Reggie Wayne might be the NFL's best free agent bargain this year. (Getty Images)
As we've hit the midway point of the 2012 regular season, Shutdown Corner thought it would be a good time to take a look at the free-agent additions (or retentions) that have turned out to be bargains, and those that have turned out to be busts. We begin this two-part series with a look at those free-agent deals that have worked out well.
Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery, wide receivers, Indianapolis Colts: The Colts re-signed Wayne to a three-year, $17.5 million contract that included $7.5 million in guaranteed money on March 23. Thus far, Wayne has been a steal. Wayne, who turns 34 next Saturday, leads the NFL in targets (101), receptions (61) and receiving yards (835) and appears headed to a return trip to the Pro Bowl after his string of five consecutive trips was snapped during the Peyton Manning-less 2011 season. In addition to Wayne, the Colts' front office deserves credit for giving Donnie Avery a shot. Two years removed from a torn ACL, Avery is playing in nearly 90 percent of the Colts' offensive snaps (89.87 percent) and has 34 receptions for 454 yards and a touchdown, a score which made him the answer to a potential trivia question as it was the first touchdown pass of Andrew Luck's NFL career. Avery received a $50,000 bonus to sign with the Colts, is earning the league minimum ($615,000) base salary and can earn an additional $335,000 in incentives tied to receptions.
John Abraham, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons: The old-timer has still got it. Re-signed to a three-year, $17.5 million contract on March 17 that included just $2.25 million in guaranteed money, the 34-year-old Abraham is playing in over 72 percent of the Falcons' defensive snaps and has a team-high seven sacks (Abraham had 9.5 sacks in 2011) during the club's 8-0 start. In terms of cash, Abraham is taking home $6 million this season, though $1.75 million ($500,000 of his $1.5 million base salary and $1.25 million of his $2.25 million signing bonus) was deferred to next March.
Alex Smith, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers "evaluated" Peyton Manning before turning doubling back to Smith, who signed a three-year, $24 million contract that included $15.5 million in guaranteed money on March 21. This season, Smith is earning $8 million in cash, with an additional $3 million in available incentives. Thus far, he's earning every nickel. Smith is completing nearly 70 percent of his pass attempts for 1,659 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, ranking among the Top 12 quarterbacks in both of Football Outsiders' advanced metrics (DYAR and DVOA), even though he's not currently among the 20 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league.
Paul Soliai, nose tackle, Miami Dolphins: Nose tackles typically don't post huge statistics, so it's easy to overlook the 18 tackles and 0.5 sacks the 6-foot-4, 344-pound Soliai has produced this season. Dig deeper, however, and you'll see that six of his tackles have been for a loss, which is second only to Cameron Wake on the team. Even under new coordinator Kevin Coyle, the Dolphins defense continues to be very difficult to run against, ranking third in rushing yards allowed per game (83.9) and per play (3.55), and fourth in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric. On runs that FO designates as "Power" (Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown, plus runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the 2-yard line or closer), the Dolphins defensive line ranks first in the league entering Week 10. Much of that can be attributed to the presence of Soliai, a 2011 Pro Bowler who was re-signed to a two-year, $11.5 million contract on March 16 that included $5.45 million in guaranteed money and $5.75 million in cash in 2012.
Wesley Woodyard, linebacker, Denver Broncos: Even though Woodyard wasn't going to turn 26 for a few months, and had posted 87 tackles on defense while leading the 2011 Broncos with 10 tackles on special teams, he remained a free agent until re-upping with the Broncos on March 19, signing a two-year, $4 million where only the first year ($2 million) was guaranteed. With D.J. Williams serving two suspensions, Woodyard, a former undrafted free agent from Kentucky who is now a four-time captain on special teams, has stepped up to lead the Broncos in tackles (72), while adding three sacks and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Woodyard was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 8 and earned a spot on Shutdown Corner's midseason All-Underrated Team. Woodyard is scheduled to make another $2 million (non-guaranteed) in 2013, but has a $1 million base salary escalator tied to playing time. Playing over 80 percent of the defensive snaps and over 40 percent of the special teams snaps midway through this season means Woodyard has a very good chance of increasing his 2013 salary.
Stevie Brown, safety, New York Giants: A 2010 seventh-round pick out of Michigan by the Oakland Raiders, Brown bounced between the Raiders, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts his first two seasons in the league. Though he was only set to be an exclusive rights free agent, the Colts did not make a qualifying offer and Brown was free to sign with another club, eventually signing a one-year, $605,000 contract, which included $30,000 in guaranteed money, with the Giants on April 5. Initially a special teams player only, Brown has stepped in for the injured Kenny Phillips to start five games and has now logged 69.06 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Brown has 34 tackles on defense, is second on the team with 10 tackles on special teams, and is second in the NFL with five interceptions. Two of Brown's interceptions came in a 29-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8, after which Brown was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week.
Vontaze Burfict, linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals: Since we included a street free agent to the list, we almost have to include Burfict. Concerns about his attitude and work ethic at Arizona State, not to mention a boatload of personal foul penalties and rumors of failed drug tests caused Burfict to fall completely out of the 2012 NFL draft. Burfict signed a standard three-year deal with the Bengals that included a $1,000 signing bonus, the only part of the deal that is guaranteed. Burfict won a spot on the 53-man roster in training camp and has started six of eight games this season, posting 54 tackles and a sack while playing in nearly 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps. Burfict has played in 374 defensive snaps (no other undrafted defensive player has logged more than 200 snaps) and his 433 total snaps are 123 more than any other undrafted free agent has played this season.
Kellen Davis, tight end, Chicago Bears: Another re-signing, the Bears held on to the 6-foot-7, 267-pound Davis with a two-year, $6 million contract that pays out $3.5 million in 2012 and up to $3 million in 2013 thanks to a $500,000 base salary escalator tied to receptions. Through eight games, Davis has just 10 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns, but he's been efficient (ranking 10th in Football Outsiders' DYAR and second in DVOA metrics) and his blocking ability landed him on Shutdown Corner's midseason All-Underrated Team.
Aubrayo Franklin, nose tackle, San Diego Chargers: In March, the Chargers re-signed Antonio Garay to a (back-loaded) two-year, $6.6 million contract and were believed to have him and 2010 fifth-round pick Cam Thomas rotate on the nose again this season. Then, on July 25, the Chargers signed Franklin to a one-year, "minimum salary benefit" contract worth $890,000 in cash (and $605,000 in cap space, due to the minimum salary benefit). Garay didn't get a jersey until Week 9 as Franklin has started seven of eight games this season, playing in 38.4 percent of the snaps for a defense that has improved from 20th against the run in 2011 to fourth this season.
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