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.
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.
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 Redskinsbelieve 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.
Harrison: Team needs in free agency
With free agency set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 12, Elliot Harrison identifies priorities for all 32 NFL teams. More ...
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.