Conventional NFL wisdom has long held that free agency is a pool full of fool's gold, with those dumb enough to dive in deserving of the fate that inevitably awaits them.
It was just two years ago that Broncos executive vice president/general manager John Elway went headlong into the market with what appeared to be a final stab at getting a ring out of the Peyton Manning Era. He paid cornerback Aqib Talib at what qualified as the upper reaches of his position at the time. Elway wasn't shy with safety T.J. Ward, either. And he scooped former Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Wareoff the scrap heap at a heftier annual rate than either of them, then bet on potential with receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Each deal ran three years or longer. They added to a cumulative average cost per year of $30.41 million (or 22.9 percent of that year's salary cap figure of $133 million). All four players were within three years of turning 30.
And boy, did it ever work.
"The one trick, every guy they signed in free agency, they're all highly competitive," said one NFC pro scouting director. "They got paid, but they want to win. And that's part of their model. You have to have those qualities to play there."
Here's the other thing: In each case, there was a logical answer to the operative question every team should ask about every single free agent.
Why is this guy free in the first place?
» With Ware, it was because of tight economics in Dallas and injury issues that limited his production in his final seasons there.
» With Ward, it was because the Browns were two GMs removed from his draft day in 2010, and the safety had played under three head coaches, meaning there was little investment in him inside the building.
Two of the four were Wave 1 signees, coming in right after the signing period started. Another, Ware, was a veteran who had been released by his team. The fourth, Sanders, came a week after the market opened. And the real key was that none arrived as a savior, even thought they'd grow into cornerstones.
"Sanders goes to Denver and, well, they already have [Demaryius] Thomas," said an AFC personnel exec. "There's Ware to go with Miller. Now, Talib's there, but they already had [Chris] Harris. So those guys were just taking it from one level to another -- they were finishing it out, making it complete. None of those moves were forced by need, which is where you can make a mistake."
So how does all this apply this year? Here are some guys who will hit the market Wednesday for reasons other than their teams not liking them, guys who could wind up bringing value the way Denver's star quartet did:
Colts TE Coby Fleener:Indy re-upped Dwayne Allen -- a more versatile piece than Fleener -- and hosted veteran tight end Scott Chandler on Monday, signs they're ready to let Fleener walk as a matter of circumstance. And while Fleener isn't All-Pro, he has posted three consecutive 50-catch seasons. If you're expecting Rob Gronkowski, you won't get that. But he can be a valuable piece alongside other weapons as a matchup guy.
Rams DE William Hayes: Hayes was imported from Tennessee by former Titans coach Jeff Fisher when Fisher made his way to St. Louis in 2012, and he served as a leader for a group that was stocked with a quartet of former first-round picks. But he was also productive, piling up 21.5 sacks as a valuable depth piece over the last four years, and he could be a good get for someone in the second wave of free agency.
Broncos DL Malik Jackson: You can look at Denver's situation on its defensive front like the receiver situation in Pittsburgh that led to Sanders' availability a few years back. The Broncos can't keep everyone. So they got Derek Wolfe in at just under $10 million per, tagged Miller and have made a real effort to get Jackson done while working to keep quarterback Brock Osweiler in these tight quarters.
Rams CB Janoris Jenkins: If Jenkins can stay focused and get more consistent, he has high-end man-to-man cover skills. Los Angeles' decision to tag cornerback Trumaine Johnson raised some eyebrows elsewhere in the league, and it does raise some questions about Jenkins. But there's enough there to think he could evolve in the same manner Talib did as he bounced from Tampa to New England to Denver.
(UPDATE: NFL Media's Rand Getlin reported that Jenkins has agreed to a contract with the Giants. Ian Rapoport added that the deal is expected to be worth more than $12 million per year.)
Seahawks DT Brandon Mebane: The mammoth Seattle mainstay just turned 31 and plays on a defense that's now loaded with well-paid 20-somethings. But as a second-wave free agent, he's certainly got the potential to really help someone, health permitting. One rival pro scouting director said, "He can still wreck games."
Ravens OG Kelechi Osemele: This one's all but gone, as he and the Raiders have already agreed in principle to a deal, but he fits the mold. Two of Baltimore's four highest-paid guys are offensive linemen, and keeping Osemele would've required the team to move him past both those guys (Marshal Yanda and Eugene Monroe) on the team's payroll. Plus, other clubs view his value as a tackle, which helps explain why Oakland is set to pay him more than $11 million per year.
Seahawks OG J.R. Sweezy: As is the case with Osemele, it's tough to tag a guard, given the way the system works (the OL tag is based on left tackles' salaries), and so they routinely make it to the market. And the Seahawks, again, have paid a lot of their own on a talent-rich roster already, which means it makes sense that some good players will eventually have to seek greener pastures elsewhere.