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The NFL's biggest bargains
1. New Orleans FS Darren Sharper
Teams needing offseason safety help fell asleep at the wheel. Sharper languished on the free-agent market for almost three weeks until Saints general manager Mickey Loomis signed him to a one-year, $1.7 million deal. A four-time Pro Bowl selection is now headed toward his fifth appearance. The 34-year-old Sharper still has the wheels to play the centerfield position in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme. Sharper is tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns. In comparison, no Cleveland offensive player has more than two scores this season.
2. Denver DE Elvis Dumervil
The NFL sack leader with 15, Dumervil is earning $535,000 this season under his rookie contract. The players ranked Nos. 2 to 5 in sacks — Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney, James Harrison and Will Smith — have received massive extensions that included a combined $107.5 million guaranteed. Dumervil deserves to get paid, but like San Diego WR Vincent Jackson (see below), his options will be limited as a restricted free agent in 2010 under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
3. Dallas WR Miles Austin
Miami and the New York Jets should be kicking themselves. Neither franchise signed Austin to a tender offer as a restricted free agent when he could have potentially been lured away from a Cowboys team with cap challenges. He drew interest from the Jets before they backed off, while a Dolphins front office that comes largely from Dallas should have known Austin was set to blossom in his fourth NFL season. He has already posted career-highs in catches (52), receiving yardage (928) and touchdowns (9) while becoming QB Tony Romo's favorite wide receiver. Austin is playing under a one-year, $1.545 million contract that would have required any suitor to surrender a second-round draft pick if the Cowboys didn't match a tender offer signed elsewhere. Austin will never come as cheaply again to other NFL teams or, for that matter, the Cowboys.
4. New York Jets RB Leon Washington
Here's hoping this isn't a case where a player's financial demands blow up in his face. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Washington and his agent declined several Jets offers that would have given him a significant raise from a $535,000 base salary. Washington had clearly outplayed his current deal but then suffered a gruesome leg injury in a Week 7 victory over Oakland. While expected to make a full recovery, it will be interesting to see whether Washington's health concerns affect New York's contract negotiations in the offseason.
5. Denver WR Brandon Marshall
With his off-field and conduct issues in 2009, Marshall was his own worst enemy when it came to scoring a new contract from the Broncos. Even so, Marshall is underpaid compared to his peers. None of the NFL's other top 14 receivers are earning less this season than Marshall at $2.2 million. If he keeps his nose clean, the Broncos may be willing to reward Marshall with a new contract during the offseason.
6. Indianapolis SS Melvin Bullitt
At least drafted players get some semblance of signing bonus. Because he was signed as a college free agent in 2007, Bullitt has played for relative peanuts his first three NFL seasons. That should change. Bullitt has a penchant for making big plays. He also has helped the Colts withstand the loss of injured S Bob Sanders and growing pains in their young secondary. Bullitt's base salary in 2009 is $420,000.
7. Miami DE Jason Taylor
The Dolphins got a hometown discount with Taylor but he isn't complaining. After one miserable season in Washington, Taylor was so anxious for a South Florida return that he signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal that included $500,000 in incentives. Taylor, 35, has six sacks in 12 starts and helps create opportunities for others in Miami's strong pass rush.
8. Cincinnati RB Cedric Benson
Houston made a huge mistake by not signing Benson after he visited in March during the first week of free agency. Cincinnati ultimately re-upped with Benson on a two-year, $7 million contract while the Texans stuck with the three-headed running back combination of Steve Slaton, Chris Brown and Ryan Moats. With 969 rushing yards in 10 games, Benson has paced Cincinnati to the NFL's sixth-ranked ground attack. Houston is 29th with an 88.7-yard average. The Texans also have only three runs of 20-plus yards compared to Cincinnati's 11.
9. Cleveland WR/KR/PR/QB Josh Cribbs
Cleveland's jack-of-all-trades is having buyer's remorse after signing a six-year, $6.77 million extension in 2006. I can't blame him. In his fifth NFL season, Cribbs has established himself as one of the game's top returners and an offensive threat. Cleveland hasn't been responsive so far toward giving Cribbs a new deal. Let's see if the team's stance changes with a new general manager in 2010.
10. San Diego WR Vincent Jackson
Jackson is one of the 2005 draft class members who will be financially hurt if the NFL Players Association can't reach agreement with the NFL on a new CBA by March. Under the current labor deal, the number of seasons required to obtain unrestricted free agency is set to jump from four to six. That will effectively remove a slew of players from the market. Jackson, who is earning $620,000 this year, is among the best of them. He is on track for a second consecutive 1,000-yard season as well as career-highs in receptions and touchdowns.