ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you want a top-level second-contract free agent, you're going to pay a premium -- especially at a premium position. And nothing is more premium in this era than spots that facilitate or hinder the passing game: pass rushers and defensive backs on one side of the line of scrimmage; left tackles, with quarterback a virtual non-starter in this market because of the lack of quality options.
The re-signings of recent days illustrated this, and began setting the market. Minnesota began setting the market for pass rushers by re-signing Everson Griffen to a reported five-year, $42.5 million deal that includes $20 million of guaranteed money. Griffen has been an efficient pass rusher, but has only started one game in his career; he still has to prove that he can handle every-down work.
Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields stayed wight he Packers for a reported $39 million over four years. That averages to $1.75 million per year more than Brent Grimes. Grimes, who turns 31 in July, falls into the typical "third-contract" territory at which prices fall, owing to the potential for injury and natural depreciation because of age.
"Third contract" doesn't necessarily mean a player is on his third contract: an example of that is Wes Welker, who was a restricted free agent in 2007, got a five-year deal with the Patriots after being traded from Miami, then had a one-year franchise-tender contract for 2012. But Welker is a good example of how a gamble on the right 30-something veteran can stretch your dollar farther.
On a per-year basis, Welker got half as much money as fellow receiver Mike Wallace did from the Dolphins. On a per-game basis, Welker had 1.06 more receptions and 1.725 more yards. Welker played three fewer games than Wallace and had twice as many touchdowns (10 to 5).
And then you have players like Karlos Dansby and Shaun Phillips, both of whom lingered on the market for weeks. Phillips was signed by the Broncos on draft weekend; Dansby two weeks later. Both enjoyed career renaissance seasons.
Some of the "third-contract" type players on the market who could be bargains:
DE Jared Allen, Minnesota
S Donte Whitner, San Francisco
WR James Jones, Green Bay
LB Daryl Smith, Baltimore
LB Karlos Dansby, Arizona
KR/PR/WR Devin Hester, Chicago
CB Charles Tillman, Chicago
G/T Travelle Wharton, Carolina
RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville
DE Justin Tuck, N.Y. Giants
DT Randy Starks, Miami
DE Shaun Phillips, Denver
DT Kevin Williams, Minnesota
DT Paul Soliai, Miami
G Kevin Boothe, N.Y. Giants
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is technically coming up to his third contract, but because he got a one-year deal last year, the 28-year-old ends up falling into the second-contract category as far as likely fetching a premium price tag.
Another segment in which you can get more bang for the buck is by projecting, but this carries an obvious risk.
On the positive side, you could end up with a quarterback who guides you to a Super Bowl and three playoff appearances in a six-year span and makes a Pro Bowl. That's what John Fox got out of Jake Delhomme in Carolina after signing him in 2003. Delhomme had not started in three years and had thrown just 86 NFL passes when the Panthers signed him, but he stepped in and went 54-33 as a starter in the next six seasons before his form fell apart in 2009.
On the negative side, you could end up with Alvin Harper, a 1995 signee of Tampa Bay who remains the patron saint of receivers who were unable to handle moving from being a third option (behind Michael Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek) to the top dog. More recently, you could have a situation like the Browns faced with Paul Kruger, a coveted pass rusher in last year's free-agent class. Kruger got hot late in 2012 and in the postseason (12 sacks in 12 games) and signed a five-year deal with the Browns that could be worth $40.5 million, even though he only had seven career regular-season starts. Starting all 16 games in Cleveland, he finished with 4.5 sacks in 16 games -- as many as he had in four playoff games the previous winter.
Some of this year's projections who could work out on the positive side include:
CB Walter Thurmond III, Seattle
WR Andre Roberts, Arizona
DE Willie Young, Detroit
RB Rashad Jennings, Oakland
RB Donald Brown, Indianapolis (assuming that he's in the right system)
DE Robert Ayers, Denver
There are the second-tier, second-contract players who might not have a dozen teams clamoring for their services, but are solid starters who can be had at reasonable prices and offer good value. Terrance Knighton is the Broncos' best example here; he signed quickly last year and flourished.
WR Hakeem Nicks, N.Y. Giants
DT Pat Sims, Oakland
DT Linval Joseph, N.Y. Giants
LB Brandon Spikes, New England
WR Golden Tate, Seattle
S Mike Mitchell, Carolina
OT Anthony Collins, Cincinnati
S Chris Clemons, Miami
C Evan Dietrich-Smith, Green Bay
OT Austin Howard, N.Y. Jets
There are players that have dealt with injuries. The risk is obvious and goes without saying, but if they stay healthy, can offer extremely high value. It's a roll of the dice:
G/C Rodger Saffold, St. Louis
S Stevie Brown, N.Y. Giants
LB LaMarr Woodley (reportedly cut by Pittsburgh)
DT Henry Melton, Chicago
LB Jon Beason, N.Y. Giants
LB/DE O'Brien Schofield, Seattle
S Louis Delmas (cut by Detroit)
LB Desmond Bishop, Minnesota
DE Anthony Spencer, Dallas
CB Jabari Greer, New Orleans
CB Cortland Finnegan (cut by St. Louis)
WR Kenny Britt, Tennessee
OT Mike Johnson, Atlanta
And then, of course, you have the premium players, standouts in their "second-contract" range who are mostly at premium spots. There's likely no bargains to be had here, but if all goes well, you will get what you pay for. Sometimes by getting the second- or third-best prospect at a position, you actually find the right fit, as the Broncos did last year when they signed guard Louis Vasquez, who commanded $1.925 million less per year than Tennessee's Andy Levitre:
S Jairus Byrd, Buffalo
CB Alterraun Verner, Tennessee
OT Eugene Monroe, Baltimore
WR Eric Decker, Denver
CB Vontae Davis, Indianapolis
S T.J. Ward, Cleveland
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver
DE Lamarr Houston, Oakland
DE Michael Johnson, Cincinnati
CB Aqib Talib, New England
G Zane Beadles, Denver
WR Julian Edelman, New England
OT Jared Veldheer, Oakland