Best free-agent moves also were the most understated

Subtlety isn't exactly one of owner Jerry Jones' strongest character traits, especially when it comes to his Dallas Cowboys franchise. Yet three of his free-agent acquisitions this past offseason that barely registered amid the big-money, big-name signings have solidified a defense that is rounding into dominant shape at the season's midseason point.

Safety Gerald Sensabaugh, defensive end Igor Olshansky and linebacker Keith Brooking have been the glue at each level of the defense that is now allowing stars Terence Newman, Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware to hit their strides.

"(With) Igor and myself, Wade (Phillips) knew what he was getting because he coached us in San Diego and Atlanta," said Brooking, the Cowboys' leading tackler who spent his previous 11 seasons with the Falcons. "Sense (Sensabaugh), he's in the same boat, except I don't think they knew he was such a playmaker. It's working because this means something to the guys. Not just us three, but to all 11 guys on the field."

Baldinger: Key free agents

Aside from Brett Favre and Albert Haynesworth, three free agents who have been difference-makers for their teams jump out at me -- Keith Brooking, Brian Dawkins and Darren Sharper.

Brooking is playing as good as he's played, period, over the last five years. He's been a spark. He's a great tackler, is covering RBs and doesn't come off the field. Their run defense is good right now and he's giving them a lot -- a lot of leadership. I think he's hungry to prove he has a lot of football left.

Dawkins has given the Broncos veteran leadership and has a toughness about him that he's brought to the defense. He has started every game and he gets them ready. He's still performing very well, has been their leader from the beginning, and he's making Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman better.

Sharper is a perfect fit for the Saints. Long before Gregg Williams got there, the problem was always defense and a lack of playmakers. He's been a good tackler, and they no longer get beat consistently on big plays. If you're going to gamble on defense, which Williams does, you need an experienced guy like Sharper on the back end who knows when to take chances. He experience and recognition limit mistakes and big plays.

-- Brian Baldinger

Sensabaugh (Jacksonville), Olshansky (San Diego) and Brooking were deemed expendable by their former teams. But their experience, toughness and desire were inherent qualities that have allowed them to mesh with the guys in place and fill voids that were areas of concern. Adding experienced pieces to prime parts is a long-held formula to success, but some teams, especially those in need of "franchise" talent or marquee appeal, spend for the big dogs that don't always help the overall cause.

Few of the top-tier teams went that route when the free-agency season opened last February. Some, like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, re-signed their home-grown talent, keeping with the successful franchise-building models they've used for years. A handful of others hit gold by acquiring veteran free agents a few days into free agency, when the lights dimmed and the pocket books grew tighter.

New Orleans, New England, Denver, Cincinnati and Atlanta have put themselves in position to make a playoff run because of the production they've gotten from understated free-agent acquisitions, and, in the Bengals' case, the re-signing of free agents they weren't even sure they wanted to keep.

No team has hit bigger with less-trumpeted free-agent acquisitions than the unbeaten Saints.

Safety Darren Sharper has been one of the top defensive players in the first half of the season with seven interceptions, three of which he's taken back for touchdowns. The former Packers and Vikings standout signed with New Orleans after realizing there wasn't much of a market for a 33-year-old safety supposedly on his last legs, with a dazzling résumé that has only grown more impressive during the Saints' 8-0 start.

Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has been beyond a pleasant surprise in his re-introduction to the NFL. A three-time offender of the NFL's substance abuse policy, he was suspended for the entire 2008 season. Hargrove, who played end most of his career with St. Louis and Buffalo, has been highly effective with the Saints after being moved to defensive tackle, where he replaced injured starter Sedrick Ellis last month. In fact, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance on Sunday in which he forced two fumbles, recovered another and scored his first NFL touchdown.

Cornerback Jabari Greer was one of the more coveted free-agent cornerbacks in the open market but he wasn't -- and still isn't -- a household name. And, by cornerback standards, the four-year, $23 million deal he signed with New Orleans was affordable. He has proven to be a wise investment, garnering 38 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Atlanta.

Two other New Orleans notables who weren't very noteworthy upon arrival were fullback Heath Evans and safety Pierson Prioleau. Evans was the path-maker for New Orleans' powerful running game before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 7. Prioleau, who seems joined at the hip with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, has been a reliable special teams player who adds depth to a once-weak secondary that is now a major team strength.

The New England Patriots made a flurry of offseason signings that involved accomplished veterans, including running back Fred Taylor, cornerback Shawn Springs and wide receiver Joey Galloway, that fit into the character mold that has been the team's credo. But the underplayed signing of linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, the former Patriot-turned-49er, has proven another deft transaction in the Patriots' history of stealth moves.

Banta-Cain, a defensive end used in sub-packages but who also has three starts, is coming off a nine-tackle game against the Miami Dolphins. Banta-Cain, who spent four seasons with New England before signing with the 49ers in 2007, has been effective in his return, registering three sacks and 27 tackles.

With Brooking's departure in Atlanta, the Falcons were left young at the position, to the point where second-year linebacker Curtis Lofton was expected to be the leader in every sense of the role for a re-tooled defense. The undertaking was enormous for a quiet young man from a small-town in Oklahoma. That burden was lifted when the Falcons signed long-time Jacksonville linebacker Mike Peterson, who has proven to be far more than just a leader.

Peterson's arrival allowed Lofton to simply play football, and play football Lofton has; he leads the NFL in tackles (84). Peterson, meanwhile, has 55 tackles, an interception, a sack and two forced fumbles. He's the cog in an evolving unit that everyone relies on to make a play or to have an answer when things don't go quite right.

Two of the wisest moves the Bengals made in reshaping their vastly improved roster was hanging on to free-agent safety Chris Crocker, who was salvaged last season after being released by Miami, and re-signing running back Cedric Benson, the frontrunner for comeback player of the year.

Crocker has bounced around from Cleveland to Atlanta to Miami and Cincinnati, but once he was reunited with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whom he played for in Atlanta, he regained his chops in a scheme that played to his strengths. Crocker, a hard-hitting combo strong/free safety, has 38 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Benson, meanwhile, has blossomed into the dominant player the Bears bailed on after failed on-field production and questionable off-field decisions. Benson, who has rushed for six touchdowns, ranks second in the NFL in rushing with 837 yards. He's rushed for 117 yards or more in three of his last four games, including a 189-yard gashing of Chicago on Oct. 25 in a 45-10 victory.

For a franchise that has had so much bad luck with its personnel decisions, the retention of Crocker and Benson, to go along with the health of Carson Palmer, the resurrection of Chad Ochocinco and a defense that is borderline fearsome, has helped the Bengals move to the top of the AFC North and earn some long-sought respect.

None of these players are the saviors to their teams and it might be unwise in some cases to get too carried away with their performances with the season just being at its midway point. Still, the impact can't be questioned. Even if some of the production fades, these players have put their teams in position to make a run at the playoffs with strong first halves.

And while a lot of general managers, scouts and other personnel types would love to claim credit, a lot of them also know they may have gotten lucky to get what they've gotten from players whose time and production might be limited.

"Let's be real, the window of opportunity is closing for me," Brooking, 34, said. "I love the situation that I am in. I see how talented we are. We aren't special yet, but we are talented. I have an opportunity as a veteran player and we have an opportunity as a team to make something happen -- and to really enjoy it along the way."

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