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NFL Free Agency: AFC’s best signings of the last 20 years

By Tayyib Abu

Published: 16:00, 9 March 2022

As teams decipher the data from the NFL Combine, it’d be easy to forget that free agency is just around the corner. The new league season begins on March 16 at 9PM GMT. From March 14, teams can partake in ‘legal tampering’ with free agents. Thanks to substantial new TV contracts, the salary cap is due to go up, and a flurry of activity could dominate the headlines as superstar players find new homes.

Therefore, it is the perfect time to look back and assess the best free-agent signings made by NFL teams since 2002. Twenty years have passed since the league went to 32 teams as the Houston Texans joined the AFC, and so it is time to discuss the best signings made by AFC teams since then.

Baltimore Ravens – Derrick Mason (2005)

Derrick Mason is the greatest wide receiver in Baltimore Ravens franchise history. Mason spent six seasons playing for the Ravens, and in that time, he had four 1,000 yard receiving seasons and set the record for most career receiving yards and receptions as a Raven. Mason became the focal point of the Ravens offense, and when he retired in 2011, he did so as a Raven.

Cincinnati Bengals – Trey Hendrickson (2021)

The Cincinnati Bengals are notorious for not spending in free agency. In 2021, they bucked the trend as they handed Trey Hendrickson a four-year $60 million contract. Hendrickson handsomely returned on that initial investment with 14 sacks, three forced fumbles and led the defense to a Super Bowl appearance. Hendrickson posted a banner season, and his first year in Cincy lived up to the billing. The chance is there for Hendrickson to become a Bengals hero.

Cleveland Browns – Jamal Lewis (2007)

Jamal Lewis finished his NFL career as a Cleveland Brown. Lewis was a success for the Browns amidst their sordid history of free-agent signings. A 1,304 rushing yard season in 2007 helped him get a fourth career All-Pro nod, and he finished fourth in the Comeback Player of the Year vote. Lewis backed that performance up in 2008 by playing all 16 games and again broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier. Injuries eventually caught up with Lewis in 2009 as he only started eight games. Nevertheless, two outstanding seasons in the twilight of his career made him stand out for the Browns.

Pittsburgh Steelers – James Farrior (2002)

Dubbed a bust as a New York Jet, James Farrior entrenched himself as a modern day hero in Pittsburgh. Farrior spent ten years playing for the Steelers and in that time, he emerged as one of the heartbeats of Bill Cowher’s side that triumphed at Super Bowl 40. Another ring followed at Super Bowl 43 under new head coach Mike Tomlin. Furthermore, Farrior enjoyed two All-Pro seasons and placed himself within the hearts of Steelers fans everywhere.

Buffalo Bills – Micah Hyde (2013)

Safety Micah Hyde has quietly played a significant role in the Buffalo Bills’ resurgence. After inking a five-year $30 million contract, Hyde formed one of the league’s best safety tandems alongside Jordan Poyer. Fellow players voted Hyde one of the top 100 players in 2018; such was his level of performance in 2017. Add two Second-Team All-Pro nominations, a Pro Bowl appearance, the Bills regularly ending the season as an elite pass-defense, and Hyde is a no-brainer. In 2021, the Bills gave Hyde a two-year extension worth $19.25 million.

Miami Dolphins – Cameron Wake (2009)

The Miami Dolphins provided Cameron Wake with a second chance. Wake returned in 2009 and embarked on a remarkable second career. Wake posted four seasons with double-digit sacks, earned five Pro Bowl nods, and had four All-Pro honors. Moreover, Wake recorded 98 sacks for the Dolphins, ranking him second in club history. Only Hall of Famer Jason Taylor tallied more sacks than Wake. It was an inspired signing from the CFL.

New England Patriots – Stephon Gilmore (2017)

The New England Patriots stunned the NFL world when they dished out a $65 million contract to Stephon Gilmore in 2017. Historically the Pats don’t make huge moves in free agency; therefore, the signing raised many eyebrows. The pressure was on, and Gilmore delivered – Gilmore was the best cornerback in the game and worth every penny. The experienced defensive back helped guide the Patriots to two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and victory in Super Bowl 53. Gilmore doubled down in 2019 as he won Defensive Player of the Year, made First-Team All-Pro for the second straight year, and another Pro Bowl.

New York Jets – Alan Faneca (2008)

Hall of Famer Alan Faneca spent two solid seasons in New Jersey anchoring the New York Jets offensive line. Faneca helped the Jets running game take off as they had consecutive 2000 rushing-yard seasons. The Jets posted two 9-7 seasons, and Faneca got All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition. The veteran was a solid pickup for a franchise often more famous for its free agency blunders.

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Houston Texans – Arian Foster (2009)

Undrafted free agent Arian Foster was a diamond in the rough when the Houston Texans plucked him from nowhere in 2009. Foster enjoyed a fabulous career as he set the benchmark for running backs in Houston. Foster had 54 career rushing touchdowns (a franchise record) and is the franchise record holder in total rushing yards. Foster posted three consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons between 2010 and 2012.

Indianapolis Colts – Adam Vinatieri (2006)

Adam Vinatieri is arguably the greatest placekicker in NFL history. He crystallised that theory by playing an integral role in the rise of the New England Patriots in the early 2000s as he made clutch kicks in their three Super Bowl-winning campaigns. In 2006, the Patriots didn’t franchise tag Vinatieri, and the Colts swooped to sign him. Vinatieri accepted a five-year deal and immediately went to work. The Colts won the Super Bowl that season and Vinatieri found a new home. He was a perfect 10/10 on field goal attempts inside the Hoosier Dome, while he scored all 15 points as the Colts defeated the Baltimore Ravens on the road. He spent the rest of his career in Indianapolis while setting new records for kickers. Vinatieri retired in 2019 as the leading point-scorer in NFL history and a future Hall of Famer.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Calais Campbell (2017)

Veteran Calais Campbell turbocharged the Jacksonville Jaguars’ surprise run to the AFC Championship game in 2017-18. Campbell enjoyed a monster season as he led the Sacksonville unit with 14.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, and 67 combined tackles. Campbell earned First-Team All-Pro honors and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year votes. The experienced pass-rusher backed up his first season in Duval County with two more Pro Bowl years in 2018 and 2019 before leaving the franchise.

Tennessee Titans – Delanie Walker (2013)

Delanie Walker experienced a career renaissance when the Tennessee Titans signed him in 2013. Known as a utility player for the San Francisco 49ers, the Titans let Walker loose, and the tight end flourished. Walker broke franchise records in 2014 and 2015, while his colleagues named him in the top 100 players for three consecutive seasons. Walker is arguably the best tight end in Titans history.

Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning (2012)

The Denver Broncos triumphed in the Peyton Manning free agent chase back in 2012. After the Indianapolis Colts chose to move on and draft Andrew Luck, Manning was a free agent. Manning had plenty of suitors across both conferences, but the persuasive skills of Broncos legend and then GM John Elway proved too strong for Manning. Many experts held reservations about the partnership. Some felt Manning was past his best. After all, Manning experienced a slew of significant injuries in the late stages of his Colts career. The great quarterback dumbfounded the critics as he enjoyed a magical ride in the Mile High City. Another MVP, Comeback Player of the Year, two AFC Championship wins, multiple records broken, and a Super Bowl title followed Manning’s arrival in Denver.

Kansas City Chiefs – Tyrann Mathieu (2018)

Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach wanted a difference-maker on defense after they missed out in 2018. Safety Tyrann Mathieu proved to be one of the final pieces of the puzzle for the Kansas City Chiefs. His three-year spell in the Kansas City yielded a Super Bowl championship, consecutive First-Team All-Pro accoldaes, and two Pro Bowl nods. Mathieu signed a three-year, $42 million contract, and his leadership, intensity, and high-quality defensive play helped get the Chiefs a Super Bowl championship.

Las Vegas/Oakland Raiders – Rod Woodson (2002)

At 37-years-old, Rod Woodson defied father time as he helped propel the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl appearance in the 2002-03 season. Woodson had eight interceptions and 82 total tackles as he made First-Team All-Pro for the sixth time in his illustrious career. Without Woodson’s experience and high-quality play, the Raiders may not have made the Super Bowl. Injuries caught up with him the following season, and Woodson retired in 2003. However, his impact in his first season cannot be understated; It was an inspired signing that put the Raiders back in the big time.

Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers – Donnie Edwards (2002)

San Diego native Donnie Edwards signed a five-year deal to join the San Diego Chargers in 2002. Edwards was outstanding as the linebacker started every game during his five-year tenure. Moreover, Edwards was a tackling machine. He routinely posted tackle numbers well above the 100 mark, which helped him get two Second-Team All-Pro nominations and finish in the top five for Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2004. The ninth member of the 20/20 club was a fantastic addition for the Chargers.

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