T.J. Houshmandzadeh is thrilled about the opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his eight-year career. He's also looking forward to something else -- proving himself to anybody who questions what he might contribute to his next team.
"I came into this league as a seventh-round pick, and that [label] is something that has always followed me," Houshmandzadeh said Thursday. "I hear people [in the media] saying I've overachieved, but I look at it differently. I think I was undervalued when I came into this league, and I've done everything I was supposed to do since then."
If you detect a certain edge in Houshmandzadeh's words, you're not mistaken. He has exactly the kind of fire that future employers should be looking for in a player who is the best free-agent wide receiver on the market, which officially opens Friday.
Even though Houshmandzadeh has been a reliable target who had 294 receptions and 25 touchdowns over the past three season, he's convinced there remain some doubters. Skeptics wonder about his qualifications for a big-money deal. That's why he's eager to show that his success wasn't merely the result of playing in the Cincinnati Bengals' wide-open offense.
See, entering free agency is more than just a long-awaited dream for Houshmandzadeh. It's simply another step in a long journey that started when he watched the 2001 draft go by without one team calling his name until selection No. 204. He was selected by the Bengals 168 slots behind fellow Cincinnati draftee and Oregon State teammate Chad Ocho Cinco.
Houshmandzadeh has known the frustration that comes with barely playing during his first three seasons because of injuries, and he's well aware of how hard he worked to become a Pro Bowl player in 2007. He understands that all those experiences helped him reach the place he's at today.
Barring teams' making trades for bigger names -- such as Houshmandzadeh's soon-to-be former teammate Ocho Cinco, Arizona's Anquan Boldin or the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress -- Houshmandzadeh should have no shortage of potential suitors. Published reports already have named the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks as teams that could make a run at him.
"Going into last season, I knew the top potential free-agent receivers would be me, Roy Williams and Lee Evans," Houshmandzadeh said. "But I knew I was the guy once they signed their deals. (Williams received a five-year extension from the Dallas Cowboys after being traded from the Detroit Lions while Evans signed a four-year extension with the Buffalo Bills.) I was ready for it and I worked hard as hell."
Houshmandzadeh, by the way, holds no hard feelings toward the Bengals. He accepts that they made a business decision by not holding on to him, and he knows he was a vital component in that team's improvement after the arrival of head coach Marvin Lewis in 2003. Houshmandzadeh still takes great pride in knowing that the Bengals' culture changed dramatically while he was on that roster. Once Cincinnati was considered a destination as attractive as Guantanamo Bay. But recently, he's seen newcomers discover that the Bengals' locker room really wasn't purgatory after all.
In fact, the 31-year-old Houshmandzadeh regrets that the Bengals couldn't do more with the promise they displayed after winning the AFC North in 2005. "We should've won a Super Bowl or at least competed in one," said Houshmandzadeh of a Bengals team that finished 4-11-1 last season.
"There was a point when teams were scared to deal with us because they didn't know how to stop us. It's too bad that they're starting to slip back down the wrong road, but I hope they turn it around. I want to see them do well."
Houshmandzadeh knew his days with the Bengals were done when his agent, Kennard McGuire, couldn't get anywhere in contract talks with the team last fall. Houshmandzadeh earned $3.2 million in 2008. He was so certain of his eventual departure that he started shipping most of the clothes from his Cincinnati home back to his offseason residence in Southern California with about a month to go in the season. He now jokes that he wore the same sweatsuit to the team's facility for countless days because his wardrobe was so diminished. But his numbers -- he caught 92 passes despite playing 12 games without injured quarterback Carson Palmer -- indicate that he still gave his best effort to his team.
Now that Houshmandzadeh is on the open market, he has a clear idea of what he wants in his next employer. Basically, he'd like a talented quarterback, a strong head coach and an aggressive offensive system. Houshmandzadeh acknowledges that money obviously will factor heavily into his decision-making, but you're also talking about a man who has appeared in one playoff game in his career. Like everybody else, he wants a shot at winning something before his time in the league ends.
Houshmandzadeh also is preparing for the increased scrutiny that comes with being a high-priced acquisition instead of a late-round draft pick.
"Whoever signs me is going to get a lot from me," he said. "I want to be with guys who are dedicated and work hard because I'm going to be doing the same things. They can't win by doing everything themselves, and I can't win by doing everything on my own. That's why I know I'll exceed whatever expectations will be on me."
That's the point that Houshmandzadeh hopes to drive home once he starts meeting with teams after free agency begins Friday morning. He doesn't know how long it will take to find a new employer, but he says nothing will change in his approach to the game. He put himself in this position by being a player who felt he had to prove himself on every down when he became a professional football player.
And as far as Houshmandzadeh is concerned, that's exactly how he plans on leaving the NFL.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.