Best, Worst NFL Free-Agent Signings of All Time

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IMarch 11, 2013

Best, Worst NFL Free-Agent Signings of All Time

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    With the NFL's free-agency period only a day away, now seems like a fitting time to look back at some of the best and worst signings from free agency's still young past. 

    Since 1993, NFL teams have been spending millions of dollars on the free-agent market. Some of the moves have worked out as positive investments; others haven't and were wastes of money and cap room. 

    And then there are moves that helped redefine teams on both ends of the spectrum. The best moves have helped win Super Bowls. The worst handicapped a franchise for years and will be forever remembered as glaring black eyes. 

    In the following slides, we'll present both the very best and worst of the NFL's free-agency past. 

Honorable Mentions

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    BEST

     

    QB Rich Gannon to the Oakland Raiders

    After signing in Oakland in 1999, Gannon led the Raiders to three straight playoff appearances and one Super Bowl. He was also named league MVP in 2002, a season in which he led the NFL in passing yards.  

     

    RB Priest Holmes to the Kansas City Chiefs

    A backup in Baltimore, Holmes burst onto the NFL scene after signing with the Chiefs in 2001. He led the NFL in rushing during his first season in Kansas City while also scoring a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns in 2003.

     

    LB Mike Vrabel to the New England Patriots

    Vrabel went from a role player in Pittsburgh to an important part of three Super Bowl teams with the Patriots. Over eight years in New England, Vrabel totaled 48.0 sacks and eight receiving touchdowns. 

     

     

    WORST

     

    WR Alvin Harper to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Super Bowl rings in hand from his time in Dallas, Harper arrived in Tampa Bay on a $10.6 million contract in 1995. He never produced as a No. 1 receiver and was released after two seasons.

     

    DT Dana Stubblefield to the Washington Redskins

    The reigning Defensive Player of the Year in 1998 was lured to Washington by a whopping $36 million contract. He played three years for the Redskins, but managed just seven sacks.

     

    CB Larry Brown to the Oakland Raiders

    Months after winning the Super Bowl MVP, Brown signed a $12.5 million deal with Oakland. Over two years with the Raiders, he would intercept just one pass in 12 games. 

Best: DE Reggie White to the Green Bay Packers

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    The first big-time free agent in NFL history, White made the stunning decision to sign a $17 million deal with the up-and-coming (but still in-flux) Packers in 1993. 

    The result was the rebuilding of one of the NFL's great franchises, thanks in large part to White's contributions.

    Over six years in Green Bay, White registered 68.5 sacks and won two NFC championships and one Super Bowl—cementing his status as one of the game's best defensive players ever. 

    Keep in mind: Over the first 25 seasons post-Vince Lombardi, the Packers had just six winning seasons and one playoff win. Together with quarterback Brett Favre, White and the Packers would win 66 regular-season games and nine playoff games from 1993 to '98. 

    White was not only one of the best-ever defensive players, but his introduction into Green Bay helped reverse two decades of misfortune. The Packers have been one of the more stable NFL franchises since. 

Worst: DT Albert Haynesworth to the Washington Redskins

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    Few free-agent signings in NFL history can compete with Haynesworth's bust factor in Washington. 

    After signing a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins in 2009, Haynesworth became an immediate problem. He showed up to camp overweight and out of shape, and he clashed with the coaching staff over the team's defensive scheme. 

    By the end of 2010, the Redskins were done with Haynesworth's act. He was suspended for the final four games of the season and then traded to the New England Patriots the following July. The Redskins received only a future fifth-round pick in return. 

    Over two years in Washington, Haynesworth made almost $50 million from the Redskins, but contributed just 6.5 sacks in 20 games. 

Best: QB Drew Brees to the New Orleans Saints

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    On precious few occasions can you find a team acquiring a franchise-defining quarterback in free agency. But that's exactly what the Saints got in Brees in 2006. 

    Following Brees' torn labrum to finish 2005 and the ascension of 2004 draft pick Philip Rivers, the San Diego Chargers were understandably ready to begin a new chapter at quarterback.

    However, San Diego's decision to move on was New Orleans' gain, as Brees went on to help rebuild the city's morale following Hurricane Katrina and bring the franchise's first Super Bowl win in 2009. 

    Over his seven seasons in New Orleans, Brees has thrown for almost 34,000 yards and 244 touchdowns. He's been named to six Pro Bowls and won two Offensive Player of the Year awards. It would be hard to ask for much more in a quarterback few others wanted in free agency in 2006. 

Worst: QB Neil O'Donnell to the New York Jets

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    After bringing the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1996, O'Donnell was able to secure a five-year, $25 million deal from the New York Jets. 

    A new city and a new deal only meant disaster for O'Donnell in the Big Apple. 

    O'Donnell separated his shoulder in his first season for a Jets team that finished 1-15. New York went 0-6 in games O'Donnell started and played, and he finished the season with just four touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

    A year later, O'Donnell started 14 games and finished 8-6, but head coach Bill Parcells and the Jets went with Vinny Testaverde the following year, and O'Donnell ended up in Cincinnati.

Best: CB Deion Sanders to 49ers, Cowboys

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    In back-to-back years, pursuing Sanders on the free-agent market helped lead his eventual teams to Super Bowl wins. 

    The 49ers struck first, inking Sanders to a one-year deal in 1994. His arrival paved the way for San Francisco to finally best the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC, and the 49ers cruised to a title over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.

    Thanks to six interceptions and three returns for touchdowns in 1994, Sanders was also named Defensive Player of the Year.

    A year later, Sanders landed in Dallas and eventually won Super Bowl XXX. Over five years with the Cowboys, he intercepted 14 passes on defense and caught 49 for 624 yards on offense while also returning four punts for scores. 

Worst: S Adam Archuleta to the Washington Redskins

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    After five successful seasons with the St. Louis Rams, Archuleta hit free agency as one of the top safeties available. 

    In typical Daniel Snyder fashion, the Redskins were willing to pony up the money to get him to Washington. Archuleta signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Redskins, which, at that time, was the most expensive contract ever handed to a safety.

    Washington received almost nothing in return. 

    Archuleta started just seven of 16 games in his lone season as a Redskin and failed to register an interception or force a fumble. His role was left to being a backup and special teams player for much of the season. 

    The next March, Washington shipped Archuleta to Chicago for a sixth-round pick. By 2008, Archuleta was out of the NFL for good. 

Best: CB Charles Woodson to the Green Bay Packers

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    The Packers rolled the dice in 2006 and signed Woodson, a high-profile player with a lengthy injury and attitude history, to a seven-year, $52 million deal. 

    While interest in his services that spring was limited, the Packers ended up as the big winners.

    Woodson would intercept 38 passes (second only to Ed Reed from 2006-11), force 15 fumbles and score 10 touchdowns over the next seven seasons in Green Bay. The Packers also rebounded from a 4-12 season in 2005 to reach the NFC Championship Game in 2008 and then win the Super Bowl in 2011. 

    Woodson's best season came in 2009, when he intercepted nine passes, scored three times and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

Worst: CB Dale Carter to the Denver Broncos

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    While Woodson was a big hit for the Packers, the Broncos' gamble on Dale Carter ended up as a huge bust. 

    A four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in Kansas City, Carter agreed to a four-year, $23 million deal with Denver in 1999. The risk? Three arrests and a troublesome off-the-field record. 

    The bad ended up blowing up in the Broncos' face. 

    After just two interceptions in 14 starts his first season, Carter was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2000 season after a fourth failed drug test. He wouldn't play for the Broncos again and was released in 2001.  

Best: QB Kurt Warner to the Arizona Cardinals

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    Warner's second comeback story was almost as good as his first. 

    After going from grocery store employee to Super Bowl winner in St. Louis, Warner went from backup in New York to savior for the Arizona Cardinals. 

    From 2005 to 2009, Warner would throw 100 touchdown passes and lead Arizona to a Super Bowl appearance, its first in franchise history. Only a late Santonio Holmes touchdown kept Warner from winning his second-ever Super Bowl. 

    The Cardinals finished with a losing record with Warner under center (27-30), but he did lead Arizona to the playoffs twice. His four playoff wins are the most ever for a Cardinals starting quarterback. 

Worst: WR Andre Rison to the Cleveland Browns

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    Thanks to four Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro selections with the Atlanta Falcons, Rison was able to ink a five-year, $17 million deal with the Cleveland Browns in 1995. The deal made Rison the highest paid receiver in NFL history at the time.

    However, the results failed to match the hype.

    In his first season in Cleveland, Rison posted career lows in several statistical categories, including catches (47) and yards (701). The Browns released the combustible receiver after the 1995 season.

    Adding insult to injury, Rison would resurface with the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 1996 season. His opening touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI helped Green Bay win its first title during the post-Lombardi era.