There are some very big names on this year’s free agency market. Guys like Andre Smith, Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings (pictured) could end up fetching top dollars from new teams. Second-tier players like Paul Kruger, Jake Long and Michael Bennett could see big paydays, too. But teams aren’t always looking for the big fish. Many like to get the best bargain, not the biggest name, in their free agent haul. Here are 10 “sneaky” free agents — players that might not make top dollar, but could still make great impacts — that could end up being the best bargains come next week. -- Peter Schrager
Adam Jones, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals
I’ve gone back and watched a lot of the Bengals’ game tapes and must say — Adam Jones had a fantastic 2012 campaign. Long ago dismissed by most NFL teams and fan bases, Jones has resurrected his career and had his best NFL season since his rookie year in ’12. Whether that’s Jones, himself stepping up to the plate when other corners were injured or the product of Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis’s coaching is not for me to determine. I do know that the cornerback formerly known as “Pac Man” had a big comeback year in 2012 and kept his name out of the police blotter. He’s a very intriguing free agent and is still just 29 years old.
Daryl Smith, Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars
Without much fanfare, Smith was one of the most productive linebackers in the sport from 2009-2011. In that span, he started all 48 games the Jaguars played. The nine-year veteran, however, played in just two games due to a groin injury. Few teams will be lining up for a 31-year-old linebacker who clearly didn’t have the best year a season ago, but Smith can still be a reliable difference maker on a defense. A veteran voice who has played the captain role on both good Jaguars teams and bad, he could be a nice, affordable pick up.
Martellus Bennett, Tight End, New York Giants
Marty B! I was with the self-nicknamed “Black Unicorn” at Tuesday night’s Fox Sports 1 launch event and he’s not sure where he’s going to end up next season — he just wants to play football. Bennett, amazingly enough, is still only 25 years old. Though it feels like he’s been in the league forever, he’s just hitting his stride. The former basketball player had a career year with the Giants in 2012, proving he could be a starting tight end in this league. Stuck behind Jason Witten in Dallas for the first four years of his career, Bennett emerged in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. He could see a nice payday come March 12.
Delanie Walker, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers
Described to me as a “human chess piece,” Walker is as versatile an offensive player as there is in the NFL. Fullback, tight end, wide receiver — the 6-foot, 240-pound utility man could play any of those positions and play them well. After an incredibly productive NFL playoff run this season, Walker opened the eyes of a lot of folks around the league. The 49ers would love to have him back; they probably won’t be able to pay him enough.
Brent Grimes, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons
Grimes may not get as much media attention as his 2012 defensive backfield teammates William Moore and Dunta Robinson this month, but he could still end up being the most sought-after of the three with his next deal. A torn Achilles tendon suffered in Week 1 cost the 29-year-old cornerback his 2012 season. A six-year veteran, teams may be cautious of the injury and the age. In the short-term, if healthy — a big if — he could be the big get of the free agent period. A capable starter, a contender could plug him in right away and get a veteran presence.
Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush and Michael Turner may get more money this offseason, but Ahmad Bradshaw’s a two-time Super Bowl champion who consistently plays through pain and picks up big yards when needed. Oh, and he’s still only 26 years old. I asked Tom Coughlin if it was a difficult decision to let go of the five-year veteran last month and he said it was one of the hardest things he’d done as a Giants coach. The Giants players loved having Bradshaw in their backfield, because they knew no matter what injury he was suffering, he’d be out there on Sunday. A workhorse back that has big game experience, the former Giant could be a nice — somewhat affordable — pickup this spring.
Glover Quin, Safety, Houston Texans
I’m a big fan of “GQ” and think he was the very best player in a star-studded Texans defensive backfield a season ago. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson may get more buzz, but Quin (making tackle) had a Pro Bowl-caliber season at free safety. Strapped for cap space, the Texans opted to roll the dice and not place the franchise tag on Quin — a guy they like a lot. They’re hoping they can lock him up long term for less than the $6.9 million a year he would have gotten if franchised. I’m not so sure about that.
Louis Delmas, Safety, Detroit Lions
You hate to give any money to a guy who’s been sidelined with injuries for much of the last two seasons, but Delmas (No. 26, making tackle) may be worth a little extra coin. Still just 25, he has all the potential in the world to be one of the top-five strong safeties in the game. When healthy — I know, that’s a big when — he’s an impact player.
Andy Levitre, Offensive Guard, Buffalo Bills
I was a bit surprised the Bills used their franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd over Levitre earlier this week. Not as big a name as some of his teammates, Levitre’s been the rock of the Buffalo Bills offensive line for quite some time. Levitre has started every game in his four-year career and has given up just 12 sacks in those four seasons. At 26 with no red flags, Buffalo’s losing a good guy to build its line around if he leaves for greener pastures.
Phil Loadholt, Offensive Tackle, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson deservedly got all the headlines and media spotlight during his 2,097-yard 2012 season, but the Vikings offensive line had a wonderful campaign as well. Matt Kalil was everything Minnesota hoped he would have been when they selected him with the 4th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Loadholt, a former second-round pick in 2009, was excellent on the right side. Consistent, he’s started all 63 of the 63 games he’s played in and at 345 pounds is a road paver in the run game. Loadholt may not be as dazzling a name as Andre Smith or Jake Long, but he can make an offense better—both in the running and passing games. Just ask Adrian Peterson.