency are often when the battle is won. It was almost exactly a year ago at this time when the Seattle Seahawks signed Michael Bennett to a nothing contract worth $5 million over one year. For perspective, Ware was just given a contract that averages $10 million annually, and the Vikings signed Everson Griffen to a deal that averages $8.5 million. At that minimal investment the Seahawks purchased a vital member of a championship team who had 8.5 sacks despite restricted snaps (he was on the field for 57 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps).
The true savvy lies in finding 2014′s Bennett, which is defined as a player who can contribute in perhaps a limited role, but at a limited price. So who has Bennett potential among the remaining free agents? That search quickly turns into an assessment of damaged goods, and finding that which is less crumbled.
Pat Angerer (inside linebacker)
The caution here is of the injury variety. Pat Angerer wasn’t re-signed by the Colts due to his brutal injury luck over the past two years, most recently ending his 2013 season on the injured reserve after just 11 games due to a knee problem that required offseason surgery. He’s rehabbing now and he’ll be ready for training camp, but that latest surgery came after he went under the knife twice in 2012 to fix a cracked bone in his foot.
Angerer’s damage is why he’s still available on the cheap. And here’s the optimism: he’s still young at 27, doctors are already whispering sweet nothings about his knee recovery, and a presumably healthy Angerger by this summer can return to being a tackling beast. Prior to his injuries Angerer recorded 148 tackles in 2011 (fourth in the league), quickly showing why he was worthy of a second-round pick.
Antonio Cromartie (cornerback)
It’s true that Antonio Cromartie struggled mightily at times in 2013, giving up a whopping 937 yards and seven touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Both of those numbers were the third worst totals in the league among cornerbacks. But it’s also true that he played the entire season with a nagging hip problem.
Did one problem (the injury) lead to the other (the sucking)? Maybe and likely, though we won’t have a definitive answer until we see a healthy Cromartie on the field this fall somewhere. But I can say this definitively: both of those things will lead to a drastically reduced price for a cornerback who may not exactly be young anymore, but he’s certainly not old either at 30 next month.
The most likely landing spot for Cromartie is still back with the team that just cut him (or not?) because the Jets have whiffed on every cornerback available despite their girth of cap space. For a basement dwelling price the Jets (or whoever) could be getting a cornerback who held opposing QBs to a passer rating of just 69.7 in 2012 when he was last healthy. Or his future employer could still get the guy who gave up a passer rating of 102.5 this past season, but the price will surely mitigate any risk.
Donald Penn (left tackle)
The best left tackle still out there, Penn has had visits with the Raiders and Redskins since being released by Tampa after they signed Anthony Collins, who’s a far more efficient pass blocker (he allowed only 12 hurries on 317 drop backs this past season). Penn, meanwhile, allowed the second most sacks (11) among all tackles, according to PFF.
He’s still a fine run blocker, and would fit well in an offense rooted on the ground as his market cools.
Sidney Rice (wide receiver)
Of all the busted bones and bruised tissue among the remaining potential bargains, Rice has been shattered most frequently. Back in 2009 he boomed with the Vikings for 83 receptions and 1,312 yards. Then the spiral began with a hip problem that landed him on the PUP list the following season, and he was a bust signing in Seattle after inking a $41 million contract. He snapped or crushed nearly every known body part, most notably landing on the injured reserve with a concussion and then later a chronic knee problem.
Alright, so we’ve firmly established why Rice belongs here in our low cost, low risk dice rolling. And here’s why there’s still a nice handful of suitors lining up to pay that price: the number of years Rice has been on this Earth. Though injuries may have added a few years to his body, Rice is still only 27, and his 6’4″ frame hasn’t shrunk. A year ago that size combined with his leaping ability made Rice a consistent red-zone target when he hauled in seven touchdowns despite an overall moderate reception total (50).
Whichever team eventually retains Rice’s services will do so knowing he’ll miss time, and at the right fee they’ll shrug off that reality. Coaxing 12-ish games out of a secondary receiver who could make a significant contribution even in that limited role is the aim, and anything more is sweet gravy.
Miles Austin (wide receiver)
The outlook here with Miles Austin almost mirrors Rice’s future and recent failure. Both have recent chronic and nagging injuries, though Austin’s hamstring problem has lingered far longer, keeping him off the field for parts of the last three seasons (11 games during that time). However, despite a history of decay they both have seasons in the recent rearview that land somewhere between pretty solid and decent. For Austin, 2012 ended with 943 receiving yards at a pace of nearly 60 yards per game in a secondary role behind Dez Bryant.
That season also included six touchdowns, but the difference in enthusiasm for Austin and Rice lies in age. Austin is set to turn 30 before next season, and that veteran status combined with his forever screaming hamstring leads to even more caution. Still, for teams like the Jets and Panthers now desperate for receiving depth from established sources, Austin is a worthy gamble when the investment required is only a little above nothing.