Ten Best Free Agent Signings Of All-Time


Feb 7, 2010; Miami, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) hoists the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

NFL Free Agency can make or break a team. It can set you back for years or set you up for a future of brilliance. Here is a look at ten free agents who have helped their teams the most in NFL history.

10. Rob Woodson – CB, S 

After playing ten very successful seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rod Woodson was allowed to hit free agency in 1996 after a contentious pay dispute. After a year in San Francisco, he joined the Baltimore Ravens.

In 2001 at age 36, Woodson finally achieved his dream of winning a Super Bowl. He would go on to play for the Oakland Raiders in 2002 and participated in his second consecutive Super Bowl, this time in a losing effort.

Woodson became the first player to ever be voted to the Pro Bowl as a cornerback, safety and punt returner on separate occasions and was also one of only five active players to be elected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team in 1994. His prolific election to the Pro Bowl – 11 times – is a record for any defensive back.

Woodson also holds a number of notable statistical records. He has the most career interceptions for touchdowns with 12, most fumble recoveries in a game with 3 — shared with 11 other players — and career interception yards with 1,483. He also has the most fumble recoveries by a defensive back and is third on the all-time interceptions list with 71.

Woodson retired after the 2003 season and was later elected to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2009.

9. Rich Gannon – QB

Probably the most underrated free agent on this list, Rich Gannon had an uneventful beginning to his career with his first eleven seasons spread between the Vikings, Redskins and Chiefs from 1987 to 1998.

Upon signing with the Oakland Raiders in 1999, Gannon clicked immediately in the West Coast offense of Jon Gruden. The following four years were the most productive in his career as he was voted to the Pro Bowl 1999-2002, was an All-Pro and AFC Player of the Year from 2000-2002, became the only player to ever win consecutive Pro Bowl MVP awards in 2001-2002 and was the NFL MVP in 2002.

Further to this, Gannon came within a hair’s breadth of taking the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVI before he was undone in the infamous Tuck Rule AFC Championship game. Had Tom Brady’s pass been declared a fumble his team would have made the Super Bowl and opinion about Gannon and Brady both could be much different by now.

As it was, Gannon did lead the team to a Super Bowl berth the following season only to lose in his one and only appearance to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This game also has clouded history’s view of Gannon as he threw a Super Bowl record five interceptions against a team coached by the man who had brought Gannon so much success in Oakland – Jon Gruden. It is said that Gruden had so much information on the Raiders offense that this directly led to Gannon’s poor showing.

Gannon retired from football in 2005.

8. Shannon Sharpe – TE

As a part of the legendary Denver Broncos teams of the 90s, Shannon Sharpe had quite a reputation when he hit the free agent market in 2000. Larger than life and twice as mean, Sharpe had a reputation for being a big talker but also for playing hard on the field too having had three 1000 yard seasons with the Broncos and getting two Super Bowl rings in the process.

When the Baltimore Ravens signed Sharpe in 2000, he was coming off the worst year of his career after injury forced him out of the season early. He showed he still had it in him despite going from John Elway as his quarterback for most of the 90s to Trent Dilfer. Despite this, Sharpe got his third Superbowl ring that year.

After one more season in Baltimore, Sharpe re-signed with Denver and retired a Bronco after the 2003 season. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 2011.

7. Charles Woodson – CB

One of the most anticipated players to be drafted in 1998, Charles Woodson was drafted 4th overall by the Oakland Raiders having left the University of Michigan early following his Heisman Trophy winning season. During his eight seasons playing for the Raiders, Woodson became known as one of the elite corners in the NFL. He did struggle with injury at times and in particular the Raiders Super Bowl season in 2002.

The years following the loss in Super Bowl XXXVII were bad for Woodson as he had problems with management along with more injuries. He played from year to year on one year franchise contracts before he chose to walk away and sign for the Green Bay Packers in 2006.

When making the move, Woodson was noted as not wanting to go to Green Bay but that they were the only team to offer a competitive contract. Over the years, this changed.

During his time with Green Bay, Woodson has cemented his reputation as a ball hawk. Every season since joining the Packers, Woodson has scored a defensive touchdown. In four of these seasons he has had seven or more interceptions. Half of his 28 forced fumbles have been for the Pack.

It is interesting to note that Woodson’s worst season for the Pack in terms of ballhawking statistics came in 2010 when the Packers won their first Super Bowl title since 1997. It is the opinion of many that one reason the Packers were so good defensively was because Woodson was in fact in such good form that opposing quarterbacks were actively avoiding him.

To date, Woodson has been voted to the Pro Bowl eight times, named an All-Pro seven times and NFL Defensive Player of the Year once. He remains with the Green Bay Packers.

6. Priest Holmes – RB

Priest Holmes was an undrafted free agent coming out of college when he signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 1997. He was the team’s starter in 1998 and 1999 before losing the job to Jamal Lewis in 2000. Holmes was a part of the Super Bowl XXXV winning team as the second string running back and was dropped from the team after that season.

In 2001, Holmes signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and immediately paid dividends with a 1,555 yard season as the NFL’s leading rusher. He followed this up the following year by rushing for 1,615 yards in just 14 starts. In the 2003 season he became one of only two NFL running backs to have 20 or more touchdowns in a consecutive seasons  — the other being Emmitt Smith — and also broke the all-time record for total touchdowns in a season with 27.

Priest Holmes would be higher on this list but for the tragic string of injuries he incurred from this point in his career. He likely would have had another 20+ touchdown season in 2004 had it not been for injury. It was in 2005 that his career took a turn for the worse when he sustained a serious spinal injury that effectively ended his career.

Holmes continued to push to return to the NFL. Throughout the 2006 season he commented on a number of occasions that he wished to return to active duty although not if it meant sacrificing his long term health. In 2007, he finally achieved his goal and played once more for the Chiefs.

Unfortunately for Holmes, his comeback lasted only two starts. In a game against the Indianapolis Colts he reinjured his neck and announced his retirement three days later. To this day, Holmes remains one of the biggest “What if?” players the NFL has ever seen.

5. Curtis Martin – RB

In many ways, Curtis Martin is a strange pick to make his list. After being taken in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft by the Patriots, Martin ran for 100 yards in his debut – the first Patriots rookie ever to do so. He was the NFL’s leading rusher and Offensive Rookie of the Year. The following year he broke another franchise record by rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns in his first playoff game. The team went on to the Super Bowl but lost.

In two seasons, Martin was already a superstar and had two Pro Bowl appearances behind him. How could he be such a great free agent?

After the 1997 season, Martin – now a restricted free agent – was offered a six year contract from the New York Jets worth $36 million. Martin accepted the deal and the Patriots chose not to match it. In return, New England received a first and a third round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.

What made this acquisition so remarkable was Martin’s longevity and his ability to continue to perform at the highest level as he became older.

Following his first three 1,000 yard seasons with the Patriots, Martin made history by extending that streak to ten consecutive seasons, which had only previously been achieved by the great Barry Sanders. Martin is also one of only sixteen players to have 100 career touchdowns, one of only four to have rushed for over 14,000 yards in his career and holds the New York Jets franchise career rushing record with over 10,000 yards for the club. Finally, in 2004 he became the oldest player to ever win the NFL rushing title aged 31 – a title he won by only one yard from Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander.

Curtis Martin finally retired from the NFL in 2007 and on February 4, 2012 was named to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame.

4. Kurt Warner – QB

The story of Kurt Warner’s path to NFL greatness is perhaps the most unusual the sport has ever seen. After going undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft, Warner tried out with the Green Bay Packers but never made the team. After working at a grocery store packing shelves, Warner was picked up by the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League in 1995. After three years there, he was finally signed by the St Louis Rams – who promptly sent him to play in NFL Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals.

After one season as a depth backup for the Rams, Warner got his chance in 1999 when Trent Green – who the team had just picked up in free agency – sustained an ACL tear in the preseason. What followed was “The Greatest Show On Turf” as Kurt Warner led the St Louis Rams along with Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk to three consecutive years of 500+ points – an NFL record.

In the 1999 season alone, Warner was a phenomenon bigger than anything ever seen before or since. In his first four games he threw for 14 touchdowns.

Warner ended the regular season with 4,361 passing yards and 41 touchdowns and a 65.1% completion rate and was named NFL MVP. The magical season concluded with Warner leading the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV – the famous “win by a yard” game. Breaking the Super Bowl record for passing yards with 414, Warner was named Super Bowl MVP.

After missing much of the 2000 season with a broken hand – but still making milestones as the combined performances of himself and Trent Green that year made more yards than Drew Brees’ later 2011 single season record – Warner returned with a vengeance in 2001 amassing over 4800 yards and 36 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Warner, turnovers were becoming a problem and despite leading the team to a 14-2 record and being named NFL MVP, the Rams lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.

After the 2001 season, Warner’s career took a turn for the worse as he became relatively ineffective as a quarterback. Just two years after his second MVP, Warner was released by the Rams.

After one season with the Giants, Warner was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals. His woes continued however as he continued with mediocre play. There were signs that the old stuff was still there but he couldn’t put it together leading the Cardinals to draft Matt Leinart.

It wasn’t until the 2007 season that Warner finally paid off for the Cardinals. When Leinart failed to perform early in the season, Warner came off the bench in week 4 and brought the team to the edge of victory and a stirring comeback against the Baltimore Ravens before they lost to a last ditch field goal. Warner went on to post over 3,400 yards in his eleven starts that season and finally secured the starting job.

In 2008, Warner had his first 4000 yard season since 2001 and for only the second time in his career threw for over 4,500 yards. For the first time since 1998 the Arizona Cardinals made the playoffs and also won the division for the first time since 1975. There was more history to come as Warner led the team to victory in their first playoff win since 1947 and followed it up with two more wins to take the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl appearance, albeit for a loss.

Warner played one more outstanding season in 2009 before confirming his retirement in 2010.

3. Deion Sanders – CB

“Prime Time” Deion Sanders is arguably the most talented athlete the NFL has ever seen. A talented baseball player, he played both football and baseball professionally at the same time before eventually being forced to choose between them. During this time, he became the only player in history to participate in both a World Series and a Super Bowl and also the only player ever to both hit a major league home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week.

After beginning his NFL career in Atlanta, Sanders spent one year in San Francisco in what many argue was the best year of his career. He caught six interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns which included an insulting 93 yard touchdown against his former club the Falcons. That year Sanders was named Defensive Player of the Year and won his first Super Bowl.

After falling out with 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, Sanders left San Francisco and the fiasco that was the “Deion Sweepstakes” began. He was actively sought after by half the teams in the NFL and eventually signed a deal with the Dallas Cowboys that at the time made him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.

For the second year in a row Sanders found himself in a Super Bowl and it was his stunning punt return that ultimately led to the Cowboys first touchdown. The Cowboys went on to win the game and Sanders had his second and final Super Bowl victory.

Sanders continued to play at a high level during his further four seasons with the Cowboys accumulating honors and building his legacy. Later in his career he spent a year with the Washington Redskins and then retired. He was coaxed out of retirement aged 37 to play two seasons for the Baltimore Ravens and then retired once again.

Sanders’ career spanned 14 years and he was arguably the greatest cornerback ever. His 19 defensive and return touchdowns remain an NFL record. His most amazing record – and possibly his least known – is that he is one of only to NFL players to have scored a touchdown six different ways – interception return, punt return, kickoff return, receiving, rushing, and a fumble recovery.

Deion Sanders was elected to the Pro Bowl eight times, an All-Pro eight times, NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, two time NFC Defensive Player of the Year, a member of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in during the 2011 season.

2. Reggie White – DE

After playing for the Memphis Showboats in the final year of the USFL’s existence, Reggie White joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985 having had the rights to his services obtained by the Eagles in round 1 of the 1985 NFL Supplemental Draft. He became one of the biggest components of the ’46’ defense with 70 sacks in his first 57 games and leading the NFL in sacks in two of his first four years.

In 1993, White surprised many NFL fans by choosing to sign with the Green Bay Packers. While the Packers had had a good 1992 season, this had come after many years of frustration and it was believed they could be a one year wonder. Over the years, Green Bay had acquired a reputation for being a bad place to play. But White signed there anyway.

White’s presence almost single-handedly lifted the Packers to a breakthrough level both on and off the field. With his signing, the Packers no longer carried the stigma of being an NFL outpost, a place where no one wanted to play.

"“God wanted me to play in Green Bay”"

The rise of the Packers defense that year was nothing short of miraculous. Having been the 23rd ranked defense the year before, they ended up second in the league in 1993. Green Bay qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1972.

1996 saw White’s finest hour. After another highly successful season, White was the driving force behind the Packer capturing Super Bowl XXXI over the New England Patriots. He put on a show of dominance like none before him with three crucial second half sacks and preventing the Pats from making a comeback. The title was the first the storied franchise had won in nearly three decades and capped off a remarkable few years for the team.

White’s career accomplishments are nothing short of staggering. In his fifteen seasons in the NFL, he became the Packers franchise leader in sacks – surpassing Lawrence Taylor – and is second on the NFL’s all-time list for career sacks. He was named an All-Pro a remarkable ten times – three for the Packers – and was voted to the Pro Bowl thirteen of his fifteen seasons – including every year he played for Green Bay.

Reggie White retired after the 1998 season, but returned for one season with the Carolina Panthers in which he added another 5.5 sacks to his tally. He then retired again after that season and remained so. In 2004, he passed away due to heart problems. He was posthumorously inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 2006.

1. Drew Brees – QB

There are many ways one could describe how Drew Brees came to play for the New Orleans Saints. Some would call it miraculous and some would call it fate. Many Saints fans believe Brees was born to be with the team in its time of greatest need following Hurricane Katrina.

In reality, Drew Brees became a free agent for one reason – because the San Diego Chargers screwed up. Brees struggled a little early on in his career with some inconsistency prompting the Chargers to trade to get Philip Rivers. While Rivers turned out to be a fine quarterback, many feel they didn’t give Brees enough time.

The straw that broke the camel’s back between Brees and the Chargers was when late in the 2005 season Brees tore his labrum which required multiple procedures and ultimately gave the Chargers a good enough excuse to make the quarterback a contract offer he could easily refuse. With that, Brees headed for free agency.

The Miami Dolphins were very interested in Brees at first, but the doctors advising their management staff recommended that Brees was too high a risk of re-injury to sign. As the Dolphins turned away from him and traded for Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, the Saints with new head coach Sean Payton looked at Brees and decided to take a chance. Brees was signed to a six-year $60 million contract.

The Saints had just come off their season in the wilderness caused by Hurricane Katrina. Due to this, there was a very heavy burden on the team and Brees felt it as much as any of them. He didn’t disappoint.

In his first season in New Orleans, Brees led the Saints to a 10-6 record which won the NFC South title. He led the league in passing yards and was awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award along with his former teammate from San Diego LaDainian Tomlinson. In the playoffs, the Saints made it to the NFC Championship game but lost to the Chicago Bears.

While his initial season ended in disappointing fashion, the spark had been lit not only in the team but in the city of New Orleans. Drew Brees was helping to change the attitude of their fans and brought hope to the people.

In the years that followed, Brees continued to play at an elite level and in 2008 flirted with Dan Marino’s single season passing record. He fell just short but became only the second player to ever have a season of 5000 or more passing yards. In his first three seasons with the Saints he threw for more than 4,400 yards and for his entire Saints career he only fell below this mark once.

Then came the 2009 season. It started out in the best possible fashion as Brees threw for six touchdowns. As the season continued, the Saints kept winning on their way to 13-0. This streak included a Monday Night Football game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in which Brees threw for 371 yards for a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The Saints lost the last three games of the regular season finishing with a 13-3 record, but still won the NFC’s #1 seed.

Just when it seemed the Saints may be slowing down after their three losses, they stormed back into contention and annihilated the Arizona Cardinals 45-14. After getting past another fairytale story in Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, the Saints met Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLV. Brees was at his absolute best during the game throwing a Super Bowl record 32 completions an helping to bring the Saints their first ever Super Bowl victory which earned him Super Bowl MVP.

Brees was named the 2010 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, both for his winning the Super Bowl and his charitable work towards the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Following a disappointing end to the 2010 season in which the Saints lost to the surprising seattle Seahawks, Brees made another assault on Dan Merino’s single season passing record in 2011. He had company in this challenge as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was also on pace to beat the 17 year old record. All season the debate was there – who would reach the record first? It seemed inevitable that it would be broken and in the end it was Brees who broke the barrier with a game to spare. However, he still has Brady to worry about as there was the very real possibility that should Brees sit out of his team’s week 17 game that Brady would overtake his yardage total.

In the end, both Brees and Brady broke the record but Brees finished the season with the higher total. In that game, Brees set regular season records for passing yards, completions and passing percentage.

All told, Drew Brees holds or co-holds 44 different NFL records. He has been voted to the Pro Bowl six times, made All-Pro four times, Super Bowl MVP, Offensive Player of the Year twice, NFC MVP twice, NFC Offensive Player of the Year three times and was named the AP’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2010.

More important than all the accolades, the statistics and the fame has been the charitable work that Brees has performed for the New Orleans community. When he arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he immediately became heavily involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans and helping its people. To them, Brees is more than a quarterback. He’s something of a saviour.

I have written about ten very good and very talented football players here. This article is about the ten greatest free agent signings of all time. I think it is most appropriate that the man number one on this list is not only there because he deserves to be for his NFL achievements but the fact that he has had such an overwhelming impact on the lives of his team’s fans may end up meaning more than his skill on the football field ever will. Drew Brees is indeed the best free agent pickup of all time — in more ways than one.

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