As the saying goes, it’s tough to make it at the top, but it’s even more difficult to stay there. Many once-elite NFL stars players discovered this after their teams released them. There are several reasons why franchises cut players. Firstly, in the fast-paced NFL, players deteriorate with age. Another is because of the salary cap. Franchises often want to replace them with younger, cheaper stars.
So today we’re going to take a look at 25 NFL Stars whose teams unceremoniously released them. This list includes some of the biggest names in the history of the sport. It shows that no one is safe from their franchise’s front office. Check out the list below via NFL.com and Sportsnaut.
25. Tim Tebow (2021)
Tebow Time became a catchphrase during the Heisman winner’s tumultuous run with the Denver Broncos. After a couple of seasons in Colorado, he joined the Colts. But they unceremoniously cut him because he simply wasn’t good enough. The Patriots agreed and in the end, Tebow called time on his NFL career. He decided to transition to baseball instead.
However, that wasn’t the end of his NFL journey. In 2021, Jacksonville left fans shaking their heads in disbelief (via Sports Illustrated). They announced that Tebow would join their roster. Instead of playing as a quarterback, he tried to make it as a tight end. The experiment failed miserably and the Jaguars cut him from their final roster. It was a wild time for everybody.
The Houston Texans seem to hate their fans because they’ve made some of the worst roster decisions ever. This includes their treatment of Johnson, one of the most effective talents they’ve ever had. He had two years left on his contract and over $20 million when Bill O’Brien told him that they couldn’t compete. After a stunning 2014 season, Johnson shook his head and demanded to leave.
Houston obliged and allowed him to walk. The fact that they released one of their best players without any qualms infuriated their fans. In 2021, Johnson launched a tirade against the franchise for being uncompetitive. SB Nation reported Johnson’s complaints about the Texans wasting players’ careers. He also defended star QB Deshaun Watson’s desire to leave.
There were 16 million reasons why Tampa Bay released Revis. His salary was just too big for the Buccaneers to handle. They tried to trade him but nobody wanted to make that financial commitment. In the end, he only spent a single season in Florida before the Patriots picked him up. They handed him another juicy contract and he enjoyed a Super Bowl-winning season in Foxborough (via Fansided).
Many regard Revis as one of the best cornerbacks of his generation. The seven-time Pro Bowler spent most of his career with the New York Jets. After he left the Patriots he rejoined the Jets on a five-year deal worth $70 million. However, they released him after two because his productivity declined. Then he played just six games for the Chiefs before his retirement.
The Green Bay Packers released Woodson with two years left on his contract. The defensive back was set to earn $10 million before the franchise made their decision. The Super Bowl winner returned to the Oakland Raiders after he departed. He was also the Defensive Player of the Year and led the league in interceptions on two occasions.
Woodson scored touchdowns off interceptions in six straight seasons. No other player in NFL history has achieved this feat (via Madison.com). He was also a nine-time Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, Woodson starts every game in three seasons with the Raiders after his reunion. This just goes to show his fitness and dedication to the sport. He was and is a legend.
Manning suffered horrible injuries in his final seasons with the Colts. He sat out for 2011 with injuries and watched the franchise flop to a 2-14 record. It was appalling but it left the franchise in an interesting position. They were now in possession of the No. 1 draft pick and had their eyes on Andrew Luck. But this meant that it was the end of Manning’s run as starting quarterback.
They duly released their legendary signal-caller after 13 seasons because they didn’t trust his body (via USA TODAY). Manning went to Denver where he made two Super Bowl appearances and won one. Luck played very well for the Colts but ironically retired in his prime because his body broke down. However, he was a four-time Pro Bowler so it would be wrong to say it didn’t work out.
One of the greatest quarterbacks in history, Unitas is a football icon. The Baltimore Colts star won a Super Bowl as well as three NFL Championships. He enjoyed 18 seasons at the top but worked incredibly hard to get there. In 1955, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him but Unitas didn’t make the cut for their final roster. They thought he didn’t have the brains to be a top-tier QB.
Unitas’s career humiliated the Steelers. He refused to give up on his dream and even played as a semi-professional for only six dollars a game (via Sportscasting). But Unitas attracted attention with his exploits and won trials with the Cleveland Browns and the Colts. Ultimately, that’s where he spent the overwhelming majority of his Hall of Fame career.
Nobody quite knows what Chip Kelly was thinking. In fact, Kelly probably doesn’t know either. But he chased one of the Eagles’ best players out of the franchise in Jackson. He also got rid of LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. Jackson told the Philly Voice that they had the potential to be Super Bowl champions but Kelly ruined their chances.
After the Eagles released him, he joined Washington on a lucrative three-year deal. After he completed his contract, he went on a bit of a tour of the league before finally joining the Rams in 2021. A three-time Pro Bowler, Jackson showed Kelly what he was missing. Not only did he allow great players to leave, but he didn’t restock the roster.
After 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, most people assumed he would spend his entire career there. However, Carolina released him at the end of the 2013 season despite the fact that he was still an important part of their offense. The Panthers wanted to adjust their wage cap structure and made the decision to sacrifice Smith. But Smith was furious because he found out on the radio (via Business Insider).
2005 was the best year of his career. Smith led the league in both receptions and receiving yards. He also won the Comeback Player of the Year award. But he wasn’t finished. The wideout continued to give his all for the Baltimore Ravens for three seasons. This shows that no football player can take their future for granted because things can change overnight.
Tomlinson was the face of the San Diego Chargers before they released him. After they received the number one pick, they traded down for the star running back. In 2006, he won the NFL MVP award after an excellent year where he scored 31 touchdowns (via Bleacher Report). This was an NFL record and overall indicative of his general brilliance.
But all good things come to an end, and NFL teams have zero sentiments. L.T. moved to New York and enjoyed an Indian Summer. This was when the Jets were actually decent at the start of the 2010s. The franchise made a couple of AFC championship appearances and Tomlinson continued to produce. Finally, he returned to the Chargers and retired.
Sitton was one of the best guards in the league for the Green Bay Packers. It’s not the most glamorous position on the field but it’s essential. He spent eight seasons with the Packers before they finally released him. But the four-year veteran believed that he had more to give and joined the Chicago Bears. However, 247 Sports reported that all was not well behind the scenes in Green Bay.
It wasn’t just about reducing the cap. Allegedly, Sitton became an issue in the locker room. He wanted a lucrative extension but the Packers weren’t prepared to match his demands. This caused him to fall out with head coach Mike McCarthy. The franchise tried to trade him but nobody wanted to do business. This left them with no choice except to cut him.
Cutler played for eight years as the Chicago Bears’ QB. However, they only made the postseason once during this era (via New York Times). Finally, the Bears decided to go in a different direction and brought in Mike Glennon from Tampa. After a 3-13 season, the writing was on the wall for Cutler but things didn’t exactly get better for Chicago.
Glennon was shambolic for the Bears and still sends shudders down the spines of their fans. To be fair, Cutler only played in five games in his final season because of injuries. He retired but returned when the Miami Dolphins desperately reached out to him. Cutler enjoyed his final year as an NFL starter before he went off into the sunset.
Bryant was a major factor behind DeMarco Murray’s shock departure from the Cowboys in 2014. The receiver was very productive for Dallas as he posted scorching numbers. But the franchise released him after eight seasons (via Republic World). Many fans felt devastated because he was such a favorite. He set records for receiving touchdowns along the way.
After leaving Texas, he joined the New Orleans Saints. But Bryant never played a single game for the franchise because he tore his Achilles in training. He sat out for the 2019 season because he wanted to get back to full fitness. Finally, he joined the Ravens and made an emotional return to the NFL. It’s been a long road for the Texan.
Smith was a key component in the Cowboys’ all-conquering 1990s dynasty. However, Dallas found itself with a $9.8 million left in the salary cap. They were set to pay the 34-year-old running back a guaranteed seven million dollars. Those numbers weren’t sustainable and they had no choice but to cut ties. They released the three-time Super Bowl champion and he moved on to play with the Arizona Cardinals.
After 13 seasons of success with the Cowboys, Smith spent the winter of his career with the Cardinals. He only played the Cowboys once during this period but described how the game made him cry (via Sportscasting). He suffered injuries during his Arizona tenure but made an impact when he did play.
Owens was a living nightmare for his own quarterbacks. Everybody he played with, from Jeff Garcia to Donovan McNabb, loathed him. After one of the worst breakups in NFL history, the Eagles released the wide receiver. CBS Sports reported that Owens felt aggrieved by the situation. However, his erratic personality was at odds with Andy Reid’s structured approach.
Then he joined the Dallas Cowboys. But this didn’t work out well either. ‘America’s Team’ failed to make the playoffs with the future Hall of Famer. After they released him, they duly returned to the postseason. Owens was an extraordinary player but there’s a reason why he played for five NFL franchises. A brilliant athlete but a temperamental figure.
Warner took one of the most unusual routes to the NFL. He was the quarterback behind the Greatest Show on Turf when he played for the St. Louis Rams. But Warner showed remarkable resolve to make it that far. This was because his NFL career almost ended before it even began. The Green Bay Packers released him after he went undrafted.
He wallowed through the Arena Football League before he received a second chance as back-up for St. Louis (via L.A. Times). But even before he played for them, he featured in NFL Europe for Amsterdam. Finally, he became the starter in Missouri after Trent Green’s preseason. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s remarkable how quickly players retire after a change of scene. Nelson was excellent for the Green Bay Packers. He was a franchise-great receiver in Wisconsin before they released him. With four 1,000 yard seasons to his name, he set the standards for Davante Adams to follow (via Sporting News). He ended his career in Oakland.
Nelson only spent a season with the Raiders before retiring. He spent a significant chunk of that year behind Amari Cooper but did make an impact on the field. Green Bay welcomed him back on a one-day contract so he could hang up his cleats at home. He helped the franchise to a Super Bowl and guaranteed his status as a legend.
Mathieu’s departure from the Cardinals was one of the strangest in recent memory. They released him after five seasons with the franchise. USA Today revealed the uncertainty behind Arizona’s decision to cut him. They had cap issues but it appears as though there were issues between the player and the front office. That’s why Mathieu wants nothing to do with his old franchise.
Cardinals fans loved Mathieu but that wasn’t enough to make him stay. The franchise wanted him to take a pay cut but he rejected an eight million offer. In the end, they released him and he moved to Houston. But the Texans signed him up for a million dollars less than this. It’s clear that he just wanted to get out of Arizona because his relationship deteriorated so badly.
One of the greatest wideouts in NFL history, Rice was phenomenal for the Niners. However, they released him because he was old and they paid him a lot of money. San Francisco wanted to restructure their roster and it made sense to get Rice off their books. Then, he walked away as a free agent and joined the Oakland Raiders. It looked like it was the end.
Rice’s move to the Raiders was a success because he helped them return to the playoffs. The wideout’s influence on the franchise was profound. They got to the Super Bowl but lost out against Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, Rice made the Pro Bowl too. The craziest thing was that he was 40 at the time. The Raiders even listed the veteran on their all-time roster despite his short tenure.
A key member of the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, Sherman was a brilliant corner. The Super Bowl champion enjoyed seven iconic seasons with the franchise before they released him. In the end, it came down to the salary cap as it often does. The Seahawks wanted to keep him but they didn’t want to match his previous earnings. So they let him go to restructure their roster.
The combination of an Achilles injury and his age scared Seattle off. They told him to take a pay cut or they’d let him go (Seattle Times). Finally, he joined San Francisco where he made a notable impact. He even made a second Super Bowl appearance in 2019. There were rumors that Sherman would return to the Seahawks but they never materialized.
Welker was a highly effective wide receiver and led the league in receiving yards on three occasions. But his career almost didn’t start. The San Diego Chargers picked him up after he went undrafted. But he only played a single game for the franchise before they released him (via Boston.com). He had the option of joining their practice squad but opted against it.
Instead, he accepted a deal with the Miami Dolphins. It took him time to find his feet as he played on special teams. But finally, he became one of their most important attacking talents. This resulted in a trade to the New England Patriots. Welker never won a Super Bowl with the Pats but he was a vibrant threat for a number of seasons.
The Seattle Seahawks released Alexander just two years after he won the NFL MVP award. They used their first-round pick on him in 2000 and he proceeded to break multiple records. However, the time felt right for a parting of ways and the Seahawks vindicated their decision. It was one of the toughest choices of Seattle President Tim Ruskell’s career (via Seattle Times).
After a stellar 2005, Alexander’s production numbers dropped. He only featured in 10 games the following season. Then, in his final year, he rushed for just 716 yards. Alexander signaled his desire to continue playing and signed with the Redskins. But Washington released him after just four games and that ended his NFL career. It was a shame but football took its toll on his body.
The Dallas Cowboys shocked their fanbase when they released their star running back. This came after the most productive season of his career. However, Murray priced himself out of a contract renewal. Jerry Jones had a choice between keeping Dez Bryant or Murray and went for the former. Murray’s father Kevin signaled his surprise that the Cowboys allowed his son to leave (via Dallas Morning News).
In the end, Murray was delighted to depart because he made his fortune. The Philadelphia Eagles offered him a five-year contract worth $42 million. Murray thought that this would suit him perfectly and duly signed up. But he had the least effective year of his career and they traded him to the Titans at the end of the season.
The Patriots cut some high-profile players over the years. Nobody can argue with this that. Brown only played a single game for the franchise before they unceremoniously released him. This came after news broke of his alleged sexual assault. It immediately cast his future into doubt. Crazily, it wasn’t even the first time an NFL team cut him.
The Oakland Raiders also released the wideout because of personal issues. NBC reported that he argued with the team over which helmet to wear and had a fallout with the front office. Brown’s indiscipline made him a nightmare to work with and ultimately they showed him the door. He rebounded with Tampa Bay and even won a Super Bowl.
To say that the Patriots released Brady isn’t 100% accurate because technically he walked off his own accord. However, the circumstances that enabled his free agency were of New England’s making. In short, it all came down to money. Brady wanted a long-term contract but the Patriots weren’t prepared to hand one to their quadragenarian quarterback (via SB Nation).
The two parties failed to agree to a new contract and ultimately Brady became a free agent. But if the Patriots wanted to keep him they definitely could have. There were problems behind the scenes because of Brady’s cold relationship with Bill Belichick. Another factor was that Brady felt undervalued. The Patriots wanted to move him on and succeeded.
Mac Jones fell into the Patriots’ lap in 2021 but nobody expected him to start in Week One. It looked like former League MVP Newton was in the driving seat because of his age and experience. Neither signal-caller set the world on fire during the preseason. However, Bill Belichick had other ideas and made a stunning decision when he announced his final roster.
The Patriots released Newton and designated Jones as their starter. Newton infuriated the franchise after failing to follow health protocols (via Sporting News). His lack of professionalism combined with his patchy 2020 season made it easy. They decided to focus on the future and make Jones into potentially the next Tom Brady. It was a bold call but a very exciting one.