Best Buys- The NFL's Value Free Agents

Come midnight every football fan will be peeping at the news wire a little more regularly. It's the start of the free agent bonanza and with an extension of the CBA in jeopardy, this year's as consequential as any. Key free agents often make or break a franchise and this year of all is no exception.

The wish list for most fans is the same. LeCharles Bentley, Steve Hutchinson, Drew Brees, Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, and Will Witherspoon would look mighty attractive in your team's colors.

Unfortunately in the NFL there's this little thing called the salary cap which prevents 32 teams from being the football version of the New York Yankees.

While teams like Detroit, Houston, Cleveland and Arizona will have the indulgence of shopping for multi big-name players at Kauffman's, the rest of the league are going to have to rely on some bargains from the Thrifty store.

The following is a look at players that can be solid contributors to a franchise without maxing out the salary cap credit card.

QB: Josh McCown, Arizona- He put up some big numbers in games for Arizona. What he couldn't do is win over the confidence of head coach Dennis Greene. He might not have the ability of Drew Brees much he's a much cheaper alternative that could fit nicely into many offenses.

RB: Chester Taylor, Baltimore- Never got a chance to shine with Jamal Lewis but given the right situation he could be at least as good as Lamont Jordan's been for Oakland.

FB: Verron Hayes, Pittsburgh- Excellent hands and an underrated blocker.

WR: David Givens, New England- He won't come cheap. At the same token, he'll be less than most 'franchise' receivers and has the ability to catch 90+ passes on a team willing to feature him.

WR: Josh Reed, Buffalo- Has been a flop as a Bill but a new change of scenery and no Eric Moulds could lead to a rebirth. Deceptively slick after the catch and an excellent blocker.

TE: Jeb Putzier, Denver- Excellent hands but hasn't adapted to what it takes in the NFL to be a good blocker. A new team and coach can change that. Has all the physical tools of a Heath Miller. Denver didn't want to lose him.

Tackle: Kevin Shaffer, Atlanta- Is on the verge of Pro Bowl stardom. Falcons want to keep him but with secondary issues might not be able to. He'll come less than Jon Runyan and has been in the league six fewer years.

Tackle: Tom Ashworth, New England- Can play either tackle position and is only a four year veteran. Most of the big-name tackles (Runyan, LJ Shelton, Jason Fabini) are better by name only.

Guard: Stephen Neal, New England- Has done a great job protecting Tom Brady and is fairly athletic for a guard. Patriots aren't thrilled about prospects of losing him but they have to replenish the secondary and aging linebacking corp.

Guard: Tuten Reyes, Carolina- Highly valued by the Panthers but signing Witherspoon and Marlon McCree might have him landing somewhere else.

Center: Justin Hartwig, Tennessee- Isn't on the same level as Bentley but then again won't cost a club $5+ million to sign him. He's more than adequate and can fit into any offense in need of an upgrade.

Defensive Tackle: Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Baltimore- Is basically a younger Sam Adams. He doesn't have the numbers some like to see but he's as good as stuffing the run as you'll find. He's likely Baltimore's top off-season priority but expect some team to blow him away.

Defensive Tackle: Ron Edwards, Buffalo- He was thought of highly enough the club let Pat Williams go to Minnesota a year ago. He's capable of being a big time player however his health is definitely a question mark. He's missed significant time in two of the past three years including a shoulder injury that pretty much wiped out 2005. Great pickup for a team looking for a second tackle at a fairly cheap rate.

Defensive End: Carlos Hall, Kansas City- The entire Chiefs defense underachieved.. again, but Hall is talented. A lack of cap room and demolition at the corner spot all but assures he won't be back.

Defensive End: Anthony Weaver, Baltimore- Never quite fit into Baltimore's system. Still, he's had 14.5 sacks in four years and a change of scenery may lift him to another level.

Linebacker: Derek Smith, San Francisco- He'll never be an elite playmaker but he's one of the better tackling linebackers in the NFL. He'll solidly someone's front seven.

Linebacker: Akin Ayodele, Jacksonville- 56 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2005. Jags appear ready to let him walk and they may end up regretting it.

Linebacker: Andre Carter, San Francisco- Julian Peterson and Witherspoon will command the big bucks but Carter has skill on par with either. Had 4.5 sacks for the 49ers last year and after five seasons is coming into his own.

Cornerback: Ricky Manning Jr, Carolina- Three-year veteran is a restricted free agent but on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl corner. Has nine career interceptions and appears on the brink of stardom.

Cornerback: Jerry Azumah, Chicago- Lost his starting spot due to injury and was a Pro Bowler in 2003. A cheaper alternative to Ty Law and Charles Woodson who can help any secondary.

Safety- Marlon McCree, Carolina- 73 tackles and 3 interceptions last season. He was a surprise to the club at strong safety but with cap issues probably can't afford to bring him back.

Safety- Idrees Bashir, Carolina- If a team is willing to take a shot despite his rash of injuries he could be a playmaker. He missed most of last year with a bad hamstring and has been injury prone his entire career.


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