By Dennis Waszak Jr., Associated Press
They were once big names with huge contracts. Now, several former NFL stars are unsigned and unemployed, anxiously awaiting another — and, maybe, final — opportunity to get back on the football field.
Just a few years ago, a list that included Anquan Boldin, Reggie Bush, Wes Welker, Andre Johnson and Roddy White would have highlighted the league’s best playmakers. But age, injuries, contract squabbles and off-field issues have the NFL’s unemployment line filled with familiar faces as teams prepare to head to training camp.
Here’s a look at some prominent unsigned free agents:
Age and a series of concussions during the last three years have the 35-year-old wide receiver weighing retirement. Welker played in eight games for the Rams last season and finished with 13 catches and no touchdowns. His 903 career receptions are the most in NFL history by an undrafted player, but Welker is four years removed from his last 100-catch, 1,000-yard season.
The 35-year-old wide receiver showed he still has plenty left, catching 69 passes for 789 yards and four touchdowns last season for a bad 49ers offense. Boldin has drawn some interest from teams in the last few weeks, so it would be a surprise if he isn’t in camp with someone needing a possession receiver. He has 1,009 career receptions and 74 TDs.
He has 537 career catches, three 1,000-yard seasons and 44 touchdowns, but the 31-year-old wide receiver was a non-factor in his only year with Cleveland after eight in Kansas City. Bowe played in just seven games with no starts for the Browns, catching five passes for 53 yards. Then-coach Mike Pettine didn’t consider Bowe one of the team’s top four receivers, and the veteran was released in March.
Once one of the league’s most dynamic running backs, Bush has played in only 16 games the last two seasons because of injuries. After signing a one-year deal with San Francisco last offseason, he tore a knee ligament during a game in November when he slipped on the concrete bordering the field at the St. Louis Rams’ Edward Jones Dome and hit into a wall. Bush told SiriusXM NFL Radio last month that he’s healthy now and doesn’t “feel like I lost a step” at age 31.
The Saints’ career leader in receptions and TDs was released by New Orleans in March. Colston missed the last two games of 2015 with a chest injury and had career lows with 45 catches, 520 yards receiving and four touchdowns. The 33-year-old receiver was a seventh-round pick out of Hofstra in 2006 and has 711 career receptions for 9,759 yards and 72 scores.
After a Pro Bowl year in Arizona, the athletic cornerback reunited with Darrelle Revis in the Jets’ secondary last season and was mostly solid, but also showed some signs of slippage. Cromartie, who turned 32 in April, failed to get an interception for the first time since his rookie season in San Diego in 2006. New York cut Cromartie in February in a cost-cutting move, saving $8 million on the salary cap.
The 33-year-old quarterback appears on this list only because he and the Jets remain in a contract squabble that appears to have no end in sight. Fitzpatrick set a Jets franchise record with a career-best 31 TD passes after taking over as the starter last summer when Geno Smith had his jaw broken by a punch from a teammate. Many still expect Fitzpatrick to end up back with the Jets, who fell one game short of the playoffs last season with him under center.
Sure, he’s 36. And, he’s no longer a premier pass rusher. But Freeney finished with eight sacks for Arizona in 11 regular-season games after signing in October. He also had a sack in the playoffs against Green Bay, showing he still can provide a spark by getting after the quarterback.
His talent on the field is undeniable. But, so is his reputation off it. Hardy was involved in a high-profile domestic violence case in 2014 that got him suspended four games last season (after initially being banned for 10 before having it reduced). He also made headlines for showing up late to team meetings and for slapping a clipboard out of a coach’s hands during a game. Still, he’s just 27 and has 40 career sacks, so a team might be willing to take a chance.
One of the game’s elite wide receivers just a few years ago, Johnson is 35 and facing the end of a brilliant career. He had 41 catches for 503 yards and four TDs in his only season with the Colts, but said during the offseason he believes he can still be effective in the NFL. Johnson has 1,053 receptions for 14,100 yards and 68 TDs in his 13 seasons.
His appearance on this list says it all about how things have gone for the former Browns quarterback. Manziel appeared to be a possible answer to Cleveland’s long-time QB woes, but personal issues off the field made for a quick tumble. Whether he’ll get an opportunity to play again is uncertain, especially because football is likely the furthest thing from Manziel’s mind as he deals with his sobriety and legal issues.
The Falcons released their career leader in receptions, yards receiving and TD catches in March, and the 34-year-old receiver remains without a job. He had a six-season stretch from 2007-12 in which he had at least 1,100 yards receiving every year, but White had just 43 catches for 506 yards and one TD in a diminished role with Atlanta last season.
OTHER NOTABLE NAMES: G Willie Colon, G Jahri Evans, CB Leon Hall, LB Calvin Pace, LB DeMeco Ryans, LB Stephen Tulloch, G Louis Vasquez, QB Michael Vick, S Donte Whitner.