For a variety of reasons, bargains should be plentiful in the NFL's unrestricted free-agent market, which opens for business on Friday.
The biggest reason is that, with the league's salary cap about to disappear because no collective bargaining agreement is expected to be in place by Friday, there'll be an abundance of free agents who would have been unrestricted but who are forced to remain restricted for two more years.
With many highly talented players in that group, it's possible that there could be a noticeable increase in restricted free-agent movement if teams are willing to part with, and accept, the draft picks to make it happen either by declining to match first-right-of-refusal tender offers or (more likely) trades. But the field of players who would likely command huge contracts is down to a scant few.
Another factor enhancing the chances for good free-agent bargains is that clubs have been increasingly attentive to tying up their best veteran players to long-term deals that keep them out of unrestricted free agency.
Additional reasons are:
» The uncapped year removes the minimum that all teams can spend on players while also placing restrictions on the ability of the final eight playoff teams to sign free agents.
» The draft is considered one of the deepest in several years.
» The unrestricted market includes a fair number of solid role players who are older (and, in some cases, recovering from injuries) yet still look to be productive.
» Clubs are watching their costs in anticipation of a possible shut down of the 2011 season due to a lockout.
When Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was asked during the NFL Scouting Combine if his team would have any interest former Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who is expected to command the biggest contract in free agency, he gave a cautionary response that is typical of how most teams are approaching this period.
Although Dimitroff said the Falcons would be "open to considering any possibilities," he was quick to add: "We'll look at all of the players that are of interest to us and who we deem as good, fiscally responsible moves."
With that in mind, here's a list of the top 10 potential bargains in free agency:
1. Kevin Walter, WR, Houston: He thrived as a possession receiver in the Texans' highly effective passing attack. The Texans are trying to keep him, but if they don't, he should merit attention from another club that wants someone who uses plenty of smarts and toughness to get open on third down. Walter could be another Wes Welker, who went from a specialty role in Miami to a star in New England.
2. Aaron Kampman, DE, Green Bay: His move from end to outside linebacker in the Packers' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense last year didn't work out all that well. Compounding his problems was a knee injury that caused him to miss nearly half the season. If Kampman is healthy, he could still be a strong addition as an end in a 4-3 scheme.
3. Chris Chambers, WR, Kansas City: After his release from San Diego only seven games into last season, he made a solid contribution to the Chiefs with 36 receptions for 608 yards and four touchdowns. At 32, Chambers would be a good complement to a No. 1 receiver and continues to have the ability to be a deep threat.
4. Chad Pennington, QB, Miami: If he's fully recovered from the right (throwing) shoulder injury that limited him to three games last season, the 34-year-old Pennington would be an excellent backup and perhaps even a short-term starter for a team breaking in a young quarterback. It would make sense for the Dolphins to keep him, provided they're comfortable with the pressure it might add to Chad Henne who is still in his formative stages as a starter.
5. Tully Banta-Cain, OLB, New England: The Patriots would like to keep him, although after his 10-sack performance in 2009, he is playing hardball in negotiations with a team in desperate need of quality pass-rushers. However, New England hasn't forgotten the mere 12.5 sacks in his previous six seasons. Another team could view Banta-Cain as a starter, although he's probably more effective in nickel situations in a 3-4 scheme.
6. Nate Burleson, WR, Seattle: With his knack for consistently getting open on short and intermediate routes, he showed last season that he can be effective in a West Coast scheme. His 63 receptions for 812 yards and three touchdowns should make him attractive for another club, as will the fact that he can occasionally catch the deep ball.
UPDATE: Burleson signs with Lions
7. Chad Clifton, OT, Green Bay: Although he turns 34 in June, he's still an asset, especially in pass protection. He did deal with injuries last season, which might turn off some potential suitors. The Packers would like to keep him, but realize they must get younger on their offensive line.
8. Casey Rabach, C, Washington: There's always a need for a starting-quality center who is as highly intelligent and effective when it comes to making protection calls as well as this guy does. And the price, relatively speaking, should be right.
9. Adewale Ogunleye, DE, Chicago: He has lost the consistent effectiveness he once had earlier in his career, but at 33, he can still be a solid starter in a 4-3 defense for a team looking for a pass-rushing and run-stopping end.
10. Jason Taylor, DE, Miami: Despite being 36, he remains an effective pass-rusher, which he demonstrated by registering seven sacks last season. The Dolphins might try to hang onto him, but if they don't, there figures to be home for a veteran whose skills strongly suggest he has another good year or two left.