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Salary jump: Under-the-radar free agents set for big payoffs

2/28/2008 - NFL
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Less than three years ago, the Arizona Cardinals considered handing underachieving defensive end Calvin Pace a pink slip. The former first-round pick had missed the final 11 games of the 2005 season due to an accident in which he severely lacerated his right forearm after he slipped and smashed through a window of a sliding door. The non-football related injury allowed the team to withhold 65 percent of his $473,750 base salary.

But now, with the veteran edge defender ready to move into the unrestricted free-agent market, some franchise intrigued by his breakout 2007 season likely will reward him with a paycheck that includes an eight-figure signing bonus.

Pace, 27, is among a continent of unrestricted free agents whose market value will be surprisingly elevated when the signing period begins on Friday. And his contract, whether he re-signs in Arizona or moves to a new team, will stun some observers.

A handful of better-known unrestricted free agents -- cornerback Asante Samuel (New England), weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (Chicago), tailback Michael Turner (San Diego), guard Alan Faneca (Pittsburgh), defensive end Justin Smith (Cincinnati), wide receiver Bernard Berrian (Chicago) -- figure to break the bank. But as has been the case the past several years, the unrestricted pool is diluted and the subset of truly elite players is extremely limited.

So with needs to fill, and plenty of money to spend -- thanks to a league-record salary cap of $116 million for 2008 -- teams once again will turn their focus to young veterans on the rise. Pace, who could generate serious interest from seven or eight clubs, is a guy to watch.

A first-round choice (18th overall) in 2003, Pace has just 38 starts in five seasons. But thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances in 2007, scouts finally saw his productive side.

Having played end in a 4-3 front and also some strongside linebacker in that alignment in 2006, Pace was moved to linebacker full time last season when the Cardinals -- who had converted to a 3-4 defense -- lost pass-rushers Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry to injuries. Starting all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season, Pace posted 98 tackles and 6½ sacks, with one interception, six passes defensed, a forced fumble and two recoveries.

In a league where the hybrid edge defender has become a hot commodity, and where a player's ability to attack the pocket when rushing from either a three- or two-point stance adds to his value, those kinds of numbers can create a market spike.

The team that lands Pace -- whose representatives have had several negotiation sessions with Arizona officials anxious to retain him -- may have to offer a contract worth $6 million per year with guarantees of $12-$15 million. Last year in free agency, two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas left Baltimore to sign a five-year, $35.04 million deal with New England that guaranteed him $20 million.

Pace isn't the only burgeoning pass-rusher who will make big money in a market starved for guys who can collapse the pocket. He is one of just four unrestricted free agents who recorded five or more sacks in 2007, and all of them will generate interest.

Even more surprising than the market for Pace might be the one suddenly evolving for Chris Clemons of Oakland, a journeyman situational-type player who wasn't even in the league in 2006, but who posted eight sacks in 2007.

A pair of four-year veteran Tennessee Titans ends, Antwan Odom (eight sacks in 2007) and Travis LaBoy (six sacks), also will garner attention. So will Jacksonville end Bobby McCray, though he netted just three sacks in 2007 after registering 10 the previous season.

The spending spree on players who aren't exactly household names won't be limited, though, to just pass rushers. Here are a few players at other positions who figure to surprise people with the degree of market they generate and the size of the deals they land:

• OG Jacob Bell, Tennessee: There is only one Faneca, who will become the NFL's latest $7 million-a-year guard. But thanks to a high demand and low supply of topflight guards, the price tag is high for players such as Bell and Justin Smiley of San Francisco. Bell has been a bit healthier than Smiley, which probably gives him an edge, although both will attract plenty of interest. Bell is just 26 years old and has logged 46 starts in four seasons, including 31 the past two years.

• QB Todd Collins, Washington: The journeyman hadn't started a game since 1997 until he replaced an injured Jason Campbell last December, but he led the Redskins to three straight wins and a wild-card berth, throwing five TD passes and no interceptions. New coach Jim Zorn definitely wants Collins back, but the veteran probably will sample the market. At age 36, he could be a good fit for a team seeking a bridge-type quarterback, a veteran who could come in and start for a year or two while the club develops a youngster at the position.

• CB Drayton Florence, San Diego: The five-year veteran lost his starting job to Antonio Cromartie in 2007, has never been a very aggressive on-the-ball defender and doesn't run all that well. But he has 43 career starts and 10 interceptions. League personnel feel that aside from Samuel, the cornerback position is pretty weak.

• WR D.J. Hackett, Seattle: Has never started more than six games in a season, is coming off an injury-plagued 2007, and his average yards per catch has gone down in each of the past three years. But Hackett has good size and speed, runs the middle of the field well, and knows the West Coast offense. Another wideout with a similar skills set, Jabar Gaffney of New England, should merit interest as well.

• LB Landon Johnson, Cincinnati: The Bengals seemed to underappreciate him at times, but Johnson led the team in tackles in three of the past four seasons and is a bit more athletic than people think. With the Bengals poised to transition to a 3-4 in 2008, he probably isn't a good fit in Cincinnati anymore.

• OT/OG Maurice Williams, Jacksonville: Essentially bought his way into free agency after losing his starting job in 2007, when he agreed to lower his base salary in return for having the final two years of his contract voided. Started 85 games at right tackle before the Jags signed Tony Pashos to replace him last year. But when injuries hit, Williams moved inside to guard for 10 starts and played well. That kind of flexibility will earn him some dollars in the market.

• FS Gibril Wilson, New York Giants: He might not be the kind of natural ball hawk that some teams covet, but he has averaged more than 100 tackles the past three seasons and is a solid football player. He has 51 career starts in four seasons and, at age 26, still possesses a nice upside.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.