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

By Tayyib Abu

Published: 16:00, 10 March 2022

With the scouting combine now in the rearview mirror, we must not forget that free agency opens next week. The new league year begins on March 16 – with a two-day ‘legal tampering’ period preceding that – with all 32 franchises looking to secure the high ticket talents on the market. Teams are aided by a monumental TV deal that will increase the cap substantially, meaning more money to spend.

With that in mind we take a look at the best free agency signings made by the 16 teams of the NFC since the league’s expansion in 2002:

Arizona Cardinals – Kurt Warner (2005)

Kurt Warner reinvented himself when he joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2005. Warner spent five seasons in the desert, helping the team reach the Super Bowl in 2008-09. While his tenure started difficultly, a 9-7 season followed by a 10-win season saw Warner roll back the years before retiring. Warner added more weight to his Hall of Fame case in Arizona, and the late resurgence worked. The current TV analyst is perhaps the best quarterback in franchise history. That alone makes him worthy of a spot on the list.

Los Angeles Rams – Andrew Whitworth (2017)

Veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth was one of the foundational pieces that Sean McVay used to propel the LA Rams away from purgatory. A First-Team All-Pro in 2017, Whitworth was one of the key locker room leaders as the Rams made the Super Bowl in 2018-19. His leadership and experience were on show again this last season as he returned from injury to win Super Bowl 56 and win the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Whitworth is almost certain to retire this offseason. The Rams may struggle to replace him. The Hall of Fame surely awaits, and the legacy he leaves in LA is one that no one will forget.

San Francisco 49ers – Justin Smith (2008)

Three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro-Bowler Justin Smith was a tremendous signing for the San Francisco 49ers. Smith missed two games in seven years, a reliable cog in Jim Harbaugh’s ferocious defense. A brutish presence on the defensive end, Smith, was a sturdy run-defender that could rush the quarterback.

Seattle Seahawks – Michael Bennett (2013)

Michael Bennett was an underrated star during the Seattle Seahawks’ run to two Super Bowl appearances. Bennett joined the ‘Hawks in 2013, but it was in the following four years that he made his mark. There were three Pro-Bowl appearances coupled with another Super Bowl trip, and suddenly Bennett was a vital piece in Pete Carroll’s defense.

Dallas Cowboys – Terrell Owens (2006)

The controversial Terrell Owens was a Dallas Cowboy for three seasons between 2006 and 2008. Owens broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark in all three years as he and Tony Romo developed a healthy relationship. Owens made one Pro Bowl appearance and was part of the Cowboys side that finished 13-3 to win the NFC East in 2007. Owens drummed up plenty of headlines while playing for America’s Team.

New York Giants – Plaxico Burress (2005)

Yes, Plaxico Burress’ time with the New York Giants ended acrimoniously; one shouldn’t discount his performances for Big Blue. Four seasons in New Jersey saw Burress go over the 1,000-yard receiving barrier twice. Furthermore, Burress’ arrival unlocked another level from Eli Manning. The Giants made the playoffs in Burress’ first two seasons before riding a magic carpet to win it all at Super Bowl 42. The game-winning touchdown? Burgess caught that too. Yes, Burress’ transgressions soured things towards the end; however, he was a stellar signing when on the field.

Philadelphia Eagles – Nick Foles (2018)

Nobody flapped an eyelid when Nick Foles signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in early 2017. Fast forward 12 months, and Foles was the toast of Philadelphia. Foles initially backed-up starter Carson Wentz who was the MVP favorite before tearing his ACL in December. The Eagles started Foles, and the journeyman led a phenomenal postseason run that saw the Eagles land their first Super Bowl title. Foles immortalised himself in Philadelphia folklore with the most incredible six weeks of his career in 2018. Foles did it again the following season. A trip to a rampant Chicago Bears side thrust Foles into the fire, and he did the business. No Eagles fan remembered where they were when their team signed Foles; two years later, they knew the exact moments when Foles took the field.

Washington Commanders – London Fletcher (2007)

Middle linebacker London Fletcher was an everlasting presence for the then Washington Commanders. Fletcher signed in 2007, and he started every game until he retired in 2013. Fletcher was a defensive captain. The hard-hitting tackler solidified himself as a franchise player in Washington.

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Atlanta Falcons – Michael Turner (2008)

Signing a six-year deal worth $34.5 million placed a ton of pressure on running back Michael Turner. The ex-San Diego Charger stepped up and performed as he scored 17 rushing touchdowns and compiled a mammoth 1,699 rushing yards in his maiden season for the Falcons. Turner would vault the 1,000-yard rushing mark two more times in 2010 and 2011. He still holds the franchise record for single-season rushing touchdowns and total rushing touchdowns.

Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme (2003)

Like Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme experienced a fairytale rise from nowhere to play in a Super Bowl. The former NFL Europe player returned to the United States with the fledgling Carolina Panthers and quarterbacked them for seven years. Delhomme was the first long-term quarterback that the Panthers had. During his spell in Charlotte, the Panthers went 56-40 and announced themselves on the NFL stage.

New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees (2009)

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints were made for one another. The Saints needed a quarterback, and a sporting savior, after Hurricane Katrina, whilst Brees needed a home after leaving the Chargers. The undersized quarterback and the Saints went on to enjoy a Cinderella story. Brees led the Saints to victory in Super Bowl 44. He would go on to become the most outstanding athlete in New Orleans history. 13 Pro-Bowl nods, twice Offensive Player of the Year, four times a leader in passing touchdowns, and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award recipient. Brees is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in waiting, a totemic figure in Louisiana.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tom Brady (2020)

When the unthinkable happened, and Tom Brady hit free agency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pounced. Brady’s arrival sparked a flurry of activity as the Bucs signed big-name free agents to bolster the squad. Instantly, the Bucs became a Super Bowl favorite, and they duly delivered by becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl on their home field. Brady’s two seasons in Florida saw him break more NFL records and play at an incredible level. The legend was the catalyst for the turnaround.

Chicago Bears – Julius Peppers (2010)

Julius Peppers was a monstrous presence for the Chicago Bears in the late 2000s. Peppers joined the Bears in 2010 and immediately improved the Bears’ defense as they made the NFC Championship game. Peppers backed up that eight-sack season with consecutive 11-sack seasons in 2011 and 2012. Two All-Pro appearances combined with three Pro-Bowl nominations and a leading presence on a stifling defense ensures Peppers’ place on this list.

Detroit Lions – Glover Quin (2013)

Glover Quin brought an element of leadership, skill, and accountability when the Detroit Lions acquired him in 2013. Quin’s ball-hawking skills and presence made him a firm fan favourite amongst the Detroit faithful. Quin played a significant role for the Lions as the team experienced an upturn in fortunes by making the playoffs on three different occasions. Quin’s time as a Lion came to a controversial end. Nevertheless, he helped energise a beleaguered franchise and the fans will respect him for that forever.

Green Bay Packers – Charles Woodson (2006)

Charles Woodson’s time playing for the Green Bay Packers was wildly successful. Seven years. Multiple All-Pro honours, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and a Super Bowl championship. The Packers don’t often make huge signings, this was one, and it turned out brilliantly.

Minnesota Vikings – Brett Favre (2009)

Brett Favre’s move to the Minnesota Vikings was highly controversial. Not that Favre cared. At the time, Favre was the oldest quarterback in the NFL, and he turned back time as the Vikings won the NFC North and made the NFC Championship game. Favre’s passer rating of 107.2 was the highest of his career. Sadly, the Favre fairytale ceded at the hands of the Saints’ fairytale story in an epic NFC Championship game. Favre’s last NFL throw was an interception that set the game up for Saints kicker Garrett Hartley. It was a bittersweet way to finish an epic season. Overall, It was a vintage year and an ingenious acquisition. The Vikings haven’t come close to a Super Bowl berth since the gunslinger donned the purple.

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