2012 NFL Free Agency: Finding defensive value

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (#34) tries to avoid the tackle of Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham (#55) in the first half of an NFL football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia on October 16, 2011. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 31-17. UPI Photo/Erik S. Lesser

Here is Part 2 of my two-part series on finding value in NFL free agency this offseason. You can check out Part 1 (offensive value) here.

DEFENSIVE END: John Abraham (Falcons)
At this point in his career, Abraham reminds me of Leonard Little and his final years in the NFL. At 34, Abraham isn’t a full-time player any more but he’s still very productive as a situational pass rusher. The Falcons did a great job keeping him fresh the past two years by constantly rotating him in and out of the lineup. He racked up 9.5 sacks last season and there were a handful of games when he was the Falcons’ lone pass rusher. He wants one more shot at a championship before he walks off into the sunset and seeing as how Atlanta is content with him testing the market, he would be a great addition for a Super Bowl contender looking to beef up its pass rush. In fact, the Falcons better hope the Saints don’t find a way to fit him under their cap.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Brodrick Bunkley (Broncos)
Bunkley recorded 43 tackles but no sacks in 16 regular season games last season, which could turn some folks off. But according to Pro Football Focus, 11.3% of all plays Bunkley was in run defense ended up with him making a defensive stop (which was the most of all defensive tackles in the league). Injuries ransacked his 2010 campaign but Bunkley has always been a force against the run and at 28, he still has three or four quality years left in him.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Manny Lawson (Bengals)
Some had their doubts about whether Lawson could play in Cincinnati’s 4-3 front after spending his first five years playing in San Francisco’s 3-4. But he played very well against the run and offers teams versatility in that he can stand up or stick his hand in the dirt while rushing the quarterback. He’s only a two-down linebacker because his coverage skills are nothing to write home about, but at 28 he still has plenty of quality years ahead of him and now teams know he can play in either a 43 or 34.

INSIDE LINEBACKER: Channing Crowder (Dolphins/Retirement)
Crowder flirted with retirement last season while taking the entire year off but he stated a couple of weeks ago that he wants to return to the NFL. If he can get back into shape, Crowder would be a nice addition to any defense looking for a two-down ‘backer. Most of his experience in the NFL has come in a 3-4 but he did play some 4-3 in Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme in Miami. Crowder played very well in 2010 and while he may have to settle for a limited role in the early going next season, he could be a solid, cheap signing for a team looking for a run thumper.

CORNERBACK: Terrell Thomas (Giants)
Thomas tore his right ACL during the 2011 season but when healthy, he’s an above average No. 2 corner that plays the run very well. Apparently he’s ahead of schedule with his knee and at 27 he’s still relatively young. If he doesn’t re-sign with the Giants he would be a perfect fit in any Cover-2 team looking for a physical corner to set the edge. And with Carlos Rogers, Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr already set to hit the open market, Thomas will be a cheap signing offseason. (Especially seeing as how he’s coming off the ACL injury.)

SAFTEY: James Sanders (Falcons)
After being released by the Patriots last season Sanders was picked up by the Falcons and notched starting time at both safety spots. While he can be a liability sometimes in coverage, Sanders plays the run well and has plenty of postseason experience. Good safeties are extremely hard to find and while Sanders isn’t the best player on the market, the 28-year-old vet would be a welcome addition to a team starved for safety help. (He’s also not going to break the bank after playing as a spot starter last season.)

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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.

2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Quarterbacks

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn takes a moment in between plays during the second half of their NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments. Let’s start with the quarterbacks.

Best in Class: Drew Brees, Saints
While his agent Tom Condon is “baffled” by how slowly long-term contract negations have been going with the Saints, Brees is highly unlikely to land outside of New Orleans this offseason. In addition to breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing record with 5,476 yards, Brees also set league records for completions (468) and completion percentage (71.2 percent) in 2011. If he were to hit the free agent market, there would be a mad scramble of teams willing to break the bank for his services. But again, all indications are that he’ll wind up back in New Orleans, ready to terrorize NFL defenses again in 2012.

The Biggest Risk: Matt Flynn, Packers
Flynn completed 31 of his 41 pass attempts for 480 yards with six touchdowns in just one start last season versus the Lions, which understandably turned some heads. But was his performance a product of the offense that he was running or is Flynn a bona fide starter that deserves a chance to shine? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac but 480 yards and six touchdowns is 480 yards and six touchdowns. Quarterbacks don’t put up those kinds of numbers by accident, I don’t care what defense they were playing against. The Dolphins seemingly make the most sense to sign Flynn because they hired former Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as head coach. But with Mike Sherman now the OC in Miami, the Dolphins could lean towards prospect Ryan Tannehill instead. (Tannehill was Sherman’s quarterback at Texas A&M the past few years.) Either way, there are plenty of quarterback-starved teams that could be interested in Flynn’s skill set. Which team will take the risk is the question.

The Best Value: Jason Campbell, Raiders
Given the ransom that former head coach Hue Jackson parted with in order to acquire Carson Palmer from Cincinnati last year, it’s highly likely that Campbell will be searching for his third home in the last three years. But at 30 he still has plenty left in the tank. A broken collarbone limited him to just six games last season but he had resumed throwing again back in December and will be completely healthy by the time OTAs start. While he’s never been a quarterback that can win on his own, surround Campbell with enough talent and he’s more than capable of getting the job done. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he’s got great size and has always thrown a nice deep ball. He was also on his way to having one of his best seasons in the pros before he was injured last season. The biggest question is whether or not he can stay healthy moving forward because if he can, he’s proven that he can be productive in the right environment.

The Rest…
David Garrard would be worth a look as a backup and Kyle Orton fits the same mold as Campbell in that if a team surrounds him with enough talent, he can be productive. I wouldn’t touch Chad Henne with a 10-foot pole but he’s available, as is Detroit backup Shaun Hill, who like Henne does have starting experience. Vince Young is perhaps the biggest wildcard on the market but if no team wanted him as a starter last year, he’ll find it tough sledding again this offseason. While he’s likely to wind up back in San Francisco with a new deal, Alex Smith is a free agent as well.

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