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NFL free-agency flips — Who changed course on where to sign, from Antoine Winfield to Za’Darius Smith


Mar 17, 2022

NFL NationESPN

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. There was an agreement in principle, and the team was planning a news conference to show off their blockbuster addition.

Except …

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.

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You know the old saying: A deal isn’t a deal until the contract 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. Gone are the free-agent tours across the country — the meet, greet and eat era. Everything moves quickly now, with agents and teams finalizing deals soon after the opening of the so-called legal tampering period. They skip the steak dinners and just talk turkey. Actually, they talk before the rules allow, the league’s worst-kept secret.

NFL Nation digs in on some notable free-agent flips and how it worked out for both the spurned team and the new one. — Rich Cimini

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 at the time was quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. — Adam Teicher

How did the Chiefs pivot? They didn’t. The Chiefs found no adequate 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

After flipping from the Chiefs, receiver Emmanuel Sanders had three straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Broncos. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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 dipped some after Manning’s retirement and the Broncos quarterback carousel and offensive struggles dragged him down as well. He didn’t have more than five touchdowns in any of his last three full seasons in Denver. 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. That, plus receiver Jeremy Maclin leaving in free agency, caused Gore’s change of heart. — 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 never 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

Anthony Barr spurned the Jets to sign a new deal with the Vikings. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

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. They told him he’d be a versatile weapon in their defense, using him in a variety of ways. It sounded good, but he began to have second thoughts. He asked for a night to sleep on it. The Jets, sensing something was amiss, begged him to take a free-agent visit. The next day, Barr decided to remain with the Vikings, taking less money to stay. — 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, of course. They wound up cutting a disgruntled Bell in the middle of his second season, costing them $28 million on the contract. In typical Jets fashion, they turned a loss into a bigger loss. — 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 first, he battled some personal issues, and the team traded him to Carolina in September. — DiRocco

How did the signing work out for the Falcons? Not great. Dennard played one season in Atlanta, appearing in eight games with six starts. He had one interception and five passes defended. Dennard was gone from Atlanta the next season, splitting 2021 between the Giants and 49ers. But Dennard didn’t cost much when they signed him so no real damage to Atlanta. — 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. He had second thoughts about leaving Pittsburgh while he was recovering 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 missed the rest of the season but said on social media he intends to come back for at least another year. — Brooke Pryor

DE Randy Gregory, upset with forfeiture language in the Cowboys’ contract offer, decided to sign with the Broncos instead. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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. That was enough to throw the deal off, even though the Cowboys were willing to take the clause out. — Todd Archer

How can the Cowboys pivot? They can’t go after guys like Von Miller or Chandler Jones anymore. All of them were signed to larger deals than the Cowboys would have paid. 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 ultimately decided he didn’t want to leave the team and agreed to the same deal in Washington. — Alaina Getzenberg

How can the Bills pivot? While not a direct replacement, Bills 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. If he stays healthy, Johnson will likely compete for opportunities, like Matt Breida’s role on the team last year. Without a significant addition like McKissic, adding to the position in the draft is on the table for the Bills. — 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 a valuable piece to their offense, not just because he can catch but because of his versatility — he can run more routes than most running backs owing to his days as a college receiver — and his pass-blocking skills. The latter will come in handy in giving strong-armed Carson Wentz time to attack down the field. — John Keim

Linebacker Za’Darius Smith’s reunion with the Ravens wasn’t meant to be. AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File

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. A few hours later, Smith decided he would not sign the contract, which 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 tried to rework the deal, but the sides couldn’t come to 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 remains a free agent, so at the moment it appears Smith will line up opposite Danielle Hunter to give the team a formidable set of edge 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. One of his Patriots assistants pulled something similar a few years later.

2018: Josh McDaniels accepts Colts job before returning to Patriots

What happened? Talk about being left at the altar. McDaniels, the Patriots offensive coordinator who was the Colts’ top choice, verbally agreed to be their head coach after Super Bowl XXXIX where New England lost to Philadelphia. The Colts sent out a press release announcing McDaniels’ introductory news conference. 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. What’s even funnier is McDaniels got all the attention during the media portion of interviews with assistant coaches during Super Bowl week, while Reich didn’t garner much attention at all. Ballard later said he regretted not interviewing Reich during 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

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