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The NFL All-Bargain Team

Who are the players (well, actually the contracts) that provide the most bang for the buck?

One of my favorite things to put together every NFL season is an All-Bargain Team. I would say about half the fun is because people don’t read the description of who is and isn’t eligible for this All-Bargain Team before wildly complaining that their favorite player isn’t included.

The other half is that it’s interesting to see where some of the league’s most valuable properties actually come from. Players who were basically cast off and treated like disposable talent become meaningful contributors to successful NFL teams overnight. And then, in many cases, they disappear back into the ether, having either received a raise or moved to a less cooperative context. Last year’s team started with Josh McCown throwing to Kris Durham and went from there, so you can see how quickly it changes. Bargains today, problems tomorrow.

OK. Let’s put this in bold again and see if you’re listening: This list does not include players who are on their first professional contracts. That means no Russell Wilson, who is still playing out his rookie deal. It doesn’t include rookie undrafted free agents like Allen Hurns, who is signed to the same minimum deal he had upon entering the league. This list is for veterans who were available to the league as free agents or signed to extensions after their initial contracts.

All the contractual data used in the piece comes from Spotrac.

Offense

Quarterback: Brian Hoyer, Browns
Contract: Two years, $2 million

The team starts with what will likely be its easiest choice. There are only, by my count, seven NFL starting quarterbacks who aren’t either fabulously compensated or on their rookie contract. One is Ryan Mallett, who hasn’t started a game yet. Shaun Hill is just making his way back into the lineup, as are Michael Vick and Josh McCown. Drew Stanton has played in limited time. That leaves Hoyer and Kyle Orton, and after watching last night’s replay, that isn’t much of a choice at all.

Hoyer’s future is going to be very interesting. The Browns will eventually want to give Johnny Manziel a look, but Hoyer has been effective enough to hold that off for as long as possible. He’s not going to get the franchise tag, and he hasn’t played well enough to earn a Carson Palmer–esque extension, but he’s going to get a deal that will do one better on the contracts signed by the likes of Chad Henne this offseason. Two years and $16 million would make sense. Just not sure yet for whom.

Running Back: Justin Forsett, Ravens
Contract: One year, $730,000

I covered Forsett’s breakout season in yesterday’s article about the running back class of 2008. He’s fourth in rushing yards, tops the league in yards per carry by a qualifying halfback, and is ninth among all players in yards from scrimmage. As he’s 29 and has finally found an organization that believes in him, it would be a surprise to see Forsett leave Baltimore this offseason.

Running Back: Darren Sproles, Eagles
Contract: Three years, $10.5 million

It’s not often that a veteran running back with a multiyear contract shows up in this space, but Sproles has been nothing short of a revelation since coming over from the Saints. The diminutive halfback already has six touchdowns on 81 touches, including a pair of kick return scores during an eventful first season in Philadelphia. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry for a rushing attack that’s averaging 3.6 yards per pop when Sproles isn’t touching the ball. Not bad for a guy with a cap hit of just $2 million this season. Sproles’s MVP-level impact on a per-carry basis narrowly carried him onto the team ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw (one year, $855,000).

Wide Receiver: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles
Contract: One year, $5.3 million

Let’s stick with that Chip Kelly offense and bring in Maclin, who signed a one-year deal in February after missing all of Kelly’s debut season with a torn ACL. Expected to be the team’s primary receiver with DeSean Jackson leaving town, Maclin has exceeded expectations and been one of the most productive wideouts in football; he’s eighth in the league in receiving yards and tied for second among wideouts with eight touchdowns. At 6-foot-0, Maclin doesn’t have the overwhelming height Kelly prefers in his receiving weapons. But given Maclin’s productivity, it would be a shame to see him move on after this season.

Wide Receiver: Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos
Contract: Three years, $15 million

Sanders’s deal reportedly broke “every rule in negotiations,” with his agent agreeing to terms on a deal with the Chiefs before using the terms of that agreement to shop Sanders around elsewhere.

The former Steelers wideout eventually landed in Denver, taking the departed Eric Decker’s targets while also quietly absorbing some of Wes Welker’s attention, too. The touchdowns didn’t come at first, but he has six scores in his last four games. He has also been a first-down machine, tied for third-best in football with 41 receptions that resulted in first downs. Sanders is a virtual lock to make his first Pro Bowl.

Tight End: Owen Daniels, Ravens
Contract: One year, $1 million

Last year’s All-Bargain TE was Dallas Clark, who filled in as Baltimore’s primary tight end after Dennis Pitta went down with a hip injury. Daniels was supposed to be a secondary weapon while playing behind a returning Pitta this year, but Pitta re-dislocated his hip and has missed all but three games, opening the door for a low-cost veteran backup for the second consecutive season. Daniels’s 35-348-3 line isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but for a player who seemed like he might be out of football this season, it’s bargain-basement production.

Offensive Tackle: King Dunlap, Chargers
Contract: Two years, $3.7 million

San Diego’s offensive line has suffered a sharp decline over the past several weeks as the Chargers have fallen back toward the middle of the AFC pack. Dunlap has not been immune to that swoon, but for what he is — a left tackle whose cap hit is less than $2.5 million this season — he’s still one of the league’s biggest bargains. The Chargers will need to pay him like he’s a starting left tackle this offseason or will lose him to somebody who values him that way.

Offensive Tackle: Louis Vasquez, Broncos
Contract: Four years, $23.5 million

Don’t adjust your monitors. Vasquez, who made the All-Pro team at guard last year during his debut season with the Broncos, moved to right tackle this past week out of desperation for a Broncos team that started Chris Clark out there before replacing him with Paul Cornick, who went down with a shoulder injury in practice.

With the relatively low-impact defense of the Raiders on the other side of the football, John Fox experimented by moving his star guard to right tackle, shifting makeshift center Manny Ramirez back to his traditional spot at guard, and inserting veteran backup center Will Montgomery into the lineup. The move caused a few growing pains, but it went well enough to justify keeping Vasquez at right tackle for the time being. Under any circumstances, his dominant play at guard and the flexibility to even entertain a move to tackle leaves Vasquez as one of the most valuable linemen in football.

Guard: Michael Ola, Bears
Contract: Three years, $1.5 million

While Bears fans aren’t necessarily happy with the Marc Trestman–Phil Emery duo these days, Ola ended up as one of their useful finds this offseason. A utility lineman who spent 2012 and 2013 with Trestman’s former employers in Montreal, Ola actually signed a deal with the Dolphins this offseason before being released and catching on with the Bears, where he’s started seven games as a replacement for the injured Matt Slauson. With a base salary of just $420,000 and a prorated signing bonus of just $1,666 hitting the cap,1 he doesn’t have to be much more than a passable guard to justify appearing on this team.


1.

That’s right — not $1.6 million. It’s one thousand six hundred sixty-six dollars.

Guard: John Jerry, Giants
Contract: One year, $795,000

I have to admit I’m not the biggest Jerry fan after reading in the Ted Wells report about how he bullied Jonathan Martin during his time in Miami. But, for whatever it’s worth, he’s been a marginally useful replacement guard as a fill-in for the injured Geoff Schwartz, which justifies that relatively tiny price tag. Sometimes, players are a bargain because they’re unlikable. Here’s one such example.

Center: Samson Satele, Dolphins
Contract: One year, $2 million

Satele bounced around the league and has been a frequent disappointment ever since the Dolphins took him with one of their second-round picks in the 2007 draft. That was one of the worst draft classes in league history, a group highlighted by Miami taking return specialist Ted Ginn with the ninth overall pick. Satele was supposed to be a short-term replacement for the injured Mike Pouncey when the Dolphins signed him in August, but Satele has been effective enough that Miami moved Pouncey to guard when the fellow Wells-report bully returned from a hip injury.

Miami Dolphins v Chicago BearsJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Defense

Defensive Lineman: Willie Young, Bears
Contract: Three years, $9 million

Nobody on the Bears feels like a bargain after last week’s disastrous loss to the Packers, but Young was basically signed to be the rotational end behind Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen and has delivered far beyond either. Despite starting only two games, the former Lions end has accrued seven sacks, good enough to comfortably lead the Bears. With Houston out after tearing his ACL celebrating a meaningless sack against the Patriots, Young’s role should continue to expand.

Defensive Lineman: Tommy Kelly, Cardinals
Contract: One year, $955,000

Nobody batted an eye when the Patriots cut the 33-year-old Kelly at the end of training camp; it’s the Patriots, so when they cut an old defensive tackle coming off a torn ACL, you just assume Bill Belichick is making the right move. He wasn’t here. Kelly has been good enough to earn regular playing time with Arizona’s fourth-best scoring defense, filling in up front after injuries to Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. He’ll do the same on our team here.

Defensive Lineman: Terrance Knighton, Broncos
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million

Pot Roast comfortably made last year’s team after impressing in his first season with the Broncos, and that was before his breakout performance in the playoffs. He continues to be one of the league’s best run-defending tackles in the second year of his bargain contract. Denver doesn’t have a ton of cap space to work with as it tries to sign Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas this offseason, but it needs to save enough money to re-sign Knighton, too.

Outside Linebacker: Brandon Marshall, Broncos
Contract: One year, $495,000

Sticking with the theme of Jaguars castoffs who found their way to Denver, it seems unfair that the Broncos should have been able to mine so much talent from a desperate organization. Marshall has started eight games as an outside linebacker for the Broncos, filling in as a replacement for the injured Danny Trevathan. He’s often assigned the dirty work while DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller go after the quarterback, but that suits him — and the Broncos — just fine.

Outside Linebacker: Dan Skuta, 49ers
Contract: Two years, $3 million

Skuta, previously a backup linebacker for the Bengals, has proven to be invaluable while filling in for the suspended Aldon Smith, who returns this week. He obviously can’t pretend to have Smith’s freakish athleticism or preternatural timing in working alongside Justin Smith, but he’s forced two fumbles and picked up two sacks in the final year of his contract.

Inside Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman, Colts
Contract: Three years, $1.5 million

I mentioned in last year’s column that Freeman was basically on scholarship for this piece until he got a new deal, and that contract still hasn’t come. Freeman has missed time with a hamstring injury, but his broader body of work and the incredibly cheap price the Colts pay leave him as one of the league’s most valuable players on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Freeman will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it will be interesting to see if any team tries to tempt the former CFL star away from his NFL home.

Inside Linebacker: Rolando McClain, Cowboys
Contract: One year, $700,000

Left for dead after being cut by the Raiders and retiring shortly after being acquired by the Ravens, McClain was dealt to the Cowboys for peanuts this summer after the team lost star inside linebacker Sean Lee for the season. Nobody expected much, but McClain quickly emerged as the most impressive contributor on a makeshift defense, helping push the Cowboys to an unlikely 6-1 start.

With their perennial cap woes and Lee returning, it will be very interesting to see what the Cowboys do with McClain this offseason. It’s almost impossible to imagine him playing for such a low price next year, but the Cowboys might not have the cap space or the playing time to justify offering him much more.

Cornerback: Antonio Cromartie, Cardinals
Contract: One year, $3.5 million

During this week’s Grantland NFL Podcast, Robert Mays suggested that Cromartie has been the best free-agent signing from the past offseason. I don’t know about that — Cromartie was burned badly in the loss to the Broncos — but it’s impossible to argue he’s been anything but impressive during his debut season in the desert.

Arizona’s defensive scheme works because it has so much faith in its defensive backs, and with Patrick Peterson not playing at his best this year, Cromartie has been remarkably solid for a player with a reputation for inconsistency. He even lined up at defensive end on an early third down last week, a sign of how defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will put anybody on his defense in any spot at any time. It worked, too, as Cromartie dropped back into coverage and fooled Rams passer Austin Davis, producing a sack.

Cornerback: Brandon Flowers, Chargers
Contract: One year, $3 million

Flowers teamed with Jason Verrett to offer an immediate upgrade to last year’s overmatched Chargers secondary, and during their hot start to the season, Flowers seemed to be everywhere. A groin injury slowed him down a bit during San Diego’s losing streak, but the 28-year-old has successfully rebuilt his value and should be paid like a no. 1 cornerback again this offseason.

Safety: Louis Delmas, Dolphins
Contract: One year, $2.25 million

Delmas’s career has been riddled with injuries, which surely came into play when the Lions moved on from him this offseason. He’s had no such concerns in Miami, and while the Dolphins actually benched him during a game in September, he’s bounced back and continued to buzz around the field as part of football’s most underrated secondary. Delmas did drop an interception in last night’s win over the Bills, but on a one-year deal for chump change, he’s been a worthwhile contributor.

Safety: Antoine Bethea, 49ers
Contract: Four years, $21 million

The team ends with one of its highest-paid players. Thirty-year-old safeties who receive market-value deals in free agency don’t often profile as bargains, but Bethea is no ordinary safety. He’s been a viable defensive player of the year candidate, forcing turnovers and making plays in the open field on a seemingly weekly basis. He’s only the 21st-highest paid safety in football, but this season, no safety has been more valuable to his team. Bethea hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since 2009, but he deserves to make a return trip, and an All-Pro nod wouldn’t be out of the question, either.