Brandon Lloyd was a fourth-round draft pick in 2003 by the San Francisco 49ers. Lloyd, a wide receiver, stayed with the Niners for three seasons before being traded to the Redskins in 2006. He spent the next four years bouncing from the 'Skins to the Bears to the Broncos, for whom he appeared in just two games in 2009. Up until this point in his career, Lloyd's career high had been 733 yards in 2005; in 2010, he nearly doubled that, leading the entire NFL with 1,448 yards on just 77 catches (an 18.8 yard average) and 11 touchdowns.
Defensive end Jason Babin, meanwhile, was a first-round bust for the Texans in 2004. After three seasons in Houston, where he recorded just 13 sacks, the Texans cut him loose and he started to wander. After stops in Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia, Babin found a home in Tennessee, amassing 12.5 sacks in 2010 and making the Pro Bowl. Babin then signed with the Eagles again for '11 and managed a colossal 18 sacks, with three forced fumbles, making the Pro Bowl again.
Both Babin and Lloyd clearly had that talent while they were roaming through the league, but for various reasons--injuries, scuffles with various front offices, poor coaching, poor offensive/defensive scheming, lack of opportunities--they were never put in a proper position to succeed. Recognizing talent and how to use it is the really hard part of being a NFL coach. And for every Victor Cruz who comes out of nowhere to post 1,536 yards and nine TDs as an undrafted free agent, there are lots and lots of guys like Lloyd and Babin who are just miscast in their schemes or go unnoticed by their teams. To borrow from Barack Obama, Cruz didn't do what he did on his own. It took chemistry with a QB, good coaching and good offensive scheming to get him the ball--punctuated by his own natural talent, drive and work ethic.
Point is, everybody is talented in the NFL. Even making the NFL as an undrafted free agent is a colossal accomplishment. The winnowing process for America's most successful pro league starts in Pop Warner, and only the most gifted, talented or ambitious people make it to the top. And there are plenty of those talented people who were miscast or injured or just plain had bad luck with previous teams, but are still sitting on the waiver wire just waiting for their shot. That's the Babins and Lloyds of the world, and scores of other names that you or I don't recognize because they never got put in the right situation.
There are some teams that recognize this and take low-risk chances on veterans, like the Patriots or the Seahawks. When Seattle upset New Orleans in the 2010 wild-card round, the team's last three touchdowns were scored by a waiver-wire veteran (Brandon Stokley), a first-round bust in Detroit (Mike Williams) and a Buffalo castoff (Marshawn Lynch). The Patriots routinely get great production out of supposedly washed-up veterans (Randy Moss, Junior Seau, Andre Carter, etc) because they're better at figuring out their talents and playing to their strengths than anyone else in football. Those teams make a living out of getting those talented vets and putting them in the right situations.
For years, I used to get into arguments with people about the value of veteran free agents, which is often overstated. After all, the last six Super Bowls were won by teams (Indy, Pittsburgh (2x), New York (2x), New Orleans, Green Bay) that are really good at drafting and developing their own star players (Drew Brees and Darren Sharper notwithstanding). And the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and, well, the last decade or so of Washington Redskins stand as a monument to the perils of depending too heavily on free agency, or going out and overpaying everyone. But that's not the way to use veteran free agency; it's the Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett, Brandon Chillar way--getting good players relatively cheaply and incorporating them into your scheme.
Veteran free agency is the land of hidden treasures. You can afford to take chances on the Anthony Hargroves and Phillip Merlings of the world because why not? There's a need on your team and they'll play for the veteran minimum (one year, something like $865,000)--pocket change in the NFL. If they turn out to be duds, you cut 'em and lose virtually nothing. If they turn out to be studs, you have a good player at a bargain price. At worst, you create competition for the players you've already got on the team; at best, you have the next Babin or Lloyd. What's not to like?
That's why I'm glad the Packers finally took a few low-cost gambles on veteran free agents this offseason. Yes, there are countless players out there with character issues, chronic injuries, etc. that the Packers don't go after. But there's scant harm in the spaghetti approach--signing a whole new defensive line and seeing what sticks. It shows that the Packers have confidence in the defensive staff to be able to scheme for and coach these players the right way, and it's just good business. Signing low-cost vets is basically the Pascal's Wager of modern football; if you're wrong, it hardly matters, and if you're right, good things happen. Hargrove, Merling and Daniel Muir could all be busts and the Packers would still have decent depth on the line. (The situation's a little different for Jeff Saturday, but even his being a bust wouldn't cause much financial loss.)