Welcome to a new football reality series: NFL Bargain Hunters. Teams that showed patience at the beginning of the free-agent signing period are being rewarded. Sure, the most attractive names like wide receiver Mike Wallace (Miami), tight end Jared Cook (St. Louis) and guard Andy Levitre (Tennessee) quickly scored contracts among the most lucrative in league history at their respective positions. But for those franchises that waited, there was plenty of talent still available once the market settled down. Here’s a look at eight clubs that have helped themselves in the aftermath of the initial spending frenzy. —Alex Marvez
Those who needed a reminder why Ozzie Newsome is among the NFL’s best general managers have received it. Even after building his second Super Bowl-winning roster in 2012, Newsome was being second-guessed for the loss of some key components like linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, free safety Ed Reed and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. But with the money he did save and the salary-cap space freed by striking a long-term deal with quarterback Joe Flacco, Newsome was able to land one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers to replace the departed Paul Kruger (Cleveland) when Elvis Dumervil became available following a contract snafu in Denver. The defensive line, which was a target area for Newsome entering free agency, was addressed with the additions of Chris Canty (New York Giants) and Marcus Spears (Dallas). And while he isn’t nearly as storied a safety as Reed, replacement Michael Huff brings seven seasons of starting experience with him from Oakland. Although these moves don’t guarantee defense of the Lombardi Trophy, Ravens fans can rest easier now thanks to Newsome’s adroit maneuvering.
New general manager Dave Gettleman inherited a mess from the previous Panthers regime. But after cutting some veterans and restructuring the contracts of others, Gettleman forged enough salary-cap space to augment his roster with modest free-agent pickups like wide receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. (San Francisco), middle linebacker Chase Blackburn (New York Giants), and three defensive backs in Drayton Florence (Detroit), D.J. Moore (Chicago) and Michael Mitchell (Oakland). Gettleman also was able to keep two of his better defensive players — lineman Dwan Edwards and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn — in the fold with new deals.
New York Giants
The G-Men went gaga for modest one-year contracts. Those are the deals that tight end Brandon Myers (Oakland), linebacker Dan Connor (Dallas), wide receiver Louis Murphy (Carolina), safety Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh), cornerback Aaron Ross (Jacksonville) and kicker Josh Brown (Cincinnati) signed. Guard Kevin Boothe, backup quarterback David Carr, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Terrell Thomas are returning under the same short-term arrangement. By not going bonkers with free-agent spending, the Giants have better flexibility toward re-signing wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz to long-term extensions with their contracts set to expire after this season.
The Texans spent the early part of the signing period losing free agents – five of them alone signed with Philadelphia – before jumping into the mix in a big way. Houston outbid the Ravens for Reed, who provides veteran savvy and a Hall of Fame resume as the replacement for the departed Glover Quin (Detroit). Shane Lechler, one of the top punters in NFL history during his 13 seasons in Oakland, was then added as well as ex-Jacksonville fullback Greg Jones. The next step for Houston is addressing linebacker depth and settling on a No. 2 wide receiver to complement Andre Johnson.
New England Patriots
With potential suitors concerned about Sebastian Vollmer’s health, the Patriots were able to re-sign their standout right tackle earlier this week to a contract that financially protects the team in case he is forced to miss playing time because of injury. The Patriots also re-signed cornerback Aqib Talib, whose off-field baggage likely discouraged teams from offering big-money contracts. New England’s penchant for signing veteran players to short-term deals is expected to continue as the offseason unfolds.
The Bengals successfully gambled that a slew of their own free agents would end up re-signing rather than leave to go elsewhere after testing the market. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, cornerback Adam Jones and wide receiver/returner Brandon Tate lead the list of players who have returned to the fold since March 18. Cincinnati’s next target: Right tackle Andre Smith, the top free agent available that doesn’t have a home.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher initially asked for a $5.5 million base salary in 2013 before negotiations with the Bears unraveled. For less than the same price, the Bears signed three defensive players to one-year contracts. D.J. Williams (Denver) is Urlacher’s projected replacement, although the Bears are likely to select a middle linebacker by the middle rounds of April’s draft. Outside linebacker James Anderson started 49 games the past four seasons in Carolina. And safety Tom Zbikowski (Indianapolis) provides value through special teams and secondary depth. The Williams-Anderson-Zbikowski trio follows the Bears already addressing their two biggest need areas earlier in free agency with the signing of left tackle Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans) and tight end Martellus Bennett (New York Giants). Plus, Jonathan Scott was re-signed earlier this week as the team’s top backup swing tackle behind Bushrod and J’Marcus Webb.
The Titans haven’t slowed down since opening with some bold acquisitions led by Levitre, tight end Delanie Walker (San Francisco) and running back Shonn Greene (New York Jets). The Titans struck deals with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and strong safety Bernard Pollard following their respective releases by Buffalo and Baltimore. The most recent newcomer is defensive end Ropati Pitoitua, who started 15 games last season for Kansas City. These players help give Mike Munchak a fighting chance of keeping his job entering a pivotal third season as Tennessee’s head coach.