For NFL teams, the next three months are the league's version of Christmas shopping. Between free agency, which starts March 11, and the draft, which kicks off in early May, this is the time to get your salary cap situations cleaned up (as much as possible) and take a run at the most intriguing prospects. And with free agency just around the corner, it's time to take a closer look at the most appealing prospects -- starting with a class of quarterbacks that don't really excite, and a group of running backs with some interesting sleepers.
1. Michael Vick
Vick will be 34 in June, he's played a full 16 games in just one season in his NFL career, and he still has some of the same issues he's always had as a quarterback. But for a team stacked elsewhere, and in win-now mode, and perhaps with a young quarterback under development ... a one- or two-year deal would certainly be an acceptable risk. The Jets are rumored to be in the hunt for Vick as just that kind of short-term solution, which makes a world of sense. Geno Smith needs time and help to develop, Vick handled the Nick Foles situation in Philly with all kinds of class, and he's been very successful with current Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg in the past. Vick's closing in on the end of his career, but he's in a position to go out in a good way.
2. Josh McCown
The 34-year-old (35 in July) McCown completed a grand total of 36 passes for 416 yards from 2008 through '12 for the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, but he re-established himself as a possible starter after Jay Cutler went through multiple injuries in 2013. Under first-year head coach and longtime quarterback guru Marc Trestman, McCown completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,824 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception in 224 attempts. He kept the Bears in the playoff hunt in the shaky NFC North, and though that trip wasn't successful, it's easy to see a team finding McCown's veteran acumen and proven ability to take a playbook to the field attractive. That's especially so if that team needs a trusted triggerman and doesn't see the guy it wants in the 2014 draft.
3. Matt Cassel
Since he made the Pro Bowl with the Chiefs in 2010, Cassel has seen his star fall more and more each season. He's not mobile at all, and he's always been balky in the pocket, but he can still be a league-average starter or quality backup. Cassel left $3.7 million behind when he opted out of his deal with the Vikings, so it's clear that he still sees himself as a higher-tier starter. There are times when the tape still backs that up (his efficient two-touchdown, no-pick games against the Steelers and Ravens), and other times when the decline is evident (his three-pick debacle against the Bengals in late December).
4. Josh Freeman
People have been divided about Freeman ever since he came into the league in 2009. He's alternated between great stretches of historic efficiency, and frustrating valleys of boneheadedness in which nothing he does seems to work. I was of the opinion that he was scuttled unfairly in Tampa Bay by head coach Greg Schiano's inability to deal with people, and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's rudimentary route concepts. However, Freeman did nothing to help those who still defend him when he started for the Vikings against the Giants on Oct. 22 and looked worse than he'd ever looked before. To be fair, Freeman didn't have much time to pick things up after the Vikings signed him, but that was the last anyone's seen of Freeman on the field, and one wonders how that will affect his value on the open market. The Raiders, whose current offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, worked with Freeman during his best stretches, provide an interesting possibility.
5. Chad Henne
The good news for Henne in 2013 was that he proved he could win a quarterback battle at the NFL level. The bad news is that he did it for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the guy he beat out was Blaine Gabbert ... which isn't really a good indicator of anything. It's pretty clear from what the Jags brass has said through 2014 that they're seeking a younger, longer-term solution at the position. Henne's a league-average guy at best, optimally suited to a spot-starter role.
Overrated: Freeman. Someone will take a gamble on Freeman's age (26), athletic ability and deep arm. They'd just better know what they're in for from a consistency perspective, and have the right kind of coaching staff to manage his liabilities and promote his attributes.
Underrated: McCown. Yes, McCown's a system guy -- but that's far from pejorative when you have the kind of season he had. On a team where the deep ball isn't a major component, he could have an interesting renaissance.
Moreno took a while to get the hang of things in the NFL after the Broncos made him their first-round pick in 2009, and with Peyton Manning's transcendent season in 2013, Moreno's own uptick in production and efficiency went relatively ignored. It shouldn't go ignored during free agency. He went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career last season, finishing sixth in Football Outsiders' season-cumulative efficiency ratings among starting backs. Moreno has said that he would prefer to return to Denver, and Executive Vice President John Elway said at the scouting combine that the team is still evaluating the process -- though he did mention that Moreno was a big part of what the Broncos were able to accomplish.
2. Donald Brown
Like Moreno, Brown was a first-round pick in 2009 whose inconsistencies led to a lot of frustration early in his career. But as Trent Richardson made everyone wonder about the intelligence of the trade that robbed the Colts of their first-round pick in 2014, Brown finally started playing like the elite prospect he was once thought to be. The Colts spread their carries around as they tried to figure out their running game, but Brown managed a career-high 5.3 yards per carry on 102 carries. He also improved the little things -- well, if you think that pass-blocking is a little thing, which it isn't in Indianapolis' offense. The Colts are expected to make Brown a competitive offer, but don't be surprised if he gets some traction on the open market.
Jennings was a small-school pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009, and he proved to have far more than seventh-round value for the Raiders in 2013. Though Oakland's offense often resembled a tire fire, and the quarterback play was rarely league-average, Jennings flashed at times with some impressive performances. He had career-highs last season with 163 carries for 733 yards and six touchdowns. Jennings will be a more attractive free-agent option than backfield mate Darren McFadden to many in the know -- per FO's metrics, he was more valuable than Green Bay's Eddie Lacy, San Diego's Ryan Mathews and New England's Stevan Ridley. Head coach Dennis Allen said in late February that Jennings would be a big priority for the Raiders. He should be relatively inexpensive to retain, and the Raiders have gobs of cap space.
4. Ben Tate
After four years as Arian Foster's understudy, Tate has made it clear -- he wants a shot at a starting role elsewhere. The former second-round pick kept up relatively consistent production in 2013 even as Houston's offensive line fell off, but there is a question about whether he can shoulder the whole load -- whether he's a transcendent talent at the Adrian Peterson/LeSean McCoy/Marshawn Lynch level.
Blount is the latest in a long line of players who have disappointed elsewhere, only to flourish in New England's offensive concepts. His numbers plummeted from 1,007 yards to 781 to 151 during his three seasons in Tampa Bay, but he was a solid part of the Patriots offense in a lot of ways in 2013, and Bill Belichick appreciated it. Blount has expressed an interest in a return to Foxboro, but he's not likely to get a huge contract offer, and it could ultimately depend on what the market looks like.
Overrated: Darren McFadden. Injuries and inconsistency have scuttled McFadden's potential to a large degree, though he's capable of great things in short blasts. And a team looking for splash plays might overpay on potential ... though the realities of the situation may also kick in. Underrated: Ahmad Bradshaw. The key with Bradshaw is understanding that durability is a major issue -- but some teams might oversell that liability and ignore what he can still do for a team when healthy.