Hitting on free agents in the NFL is significantly harder than it seems. Every year when your team lands a highly coveted player, it’s hard to not be incredibly excited. The expectation is that last year’s weakness is going to be this year’s strength. With the yearly salary cap steadily increasing, big contracts are becoming the norm.
Of course, it seldom works out like fans and management would hope. Free agents are often paid for their past successes while on the tail end of their prime. With the highly physical nature of the NFL, it’s hard to keep your body at peak condition for an extended period of time; which means it’s hard to keep up a high level of play for an extended time.
As a result, when bringing up the topic of free agents that were everything they were supposed to be and more, most fans have a single name in mind. There are players who earned the respect of their fan base and the spite of their rivals through talent and hard work. Every team has a gold standard of free agent signings. It might be a player that retired four decades ago or it could be someone that’s still on the roster. This is each team’s great free agent signing ever.
Arizona Cardinals – Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner made a name for himself for his star role in “The Greatest Show on Turf”; a nickname given to the Rams teams that dominated the late 90s and early 2000s with their record breaking offenses.
Unfortunately, the quarterback fell off after a deep playoff run in 2001. He only managed to start a handful of games over the next two seasons and was never the same player. Well, at least until the Cardinals brought him on board.
In 2007, he broke out again and transformed the Cardinals from a perennial five win team to a Super Bowl contender. Between ’07 and ’09, Warner threw for nearly 12,000 yards and 83 touchdowns. He was exactly what the less-than-mediocre team needed to break out. While his impressive run with the team only lasted until 2009, the team has managed to build off the winning culture that was started by Warner and currently has one of the NFL’s most talented rosters.
Atlanta Falcons – Michael Turner
Michael Turner’s first four seasons were spent in San Diego backing up the legendary LaDainian Tomlinson. Understandably, he didn’t see a lot of action.
In 2008, he got picked up by the Falcons and immediately went off. That year, he finished with 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He maintained solid production throughout his tenure in Atlanta. He decided to hang it up at 30, following a sharp decline in 2012 where he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. That was nearly a full yard less than what he averaged the previous year.
His time in Atlanta was relatively short, but insanely productive and something Falcons fans will look back at fondly for a long time.
Baltimore Ravens – Rod Woodson
Rod Woodson spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career playing in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t until he was 33 years old that he decided to switch sides and play for his long time rival.
Most defensive backs today see a sharp decline in their ability to play when they hit 33/34. Not Rod Woodson. He maintained his form and helped the Ravens secure their Super Bowl title in 2000, the first of Woodson’s career.
Getting a Hall of Famer in free agency is certainly something special. But taking one away from a division rival is on another level.
Buffalo Bills – Bryce Paup
Bryce Paup was selected in the 6th round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. After four productive seasons, Green Bay allowed the talented linebacker to walk. Paup claims the Packers didn’t believe he was as good as his stat line suggested, and that he was largely benefiting from playing with Hall of Fame defensive linemen Reggie White.
Insulted and eager to prove himself, Paup signed a three-year contract with Buffalo worth $7.6 million. It was unquestionably one of the greatest free agent signings of all time. Paup was a star edge rusher and recorded a staggering 17.5 sacks in his first year with his new team.
He only played in Buffalo for three years, but he made the Pro Bowl all three years. He was a standout player who absolutely proved his worth.
Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme
When Delhomme signed with Carolina, he had just over 600 passing yards in his career, all with the Saints. With the odds stacked against him, the 28 year old immediately stepped into the starting role and helped the Panthers earn a trip to the Super bowl.
Over his tenure with Carolina, he set franchise records for many of the major passing categories. He was a highly talented player that seemed to come out of nowhere.
When it’s all said and done, it’s likely that Cam Newton will go down as the greatest quarterback in Panthers’ history. But even still, Delhomme will hold a special place in the hearts of the fans.
Chicago Bears – Julius Peppers
Coming out of college, Julius Peppers was considered to be among one of the best prospects ever. He was basically Jadeveon Clowney, except he lived up to the hype.
He spent his first eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers and was absolutely devastating coming off the edge. He only had two seasons with the Panthers where he recorded single digit sacks. The Bears brought him on as an unrestricted free agent following the 2009 season. He was just turning 30, which is usually the point at which players start to take a sharp decline. Not Peppers though. He made the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons with Chicago, as well as a first team All-Pro selection in 2010.
He was the most highly prized free agent coming out and he absolutely lived up to the hype and expectations.
Cincinnati Bengals – Adam Jones
Adam “Pacman” Jones was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Over the next two seasons, he repeatedly got into trouble with the law and it resulted in him missing the entire 2007 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The Titans gave up on him at that point and the Dallas Cowboys decided to give him another shot. Of course, after getting into more trouble, he was quickly cut by the team.
Cincinnati was the next team to give him a shot. Most people had already written him off as a bust who would simply have endless issues. Surprisingly, Adam Jones has largely stayed out of trouble and has displayed the talent that made him a top 10 pick. He’s been a very good player on a talented Bengals defense.
Cleveland Browns – Eric Steinbach
Eric Steinbach was drafted by the Bengals early in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft. After spending four years in Cinci, he signed a massive seven-year, $49.5 million dollar contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Steinbach was very talented but perhaps is greatest attribute was his durability. Over his first eight years, he had never played fewer than 14 games. He was a key piece on a talented Browns line, along with star left tackle Joe Thomas.
Dallas Cowboys – Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders is the most famous defensive back in NFL history. Which is unsurprising, given the insane play making ability he demonstrated throughout his career.
He started his career in Atlanta and stayed there for five years. Despite that, the Hall of Fame defender will always be remembered for his time with the Dallas Cowboys. They brought him at 28 years old in 1995 and went on to win the Super Bowl that year. He ended up spending five years in Dallas, going to the Pro Bowl four times and being named a first team All-Pro four times as well. He was a key piece on the dominating Cowboys’ teams of the 90s.
Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning
It isn’t every day that elite quarterbacks get cut. But the situation with Manning was very unique. He suffered a neck injury that left many wondering if he would be able to continue playing professionally. Not only that, but the Peytonless Colts were so bad that they were in prime position to draft the best quarterback prospect in recent memory.
The Broncos won the sweepstakes and Manning shortly returned to form. Few will quickly forget his historic 2013 season where he led one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen.
Of course, the Manning era in Denver didn’t last long, as they signed him at the tail end of his career. But it was undoubtedly a success and was capped off with a Super Bowl win. There isn’t much more you could want.
Detroit Lions – Dick Lane
Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane was one of the most popular and most feared defensive backs to ever play the game. The Hall of Famer spent the better part of his career with the Chicago Cardinals and made a name for himself due to his uncanny ability to made big plays. He joined the Lions at age 32 and made three Pro Bowls and two first team All-Pros. While his prime was behind him, he was clearly still a very talented player who contributed a lot to the team.
Green Bay Packers – Reggie White
The Green Bay Packers are famous for not spending their money on free agents, instead electing to focus on coaching and locking up their homegrown talent. However, once every decade or so, they break from that philosophy and make a major splash.
Following the 1992 season, Green Bay inked Eagles’ star Reggie White. The Hall of Fame defensive end is considered to be the greatest player to ever hit free agency. He undoubtedly lived up to the hype. In six years with the Packers, White compiled 68.5 sacks. He’s also one of the very few players to be beloved by two NFL fan bases.
Houston Texans – Johnathan Joseph
The Houston Texans are the NFL’s newest franchise, joining the league in 2002. They haven’t had as many chances to hit on star free agents. But, despite the poor odds, they’ve made out quite a bit better than many other teams.
In 2011, Houston locked up the former Bengals corner and first round pick Johnathan Joseph. He was instantly a star player and a piece the team was able to build around on defense.
It’s also worth noting that many Texans fans were disappointed with the signing. They were considered to be on the short list of teams to sign the NFL’s best corner, Nnamdi Asomugha. Looking back, it’s safe to say Houston made out pretty well.
Indianapolis Colts – Adam Vinatieri
Having a great kicker is one of the most underrated strengths in the NFL. If you don’t believe me, you should find a fan of team that has struggled to fill the position. Nothing is more frustrating than a bad kicker.
Vinatieri spent 10 seasons with the New England Patriots, winning three Super Bowl titles there. He won a fourth in 2006 in his first year with Indianapolis. He’s been one of the most consistent and talented kickers in the league over the past two decades. His field goal percentage of 84.1% is absolutely fantastic, even when comparing it to the all-time greats.
Colts fans haven’t had to worry about the position for the past decade thanks to Vinatieri.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Keenan McCardell
Keenan McCardell was selected in the 12th round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. He didn’t make their starting lineup and instead began his career with Cleveland. He failed to make an impact until his fourth season where he totalled a modest 700 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
The following offseason, he left Cleveland and signed with the Jaguars. He immediately broke out; recording over 1,100 yards in his first season with his new team.
McCardell spent six years in Jacksonville and was an incredibly consistent player. Every season he was good for around 900-1,200 yards and around five touchdowns. He was essentially picked up off the scrap heap and immediately became a number one wide out.
Kansas City Chiefs – Priest Holmes
Priest Holmes was insanely effective in the early 2000s. He came over to Kansas City from Baltimore after spending four years there, recording a little over 2,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. In his first three years with the Chiefs, he ran for over 4,500 yards and 56 touchdowns.He wasn’t just a pure runner though. He averaged about 650 receiving yards and 70 catches over that period.
Holmes was a first team All-Pro in his first thr years with Kansas City, as well as Offensive Player of the Year in 2002.
Los Angeles Rams – Adam Timmerman & Andy McCollum
In 1999, the Rams brought Adam Timmerman, a 28 year old right guard, over from the Green Bay Packers. He started from day one and was a consistent player along their line for the next eight years.
That same offseason, they brought in Andy McCollum. He played all over the interior of the Saints line in his first four years. His first season with the Rams, he only started two games. But the next season, he earned the starting gig at center, alongside Timmerman. He started for ninr more years, until age 38.
The Rams absolutely nailed two interior linemen in free agency the same year. That is not an easy thing to do.
Miami Dolphins – Brent Grimes
Brent Grimes came into the league with the Atlanta Falcons and spent six years there. Despite being a talented player, he only managed to start 16 games a single time.
As a result, Miami got him on a team friendly deal in 2013. It paid off in spades for the Dolphins. He ended up staying for three years, starting in close to all games over that period and making it to the Pro Bowl each year.
His tenure with Miami came to an end this past offseason when the team decided to part ways with Grimes.
Minnesota Vikings – Pat Williams
The Minnisota Vikings have had a number of successful free agents acquisitions over the years (especially recently). Some of the top ones include Antoine Winfield, Steve Hutchinson, and, of course, NFL legend Brett Favre.
While all those players did amazing things, none are more impressive than Pat Williams. Nose tackles are among the most important positions in the NFL, as well as the least glamorous. He was never one to put up insane sack numbers or anything, but don’t be mistaken, he was an absolute force on the Vikings defense from ’05 to when he retired following the 2010 season. Over that period, he went to three Pro Bowls and was considered to be one of the most consistent nose tackles in the game.
New England Patriots – Mike Vrabel
Mike Vrabel spent his first four years in Pittsburgh and didn’t do much of anything. After going to New England in 2001, he quickly became a standout player on defense.
Many have forgotten how good New England’s defenses were in the early 2000s. It’s somewhat understandable given the success of Tom Brady, as it’s hard to not be overshadowed by that. But even still, the New England’s defenses contributed a massive amount to the team’s Super bowl wins, especially early on in the decade.
New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees
Drew Brees had a solid start to his career in San Diego. However, the Chargers elected to let Brees walk following the 2005 season. The move was understandable at the time of course, as Brees was coming off major surgery and San Diego had 2004 fourth overall pick Phillip Rivers on the roster.
The Saints took the risk and it paid off in spades. Ever since joining the team, Brees has been lighting the league up. In fact, you can make a very good argument that he’s been, statistically, the NFL’s best quarterback over the past decade. It seems like he’s constantly leading the league in every major passing category.
Of all the crazy Brees stats to cite, none are more impressive than his passing yard totals. Since joining the Saints, Brees has never failed to record at least 4,000 yards in a season; exceeding 5,000 yards four times as well.
New York Giants – Shaun O’Hara
Shaun O’Hara came into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns. In his third season with the team, he took over the starting role at guard and held it into the next season.
In 2004, the Giants brought him in as a center. He was a nasty player who was vital in the team’s miraculous Super Bowl victory in 2007. He brought heart, toughness, and a ton of talent to a Giants squad that has solidified its place in history with it’s improbable accomplishments.
New York Jets – Curtis Martin
Curtis Martin spent his first three years in New England, where he rushed for nearly 3,800 yards and 32 touchdowns. However, in 1997, the Jets managed to pry him away and he never slowed down.
With the exception of his final year, Martin never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards in a season. In fact, at 31 years old in 2004, he set a career high and rushed for 1,697 yards. He was consistently, highly productive throughout his career.
A running back today having a career similar to Martin’s would be almost unthinkable.
Oakland Raiders – Rich Gannon
When Gannon signed with Oakland, he was a quarterback who had already been in the league for 11 seasons and played for three different teams.
But when the 34 year old took over the starting QB job for the Raiders, he went off.
In his very first season, he threw for 3,800 yards and 24 touchdowns. He certainly wasn’t just a one year wonder, as over his first four years with Oakland, he threw for nearly 15,800 yards, 105 touchdowns, and only 44 interceptions. Furthermore, he led the Raiders to the playoffs three times, including a Super Bowl appearance.
Philadelphia Eagles – Jon Runyan
Jon Runyan was a nasty player who anchored Philly’s offensive line throughout the McNabb era.
He was originally a fourth round pick by the Oilers in 1996 and began his career with them. After minimal playing time his rookie season, he became the full time starter at right tackle and held it down for three years.
In 2000, he was signed by the Eagles; who were looking to build up their line after drafting their franchise quarterback in the year prior. Runyan held down his position near flawlessly and contributed greatly to the success of the Eagles.
Pittsburgh Steelers – James Farrior
James Farrior was the eigth overall selection in the 1997 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and was a massive bust there. Despite being healthy for the duration of his five year tenure with the team, he only managed to hold a full-time starting position for two seasons, including his rookie season.
In 2002, he was picked up by the Pittsburgh Steelers where he managed to resurrect his career. He started at inside linebacker for one of the all-time great defenses and won two Super Bowls with the team.
He played until age 36, before he retired following the 2011 season. He remains one of the better comeback stories the NFL has seen.
San Diego Chargers – Donnie Edwards
Donnie Edwards was a highly productive linebacker for the Chargers from 2002 through 2006. He returned to his home city after spending the first six years of his NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
With San Diego, he was a standout middle linebacker that was named a second team All-Pro twice, in 2002, as well as 2004. He was a key piece of the famed 2006 Chargers squad that won an NFL best 14 games.
San Francisco 49ers – Justin Smith
The 3-4 defensive end is the least glamorous position on defense. Essentially, they’re just asked to take up blockers and let the linebackers do their thing. It’s very important, but it’s hard to make a name for yourself doing it.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen it done more. Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Fletcher Cox, and Cameron Jordan are all very well known players. But Justin Smith was the first to do it. He was the first 3-4 DE to stand out and get the credit he deserved from the media and fans.
Smith chose to retire last offseason, ending a long and productive career. He spent 14 years in the NFL, half with Cincinnati, but he’ll always be remembered as a 49er.
Seattle Seahawks – Michael Bennett
Michael Bennett is one of the most overshadowed players in the NFL.
Seattle’s secondary gets all the praise, but their defensive line has elite talent as well; none better than Bennett. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that he’s the best player on that defense.
Bennett entered the league in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. He spent his first four years in Tampa Bay, but it took him a couple years to really get going.
After coming to Seattle following the 2012 season though, he’s been absolutely tearing it up. Not only have the Seahawks been successful when it comes to finding stars in the late rounds of the draft, but they’ve been finding stars deep in free agency as well.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Simeon Rice
Simeon Rice was the third overall pick in the 1996 draft by the Arizona Cardinals. The defensive end spent five years there where he recorded a total of 51.5 sacks.
The Cardinals star decided to leave and hit the open market however. The Bucs picked him up on a five year deal worth about $30 million. He was worth every penny. Over the next five years with Tampa Bay, Rice never failed to record double digit sacks; exceeding 15 on two occasions as well.
But more important than anything, Rice was a key player on Tampa’s Super Bowl run in 2002 that ended with the team demolishing the Raiders 48 – 21.
Tennessee Titans – Warren Moon
Warren Moon came over from the CFL and signed with the Oilers. The 28 year old quarterback spent 10 years in Houston and took the Oilers to the playoffs on multiple occasions. Moon was a first team All-Pro in 1990 in addition to being a nine-time Pro Bowler. He capped off his impressive career in 2006 when he was inducted to the Hall of Fame.
Washington Redskins – London Fletcher
Bringing in an aging, undersized linebacker is typically not the best plan to solidify your defense. But in this case, it worked wonders for the Redskins.
London Fletcher played his first season with Washington at age 32 and remained a key part of their defense for seven years. Not only was his football ability a valuable asset for the team, but he brought leadership and structure as well.
He was named to four Pro Bowls in total. Despite being a great player throughout his career, he didn’t earn his first trip until 2009, at age 34.
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