Free agency doesn't begin until next Tuesday, but the NFL Hot Stove is already hopping. Stay up to date on the latest market developments via our constantly updated NFL Free Agent Tracker, and Gregg Rosenthal's info-packed Daily Doses.
Mario Williams and Vincent Jackson garner the most media attention, and they will sign quickly after the market opens on March 13. But not all NFL teams have the kind of coin to compete for top-end players. Here's a look at ten free agents who may have to wait longer than Williams or Jackson for their markets to develop, but could prove the best bargains when all is said and done:
1. Defensive tackle Jason Jones, 25 years old.
Jones will easily command the biggest contract on this list, but his price tag likely would've been far more exorbitant had he been available in any previous year. As the Titans moved away from Jim Washburn's old "Wide-9" defensive line technique and toward a scheme emphasizing size in the front four, the 6-foot-5, 276-pound Jones was forced learn strong-side end during a lockout-shortened offseason after dominating at three-technique tackle in his first three seasons. Jones set career lows in sacks and tackles per game while taking an enormous step back in overall effectiveness. He was uncomfortable at the new position and has made that clear this offseason.
Though built angularly for an inside pass rusher, Jones is much more Darnell Dockett than Justin Tuck. He is a one-gap penetrator with an explosive lower half (4.67 forty, 10'3" broad jump) and his best football ahead of him. In Jones' last season as a full-time interior defender (2010), Pro Football Focus graded him as the league's No. 6 overall defensive tackle and No. 1 inside rusher. The Rams and Eagles are sensible landing spots for Jones because new St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher drafted Jones in Tennessee, and Washburn now oversees Philadelphia's defensive line.
Prediction: Rams on a four-year, $28 million contract.
2. Cornerback Terrell Thomas, 27 years old.
A long-armed corner-safety hybrid coming out of USC, Thomas emerged as the Giants' starting right cornerback in his second season, beating out former first-round pick Aaron Ross. Thomas displayed elite playmaking ability with 10 interceptions, five forced fumbles, a pair of sacks, and 34 breakups in 2009-2010. Unfortunately, Thomas tore his right ACL during the 2011 preseason and missed his entire contract year. He previously tore the same ACL as a college freshman.
The silver lining for Thomas is that he tore the ligament early enough in the 2011 season that he'll be a full-go by 2012 training camp. Thomas resumed running on January 18. While by no means a shutdown cover man, when healthy Thomas possesses every trait NFL teams seek in a No. 2 corner. He is an efficient tackler and has sufficient ball skills to capitalize when opponents attack him in coverage. The Giants have prioritized re-signing Thomas over incumbent starter and fellow free agent Ross, a sign that they are well aware of Thomas' superior skills. A short-term, prove-it deal makes sense in New York, although Thomas could fare far better if he hits the open market.
Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $4 million contract.
3. Wide receiver Robert Meachem, 27 years old.
The perception of Meachem is that he's a one-trick pony deep threat. A rotational receiver who couldn't overcome Devery Henderson for consistent playing time in New Orleans. Meachem can certainly take the top off a defense, holding a career yards-per-reception average of 16.1. He ran a 4.39 forty at 6-foot-2, 210 coming out of Tennessee. 35 of Meachem's 141 catches have gone for 20-plus yards, good for a 24.8 20-yard rate that compares favorably to fellow top free agents Mario Manningham (23.4), Marques Colston (19.2), Reggie Wayne (18.1), and Pierre Garcon (15.4). Meachem has also been part of a receiver-committee approach with the Saints. He played 55.6 percent of New Orleans' offensive snaps in 2009, 48.9 percent in 2010, and 65.5 in 2011.
Meachem may be capable of more than his past statistics and role illustrate, however. He was always the Saints' best blocking receiver, playing over Colston in all one-wideout sets, and has been charged with just 11 career drops by Pro Football Focus. The Boston Globe reported in February that pro scouts consider Meachem a superior free agent to Colston as a less scheme-dependent receiver who could produce at a higher rate in an offense that utilized him differently. Either Meachem is going to be a steal on the open market, or he will generate more interest than anyone expects.
Prediction: 49ers on a three-year, $13 million contract.
4. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins, 26 years old.
Collins was a surprise early entrant into the 2008 draft after protecting Kansas QB Todd Reesing's blind side as a junior. He had just four years of football experience after taking up the sport as a high school senior. Collins earned playing time as a fourth-round rookie, however, holding his own in six starts to close out the year. Collins spent most of the ensuing three seasons as Cincinnati's "swing" tackle behind LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith. Though Collins has never played full time, he's racked up 18 starts, six at left tackle and a dozen on the right. Collins is 6-foot-5, 315, and athletic enough for a zone-blocking scheme. His best NFL position is right tackle.
This year's tackle market is incredibly thin, driving up the demand for Collins. Only Jared Gaither, Demetrius Bell, and likely Cardinals cap casualty Levi Brown project as surefire 2012 starters. Collins falls in line as the No. 4 tackle available. The Dolphins are desperate for a right tackle upgrade after Marc Colombo flopped in the role, and new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle saw Collins practice on a daily basis in Cincinnati. He could put in a good word at a position of need.
Prediction: Dolphins on a four-year, $14 million contract.