One look at the title of this piece and things appear pretty self-explanatory. But that’s not going to stop us from a handing out a few reminders.
Free agency as we pretty much know it these days began in 1993 (the salary cap began in 1994). So here’s a look back at the best free-agent addition by the 32 teams over the past 20 years.
Remember, we’re not talking trades, and these are not undrafted free agents. That’s another subject for another time. We are, though, talking both unrestricted and restricted free agents, as well as the salary-cap casualties (also known as "street free agents") that have found new life with a different club.
For some of these players, their stays in their new homes may not have been long, but they were impactful. For others, the opportunity to get out of a great player’s shadow proved to be a new lease on life.
Also keep in mind that the teams that have had such great success in the draft haven't necessarily struck gold in free agency because they haven’t been that active in the process. And who’s to fault them for that?
Enjoy the short stroll down memory lane. And for a few of these players, some are still in the process of producing those memories.
There have only been two quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl for two different franchises.
The first was Craig Morton, who led the Dallas Cowboys (V) and Denver Broncos (XII) to the Big Game, coming up short both times.
The other was Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV and came less than three minutes from leading the Arizona Cardinals to a stunning triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.
Warner was actually signed by the Cardinals in 2005 after a short stint with the New York Giants. He led Arizona to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2008 and 2009, and the franchise has not recovered since his retirement following the '09 season.
And how’s this for perspective? In their long history, which dates back to 1920, the Cardinals franchise owns a 6-7 postseason record, with four of those wins coming with Warner as the starting quarterback.
Long in the shadow of running back LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, running back Michael Turner finally got his chance in Atlanta.
It’s safe to say he made the most of it, although the workhorse back is now currently looking for a home after five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Turner was signed by new general manager Thomas Dimitroff in 2008 and wasted little time making an impact. He ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first season in Atlanta.
All told, the former Chargers back rushed for 6,081 yards and 60 scores in five seasons with the team, totaling more than 300 carries and 1,300-plus yards in three of those campaigns. He also scored at least 10 touchdowns in each of his seasons with the Falcons.
And I guess we’ll see if he can make this list down the road should he sign on with another team in 2012.
The way the game is played these days in the National Football League, we may never see the likes of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense once again.
On their way to winning Super Bowl XXXV, the Ravens were incredible on that particular side of the ball. The club still owns the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165). Add in the fact that Baltimore gave up just 23 points in four postseason games, and that’s 188 points allowed in 20 contests.
A big part of that success was the play of defensive end Michael McCrary, who signed with the Ravens after four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. McCrary totaled 51.0 sacks in 78 games with Baltimore from 1997-2001 and was named to a pair of Pro Bowls.
Not bad for a former seventh-round pick from Wake Forest.
It’s been a long time since the Buffalo Bills have been in the playoffs. It’s been even longer since they’ve won a postseason game.
Part of that club to beat the Miami Dolphins in the 1995 AFC Wild Card Game was outside linebacker Bryce Paup, whom the franchise inked as a free agent following his five seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Paup lasted just three years in Orchard Park (1995-97), but he was named to the Pro Bowl in each of those campaigns. He totaled 33.0 sacks in 43 games with the Bills, including a league-high 17.5 sacks during his first season with the club.
The standout pass-rusher finished his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings but never again came close to having the success he did with the Bills.
Part of one of the greatest linebacking corps in league history with the New Orleans Saints, Sam Mills decided he was going to Carolina.
The “Field Mouse” spent his final three seasons in the league (starting all 16 games each year) with the Carolina Panthers, born from expansion in 1995. Mills, who spent his first nine NFL campaigns with the Saints (and began his pro career in the USFL), was a big hit for the new franchise.
He returned an interception for a touchdown in the team’s first-ever victory (thanks to an errant shovel pass from New York Jets’ quarterback Bubby Brister).
That season, Carolina won seven of its final 11 games after a 0-5 start. The Panthers would reach the NFC Championship Game one year later, losing to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, and Mills would be named to the Pro Bowl.
Call him the “Mighty” Field Mouse.
For the most part, the Chicago Bears have built their teams either through solid drafting or major trades. But the franchise did dip into the free agency in 2010, signing defensive end Julius Peppers.
The second overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2002, Peppers was a five-time Pro Bowler who had already accumulated 81.0 sacks in eight seasons with the team.
In three years in the Windy City, the 11-year veteran has been solid. Peppers has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons, totaling 30.5 sacks and not missing a start.
The former Tar Heel seems to have become a better overall player with age.
Good news for a Chicago franchise that has seen its share of stars on defense.
The Cincinnati Bengals have not had a tremendous amount of success throughout the years (despite making the playoffs three of the last four seasons).
But for the most part, this team has done a better-than-average job in the draft, and its current foundation reflects that.
In late September of 2008, the Bengals decided to take a chance on running back Cedric Benson, a former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, who was released after three disappointing seasons. It proved to be a new lease on life for the former Longhorn.
Benson rushed for 4,176 yards and 21 touchdowns in four years (56 games) in the Queen City, reaching the 1,000-yard mark on three occasions. He also rushed for 100-plus yards in more than one-fourth (15) of those 56 contests. That compared to his three seasons with the Bears, where he totaled 1,593 yards and 10 scores on the ground.
Fumbling became an issue for Benson, who began 2012 with the Green Bay Packers but was injured. We shall see if he’s back for a ninth NFL season.
The franchise currently known as the Cleveland Browns hasn’t had a great deal of success, although it hasn’t been for a lack of trying.
The team also hasn’t had a lot of star players, although current tackle Joe Thomas certainly qualifies considering he’s been a Pro Bowler in all six of his NFL seasons.
But that’s the draft and this is free agency.
In their debut season in 1999, the Browns signed former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Jamir Miller, the 10th overall pick in the 1994 draft. The former UCLA product had been a disappointment in five seasons in the desert, totaling just 13.5 sacks.
In three seasons with the Browns, Miller totaled 22.5 sacks. Most of that came in 2001, when he rolled up 13.0 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl.
You almost feel like you’re cheating on this test when you add a Pro Football Hall of Famer who had already established his greatness before arriving in Big D.
But the Dallas Cowboys have never been a team to dive head first into free agency. They did strike gold once with defensive tackle La’Roi Glover, a six-time Pro Bowler with the club.
But the choice here is Deion Sanders because of his overall contributions to a Super Bowl title and several other playoff teams in five seasons with the Pokes.
Sanders (who never played a full season with the Cowboys) amassed 14 interceptions (two for touchdowns) and returned four punts for scores. He also contributed as a receiver, with his best season coming in 1996, when he hauled in 36 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown.
Sanders was named to eight Pro Bowls during his Hall of Fame career, four times while he was with the Cowboys.
Those are numbers that even Leon Sandcastle might have a tough time topping.
It seems like we’re living in the moment. And we’re not exactly going out on a limb.
But when your first season with a team (after missing all of the previous season due to injury) results in the club co-owning the best record in the NFL, it's hard to top.
Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning became the Denver Broncos' quarterback in 2012 after the Colts let him go. The star signal-caller not only picked up where he left off in 2010 but was even better.
Last season, the Broncos won their final 11 regular-season games after a 2-3 start, and the prolific passer was a big part of that. Manning threw for 37 scores (the second-highest total of his career) and just 11 interceptions.
Unfortunately, the 2012 season also ended in disappointment, as Denver was surprised by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs.
Of course, Manning may just be getting started in terms of his Mile High City legacy.
The Detroit Lions haven’t enjoyed a lot of success in the last decade or so, reaching the playoffs just once since the 2000 season.
But a lot of their issues personnel-wise have been self-inflicted. In other words, via the draft and not so much free agency.
But the franchise did hit the jackpot in 2003 with cornerback Dre’ Bly, who signed with Detroit after four seasons with the St. Louis Rams. The hard-hitting defender won a Super Bowl (XXXIV) in 1999 and played in another in 2001.
In four seasons with the Lions, Bly totaled 19 interceptions (returning two for scores) and forced a dozen fumbles. The steady corner picked off at least three passes in each of his four years with the club.
Bly was named to a pair of Pro Bowls with Detroit, which is saying a lot considering the state of the team’s defense in those days.
Whoa. Where’s Reggie White?
The Green Bay Packers haven’t ventured into the free-agent pool very often, but they have made a pair of significant high-priced additions that helped pave the way for a pair of Super Bowl titles.
There’s little doubt regarding to the impact of White, who helped make Green Bay a viable venue once again in 1993 (as did players such as Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe, who were already with the team). The Pro Football Hall of Famer is one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history.
But the choice here is Charles Woodson, who left after a Pro Bowl career in Oakland and reached even greater heights with the Packers.
How much greater? In seven seasons with the Pack (2006-12), Woodson totaled 38 interceptions, returning nine for touchdowns. The former Heisman Trophy winner also added 11.5 sacks in his years with Green Bay. That compared to his eight seasons in Oakland, where he picked off 17 passes (taking back two for scores) and totaled 5.5 sacks with the Silver and Black.
It’s safe to say that when compiling this list, the Houston Texans are at a slight disadvantage.
That’s because while free agency has only been around since 1993, this franchise didn’t enter the league until 2002.
The choice here is current defensive end Antonio Smith, who has spent the last four seasons with the Texans and has seen his numbers increase each year.
A former fifth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2004, Smith has started 62 of 64 games with the Texans and totaled 22.0 sacks in the process.
His best season came in 2012, when he totaled 7.0 sacks. Smith also wound up in the Pro Bowl in 2011.
By the way, for those of you looking for cornerback Aaron Glenn, the Texans picked him up during the 2002 expansion draft, not free agency.
Adam Vinatieri is one of the few kickers who doesn’t somehow elicit a groan when his name is mentioned.
That’s because of his clutch exploits with the New England Patriots, where he was a big part of the team’s three Super Bowl titles.
He was also an enormous cog in the 2006, when the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI, his first season with the team after 10 years with the Patriots.
During those playoffs, Vinatieri scored a combined 49 points, which remains an individual NFL record for a postseason.
Who could forget his performance against the Ravens in Baltimore in the divisional playoffs when he accounted for all of the Colts’ points in a 15-6 win?
Vinatieri is still going strong for the Colts, who finished their last season in the playoffs against the Ravens once again. And wouldn’t you know it, he scored all of Indianapolis' points again, albeit this time in a 24-9 loss in the AFC Wild Card Round.
There was once was another Smith in Dallas. And that one didn’t last long.
But the NFL is all about second chances.
Once a second-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 1992, Jimmy Smith played in seven games for the eventual Super Bowl XXVII champions, but he never caught a pass.
He spent the 1993 season on the non-football injury list in 1993, was released by the club in 1994 and also didn’t play that year after the Philadelphia Eagles looked at him for a month during the summer.
But Smith then signed with the Jaguars, and the rest is history. In 11 seasons with the franchise, he totaled 862 catches for 12,287 yards and 67 touchdowns. Both his receptions and receiving yardage totals are ranked in the top 20 in the history of the league.
Smith totaled at last 1,000 yards receiving nine times and was named to five Pro Bowls.
Not too shabby for a player whose career didn’t seem like it was destined to ever get started.
A rookie named Jamal Lewis rushed for 100-plus yards in the Baltimore Ravens' 34-7 win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
But it was veteran running back Priest Holmes who actually started that game.
And it was Holmes, with Lewis the future in Baltimore, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 and became an absolute offensive terror for opposing defenses.
In his first season with the Chiefs, Holmes led the league with 1,555 yards rushing and scored a total of 10 touchdowns. A year later, he totaled 2,287 yards from scrimmage and scored 24 touchdowns. In 2003, Holmes ran for 1,420 yards, 27 scores and, for the third straight season, amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
Holmes’ last three seasons were marred by injury and limited him to a total of 19 contests. But his three-year Pro Bowl stretch was one of the best in league annals.
Never mind that defensive tackle Randy Starks has only been with the Miami Dolphins for five seasons. He’s certainly made an impression in his brief stay.
This offseason, the Dolphins slapped the franchise tag on the perspective unrestricted free agent, ensuring his return to the team for at least one more season.
You get the feeling it will be more than just one more season.
Starks is a two-time Pro Bowler with Miami—a distinction he didn’t achieve in his four seasons with the Tennessee Titans. He has played at both defensive end and defensive tackle with the Dolphins, totaling 22.0 sacks in five seasons in South Florida. He’s also started 63 of his last 64 games with Miami.
Not bad for a former third-round pick by the Titans in 2004.
Some will remember some of the craziness that went into guard Steve Hutchinson becoming a Pro Bowl member of the Minnesota Vikings after being a Pro Bowl member of the Seattle Seahawks.
The former first-round pick spent five seasons with the ‘Hawks and was named to three straight Pro Bowls. But the team’s Super Bowl XL appearance vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers proved to be Hutchinson’s last game with Seattle.
A year later, the Seahawks slapped the transition tag rather than the franchise tag on Hutchinson and the Vikings pounced, signing him to an offer sheet that was virtually impossible for Seattle to match. Hutchinson went onto four more Pro Bowls and wound up with the Vikings for six seasons.
In 2012, he was picked up by the Tennessee Titans, and after one season in Nashville, he has opted to retire.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been the NFL’s version of “Linebacker U.” That’s because the franchise has produced some of the greats in the game at the position. The list of Pro Bowl, All-Pro and Hall of Fame players is pretty impressive.
The Pittsburgh Steelers enabled Mike Vrabel to become an unrestricted free agent in 2001. The former third-round draft choice had totaled seven sacks in his four seasons in the Steel City but had not started a game, hence his availability.
The New England Patriots signed the former Ohio State Buckeyes’ star, and he was a pivotal part of their Super Bowl championship teams.
You could have made a case for Vrabel being Super Bowl XXXVIII MVP in New England’s win over the Carolina Panthers. When the versatile performer wasn’t busy catching a one-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, he was doing his regular job. Vrabel totaled six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the victory.
Vrabel would also go onto to catch a touchdown pass a year later in Super Bowl XXXIX. And his 10 regular-season receptions with the Pats all also resulted in scores.
With the first pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, the San Diego Chargers select quarterback Drew Brees, Purdue.
After five seasons with the Bolts and that franchise opting to get quarterback Philip Rivers in the 2004 draft (thanks to a trade with the New York Giants), the writing appeared to be on the wall.
As an unrestricted free agent in 2006, more writing read that Brees could be the new quarterback of the Miami Dolphins. But he wound up with the New Orleans Saints and the rest is history.
There have been six performances of 5,000 yards passing in a seasons. Brees owns three of them, including a record 5,476 yards in 2011.
He led the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV and a win over the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida, garnering game MVP honors in the process. He also once threw a touchdown pass in 54 straight regular-season games, the league record (for now).
Brees led the NFL with 5,177 yards passing in 2012 and shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his 13th NFL season.
The New York Giants are another one of those franchises that doesn’t dip its toes into the free agency pool too often. But they opted to take chance on a player that another team took a chance on.
The Cleveland Browns signed Shaun O’Hara as an undrafted free agent from Rutgers in 2000. He spent four seasons with the club and emerged as a starter at guard.
The Giants opted to sign O’Hara as an unrestricted free agent in 2004, and it proved to be a great addition. He was shifted to center and was the club’s primary starter for the next six seasons before injuries cut short his 2010 campaign.
A Pro Bowler in each of his final three seasons with the Giants, O’Hara anchored one of the steadiest offensive lines in the league and was a Super Bowl champion following the team’s 2007 season.
In 1995, the New England Patriots drafted running back Curtis Martin in the third round. The former University of Pittsburgh product ran for 1,000-plus yards in each of his first three seasons with the team and helped the club reach Super Bowl XXXI.
In 1998, with Bill Parcells at the helm of the New York Jets, Martin (a restricted free agent) was signed to an offer sheet by New York—one that the Pats opted not to match. Seven more 1,000-yard rushing seasons ensued, and Martin was on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
In 2004, in his 10th season, Martin ran for a league-high 1,697 yards and, at 31 years, became the oldest player in NFL history to lead the league in rushing. His final season saw him rush for less than 1,000 yards for the only time in his career.
Some may argue that the signing of center Kevin Mawae may have been the better move. Be it the addition of the Pro Bowl blocker or Hall of Fame runner, it’s a nice discussion to have.
One of the league’s more well-traveled quarterbacks, Rich Gannon finally settled in Oakland.
The Silver and Black were the direct beneficiaries of the one-time New England Patriots fourth-round draft choice.
After stints with the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs, Gannon played his final six NFL seasons with the Raiders. He amassed a 45-29 record as a starter and threw more than twice as many touchdown passes (114) than interceptions (50).
Gannon, a four-time Pro Bowler with the Raiders, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2002 and led the Silver and Black to Super Bowl XXXVII. Unfortunately, he threw five interceptions in the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, three of which were returned for scores.
But when he was healthy, so were the Raiders.
When talking about the standout cornerbacks of the recent era, Troy Vincent sometimes gets lost in the mix.
The seventh overall pick in the 1992 draft by the Miami Dolphins, Vincent spent four seasons with the ‘Fins and picked off 14 passes.
He joined the Eagles in 1996 and the former Wisconsin standout hit his stride, totaling 28 interceptions in eight seasons with the Birds and being named to five Pro Bowls. He also added six fumble recoveries with Philadelphia, giving Vincent 34 takeaways in his eight seasons in the City of Brotherly Love.
He would finish his career with short stints with the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, but his best moments came in the land of cheesesteaks.
Time out for trivia...
Who was the first player drafted by Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells in his first year with the New York Jets in 1997?
It proved to be linebacker James Farrior after the Jets moved down from the No. 1 overall selection.
After spending five non-descript seasons with New York, Farrior signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002 and spent 10 productive years with the Black and Gold. He played in three Super Bowls, was named to a pair of Pro Bowls, totaled 30.0 sacks and intercepted eight passes.
Basically an outside linebacker with the Jets, Farrior moved inside with Pittsburgh and was one of the steadiest players on those outstanding Steelers defenses.
If one play can indeed make a career, than St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones made it on the biggest stage possible.
A former college running back and undrafted free agent, Jones began his NFL career with the Raiders in 1991 while the franchise was still in Los Angeles. In his final two seasons with Silver and Black (1995-96), he started all but one contest.
In 1996, Jones signed with the St. Louis Rams as an unrestricted free agent and spent four seasons with the franchise. He was a 16-game starter during his entire stay with the Rams, totaling seven interceptions and eight sacks.
But Jones’ biggest play with St. Louis wasn’t a sack or an interception, rather a tackle of Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson at the Rams’ 1-yard line on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, preserving his team’s 23-16 win. That's Jones with the No. 52 jersey underneath Dyson.
Not bad for an “unwanted” player during a time where there were 12 rounds in the NFL draft.
If somebody once told former UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards to “go west, young man,” he certainly took those words to heart.
The former fourth-round selection by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996, Edwards emerged as a solid performer known for his pass-coverage skills. He picked off 10 passes in six seasons with the Chiefs.
He signed with the division rival San Diego Chargers in 2002 and got even better. In five seasons with the Bolts, he totaled 17 interceptions and was named to his only Pro Bowl.
Edwards spent his final two seasons back with the Chiefs. He would spend his entire career in the AFC West, totaling 23.5 sacks and 28 interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) in 13 NFL campaigns. But he proved to be a terrific addition for the Chargers.
In seems like we’ve only been hearing about Justin Smith in recent years. But the longtime veteran has been making an impact in the league for more than a decade.
The fourth overall pick in the NFL draft (2001), the former Missouri standout left the Cincinnati Bengals after seven productive seasons in the Queen City.
Smith signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2008, and the team has reaped the benefits. He’s been named to each of the last four Pro Bowls and has been the veteran force on one of the league’s best defenses.
And in case you have any doubts about his impact, the veteran defender was injured this past December, and the Niners’ defensive unit, most notably the pass rush provided by outside linebacker Aldon Smith, just wasn’t the same.
Yet here’s another example of “Linebacker U,” NFL style.
After four solid seasons with the Black and Gold, in which he totaled 30.0 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl in 1996, linebacker Chad Brown headed for the Pacific Northwest and made a similar impression on the Seattle Seahawks.
Brown had the ability to play numerous spots. After spending his first three seasons at inside linebacker, he moved to the outside in 1996 and totaled 13.5 sacks, hence the aforementioned Pro Bowl invite.
In eight years with the ‘Hawks, Brown totaled 48.0 sacks, three interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. He was named to two more Pro Bowls during his time in Seattle.
Brown would eventually end his career with a stint with the New England Patriots and a return to Pittsburgh.
Sometimes, a change of scenery can do wonders for a player. Of course, it also depends on what the scenery is comprised of.
Once the third overall pick in the 1996 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals, Simeon Rice was a talented prospect who did make an early impression.
In five seasons with the Cardinals, he totaled 51.5 sacks, including 12.5 in his rookie season. Three years later, he followed that up with 16.5 sacks in 1999.
But inconsistency plagued his days in Arizona.
Rice signed with the Buccaneers in 2001 and became a steady force. In six seasons in Tampa, the defender totaled 69.5 sacks and earned a pair of Pro Bowl invitations.
In 2002, the Bucs would capture Super Bowl XXXVII and Rice would come up big, totaling five tackles and pair of sacks (and actually a third sack on a failed two-point conversion attempt) in the team’s 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Rice ended his NFL career with stints with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. But his career was marked by his days in Tampa and that standout defense.
The Tennessee Titans have had their good and bad moments, and most of them have come from within.
As in, the team has drafted very well over the years.
While the franchise wound up signing Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae in his latter years, the savvy veteran performed well in his four seasons with the club.
The former six-time Pro Bowler for the New York Jets joined the Titans in 2006 and gave the club some needed leadership in the trenches. Mawae started 59 of the 62 games he played for Tennessee.
His final two years with the club were 2008 and 2009, when a running back named Chris Johnson earned a Pro Bowl spot as a rookie and then ran for 2,006 yards in his second season.
Mawae earned a pair of Pro Bowl invitations in his four years in Nashville.
Since entering the NFL in 1998 with the St. Louis Rams, linebacker London Fletcher has not missed a game.
That’s 240 contests and counting.
Since joining the Washington Redskins in 2007 (after five seasons with the Buffalo Bills), Fletcher has started all 96 games with the team and led the club in tackles in each year.
He has also been named to the last four Pro Bowls and remains the veteran leader of a defense that played its best football down the stretch last season. It added up to a seven-game winning streak that erased the team’s 3-6 start and propelled Mike Shanahan’s team to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title in 2012.
And for those who feel that an aging London Fletcher may be falling down, it’s worth noting that, in his 15th NFL season, the heady defender intercepted a career-high five passes.
A job well done for a franchise often known for its free-agent follies.