Sean Smith has flashes of brilliance, but maddening bouts of inconsistency too. (Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)
Nothing can be decided in the NFL until teams take the field in September, of course, but often contenders are separated from pretenders during the span from the start of free agency until the close of the draft.
We'll hit that portion of the calendar on March 12, when the free-agent market opens. From there, teams will have about six and a half weeks to get their houses in order before the three-day NFL Draft.
The teams that contend consistently do their best work in this approaching window. And those that attack free agency most competently know that the trick is not simply to spend, but to spend well.
So, which players will wind up paying off as smart acquisitions this offseason and which will lead to buyer's remorse? A look at 10 potential bargains and 10 possible busts from this year's free-agent class:
Victor Butler, OLB: With the Cowboys sliding to a 4-3 defense, the pass-rushing Butler was an odd man out, and that might be another team's gain. The 25-year-old Butler has been just a backup thus far -- the 300 snaps he saw action on in 2012 marked a career high -- but there is reason to believe he could handle a starting gig.
Brad Jones, LB: Jones, like the rest of the Packers' defense, probably was at his worst in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Still, he started 10 regular-season games for Green Bay in 2012 and finished with 77 tackles (third-most on the team). Jones also graded out as the Packers' fifth-best defensive player last season on Pro Football Focus. Jones is versatile enough to be valuable in just about any scheme.
Israel Idonije, DE: At 32, Idonije delivered 7.5 sacks in his eighth season with the Bears -- and did so on a tidy $2.5 million contract. "He's done a number of good things and had a number of good games both outside and inside," Chicago GM Phil Emery said during the combine.
Fred Davis, TE: Coming off an Achilles injury, Davis may wind up back in Washington. But in a league that increasingly values productive tight ends, Davis could be a nice, affordable signing for a team willing to roll the dice. He had a 59-catch, 796-yard season in 2011, while playing just 12 games. If Davis can stay on the field, he'll put up numbers.
Josh Cribbs, WR: Cribbs finished third in the league in kickoff-return yardage last season and caught a mere seven passes, so maybe he's strictly a special teams player now. I still think there's more in the tank elsewhere -- and if Cribbs lands with a team creative enough to incorporate him into the offense, he's still young enough (29) and athletic enough to hit a few home runs.
Sammie Lee Hill, DT: While all the focus on the Lions' D-line fell on Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and others, Hill quietly went about his business for the past four seasons. He really thrived in the previous three, after shifting to more of a part-time role following a 2009 in which he started as an overmatched rookie. Any team needing some interior line help would be wise to consider the 331-pounder.
Greg Toler, CB: Toler was a top-15 cornerback in coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking three spots ahead of teammate Patrick Peterson. Of course, Toler played only 308 snaps and missed all of 2011 with an ACL injury, so he would constitute a gamble as a starting CB. But, if his play is any indication, a worthy one.
Corey Lynch, S: The Chargers signed Lynch away from Tampa Bay prior to 2012 looking for little more than depth at safety and some special-teams help. Lynch provided that, then delivered steady play as a starter late in the season after Atari Bigby fell with an injury.
Mike DeVito, DE: You could make a case that aside from a healthy Darrelle Revis, DeVito has been the Jets' most consistent defender for the past four seasons or so. Capable of playing in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, DeVito should find a home as a starter.
Donald Thomas, G: The Patriots will miss Thomas if he leaves -- he stepped in and started seven games last season, after fighting for his roster spot during camp. He's an athletic interior lineman, so he might appeal to teams that utilize some zone-read principles.
Andre Smith, OT: Smith was my first pick in SI's Free-Agent Mock Draft earlier this week, so I don't exactly anticipate his performance falling off a cliff next season. But teams must be wary of a player who carries questions about his conditioning and work ethic, then shines in a contract year.
Jermon Bushrod, OT: A Pro Bowl tackle in 2011 and 16-game starter each of the past three seasons, Bushrod has developed into a very solid tackle. The problem is he might be looking for top-tackle money -- and he would be hard-pressed to repay that kind of investment.
LaRon Landry, S: Not only did Landry somewhat surprisingly make it through 2012 without missing a game, but also he managed to notch a Pro Bowl bid. How confident will teams be that either situation will repeat itself? Landry reportedly wants $6 million per year on his new contract, which would put him among the top six or seven highest-paid safeties.
Michael Turner, RB: This all depends on the level of commitment made to Turner by his new team. If he winds up with a role suiting his current skill set -- i.e. a part-time back capable of grinding out some short yardage -- then he won't warrant a spot on this list. Any team hoping against hope that he's capable of carrying the load as a No. 1 back will be disappointed.
John Abraham, DE: Another veteran ex-Falcon ... and Abraham's situation is not dissimilar to Turner's. Abraham, who will be 35 in May, led the Falcons with 10 sacks and 38 QB hurries, both strong numbers. So, it's a bit of a red flag that they cut him anyway, despite a rather reasonable $4.25 million salary. Abraham can still produce but, like Turner, will only be worth the cost in the right situation -- for him, one that lets him pass rush while seeing limited action on first and second downs.
Sean Smith, CB: The potential is there for Smith to be a shut-down cornerback in this league. We even get to see that level of performance from time to time, like when Smith picked off two passes in a Week 4 matchup against Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. Why he's here, though, is that Smith frequently falls into bouts of inconsistent play, and that won't pair well with the lucrative deal he's sure to get.
Bryant McKinnie, OT: McKinnie lost his starting job in Baltimore back in training camp and only regained it in time for that magical playoff run. The 33-year-old veteran certainly deserves kudos for stepping up in crunch time. That said, McKinnie was benched prior to that for a reason, and he's on the downside of his long career.
Mike Wallace, WR: It's understandable to have major questions about Wallace, who, on paper, probably is the jewel of this free-agent class. That standing combined with a plethora of teams in need of a No. 1 receiver means Wallace will get paid. He often appeared unmotivated last season, though, so what will his mindset be once he cashes in a monster paycheck?
Aqib Talib, CB: Talib played an integral role for the Patriots late last season, and his postseason injury clearly helped lead to the team's demise. Talib, 27, revitalized his career after arriving in New England. But he still has a lot of off-field issues on his resume for a player that likely will command a hefty deal.
Charles Woodson, DB:
How much does Woodson have left in the tank? Based on his play in an injury-plagued 2012, not much. Woodson needs to be willing to take on a reduced role in 2013 and any team that signs him must accentuate his strengths. Otherwise, Woodson's career could have a very disheartening final chapter.