The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

All-Time Underrated NFL Free Agents Team

Free agency is the most superficial time on the NFL calendar. It’s the period where many care only about the marquee names who move during the first days the market is open.

Few concern themselves with those under-the-radar moves that come later. Free agency is often old hat as early as its second week.

Ironically, many of the second-and third-tier moves turn out better than the headline-grabbers. History is littered with examples of unheralded veterans playing their best football in new homes and inspiring second, third, or even fourth teams to titles.

In hopes of honouring the overlooked or outright forgotten, here’s the all-time underrated free agent team.

NOTE: Only unrestricted free agents who moved between 1993 and 2021 considered (No FBs or specialists included).

Quarterback: Rich Gannon (Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders)

Rich Gannon gives this team a dual-threat signal-caller who spread the ball around and manufactured big plays through the air and on the ground.

Gannon’s career can be divided into two distinct categories. The first is defined by otherwise sane and talented coaches preferring a rogue’s gallery of inept passers ahead of him.

He occupied the bench for years with the Minnesota Vikings before finally getting his shot in 1991 and ’92. Injuries and inconsistency disturbed his progress, so much so Dennis Green started Sean Salisbury ahead of him when the Vikings lost at home to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Wild Card Round on January 2, 1993.

The Redskins obviously liked how Gannon looked on the bench because it’s largely where he stayed after being traded to Washington in the offseason. Richie Petitbon let Mark Rypien and Cary Conklin (the horror, the horror) handle the reins during a 4–12 season.

Gannon’s big break appeared to come after he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1995. Unfortunately, history repeated itself when Steve Bono then Elvis Grbac kept Gannon on the bench, the latter with disastrous consequences for KC’s ’97 season.

The Gannon trajectory only trended upwards once he joined AFC West rivals the Oakland Raiders in 1999. It marked the second phase of his career, the period worthy of cult status.

Gannon thrived in Jon Gruden’s ball-control version of the west coast offense. His quick release and accuracy made the pass attack click, while Gannon’s improv skills as a scrambler were feared by defenses.

Three-straight seasons of over 3,000 yards passing followed, with the Raiders postseason challengers every one of those years. Bad luck meant Gannon’s numbers never yielded the Lombardi Trophy they merited.

Tony Siragusa’s delayed belly-flop squashed Gannon’s shoulder and the Raiders’ hopes in the 2000 AFC Championship Game, while the tuck rule (so-called) left Silver and Black tears on the New England snow a year later.

The Raiders were set to right those wrongs in 2002. They powered to the Super Bowl with an offense led by Gannon’s dual-threat brilliance, the versatility of Charlie Garner out of the backfield, and Tim Brown and Jerry Rice catching passes.

A League MVP award was Gannon’s prize for 4,689 passing yards, 26 touchdowns through the air, and three on the ground. Lady luck again proved a frosty mistress when Gannon and the Raiders ran into former mentor Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ all-world defense in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Luck deserted Gannon, but he threw 114 TDs, ran for 11 more, and briefly made the Raiders great again during his free-agency-inspired peak.

Running Back: Thomas Jones (Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs)

Every team needs a workhorse on the ground, and Thomas Jones is the perfect choice for this unheralded bunch.

His best period came between his two free-agent stops when the Chicago Bears traded him to the New York Jets in 2007. He topped 1,000 yards three times in the Big Apple, helping the Rex Ryan-coached Jets reach the 2009 AFC title game.

Yet, Jones is on this list for what he did in the Windy City and KC. One disappointing season with the Bucs was more hit than miss in 2003, so the seventh-overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2000 NFL draft bolted for Chicago.

Jones finished 52 yards shy of 1,000 in 2004, but his impact was greater the following season. His tough running compensated for a modest passing game led by Kyle Orton at quarterback and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad’s 750 yards.

He was the primary focus of every defense on the Bears’ schedule, but Jones still rushed for 1,335 yards, the second-best total of his carer. His nine touchdowns on the ground helped the Bears reach the NFC Divisional Round, where defeat to the Carolina Panthers was merely the warm-up for bigger and better.

The Bears were in the Super Bowl a year later, largely thanks to 1,210 yards from Jones. A twist of irony saw the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts keep it on the ground to flatten the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

Jones didn’t test the free-agent market again until 2010 when the rebuilding Chiefs came calling. His physical style complemented Jamaal Charles’ speed and gave KC a formidable one-two punch.

Jones’ 896 yards added to the 1,467 put up by Charles and helped the Chiefs go from 4–12 to 10–6 and a spot in the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens ended the journey pretty quickly, but Jones rightly earned plaudits for his role as a veteran leader on a young roster eager for a turnaround.

He was never a regular feature on highlight reels, but few running backs of his era were as reliably productive as Jones.

Running Back: Garrison Hearst (San Francisco 49ers)

Garrison Hearst is the ideal breakaway threat to complement Jones’ steady, chain-moving style

Hearst was a study in frustration during his first four seasons in the NFL before using free agency to ignite his career. He topped 1,000 yards in his third and final season with the Cardinals in ’95 before jumping ship to the Cincinnati Bengals and gaining 847 yards on an 8–8 team.

Avoiding injuries had been an issue, but so was earning the trust of his coaches and getting a full workload. Steve Mariucci offered the former Georgia star what he needed when he took charge of the San Francisco 49ers in 1997.

Mariucci steadily moved the Niners away from a reliance on the passing game toward a more run-first approach. Hearst became the ideal weapon, rushing for 1,019 yards during his first season in the Bay Area to help the Niners reach the NFC Championship.

Being shut down by the Green Bay Packers didn’t deter Hearst from posting his best season as a pro in ’98. He carried the ball 310 times for 1,570 yards to power the Niners back into the postseason.

Defeat to the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons marked the darkest day of Hearst’s career. He broke his ankle in the Georgia Dome, an injury serious enough to cost him two seasons.

The resulting complications meant Hearst’s comeback in 2001 defied belief. His 1,206 yards earned him Comeback Player of the Year honours and the 49ers another trip to the playoffs.

San Fran was postseason-bound again a year later when Hearst finished just 28 yards short of 1,000 but rushed for a career-best eight scores.

Hearst gained 5,535 of his 7,966 yards in a 49ers uniform and provided one of the games’ best examples of heroism overcoming adversity.

Wide Receiver: Plaxico Burress (New York Giants)

An all-time passing game wouldn’t be complete without a field-stretcher to scare opposing defenses, and the oft-maligned Plaxico Burress is it.

Most of the football world remembers Burress as the guy who managed to shoot himself in a Manhattan nightclub in 2008. New York Giants fans remember Burress as one of the best free-agent acquisitions in franchise history, a receiver without whom Big Blue wouldn’t have won Super Bowl XLII.

Burress swapped the Pittsburgh Steelers for the G-Men in 2005. He initially lived up to a six-year deal worth $25 million.

Burress’ first season in the Big Apple included 76 receptions, 1,214 yards, and seven touchdowns. He chipped in with 988 yards and 10 scores a year later, with the Giants playoff-bound in both seasons.

The following postseason was more fruitful for Burress and his team-mates. He surpassed 1,000 yards again during the regular season and found the end zone 12 times, but Burress kicked things up a notch when it mattered most.

His 11 catches for 151 yards on the road against the Packers proved the difference in the conference title game. Burress followed his epic performance on the frozen tundra by catching the winner to beat the previously undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

The numbers were impressive, but Burress also made those around him better. He gave Eli Manning a big-play target who could turn average throws into completions thanks to his size, speed, and athleticism.

Burress drawing a crowd made Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer, and Steve Smith more effective.

He was never able to make amends for the self-inflicted wound that earned him a stint behind bars and wiped out the prime years of his career. Yet, the Giants can’t complain too much about getting two 1,000-yard campaigns, 33 touchdowns, and a Lombardi Trophy from their investment.

Wide Receiver: Henry Ellard (Washington Redskins)

Burress was streaky, but Henry Ellard was the consistent and safe pair of hands every offense needs.

His late-career swansong with the Washington Redskins made an already stellar pro journey Hall-of-Fame worthy. Ellard still not receiving a call from Canton is ridiculous to the point of being offensive.

He moved to RFK Stadium in 1994 after ending an 11-season association with the Los Angeles Rams. Norv Turner was taking charge of the Redskins after the wreckage of Petitbon’s one year in the top job, and he knew what Ellard could do.

Turner was on offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese’s staff to watch Ellard post three of his four 1,000-yard campaigns with the Rams. He was 32 when he joined Washington, but there was no shortage of brilliance left in the tank.

Ellard caught 74 passes for 1,397 yards on a 3–13 team in ’94. Most of those passes came from hapless quarterback tandem Heath Shuler and Gus Frerotte.

Ellard’s brilliant route-running, intelligence, and sure hands meant there was a time when Shuler didn’t look like an almighty bust. The third-overall pick in ’94 resembled a natural-born playmaker when he connected with Ellard 10 times for 197 yards during a 31–23 road loss to the Giants in Week 3.

Frerotte had the job to himself three years later, while Shuler’s name was spoken only in hushed and shame-filled tones. A former seventh-rounder, Frerotte briefly had people convinced he was the future thanks to games like Week 7’s 27–22 win over the Patriots when Ellard made eight catches for 152 yards against a Bill Belichick-coached secondary.

Ellard went over 1,000 yards in three of his four full seasons in Washington. It’s the kind of productive winter of a career every old pro dreams about.

Tight End: Wesley Walls (Carolina Panthers)

A throwback team deserves a tight end who lived up to both requirements of the position. Wesley Walls caught passes and bruised defenders as a blocker on his way to four-straight Pro Bowls after joining the Carolina Panthers in 1996.

He was a crucial building block for a new franchise that quickly establish itself after coming into existence in 1995.

Walls had already moved once in free agency, leaving the 49ers for NFC West rivals the New Orleans Saints in ’94. A 57-catch campaign one year later was enough for the Panthers to offer him a deal, and Walls never looked back.

His first season ended with the upstart Panthers one game away from the Super Bowl. They couldn’t beat the powerful Packers at Lambeau Field, but the Panthers had beaten heavyweights the Niners and Dallas Cowboys en route to the conference title game.

Walls caught 61 passes for 713 yards and 10 touchdowns. Four of his scores came in two wins over the 49ers to help settle the division in Carolina’s favour.

Pass catching wasn’t the only facet of Walls’ game. His punishing blocks helped Anthony Johnson rush for over 1100 yards.

Walls stayed productive, despite the Panthers regressing and winning only 11 games the next two seasons. Consecutive Pro Bowl nods were some consolation amid the losing.

He was back in the all-star game again following the ’99 season, thanks to career-best marks of 63 receptions, 822 yards, and 12 touchdowns for George Seifert, the man who drafted him in San Fran a decade earlier.

Tackle: Roman Oben (Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Roman Oben’s athleticism and toughness, along with the understated way he went about his business, make him the natural left tackle for this group. His skills were established long before he gave free agency a try.

He played in just two games for the Giants in 1996, when Big Blue surrendered a league-high 56 sacks. Yet, Oben started every game in ’97, helping the Giants reduce the sacks allowed to 32 and reach the playoffs.

The improvement was no coincidence, and Oben continued to solidify the left-tackle slot for the next two seasons before joining the Cleveland Browns in 2000.

Cleveland’s much-feted return to the league in 1999 had devolved into a nightmare 2–14 finish. The next season ended with a barely better 3–13 mark, but the 2001 Browns were a respectable 7–9, having lost four games by six points or less, including two in overtime.

Oben missed just three games in two years in Ohio and added a smidge of respectability to the first of many rebuilding efforts. His reward was a move to the Bucs in 2002 and a legitimate chance of winning it all.

An efficient offense fortified by an Oben-anchored line supported an awesome defense and helped the Buccaneers earn Super Bowl glory. Durable Oben started every game of the best season in franchise history.

Tackle: Mitchell Schwartz (Kansas City Chiefs)

An annoying habit of letting talented players walk in free agency explains why the Browns lose so often.

Jabaal Sheard, Jamie Collins, and T.J. Ward are among those who have won it all during life after the Browns. Mitchell Schwartz can be added to the list after the Chiefs’ second Super Bowl triumph.

He didn’t miss a game in four seasons and thrived on the right side of the line, but the Browns still saw fit to let Schwartz test the market in 2016. The Chiefs came calling, and the accomplished tackle has since been a mainstay of Andy Reid’s explosive offenses.

Schwartz solidified a group stable enough to help Patrick Mahomes become an instant star. He’s also underpinned quality run blocking despite an almost yearly overhaul in the backfield.

Guard: Ray Brown (San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins)

Ray Brown would be the first name on a list of the most underrated players in league history. Any line with Brown in it was a run-blocking force multiple backs became stars behind.

Brown played seven seasons with the Redskins, but didn’t really see the field until 1992. He was a regular starter from ’93 onwards, helping both Reggie Brooks and Terry Allen rush for over 1,000 yards.

Brooks and Allen are on a list with Hearst and Garner as backs who broke the 1,000-yard barrier when Brown led the way. He was knocking open holes for Hearst and Garner after joining the 49ers in 1996, aged 33.

Brown played for another 10 seasons, treading a nomadic path that took him to the Detroit Lions in 2002. Those Lions were 3–13, but James Stewart rushed for over 1,000 yards while Brown started every game.

He was back with Washington in 2004, starting 14 games and helping Clinton Portis post a 1,315-yard season. Brown finally drew the curtain on his career in 2006, aged 43.

The lengthy list of productive rushers he paved the way for underscores his legacy as one of the most skilled and formidable run blockers in history.

Guard: Ron Stone (New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers)

Ron Stone was a true free-agency success story. A rotational passenger on the Dallas Cowboys’ 1995 Super Bowl roster, Stone used the exposure by association to cash in when he joined the Giants.

His initial years with Big Blue were a struggle, but Stone eventually matured into a Pro Bowl right guard in 2000 and 2001. He stepped onto the auction block again and tempted the 49ers to make a move.

Stone’s first season in San Fran ended with a Pro Bowl nod and a memorable win over his old team after a Jeff Garcia-inspired comeback in the playoffs.

Stone might have remained merely another body on the roster behind the great wall in Dallas, but free agency gave him the chance to prove his worth. He seized it with both hands.

Stone and Brown pulling out into space would have made a Hearst and Jones double act unstoppable.

Center: Ray Donaldson (Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys)

There’s something about offensive linemen being golden oldies in free agency. Ray Donaldson was 35 when he left the Indianapolis Colts for the Seattle Seahawks in 1993.

He started every game for two years and helped Chris Warren post 1,025 and 1,545-yard rushing totals. Quite why the Seahawks thought Donaldson had reached the end of the line is a mystery beyond explanation, but the Cowboys quickly pounced once the market opened in ‘95.

Injury limited the 37-year-old to 12 starts and cost him the chance to enjoy the Super Bowl run. Yet, Donaldson was instrumental in helping pave way for Emmitt Smith’s 25 rushing touchdowns during the regular season.

Smith went over 1200 yards with Donaldson starting all 16 games in 1996. It was the center’s final outing on the gridiron, but he had signed off in style and rates as one of the great hidden gems in the history of free agency.

Defensive End: Michael McCrary (Baltimore Ravens)

The offense is a run-first unit built to control the clock, so this underrated defense has a pass rush to exploit one-dimensional opponents. Having Michael McCrary on one edge would get the job done.

McCrary left the Seahawks for the Baltimore Ravens in 1997 and promptly became a feared pass-rusher. He posted nine sacks in his first season but added 26 more over the next two campaigns.

By 2000 the Ravens were primed to be the stingiest single-season defense in NFL history. McCrary contributed to the cause by starting all 16 games, notching 6.5 sacks, and a safety.

The sack total in the regular season was modest, but McCrary upped his game once the playoffs began. He added three sacks to help brush the Denver Broncos aside in the Wildcard round, before notching another in the AFC showpiece against the Raiders.

McCrary also felt Kerry Collins’ collar twice during the Ravens’ demolition of the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Ray Lewis, Siragusa, Peter Boulware, and Rod Woodson took most of the plaudits on the awesome Baltimore D’. Yet, McCrary would be welcome on any unit as a resourceful grafter with a knack for delivering in the biggest games.

Defensive End: William Fuller (Philadelphia Eagles)

William Fuller didn’t have the luxury of playing alongside some of the greats when he left the Houston Oilers for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994.

Reggie White was in his second season with the Packers, while Clyde Simmons had reunited with Buddy Ryan in Arizona. Fuller led a patchwork line cobbled together on the fly by an Eagles franchise decimated during the early years of free agency.

Fortunately, Fuller was up to the challenge and then some. He logged 9.5 sacks during his first season in Philly, before recording 13 in each of the next two seasons.

The Eagles were in the playoffs in both 1995 and ’96 on the watch of Ray Rhodes. Linebacker William Thomas and cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor become stars on a new-look defense, but Fuller was the one member of the unit offenses had to account for on each play.

Defensive Tackle: Sam Adams (Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals)

Pass-rushers as ravenous as McCrary and Fuller would need a pair of tackles capable of shutting down the run and absorbing double teams. Enter Sam Adams, who excelled in both areas on four teams as a much-travelled free agent who never let his employers down.

He was on the same line as McCrary when he joined the Ravens in 2000. Adams’ partnership with Siragusa meant Baltimore allowed opposing runners 2.7 yards per rush and also kept blockers off of Lewis.

Adams was the perfect choice when the Raiders needed an anchor for a tougher D’ and a Super Bowl push two years later. He started 14 games alongside John Parella, and the Raiders duly made the big game.

Adams was on the move again in 2003, joining the Buffalo Bills and briefly embarrassing Tom Brady:

The Bengals were the next to offer Adams a new home in 2006, after 40 starts, 13 sacks, and two interceptions with the Bills. He responded by not missing a game and showcasing superb conditioning for a man weighing at least 350 pounds.

A forgettable final season with the Broncos in 2007 didn’t blot the copybook of one of the most versatile and formidable nose tackles of the free-agency era.

Defensive Tackle: Ted Washington (Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots)

If the time-space continuum allowed this team to take the field in its prime, one thing is certain: Nobody would run on this D-line.

Not with man-mountain Ted Washington alongside Adams. No way, no how.

Washington flashed some promise during three seasons with the 49ers before starting 15 games for the Broncos following a trade in 1994. His career truly took off once he followed Wade Phillips to Buffalo as a free agent in ‘95.

Phillips had been named Bills’ DC and used Washington as the anchor of a bigger, meaner unit. Buffalo went to the playoffs two seasons running on the strength of this defense.

Washington was still over center when Phillips succeeded Marv Levy as head coach in 1998, another playoff year for the Bills. Pat Williams rotated with Washington a year later when Buffalo boasted the best defense in football.

The Chicago Bears put Washington next to Keith Traylor (who easily could’ve made this list) in 2001. This interior wall was the foundation of an opportunistic defense good enough to overcome a dire offense with Jim Miller and Shane Matthews splitting time at quarterback.

A postseason berth was ended almost as soon as it had begun by the Eagles, but Washington’s reputation as a premier run-stuffer was secure. He won the Super Bowl his talent deserved as a 10-game starter with the Patriots after a trade in 2003.

His presence helped limit a Tennessee Titans ground attack featuring Eddie George, Chris Johnson, and the late Steve McNair to under 100 yards in the Divisional Round.

Washington also made sure Stephen Davis wasn’t a factor for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Davis amassed 1,444 yards during the regular season but managed just 49 in the biggest game.

Two mostly forgettable stops with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns followed before Washington called it quits.

Washington and Adams were guarantors of stout run defenses. Both were also better pass-rushers than they appeared, combining for 78.5 sacks (44 for Adams, 34.5 by Washington).

Outside Linebacker: Roman Phifer (New York Jets, New England Patriots)

There’s a common misconception Belichick and the Patriots win Super Bowls with average players. Belichick often shuns obvious stars, but he values dependable veterans whose lack of elite status means they’re more willing to buy into a team-first concept.

Roman Phifer was the prime example of the Belichick theory in practice. A solid and durable starter during eight seasons with the Rams, Phifer joined Belichick and Bill Parcells on the ’99 Jets.

He played two seasons for Gang Green before rejoining Belichick with the Pats. Phifer was 33 but became a linchpin on a team good enough to win three Super Bowls in four years.

Being able to handle all of the responsibilities of a true linebacker made Phifer invaluable in a multiple-front defense. His ability to set the edge vs. the run helped wreck Jerome Bettis and the Pittsburgh Steelers in two AFC title games.

Phifer’s timing on the blitz was a vital weapon when the Patriots used a modified 4–3 front against the Eagles to keep Donovan McNabb in the pocket during Super Bowl XXXIX.

Most teams build through youth, but the Pats’ fidelity to free agency meant Phifer’s career earned the ultimate rewards.

Outside Linebacker: James Farrior (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Nobody has recycled linebackers as effectively as the Steelers since free agency began. The process usually involves smart drafting and subtle use of the waiver wire, but Pittsburgh struck gold by plucking James Farrior from the Jets in 2002.

He’d endured three so-so seasons in New York before logging a career-best 142 tackles in ’01. It was good enough to prompt a call from the NFL’s linebacker U’, and Farrior went on to win a pair of Super Bowls.

The first of those came after the 2005 season when he started 14 games and was in on 119 tackles. His numbers were even better three years later, 16 starts, 133 tackles, and 3.5 sacks, when the Steelers owned the best defense of their post-Steel Curtain era.

Farrior started in a third Super Bowl two seasons on, but Pittsburgh couldn’t overcome the Packers. One more solid year followed for a player who was a fixture in the starting lineup from his first day in the Steel City.

He transitioned from the edge to inside in a 3–4 and became a natural signal-caller. Useful on the blitz, smart in coverage, and active against the run, Farrior was the roving playmaker every defense needs.

Middle Linebacker: Antonio Pierce (New York Giants)

Antonio Pierce was a scrapper who defied the odds and became the field general of a big-play defense for the Giants. He joined Big Blue in 2005, arriving from NFC East rival the Redskins.

Pierce was an immediate and vocal presence on Tom Coughlin’s team, helping the Giants to the playoffs in his first season.

Three more trips to the playoffs would follow, with Pierce recording a career-high 137 tackles in ’06. The zenith of his career was just around the corner, in the form of 2007’s magical run to Super Bowl triumph, culminating in the 17–14 upset of the 18–0 Pats in Arizona.

Pierce was making the calls in ’07 and 2008 when the Giants were running Steve Spagnuolo’s complex array of fire-zone pressures. No defense would be fooled with Pierce and Farrior as its brain trust.

Cornerback: Ray Buchanan (Atlanta Falcons)

Ray Buchanan established himself as a budding star during the Colts’ dramatic 1995 season. He helped Indy reach the AFC Championship as a key part of Vince Tobin and Jim Johnson’s man-coverage schemes.

Buchanan was on the losing end of a classic to the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium and lost again at the same venue in the following season’s playoffs. Those disappointments preceded a 1997 move to the Atlanta Falcons, where Buchanan became a legitimate shutdown cornerback.

He intercepted 12 passes during his first two seasons in Atlanta, including seven in ’98, the year the Falcons reached the Super Bowl. Buchanan made a vital contribution when he held rookie sensation, Randy Moss, largely in check during the Falcons’ overtime win over the high-powered Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game.

Buchanan was still making big plays when Atlanta returned to the postseason in 2002. He started when the eighth-best scoring defense in football helped a young Michael Vick stun the Packers at Lambeau Field in the wild-card round.

A disappointing 2004 season with the Raiders was a bitter way to sign off for Buchanan, but he matched up effectively with the game’s top receivers when at his best.

Cornerback: Sam Madison (New York Giants)

Sam Madison was a competent, pro-level cover man from the moment Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Dolphins used a second-round pick to select him in the 1997 NFL draft.

Madison became a full-time starter by his second season and intercepted 31 passes in a Dolphins uniform before free-agency bucks lured him to the Giants. Injuries limited his playing time for Big Blue, but Madison still managed to play an integral role in New York’s ’07 Super Bowl campaign.

He was in on 67 tackles, notched a sack, picked off four passes, and forced a fumble during the regular season. Madison started in the Conference title win over the Packers and against the Pats in Super Bowl XLII before calling time on his career after the 2008 season.

A technically proficient corner who stayed assignment-ready, Madison would be the dependable counterpoint to Buchanan’s risk-reward approach.

Safety: Greg Jackson (Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers)

Greg Jackson’s first five seasons in the pros resulted in three playoff appearances and winning Super Bowl XXV with the Giants. Jackson showcased his versatility as an effective hybrid safety in Belichick and Mike Nolan’s defensive schemes, often operating at linebacker in sub-packages.

He moved to Philly in 1994 when the Eagles repopulated a defense stripped bare of the stars from the 80s. Jackson snagged a career-best six interceptions during his first season before helping the Eagles reach the playoffs in ‘95.

His second season in Philadelphia is best remembered for the 4th-down stop against Emmitt Smith to key a dramatic win over the Dallas Cowboys after Barry Switzer doubled down on buffoonery.

Jackson was with the Saints in 1996 before joining the Chargers a year later. He tied his personal best of six interceptions on a defense that allowed the fewest yards in ‘98.

Sturdy run support and a ball-hawking streak in coverage defined Jackson’s multi-faceted game.

Safety: Lance Schulters (Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins)

Lance Schulters completes this defense as another pass-snatching belter who made his mark in both phases. Schulters jumped ship from the 49ers to the Titans in 2002, and his six interceptions helped Tennessee reach the AFC Championship.

The Raiders won the day, and the Patriots would send the Titans packing from the postseason a year later.

A foot injury prompted Schulters to join the Dolphins in 2005, Nick Saban’s lone good year in Miami (9–7). Schulters played his part by starting all 16 games, registering two sacks, and intercepting four passes.

A fierce hitter with a nose for the ball, Schulters rounds out this team of productive veterans who proved true bargains can be found by smart shoppers in every free-agency class.

Originally published at on April 3, 2020.



Arsenal, NFL History and Film Analysis from James Dudko

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James Dudko

James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.