Two weeks into the free agency period and we’ve seen a couple of surprise moves. Time will tell how this year’s free agent crop will fare, especially with big money deals signed, but I think we can safely look back at some of the worst free agent signings of all time.
The Carolina Panthers were looking to add somebody to their defensive line that would help to elevate that unit coming into the 1998 season. They thought that had found the player that would help them, when they signed free agent Sean Gilbert to a seven-year deal for $46 million. Since Gilbert was a restricted free agent, Carolina had to give up two first-round draft picks.
In five years with Carolina, Gilbert recorded just 15.5 sacks and 141 tackles. That production wasn’t even close to what Carolina gave up and the loss of two first-round draft picks set the team back for years. Nobody would be willing to try that move again.
9. Desmond Howard, Oakland Raiders
Desmond Howard had been making a name for himself due to kick return and punt return skills. He was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI, so since he was a free agent after the game, he had a number of teams interested in his services.
The Raiders (who else?) signed Howard to a four-year deal for $6 million, but Al Davis never wondered why Howard kept bouncing around the NFL. He wound up playing for three different teams in a three-year span. First it was Washington (1994), then Jacksonville (1995) and Green Bay (1996).
Howard did manage to last two years with the Raiders, in 1997 and 1998, during which time he was only able to find the end zone one time. Another Super Bowl MVP had turned into a super bust.
Of course, it wasn’t much of a surprise that Howard went right back to play for the Packers in 1999, following his release from Oakland.
8. Jevon Kearse, Philadelphia Eagles
Simply known as “The Freak”, Kearse was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004 to make an impact on their defence, when he became a free agent. Kearse signed an eight-year deal for $65 million, including a signing bonus of $16 million. The deal was a record at the time.
Kearse played well for the first two years of the deal, but then his game started heading downhill. He hurt his knee in 2006 and his play started to really suffer from then on.
Finally, things had spiraled so badly that the Eagles benched Kearse in favor of Juqua Thomas. Before the 2008 season began, Kearse was released by the Eagles so they could get out from under the rest of the contract. During his Philadelphia years, Kearse made 75 tackles and 22 sacks. It cost the Eagles almost $30 million to learn that “The Freak” wasn’t very good any more.
Kearse wound up going back to the Tennessee Titans, where he played for two more years. He’s been out of the NFL since 2009.
7. Scott Mitchell, Detroit Lions
Mitchell was a big quarterback with an even bigger arm. He was secure as the backup to Miami Dolphins legendary quarterback Dan Marino, until Marino got hurt in the fifth game of the 1993 season. Suddenly, Mitchell had the spotlight all to himself.
Mitchell played well enough to have multiple suitors when he became a free agent in 1994, so he signed with Detroit Lions for three years and $11 million to become their starting quarterback.
Mitchell had some weapons in Detroit, including Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman. When he got hurt, backup Dave Kreig came in and guided the Lions to the playoffs.
To give you a better idea, Mitchell’s totals were 78 touchdowns to 54 interceptions. In 1996, his third year in Detroit, he regressed to a 1:1 ratio of 17 touchdowns to 17 interceptions.
Mitchell’s best year was 1995 when he threw 32 touchdown passes. Mitchell actually fulfilled his three-year contract and lasted in Detroit up to 1998, when Charlie Batch took over for him. The Lions thought they were going to go deeper in the playoffs with Mitchell, but it never really materialized.
6. Larry Brown, Oakland Raiders
This is a perfect example of why an MVP performance in the Super Bowl is not a guarantee of success when you move on as a free agent. The Raiders thought they made a major coup when they signed free-agent defensive back Larry Brown. Brown had been with the Dallas Cowboys and had just been named MVP of Super Bowl XXX.
As NFL general managers have been slow to learn, never ever make an offer to a Super Bowl MVP who becomes a free agent. It’s a curse that’s almost as big as appearing on the cover EA Sports’ Madden Football.
The Raiders ignored the warnings and stepped up with a five-year deal for $12.5 million, which was a big deal for 1996. For their investment, Brown came up with one interception in two years for the Raiders. Brown only played in 12 games for the Raiders in that time. They released him after the 1997 season, and he went right back to play for the Dallas Cowboys again.
5. Neil O’Donnell, New York Jets
The New York Jets were looking to find a quarterback that could take over the offence in 1996. They thought they had the answer when they made an offer to free agent Neil O’Donnell, who had been playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Jets made O’Donnell a five-year deal for $25 million. In two years (1996-1997), O’Donnell started 20 games for the Jets. He went 8-12 as a starter for the Jets and threw 21 touchdown passes compared to 14 interceptions. He completed between 56-58 per cent of his passes in the two years. In 1996, his QB passer rating was 67.8 and he improved that mark to 80.3 in 1997.
However, the Jets had seen enough. The team decided to go in a different direction and O’Donnell moved on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals.
4. David Boston, San Diego Chargers
The first wide receiver free-agent bust to add to our list (Desmond Howard hardly counts). David Boston was a wide receiver with the Arizona Cardinals and had just come off of a strong 2002 season before he became a free agent. The San Diego Chargers decided to offer Boston a seven-year deal for $47 million. The Chargers guaranteed Boston $12 million over the first two years of the deal.
The former Ohio State Buckeye produced solid numbers in 2003, as he made 70 catches for 880 yards and seven touchdown receptions.
But Boston had a strong personality; he clashed with head coach Marty Schottenheimer and with teammate Reche Caldwell. The Chargers decided that even though Boston was a talented player, he was becoming more trouble than he was worth, so the Chargers traded him away to Miami.
3. Andre Rison, Cleveland Browns
In 1995, the Cleveland Browns were looking for an impact player on offence (has a familiar ring, doesn’t it?). When they saw that free-agent wide receiver Andre Rison was on the market, they thought they would make a big splash by landing him.
Rison had been an All-Pro for four straight years and was elected to the Pro Bowl for the last four years. In five years in Atlanta, the least yards Rison had in receptions was 976. The other four years were all at least 1,000-yard-plus seasons. In addition, Rison scored 60 touchdowns in his first six years in the NFL. So if there was ever a can’t-miss receiver, Rison was it. The Browns signed him to a five-year deal for $17 million, which was big at the time.
So, how did that work out for the Browns? Rison caught just 47 passes for 701 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged 14.9 yards per catch. It was about as bad a year as was imaginable. During the offseason, Art Modell did the unimaginable and moved the Browns to Baltimore. The team also dumped Rison after just the one season.
2. Alvin Harper, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Alvin Harper had been a very successful wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys. Perhaps his success was attributed to all of the other weapons that the Cowboys had on offence, so defences couldn’t devote more attention to him.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pounced on Harper when he became a free agent in 1995. The Bucs offered Harper a four-year deal for $10.6 million, which was a big deal at the time. The Bucs were hoping that Harper could come close to what he did in 1994, when he led the NFL with an average of 24.9 yards per catch.
In 1995, Harper had 46 catches for 633 yards, two touchdown catches and an average of 13.8 yards per catch. In 1996, the numbers were even worse. Harper had just 19 catches for 289 yards and one score.
After the 1996 season, the Bucs realized their investment in Harper wasn’t paying off and they waived him.
1. Albert Haynesworth, Washington Redskins
Boy, this guy not only practically retired the title but he also made the Washington Redskins look like complete fools. Haynesworth was a dynamic force on the defensive line early in his NFL career. With his size and power, nobody seemed capable of stopping or hoping to contain him. He became a Pro Bowler in both 2007 and 2008.
When he became a free agent in 2009, teams were lining up for the chance to bid on him. Daniel Snyder was no different than the other NFL owners. He dreamed of Haynesworth wrecking havoc on defence. They never figured the havoc would be on their own practice field or with their own coaching staff.
The Redskins signed the Tennessee product to a seven-year deal for $100 million, which included $41 million guaranteed. He came into camp out of shape and was unwilling to work. He challenged head coaches Jim Zorn and Mike Shanahan. He became more of a headache to the team than to opponents.
The situation grew worse, so Zorn suspended Haynesworth for the final month of the 2009 season. In 2010, Shanahan was also forced to suspend him. He wound up with making just 13 tackles for the year and had only 2.5 sacks in eight games during his final season with the club.
Due to the very limited production the team got from him, compared to the amount of money they paid out, it will be difficult for anybody to ever bump Haynesworth from the No. 1 free-agent bust in NFL history.