NFL free-agency flips: Who changed course on where to sign, from Antoine Winfield to Za’Darius Smith
Mar 17, 2022
The contract was printed out and ready to be signed. Star cornerback Antoine Winfield was about to become fabulously wealthy as a new member of the New York Jets, but then his phone buzzed and everything changed.
In March 2004, Winfield staged one of the most memorable free-agent flips in NFL history. After being wined and dined by team brass, he returned to the Jets’ facility the next day to sign a six-year, $30 million contract. The principle agreement was reached and the team was preparing a news conference to announce their new addition.
Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice, also recruiting Winfield, refused to be defeated. He arranged for a private jet to pick up Winfield at a small airport about 20 minutes from the Jets’ facility on Long Island. The jet was owned by one of Tice’s friends, Mike Pegram, who owned 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. The next day, Winfield signed with the Vikings for $34.8 million over six years.
Suddenly, the Jets were real quiet.
You know the old saying, “A deal is not a deal until it is signed.” In the past few days, at least three players agreed to terms with one team only to sign with another — pass-rushers Randy Gregory and Za’Darius Smith and running back J.D. McKissic.
Free agency has changed. The days of free agency tours that took place across the country, the meet, greet, and eat era, are gone. Agents and teams close deals quickly, as they move quickly after the legal tampering period has been opened. They talk turkey and forgo steak dinners. Actually, they talk before the rules allow, the league’s worst-kept secret.
NFL Nation examines some notable free-agent flips, and how they worked out for both the spurned and new team. — Rich Cimini
2014: Emmanuel Sanders spurns Chiefs for Broncos
What happened? Sanders told the Chiefs he would accept their contract offer, but a short time later the team learned he told the same thing to the Broncos. He signed with Denver, which was at the time quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. — Adam Teicher
How did the Chiefs pivot? They didn’t. The Chiefs couldn’t find a replacement for Sanders. They infamously went the 2014 season without a TD catch from a wide receiver. Dwayne Bowe was the only wideout among their top four in catches, and even then he had just 60. Not coincidentally, that was the only season in which the Chiefs failed to reach the playoffs since Andy Reid arrived as head coach in 2013. — Teicher
How did the signing work out for the Broncos? Sanders, who had called the Broncos “wide receiver heaven” with Manning at quarterback, had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his first three years with the Broncos, including two in Manning’s final two years with the team. Sanders’ production dropped some after Manning’s retirement. He also suffered from the Broncos’ quarterback carousel, offensive struggles, and a few other issues. In his three previous full seasons in Denver, Sanders didn’t score more than five touchdowns. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers seven games into the 2019 season. — Jeff Legwold
2015: Frank Gore agrees with Eagles but signs with Colts
What happened? Gore recently explained to the Associated Press that he had committed to playing alongside quarterback Nick Foles in Philly, but Foles was traded to the St. Louis Rams the next day. Gore was influenced by this and the departure of receiver Jeremy Maclin in free agency. — Tim McManus
How did the Eagles pivot? They signed DeMarco Murray to a lucrative five-year deal and paired him with Ryan Mathews. Murray was not comfortable playing in Philadelphia. The pairing was ill-fated from the start, and Murray was traded to the Tennessee Titans the following offseason. — McManus
How did the signing work out for the Colts? Gore wanted to play with the Colts because he had never played with a talented quarterback like Andrew Luck at any point in his career. The two ended up playing together for 22 of a possible 48 games during Gore’s three seasons with the Colts because it was in 2015 when Luck started dealing with nonstop injuries. Gore still managed to rush for 2,953 yards and 13 touchdowns during his three seasons with the Colts. — Mike Wells
2019: Anthony Barr almost joins Jets before returning to Vikings
What happened? Barr reneged on an oral agreement with the Jets, saying he would sign with them for five years, $75 million. He was told he would be a versatile weapon in their defense and could be used in many ways. He began to question the idea. He requested a night of sleep. The Jets sensed something was wrong and asked Barr for a night to sleep on it. Barr decided to stay with the Vikings and took less money. — Cimini
How did the Jets pivot? Compelled to rebound from the embarrassment, the Jets made the ill-advised decision to throw big money at free-agent running back Le’Veon Bell — four years, $52.5 million. It was a disaster. They wound up cutting a disgruntled Bell in the middle of his second season, costing them $28 million on the contract. They turned a loss into an even bigger loss, in typical Jets fashion. — Cimini
How did the signing work out for the Vikings? The Vikings couldn’t do much in free agency in 2019 after giving Barr a five-year deal worth $67.5 million with $33 million in guarantees. The linebacker recorded a career-high 79 tackles and logged his first safety to go along with 1.5 sacks, but played in 14 games that year. Injuries became an issue and limited Barr to two games in 2020 and 11 in 2021. He has not been back to the Pro Bowl since 2018 and restructured his contract last offseason to make him a free agent this March. — Courtney Cronin
2020: Darqueze Dennard deal with Jaguars collapses, signs with Falcons
What happened? The sides had reportedly agreed to a three-year, $13.5 million contract with $6 million guaranteed but there was a hang up over some of the terms of the deal and the sides failed to figure it out. — Michael DiRocco
How did the Jaguars pivot? They didn’t sign a replacement in free agency but did draft cornerback C.J. Henderson ninth overall. Henderson’s best game was his ninth. However, he had some personal issues and the team traded him for Carolina in September. — DiRocco
How did the signing work out for the Falcons? Not great. Dennard was in Atlanta for one season, appearing in eight games and making six starts. He had one interception, five passes defended, and one interception. Dennard was gone from Atlanta the next season, splitting 2021 between the Giants and 49ers. Dennard was signed for a low price, so Atlanta didn’t suffer any real damage. — Michael Rothstein
2021: Tyson Alualu has second thoughts on Jaguars, returns to Steelers
What happened? Alualu agreed to a two-year deal with the Jaguars but got COVID-19 and was unable to fly to Jacksonville to sign the deal. While he was still recovering, Alualu had second thoughts and decided to stay. — DiRocco
How did the Jaguars pivot? The Jaguars traded for DT Malcom Brown, sending a seventh-round pick to New Orleans for the former first-round pick. — DiRocco
How did the signing work out for the Steelers? Alualu figured to have a major role as the team’s starting nose tackle, but he broke his ankle in the first half of the Week 2 game against the Raiders. He was unable to play the rest of the season, but he stated on social media that he plans to return for at least another year. — Brooke Pryor
2022: Randy Gregory chooses Broncos over Cowboys
What happened? The Cowboys were confident they had an agreement in place and Gregory’s agent even acknowledged it publicly only to make a dramatic turn in a matter of minutes over forfeiture language that is standard in every Dallas contract but quarterback Dak Prescott‘s. Even though the Cowboys were willing take the clause out, it was enough to cancel the deal. — Todd Archer
How can the Cowboys pivot? They can’t go after guys like Von Miller or Chandler Jones anymore. All of them signed larger deals than what the Cowboys would have offered. The Cowboys retained defensive end Dorance Armstrong (5.0 sacks in 2021) and signed Dante Fowler Jr. (4.5 sacks in 2021) in free agency. But remember, they can always use Micah Parsons as an edge rusher depending on what they do at linebacker. — Archer
What does the signing mean for the Broncos? If the Broncos got this right and Gregory has put the 54 games worth of suspensions behind him, Denver gets a 29-year-old pass-rusher who is ascending in his football career. If Gregory, who has never had more than six sacks in a season, isn’t what the Broncos hope he can be, the $28 million guaranteed in the five-year, $70 million investment will not pay off. — Legwold
2022: J.D. McKissic has change of heart on Bills, rejoins Commanders
What happened? Washington didn’t initially offer McKissic a contract, but after the running back agreed to terms with Buffalo, the Commanders said they would match the offer. McKissic decided that he didn’t want the team to go and signed the same deal in Washington. — Alaina Getzenberg
How can the Bills pivot? While not a direct replacement, Buffalo signed veteran running back Duke Johnson to a one-year, $1. 27 million contract. Johnson, 28, had success on the ground at the end of the 2021 season for the Dolphins. He also started his career with five 400-plus yard receiving seasons. Johnson is likely to compete for opportunities like Matt Breida’s position on the team last season if he is healthy. The Bills can add to their draft position without McKissic. — Getzenberg
What does the signing mean for the Commanders? They get their third-down back, one who caught 123 passes in his first two seasons with Washington. McKissic was an important piece of their offense. He can catch, but he also has pass-blocking skills and can run more routes than other running backs. The latter will come in handy in giving strong-armed Carson Wentz time to attack down the field. — John Keim
2022: Za’Darius Smith‘s deal with Ravens breaks down, signs with Vikings
What happened? On March 16, the Ravens believed they had a verbal agreement with Smith on a four-year, $35 million deal. Smith refused to sign the contract that averaged $8. 75 million per season, after big-money deals for a couple pass-rushers were announced: Von Miller ($20 million per season) and Chandler Jones ($17 million). The Ravens attempted to rework their deal but couldn’t reach a compromise. — Jamison Hensley
How can the Ravens pivot? The best move would be to trade for Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, but it would require giving up draft picks and spending more for a pass-rusher. The other options in free agency would represent a step down from Smith: Jadeveon Clowney, Jerry Hughes, Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul. Baltimore could also re-sign Justin Houston, who recorded 4.5 sacks for the Ravens last season. — Hensley
What does the signing mean for the Vikings? Smith will be a key part of the Vikings’ efforts to retrofit their defensive personnel to a 3-4 scheme. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr is still available, so Smith will be lining up alongside Danielle Hunter to provide a formidable set for pass-rushers. Smith recorded 26 sacks during the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the Packers, whose defensive coordinator at the time — Mike Pettine — is now the Vikings’ assistant head coach. — Kevin Seifert
Players aren’t the only ones who can have a change of heart — coaches do it, too. Bill Belichick famously scribbled a resignation letter as “HC of the NYJ” right before he was supposed to be introduced as coach of the Jets in 2000. A few years later, a Patriots assistant pulled something similar.
2018: Josh McDaniels accepts Colts job before returning to Patriots
What happened? Talk about being left at the altar. McDaniels, who was the Patriots’ top choice for offensive coordinator, agreed to be their head coaches after Super Bowl XXXIX, where New England lost to Philadelphia. McDaniels’ first news conference was announced by the Colts. But McDaniels called general manager Chris Ballard the night before the presser to notify him that he was returning to the Patriots.– Wells
How did the Colts pivot? The Colts went through a second round of interviews before selecting Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator of the Eagles, who beat New England in Seattle. Even more funny is that McDaniels received all the attention during interviews with assistant coaches during Super Bowl Week, while Reich did not get much attention. Ballard later admitted that he regretted not interviewing Reich in the first round of interviews. — Wells
How did retaining McDaniels work out for Patriots? Once McDaniels had clarity on his standing in the organization, his return provided critical stability and X’s and O’s excellence alongside Belichick — especially given that Tom Brady would later leave as a free agent, which meant McDaniels played a critical role in transitioning from Brady, to Cam Newton, to Mac Jones. — Mike Reiss
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.