Teams can only hope that when they sign a free agent to a big contract, he delivers the goods. So which free-agent move has been the best in the last 10 years? It's pretty clear to our experts, but one has a different opinion.
Can there be another answer besides the New Orleans Saints signing Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal in 2006? This is one of the all-time great comeback and feel-good stories the NFL has ever seen.
<table align="right" width="315px"> <tbody> <tr> <td> <content:static src="/widgets/custom/packages/latest_debates.html"></content:static></td> </tr> </tbody> </table> The Saints were left as the only team willing to take a chance on Brees after he suffered a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder while playing for the San Diego Chargers in 2005. The Miami Dolphins had been in the running but ultimately backed out over concerns about Brees' shoulder and decided to trade for Daunte Culpepper. Brees merely proceeded to put together five consecutive standout seasons, winning a Super Bowl and earning a Super Bowl MVP along the way. In addition, he established himself as a true saint with his tremendous contributions to helping New Orleans recover and rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I would point to Drew Brees' signing to New Orleans as the best free-agent signing over the past 10 years. He overcame a significant injury to become one of the best quarterbacks in the game while leading his team to a Super Bowl championship. His combination of outstanding performance and production has made the Saints' offense one of the most difficult units to defend, and his consistent play at the position has made them a perennial threat in the NFC.
If you throw in the leadership that he has provided in the locker room and community, it is easy to pick Brees as the best free-agent signing in recent history.
Miami's decision to pass on Brees for Daunte Culpepper opened the door for the exiled Chargers quarterback to go to New Orleans, where he joined the right coach in the right city at the right time. Brees and Sean Payton are incredibly cerebral and innovative, and their success might not have been what it's been without the other. Brees helped the Saints win a Super Bowl and go through a run of unprecedented success for that franchise. Along the way, he became a galvanizing figure in a region in need of inspiration and hope after Katrina.
There is little doubt in my mind that the signing of Drew Brees by the Saints was the best move of the past 10 years. The Dolphins had the first opportunity and decided to pass for medical reasons. Brees hasn't missed a game in five years, has led his team to a Super Bowl title and has thrown 155 touchdowns in regular and postseason games. He's been unreal.
I'm going with James Harrison. The man came to Pittsburgh a virtual unknown, having been cut and bounced around practice squads. He was signed for peanuts and has risen to become an annual All Pro, a perfect fit in Dick LeBeau's attacking 3-4 system.
Harrison has become the central figure on what has been the league's dominant defense over the last decade, someone who menaces opponents all over the field, forces teams to change tendencies and game plans, and skirts the line (some would say crosses it) on dirty play. I'm sorry, but you want that from a face-of-the-franchise linebacker.
Harrison is a self-made success story in an era of bonus-baby top draft picks and made one of the true defining plays in Super Bowl history in 2009, picking off Kurt Warner to end the half and running the length of the field for a touchdown and swinging that championship in Pittsburgh's favor.
Harrison has helped usher in another fearsome group of younger linebackers in Pittsburgh and joins a long line of defenders from that franchise who were among the very best to play the game during the years they were there.
Thought seriously about going with a diamond in the rough here with Mike Vrabel, who joined New England on a three-year, $5.29 million deal in 2001 and came to embody maybe more than any other player what the championship-era Patriots were all about. But it was too hard not to go with Michael Vick in this spot, who the Eagles nabbed shortly after he was released from prison on a two-year deal that, even with incentives, cost the club less than $10 million. Start with the 3,018 passing yards, 676 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns he compiled in 12 games last season. And then, go to the flexibility he gave the Eagles to deal Donovan McNabb and now, likely, Kevin Kolb as well. From the McNabb deal, Philadelphia copped starting safety Nate Allen, who looks like a cornerstone, rookie linebacker Casey Matthews, and they still have a fourth-rounder (Tampa's, acquired in a trade) left over. And then, there's the ransom they'll get for Kolb. Taking Vick back in 2009 was a risk, to be sure. But the reward has been greater than maybe even the Eagles could've imagined.
But the free agency move that really sticks out to me is the Darren Sharper acquisition in 2009. The Saints signed him to one-year, $1.7 million dollar deal. It's memorable because it was such a great value pickup; sometimes the best moves in free agency are the ones that provide the most bang-for-the-buck. Has any 33-year old come out of nowhere to outperform a contract like Sharper did? New Orleans got nine interceptions and three touchdown returns from their investment, not to mention Sharper provided leadership on the side of the ball where the team really needed it. Brees and Marques Colston might be like Axl and Slash, and certainly made the offense formidable that season, but the Saints wouldn't have won the Super Bowl without Sharper.