NEW YORK — NFL free agency is about filling holes. In some cases, Grand Canyons.
While the draft often comes down to who is the highest-rated player overall when a team’s turn comes — even when the draftee doesn’t necessarily fill a huge need — the spending spree that begins Wednesday is a much different marketplace.
First off, not everyone initially eligible winds up available. Did anybody really think the Broncos would let Super Bowl MVP linebacker Von Miller get away?
Second, the price tags for rookies pretty much are set. There’s virtually no ceiling on how much free agents will cost, particularly when there are multiple bidders.
Plus, many teams prefer to re-sign their guys, who have been schooled in their schemes, especially when they’ve had success in that system.
“That kind of goes back to my philosophy, with one-year contracts and not being so active in free agency and guaranteeing large numbers,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim says. “Because when you get in that position, you have cap casualties, you have dead money that follows. And I think it’s one of those situations where you always have to be in a win-now mode. You can never say, ‘We’re building for the future.’ Fans don’t want to hear that. Organizations don’t want to hear that. Our expectations are to win and win now.
“So, again, you have to draft well and you have to supplement through free agency. It’s a difficult task because you have to have a tough balance, but at the same time, in free agency, it can be fool’s gold. You see these guys, why do they hit the market, No. 1? And No. 2, the money that comes attached to those players.
“My philosophy has always been to somewhat sit back, let the market play itself out, see where the numbers go and find the guys who are the right people, passionate players to fill in your locker room.”
Such thinking doesn’t run rampant throughout the NFL. So here’s what team owners, GMs, personnel directors and coaches will be looking at in free agency.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
A year ago, Ndamukong Suh, DeMarco Murray and Julius Thomas were near the top of the ratings. How did that work out for Miami, Philadelphia and Jacksonville?
Still, there are plenty of prime candidates to help teams, even at a steep price. Such as:
Kelechi Osemele, OG, Baltimore —He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber guard but has also proved to be a more than capable starting tackle for significant stretches of his four-year career, including the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl season.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay — An All-Pro in 2015, Martin has sandwiched two 1,400-yard rushing performances around two injury-plagued seasons. At 27, and with versatility, he should have plenty of value, albeit not likely for more than a four-year deal.
Alex Mack, C, Cleveland — One of the league’s best at any position despite playing in a losing situation throughout his career. If he leaves Browns, his new team gets a dependable, smart leader.
Malik Jackson, DL, Denver — The first of a trio of champions available, Jackson can play end or tackle, depending on the alignment, and will be a major contributor regardless.
Danny Trevathan, LB, Denver — Miller and DeMarcus Ware deserved the fanfare they got. But who was the most active tackler in the Mile High city? This guy.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver — Yes, the resume is short, but with so many quarterback-famished clubs in a passing league, Osweiler will get plenty of love if the Broncos don’t quickly ante up. They had better with Peyton Manning retiring.
NEXT IN LINE
These players are not far behind the half-dozen above, but some come with significant questions marks. Listed alphabetically:
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago; Arian Foster, RB, Houston; Damon Harrison, DT, New York Jets; Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles; Terrance Knighton, DT, Washington; James Laurinaitis, LB, Los Angeles; Chris Long, DE, Los Angeles; Lamar Miller, RB, Miami; Reggie Nelson, S, Cincinnati; Russell Okung, OT, Seattle; Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants; Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Cleveland; Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City; Eric Weddle, S, San Diego.
Some of these players might get quick deals more because of the position they play than their overall production. Listed alphabetically:
Robert Ayers, DE, New York Giants; Kelvin Beachum, OT, Pittsburgh; Anquan Boldin, WR, San Francisco; Alex Boone, OG, San Francisco; Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets; Tamba Hali, LB, Kansas City; Jaye Howard, DT, Kansas City; George Iloka, S, Cincinnati; Richie Incognito, OG, Buffalo; Bruce Irvin, LB, Seattle; Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets; Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City; Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati; Donald Penn, OT, Oakland
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