If you're seeking a bargain, the NFL free-agent market would figure to be one of the very last places to look.
We've come to expect it as a haven for teams to wildly spend millions of dollars in hopes of snatching up quick fixes before someone else does.
But in these troubled economic times, which have been felt by the NFL as well as by every other industry, the spending might not be quite as wild as before.
Yes, marquee players can count on receiving mammoth contracts, but there likely won't be as many and the dollars could very well end up being a tad lower than expected. You can expect some teams that sign one, maybe two free agents, in the lower tiers of the market, where the least expensive players are generally found. You can expect others to sign no one and address needs through the draft.
Something else is going to be part of the shopping spree that begins Friday: A search for lesser known free agents who can make a significant impact without costing nearly as much as the higher-profile variety.
"We're willing to spend if it makes sense," Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "But I do think, overall, you will see teams be more prudent in their spending, no different than any other industry."
With that in mind, we have compiled a list of the top five bargains in free agency:
1. Jim Leonhard, S, Baltimore Ravens: It's easy to be overlooked on a defense loaded with as many stars as the Ravens have, but Leonhard was a solid and steady contributor. He proved to be an excellent complement to All-World free safety Ed Reed. He also was a factor as a return man. Leonhard offers tremendous instincts and a great deal of toughness. He won't cost much, but his potential value could very well far exceed that of many other players on the open market.
2. Demetric Evans, DE, Washington Redskins: Teams seeking a defensive end to be part of a 4-3 line rotation should give strong consideration to signing Evans. He might not be as dynamic as other players at his position, but his presence is consistently felt as both a pass rusher and run stopper. Evans also has the versatility to play inside in obvious pass-rush situations.
3. Leonard Weaver, FB, Seattle Seahawks: A deceptively good athlete, he has a long list of qualities that would allow him to be an asset to any offense, including one that doesn't necessary make extensive use of a fullback. He is a solid rusher -- especially in short-yardage situations but also as part of a two-man rotation -- and receiver out of the backfield. He also does a solid job of blocking on run or pass plays.
4. Kevin Burnett, OLB, Dallas Cowboys: Although he was a backup last season, he actually saw a good deal of playing time in nickel situations and handled himself well. As the year progressed, he made his mark in Wade Phillips' defense as an effective blitzer. Burnett enters the open market in search of a starting role, something he couldn't get in Dallas. Judging by the steady improvement he showed, another team could very well be catching him on the rise.
5. Mike Montgomery, DE, Green Bay Packers: He proved to be a little bit better than a stopgap while Cullen Jenkins was injured. The playing time should have provided some videotape that will catch the attention of personnel-evaluators around the league. What Montgomery showed was that he has superb versatility. He had no problem with the Packers' 4-3 defense, and could do equally well in a 3-4 defense, to which they are switching. It could turn out that the Packers re-sign him.
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