It’s not very easy for an NFL team to find a bargain in free agency. The vast majority of players who would be considered bargains on NFL rosters are guys who are still on their rookie deals, players whose salaries are artificially capped by the CBA. The fluid nature of contracts around the league and the high attrition rate inherent with football also dictate that the few veterans who are bargains don’t stay that way for very long. Because contracts are nonguaranteed, teams are more likely to offer an undervalued player a new deal to keep him happy; you almost never see a situation like, say, Evan Longoria playing baseball for pennies on the dollar for six years in Tampa.
Of course, every year there are veterans who succeed and grossly outperform their contracts. They get misjudged by the market because they were injured or previously on a bad team or move to a place where they fit the scheme better, but for one reason or another, they become much more valuable. Today, let’s celebrate those players by naming an NFL All-Bargain Team.
To be clear — and I’m going to put this in bold in the hopes of putting the comment fires out before they start to burn — this list does not include players who are on their first professional contracts. That means no Russell Wilson or Robert Quinn or J.J. Watt. Everybody knows those guys are undervalued. I’m also not including players who were rookie free agents who signed with a team after the draft and made their roster, so no Marlon Brown. This list is for veterans who were available to the entire league, either during this offseason or in a recent offseason, and who have delivered far more than their small contracts would suggest. All the contract data for this article comes from Spotrac.
Quarterback: Josh McCown, Chicago
Contract: One year, $865,000
Re-signed by the Bears this offseason after he hit the market, the older McCown brother has been nothing short of a revelation during his time in the stead of an ailing Jay Cutler. After completing 58 percent of his passes, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt, and throwing interceptions once every 25 attempts before this year as a pro, McCown’s run as the Chicago starter saw him complete 66.8 percent of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and throwing a lone interception in 220 attempts. It’s likely the hottest stretch of his life — the proverbial pinch hitter who hits .400 in 150 at-bats after the starter gets hurt — but he’s been a lifesaver for the Bears. As a free agent, he’ll have the option to stay with the Bears (where he would likely receive a hefty raise) or pursue an opportunity with a quarterback-needy team.
Running Back: Danny Woodhead, San Diego
Contract: Two years, $3.5 million
Left out of the Patriots’ plans after the emergence of Shane Vereen as their receiving back, Woodhead has been part of the league’s most underrated running back platoon alongside Ryan Mathews this year. He has the third-most receiving yards of any running back in 2013, and his versatility as a willing pass-blocker and capable inside runner makes him an essential player to the Chargers. Even better, his cap hold for 2013 is a mere $1.25 million, rising to $2.25 million next year. He’s been one of the best signings in free agency.
Running Back: Rashad Jennings, Oakland
Contract: One year, $630,000
Signed as a low-ceiling backup to the oft-injured Darren McFadden, Jennings’s effectiveness as a short-yardage runner and a power back between the tackles has been a surprise. Jennings has averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his 149 attempts, scoring six times, while throwing in a career-high 31 catches. Oakland’s goal as a team right now should be to try to find players who can contribute to their next great football team; at 28 and with little tread on the tires, Jennings can still be that guy. Also considered for a spot at running back: Joique Bell.
Wide Receiver: Julian Edelman, New England
Contract: One year, $1 million (including $250,000 in earned incentives)
It seems like Edelman has been with the Patriots forever, and he has, but he actually hit the unrestricted free-agent market this offseason and returned to New England. The only other team that even had him in for a visit was the New York Giants, and they passed on him almost immediately. The Patriots locked him up on a one-year contract and have seen him pay dividends, with Edelman on pace for a 100-catch season. Like Woodhead, Edelman was an afterthought in the New England offense a year ago; now, as the top receiver Tom Brady has left, Edelman is a star.
Wide Receiver: Kris Durham, Detroit
Contract: One year, $555,000
Durham is not exactly setting the world on fire across from Calvin Johnson, but as a guy who has started most of Detroit’s games this year as the team’s third wideout (or even its second wideout with Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles out), Durham has been a relative bargain. His 36-476-2 line includes an enormous catch up the sideline during Detroit’s furious comeback win over Dallas. Most of the guys outplaying their contracts at wideout are rookies (notably Josh Gordon); the only other candidate who came to mind was Ted Ginn.
Tight End: Dallas Clark, Baltimore
Contract: One year, $1 million
A total afterthought who the Ravens made a desperate play for after Dennis Pitta went down on the opening day of camp, Clark’s been a checkdown target for Joe Flacco and a chain-mover on third down. His 31-343-3 line also undersells one of the more surprising facets of Clark’s recent history: He has stayed mostly healthy. Clark was a healthy scratch last week in Week 14, but otherwise he has suited up for every game over the past two years.
Tackle: King Dunlap, San Diego
Contract: Two years, $4 million
After a mostly disappointing run in Philadelphia, it was a surprise when the Chargers brought in Dunlap and eventually revealed that they planned on suiting him up as their starting left tackle. Dunlap has missed time with concussions, but when he has played, he has actually been a viable option at the most important position on the offensive line. Part of that is the scheme he’s in, but that’s still impressive considering Dunlap’s cap hit for this year is just $1.8 million.
Tackle: Anthony Collins, Cincinnati
Contract: Two years, $2.8 million
It should tell you something that when the Bengals have had issues with their guards getting injured, they’ve kicked star tackle Andrew Whitworth inside to guard and brought Collins in off the bench to play left tackle. As Cincinnati’s nominal swing tackle and sixth offensive lineman, Collins has the athleticism to protect quarterbacks on the left side; the only thing he lacks is experience, as he has been stuck behind Whitworth. With Whitworth (say that five times fast) moving inside for the remainder of the season and Collins getting an extended look at left tackle through a possible Bengals playoff run during the final year of his deal, it seems likely the Kansas product will get a hefty raise this year in free agency from a team in search of a protector on the blind side.
Guard: Matt Slauson, Chicago
Contract: One year, $815,000
A competent interior lineman with the Jets, Slauson didn’t attract much interest from teams once the free-agent market opened. Phil Emery saw an opportunity, and the Bears swooped on Slauson with a one-year deal to play either guard spot. The arrival of Kyle Long in the subsequent month’s draft and the end of Gabe Carimi’s time in Chicago eventually saw Long start at right guard and Slauson fill in on the left side, where he’s been part of football’s most improved offensive line.
Guard: Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City
Contract: One year, $700,000
Once a Carolina utility lineman, Schwartz was signed for depth by the rebuilding Chiefs this offseason, but settled in as their sixth offensive lineman and spot starter before working his way into the starting lineup at right guard ahead of Jon Asamoah. He should get a look somewhere this offseason as a starter. Schwartz also has one of the best Twitter accounts of any active player, complete with references to the account for his dog, Oslo Pepperoni.
Center: Manny Ramirez, Denver
Contract: Two years, $1.4 million
Ramirez is the third center the Broncos turned to after J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen went down with long-term injuries. Despite playing a demanding role in front of Peyton Manning, Ramirez has held his own. The Broncos were sufficiently satisfied to give the former Lions lineman a two-year contract extension that will kick in next year. Fernando Velasco, who filled in for the injured Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh with a week’s worth of prep work and did an admirable job before going down himself, would also have fit here.
Defensive End: George Selvie, Dallas
Contract: 2 years, $1.4 million
Selvie has cooled off a bit after a stunning start to the season, but he’s had an incredible year for a player who looked closer to being out of football than he did to starting for a playoff contender. A college star early in his career at USF before being overshadowed by Jason Pierre-Paul, Selvie went from being projected as a first-round pick after his sophomore season to coming off the board as the 226th overall pick of the Rams in 2010. He was tossed around by some of the worst teams in the league — the Rams, Panthers, Jaguars, and Buccaneers — before the Cowboys signed him this July. With Anthony Spencer hurt, Selvie moved into the lineup as a starter and has accrued seven sacks in 14 games. Even better for the Cowboys, Selvie is signed for one more year at $730,000. Imagine that: a bargain in Dallas!
Defensive End: Shaun Phillips, Denver
Contract: 1 year, $1 million (plus $400,000 in likely-to-be-earned incentives)
My suspicion (and Phillips’s claim) is that Phillips might have taken less money than he could have gotten elsewhere to go play in Denver and rebuild his value on a Super Bowl contender, but you can’t argue with the production for the price. Phillips has 10 sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles, and five pass knockdowns, which is worth a lot more than $1 million. Jerry Hughes of the Bills would have been in the running here had Buffalo not inherited his rookie contract from Indianapolis.
Defensive Tackle: Terrance Knighton, Denver
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million
Another cast-off signed by the Broncos to replenish their defensive line depth, “Pot Roast” signed to work with his former coach in Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio, and he’s been a relatively stout run defender up front. Knighton fits in under Bill Parcells’s “Planet Theory”: There are a limited number of enormous human beings in the world with legitimate athleticism, so when you find one, acquire him. Knighton is one of those guys.
Linebacker: John Abraham, Arizona
Contract: Two years, $4.6 million
I counted out Abraham on our preseason podcast because he was a backup pass-rusher who had nearly retired during the offseason due to lack of interest. That goes to show what I know. Both starting outside linebackers for the Cardinals suffered season-ending injuries in the same week, which thrust Abraham into the starting lineup, and he hasn’t looked back. After not recording any sacks through the first six games of the season, Abraham has now produced 11.5 sacks in his last eight games. That’s 2.5 sacks more than anybody else in football. He has now moved into the top 10 in all-time sack leaders, and if he keeps this up, he’s going to have a viable argument as a Hall of Famer.
Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis
Contract: Three years, $1.5 million
This is the first year of the All-Bargain Team, but if I had done a list last season, Freeman might have been the team MVP. Signed out of the CFL after playing his college ball at Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor and failing to make the grade with the Titans, Freeman’s been a rock on an otherwise erratic Colts defense. He might be the second-best player on the team after Andrew Luck, which is pretty cool for a player whose cap hit is under $500,000 this year. I get on Colts general manager Ryan Grigson a lot for some of his moves, but it’s hard to argue that signing Freeman was anything short of a masterstroke.
Linebacker: Daryl Smith, Baltimore
Contract: One year, $1.1 million
The second-best player on a likely playoff team isn’t enough? How about a guy who has filled in for a franchise player and a Hall of Famer on a defending Super Bowl champion and played well enough that nobody grumbles about missing Ray Lewis? Smith languished in the market for months before the Ravens signed him to play inside linebacker, and he’s become a key player on the Baltimore defense. Smith makes the play calls and wears the dotted helmet to communicate with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and his range in coverage means that he’s actually playing better than Lewis was last year. Oh, and with Lewis on the Ravens’ cap for $3 million in dead money this year, Smith actually makes about one-third of what Lewis “makes” this year. Not a bad deal.
Linebacker: Karlos Dansby, Arizona
Contract: One year, $2.25 million
Another veteran linebacker who had to bide his time on the market before finally signing with the Cardinals, Dansby has played better than any of his replacements have in Miami and done so at a fraction of the cost. He has lined up alongside Daryl Washington to form one of the best one-two punches at inside linebacker in football, and he has played so well that one NFL personnel director told ESPN’s Mike Sando earlier this week that Dansby deserved Defensive Player of the Year consideration. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but Dansby has delivered far beyond his price tag in the desert this year. Vontaze Burfict, another candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, would fit in here if he weren’t on his first contract as an undrafted free agent.
Cornerback: Adam Jones, Cincinnati
Contract: Three years, $5.3 million
Having successfully returned to the league under Marvin Lewis’s stewardship in Cincinnati, Jones decided to re-sign with the Bengals this offseason on a three-year deal. He had shown flashes of great play in Tennessee before his legal troubles arose, and while it took him a while to get going again in Cincinnati, he has reemerged as an above-average starting cornerback this year. He has gone from being an afterthought to taking over as the team’s top corner with Leon Hall injured, a role he should fill heading into next season.
Cornerback: Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina
Contract: One year, $1.1 million
The Panthers let Munnerlyn hit the free-agent market last offseason before re-signing him to a one-year deal. He was expected to compete for a spot as a slot corner, but with injuries and poor play ahead of him, Munnerlyn has stepped in and become the team’s top cornerback. Alongside undrafted free agent Melvin White (who would be on this list if it included rookie UFAs), the Panthers have the cheapest pair of starting cornerbacks in football. They also have the league’s fifth-best pass defense. Much of that is the pass rush, but the secondary deserves at least a small amount of credit. Marcus Cooper would be on this team, but he’s still on his rookie deal from the 49ers in Kansas City. And Brandon Browner would have been a perennial candidate for this spot in recent years as a CFL refugee, but injuries, erratic play, and his eventual suspension keep him off the list this year.
Safety: Mike Mitchell, Carolina
Contract: 1 year, $725,000
Another member of the Carolina defense appears! Mitchell has filled the Donte Whitner role for the Panthers, as a bruising safety who uses his infamous speed to get in the box and make plays. He has lit up the stat sheet this year, with 2.5 sacks, four interceptions, seven pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. Carolina might not have the cap space to keep him next season, and he’s limited in coverage, but Mitchell has gone from nearly out of the league to a starter on a top-five defense.
Safety: Rafael Bush, New Orleans
Contract: 1 year, $555,000
The defense finishes up with Bush, a special teams dynamo who filled in as a starting safety earlier this year with injuries to the back of the Saints secondary. His defensive snaps have gone down as the season has gone along and Roman Harper has returned to the lineup, but Bush showed enough in his early-season stint to see regular reps as a nickel safety somewhere next season.
Using the average annual values of their deals, those 22 players will combine to make just more than $26 million in 2013, which is $4 million less than the $30 million Joe Flacco cleared this year (including his base salary and signing bonus). Of those players, 13 of them — more than half — will become unrestricted free agents after this season, and I suspect they will combine to make much more than $26 million in 2014. In the NFL, bargains aren’t bargains for long.