This month, the latest crop of NFL free agents will be cashing in on the chance to reach the open market. Now that we have more than 25 years of this kind of player movement under our collective belts, let's take a look back and assemble a starting lineup of the top acquisitions of all time.
Signees who contributed to winning, changed the culture of a team or pulled off a remarkable individual achievement right out of the gate comprise this special group, which was pulled from free agents who signed between 1993 -- when free agency began -- and 2018. (While the players signing in 2019 are making headlines, we obviously don't know yet how Le'Veon Bell and Co. will impact their new teams.) If you think anyone was missed, send me a note ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Quarterback: Drew Brees
Signed with: New Orleans Saints, 2006.
Slam dunk here, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner notwithstanding. Brees beats out both, as he helped lift the Saints from their post-Katrina depths to an NFC Championship Game appearance in his first year under center in New Orleans. He delivered the first Lombardi Trophy to the city following the 2009 season, while setting a record for completion percentage (70.6) that year and again in 2011 (71.2). After that record was broken by Sam Bradford in 2016 (71.6), Brees re-set it in 2017 (72.0) and again in 2018 (74.4). Along the way, he's posted five of the NFL's 11 5,000-yard campaigns while leading the Saints to the postseason in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2018. You could make the argument that, at 40 years old, he's playing at the highest level of his career right now.
Running back: Curtis Martin
*Signed with: New York Jets, 1998. *
Another, well, non-difficult choice, at least when you consider Martin's eight-year tenure with the Jets and the fact he rushed for over 1,000 yards in seven of those years, combined with his immediate impact in New York. Martin is easily the top free-agent acquisition at the running back position of all time. In his first year with the team, the Jets made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game with their newly minted tailback. They had made the postseason once in the previous 11 seasons, not to mention only one conference championship game since the AFL-NFL merger. Right when folks were whispering that Martin's run was done in 2003, he came back in 2004 -- Year 10 of his career -- to lead the league in rushing. No other player has ever paced the NFL in rushing in his 10th season or later.
Running back: Priest Holmes
Signed with: Kansas City Chiefs, 2001.
Holmes inked a nondescript deal with the Chiefs, the kind no one pays attention to -- and then he went on perhaps the greatest three-year run of any player in NFL history. That's no joke. Holmes racked up over 6,500 yards from scrimmage and 61 touchdowns from 2001 to '03! Think about those numbers for a moment. He missed two games, so he averaged -- averaged -- 142.7 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game. That's incredible. Holmes led the NFL in rushing his first year in Kansas City (1,555), then produced his most productive season ever in 2002. That year, Holmes jetted in and out of traffic using his stop-start M.O. to post 2,287 yards and 21 touchdowns in 14 games. Again: incredible.
Receiver: Keenan McCardell
Consistency was the hallmark of McCardell's career. Thus, it's no surprise that he was a fantastic free-agent signing for not one but two franchises. After signing a modest deal with the Jags in 1996, McCardell morphed from your everyday ho-hum wideout to quite the compiler. In six seasons in Jacksonville, McCardell went over 1,100 yards four times. In the two seasons he failed to hit those levels (1998 and '99), he was a solid WR2 to Jimmy Smith with 892 and 891 yards. McCardell's presence also contributed to winning -- the Jags made the playoffs his first four years in town, reaching two AFC title games. In 2002, he inked a deal with Jon Gruden's Bucs, becoming a key asset on Tampa Bay's first (and only) Super Bowl team. The next year, he tallied yet another 1,100-yard season.
Receiver: Terance Mathis
Signed with: Atlanta Falcons, 1994.
You were probably expecting Terrell Owens, Ed McCaffrey or even Pierre Garcon. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason each represented successful dips into free agency by the Ravens. Yet, Mathis narrowly edges Vincent Jackson (who signed with the Bucs in 2012). Mathis and Jackson were both incredibly productive right away for their new teams. Yet, over eight fruitful seasons in Atlanta, the ridiculously underrated Mathis produced four 1,000-yard seasons to Jackson's three, had two double-digit touchdown seasons (Jackson had none) and was integral to Atlanta's trip to Super Bowl XXXIII. In that 1998 season, he caught 64 passes for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns (17.8 yards per catch). Remarkably, he notched 111 catches his first season with the Falcons after only hauling in 93 balls in four previous years with the Jets.
Tight end: Shannon Sharpe
Like McCardell, Sharpe was a top-flight free-agent signee for two franchises. After 10 seasons in Denver, Sharpe was brought in by Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end himself, to get the promising Ravens over the hump in 2000. Sharpe didn't disappoint, posting 810 and 811 receiving yards in his two seasons with the team. How's that for consistency? In the 2000 postseason, Sharpe played like a younger man despite being in his 11th season. He caught a tipped ball against the Broncos in the wild-card game and took it the house for the key score. Ditto the AFC Championship Game, when Sharpe hauled in a Trent Dilfer toss and rumbled 96 yards. In 2002, the muscle-bound hulkster returned to Denver and continued his steady ways, catching 61 and 62 passes over his final two years.
Tackle: Jon Runyan
Signed with: Philadelphia Eagles, 2000.
When Runyan signed for six years and $30 million, it was the largest deal for any offensive lineman ever. Of course, that's peanuts now. What's not peanuts is the level of importance Runyan had to the Andy Reid Eagles. Offensive-line play had been a major issue for the team throughout the '90s. Fresh off the boat (banjo?) from Tennessee, Runyan brought nastiness to the unit, protecting Donovan McNabb against a pretty mean lineup of NFC defensive ends: Michael Strahan, Greg Ellis, Bruce Smith and Simeon Rice (over 500 career sacks combined). If McNabb drove the Eagles' offense, Runyan was the engine torque. The man took no crap and gave plenty, helping his team to four straight championship game appearances.
Tackle: Andrew Whitworth
Signed with: Los Angeles Rams, 2017.
Why are we rolling with someone who signed just two years ago? For starters, good luck finding another offensive tackle in the free-agency era who made first-team All-Pro in his first year with his new team, like Whitworth did in 2017. The Rams' line was an embarrassment before Whitworth arrived; with him in '17, it was, dare we say, almost a team strength, with running back Todd Gurley's yards-per-carry mark increasing by 1.5 from '16! Los Angeles also gave up 21 fewer sacks. Whitworth got much credit -- deserved credit -- for those developments. For a follow-up in '18, he became, at 37, one of the oldest offensive lineman to start in a Super Bowl. Who could blame him for putting off retirement?
Guard: Steve Hutchinson
Signed with: Minnesota Vikings, 2006.
Hutchinson has been a Hall of Fame finalist in each year he's been eligible for good reason. Sure, most of his legacy is tied to paving the way for Shaun Alexander on that SeahawksSuper Bowl team from 2005. Immediately after that season, Hutchinson inked a huge deal with the Vikings -- and he made it pay off, making four straight Pro Bowls and earning three first-team All-Pro nods while contributing to 1,000-yard seasons from Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson. In fact, only once in Hutchinson's stellar 12-year career did a running back not rush for 1,000 yards behind him: Peterson fell 30 yards short in 2011 after suffering a knee injury in December that season.
Guard: Brandon Brooks
Signed with: Philadelphia Eagles, 2016.
After much hand-wringing, Brooks earned the other spot. Alan Faneca was mostly fantastic during his two years with the Jets. Yet, as my editor keenly pointed out, he failed to fulfill his contract when New York went younger. Brooks, on the other hand, has been an absolute gift for the Eagles since the signing. He and Jason Kelce are an outstanding tandem in the middle and were an absolutely integral part of Philadelphia winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history. If the name of the game is winning, and that's the reason GMs dole out large signing bonuses and the like, then the Eagles' outstanding right guard is the right choice. When he's right -- and, of course, when he's healthy -- he's a Pro Bowl, All-Pro-level player.
Center: Kevin Mawae
Signed with: New York Jets, 1998.
Another former Jet, another free-agent steal. A decade before Gang Green lucked into Faneca's services, New York grabbed Mawae. The former Seahawk played eight seasons for the Jets, making the Pro Bowl six times. Mawae had an immediate impact, as his play (along with the rest of the offensive line) was a big factor in New York reaching the AFC title game under Bill Parcells in 1998. The next season, he would be named first-team All-Pro after opening holes for another great free-agent acquisition, Curtis Martin. After missing out on the Hall of Fame as a finalist in 2017 and '18, Mawae earned his long-deserved bust in 2019.
Cornerback: Deion Sanders
As the marquee signing of 1994, Deion Sanders was that year's version of Reggie White. With the Saints charging hard after Sanders, "Prime Time" took less money to play in San Francisco with the hopes of earning a Super Bowl ring. It worked. By the '94 season, Sanders' sixth in the NFL, he had earned a reputation among quarterbacks, who avoided his side of the field like the plague. A few didn't heed the warning. Sanders' legendary football speed showed itself perhaps more than ever that season, as he returned six balls for a whopping 303 yards -- over 50 yards per return! He took three to the house en route to being named Defensive Player of the Year. The silver lining came in the form of a ring, his first. The next season, he signed a five-year deal with the Cowboys, where he won his second Super Bowl and later earned three first-team All-Pro nods.
Cornerback: Charles Woodson
Signed with: Green Bay Packers, 2006.
Charles Woodson could make this list at corner or safety. Yet, we're putting him here because this was the position he played when the Packers first signed him in 2006. For all of the complaining about former Green Bay head honcho Ted Thompson not dabbling enough in the free-agent market, Thompson crushed it with this acquisition. Woodson would go on to make four Pro Bowls, earn a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009 and collect a Super Bowl ring. If he wasn't a guaranteed Hall of Famer yet, his second act in Oakland (he joined the team that drafted him fourth overall on a free-agent deal in 2013) guaranteed it. Woodson added 10 more interceptions and three more sacks to his resume, giving him 65 and 20 for his career. Nobody else is in that rarefied air. Woodson also managed his ninth Pro Bowl appearance in his final season.
Defensive end: Reggie White
Signed with: Green Bay Packers, 1993.
White is the greatest free-agent acquisition since unlimited free agency began in 1993. He was a godsend for the Packers, in the sense that they badly needed a pass rusher and defensive leadership. White also told reporters that God had sent him to Green Bay. That market was the last place any NFL observer thought a big-time free agent would want to call his football home. White not only did just that, but kickstarted a career second act that was as solid as many Hall of Famers' first. In six seasons with the Packers, White chalked up 68.5 sacks. His worst season was 1994, when he "only" had eight quarterback traps. He also lined up outside or inside, making offenses account for him constantly. White was named to the Pro Bowl every season and helped the Pack win their first Lombardi Trophy since the man himself was coaching the team in 1967. His final season at Lambeau saw him register 16 sacks at age 37!
Defensive end: Simeon Rice
Signed with: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2001.
When Rice joined the Bucs, he was already considered one of the NFL's premier pass rushers after five seasons in Arizona -- though he'd only made the postseason once, in 1998, when the Cards were bounced easily in the Divisional Round. His second year in Tampa Bay saw him help push the pirate ship all the way to the Super Bowl, along with another newcomer, Jon Gruden. That Super Sunday in San Diego, Rice piled on Rich Gannon for two sacks. The ring he earned made the money the Glazer family spent truly pay off, especially when you consider that Rice tallied 19.5 sacks that season (including playoffs). In his first five years in Tampa, Rice posted 67.5 sacks -- that's an insane 13.5 average. What a run for player and team.
Defensive tackle: Justin Smith
Signed with: San Francisco 49ers, 2008.
Bells and whistles didn't exactly go off when the Niners inked Smith, who had been solid but not dominant in Cincinnati. Dominant is precisely what he morphed into in San Francisco. In 2009, he made the first of five consecutive Pro Bowls. Like White, Smith could play inside or outside and still manage to get push. During the Jim Harbaugh era, Smith often occupied two blockers as a 3-4 defensive end. That didn't stop him from becoming a first-team All-Pro in Harbaugh's initial season (2011). Under Harbaugh, the Niners reached the NFC title game three consecutive times, with Smith serving as a principal piece.
Defensive tackle: La'Roi Glover
Signed with: Dallas Cowboys, 2002.
Glover narrowly beat out players like Pat Williams and Ted Washington for this spot, partly because -- like Terance Mathis at receiver -- Glover has been almost completely forgotten. In the free-agency era, some players, like Glover, sign just one contract with a team before departing. That said, Glover brought major stability to the Cowboys' defensive line in 2002. He made the Pro Bowl his first year, then made it again in 2003 when Bill Parcells took the helm from Dave Campo. Glover's staunch play allowed linebackers Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley to roam free and make plays, which in turn gave Dallas the league's top ranked defense in 2003. Glover made the Pro Bowl again as a solid performer in his third season in Big D. When Parcells decided to switch schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2005, Glover became expendable. Yet, there were few DT's in that era who could push the pocket like the former San Diego State star.
Outside linebacker: Kevin Greene
Greene is one of the few transient players -- guys who took full advantage of free agency -- to make it into the Hall of Fame. Greene's run from 1993 on was incredible. That was when he became part of defensive coordinator Don Capers' famed zone blitz in Pittsburgh. He put up 35.5 sacks in three seasons with the Steelers, while also starting Super Bowl XXX. Then he joined Capers (who had become head coach of the Panthers in 1995) in Carolina, where he led the league in sacks with 14.5, helping the Panthers to the NFC title game. Next came another single-season act in San Francisco, where Greene generated 10.5 sacks as a pass-rush specialist while helping the Niners reach the NFC Championship Game. Then it was back to Carolina for back-to-back double-digit-sack seasons at age 36 and 37.
Outside linebacker: Bryce Paup
Signed with: Buffalo Bills, 1995.
How many players besides Paup can boast that they were named Defensive Player of the Year in their first season in a new locale? (Got any guesses? Sanders. That's it.) In 1995, Paup led the NFL in sacks with 17.5, winning the highest honor a defensive player can earn and helping Marv Levy's Bills get back to the postseason after a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 1994. Paup would go on to make the Pro Bowl in the next two seasons with the Bills and -- perhaps more importantly -- add some teeth to a defense that often rode a dynamic offense to wins in previous years. Buffalo went from 22nd in points allowed to 12th during his first season there, then sixth in Year 2. Ah, heck, he's still more famous for taking out Randall Cunningham in 1991.
Inside linebacker: Hardy Nickerson
Signed with: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993.
Another of the forgotten players of the 1990s, Nickerson was an absolute stud. Guys who played with or against the rangy middle 'backer will tell you how important he was to those Tony Dungy defenses in Tampa. Nickerson established himself with the Steelers in the late 1980s and early '90s, then signed with the Bucs as part of the first free agent class in 1993. White was the best-known member of that group, but Nickerson joined him as a first-team All-Pro that year. He made five Pro Bowls in seven years with Tampa Bay, including another All-Pro nod in 1997 when the Bucs returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. While Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch get all the credit for those Dungy "Tampa 2" defenses, Nickerson was as good as any of 'em. One more note on truly one of NFL history's most underrated players: Nickerson made 214 tackles his first year with the Bucs. Talk about bang for your buck.
Inside linebacker: London Fletcher
Signed with: Washington Redskins, 2007.
Fletcher had toiled in the league for nine years by the time the Redskins acquired his services in 2007. He had been a solid starter at middle linebacker for both the Rams and Bills, even earning a Super Bowl ring as a second-year starter for the former. In Washington, Fletcher became a leader (and coach) on the field, using his instincts and football IQ to make up for any lack of speed. All of which led to him earning four straight Pro Bowl berths. His first such nod didn't come until age 34! Fletcher never missed a game, playing in a staggering 256 straight. The last 112 came in Washington, including two more in the playoffs. What a phenomenal signing by a team not known for knocking free agency out of the park.
Safety: Rod Woodson
Woodson has been a top signing as both a corner and safety. But it was at safety that he really paid off for the Ravens and Raiders, making it to the Super Bowl with each. Astoundingly, he became an All-Pro at his new position in his mid-30s. Woodson led the NFL in interceptions with both teams, including his 16th season while in Oakland. Before Woodson joined either franchise, he helped the 49ers get back to the NFC title game in 1997 after agreeing to a one-year deal. In '98, Woodson joined Baltimore on a four-year deal. It was there he transitioned to safety, starting for the 2000 team that won it all. Some feel that group was also the greatest defense ever assembled, with Woodson being a key part. Two years later, he was a marquee free agent for the Raiders, making first-team All-Pro and starting in another Super Bowl.
Safety: Tim McDonald
Signed with: San Francisco 49ers, 1993.
Another of the phenomenal free agents from 1993 ... McDonald's presence didn't shake the whole 49ers' defense up, a la White with the Packers, but he was steady for longer. McDonald had established himself as one of the game's premier safeties while with the Phoenix Cardinals. His addition to San Francisco was the first domino to fall in the great rebuild of George Seifert's defense, without which the franchise would have never won a fifth Super Bowl. McDonald's teammates will tell you he was like a coach on the field. He knew how to line everybody up in the secondary and could systematically diagnose plays. McDonald made three straight Pro Bowls upon joining the 49ers while helping them secure the league's top overall defense under then-coordinator Pete Carroll in 1995. Like Nickerson, a terrific -- terrifically underrated -- player.