NFL free agency and value don't go hand in hand. During the first frenzied hours, average starters usually are paid like great ones. Good players get paid like Hall of Famers.
The value comes later, after the market for the top players calms down. That should be especially true this year. This is a deep free-agent crop that isn't overly exciting at the very top. The mostly flat salary cap won't prevent wacky contracts, but it should increase the number of sensible pickups and good bargains in the second wave of free agency. Here are the guys I'd target:
Pay a lot to get a lot
You can get value even for the players near the top of the market. These are the players that won't come cheap, but they're still worth the price.
If you are going to take a gamble in free agency, do it on a 28-year-old with potential for dominance. Vollmer can play on the right and left side, although he seems better suited to maul defenders in the running game at right tackle. There are some durability concerns, but 2011 was his only year with signficant injuries.
The number of tight ends available and Keller's weak 2012 campaign could artificially deflate his value. And teams rarely have to pay too much for anything but elite tight ends. Keller is a talented receiver who could be a lot more productive away from quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Middle-tier free agents
Everyone needs a safety that can cover. Or three. Heck "cover safety" should just be a starting position right next to "nickel back." Quin was a decent cornerback, but a better fit for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' knack for roving roles at safety. He's a priority re-signing because every team is looking for a player like him.
My man Adam Schein believes Mendenhall is one of the riskiest picks out there, but Schein is missing some of the basic principles of free agency: Buy low. Mendenhall is coming off his worst season and might be a head case, but this is a player who started in the Super Bowl and is only 25 years old. He averaged 1,100 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns for a three-year stretch and had a great excuse for playing poorly last year -- he was coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The beautiful part: Mendenhall won't cost much. A short-term contract with little guaranteed money should get it done. He's a perfect low-risk, high-reward signing for a team needing another backfield option.
Bryant's recent arrest should help prevent his free-agent stock from getting out of hand. He's a physical freak who can create havoc on the defensive line in the right system. It never hurts for a player to get out of Oakland and get out of bad habits learned there.
The ProFootballFocus favorite (and Martellus' brother) strangely has been ignored by the national media the last few years despite some solid pass-rushing numbers. He can provide comparable production to Paul Kruger, Elvis Dumervil (if available), and Cliff Avril for a much more affordable price.
Don't let the Jets' awful season stain the useful parts of their team. Devito is a no-frills 3-4 defensive lineman who can play a variety of positions. He'll provide quality depth. Guards with strong track records like Moore usually get paid a lot in free agency, but I don't get the sense that Moore is going to break the bank.
If you want a guy to block for you and move around the formation, sign San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker. If you want potential for 1,000-yard seasons, sign Davis to a three-year contract that is incentive heavy. Davis is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, which will keep his price low. The Redskins believe he will return to their team. I'm always surprised teams don't think long term in a situation like this.
For a modest amount of guaranteed money, why not get the rights to Davis for multiple years? He might not be back to his explosive self until late 2013 or even 2014, but potential Pro Bowl talent isn't easy to find. At his best, Davis was one of the NFL's toughest covers one-on-one at tight end.
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona Cardinals running back: He's great on special teams and was far better than expected as a primary rusher when called upon. Seriously, watch the tape against the Minnesota Vikings. Stephens-Howling had a lot more power and looked like a fine spot starter.
Patrick Chung, New England Patriots safety: It's a bad sign he fell out of favor with coach Bill Belichick, but Chung showed flashes early in his career of being a difference-maker in a variety of roles. He could use a fresh start.
Tracy Porter, Denver Broncos cornerback: The Super Bowl hero is fighting just to stay in the NFL after a lost season in Denver. He unlikely will get much more than a minimum-salary contract. It's hard to find someone with his talent and experience for that cheap. Minimal risk.
Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland Raiders defensive end: You'll notice a trend in these choices. I picked a lot of young players who have shown they can produce at the pro level, but they are getting devalued coming off poor seasons. Shaughnessy looked like an emerging force for two seasons with the Raiders before an injury wiped out 2011 and he wasn't great in 2012. He could thrive in a different system.
Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals defensive back: He was a very good return man and a very good slot cornerback last season. Jones is a year-to-year proposition, but he's quietly evolved into a useful veteran defensive player.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.