Market mastery: Top 10 free-agency hauls of all time

With free agency upon us yet again, it's time to take a quick look back before this year's feeding frenzy gets going. For all of the tales of foreboding in respect to costly free agents, and the red flares of caution spewed by all the NFL hacks out there, the open market has greatly helped a number of teams through the years.

Most general managers and coaches get it. They realize free agency isn't a quick fix worth having much of the time. Buyer beware, be patient, draft well ... blah, blah, blah ... You've heard it all. Even Redskins owner Daniel Snyder seemingly has gotten the memo. But every now and again, a team takes a huge leap forward by signing someone else's players. Where would the Saints be without Drew Brees (originally a second-round pick for the San Diego Chargers)?

With that in mind, we came up with 10 teams that have benefited most from free agency since its inception in 1993. Here are the rankings:

1) 1994 49ers

Former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy stood silently with owner Eddie DeBartolo in the Texas Stadium elevator after a 38-21 drubbing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1993 NFC Championship Game. DeBartolo looked at Policy and gruffly said, "We need a defense."

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Determined to not let the Cowboys offense pummel them for a third straight January, 49ers brass -- mostly Policy -- worked tirelessly to re-make the defense. Policy signed linebackers Gary Plummer, Ken Norton Jr. and Rickey Jackson in succession. Getting Norton was addition by subtraction in a sense, as the former UCLA standout had been a force for the rival Cowboys.

But Policy wasn't done. Dallas' receivers, particularly Alvin Harper, had flat out destroyed the 49ers defense in each of the last two NFC title games. That changed the day Policy and DeBartolo convinced Deion Sanders to sign on the dotted line. Harper was shut down in the 1994 NFC Championship, while Jackson repeatedly hit Troy Aikman throughout the game. San Francisco finally got past Dallas, before rolling the San Diego Chargers two weeks later in Super Bowl XXIX.

2) 2006 Saints

While the 49ers signed a flurry of great players, the 2006 New Orleans Saints re-invented themselves with just one. Coming off a season in which Aaron Brooks proved he was just good enough to get you beat, GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton grabbed the guy that was just good enough to beat the other team: Drew Brees.

Throwing for over 4,418 yards, Brees and free-agent linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle helped the Saints reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. The $60 million contract Brees signed ended up being a bargain, as he led the Saints to a Super Bowl win three seasons later with the help of another impactful free agent: safety Darren Sharper.

3) 1993 Packers

Ask most league observers, "Who is the best free-agent signing of all-time?" And many will quickly provide the same answer: Reggie White. "The Minister of Defense" was the League's premier defensive player, and the first marquee name at the dawn of free agency as we know it today. The Packers made a big move in securing White, considering that Green Bay was not exactly a young millionaire athlete's dream residence at the time.

It was the right fit. With a young Brett Favre at quarterback and a superstar in wideout Sterling Sharpe, the Packers earned their first playoff berth since 1982. After adding free agents Sean Jones, Eugene Robinson and Desmond Howard in the next couple offseasons, the Packers got the ultimate return on the initial White investment when they won it all in 1996-97.

4) 2003 Panthers

Prior to the '03 campaign, the Carolina Panthers signed Jake Delhomme, receiver Ricky Proehl and running back Stephen Davis. Delhomme quickly took over for Rodney Peete in Week 1 and never looked back, leading the team to an 11-5 regular season record and a thrilling postseason run to the Super Bowl. Proehl added a great veteran presence to the receiving corps, while Davis provided another dimension to the offense with 1,444 yards on the ground -- ultimately finishing third in the MVP race and making his third Pro Bowl.

If it hadn't been for a last-minute Adam Vinatieri field goal, Carolina would have been Super Bowl champs.

5) 2002 Raiders

The last Raiders playoff team had a solid nucleus of free-agent acquisitions: Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson solidified a secondary that endured the retirement of Eric Allen prior to the season, while Bill Romanowski brought an enforcer to the defense.

While adding Woodson and Romanowski was huge, Oakland also made it to the Super Bowl because of free-agency moves made in previous years. Rich Gannon, the 2002 MVP, had been picked up in 1999. Jerry Rice was signed in 2001. Ditto Charlie Garner, who ran for over 900 yards while catching 91 balls in 2002.

6) 1996 Panthers

The Panthers exceeded all expectations in their second season, going 12-4 and making the NFC Championship Game. Considering they were an expansion team in 1995, a large number of their key contributors had been acquired via free agency.

That said, in the early months of 1996, GM Bill Polian outdid himself, signing the big four of Wesley Walls, Eric Davis, Kevin Greene and Steve Beuerlein. The first three would all make the Pro Bowl, while Beuerlein went 3-1 replacing starter Kerry Collins, winning some key games.

7) 2005 Cardinals

What did the 2005 Arizona Cardinals accomplish? Not much. But they did acquire Kurt Warner for a modest $4 million. The organization was hoping to get someone who could solidify the quarterback position where so many had failed.

Warner didn't exactly light it up in 2005 and 2006. But after beating out checkdown champ Matt Leinart in 2008 training camp, the 36-year old vet threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns, leading the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

8) 2001 Buccaneers

While Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy get all the love for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' lone Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season, kudos to former GM Rich McKay, who signed two key free agents in the 2001 offseason: Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice.

Johnson gave the Bucs their best quarterback play since Doug Williams in the early '80s, leading Tampa Bay to the playoffs in 2001 and the Super Bowl in his second season. Meanwhile, Rice proved he was well worth the five-year, $34 million price tag, piling up 67.5 sacks over the next five seasons.

9) 1995 Cowboys

The mid-90s Cowboys were known more for losing players in free agency than signing them. The 1995 offseason was no different, as Mark Stepnoski, Alvin Harper, Jim Jeffcoat and James Washington all signed with other teams.

But owner Jerry Jones didn't exactly just sit idle. After losing to the Deion-aided 49ers in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, Jones enticed "Prime Time" to sign with Dallas for $35 million. Jones' coup became all the more relevant when Pro Bowl corner Kevin Smith tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1. Sanders came in and played brilliantly. Another offseason addition, 16-year vet Ray Donaldson, filled in admirably for the departed Stepnoski, helping Emmitt Smith gain a career-high 1,773 yards and even earning a spot in the Pro Bowl (at 37!). Dallas would go on to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons.

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10) 2005 Giants

In the spring of 2005, GM Jerry Reese made a push to get two players the New York Giants sorely needed: WR Plaxico Burress and LB Antonio Pierce. Burress was signed to a six-year, $25 million deal. Despite Burress' eventual legal troubles, the move paid off in the short-term as the Giants' offense had a big-play threat. Pierce was signed to improve a defensive unit that had a formidable pass rush, but mediocre linebacking crew. Don't sleep on Pierce -- that guy could play. Despite missing three games in 2005, he notched 100 tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, two interceptions and even scored a touchdown.

Both Pierce and Burress would be key cogs for a team that went 11-5 that season after going 6-10 the year before, and that eventually won it all in 2007.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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