We tend to overblow the significance of the initial rush of free-agent signings. So often, the teams that make the biggest splash don't truly "win." And we certainly overlook the value of the latter stages of the process.
A year ago, the New England Patriots added Andre Carter and Brian Waters later in the process with little fanfare. The Baltimore Ravens did the same with Bryant McKinnie. Without the contributions of those players, I'm not sure New England would have reached the Super Bowl or Baltimore would've made it to the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. A key, cheap free-agent signing can do much more than just bolster depth -- it can provide an important starter at a vital position of need.
And there are several intriguing players still on the street right now, eager for an opportunity to prove their worth. At this point, most clubs are focused on evaluating youth, holding rookie camps and assessing undrafted free agents. Some older players are left to sit around for a while and wait for a chance to get a job just before -- or even during -- training camp. Most of them are just fine with that at this stage of their career.
Some clubs are restricted by salary-cap issues and some are waiting for the inevitable rush of injuries that'll force them to turn to their emergency lists and begin making calls. I fully expect the phone to ring for most of the veterans in this list at some point. And frankly, given the health concerns with many of them, allowing more time for them to heal isn't a bad idea, anyway.
•*QB Dennis Dixon:* He is still young at 27, and it wasn't that long ago that he quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended (then suffered a torn meniscus the following week and ended up on IR). He's had horrible luck, but he was helluva high school and college quarterback. He's plenty big at 6-foot-3 and was a former 20th-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds. He's an athlete -- period. And I think he's a solid depth quarterback in this league at the very least.
I have always been impressed with Dixon's athleticism, calm presence, willingness to learn and perseverance (anyone who saw his college career at Oregon abruptly end due to injury can attest to that). Some think of him as a gimmick guy, but for most of his football life he was a traditional drop-back passer who wasn't asked to run all over the field.
During his four years in Pittsburgh, there were many in the organization who believed he could be a very effective backup and spot starter. But others in the coaching staff were less inclined to think that way. Still, Dixon came in cold -- without getting reps in practice all week -- and nearly beat the Ravens in Baltimore on a Sunday night back in 2009, after a concussion forced Roethlisberger out of the lineup about 36 hours before kickoff. Dixon has strong Wildcat ability as a situational player, and I still see plenty of upside, too.
Dixon has visited other teams as a free agent, but they've opted to go in other directions. Most recently, Dixon worked out for the Ravens, but they went with Curtis Painter as a third quarterback option (given Painter's familiarity with new quarterback coach Jim Caldwell, Painter's head coach in Indianapolis). There are fewer jobs out there with more and more teams keeping just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, but I still can't believe there isn't a spot for Dixon somewhere.
When I ask personnel people about him, they mention an injury risk, but several sources have told me Dixon's medicals are fine. And in reality, we're only talking about a one-year, veteran-minimum contract at this stage of the game anyway. Dixon can be a developmental starter with the ability to fill a spot role.
Best fit: St. Louis Rams. The Rams have kicked the tires on Dixon. They still lack depth behind Sam Bradford and have to worry at least a little about Bradford having to miss time. Brian Schottenheimer had success using Brad Smith in the Wildcat as the Jets' offensive coordinator, and while the Rams won't want Bradford ceding too many snaps, Dixon could provide a very different skill set.
•*WR Plaxico Burress:* It didn't work out spectacularly with the Jets, but then again, everything imploded there. (Clearly there were deep-seeded locker room and chemistry issues.) Burress wasn't a problem there and getting better quarterback play in a more robust offense could bring out the best in him.
He remains a red-zone weapon, as evidenced by his eight touchdowns in 2011. The jump balls alone can be enough to win you a game or two. He should be better, I believe, having had a good period of time to re-adjust to NFL life after his prison stint. The Eagles are among several teams that could use a tall receiver, and Burress has made it clear he would love to play with Michael Vick. But I think there is a better opportunity at a place that Plaxico is pretty familiar with ...
Best fit: Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, receiver isn't a glaring need right now. But Mike Wallace's contract situation could linger. And regardless, Burress makes perfect sense in certain packages. He knows everyone there -- having spent his first five professional seasons in Pittsburgh -- and the Steelers considered bringing him back a year ago, despite his checkered history. He remains on their radar now. Nothing is imminent, but with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders only a year away from free agency, there might not be money for everyone. Burress could be an affordable stopgap guy for them, even if it's only in a role not much larger than the one Hines Ward served last season.
•*OL Jason Brown:* It wasn't that long ago that the Rams were making Brown the highest-paid center in league history, as he left Baltimore for greener pastures. Brown didn't play up to that contract, though I would also point out that those Rams teams were pretty bad. And at least when Steven Jackson was healthy, Brown helped contribute to the running game.
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The financial risk with him would be much less now; one year in the range of $2 million would get it done. Brown can play center or guard and was a very solid starter in Baltimore for much of his career. He's still young enough, having just turned 29, and Baltimore had made a contract offer to him a few weeks back, but the drafting of Gino Gradkowski alleviated that need behind Matt Birk.
He might not be the perfect size fit in every scheme, but his versatility and athleticism make him plenty attractive to a team with a need on the offensive line. He's started nearly 90 games in the league, never missed a college game at North Carolina and is a bright player who can quickly grasp an offense.
Best fit: San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers already had him in for a visit this offseason. Although they addressed their interior offensive line some on Day 3 of the 2012 NFL Draft, this is a team with a Super Bowl mentality right now. It's all about a ring, and you can't have too much depth. Waiting it out and seeing how cheaply Brown can be had could be part of any strategy, but will the 49ers be able to avoid injury in 2012 the way they did at many key positions in 2011? Brown could give them more security and he already knows the NFC West well.
•*OLB/DE Andre Carter:*Bill Belichick couldn't figure out why no one signed Carter right away a year ago. This is someone with double-digit sack potential, and though he has struggled finding his way in some 3-4 schemes, the best defenses in the league are system-diverse enough to find a fit for Carter. He ended up being a difference maker for the pass-rush-starved Pats, recording 10 sacks.
Of course, Carter's season ended early due to injury and he's still working his way back. The 11-year veteran may be slowed some, but he's still more than worth the risk of another one-year deal. You simply cannot have too much pass rush in today's pass-first league. He's older -- I get that -- but keep in mind that in recent years teams have been trying to pry guys like Kevin Carter and Aaron Schobel out of retirement, looking for a third-down specialist. Carter will be back and he's going to help someone.
Best fit: New England Patriots. No reason to overthink this. Belichick knows and likes Carter -- and Carter loved playing for Belichick. The Pats know how to utilize him and are keeping a close eye on his recovery. Baltimore, with Terrell Suggs suffering a partially torn Achilles, would make sense, too, but I have someone else in mind to fill that need ...
•*DE Antwan Odom:* He's been forgotten the past few years, having to recover from a botched hand surgery. But prior to injuries mounting, this dude was tearing up quarterbacks and giving elite tackles a hard time off the edge. He's regaining strength, lifting weights again, and should be able to show off for teams within a month. And teams are calling, Denver among them.
Once, again, pass rushers are always a hot commodity. Back in 2009, Odom registered eight sacks in just six games for the Cincinnati Bengals -- a team that didn't have many complementary pass rushers. Once healthy, he will find work. Odom is still just 30 and could play several more years. A 2010 suspension for taking a banned substance shouldn't be a huge concern at this point, considering the minimal risk that would be involved in any contract.
Best fit: Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens know him well, having faced him so often within the division, and I'd tend to think getting a crack at the Bengals twice a year would suit Odom perfectly. Baltimore longed for an improved pass rush depth even before the Suggs injury. Now it's acute. The Ravens explored options like Mark Anderson early in free agency, and with their cap situation, trading for someone with a big contract isn't really feasible. Odom is an Alabama product, and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome will always have an emotional attachment to that school. Seems like a natural fit to me.
•*RB Ryan Grant:* I know, I know -- these guys are a dime a dozen. I get it. But injuries mount, and whether it be now or sometime in August, Grant will find a spot. Like most of these guys, the medical history scares some teams. And the fact that the Packers are in no rush to retain him only furthers those concerns. But a return to Green Bay isn't out of the question.
In a limited role, Grant could provide some bang for the buck. Washington coach Mike Shanahan loves a committee of running backs, though I hear Tim Hightower is the best bet to be signed there once he is healthy. I'm sure Grant's name is high atop some emergency lists. He most recently visited the Patriots, but they ended up signing Joseph Addai.
Best fit: Detroit Lions. Stay in the NFC North, but just move down a bit. The Lions are exploring several options at running back and intend to add a veteran at some point, but they may wait until training camp to do so. Grant could get a chance to play a big role on a contender in Detroit. Kevin Smith has his injury history, Jahvid Best has suffered multiple concussions, and Mikel Leshoure missed all of last season due to injury. The Lions have had to dig deep to find options at this position in recent years, and Grant could be a stabilizing force.
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•*DL Albert Haynesworth:* I had to save the most controversial figure for last. I know, firsthand, what a distraction he can be. We all know the history on him. Impossible to coach. Unmotivated. Yada, yada, yada. But sometimes when guys hit rock bottom -- the money is gone and the debt is adding up -- they see the light and salvage what's left of their career. And, yeah, I'm a big softie and a sucker for redemption stories. So I say there is still a place on some roster for him.
When he wants to play, he can be a dominant inside pass rusher who can also line up over tackle on obvious passing downs. This will be his last shot. Talking to people on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, after they claimed him off waivers, he wasn't a horrible teammate or a cancer for the young defensive linemen there or anything like that. He wasn't incredibly productive either. But as a situational player on a veteran-minimum deal, he could make some plays in critical situations and find his niche in the right environment.
He didn't become the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history a few years back because he couldn't play at all. But it certainly takes a special breed to bring out the best in him.
Best fit: St. Louis Rams.Jeff Fisher was his coach all those years in Tennessee and knows what makes him tick. Fisher also has a need at defensive line and builds his teams from the inside out. Yes, the Rams took a defensive lineman in the first round, but Michael Brockers is raw and hasn't flashed superior pass-rush ability from the inside to this point. Haynesworth is a good fit as a third-down guy in certain packages. And the Rams have certainly shown through their drafting of players with issues -- and pursuit of Jerome Simpson -- that they are willing to take risks. That's been Fisher's way for years -- why should it stop now?
A case could be made for the Eagles, as well. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn was Haynesworth's sensei through his ups and downs in Tennessee. But the Eagles have more to lose after failing to meld all of their additions last season, and with the burden of expectations and a more veteran team. The spotlight would be much less bright in St. Louis, and if Haynesworth is going to get a chance to re-appear anytime soon, I suspect it's with the Rams.