The Top 5 Bargains and Risks of the 2009 NFL Free Agent Class

With free agency ready to kickoff this Friday, February 27, hope once again springs eternal for fans across the NFL.

But it seems like more than any other year, the free agent market this offseason has been picked bone dry before teams have even had the chance to grab their shopping carts.

Nnamdi Asomugha?

Sorry, off the market after re-signing with the Raiders.

Julius Peppers?

Franchised, but teams can probably have him for two first round picks, a gazillion dollars and a six yachts.

Terrell Suggs?

Likely staying put in Baltimore after being franchised.

Karlos Dansby? Brandon Jacobs? Matt Cassel? O.J. Atogwe? Darren Sproles? Antonio Bryant? Dunta Robinson?

All franchised.

Are there any players left on the market to get excited about? Absolutely, there are plenty of quality free agents available and bargains to be had. But as in previous years, there are a ton of risks, as well.

Below are five free agents that might command a decent amount of money this offseason, but will also be worth the heavy price tag in the end. I’ve also complied a group of five free agents that could turn out to be thieves this offseason by commanding big bucks, yet those investments may not pay off once teams start strapping on helmets and shoulder pads again.

Bargains at any Price:

T.J. Houshmandzadeh1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Bengals
Forget his age (31) and the fact that he’s had the opportunity to play in a passing offense opposite Chad Johnson for most of his career – Housh is that good. He’s a solid route-runner, very dependable and unlike most receivers, he isn’t afraid to go across the middle to haul in a pass. He’s physical at the line of scrimmage and can adjust extremely well when the ball is in the air. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he’s fast enough to stretch a defense and he’s a fierce competitor. He’s going to command top dollar as the best receiver on the market, but any team that’s willing to spend to boost their wideout corps should pony up because chances are they won’t be disappointed.

2. Michael Boley, LB, Falcons
Two years ago Boley was considered a future Pro Bowler and a vital part of the Falcons’ defensive core. But he eventually lost his starting outside linebacker spot to Coy Wire late in the 2008 season because he didn’t fit Mike Smith’s defensive scheme. Boley’s strengths are in coverage and when he’s allowed to use his outstanding athletic ability in pursuit. But in Smith’s defense, the strong-side linebacker is required to stay home and make their biggest impact against the run, which isn’t one of Boley’s strengths. If the Falcons don’t re-sign Keith Brooking, there’s a chance they could re-up with Boley and move him to the weak-side position where he’d have more opportunities to run around and play in open space. But chances are Atlanta won’t break the bank to re-sign him and he’ll hit the open market, where he’ll surely make some team very happy. Boley isn’t overly aggressive, but given the chance to make plays, he’ll come up big and he’s one of the best coverage linebackers on the market.

3. Igor Olshansky, DE, Chargers
After Carolina franchised Julius Peppers, Olshansky and the Cowboys’ Chris Canty became the top defensive ends on the market. And with more teams switching to the 3-4 defense (the Packers and Broncos are the latest), linemen who can play in that front are at a premium. Olshansky won’t come cheap, but he’ll be worth it to a team like the Packers, who are in desperate need of 3-4 defensive ends. Olshansky has a great motor, is a blue-collar type of player and has been a starter for his entire five-year career. He’s not the quickest end in the league, but then again he doesn’t have to be playing in the 3-4. At 6’6”, 309-pounds, he has outstanding size and is steady in run support. He’s also only 26 years old and hasn’t shown signs that he’s peaked.

Ron Bartell4. Ron Bartell, CB, Rams
Bartell will cost some team roughly $30 million over the next six years, but he might be worth the lofty price tag. His solid play was overshadowed by how bad the Rams defense was last year and on a better team, the 27-year old might excel. Along with Bryant McFadden and Domonique Foxworth, Bartell is the best cornerback on the market and the Rams might have priced themselves out of re-signing him after franchising safety O.J. Atogwe. At 6’1”, 205 pounds, Bartell has excellent size, can play safety in a pinch and is a solid tackler. Teams would be wise not to judge how bad St. Louis’s defense was last year in grading Bartell. He might not be the flashiest name on the market, but he’s a solid player nonetheless.

5. Jason Brown, C, Ravens
Matt Birk (Vikings) and Jeff Saturday (Colts) are bigger names, but Jason Brown is the best center on the free agent market this year. He’s likely to command $40 million over the next five years, which is steep for a guy who has never made the Pro Bowl. But he has Pro Bowl talent and at only 25 years of age, he could help anchor a team’s line for years to come. Brown has loads of experience, has outstanding size at 6’3”, 320 pounds, and displays excellent burst off the ball. Again, he won’t come cheap, but there are several teams in need of a center this offseason and he’ll be the top catch.

The Risks:

Albert Haynesworth1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans
With Nnamdi Asomugha, Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs and Karlos Dasnby all off the open market, Haynesworth is easily the best free agent available. He’s also going to cost whichever team that signs him a king’s ransom and while his talent is unquestioned, one can’t help but worry about how he’ll play once he receives a big contract. His character has also been questioned in the past after he used Cowboys’ offensive lineman Andre Gurode’s face as a cleat-cleaner a couple years back. Haynesworth wants to become the NFL’s highest paid defender, which has to scare the bejesus out of teams that have multiple holes to fill. Can he be the league’s best defender? Maybe. But if you’re an NFL team, are you willing to spend $72 million over six years to find out?

2. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Lewis is one of the most vocal leaders in the NFL and his mere presence makes players around him better. That said, the reality of the situation is that he’s turning 34 soon and is likely to command $9 million annually for the next three years. That’s too much money for a linebacker that wore down last season and will continue to do so as the years roll on. If he were willing to ease up on the contract demands, he’d probably be a bargain given his outstanding leadership and football instincts. But he’s already stated that he won’t take a discount to stay in Baltimore and therefore probably isn’t willing to take a discount anywhere else either.

3. Channing Crowder, LB, Dolphins
There’s no question that Crowder has loads of talent. He’s excellent in pursuit, is solid in coverage and is a tough linebacker. But his best season came in a contract year and he has a history of knee trouble. The Dolphins have already stated that they won’t re-sign him, which should be a warning sign to other teams considering he was Miami’s second leading tackler last year and is only 25 years old. Some team is going to shell out big for his talent, but they could be burned in the long run.

L.J. Smith4. L.J. Smith, TE, Eagles
At the right price, Smith wouldn’t be a bad investment for a team in search of a pass-catching tight end. But given his injury concerns the past couple seasons, he’s too much of a risk for a team to hand him a decent multi-year contract. And after the Titans franchised Bo Scaife, Smith’s free agent value went up because the tight end market is weak on a whole this year. Considering the tight end draft class is strong this year, Smith probably isn’t worth what tight end-desperate teams will pay in the hopes that he returns to his 2005/2006-form.

5. Byron Leftwich, QB, Steelers
Leftwich is a popular sleeper free agent pick after he finished the 2008 season with a 104.3 QB rating in limited action. But people seem to forget how brutal he was the year before when he had the chance to resurrect his career in Atlanta. Due to his elongated release, he’s susceptible to turnovers and can be erratic. The big-armed quarterback has never been short on physical tools, but he would be much better off staying on a good team like Pittsburgh and being Big Ben’s backup than hitting the open market as a starter. In other words, he’s fine in small doses but shouldn’t be counted on to carry a team. Chances are teams will stay away, but there’s always one or two willing to pony up in hopes of striking gold.

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