As you count down the hours until the Super Bowl, imagine all of the superstar teams full of expensive free agent acquisitions. Maybe the Philadelphia Eagles or Washington Redskins come to mind. Often, these teams don't emerge as successful as everyone anticipated.
Great football teams are built around three types of players: 1) superstars who carry the team, 2) young signees who bring quality far beyond their paycheck size and 3) journeymen players who fill small but important roles.
The best teams don't rely solely on spending money to acquire players. Instead, they find gems in late rounds of the draft, bargain free agents or even undrafted free agents.
The two teams in this year's Super Bowl, the New York Giants and the New England Patriots each have their share of bargain players.
With the average NFL salary up to $1.9 million and the highest paid players reaching around $20 million, these are six players who really bring maximum value to their team:
New York Giants
1. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
The Giants expected big things out of Pierre-Paul, the 15th overall player in the 2010 draft. Perhaps that is why they offered him such a lucrative contract with a 5-year, $20,050,000 offer. He's making $2.8 million this year, and sure, it isn't cheap by anyone's standards. But he's exceeded expectations, recording 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks in only his second season. His play was enough to have him voted All-Pro as a Defensive End. Lucky for the Giants, they have the South Florida "hoss" signed through the 2014 season, when he should be in his prime. Even then they will be paying him under $4 million per season.
2. Victor Cruz, WR
The undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts has made a career out of proving people wrong. He started the season as the Giants fourth wide receiver, but other players' injuries have brought him into the spotlight. As the breakout receiver of the year, Cruz caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards, which is a single-season franchise record for the Giants. Add to that nine touchdowns and Cruz is a steal at $405,000. Next year, the Giants will still only have to pay Cruz $490,000, so Eli Manning will have a great young target for touchdown passes.
3. Hakeem Nicks, WR
Nicks was the other big-play wide receiver for the Giants this year hauling in 76 catches for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns. So, while his salary is about average for an NFL player (at $1,875,000), his numbers have been anything but average. His 100-plus yard and two touchdown performances in the Giants’ first two playoff games against the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers helped catapult the Giants into the Super Bowl. Fortunately for the Giants, Nicks doesn’t become a free agent until 2014, so they can expect several more years of production from him on a modest salary.
New England Patriots
4. Kyle Arrington, DB
Arrington makes $725,000, and his two forced fumbles against the Denver Broncos contributed to the 45-10 blowout, putting the Patriots back into the AFC Championship game. In his third year out of Hofstra, Arrington registered 88 tackles, and was tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. The Patriots have this impressive cornerback locked up for one more year before he becomes a free agent, but even next year he will make just over $1 million.
5. Rob Gronkowski, TE
In Gronkowksi's monster season, he set the NFL single-season record for receiving touchdowns for tight ends and is arguably the best buy on this list. He didn't just catch 17 touchdowns; he logged 90 catches for 1327 yards and was voted starting tight end at the 2012 Pro Bowl. Best of all for the Patriots, they get all that talent for $845,000. In 2010, Gronkowski signed a 4-year, $4.44 million contract and his base salary pays him only $405k, but a $440k annual bonus bumps it up a little. Still, the Pats have the record-breaking tight end locked up through 2013 where they will still only pay him just over $1 million.
Building a winning football team is a lot like asset allocation. You never want to put all of your eggs in one basket, or in this case, all of your money into a few players that break the bank. The best owners and coaches know how to look for potential, investing early in possibly overlooked players that can grow into champions.
[For previous best value athletes, check out The Best Value Players of the 2012 NFL Conference Championships and The Best Player Bargains in the 2011 World Series.]
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