Mike Mitchell never felt talent was the issue in Oakland. It was opportunity, which is why he bolted the Raiders after four seasons to take an incentive-laden deal in Carolina last March.
One year later, Mitchell is back on the market, and his productivity — four interceptions, two forced fumbles and 3½ sacks in 15 games (14 starts) — on a solid Panthers defense figures to make this voyage in free agency more lucrative.
"That was just me saying hello," Mitchell, the 26-year-old safety, told USA TODAY Sports. "I think next year is when I'm really going to show up."
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For all the complaints about veterans being forced to take one-year deals in the NFL's current economic climate, going back to the bargaining table so soon can pay off — if you play well.
Take Mitchell, who received a modest $250,000 bonus on his $1 million contract, earned another $450,000 in incentives and flashed the rare physical traits that made the Raiders shock draft analysts by taking him in the second round (47th overall) out of Ohio University in 2009.
A starter for just nine games in Oakland, Mitchell knows he has work ahead to be mentioned in the same breath as top free-agent safeties Jairus Byrd (Buffalo) and T.J. Ward (Cleveland).
"I think the world of those guys," Mitchell said. "My thing is I just want to say, 'Hey, guys, I'm in the competition, too, and I plan on being here and staying here.' "
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It appears the safety market could be lucrative, if the four-year, up to $26 million contract Byrd's running mate Aaron Williams signed with the Bills on Wednesday is any indication.
The salary cap is a record $133 million per team. Byrd and Ward both figure to be targeting bar-setting deals that surpass the $9.867 million average on Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's contract prior to this week's restructure.
Mitchell has his own contract numbers in mind. But as he knows well, finding the right fit can be more valuable in the long run.
"I want to play for somebody who's going to be a contender, and I want to be on a team that sees me as an integral piece, not just a little fill-in," Mitchell said. "I want to be a staple in someone's defense, because I think I can become that type of player."
Mitchell wasn't the only vested veteran to take a one-year deal in 2013 and make the most of it. Here are 10 others who put themselves in better position to cash in this time around:
DE Michael Bennett, Seahawks: Signed to a $4.8 million deal after four seasons in Tampa Bay, Bennett had 10 sacks, including 1½ (plus two forced fumbles) in Seattle's Super Bowl run.
RB LeGarrette Blount, Patriots: Re-signed to a $1.75 million deal by Tampa Bay, Blount was traded to the Patriots a couple months later and rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns.
ILB Karlos Dansby, Cardinals: Released by the Dolphins, Dansby took a $3 million deal with Arizona and keyed the defense with 6½ sacks, four interceptions and 19 passes defended.
WR Julian Edelman, Patriots: Re-signed for a base sum of $765,000, Edelman racked up 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, earning $250,000 in incentives.
CB Brent Grimes, Dolphins: Coming off an Achilles tendon tear in Atlanta, Grimes had four interceptions and parlayed his $5.5 million deal into a four-year, $32.025 million extension.
QB Josh McCown, Bears: A career backup, McCown took a minimum salary benefit contract worth $865,000 and threw 13 TD passes with one interception in place of injured Jay Cutler.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers: Re-signed to a $1.1 million deal, Munnerlyn started 16 games, returned two interceptions for touchdowns and posted a career-high 3½ sacks.
LB Shaun Phillips, Broncos: Signed to a $1 million base deal with no bonus after nine years in San Diego, Phillips had 10 sacks for the AFC champs, earning $800,000 in incentives.
S Bernard Pollard, Titans: On his fourth team in eight NFL seasons, Pollard started all 16 games and had three interceptions, turning a $2.5 million deal into a multi-year extension.
CB Aqib Talib, Patriots: Acquired from Tampa Bay amidst turmoil in 2012, Talib re-signed for $5 million, had four interceptions and earned a $500,000 incentive with his first Pro Bowl nod.
Follow national NFL reporter Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.
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