Mario Williams and the Biggest Free Agent Signings in NFL History
An NFL free agent signing is either “big” for the amount of dollar signs accompanying it or for the lasting impact the signing made for the team (or perhaps both).
Williams and Peyton Manning were the two big name free agents to sign with new teams this offseason.
Here’s a list of some of the “biggest” free agent signings in NFL history.
Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts
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“Johnny U” or “The Golden Arm,” depending upon your preference, is an NFL legend.
A three-time NFL MVP, 10-time Pro Bowl selection and NFL champion, Unitas didn’t have the luxury of taking the easy route to the NFL.
Although Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, the Steelers cut him soon afterward because they had a log-jam at the quarterback position. Unitas was the odd man out.
After being cut by the Steelers, Unitas spent his time as a construction worker, playing semi-pro football on the side.
Although there were still some hard times ahead for Unitas (he was still buried on the depth chart), he eventually found his way and became a legend in the process.
He’s known for playing in “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the first overtime game in NFL history. The Colts, led by Unitas, won the game against the New York Giants, winning the NFL championship in the process.
Johnny U’s record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games still stands to this day.
Not bad for a construction worker.
If you would like to read more about Unitas, go here.
Warren Moon, Houston Oilers
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Despite a solid collegiate career, Warren Moon went undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft.
Many believe that Moon went undrafted due to racial prejudice as well as his strong desire to play quarterback (people in the NFL wanted Moon to switch positions and play tight end, likely due to the racial taboo surrounding a black quarterback at the time).
Moon decided to play in the Canadian Football League and signed with the Edmonton Eskimos, where he helped lead his team to five consecutive Grey Cup wins. He made the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame and was ranked fifth on a list of the top 50 CFL players by TSN.
After six seasons in the CFL, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers (who were coached by Hugh Campbell, Moon’s former coach in Edmonton).
Moon went on to amass nine Pro Bowl selections and his No. 1 jersey has been retired by the Tennessee Titans. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, the first African-American quarterback ever inducted.
His longevity in the sport is one of the most amazing to behold. Moon played from 1978-2000, starting with his stint in the CFL and ending with the Kansas City Chiefs (not to mention playing college ball before his pro career).
Moon continues to be a prominent figure in the football community.
Reggie White, Green Bay Packers
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After spending eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reggie White became a free agent after the 1992 season.
In 1993, White signed with the Green Bay Packers on a four-year, $17 million deal.
Although White peaked statistically during his time with the Eagles, he helped revamp the Packers defense. Green Bay went on to win Super Bowl XXXI with White.
The "Minister of Defense" died at age 43 in 2004 due to various health problems.
Lorenzo Neal, San Diego Chargers
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Perhaps the most underrated, under-the-radar football player on this list.
The eventual four-time Pro Bowl selection, fullback Lorenzo Neal was signed by the San Diego Chargers in 2003. After Neal earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2002, it made perfect sense that the Chargers, with LaDainian Tomlinson, decided to find a steady run-blocking fullback.
In his career to that point, Neal had helped lead the way for Adrian Murrell (New York Jets), Warrick Dunn (Tampa Bay Bucs), Eddie George (Tennessee Titans) and Corey Dillon (Cincinnati Bengals). All of those running backs had 1,000 plus-yard rushing seasons with Neal blocking for them.
Neal continued the trend and brought immediate help to the Chargers. In his first season with San Diego, Neal helped L.T. rack up 1,645 yards on the ground (the team rushed for a total 2,146 yards).
His stellar performance at the position earned Neal a spot on the NFL 2000s All-Decade First Team.
Would Tomlinson be the legendary runner that he is without those years with Neal leading the way? It’s difficult to say.
Simeon Rice, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already had defensive studs Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, but Simeon Rice proved in some ways to be the missing piece to the Super Bowl puzzle.
Simeon Rice was signed in the spring of 2001. The dynamic pass-rusher came in and recorded 11 or more sacks in each season for the next five years.
On January 26, 2003, the league’s No. 1 ranked defense (Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers) played the league’s No. 1 ranked offense (the Oakland Raiders, Gruden's former team) in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXXVII, sometimes referred to as the “Gruden Bowl,” was won by the Bucs. Rice recorded two sacks in the game.
The Bucs defense was already great before the addition of Rice, but that addition made them even better, and they have a Super Bowl win to show for it.
Priest Holmes, Kansas City Chiefs
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Although Priest Holmes had already established himself as a solid NFL running back in Baltimore with the Ravens, the addition of Jamal Lewis made Holmes expendable. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV with Lewis as the starter and Holmes as the backup.
Holmes didn’t sign for big bucks when he went to the Chiefs in 2001, but he was an immediate difference-maker.
Holmes made the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons with Kansas City and didn’t record fewer than 1,420 yards on the ground during those years.
Despite the fact that injuries and the emergence of Larry Johnson in Kansas City really derailed Holmes’ NFL career, he still gave the Chiefs three magical seasons after being under-appreciated in Baltimore.
Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams
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Kurt Warner originally signed a contract with the Green Bay Packers in 1994, but was cut by the team in training camp. After spending three years playing in the Arena Football League as a member of the Iowa Barnstormers, Warner signed with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 and, as they say, the rest is history.
In Warner’s first season as a starting quarterback, he threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns while tossing just 13 interceptions.
The Warner-led Rams teams became known by the moniker “The Greatest Show on Turf,” and won Super Bowl XXXIV against the Tennessee Titans with Warner at the helm.
Warner is a four-time Pro Bowler, an MVP award winner and a Super Bowl MVP award winner.
I don’t think we will ever see an undrafted quarterback throw 41 touchdowns in his first year as a starter ever again.
Rich Gannon, Oakland Raiders
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Rich Gannon is perhaps the definition of a late-bloomer.
After a lackluster start to his career with Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City, Gannon exploded onto the scene after being signed by the Raiders for the 1999 season, peaking around the same time as Kurt Warner.
Out of nowhere as a 34-year-old quarterback who never threw more than 16 touchdowns in a season prior to joining the Raiders, Gannon made four straight Pro Bowls and won the 2002 NFL MVP.
Gannon helped lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl appearance, but struggled against the Tampa Bay Bucs’ No. 1 ranked defense, throwing five interceptions (three of which were brought back for touchdowns).
Regardless of his Super Bowl flop, Gannon is a Raider legend and one of the best free agent signings ever.
Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers
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Coming off a 2005 season in which Charles Woodson broke his leg and missed 10 games, the dynamic yet injury-prone cornerback signed with the Green Bay Packers on a seven-year $52 million deal.
Reportedly, the Oakland Raiders made no attempt to re-sign Woodson.
In 2009, Woodson won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
During that season, Woodson led the NFL with nine interceptions (three of which he brought back for scores).
The Packers' revamped defense, led by Woodson and dynamic linebacker Clay Matthews, went on to win Super Bowl XLV despite Woodson breaking his collarbone in the game.
Nnamdi Asomugha, Philadelphia Eagles
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Nnamdi Asomugha is viewed by many as the league's best lock-down cornerback. His efforts went largely unnoticed due to the fact that he was playing for a bad Raiders team.
Before last season, however, Asomugha got rewarded with the big bucks.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed the dynamic cornerback to five-year $60 million deal (with $25 million guaranteed).
There were high hopes for the Eagles a season ago, but after a bad start to the season, the team finished at 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Only time will tell if the Eagles will live up to the hype with Asomugha leading the defense.
Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears
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Another free agent signing that was "big" mostly from a financial standpoint.
After a stellar career with the Carolina Panthers, Julius Peppers hit the free agent market as one of the biggest names.
While the Bears' struggles with Peppers have mostly been on the offensive end, adding Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to their receiving core could be what puts the Bears over the top.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
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After a steady career with the San Diego Chargers, where Drew Brees was largely overshadowed by the play of LaDainian Tomlinson, he hit the free agent market in 2006.
The New Orleans Saints signed Brees to the bargain price of $60 million over six years. Just think that the Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha for $60 million over five years and that really puts this deal in perspective.
Brees blossomed for the Saints and became a Pro Bowl quarterback on a yearly basis. He also won the NFL MVP award in 2009.
The biggest achievement for Brees, however, was his effort leading the team to victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
It's not often that a free agent signing changes a team as drastically as Brees changed the Saints.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
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This offseason, the Denver Broncos landed the most sought-after free agent in the class, four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
The Broncos signed Manning to a five-year deal worth a massive $95 million.
Manning makes the Broncos an immediate Super Bowl contender—if he can stay healthy.
The future Hall of Famer underwent multiple neck surgeries in the past year and there have been questions about his health.
Regardless of what happens in the future, this was certainly one of the biggest signings in NFL history.
Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
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The Buffalo Bills have been steadily trying to change their culture of losing. The addition of one of the NFL's best defensive ends on a six-year $100 million deal is a huge piece to that puzzle.
The Bills spared no expense picking up Williams, but when you're a team in the same division as Tom Brady, having a dynamic pass-rush is a luxury you must have.
There are high hopes for Williams in Buffalo moving forward. Only time will tell if he'll be able to live up to the hype with the Bills.