With free agency set to begin in just a few weeks, we'll all line up to declare winners and losers before the ink is dry on the new deals. But time and time again, the teams who actually 'win' free agency are the ones looking for fairly-priced, complementary pieces on the open market and not players who will fill a gaping void on offense or defense. Think the Patriots, not the Bills. Think the Broncos and Panthers, not the Dolphins.
So who are these complementary pieces, you ask? Here is a primer on some of the players at each position that will come at a good bargain with a high upside, assuming they are not tagged or re-signed before the market opens. Bargain is a relative term in this context, as some players will inevitably command a higher price tag than others.
When looking at this year's QB class, names like Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford and Brock Osweiler stand out. But do we imagine any of those players living up to a franchise tag -- or higher -- salary? With the exception of Osweiler, who played with one of the best defenses in NFL history this year, could any of these players lift a team from middling to playoff contention on their own? Bradford could potentially be that quarterback, but the numbers coming from his camp are already high. What might they be once other offers start coming in?
People will laugh at names like Colt McCoy,*Brandon Weeden,*Drew Stanton and Tarvaris Jackson, but for what they will cost and the output they could provide either as a quality backup or spot starter in case of injury, this is where the true value might lie. In four games as a starter last year, Weeden was 97-140 (almost 70 percent) for five touchdowns and two picks. His average quarterback rating was 96.8 per game. In his last eight -- very limited -- appearances, Jackson has a 75 percent completion rate, a 120.4 passer rating and no picks. And while the sample size is woefully small and skewed, he is in that nebulous crowd of veteran QBs that would likely outplay or seriously challenge a rookie in camp. The quality of quarterback play in the NFL for incoming rookies is not as high as it used to be, which means dedicated veterans are looking increasingly attractive.
What is the going rate for a former first-round pick at running back who is seeking a contract that will take him into his early 30s? Doug Martin is hoping to cash in after bookending his Tampa Bay career with 1,400-yard seasons. At 27, C.J. Spiller signed a four-year deal worth $16 million, with almost $9 million guaranteed. Ryan Mathews, coming off a significant injury, inked a three-year, $11 million deal. Mark Ingram signed a four-year deal worth $16 million that guaranteed $7.6 million.
Martin will command more and might actually get it. But is there actual value there? What are the chances he duplicates a Pro Bowl campaign? Is it worth $20-$25 million to find out?
Depending on his health and mileage, Chris Ivory might continue to be one of the best value backs in football. Bilal Powell also came on late in his Jets tenure, proving to be a solid dual-threat out of the backfield. If you're a contender, look no further than Matt Forte, who has talked openly about his desire to play for a contender over the highest bidder. Might he end up in the Frank Gore range of three years and $12 million?
When it comes to future potential, there may not be a better deal than Lamar Miller assuming the Dolphins don't drive his price up. At just 24, there is a lot to like from the former fourth-round pick and it could be a safer bet than selecting a rookie in the second or third round and hoping he contributes right away.
The class behind Alshon Jeffery is pretty depressing which means one thing: Jeffery is set to make a good amount of money.
While he's worth it, the point of this exercise is finding value -- and value might not mean spending $60 million on a wide receiver. The Jets paid $36.25 million over five years for Eric Decker in 2014, which might be the ceiling for teams not looking to make a splash this free agency -- and this year, there really is no player looking to command that type of money.
At 26, Jermaine Kearse might be the type of ascending, plug-and-play receiver that teams are looking for at a fair price. Kearse increased his number of receptions each of the last three years and he finished with a career-high five scores in 2015. The Seahawks routinely received flak for their lack of star power on the outside, but it was because of intelligent wideouts like Kearse and Doug Baldwin that Seattle operated so smoothly. The team let Golden Tate walk in free agency two years ago and Tyler Lockett is starting to command a bigger role in the offense. Seattle loved having Kearse at the RFA tender salary of $2.356 million last season, but will they go any higher? Per contract analyst Joel Corry, a good No. 2 receiver in this market could be asking between $5 and $6 million per year.
Rueben Randle, the former second-round pick of the Giants, is also expected to hit free agency. Giants general manager Jerry Reese rarely spends big on second contracts for players he drafted, which means Randle could be testing the market. He is a big body with 4.43 speed and he caught a career-high eight touchdowns last year alongside Odell Beckham.
There will be a lot of buzz around the tandem from Indianapolis -- Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. They should headline the market given their age and potential assuming the Colts can only pick one of two to bring back. But real bargain hunters might be salivating at the possibility of snagging Vernon Davis at the veteran's minimum. The trade to Denver did not work out for the 32 year old, but how can we expect someone to switch teams mid-season and just get on the same page with Peyton Manning? It's not a lock. Davis' numbers have been in a sharp decline over the past two seasons, but that doesn't necessarily mean he can't produce as a second tight end or slot-type hybrid on a team looking for athletes on offense.
But there are times when a veteran plug-and-play lineman is all you need, and this market is fairly appetizing for anyone in that boat.
The Giants' former starting left tackle, Will Beatty, was released after missing last year with a torn pectoral injury. Once one of the highest rated left tackles in football, Beatty could flourish with a change of scenery and can play both tackle spots well. With his injury situation, perhaps the best prove-it deal will win the bidding.
Donald Penn wants to retire as a member of the Raiders, but will they compensate him fairly? The two-year $9.6 million deal was a steal, and he's likened it in the past to a promotional price for HBO. Teams aren't breaking the bank for 32-year-old tackles, though, and Penn might end up as a supreme deal again.