Formerly a dry period, springtime has become one of the most exciting periods on the NFL calendar. Free agency, which began in the early 1990s, has blossomed into a two-week stream of big signings and team-altering acquisitions. And just when the dust begins to settle, NFL fans turn their attention to the draft and the subsequent signing of undrafted rookies.
Championships are won in mid winter, but the seeds of those championships are sewn in the spring. You only have to go back a year to see the significance of free agency. Last March, the Buccaneers made the splash of the offseason when they inked Tom Brady to a two-year contract. Less than a year later, "Tampa Tom" and his new teammates hoisted a celebratory boat parade.
Brady is just one of many examples of free agents who helped change the fortune of their new franchises. With the 2021 free agency season just around the corner, here's a look at the best all-time free agent signing for all 32 teams.
Arizona Cardinals -- QB Kurt Warner
After a storybook run with the Rams, Warner inked a one-year deal with the Cardinals following a single season with the Giants. After two so-so seasons in Arizona, Warner replaced Matt Leinart as the starter during the 2007 season. In 2008, Warner threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns while helping lead the Cardinals to a division title. He then helped the Cardinals win three playoff games to clinch the franchise's first Super Bowl berth. Warner led the Cardinals to the divisional round of the 2009 playoffs before retiring during the offseason.
Atlanta Falcons -- RB Michael Turner
It was close, but "Burner" Turner beats out tight end Tony Gonzalez for the top spot. After spending four years as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego, Turner inked a six-year, $34.5 million contract during the 2008 offseason. During his five seasons in Atlanta, Turner rushed for 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns. He earned All-Pro honors in 2008 after rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. A two-time Pro Bowler, Turner had consecutive 1,300-yard rushing seasons in 2010 and in 2011. Turner is second all-time on the Falcons' career rushing list.
Buffalo Bills -- WR Steve Tasker
The special teams star edges out former teammates Kent Hull and James Loften for the Bills' top spot. A ninth-round pick in the 1985 draft, Tasker was claimed off of waivers by the Bills during the 1986 season. While he was seldom used on offense, Tasker was a force on special teams. He made seven Pro Bowls, including six straight from 1990-95. Tasker's play helped the Bills win an unprecedented four consecutive AFC titles. His blocked punt set up the first touchdown of Super Bowl XXVII.
Baltimore Ravens -- DE Michael McCrary
McCrary beat out former teammates Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson for the Ravens' top spot. A former seventh-round pick, McCrary was a backup in Seattle for three years before breaking out with 13.5 sacks in 1996. McCrary's big year earned him a three-year contract with the Ravens, who were in the process of putting together a championship defense. After tallying a career-high 14.5 sacks in 1998, McCrary earned a five-year extension in 1999. The following season, McCrary helped the Ravens win their first Super Bowl. He tallied six sacks during the 2000 playoffs that included two sacks in Super Bowl XXXV. A member of the Ravens' Ring of Honor, McCrary totaled 51 regular season sacks, 299 tackles and 42 tackles for loss during his six seasons in Baltimore.
Carolina Panthers -- LB Sam Mills
After a highly successful nine-year run in New Orleans, Mills signed a two-year deal with the expansion Panthers despite the Saints matching Carolina's offer. The 36-year-old made an immediate impact in Carolina. In 1995, Mills tallied 110 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and four fumble recoveries. Mills earned All-Pro honors in 1996 while helping lead the Panthers to an NFC title game appearance. A member of the Panthers' Hall of Honor, Mills' No. 51 has been retired by the franchise.
Cincinnati Bengals -- CB Adam Jones
Jones' career was on life support before joining Cincinnati. He spent the 2009 season in the Canadian Football League before the Bengals gave him a chance during the 2010 offseason. The player known as "Pacman" made the most of his last chance. He spent the next eight seasons in Cincinnati and played an integral role in the Bengals making the playoffs each year from 2011-15. An All-Pro in 2014 and a Pro Bowler in 2015, Jones led the NFL in kick return average in 2014. Jones broke up 64 passes in Cincinnati while scoring touchdowns via punt, fumble and interception returns.
Cleveland Browns -- OL/K Lou Groza
An undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, Groza spent a whopping 21 seasons with the Browns. A member of all eight of the Browns' championship teams, Groza was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a four-time All-Pro during the 1950s. After a one-year retirement, Groza returned to the Browns as a kicker in 1961. He led the NFL in field goal percentage twice while helping the Browns win the 1964 NFL title. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Chicago Bears -- DT Steve McMichael
The man known as "Mongo" beat out future Hall of Fame pass rusher Julius Peppers. After just one season in New England, McMichael was cut by the Patriots and was signed by the Bears in 1981. McMichael broke into the starting lineup in 1983 and remained there for the next decade. During that span, McMichael tallied 92.5 sacks and was a two-time All-Pro. He was also a valuable member of Chicago's vaunted "46" defense, a unit that overwhelmed nearly everyone in 1985 en route to the franchise's first Super Bowl win, a 46-10 romp of the Patriots.
Dallas Cowboys -- QB Tony Romo
Romo just beat out tight end Jay Novacek, who played a significant role on the Cowboys' 1990s championship teams. An undrafted rookie out of Eastern Illinois, Romo rode the bench during his first three years in Dallas before he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe six games into the 2006 season. "Romo Mania" quickly ensued, as Romo earned Pro Bowl honors that season while helping lead the Cowboys to the playoffs. He remained the Cowboys' starting quarterback for the next decade, compiling an 80-53 overall record. Romo retired as the Cowboys' all-time career passing leader.
Denver Broncos -- QB Peyton Manning
The Broncos have had a slew of marquee free agent signings that includes Brian Dawkins, Aqib Talib, Neil Smith, Howard Griffith, John Lynch and DeMarcus Ware, among others. But the top spot here goes "The Sheriff," who led the Broncos to four division titles, two AFC titles and a Super Bowl victory during his four years in Denver. Individually, Manning was selected to three Pro Bowls, earned two All-Pro nods, was named Comeback Player of the Year and league MVP. In 2013, Manning threw for an NFL-record 54 touchdown passes. Manning retired after the 2015 season as the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
Detroit Lions -- CB Dick LeBeau
As a rookie, LeBeau was cut by the Browns during training camp. He was signed a few months later by the Lions, where he carved out a Hall of Fame career. During his 14 seasons in Detroit, LeBeau picked off 62 passes, which is tied for tenth all-time. LeBeau was part of a dynamic duo that included Hall of Fame defensive back "Night Train Lane," who retired with 68 career interceptions. A two-time Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator with the Steelers, LeBeau was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
Green Bay Packers -- DE Reggie White
Green Bay has had a slew of successful free agent signings that include Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, and Za'Darius Smith. But the Packers' best free agent signing is White, who became the first marquee free agent to sign with a new team during the NFL's first free agency season. White, who had already put together a Hall of Fame career with the Eagles, tallied 68.5 sacks and six Pro Bowl selections during his six seasons in Green Bay. White played an integral role in the Packers' rise to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s. His three sacks helped the Packers defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, thus ending Green Bay's 29-year title drought.
Houston Texans -- RB Arian Foster
After a breakout junior year at Tennessee, Foster was part of a crowded backfield during his senior year, which contributed to him not getting selected in the 2009 draft. After a quiet rookie season, Foster broke out in 2010. He led the NFL with 1,616 yards that season while earning All-Pro honors. He earned three more Pro Bowl selections over the next four years while helping the Texans make consecutive playoff appearances. Foster, who retired after the 2016 season, has over twice as many yards as the Texans' second all-time rushing leader.
Indianapolis Colts -- QB Johnny Unitas
Adam Vinatieri is the franchise's best free agent signing since moving to Indianapolis. But the Colts' all-time best free agent signing is Unitas, the NFL's greatest quarterback during the league's first 50 years. A ninth-round draft pick, Unitas was cut by the Steelers during training camp. He later latched on with the Colts after impressing coach Weeb Ewbank during his tryout. By his second season, Unitas was the league's best quarterback. In his third season, he led the Colts to their first championship, a 23-17 overtime win over the Giants. A member of the NFL's All-1960s Team, Johnny U led the Colts to two more championships that included the franchise's first Super Bowl win.
Kansas City Chiefs -- QB Len Dawson
The Chiefs have a long history of successful free agent acquisitions that include Tyrann Mathieu (2019), Marcus Allen (1993), Emmitt Thomas (1966), and Priest Holmes (2001). But the top spot goes to Dawson, who attempted just 45 passes during his first five NFL seasons. After being a backup in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Dawson signed with the AFL's Texans (re-named the Chiefs the following season) in 1962. Dawson won league MVP that year while leading Kansas City to its first of three AFL titles. Dawson, who led the NFL in completion percentage seven times, led the Chiefs to victory in Super Bowl IV, the last game played before the AFL-NFL merger. Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
An accomplished college basketball player, Gates helped lead Kent State to the Elite Eight in 2002. Gates' height (6-foot-4) compelled him to try his hand at pro football, where he was signed by the Chargers as a free agent in 2003. Gates churned out a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers, where he earned eight Pro Bowl selections and three All-Pro nods. A member of the NFL's All-2000s Team, Gates is first among tight ends in career touchdown receptions (116). He is second among tight ends in receptions (955) and yards (11,841). Gates helped the Chargers make seven playoff appearances.
Los Angeles Rams -- QB Kurt Warner
Warner spent the 1998 season in NFL Europe before he was elevated to the Rams' backup quarterback entering the 1999 season. He became the Rams' starting quarterback when Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason. Warner quickly rose to stardom; he won league MVP that season after throwing 41 touchdowns and leading the Rams to a 13-3 record. He won Super Bowl MVP after leading the Rams to a win over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. Warner won his second MVP in 2001 after leading the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes. Warner's Rams fell just short of winning a second Super Bowl in three years. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
The Cowboys' second-round pick in the 1992 draft, Smith did not catch a pass during the Cowboys' run of back-to-back championships during his first two seasons in Dallas. After sitting out the entire 1994 season, Smith earned a roster spot with the expansion Jaguars following a workout. After an underwhelming first season in Jacksonville, Smith tallied 1,244 receiving yards in 1996 while helping the Jaguars reach the AFC title game. Over the next nine years, Smith racked up nine more 1,000-yard seasons while earning five straight Pro Bowl nods from 1997-01. The Jaguars' all-time leading receiver, Smith was added to the franchise's "Pride of the Jaguars" in 2016.
Miami Dolphins -- OL Jim Langer
After going undrafted, Langer was cut by the Browns before he was signed by Don Shula in Miami. After two years on the bench, Langer became the Dolphins' starting center in 1972. That season, Langer helped Miami complete the NFL's only perfect season. The following season, he earned the first of six consecutive Pro Bowl selections while helping the Dolphins retreat as champions. A three-time All-Pro, Langer was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
Minnesota Vikings -- DE John Randle
Deemed too short by the Buccaneers (who cut him shortly after singing him as an undrafted rookie), the 6-foot-1 Randle signed with the Vikings before the start of the 1990 season. A part-time starter in 1991, Randle broke into the starting lineup in 1992, when he recorded the first of eight consecutive double-digit sack seasons. The NFL's sack leader in 1997, Randle earned six straight All-Pro selections from 1993-98. A member of the NFL's All-1990s Team, Randle is tied for 10th all-time in career sacks. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
New England Patriots -- LB Mike Vrabel
A third-round pick of the Steelers, Vrabel's greatest play in Pittsburgh actually came against the Patriots, when he recorded a sack/forced fumble of Drew Bledsoe near the end of the Steelers' 7-6 win in the 1997 AFC divisional round. A backup during his four years with the Steelers, Vrabel signed with the Patriots during the 2001 offseason. Vrabel quickly broke into New England's starting lineup, where he played an integral role in the Patriots' first Super Bowl win. Vrabel would help the Patriots win two more Super Bowls and three more AFC titles over the next seven years. An All-Pro in 2007, Vrabel caught touchdowns in the Patriots' Super Bowl wins over Carolina and Philadelphia.
New Orleans Saints -- QB Drew Brees
Brees spent his first five NFL seasons in San Diego, where he led the Chargers to a division title in 2004. But a year later, Brees was deemed expendable by the Chargers after the team spent a first-round pick on Philip Rivers. In free agency, Brees chose the Saints instead of the Dolphins. That decision turned out to be a good one, as Brees led the Saints to a division title during his first season in New Orleans. Three years later, Brees earned Super Bowl MVP honors after leading New Orleans to a 31-17 win over the Colts. Brees has continued to have success in New Orleans, where he became the NFL's first player to reach 80,000 career passing yards.
New York Giants -- DB Emlen Tunnell
The first Black player to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, Tunnell was signed by the Giants as an undrafted rookie in 1948. Nicknamed "The Gremlin," Tunnell helped the Giants capture their first league title in 1956. The best kickoff/punt returner of his era, Tunnell retired with 79 interceptions, the second-highest total in NFL history. Tunnell spent his final three seasons with the Packers, where he helped Vince Lombardi win his first of five NFL titles in 1961. Tunnell was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team in 2019.
New York Jets -- RB Curtis Martin
After a successful first three seasons in New England that included a Super Bowl appearance, two Pro Bowls and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, Martin inked a six-year, $36 million deal with the Jets during the 1998 offseason. That season, Martin helped lead to the Jets to within a game of the Super Bowl. During his eight seasons in New York, Martin rushed for a franchise-record 10,302 yards. At 31, Martin became the NFL's oldest rushing champion when he gained 1,697 yards while helping the Jets get to within a field goal of the AFC title game. A member of the Hall of Fame, Martin is sixth all-time in career rushing yards.
Las Vegas Raiders -- QB Jim Plunkett
The first overall pick in the 1971 draft, Plunkett's career was on life support when he signed with the Raiders in 1978. A backup, Plunkett threw just 15 passes during his first two years with the Raiders before an injury sidelined starter Dan Pastorini five weeks into the 1980 season. With the 33-year-old Plunkett under center, the Raiders went 9-2 during the regular season to clinch a wild-card playoff berth. The Raiders then defeated Houston, Cleveland and San Diego to reach Super Bowl XV, where they became the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. Plunkett took home MVP honors after throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles. He led the Raiders to a second Super Bowl win in 1983. Plunkett went 46-21 as the Raiders' starting quarterback, including an 8-2 playoff record.
Philadelphia Eagles -- QB Nick Foles
Owner of one of the most bazaar careers in NFL history, Foles quickly became a Pro Bowler after throwing 27 touchdowns and just two picks in his second season. But after a promising start in Philadelphia, Foles struggled to rekindle that magic during stops in St. Louis and Kansas City. Like Plunkett, Foles agreed to become a backup midway through his career when he signed a two-year deal to return to the Eagles. Also like Plunkett, Foles was elevated to starter when Carson Wentz went down 13 weeks into the 2017 season. After winning one of his three regular-season starts, Foles and the Eagles caught fire in the playoffs. After defeating Atlanta and Minnesota in the NFC playoffs, Foles won MVP honors after throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns in the Eagles' 41-33 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. And while Foles did not become the Eagles' longterm starter, he has been immortalized in Philadelphia with a statue celebrating the infamous "Philly Special."
San Francisco 49ers -- CB Deion Sanders
After losing consecutive NFC title games to the Cowboys, the 49ers responded by signing perennial All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders. The 49ers also signed linebacker Ken Norton Jr., who had just helped the Cowboys win back-to-back Super Bowls. Sanders enjoyed his best season as a pro in 1994, returning three of his six interceptions for touchdowns en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year. Sanders' coverage of Michael Irvin played a pivotal role in the 49ers' NFC title game win over the Cowboys. Two weeks later, the 49ers defeated the Chargers to become the first franchise to win five Super Bowls.
Ironically, the Seahawks released Bennett several months after signing him as an undrafted free agent. The Seahawks made up for their faux pas four years later, when they signed Bennett (who had a breakthrough season with Tampa Bay in 2012) to a one-year deal. During his first full season in Seattle, Bennett helped the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl, a 43-8 romp over the Broncos. Over the next four years, Bennett made three Pro Bowls while helping Seattle make it back to the Super Bowl in 2014. In his five years with the Seahawks, Bennett tallied 39 sacks, 195 tackles and 69 tackles for loss.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- S Donnie Shell
James Farrior is the Steelers' best free agent signing during the NFL's free agency era. But the Steelers' best free agent signing is Shell, the undrafted member of Pittsburgh's fabled 1974 rookie class. Known as the "The Torpedo" during his playing days, Shell was a valuable member of each of the Steelers' four Super Bowl wins during the 1970s. A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Shell's 51 interceptions are the most ever by a strong safety. Shell will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- QB Tom Brady
Not much debate here. After an unbelievable run in New England, Brady signed a two-year deal with the Buccaneers in March of 2020. During his first year in Tampa, Brady led the Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl win. Against the defending champion Chiefs, Brady won his fifth Super Bowl MVP award after throwing three touchdowns in Tampa Bay's 31-9 victory. Brady and the Buccaneers will now try to become the first back-to-back champion since Brady's Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
Tennessee Titans -- C Kevin Mawae
One of the best free agent signings in Jets history, Mawae -- who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Seahawks -- signed with the Titans after being released by New York. A six-time Pro Bowler in New York, Mawae showed he still had plenty of tread left on the tires when he joined the Titans. During his four seasons in Tennessee, Mawae missed just three starts while earning two Pro Bowl selections. An All-Pro in 2008, Mawae helped the Titans win an AFC-best 13 games during the regular season. A year later, he helped lead the way for Chris Johnson's 2,000-yard season. Mawae was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019.
Washington Football Team -- QB Doug Williams
The first Black quarterback to be selected in the first round of the draft, Williams led the previously dreadful Buccaneers to the NFC Championship Game. Three years later, Williams left Tampa after ownership refused to give him his deserved contract (he was lowest-paid starting quarterback at the time and made less than 12 backups). Williams resurfaced in Washington. In Super Bowl XXII, Williams overcame a slow start to throw four touchdowns in the second quarter of Washington's win over the Broncos. The first Black starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl, Williams was named the game's MVP.