The NFL Scouting Combine is a time to evaluate the incoming draft class and begin to get to know some of these players on a personal level, but it's also a time to formulate a plan for free agency. Budgets are set following discussions with agents about restructured contracts. A final roster purge is just ahead for teams that want to get their salary cap in order before the free-agent floodgates open March 13.
As much as teams will pore over every performance metric in Indianapolis, the reality is draft plans won't come into focus until after free agency. In the meantime, a bevy of top NFL players will make headlines by having the franchise tag placed upon them (I provided a full primer on that process earlier in the week). But we'll hear less about some talent that's about to hit the market.
This league is all about value. Any team with sufficient cap space and a willing owner can set the market for the marquee names. It takes a more discerning eye, and more negotiating and scouting acumen, to find a second-tier player with the potential to become a first-tier performer on another roster. That kind of skill can separate contenders from pretenders come January. Patient teams, those that can avoid the temptation to make a big-ticket, big-splash signing and find bargains a week or more into the free-agency period, are often rewarded.
Some under-the-radar free agents could make a big impact if they end up in the right scenarios. Here are my thoughts on a few of those players:
2012's notable free agents
Jason Campbell, QB, Oakland Raiders. I admit, I love this guy. He's as good a dude as there is in the league, a tireless worker, totally dedicated to football, who has learned to become a more vocal leader. He also has some of the worst luck I've ever seen. Make no mistake, Campbell's humility, perseverance and performance had everything to do with the Raiders overcoming adverse conditions to finish 2010 with an 8-8 record. Campbell followed that up with a 4-2 start before suffering what would become a season-ending broken collarbone.
He's able to throw now and should be fully healthy well before organized team activities begin. Any squad looking for an exemplary No. 2, someone who is more than qualified to be the No. 1 and can push most starters in this league, had better look at Campbell. He has experience in the Coryell- and Walsh-style offenses -- though he is a better fit for the vertical game -- and is a free agent for the first time. A strong athlete who led Auburn to an undefeated season, he throws a great deep ball and has managed to learn a new offense with a new coordinator almost every year since his early college days.
Other than Matt Flynn (who will get legitimate starter money), to me, Campbell is the best quarterback poised to hit free agency (I'm not counting New Orleans' Drew Brees or San Francisco's Alex Smith, who aren't going anywhere). Campbell would make a lot of sense for the New York Jets, while if the Steelers go in a different direction from current backups Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, Pittsburgh might be a heck of a landing spot, too. Dallas needs to replace backup Jon Kitna, and Seattle or Philadelphia might be able to use Campbell as well. He is a viable starter. Kyle Orton is the only other bridge quarterback available that I'd put in Campbell's neighborhood.
Mike Tolbert, RB, San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have flirted with the idea of signing Tolbert to a long-term deal, with discussions dating back to last year, but nothing has materialized. San Diego gave up a lot to move up and draft Ryan Mathews, and has guys like Jacob Hester still under contract, meaning that this human wrecking ball is likely to hit the market.
Tolbert, 26, has a nose for the end zone (21 total touchdowns the past two seasons in just five starts), helps in pass protection, can catch out of the backfield and is strong in short-yardage situations. He's a classic overachiever who has defied the odds to reach this point, and Chargers coaches have, at times, clearly trusted him more than Mathews.
Tolbert never complains about his role. He is all-team, all the time, able to carry the ball like a lead back when asked while remaining a standout on special teams. He is a true unsung hero who would fit in any locker room. Tolbert might have to wait for the likes of Peyton Hillis and Cedric Benson to find homes first, but he will add bite to a backfield somewhere.
Josh Morgan, WR, San Francisco 49ers. Like Campbell, luck hasn't been on Morgan's side much, either, but he has a great skill set, is just 26, and could end up outperforming some of the older receivers likely to get bigger bucks on the market. He has to avoid the injury bug, but there will be ample interest in him. The 49ers vow they want to keep him, but I can't see him not wanting to test the waters.
Morgan can run, catch, has some elusiveness in his game and should just be entering his prime. For much of his career, the 49ers' quarterback situation has been a train wreck. It's just his luck that right when Smith was finally stabilizing the position, Morgan had his season wiped out by injury after just five games. Sources tell me, however, that he is ahead of schedule in his attempt to come back from a broken leg. Morgan averaged 16 yards per catch in 2010, his last full season.
Once some of the vertical receivers like Brandon Lloyd are gone, Morgan could be the best thing standing, and that's never a bad position to be in. Contending teams like Baltimore and New England need someone to stretch defenses. He could also make an interesting complement to Andre Johnson in Houston. Morgan might be primed for a real breakthrough.
Now 27, Carriker was a great find by the Redskins via trade a few years back -- 'Skins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who was with the Rams when Carriker was there, deserves kudos for that -- and he has blossomed into a strong all-around performer. He chipped in with 5.5 sacks last season and is showing why he was drafted 13th overall in 2007.
I'm shocked the Redskins haven't already extended him, given how few of their own young players they need to take care of and how much cap space they have, and he might yet end up staying. If he does hit the market, however, there will be plenty of suitors. He found his way on the edge in a 3-4 scheme, and he's started 31 of 32 games in two years. In fact, aside from sitting out the entire 2009 season due to injury, Carriker has missed a total of one game in four seasons. Sounds plenty durable to me.
Casserly: Combine craziness
Jarret Johnson, LB, Baltimore Ravens. So much attention is paid to the superstars on Baltimore's defense -- Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs -- but ask those guys about the heart and soul of their unit, the true lunchpail guy, and they'll point to JJ. He does so much dirty work to help make them shine. He sets the edge in the 3-4, is so strong against the run and can rush the passer when schemed-up to do so.
He simply makes others better. Any team needing a veteran leader to solidify its defense and bring accountability to its locker room should look at Johnson. The Ravens would hate to lose him, but have only so much money and cap room to go around. Teams routinely try to plunder the Ravens defense, offering more than Baltimore can. Johnson would love to stay as well, but someone might make him an offer he can't refuse. I'm generally aiming for guys in their mid-20s with this column, and Johnson skews a little older (he'll be 31 come next season). But he brings so many intangibles to the table, is so fundamentally sound and is all-motor, all the time.
Guys like Denver's Matt Prater and Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski get more attention, but the Jaguars know how good the 29-year-old Scobee is. I expect them to franchise him, which would make his inclusion in this column a moot point, but if they don't, other clubs will come calling. This season he ranked first in the AFC in field-goal percentage. He was fourth in the NFL in kickoff average and completed a league-best 95.7 percent of his outdoor kicks. Over the past two years, he has kicked his field goals from the league's second-longest average distance, yet has still been deadly accurate.