Here at the NFL Scouting Combine, general managers typically spend a portion of their time meeting with the representatives of their soon-to-be free agents. Talent takes priority, which is why so much of the chatter leaking out of the early days of the combine has centered on the big-ticket items in free agency: the quarterbacks, premiere corners and pass rushers.
But a few weeks from now, the true value in this class will reveal itself. The Patriots have made a living owning the so-called “middle class” of free agency for decades. A fiscally responsible veteran addition can mean the difference between a playoff berth and an early vacation.
Here is a list of impending free agents who could represent the greatest value on the open market.
Dont’a Hightower, inside linebacker
I know what you’re thinking. Hightower will be paid at the top of the market for his position and cost well in excess of $10 million per season, so how can he be considered a bargain? Should Hightower be paid as the highest inside linebacker in the league. He’ll have to clear the $12,360,313 per-year average currently being made by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. While there is an easy argument that Kuechly is a superior sideline-to-sideline player. Hightower is also a more disruptive pass rusher and has a more versatile skill set, given the breathable Patriots scheme.
With every team getting a generous bump in salary cap. Buyers could easily justify the move if Hightower stays in line with the traditional inside linebacker salary structure. He is one of about 10 players in this class who could probably find a role on all 32 NFL teams.
Danny Woodhead, running back
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said he was interested in bringing Danny Woodhead back despite him suffering a torn ACL in early September last year. Woodhead is a 5-foot-8 running back who just turned 32. So he does not fit the traditional picture of what you’re looking for. But if he makes it to the open market. He could end up being a tremendous value for a team in need of a capable third-down back.
Over his last two healthy seasons , Woodhead racked up 156 catches for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns. While making less than $2 million in each campaign. The potential for re-injury is always there. But it could also whittle down the market despite the undeniable potential of a quick. Sure-handed back who is hard to tackle and adept in pass protection.
Dwight Freeney, pass rusher
So what if Freeney just turned 37? Players are aging more gracefully in today’s NFL. Look at Steelers pass rusher James Harrison, who just signed a very affordable deal that locks him up through age 39.
Freeney was well worth the $1 million deal he signed with the Falcons this past year and, had the Super Bowl not turned out the way it did. Would have been mentioned as instrumental in Atlanta’s pass-rush-heavy game plan. He finished the season with four total sacks, including one in the Super Bowl. But his pressure numbers tell a more complete story.
This is not to mention that Freeney is the consummate veteran who can aid a team drafting a young pass rusher. Is there a better influence out there?
Pierre Garcon, wide receiver
Garcon is not going to be cheap, but there is a lot to be said about a player who breezed through a five-year. $42.5 million deal with no incidents and consistent production.
He was an excellent team player in Washington’s crowded receiver room and finished his age-30 season with 79 catches for 1,041 yards.
Garcon undoubtedly will benefit from the receiver market that could develop should DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery earn beefy contracts. That said, according to contract site Spotrac, the average deal. Given his age and previous production is about three years and $26 million. Garcon plugs in well with just about any offense and, as the receiver himself says. He’s more than just the “possession receiver” type he’s been labeled as in recent years.
If I am taking a risk financially on the open market, I’m betting on a player who did not get cut through five sometimes-turbulent years for the franchise, and a player who has not missed one game since the 2012 season.
Darrelle Revis, cornerback
We will find out a lot about Darrelle Revis in the coming months. But here’s what we know: Revis reportedly has hired an agent.
He set up his entire career so that, once it was over, money would not be an issue. So why do we think it’s going to be an issue now?
Having covered Revis for a few seasons as a beat writer. I can say he is one of the more prideful people I’ve been around. I hardly believe he’ll want to end his career as fodder for New York tabloids. If a legitimate opportunity were to present itself, I believe he’d work quite hard to re-write the end of his career.
Revis will not be paid like a top-tier corner anymore and the offset language in his deal will complicate matters once the Jets release him on March 9. As will his pending legal issues, which, the Jets say, were not the reason for his release. But a rededicated Revis would be an enticing proposition. Even if he costs a little more than your standard replacement-level corner. Now that the pipe dream of going down as a Jets legend with the retirement tour is over, he can plan his next move accordingly.