2012 NFL Free Agency: Finding offensive value

New Orleans Saints receiver Robert Meachem (17) prepares to throw the ball into the stands after pulling his secound touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks during action at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on November 21, 2010. UPI/A.J. Sisco

There are a handful of players in this year’s free agent pool that I would break the bank for because I know what kind of production I’ll be getting for my dollar. Mario Williams is one, while Carl Nicks is another. Even though he turns 29 in July and suffered a knee injury down the stretch last season, the highly underrated Brent Grimes is another player that I wouldn’t hesitate to pony up for, especially with cornerbacks in such high demand these days.

But if I were given the opportunity to be a general manager for an offseason, I’d focus my attention on finding value in free agency. Granted, the word “value” is a relative term to teams. A free agent like Vincent Jackson will have more value to the Bears than he would the Packers. But that doesn’t mean that the Bears should spend max value on V-Jax just because they have a glaring need at receiver.

In my opinion, this is how teams often get into trouble. It’s almost like they take a grocery list into free agency and say, ‘Ok, this is my budget and here are my biggest needs – let’s go shopping!’ Then they wind up overspending, the player under-performs his contract, and sooner or later the team is looking to dump said player well before his contract is set to expire.

Again, there are certain players that are worth max value. In terms of pure talent, Vincent Jackson may be one of those players. Seeing as how Chicago has a ton of cap space, maybe the Bears should go all out for V-Jax next month. But generally speaking, general managers are better off shooting for value so that they don’t get into cap hell down the road. At worst they’ll spend less to receive less and at best they’ll spend less to receive equal or better production than if they went for the high profile signing. Plus, if teams constantly search for value in free agency, then they’re more likely to have cap space to spend on re-signing their own players when the time comes.

With that in mind, here are my free agent value picks on offense for the 2012 NFL offseason. On Thursday I’ll take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

QUARTERBACK: David Garrard (Jaguars)
Garrard took last year off to allow his back to heal and is already 34. At this point in his career he clearly isn’t a quarterback that should be counted on as a long-term answer. But if he’s healthy, he makes a lot of sense for a contender that has a need for a backup or for teams like the Bills and Jets, whose situations under center are shaky at best. Garrard has never dazzled anyone with is passing numbers but he’s always been more productive than people give him credit for. He would be a nice, cheap signing that would add solid value to the right team.

RUNNING BACK: Mike Tolbert (Chargers)
Some may view Cedric Benson as a value play but keep in mind that he has 922 carries in the past three years and is entering his age 30 season. Tolbert, on the other hand, is only 26 and has carved out a nice niche for himself as an excellent utility back. He’s a bowling ball at 5-foot-9 and 247 pounds, and is a powerful downhill runner. He isn’t a true No. 1 but just like the Chargers did by pairing him with Ryan Mathews, he could be a solid complementary piece in the right backfield. Plus, with big names like Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch and Peyton Hillis set to hit the open market, Tolbert could be had at a reasonable price.

RECEIVER: Robert Meachem (Saints)
There are probably plenty of Saints fans that view Meachem as a bust. But the former first-round pick has never had the opportunity to flourish as a No. 1 receiver either. Sean Payton and Drew Brees do an excellent job of spreading the wealth in New Orleans, which is great for the Saints but not for individuals like Meachem. The former Tennessee star is extremely talented and won’t break the bank unlike V-Jax, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, Steve Johnson, Marques Colston and/or Reggie Wayne.

TIGHT END: Joel Dreessen (Texans)
The tight end pool is shallow this year but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had. Look at Dreessen for example. He’s already 30 and hasn’t put up gaudy receiving numbers in Houston so people will overlook him. But he also doesn’t have a lot of tread on his tires for a 30-year-old tight end and is a solid blocker in both the running game and in pass protection. He had touchdowns of 43 and 56 yards the past two seasons, which also suggests he has big-play capabilities. His age and limited production will keep the cost way down and teams could do much worse than a guy like Dreessen at tight end.

TACKLE: Anthony Collins
Jared Gaither will receive plenty of attention because of his name and the fact that he played very well for San Diego down the stretch last year. If the Chargers release former Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill, he’ll garner some attention as well (assuming he’s healthy after two straight seasons of injury issues). But at 26, Collins might be the best value on the market. His body of work isn’t very impressive because he’s only compiled five starts the last two seasons. But back in 2008 when he started 13 straight games, he proved to be an adequate blocker and could be a value to a team that loses out on Gaither. A team could essentially plug Collins into the starting lineup for a year or two while looking for a more long-term solution in the process.

GUARD: The Draft
I realize that this article is about finding value in free agency but I’m not going to shoehorn a player into a position that I don’t believe is a true value. Teams in need of a guard have one of two options in my eyes: Either pony up big for Carl Nicks or Evan Mathis, or look to fill the position in the draft. Nicks and Mathis will likely be worth the money but for teams with cap problems, the draft is their best bet. Brandon Washington (second round), Amini Silatolu (second or third), Brandon Brooks (third), Jeff Allen (fourth), Lucas Nix (fourth or fifth), Derek Dennis (sixth or seventh) and Joe Looney (seventh) would all be value picks if they were drafted in their projected round. Washington, Silatolu and Brooks might even be able to start right away depending on how they perform in training camp and preseason. Outside of that, guys like Chad Rinehart (Bills) and Geoff Schwartz (Panthers) offer some value in free agency, but both players are restricted free agents so who knows if they’ll even hit the open market.

CENTER: Nick Hardwick (Chargers)
Hardwick flirted with retirement following the season but he has since said the he will return for another year. He’s one of the better centers in the league when it comes to pass protection and he’s likely to be available if the Chargers want to get younger at the position. Hardwick would be a nice one or two-year signing for a pass-heavy team looking for a leader to fill the center position.

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