The NFL has gone through 28 free agency periods since the player-movement tool began in earnest in 1993. Every team has reaped rewards from correctly identifying a hidden gem or signing a higher-profile player on a team-friendly deal. Here are the best bargain signings of the free agency era. Ranked based on the value of the initial contract and on-field impact, this list only includes offseason signings.
An underrated NFL superpower, the 1996 Packers enjoyed a lethal luxury -- one that became essential in big moments. After washing out in Washington and Jacksonville, Howard accepted a one-year, $300,000 deal from a Green Bay team that continually failed to vanquish Dallas in the playoffs. The former Heisman winner put together one of the best special teams seasons in NFL history, returning four punts and a kickoff for a touchdown. Two of those jaunts came in the playoffs, with Howard's 99-yard return distancing the Pack from the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. The Raiders signed Howard to a lucrative deal in 1997.
In Sean McDermott's first months with the Bills, the team overhauled its safety corps with two formerly low-key veterans. An ex-Packer, Hyde signed for five years and $30 million; Poyer, previously a Brown, landed in Buffalo on a four-year, $13M pact. They have become one of the NFL's best safety tandems, and their Buffalo stays have coincided with the Bills' pass defense becoming one of the NFL's best and the franchise having ended the third-longest postseason drought since the 1970 merger. Pro Football Focus has ranked both Poyer and Hyde as top-25 safeties in four straight years.
The Chiefs ended their five-year partnership with Schwartz last week, making their right tackle a cap casualty. But he solidified himself as one of the NFL's best tackles while in Missouri. The Chiefs signed the ex-Browns iron man to a $6.6M-per-year contract -- a strangely middle-class pact for the younger Schwartz -- and he predictably outplayed it. Schwartz earned first- or second-team All-Pro acclaim (right tackles are usually excluded from Pro Bowls) in his four healthy Chiefs seasons and provided Patrick Mahomes vital protection -- noticeably absent sans Schwartz in Tampa -- en route to his MVP and Super Bowl MVP honors.
Khalil Mack is most associated with the Bears' defensive rise in recent years, but the unit began trending upward prior to the sack artist's arrival. A Saints draftee traded to the Patriots in 2015, Hicks inked a two-year, $10 million Bears deal the following spring. In his five Chicago seasons, Hicks has become one of the NFL's premier interior defensive ends. The mammoth D-lineman played a vital role in elevating a quarterback-limited team to contention. The Bears have ranked in the top 10 in either total defense or defensive DVOA in each of the past four seasons, and Hicks was a first-team All-Pro in 2018.
Brought in shortly after the Steelers' fifth championship, Clark helped the team grab Lombardi No. 6 and voyage to another Super Bowl after that. A two-year starter in Washington, Clark committed to Pittsburgh on just a four-year, $7 million accord. He operated as a Steelers starter for the next eight years, joining Troy Polamalu to form a historically sound safety crew. Clark returned from a life-threatening sickle-cell issue in 2008, starting on a No. 1-ranked defense. The future ESPN mainstay forced two turnovers in a Steelers playoff win over the Ravens two years later, helping them to Super Bowl XLV.
A former Cardinals second-round pick, Vanden Bosch saw his value dip after missing the 2003 season with a torn ACL. Following an unremarkable '04 campaign in Arizona, the defensive end signed with the Titans for one year and $540,000. This proved to be a good investment; the pass rusher blossomed in Tennessee. Vanden Bosch ventured to three Pro Bowls in his five-season Titans run. He posted two 12-sack seasons and helped the Titans to back-to-back playoff berths in 2007 and '08. His work alongside Albert Haynesworth earned him a four-year, $21M extension.
Being the best NFL player over the past 50 years, Rice signed some monster (for the era) 49ers contracts in the 1990s. The 49ers cut him in June 2001. Rice joined the Raiders on a four-year, $5.4 million pact, partially due to location, becoming another aging piece on a veteran team building toward a Super Bowl run. Rice totaled 2,350 receiving yards and 16 TDs on Oakland's playoff-bound '01 and '02 teams and added three more scores in the playoffs. At 40, Rice made his 13th Pro Bowl and helped Rich Gannon to the 2002 MVP award. Even in the '03 season that saw Gannon go down early, Rice nearly hit 900 yards.
Credit to the Falcons' pro personnel department here. Mathis served as a bit player in four Jets seasons, never eclipsing 400 yards in any of them. The Falcons bought low (two years, $1 million) in the second year of the salary cap era. Mathis erupted for 1,342 yards and 11 TDs in his first Atlanta season, making the Pro Bowl. He played seven more Falcons slates, posting four more 1,000-yard seasons and nabbing perhaps the biggest reception in franchise history -- a fourth-down TD grab in the final minute of the 1998 NFC championship game -- to lift Atlanta to its first Super Bowl.
One of the Steelers' many wide receiver finds, Sanders did not bloom until he left Pittsburgh. After backing out of a Chiefs pledge, Sanders joined what he then called "wide receiver heaven" with Peyton Manning in Denver. The Broncos landed the future Pro Bowler on a three-year, $15M deal. Sanders did well to help a declining Manning, eclipsing 1,400 yards in 2014 and leading the Broncos in receiving in the '15 playoffs en route to a title. Even as the Broncos descended into QB Hell after Manning's retirement, Sanders dropped his third straight 1,000-yard season in Denver. The Broncos extended him in 2016.
A key component in the Bengals' decline: letting good O-linemen walk. But prior to Cincinnati allowing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to leave in free agency, the team allowed a future All-Pro guard to walk for $735,000. Mathis was a spot starter in Cincinnati; he helped LeSean McCoy to two All-Pro seasons in Philadelphia. Mathis stayed in Philly for four seasons, earning a more lucrative contract. Pro Football Focus viewed him as an interior-line warlord, and although the Eagles cut him in 2015, Mathis parlayed his mid-career breakout into a spot alongside Sanders with the eventual champion Broncos.
Jenkins stayed for a bit longer than Mathis, becoming a centerpiece player in the Eagles' Super Bowl LII ride. A former Saints first-rounder, Jenkins signed with the Eagles for three years and $15.5 million. Sean Payton expressed regret for letting the talented safety go, and he became a team leader in Philly. Jenkins made three Pro Bowls and helped an Eagles team down would-be MVP Carson Wentz to three upset victories in the 2017 playoffs, securing the franchise its first Super Bowl title. Jenkins stayed six seasons in Philly, moving back to New Orleans in 2020.
Had the Ravens not acquired Dilfer on a one-year, $1 million deal, their relentless defense probably becomes a go-to footnote. A 1999 injury ended Dilfer's underwhelming Buccaneers run, with backup Shaun King leading Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl XXXIV precipice. A two-month backup in Baltimore, Dilfer replaced Tony Banks and led/managed the Ravens to the Super Bowl XXXV championship. The Ravens went 11-1 with Dilfer, who rode shotgun (or perhaps in the backseat by the window) to arguably the greatest defense in modern NFL history. The Ravens did not re-sign him in 2001, bringing about years of QB uncertainty.
The cap resided at just $37.1 million in 1995 -- a bit below today's $198.2 million sum. But McCaffrey's three-year, $1.5M pact was a bargain. He stayed with the Broncos for nine seasons and grew from a fringe contributor with the Giants and 49ers to a full-timer for a Broncos team on the cusp of its franchise apex. McCaffrey collected two Super Bowl rings as Denver's possession target. Both Rod Smith and his 6-foot-5 wingman reached 100 catches in 2000, two years after John Elway's retirement. Ed returned to his WR2 role in 2002, following a broken leg in '01, before raising Colorado high school prodigy, Christian McCaffrey.
Tom Brady's booze-fueled Lombardi toss does not happen without Barrett, who has transformed from a backup to an impact sack artist in Tampa. Barrett signed with Tampa Bay on a one-year, $4M deal -- a "prove it" pact for a UDFA who operated as a Von Miller henchman for four years. Barrett smashed Warren Sapp's 20-year-old franchise record, with 19.5 sacks in 2019. His three drops of Aaron Rodgers helped the Bucs escape Green Bay in January, opening the door for repeat Barrett chase scenes with Patrick Mahomes. The former Division II recruit has 31.5 sacks as a Buccaneer.
LaDainian Tomlinson showed clear signs of greatness in his first two seasons, but Neal was there for his Hall of Fame-cementing period. The Chargers signed the 11th-year fullback to a three-year, $4.5M contract; Tomlinson reached his scrimmage-yards high (2,370) that fall. Neal made the Pro Bowl from 2005-07 and became the oldest skill-position player to be named to the All-Pro first team, at 37. In 2016, Tomlinson obliterated the single-season touchdown record (now 31, a number not threatened since) and won MVP honors on a 14-2 team. Neal played 17 NFL seasons.
The Broncos' Super Bowl teams featured a host of free agent success stories, from McCaffrey to Bill Romanowski to Neil Smith. Mike Shanahan did well in stocking his late-1990s rosters. Schlereth came over from Washington on a three-year, $2.4 million deal and boosted the Broncos' run-game mastery. Schlereth's Denver debut coincided with Terrell Davis', and after the sixth-round pick's MVP season and the Broncos' two Super Bowl titles, Schlereth helped clear holes for injury replacements Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson during one of the great O-line stretches in NFL history.
A month before the Giants traded for Eli Manning, they equipped him with a free agent center. O'Hara, who played guard in Cleveland, signed with New York on a three-year, $5.4 million contract. He served as Manning's center for seven seasons, being the pivotman on a few well-assembled Giants offensive lines. O'Hara helped Tiki Barber to two dominant seasons to end his career and became a Pro Bowl mainstay in his 30s, also aiding Barber successors Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward to a 1,000-1,000 season. In between, O'Hara collected a Super Bowl ring and thwarted multiple Patriot rushers on a notable February play.
The Eagles gave Foles respectable backup money -- two years, $11 million -- but his work in his first season back in Philly made that contract look Philly-friendly. Stepping in for an injured Carson Wentz that December, Foles delivered one of the great runs in postseason quarterbacking history and led the Eagles to three upset wins (two of those being upsets because Foles' presence moved point spreads) and the team's first Super Bowl title. Foles was flawless in an RPO-fueled Super Bowl LII MVP outing, catching the most famous pass by a quarterback in the sport's history. He ended up saving the 2018 Eagles' season as well.
Horn did not need Drew Brees throwing him passes to flood the top of the Saints' receiving record book. He got by with Aaron Brooks, morphing from backup Chiefs wideout to alpha of the Saints' passing attack. New Orleans gave Horn a four-year, $9.9 million deal to poach him from Kansas City, which saw its receiver room endure a tough break when Round 1 pick Sylvester Morris suffered a career-ending injury months after Horn's exit. Horn made four Pro Bowls in seven Saints seasons and was one of the NFC's premier receivers into the mid-2000s. He played just one season with Brees.
The Panthers changed their fortunes by signing Delhomme 18 years ago. Carolina landed Delhomme, an ex-Brooks backup in New Orleans, on a two-year, $4 million deal. In Year 1, Delhomme quarterbacked the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII. The former UDFA went punch for punch with Tom Brady. Delhomme threw 29 TD passes in 2004, largely without Steve Smith, then made the Pro Bowl in '05 by turning Smith into a monster that powered Carolina to another NFC title game. Delhomme did throw five INTs in his next playoff outing, leading to the end of his Carolina run, but he was undeniably a free agency success story.
Similar to Leonard Fournette 24 years later, Hearst was a top-five pick waived by a struggling team just before a season. Prior to Hearst's two-year, $2.8 million 49ers pledge, the Bengals claimed the ex-Cardinal running back off waivers in 1996. He soon upgraded in team quality, becoming a featured back for the 49ers' final Steve Young-piloted offenses. Hearst cleared 1,000 rushing yards thrice in San Francisco and authored a unique career arc. He suffered a severe ankle injury that sidelined him in 1999 and 2000 but returned in 2001, winning Comeback Player of the Year honors. Hearst was a 49er until 2003.
Bennett played so well on the one-year, $5 million contract the Seahawks initially gave him that he earned two more deals before his Seattle stay wrapped. One of the NFL's most versatile defensive linemen of the 2010s, Bennett came over after an anonymous Buccaneers run. In his first two Seattle seasons, the Seahawks booked Super Bowl trips. Bothering not with appropriately sized shoulder pads, Bennett operated as both a quality edge presence and a dominant interior rusher. The three-time Pro Bowler stayed five seasons, teaming largely with fellow 2013 signee Cliff Avril on loaded defenses, before being traded.
The Steelers regretted missing out on Woodson's quality back nine, and the 49ers only gave him one season. After San Francisco made Woodson a 1997 cap casualty, he signed with the Ravens on a three-year deal worth just $5.7 million. Still a cornerback in Year 1 of his Baltimore stay, Woodson shifted to safety after the Ravens took Chris McAllister in the 1999 first round. It remains a historically successful position switch. Woodson led the NFL with seven INTs in his first safety season and manned deep patrol for the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl unit. He made three Pro Bowls in four Baltimore seasons.
The 21st century's most reliable defense used Harrison as a chess piece for six seasons. Harrison joined the Patriots, spurning interest from the Raiders and a $4 million-per-year offer from the Broncos, who then turned to John Lynch a year later. The Pats signed Harrison to a six-year, $14.9M contract and won the next two Super Bowls. Their controversial enforcer joined Ty Law in a loaded secondary that helped the Pats to first- and second-place defensive rankings in those seasons. The ex-Charger intercepted four passes in the '04 playoffs and managed to play effectively through his age-36 season in 2008.
The Patriots supplemented Tom Brady with one of the most successful free-agent classes in history. Running back Antowain Smith, wideout David Patten and defenders Anthony Pleasant and Roman Phifer occupy the "best of the rest" sector of a Vrabel-headlined list. Like the others, Vrabel was a low-cost addition. He outlasted fellow new arrivals by a considerable margin, playing eight seasons with the Pats. The versatile linebacker/gadget TD magnet played effectively on and off the ball, recording 48 sacks as a Patriot and forcing 19 fumbles. The ex-Steelers backup/future Titans coach played in four Super Bowls.
It took the Steelers many years to rebuild their defense after the likes of Farrior, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu departed in a three-offseason span. Farrior served as a glue player, anchoring Pittsburgh's linebacking corps as several edge rushers -- from Jason Gildon to Joey Porter to James Harrison to LaMarr Woodley -- passed through. Farrior's Steelers career began with a three-year, $5.4M pact. The former Jet part-timer started for 10 seasons -- mostly on top-tier defenses. The former No. 8 overall pick remained a full-time starter until age 36; no other Steeler defender this century holds that distinction.
For sheer production out of free agency (non-Brees/Manning division), the Chiefs found a hidden superstar. The Ravens taking Jamal Lewis in the 2000 first-round ended Holmes' middling Baltimore stint; he signed a five-year, $8.4 million Chiefs contract. From 2001-03, Holmes totaled 6,566 scrimmage yards and 61 touchdowns. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards in 2002 in just 14 games, with an injury halting a likely record. The Chiefs assembled an all-time offensive line, igniting Holmes, but injuries brought down their star back beginning in 2004. While Tony Gonzalez was here too, Holmes catalyzed these elite offenses.
The same year Sanders signed with the 49ers, his "Must Be the Money" track dropped. However, he did not require a tremendous amount of dough to sign. The former Falcons icon inked a one-year, $1.13 million pact to switch NFC West uniforms. The 49ers came away with a historic free-agent haul in '94; Ken Norton Jr., Rickey Jackson, Gary Plummer, and Bart Oates were also part of the Sanders-anchored contingent. The Hall of Famer's six-INT, three-pick-six season made a seismic difference in the 49ers overtaking the Cowboys and winning Super Bowl XXIX. Primetime lived up to his lyrics in '95, signing a seven-year, $35M Cowboys deal.
After Jake Plummer left the desert for Denver in 2003, Jeff Blake and Josh McCown floundered in his place. In 2004, Warner provided the bridge from Kerry Collins to Eli Manning in New York. The Giants benched the two-time MVP after he had them at 5-4. This opened the door to Warner accepting a one-year, $4 million Cardinals offer. He quickly thwarted Matt Leinart's takeover attempt and reminded the football world of his Rams brilliance, throwing 83 TD passes from 2007-09. Narrowly losing Super Bowl XLIII, Warner still delivered one of the best late-30s stretches in NFL history. It doubled as the best Cards run in 60 years.
A bit of cheating, yes, but these two are interlocked and have similar Jaguars origin stories. A former Cowboys Round 2 pick, Smith caught on with the Jags in 1995 on a low-end deal. McCardell, an ex-Browns auxiliary wideout, joined him a year later. No Jaguar receiving tandem has approached their work, and their first four seasons together produced six 1,000-yard campaigns between them and four Jacksonville playoff berths. Both landed higher-paying extensions, but the Jags capitalized on the exclusive negotiating rights that came with signing the duo in the mid-'90s. The partnership lasted six years.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.