There are a lot of slightly above average starters in free agency this offseason. Many of them will get paid like superstars, which is how NFL teams get into salary-cap trouble.
We'd rather take the approach that Seattle, Denver and New England did last offseason, taking big swings at talented players who carry some risk. These are often short-term deals that allow the player to rehabilitate his value and get back to free agency.
Almost every NFL free agent gets to the market for a reason. They have some downside. The smart teams know how to calculate which boom-or-bust players are worth a shot for the right price. Below is our list of the biggest wild cards in free agency. These are the X-factors who could make (or break) some playoff hopes this year.
Josh Freeman, Minnesota Vikings quarterback
Yes, 2013 was wildly ugly. Freeman's accuracy has always been a problem, and he hasn't cut down on mental errors in his career. But this is still a 26-year-old who has shown he can be successful as a starter. He stands tall against pressure and isn't afraid to make tough throws. Freeman is young enough and has a big enough arm to convince a team that he could upgrade their starting job.
Just imagine if Freeman became a free agent a year ago. He was still seen then as a league-average starter with potential for more. In the right system, he still has a chance.
Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts cornerback
Davis can exhibit boom-or-bust tendencies within a single game. His career has careened back and forth from potential shutdown cornerback to potential problem. He appears to get into slumps when things start going wrong. He's coming off a nice season in Indianapolis, but makes for a risky signing. He could develop into an All-Pro or a free-agent bust and neither would particularly surprise us.
Henry Melton, Chicago Bears defensive tackle
Melton would have been the top free agent on the market if he hit free agency a year ago. Now he's coming off a torn ACL and was arrested for misdemeanor assault and public intoxication in December. We also can't forget that Melton struggled last season before he got hurt.
While he might not fit every system, Melton has shown the ability to be a top-10 defensive tackle. He's a lot younger than other free agent options like Jason Hatcher, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. He could be a huge difference-maker at a low price.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver Broncos cornerback
DRC is just as temperamental as you'd expect from a guy who openly considered retirement at 28. His career has already run the gamut. He looked like a potential top-five cornerback in Arizona, then was dealt after a disappointing year and completely washed out in Philadelphia. He was back to being a great starter last season.
Rodgers-Cromartie seems made for a short-term deal because you never know what you are going to get.
Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots linebacker
Spikes' violent, disruptive run-stopping ability ranks with any inside linebacker. Put him on the 1970s Steelers and he's an annual Pro Bowl pick. Put him in today's NFL defending a bubble screen, and he looks out of place. How much do you pay a specialist, even if he's a great specialist?
Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle
The Chiefs were willing to franchise tag Albert as a premier pass protector, but they never wanted to commit to him long term. Andy Reid once called Albert's back issues "significant." There have also been some whispers behind the scenes about how Albert would handle a long-term commitment. A solid starting left tackle is valuable, but solid starters often get paid like All-Pros in free agency.
Anthony Collins, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle
Collins didn't allow a single sack in eight starts at left tackle last season. Still, why didn't Cincinnati ever see Collins as a long-term solution at tackle? Before 2013, he started just 18 games in five seasons. Collins' run-blocking is a question mark and his small sample size as a starter is a characteristic of a lot of free agent busts over the years.
Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers tight end
Teams with salary cap space should be looking for one-year deals that can improve an offense in the short term. Finley qualifies. Would you rather overpay for midlevel free agents or take a swing at a difference-maker? Finley has to check out medically before anything can happen. No team is going to put Finley at risk of serious injury, but he's worth a shot if cleared. He's a matchup nightmare and still just 26.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders running back
A lot of the names on this list are young, talented players with track records of success. But they are coming off value-diminishing seasons. McFadden has never been the most instinctive player, but no one has ever questioned how hard he runs. Don't expect McFadden to ever reach the dizzying heights of 2010 again (1,664 yards from scrimmage with 10 scores in 13 games). In the right system, however, he could be a valuable offensive piece that splits carries.