NFL free agency 2021: The 21 worst free agent moves in league history

Nate Davis

Even though it's been seemingly unfolding (unofficially, for the most part) for days, the NFL's 2021 free agent market truly opens at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday when the new league year begins – and players with expiring contracts can officially switch teams and trades can officially be processed, allowing Matthew Stafford to finally join the Rams and Carson Wentz to onboard with the Colts.

But though free agency is often a good way to supplement a roster, it's also historically served buyer-beware lessons – especially to teams that tend to be overly reliant on quick-fix approaches. 

Here are 21 free agent busts over the years who might just give GMs pause before they dole out that next mega-contract:

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21. S Earl Thomas, Ravens

Once a valued member of the Legion of Boom, he eventually wore out his welcome in Seattle. Thomas was subsequently lured to Baltimore with a four-year, $55 million offer in 2019. In fairness, he made the Pro Bowl in what turned out to be his final NFL season but was embarrassingly trucked by Derrick Henry in the top-seeded Ravens' stunning playoff ouster to the Titans. Baltimore cut bait the following August after Thomas punched teammate Chuck Clark in practice.

20. RB Emmitt Smith, Cardinals

Arizona apparently thought a 34-year-old running back could show the way to relevance while firing up a fan base that too often showed up to cheer on the opponents when the team played at Sun Devil Stadium. But Smith was restricted by injuries and Father Time, averaging 3.3 yards per carry during his two seasons (for $7.5 million) in the desert. Probably should have retired in Dallas following his 2002 season, when he'd already set the league's all-time rushing record.

19. K Mike Vanderjagt, Cowboys

Once the most-accurate kicker in NFL history, he won't be remembered as its most clutch – especially after he signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal to come to America's Team but didn't even last a season, missing five of his 18 field-goal tries.

18. KR/WR Desmond Howard, Raiders

The No. 4 pick of the 1992 draft by Washington, it wasn't long before the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner was tagged as a bust. But, as a Green Bay Packer, he won Super Bowl 31 MVP honors for his exploits as a returner and earned a four-year, $6 million contract from the Raiders in 1997 ... and immediately went back to being a bust.

17. C LeCharles Bentley, Browns

A two-time Pro Bowler with the Saints, he signed a six-year, $36 million contract – good money now, but especially so in 2006 – to join his hometown Cleveland Browns. But he tore a patellar tendon on the first play of training camp, suffered a brutal staph infection and never played in the league again.

16. QB Nick Foles, Jaguars

A Super Bowl MVP with a 4-2 playoff record by the time he arrived in Jacksonville in 2019 on a four-year, $88 million contract, he lost all four of his starts in one injury-riddled season in Duval County.

15. CB Trumaine Johnson, Jets

He never made a Pro Bowl. But for some reason, the Rams put the franchise tag on him ... twice. And for some reason, the Jets signed him to a five-year, $72.5 million contract in 2018. He was gone after two terrible seasons.

14. WR David Boston, Chargers

He led the NFL with 1598 receiving yards for Arizona in 2001, a performance that helped him land a seven-year, $47 million deal from San Diego in 2003. But a bad attitude, injuries and steroid-fueled body that looked more like a bodybuilder's than a receiver's quickly led to Boston's NFL demise.

13. CB Dale Carter, Broncos

Despite battling personal demons, he was a four-time Pro Bowler with the Chiefs in the 1990s. That résumé netted him a four-year, $22.8 million goldmine from Denver in 1999. But Carter was suspended the entire 2000 season after a fourth substance abuse violation and released in 2001.

12. DT Chester McGlockton, Chiefs

He and fellow D-lineman Sean Gilbert were the last players to switch teams while on the franchise tag, both in 1998, each returning two first-round picks to their former clubs. A four-time Pro Bowler for the Raiders, McGlockton never made another one after he arrived in Kansas City – where he lasted just three seasons.

11. RB DeMarco Murray, Eagles

He parlayed an NFL rushing title (1,845 yards) in 2014 while with Dallas into a five-year, $42 million pact from Philadelphia. Turned out Murray wasn't nearly as good without the Cowboys O-line, rushing for 702 yards and 3.6-yard per carry average for the Eagles. He was in Tennessee by the start of the 2016 season.

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10. QB Neil O'Donnell, Jets

After leading the Steelers to Super Bowl 30, where Larry Brown picked him off twice, O'Donnell took a five-year $25 million offer to resurrect the NYJ in 1996. He lost all six starts that season before suffering a shoulder injury as the Jets endured a franchise-worst 1-15 campaign. Bill Parcells let O'Donnell go following the 1997 season.

9. S Adam Archuleta, Washington

This franchise has had some spectacular free agency misfires, but this is one of the more notorious. Archuleta signed a six-year, $30 million contract in 2006 that made him the highest-paid safety in league history at the time. He ended that season as a backup before finishing out his career with the Bears in 2007.

8. RB Le'Veon Bell, Jets

One of the league's better multi-threat backs in his prime, he didn't want to play on the franchise tag for Pittsburgh in 2018. Didn't seem he wanted to play much for the Jets, either, despite signing a four-year, $52.5 million deal in 2019. He averaged just 4.1 yards per touch in 17 games with New York before being released midway through the 2020 season.

7. QB Jeff Garcia, Browns

A three-time Pro Bowler after succeeding Steve Young in San Francisco, the former CFL star went to Cleveland in 2004 on a four-year, $25 million deal. He was gone by 2005, losing seven of his 10 starts for the Browns.

6. RB Ahman Green, Texans

He had a distinguished career with the Packers, who used him heavily over the course of eight seasons. But Houston still gave the 30-year-old a four-year, $23 million deal in 2007. Green rushed for 554 yards and five TDs over parts of two seasons before going back to Green Bay to end his career.

5. WR Alvin Harper, Buccaneers

He led the NFL with 24.9 yards per catch in 1994, helping him command a four-year $10.7 million bounty from the Bucs. But Harper, so effective opposite future Hall of Famer Michael Irvin in Dallas, proved he was a much better Robin than Batman after two hugely disappointing seasons in Tampa.

4. CB Larry Brown, Raiders

He leveraged a Super Bowl MVP performance – which largely happened because O'Donnell and the Steelers did not want to challenge Cowboys star Deion Sanders in Super Bowl 30 – into a five-year, $12.5 million windfall in Oakland. But Brown was a malcontent who rarely started during two years with the Raiders.

3. WR Javon Walker, Raiders

After a terrible 2007 season in Denver, Oakland signed Walker to a six-year, $55 million deal in 2008. Playing on a bad wheel, he gave the Silver and Black just 15 catches and one TD in two seasons.

CB Nnamdi Asomugha (24) had two highly disappointing seasons in Philadelphia.

2. CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Eagles

The big fish of the 2011 free agent class, he was the face of Philadelphia's "Dream Team," a misnomer courtesy of backup QB Vince Young. The Eagles added Young, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RB Ronnie Brown, G Evan Mathis, WR Steve Smith (the other one) and DE Jason Babin that year. But no prize was more valued than Asomugha, a two-time All-Pro with the Raiders. But he was never a fit in Philly and didn't remotely live up to his five-year, $60 million contract. After two non-playoff seasons with the Eagles, Asomugha was in San Francisco by 2013 ... and out of the league by year's end.

1. DT Albert Haynesworth, Washington

Considered the prize of the 2009 market, he was reeled in by a seven-year, $100 million offer from free-spending Washington owner Dan Snyder. It was a colossal waste of money, even by the standards of a franchise that missed on Archuleta, Sanders, Dana Stubblefield, Antwaan Randle El, Josh Norman, Landon Collins and many others.

Haynesworth was a disaster from the start, skipping offseason workouts and then infamously failing conditioning tests during his first training camp in the nation's capital. He didn't like Washington's 3-4 scheme, clashed with coaches and was ultimately suspended for detrimental conduct. He lasted only two seasons, finishing with 6½ sacks in 20 games for the Burgundy and Gold.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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