To improve an NFL team, the leaders of a franchise have three primary avenues; the annual NFL draft, working out a trade with another NFL front office, or signing an unclaimed player through free agency. Teams only receive (about) seven draft picks a year, however, and trading can be a long and arduous task. Because of this, many teams turn to free agency as a way to instantly improve one's squad. Some of these free agents come in, and instantly improve their new teams. Others never get off the ground, and end up being a financial anchor holding the franchise back.
To illustrate the ups and downs of NFL free agency this list will count down the 8 best NFL free agent signings since 2013, and 7 of the worst. Dozens of free agents change teams every year, so in the last five years alone there have been a plethora of deals to choose from. To make things interesting (and manageable), I limited this list to only those free agents who signed with a different team. If you can think of any great (or terrible) free agents that didn't make this list, feel free to mention them in the comments.
15 Best - Nick Foles
It's not often that a backup quarterback becomes one of the most important free agent signings of the past 5 years, but that is exactly what happened this year with the Philadelphia Eagles. When Nick Foles signed with the Eagles (after spending a few years with the Rams, Chiefs, and out of the league), no one thought that he would be such a critical component of the franchise winning its first ever Super Bowl. But that is exactly what happened when starting quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a season ending injury late in the regular season. Foles stepped in admirably for the injured Wentz and outplayed several MVP quarterbacks (including Tom Brady himself at the Super Bowl) on his way to the league championship.
14 Bust - Matt Flynn
Speaking of Nick Foles, his value for this offseason is largely determined by another former free agent, and our next entry. The factor that might bring down Foles' value the most is the so called "Matt Flynn" factor. Being Aaron Rodgers' backup in Green Bay, Flynn understandably didn't get much playing time in his first few years in the league. When he finally did get to start in a throwaway game at the end of his contract season, he created quite a stir by throwing for 6 touchdowns and dominating the opposing team. Flynn parlayed this success into a huge free agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks. Flynn was awful during his time in Seattle, and everyone questioned how the Seahawks could award that kind of contract to a player that had started only one game in his career.
13 Best - Calais Campbell
Many commentators have tried to portray the Jacksonville Jaguars success this past season as the natural progression of so many high-end draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. While the development of players like Jalen Ramsey and others certainly contributed to the Jags' success this season, you shouldn't underestimate the free agent signing of veteran defensive end Calais Campbell. As someone who watched his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, twice get dominated by Jacksonville, I can personally attest to how disruptive Campbell's pass rush is to opposing offenses. In fact, I would say that his play on the field was almost as important to the Jag's success as his calming influence on their young locker room.
12 Bust - DeMarco Murray
Whenever a player has a monumental season, there is always the question of whether they alone were responsible for their monumental season, or if their incredible play was merely the result of the players around them. A perfect example of this is DeMarco Murray, who led the league with 1,845 rushing yards for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. Because of his huge contract year, the Eagles signed the 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year to a five-year, $40 million deal. Despite his huge contract, Murray rushed for a mere 702 yards in 2015. Part of this can be attributed to Murray having to share a backfield with Ryan Matthews, but the Eagles blamed Murray enough to trade him to the Tennessee Titans.
11 Best - Chris Long
If I'm looking solely at the last two Super Bowls, the most valuable NFL free agent of the last five years has to be Chris Long. He not only won his first Super Bowl as a member of the Patriots in 2017, his new squad, the Philadelphia Eagles, also defeated his former squad just this past year. Nick Foles and Doug Pederson have gotten a lot of credit for leading the Eagles to their first championship in the Super Bowl era, but something has to be said for the stabilizing effect that Chris Long has on NFL defenses. Not only is he a veteran leader, he has also been a hugely productive player dating all the way back to his time with the Rams. Long is under tenure with the Eagles for a couple more years, but i'm curious to see if he can make it back to the Super Bowl for a third straight year in the 2018-2019 season.
10 Bust - Michael Johnson
It's not too often that the Cincinnati Bengals franchise is the place that best fosters a player's competitiveness. But that is exactly what happened with the next entry on our list, Michael Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the Bengals out of Georgia Tech in 2009, and quickly became one of the team's premier pass rushers. He, alongside Carlos Dunlap, quickly became a dominant NFL defensive end. All of this changed when he signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson was wholly ineffective in Tampa, causing the team to release him after he played only a portion of his five-year, $44 million deal. After leaving Florida, Johnson returned to the Bengals, and has since resurrected his career. Who would have thought?
9 Best - Alex Mack
It's not often that an offensive lineman becomes one of the best free agent signings of any period, but that is exactly what happened when the Atlanta Falcons signed free agent center Alex Mack in 2016. Prior to 2016, Mack had played for seven years for the hapless Cleveland Browns. When he finally became a free agent, you have to imagine that he was ecstatic to go from the dysfunctional Browns to a perennial playoff team like the Falcons (also making the move from Cleveland to Atlanta wouldn't exactly hurt my feelings). Once he arrived in Atlanta, Mack became a crucial component of the Falcons dynamic offense. Devonte Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Julio Jones would not be able to make the electric plays that they so often do were it not for the time afforded Matt Ryan by Mack and the rest of the Falcons offensive line.
8 Bust - Josh McCown
Unlike the other entries in this article, Josh McCown's signing with the Jets makes our list of worst free agent signings not because he was really bad, but because he was actually pretty good. Going into last season, everyone knew the Jets were going to be a train wreck. They were projected to be so bad, in fact, that they were going to receive the first-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. And then the McCown signing happened. Though not an elite quarterback (though certainly more elite than Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg), the veteran McCown was just good enough to lead the Jets to a 5-11 record. While this was not good enough to get the Jets into the playoffs, it was just good enough to drop them down to the 6th pick, and potentially make them miss out on a franchise quarterback.
7 Best - Alshon Jeffery And Torrey Smith
An underrated part of the Philadelphia Eagles success this season was the various low-to-mid level free agents that came into Philly and became important contributors. The Eagles had so many productive free agents, in fact, that I couldn't limit this entry to just one. Despite being high draft picks, both Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery had experienced some tumultuous years with their former teams. Because of this, the Eagles were able to sign both of these players to bargain contracts, and instantly upgrade their receiving corps. Zach Ertz may have been the best pass catcher on this Eagles squad, but they would not have gotten as far as they did if they still had the same wide receivers that they did in 2016.
6 Bust - Adrian Peterson
For one of the worst NFL free agent signings of the last five years, you don't have to go back any further than this past season. When Vikings legend Adrian Peterson signed with the New Orleans Saints in the 2017 off-season, experts and fans alike were salivating at the prospect of AP in that high-powered New Orleans offense. Instead of being treated to an AP resurgence, however, he went on to have one of the worst seasons of his career. He was so uninspiring, in fact, that he was traded halfway through the season to the Arizona Cardinals. In his place, the tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara powered the Saints offense for the rest of the year. AP's time in New Orleans was not only a low point for his career, it was also one of the worst free agent signings of the last 5 years.
5 Best - DeMarcus Ware
It is a sad truth that NFL legends are rarely able to replicate the success that they had with their original squad when they sign with another team at the end of their careers. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware proved himself to be the exception to this rule. After having a Hall of Fame worthy career with the Dallas Cowboys, in 2014 Ware signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos. These were the same Denver Broncos that had been devastated by a procedural mistake which allowed Pro Bowl linebacker Elvis Dumervil (mentioned elsewhere in this article) to sign with the Baltimore Ravens. Ware came in and instantly provided the pass rush help that Denver needed. He is one of the biggest reasons why they were able to win their most recent Super Bowl.
4 Bust - Julius Thomas
If there is any position that I am skeptical about giving a huge contract to, it is the tight end position. A perfect example of this is the contract that the Jacksonville Jaguars gave to Julius Thomas. Thomas was considered an obvious top-3 tight end in the league during his time with the Denver Broncos. Once he left the bubble that was Peyton Manning, however, his production fell off a cliff. In his first year with Jacksonville, Thomas played 75% of the games and recorded only 455 receiving yards. Even worse, he put up a mere 5 touchdowns after catching 12 the previous year with Denver. During this time, Thomas was sitting on a massive five-year, $46 million contract.
3 Best - Elvis Dumervil
Of all the entries on this list, this one might be the strangest. From 2006-2012 Elvin Dumervil was a premier pass rusher on the Denver Broncos. Various injuries, and the drafting of Von Miller, lessened the team's dependence on him, but in 2012 he was still a valuable member of the team. Thus, in that offseason developed the type of strange story that can only happen in NFL Free Agency. The end result was that after Dumervil re-signed with Denver, people in their front office messed up the paperwork, causing him to default to being a free agent again. The Baltimore Ravens opportunistically used this moment to sign Dumervil to their own squad. He would go on to be an important component of their devastating defense for the next three years.
2 Bust - Mike Wallace
It isn't often that the Pittsburgh Steelers let a talented, young player escape their clutches. Therefore, it was surprising to many when Mike Wallace left the squad to sign a five-year, $60 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers had drafted Wallace out of Ole Miss in 2009, and he had quickly become one of the team's most dynamic playmakers. It appears that GM Kevin Colbert saw the writing on the walls, however, as Wallace would go on to be a huge disappointment in Miami. After hitting the 1,000-yard mark twice in four years with Pittsburgh, he failed to do it even once with the Dolphins. Worse than that, he never developed into a true first option at wide receiver, seriously hampering Miami's ability to develop a consistent passing attack.
1 Best - Andrew Whitworth
Rams quarterback Jared Goff bucked the trend of sophomore slumps this year, putting up a significantly better statistical (and actual) season than he did in 2016. A large part of this can be attributed to a vastly improved Rams offensive line. The signing of left tackle Andrew Whitworth in the 2016 offseason contributed mightily to this improvement. Not only did Whitworth help solidify the line in front of Goff, he also helped open up massive holes for Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley. All of these things led to a Rams resurgence that helped them win the NFC West title for the first time in years. The $15 million guaranteed contract they gave Whitworth doesn't seem like such a bad deal anymore.
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