Don't have the dinero for DeMarco? Might we interest you in Helu?
THE 2015 NFL free-agent class is chock-full of big names: Murray, Randall Cobb, Ndamukong Suh and Julius Thomas are just a few of the elite talents in line to hit the market. Once the dust settles on those contracts, however, teams will turn their attention to cap-friendlier options. Here are four smaller-money players capable of providing big-time value on the dollar.
He's been productive for Washington when given opportunities (5.4 yards per carry, 42 receptions last season). Small problem: He hasn't had all that much playing time behind Alfred Morris, who since 2012 has more carries (876) than anyone not named Marshawn Lynch. On a team with a less-entrenched starter, Helu could approach the 1,000 combined yards he racked up as a rookie in '11. He has the best chance to be this crop's Justin Forsett, who sat behind Lynch and the Texans' Arian Foster before breaking out with Baltimore as a late free-agency signee in '14.
The Patriots' Shane Vereen is coming off career-best numbers in total yards (838), receptions (52) and touchdowns (five). He may set the standard for primarily passing-down backs, but Helu will cost less and might even produce greater overall numbers.
The 5'10", 185-pound slot man quietly hung a combined 15 touchdowns on opponents over the past two seasons—15th in the NFL, and more than Larry Fitzgerald, T.Y. Hilton, Wes Welker and a host of other high-profile names. Royal's 1,409 yards and 109 receptions in that time may not be No. 1 receiver numbers, but he's a solid complementary piece. The majority of his success came on intermediate routes and across the middle of the field; he'll do the dirty work, and at a very reasonable price.
The Packers' Randall Cobb—but he's a far more expensive option. While Royal is capable of sliding outside in an offensive formation or returning punts, Cobb excels in those areas, as well as from the slot and out of the backfield. So why consider Royal? Because after Cobb there's a noticeable drop-off on inside receivers.
No general manager will head into the signing period thinking, We need to ink Alan Ball. But eventually several will think, We could sure use him. Ball turns 30 this month and is coming off a season-ending biceps injury, but he nonetheless can be an effective corner; in fact, he was arguably Jacksonville's best defender in 2013. Teams always go searching for proven veteran depth. Here ya go.
The Browns' Buster Skrine is four years Ball's junior and coming off his best season (four interceptions, 55 tackles). And there's the dilemma for GMs: Do you toss a few bucks at a steady player like Ball or open the wallet for a high-upside player such as Skrine?
He played cornerback when Miami needed a cornerback, and he played safety when Miami needed a safety. That sounds simple enough, but the transition—especially for a safety dropping down to play nickel corner—is far easier said than done. (Wilson's stats reflect that trickiness: He graded out as ProFootballFocus's 34th-best safety and its 94th-best corner.) Wilson will sell himself on his value as a Swiss Army knife in the secondary. That's a mighty tool in this pass-heavy NFL.
Antrel Rolle is more or less locked in as a starting safety nowadays, but he did begin as a corner in Arizona, and the Giants tinkered with him as a nickel corner as well. Because he's 32, he may pass as a relative bargain, but his durability alone (one missed game over the past nine seasons) will get teams on the phone.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (HELU)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ROYAL)