Top 20 free-agent signings in NFL history
- Published: March 6, 2013 at 04:51 p.m.
- Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:11 p.m.
Here's a countdown of the 20 greatest free-agent signings of all time in celebration of the 20th anniversary of NFL free agency.
20. Peyton Manning (2012, Denver Broncos)
Despite a neck injury that eliminated his 2011 season, Peyton Manning became one of the most-sought-after free agents in NFL history when the Indianapolis Colts released him in early 2012. Despite serious concerns about whether Manning could ever play again -- much less at the Hall-of-Fame level he attained in Indianapolis -- a free-agent frenzy followed. The Broncos emerged victorious. Manning didn't disappoint, leading the team to 11 consecutive wins to close out the regular season and the AFC's top playoff seed. Manning earned Comeback Player of the Year honors and finished second in the MVP race.
19. Darren Sharper (2009, New Orleans Saints)
Sharper spent just two seasons in New Orleans, but his contributions during the team's run to Super Bowl glory in the 2009 season earns the safety a spot on this list. Sharper tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, and returned three of those picks for touchdowns. Sharper anchored an opportunistic defense that ultimately decided the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLIV.
18. Simeon Rice (2001, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The Buccaneers already boasted one of the NFL's best defenses when Rice arrived in 2001 to help add a pass-rushing presence. Rice provided that pressure, registering double-digit sack totals in five consecutive seasons. In the Buccaneers' first and only Super Bowl appearance, Rice recorded two sacks as Tampa Bay dominated the Oakland Raiders, 48-21.
17. Bryce Paup (1995, Buffalo Bills)
Paup went from effective edge rusher in Green Bay to dominant force in Buffalo. Paup led the league with 17.5 sacks in 1995 and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. When Paup arrived in Buffalo, the Bills had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1987. Paup's colossal season propelled the Bills back atop the AFC East.
16. Michael Turner (2008, Atlanta Falcons)
"Burner" Turner was a seldom-used running back in San Diego (well, the Chargers did have a guy named LaDainian Tomlinson toting the football). When provided with an opportunity to be a full-time back, Turner did not let the Falcons down. Turner finished the 2008 season with 1,699 yards rushing (second only to Adrian Peterson in the NFL) and 17 touchdowns. Each total remains a career-high, and Turner followed up his 2008 season with two more 1,000-yard rushing campaigns.
15. Ed McCaffrey (1995, Denver Broncos)
After toiling in relative anonymity with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, McCaffrey emerged as a major player in the Denver Broncos' run to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs in the late 1990s. McCaffrey posted three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 1998-2000.
14. James Farrior (2002, Pittsburgh Steelers)
A bust with the New York Jets, Farrior went to the Steelers and spent the next decade as a vital part of one of the league's best linebacking corps. Farrior was part of three Steelers teams which advanced to the Super Bowl, including two that emerged triumphant.
13. Keenan McCardell (1995, Jacksonville Jaguars)
McCardell emerged as a viable receiving threat for the Cleveland Browns in 1995. As the team moved to Baltimore/went on hiatus, McCardell also took his services elsewhere. In Jacksonville, McCardell teamed with Jimmy Smith to form one of the NFL's best wide receiver duos. On the heels of his first 1,000-yard receiving season, McCardell helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship Game (he scored a touchdown in a historic divisional playoff upset of the Denver Broncos) in just their second season of existence.
12. Priest Holmes (2001, Kansas City Chiefs)
Holmes served as a backup on the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV-winning team in 2000. A year later, Holmes was with the Chiefs and embarking on an epic three-year run of production that delighted fantasy football players the world over and helped him set team career records for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. In 2001, Holmes became the first undrafted player in league history to become the leading rusher (1,555 yards). Holmes wasn't done. He led the league in rushing touchdowns the next two seasons. Holmes earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2002, and Holmes' 27 rushing touchdowns in 2003 set a record (which has been broken twice since then).
11. Mike Vrabel (2001, New England Patriots)
Vrabel was a poster child of the Bill Belichick-led Patriots' gift for taking another team's spare part and turning it into a major cog in a championship machine. Vrabel was a role player with the Steelers. In his first year with the Patriots, Vrabel helped spring one of the biggest upsets in league history in Super Bowl XXXVI. Vrabel's touchdown receptions in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX-- the first by a defensive player in the Super Bowl since the Chicago Bears' William Perry in Super Bowl XX -- helped the Patriots emerge with three Lombardi Trophies in four years.
10. Kevin Mawae (1998, New York Jets)
Mawae's move to the Jets helped the team field one of the league's best offensive lines and pave the way for the Hall of Fame career of running back Curtis Martin. Mawae represented the Jets in six consecutive Pro Bowls from 1999-2004, and his presence was a big part of the team's rise to prominence in 1998, a season that ended with an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
9. Rod Woodson (1998, Baltimore Ravens)
Woodson's sprint to Canton seemed to come to a halt in the mid-to-late 1990s, but a move to Baltimore -- as well as to a new position at safety -- helped revive a Hall-of Fame-career. Woodson was part of the Ravens' championship-winning defense in 2000, a unit considered among the best in the game's history. Woodson's career ended in Oakland, where he participated in another Super Bowl following the 2002 season.
8. Shannon Sharpe (2000, Baltimore Ravens)
The Ravens' run to glory in Super Bowl XXXIV was aided by a timely play by Sharpe in the 2000 AFC Championship Game -- a 96-yard touchdown reception that gave Baltimore a lead it would never relinquish. In Baltimore, Sharpe set tight end records for career receptions, yards and touchdowns (marks previously held by the man who signed Sharpe, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome).
7. Rich Gannon (1999, Oakland Raiders)
It's amazing to think now, but a decade ago the Oakland Raiders were good. So good that they reached a Super Bowl. So good that they nearly derailed the New England Patriots' to-be dynasty before it even got started. Gannon was a big part of a run of success that netted three consecutive playoff appearances for Oakland from 2000-2002. Gannon was league MVP in 2002, led the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII, where Oakland was unceremoniously dumped by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
6. Curtis Martin (1998, New York Jets)
In his second season as Jets coach, Bill Parcells lured his franchise running back from the New England Patriots to New York. In New York, Martin made an immediate impact, helping the Jets reach the AFC Championship Game in the 1998 season. In his 11-year Hall-of-Fame career, Martin had 10 1,000-yard rushing seasons. In 2004, Martin's steady production paid off with a rushing title after running for career-high 1,697 yards.
5. Charles Woodson (2006, Green Bay Packers)
The NFL career of Woodson -- the first, and still only, player to win the Heisman Trophy as a defensive player -- appeared to hit a roadblock in Oakland in 2005. In 2006, the Packers were the only team to offer Woodson a contract. Despite being lukewarm on the idea of playing in Green Bay, Woodson became a deadly force in the Packers' defensive backfield. Woodson earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2009 and became a Super Bowl champion the following year (making a famous postgame speech along the way). Woodson's knack for the pick six (11 in his career) sets him one short of Rod Woodson's record of 12.
4. Kurt Warner (2005, Arizona Cardinals)
After orchestrating the rise of the "Greatest Show of Turf" in St. Louis, Warner helped another woebegone franchise emerge as a contender. Warner led the Cardinals -- a franchise that had gone 60 years between championship games -- to an unlikely Super Bowl appearance. Three of the Cardinals' four home playoff games in team history came with Warner behind center, and each of those three games resulted in an Arizona victory.
3. Deion Sanders (1994, San Francisco 49ers; 1995, Dallas Cowboys)
Sanders' moves between two NFC superpowers of the 1990s led to each collecting a Lombardi Trophy. After a NFL Defensive Player of the Year season and Super Bowl XXIX win with the 49ers in 1994, the Cowboys won the Sanders sweepstakes in 1995. Sanders played a major role in the team winning Super Bowl XXX, including a 47-yard reception that led to the team's first touchdown in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2. Drew Brees (2006, New Orleans Saints)
The confluence of two events -- the San Diego Chargers' acquisition of Philip Rivers during the 2004 NFL Draft and a torn labrum in the 2005 season finale -- led to Brees leaving San Diego. Concerns over the injury led to Brees signing with the Saints, who were coming off a crushing season in which the team was unable to play in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. Since then Brees has lifted the Saints to new heights. The team reached its first NFC Championship Game in 2006, and three years later was a Super Bowl champion. In 2011, Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for most passing yards in a season with 5,476 yards, and in 2012 he set a new NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54..
1. Reggie White (1993, Green Bay Packers)
The most significant free-agent signing in NFL history also occurred in the first offseason that featured free agency. White was the most coveted player on the market in 1993, and his whirlwind free agency tour featured a memorable Sports Illustrated cover and a surprising destination. The Packers were not expected to acquire White, but his arrival signaled a new era in Green Bay. Years of losing were replaced by a run of success. With White anchoring the defense and Brett Favre leading the offense, the Packers were bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Wisconsin in White's fourth year with the team.