The 10 Most Shocking Free-Agent Signings in NFL History

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  • By Nick Toney
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LeBron James is taking his talents to Hollywood and reaffirming everything about today's free agency.

That notion? Seismic shifts in superstar activity can build contenders. They can cement dynasties. They can shift competitive balance for a decade and spark debates that last even longer.

Nowhere is that truer than in the NFL, where player talent swaps uniforms every offseason. It's been that way since unrestricted free agency began in 1993 -- and yet only a handful of top-shelf signings have caught our undivided attention the way James' move to the Lakers has.

So admit it: It's always strange to see a household NFL star walk out of the tunnel in a different team's jersey. Here are the 10 most shocking free-agent moves in NFL history.

Honorable mention: Darrelle Revis to the Patriots (2015), Marcus Allen to the Chiefs (1993)

10. Kirk Cousins gets paid by the Vikings (2018)

Experts knew Kirk Cousins was poised to strike it rich in free agency. They knew the Vikings might make a logical fit, too. What they didn't know -- what we're all still floored about -- is the guarantee. His entire three-year deal in Minnesota is fully-guaranteed. That hasn't happened before in the NFL, but Cousins might've ushered in an entirely new era of quarterback compensation.

9. Rod Woodson signs with the Ravens (1998)

Woodson was a Steelers mainstay; the star cornerback made seven Pro Bowl trips in 10 years in Pittsburgh. It was shocking when a pay dispute forced him out of Black and Yellow. And even more shocking when he joined the rival Ravens, making their 2000 defense an all-time legendary one.

8. Deion Sanders joins the Redskins (2000)

"Primetime" was past his prime when the 'Skins made him their free-agent target. Their offer to the 32-year-old cornerback: A shocking seven-year, $55 million deal. Sanders, who was released by the rival Cowboys that offseason, accepted. Then he retired in 2001.

7. Jerry Rice becomes a Raider (2001)

San Francisco assumed Rice would retire in red and gold when they handed him a a five-year, $31.3 million contract in 2000. When he was released for cap relief the next offseason, the team even offered him $1 million to never play for another team and call it a career. The G.O.A.T. had other plans -- and exacted some revenge when he signed across the bay with Jon Gruden's Raiders.

6. The Broncos win the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes (2012)

It was shocking enough that a legend like Peyton Manning would even hit free agency. That choose to team up with John Elway -- the only (at the time) championship-winning Broncos quarterback -- over all the other interested teams was a bigger surprise. The cherry on top? Manning's arrival single-handedly ended Tebowmania, jettisoning the Heisman Winner and fan favorite to the Jets immediately after leading Denver to a thrilling playoff win.

5. The Redskins import Albert Haynesworth (2009)

Plenty of teams were willing to back the Brinks truck up for Albert Haynesworth in 2009. The former All-Pro defensive tackle just went to the highest bidder -- the Washington Redskins -- on an unheard of seven-year, $100 million deal. Want to be shocked some more? Haynesworth appeared in just 20 games in D.C. before a trade to New England.

4. Reggie White goes to Titletown (1993)

Green Bay wasn't exactly a free-agent hotspot in the early '90s. That all changed when the "Minister of Defense" picked the Pack over a slew of other bigger markets. It was shocking to see White out of the Eagles' Kelly Green, it was shocking to watch the NFL's first major free-agent decision unfold, but it wasn't shocking when White and Brett Favre brought the Lombardi Trophy back home.

3. Curtis Martin gets Jet-tisoned to New York (1998)

Bill Parcells' first order of business after joining Gang Green? Importing his former Patriots player and restricted free agent Curtis Martin. It cost the Jets an shocking six-year, $36 million contract, plus first and third-round picks. That steep price was worth it as Martin, fourth on the all-time rushing list, built a Hall of Fame career in New York.

2. The 49ers go Primetime (1994)

The Niners dynasty hit a brick wall called the Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s. Their answer to Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper running roughshod through their secondary? A speedy little Cincinnati Reds outfielder named Deion Sanders. Primetime fulfilled his baseball obligations in 1994 just in time to join the 49ers on a Super Bowl run.

1. Brett Favre joins the enemy in Minnesota (2009)

If Brett Favre couldn't join 'em, he wanted to beat 'em. After a season in the AFC, the Packers' quarterbacking legend shockingly returned to his NFC North stomping grounds -- this time as a Viking. Those rematches were both a Cheeseheads worst nightmare and appointment television. We may never see an legendary NFL quarterback turn heel quite like that again.

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