All-time best/worst AFC North free agency

March, 4, 2009
3/04/09
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The AFC North has been a competitive division since its inception and realignment in 2002.

Every team has won the division or finished tied for the best record at some point the past seven seasons. A major reason for a team's success or lack thereof can be traced to good or bad moves in free agency.

This year all four teams have opted for a conservative approach to free agency. Quality players such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bart Scott, Jason Brown and Nate Washington left the AFC North for greener pastures, because teams in the division were unwilling to dole out huge contracts.

Building through the draft is a way to create a quality contender long term. But free-agent signings also can get a team to the next level as long as it's the right move at the right time.

With that in mind, here are the five best bargains and worst free-agent busts in the AFC North. These 10 signings helped teams win Super Bowls and playoff games, or led to disastrous seasons in the division.

Kudos to ESPN.com's research team for giving me a comprehensive list of players from the past seven years.

Five best signings

Farrior
1. James Farrior, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Year: 2002

Amount: Three years, $5.5 million

Analysis: In the first year of the new division alignment, the Steelers hit the jackpot, signing Farrior from the New York Jets to the bargain basement price of $5.5 million over three years. Farrior played tremendous football over that three-year period and continues to play that way during his two title runs with Pittsburgh, making him the top free-agent bargain in the AFC North's short history.

Mason
2. Derrick Mason, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Year: 2005

Amount: Five years, $20 million

Analysis: Considering the production and the position, Mason continues to be a tremendous bargain for the Ravens. He joined the team four years ago and has three 1,000-yard seasons and a total of 337 receptions in that span. In 2008, Mason led Baltimore with 80 receptions for 1,037 yards as he helped rookie quarterback Joe Flacco emerge on the scene. Mason is entering the final year of his contract and still going strong at age 34.

Clark
3. Ryan Clark, S, Pittsburgh Steelers

Year: 2006

Amount: Four years, $7 million

Analysis: Clark signed with Pittsburgh in 2006 as a journeyman safety and has been in the starting lineup ever since. Clark has started in 32 of 33 career games for the Steelers and has recently developed the reputation as one of the league's most ferocious hitters. Clark is a solid complement in the back line to the free-willing Troy Polamalu, who often positions himself all over the field. Coming off a Super Bowl run in 2008, Clark still has one year left on this original deal with Pittsburgh at a bargain basement price.

Lewis
4. Jamal Lewis, RB, Cleveland Browns

Year: 2007

Amount: One year, $3.5 million

Analysis: So far Lewis has been the best one-year rental in AFC North history. The Browns believed "a hungry Jamal was a good Jamal,” and they were right as Lewis ran wild for 1,304 yards on a one-year contract and nearly carried the Browns to the postseason. After the brief tryout, Cleveland signed Lewis to a three-year deal in 2008 with mixed results. It's clear the Browns won't get the same bargain they received in 2007.

Steinbach
5. Eric Steinbach, G, Cleveland Browns

Year: 2007

Amount: Seven years, $49.5 million

Analysis: At the time of Steinbach's signing, he was briefly the highest-paid interior lineman in the NFL. Some felt the Browns overpaid for a player who never made it to the Pro Bowl. But Steinbach silenced his critics by making it to Hawaii in his first year with the Browns. Cleveland's left side of Steinbach and tackle Joe Thomas didn't have a great year in 2008, but it is still considered one of the NFL's best. The Browns paid a hefty ransom for Steinbach in free agency but also got a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in return.

Five worst signings

Bentley
1. LeCharles Bentley, C, Cleveland Browns

Year: 2006

Amount: Six years, $36 million

Analysis: Although much could be attributed to awful luck, the Bentley signing is the runaway winner. It looked great at the time as Bentley was the one of the league's best centers and returning to his hometown of Cleveland. Then things quickly went awry as Bentley injured his knee on the first contact drill of training camp in 2006. Surgery followed, then multiple staph infections that turned a one-year recovery into a two years before he was finally cleared in the summer of 2008. Once cleared, Bentley asked for his release and hasn't returned to football. He made $16 million without playing a down for Cleveland. The Bentley signing also was acknowledged recently as one of the 10 worst contracts in free-agency history.

Baxter
2. Gary Baxter, CB, Cleveland Browns

Year: 2005

Amount: Six years, $30.5 million

Analysis: Baxter was former Cleveland GM Phil Savage's first big free-agent signing, which again, turned out to be awful luck. In Baxter's second season with the team, he blew out both knees while competing for a jump ball. It was the rarest of football injuries. Baxter vowed to return. He made great progress but could never regain playing form. He was cut last summer, ending his football career.

Staley
3. Duce Staley, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Year: 2004

Amount: Five years, $14 million

Analysis: Even the Steelers make personnel mistakes from time to time. Staley happened to be one of their bigger gaffes in recent memory. What was most surprising is this signing went against nearly every trend the Steelers normally follow. They gave a long-term, big-money contract to an outside free agent, who was pushing 30 (Staley was 29 when he signed). On cue, Staley had one decent year and hit a wall in terms of health and performance at 30. Pittsburgh was desperate to find a complement to the aging Jerome Bettis, and Willie Parker eventually beat out Staley for the job, leaving him as a high-paid, injury prone and little-used player in the final two years of his deal.

Stallworth
4. Donte' Stallworth, WR, Cleveland Browns

Year: 2007

Amount: Seven years, $35 million

Analysis: This pick may be premature, but the size of the contract and lack of first-year production earned Stallworth a spot on this list. The receiver was expected to take a 10-win team to the next level, but caught only 17 passes for 170 yards in 2008. He was often injured and even hurt teammate Braylon Edwards for several weeks by stepping on his foot in training camp. If anyone needs to start over and have a big season in 2009, it's Stallworth.

Odom
5. Antwan Odom, DE, Cincinnati Bengals

Year: 2008

Amount: Five years, $29.5 million

Analysis: Similar to Stallworth, Odom is just one year into his deal and can quickly work his way off this list. But for now, it's hard to ignore his 28 tackles and three sacks of production combined with the average annual salary of nearly $6 million per season. This especially stands out because it is the largest monetary contract the Bengals ever gave to an external free agent. The previous high was John Thornton's $22.5 million deal in 2003. Injuries slowed Odom's first campaign in Cincinnati. The Bengals should get a better gauge of their investment with a healthier Odom in 2009.

Agree or disagree with this list? Tell us what you think.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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