Free agency is GOING to happen; we just don't know when it will happen or for how long. If a new CBA is not reached by the draft, this year will be weird in terms of player acquisition; teams would have to fill open roster spots via the draft first and try to patch holes in free agency at some point later in the offseason. Either way, there are a lot of talented free agents this year, and the big ones are going to be immediately courted by teams flashing mega-bucks at them. There is an opportunity there for teams willing to go after guys that usually get ignored in the first wave of free agency. Here are a few guys I think could be great pickups at less-than-elite prices this offseason:
Manny Lawson, OLB, San Francisco 49ers - When Lawson came out of N. C. State, he was a defensive end. He was about 6-5, 240 lbs, and ran a 4.40 40-yard dash. 3-4 teams started lining up for Lawson as an edge rusher that could drop back into coverage. Several years into his career, Lawson indeed is good at dropping into coverage; in fact, he's GREAT at it. Lawson seems to have a nose for the ball in coverage and is a playmaker in that regard. He's also been solid as a run-stopper for a 3-4 outside linebacker, but there's been one major thing lacking: pass-rushing. Lawson has been solid but unspectacular as a pass-rusher, totaling 15.0 career sacks with a season-high of 6.5 in 2009. The reason I love Lawson as a potential 4-3 outside linebacker is because of his outstanding coverage skills and ability to stop the run. Lawson is a big linebacker but has elite speed at the position. He can run with faster tight ends like Dallas Clark, but is big enough to stop the run as well. It would be an adjustment, but I believe Lawson could be a Julian Peterson-type player in a 4-3. The reason I believe he's under the radar at this point is that I think most teams see Lawson as a solid but unspectacular 3-4 outside linebacker, but I believe he would flourish in a 4-3.
Free Agent Status Comparison: Will Witherspoon when he signed with St. Louis (6 years, $33 million, $15 million guaranteed)
Expected contract terms: 6 years, $30 million, $13 million guaranteed
Stanford Routt, CB, Oakland Raiders - Routt was almost universally panned as a poor selection when he was drafted in the second round in 2005 by the Raiders. He ran a 4.29 40-yard dash and was immediately snatched up by Al Davis. Routt has gotten more work than a normal corner by virtue of Nnamdi Asomugha's presence on the other side, and he's made the most of the extra work; Routt's put up his best season in 2010, allowing only 40% of passes thrown in his direction to be completed. This stat put him near the top of the NFL in the category. Routt has outstanding speed and has gotten better at playing the ball. Overall, he's a solid, relatively young corner (he'll be 28 this year) that still has growth potential, but has already established himself as a starter in this league. With higher-profile corners available (Asomugha, Champ Bailey, Richard Marshall, etc.), Routt could potentially be a bargain this offseason.
Free Agent Status Comparison: Anthony Henry when he signed with Dallas (5 years, $25 million, $11 million guaranteed)
Expected contract terms: 5 years, $28 million, $12 million guaranteed
Laurent Robinson, WR, St. Louis Rams - Robinson is still pretty young (26 this year) and hasn't really done much in the way of production. He's been bitten by the injury bug, and has had trouble staying on the field. However, he has great physical tools; in fact, he was slated to be Sam Bradford's number one target before hurting himself this past season. Robinson ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine in 2007 before being drafted in the third round by the Falcons. He's a big target at 6' 2", 200 lbs., and he's got solid hands as well. If you're looking for a guy with similar attributes to Mike Sims-Walker at a lower cost, Robinson is a solid bet.
Free Agent Status Comparison: Bryant Johnson when he signed with San Francisco (1 year, $2 million, $1 million guaranteed)
Expected contract terms: 2 years, $4 million, $1.5 million guaranteed
Evan Mathis, OG, Cincinnati Bengals - According to Pro Football Focus, not only was Mathis a solid overall player last year, but he was a backup that was easily better than the current starter. Nate Livings started over Mathis all season even though Mathis was supposedly the better player. Evan Mathis is a solid guard that would be a likely inexpensive and ideal backup guard for the Jaguars. He turns 30 this year, so there's not a ton of upside left, but he's just a solid player and shouldn't cost too much.
Free Agent Status Comparison: Kyle Kosier when he signed with Dallas (5 years, $15 million, unknown guaranteed money)
Expected contract terms: 3 years, $8 million
I'll try to do a couple more posts like this involving some under-the-radar free agents I think the Jaguars should take a look at. Let me know what you think of these guys!