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The Best Signing in Every NFL Free-Agent Class Throughout the Modern Era

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIFebruary 9, 2016

The Best Signing in Every NFL Free-Agent Class Throughout the Modern Era

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    In 1993, Reggie White's contract with the Philadelphia Eagles expired and the star defensive end hit the open market. NFL free agency, in effect, was born.

    White was the first big-name player to bolt from one team to the next, but he wasn't the last. In fact, he was starting a trend. Since 1993, each year has featured at least one big-name player hitting the market, and spending free-agent dollars has become a key facet of every team's offseason strategy.

    Free agency often involves tremendous gambles, with millions and millions of dollars on the line. Some decisions don't pan out, and can cripple a franchise. Others are successes and can reap the championships they were intended to.

    Here are the best free agency decisions from each year of the post-White era.

1993: Reggie White

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    When Green Bay won the battle for Reggie White's services, it marked a momentous change that affected both the Packers and Philadelphia Eagles franchises.

    With the Eagles, White was well on his way to becoming the greatest defensive end of all time, earning seven straight All-Pro selections and recording the greatest pass rushing season in NFL history in 1987, when he notched 21 sacks in only 12 games.

    White was expected to return to Philadelphia, but four years and $17 million brought him to the Packers, who became one of the best NFL franchises with the Hall of Famer anchoring the defensive line. White was an All-Pro his first season in Green Bay (1993), as well as in 1995 and 1998, the latter of which also saw him win Defensive Player of the Year.

    His greatest moment came in January of 1997, however, when he sacked Drew Bledsoe three times as the Packers beat the New England Patriots, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI. It was a dominating effort by a player who dominated his entire career.

1994: Deion Sanders

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    The San Francisco 49ers couldn't get over the hump. In 1992, they lost to Dallas in the NFC championship game. In 1993, they lost again in the NFC championship, again to the Cowboys.

    In 1994, the 49ers finally beat Dallas, 38-28, in the championship game and rolled to a Super Bowl victory against an overwhelmed San Diego Chargers team.

    What made the difference? Well, adding the game's greatest shutdown corner definitely helped.

    Deion Sanders was a dazzling cornerback and return man with Atlanta from 1989 to 1993, but when his contract with the Falcons ended, he chose to pursue a one-year deal, and he opted for his next start to be in San Francisco.

    The move worked. Sanders brought a new dimension to the 49ers defense, removing half of the field from play and making quarterbacks pay if they tested him, picking off six passes and returning three for touchdowns en route to Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    With Sanders, the Niners rolled to 13 regular-season wins and the title, but it was a short-lived romance. Sanders didn't return for a second contract with the team, opting instead to try the market again, where there was another premier franchise eager for his services.

1995: Deion Sanders

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    In 1995, Deion Sanders was a free agent again, and after an intense sweepstakes for his services, he went to the team he had just finished helping his previous squad beat.

    Sanders joined the Cowboys on a seven-year, $25 million deal. Once again, the move to sign the Hall of Famer paid immediate dividends, as the Cowboys, who didn't get Sanders until Week 2, went 12-4 and won a third Super Bowl in four years.

    It was Dallas's one and only Super Bowl title with Sanders, but it's enough to back the signing as a great one. He was a champion his first year in Big D and an All-Pro in the next four, leaving for Washington after the 1999 season.

1996: Troy Vincent

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    Unlike Deion Sanders, Troy Vincent didn't sign a contract and immediately set the world on fire.

    Instead, the Philadelphia Eagles, who landed the 1992 seventh overall pick and former Miami Dolphin with a five-year, $16.5 million contract, had to wait for the benefits of the move.

    The wait was worth it.

    Vincent didn't make a Pro Bowl until 1999, his fourth year in Philadelphia, but he became a Honolulu regular. He made the Pro Bowl each year between 1999 and 2003, and became an anchor in a brilliant Eagles secondary that included cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard and safety Brian Dawkins.

    Led by that defense, the Eagles made four straight NFC championship games between 2001 and 2004, finally winning in '04 and going to Super Bowl XXXIX.

1997: Michael McCrary

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    In 1996, the Baltimore Ravens were only 4-12. But the seeds of a top-notch defense, most notably rookie linebacker Ray Lewis, had been planted.

    The Ravens just needed a little more talent. So when defensive end Michael McCrary, a former Seattle Seahawk, was available, Baltimore pounced.

    McCrary landed in Charm City for the modest price of $6 million over three years, but made an instant impact. Playing in a front seven that included rookie linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper and fellow free agent signing Tony Siragusa, McCrary made Pro Bowls in 1998 and 1999, was All-Pro in '98 and totaled 51 sacks in six seasons as a Raven.

    McCrary wasn't the only good player on that Ravens defense, but he was a big part. With him in the mix, the Ravens became the most fearsome defense of the new millennium and brought home a Lombardi trophy with a win in Super Bowl XXXV.

1998: Curtis Martin

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    There once was a time when the New York Jets consistently beat the New England Patriots. And there was no bigger coup for Gang Green than when they snatched star running back Curtis Martin from the Pats before the 1998 season.

    Martin had been a budding franchise back for New England, making two Pro Bowls and helping the Patriots reach Super Bowl XXXI. He was a restricted free agent following the 1997 season, and former Pats coach Bill Parcells was eager to re-unite with the back with the Jets, signing him to a six-year, $36 million offer sheet.

    The Patriots didn't match it, and for the price of a first- and third-round pick, Martin was a Jet and the so-called "Border War" between the two franchises was on.

    Martin was worth the investment. He was a Pro Bowler his first year in the Meadowlands, when the Jets went to the AFC championship game, was an All-Pro three more times and won a rushing title in 2004.

    Martin's career earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he'll be going in as a Jet. Just what the team intended heading into the 1998 season.

1999: Rich Gannon

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    The Oakland Raiders have become synonymous recently with bad moves. But in 1999, they were the ones pulling off the heist.

    Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon was available, and the Raiders wanted him. There was little buzz around Gannon, who was already 33 and not even an established starter in the league, so the Raiders got him for the modest price of $16 million over four years.

    Al Davis and Co. hit it out of the park. Gannon was a Pro Bowler his first season in Oakland and the next three seasons afterward, and was the NFL MVP in 2002. He flirted with the passing yards record in '02, finishing with 4,689 yards, 26 touchdowns and a 97.3 rating. He brought the Raiders to Super Bowl XXXVII that year, the team's first appearance in the title game since 1983.

    Gannon stayed in Oakland beyond his original contract, but injuries forced his retirement before the 2005 season at the age of 39.

2000: Joe Horn

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    In 2000, the New Orleans Saints got a top-flight receiver for a fraction of the cost. They invested $10 million over four years to sign Joe Horn, a former Kansas City Chief and fifth-round pick who had started just two games in four years.

    Horn combined with quarterback Aaron Brooks and running backs Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister to form a potent offense in New Orleans. Horn was the top weapon, making Pro Bowls in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 and hauling in 437 passes for 6,289 yards and 45 touchdowns in his first five seasons.

    And of course, who can forget this?

2001: Priest Holmes

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    In need of a running back for the 2001 season, the Kansas City Chiefs settled on an unheralded halfback named Priest Holmes, who had been a backup for the Baltimore Ravens since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1997, even though he did have a 1,000-yard season to his credit.

    The Chiefs got the former Texas Longhorn for $8 million over five years. For a backup's ransom, Kansas City was rewarded with a superstar.

    Holmes was arguably the best running back in the NFL the moment he started taking handoffs in Arrowhead Stadium. In 2001, he was the NFL's leading rusher with 1,555 yards. In 2002, he upped his numbers to 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns. In 2003, he set an NFL record with 27 touchdowns.

    And just like that, the magic was gone. Holmes was injured in 2004 and 2005, and Larry Johnson came on to take over the starting job in Kansas City. By 2007, Holmes, unable to recover from a neck injury, was out of the league.

    Holmes's peak was brilliant, however. For a few years—and just that—he was as good as there was.

2002: James Farrior

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    The eighth overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft, James Farrior had great things expected of him when he joined the New York Jets.

    Those great things did come—when Farrior was wearing the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The Virginia product was signed by Pittsburgh for three years and $5.4 million after New York allowed him to leave, and just like seemingly every linebacker that ever joins the Steelers, he thrived. He was an All-Pro selection in 2004 and 2008, and finished runner-up to Ed Reed for Defensive Player of the Year in 2004.

    He was an anchor on a vaunted Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to Super Bowl titles in 2005 and 2008 and a third appearance in 2010. He's still in Pittsburgh now, which is a credit to his longevity and his successful salvaging of a career that his first team at one point thought was going nowhere.

2003: Rodney Harrison

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    Heading into the 2003 season, the New England Patriots had talent on both sides of the ball, but they needed a menacing presence, someone to bring attitude and a spark to the team.

    The San Diego Chargers' trash was their treasure. The Bolts dropped Rodney Harrison, and the Patriots swooped in and picked up the 30-year-old safety and oft-accused "dirty player."

    The move was a perfect fit. Harrison commanded instant respect from the veteran Patriots and was a terrific leader. He brought that mean streak and some punishing hits to Foxborough and helped the Pats become the toughest defense in the league, a transition that resulted in Super Bowl titles in 2003 and 2004.

    Harrison was also as clutch a defensive player as there was in the game. He had an interception against Peyton Manning in the '03 AFC championship, an interception against Ben Roethlisberger in the '04 AFC championship and two picks against Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX.

    Harrison was an All-Pro his first two years in New England and he wrapped up a career with the Patriots that will one day merit him a Hall of Fame induction.

2004: John Lynch

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    John Lynch was a vital part of a scary Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, an annihilating safety whose vicious hits made wide receivers nervous to go over the middle.

    Lynch made five Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl title in Tampa Bay, but after the 2003 season, the Buccaneers parted ways with the 32-year-old and let him test the free-agent market.

    He was far from finished. For the price of a $9 million, three-year contract, the Denver Broncos saw it for themselves.

    Denver signed Lynch prior to the 2004 season, and the returns were excellent. Lynch was in Denver for four seasons and made the Pro Bowl each time, serving as a defensive captain in two years and helping the Broncos make two playoff appearances, including a trip to the 2005 AFC championship game.

    Lynch wasn't quite the player he was in Tampa Bay, but he was very good. He forced nine fumbles in his four years as a Bronco, and also picked off three passes and notched seven sacks. Denver was his final stop, as he retired following the 2007 season.

2005: Kurt Warner

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    The idea of Kurt Warner hitting the free-agent market once seemed unthinkable. After all, between 1999 and 2001 he was the best quarterback in the game, a two-time MVP with a Super Bowl ring on his hand.

    But the Warner story quickly ran out of drama, and by 2005, he was a vagabond veteran. He was signed by Arizona for one year and $4 million, but he couldn't do for the Cardinals what he did for the Rams. He played well in spurts, but when Matt Leinart was drafted to be the franchise quarterback in 2006, Warner was kept on just to be a backup and mentor for the promising lefty.

    Or so everyone thought.

    Instead, Leinart proved to be the Matt Leinart we know and love today, so in 2008, Warner was handed the keys to a Cardinals offense that had fantastic wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

    The Greatest Show on Turf was a thing of the past, but suddenly, the Greatest Show on Retractable Grass was in business.

    Warner was the Warner of old, racking up the passing yards and touchdowns and turning the Cardinals into a high-flying aerial circus. The consistency wasn't there but the explosive potential was, and behind the 37-year-old Warner, who threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns, the 9-7 Cardinals went through the NFC playoffs and came within a final drive of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Super Bowl title.

    In 2009, Warner brought the Cards to the playoffs again, and went 29-of-33 for 379 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in a crazy 51-45 Wild Card win over Green Bay. The Cardinals' season—and Warner's career—came to a close the next round against the New Orleans Saints, but Warner by then had done well to resuscitate his career, and make a case for selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2006: Drew Brees

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    If it's possible to get a franchise with one free-agent pickup, the New Orleans Saints did just that with Drew Brees.

    A franchise still reeling following Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and Louisiana, the Saints, 3-13 in 2005, were eager to find a player to serve as a face of the organization as it tried to begin the restoration process.

    The team settled on Brees, who had had some flashes of greatness in San Diego but was deemed expendable after a serious shoulder injury put him behind future star Philip Rivers on the depth chart.

    For $60 million over six years, Brees became a Saint. It was, without exaggeration, the greatest free-agency move of all time. Reggie White and Deion Sanders helped define the impact and role of free agency, but it was never responsible for a move that would change the future of an entire organization the way the signing of Brees did.

    With Brees, the Saints were instantly competitive. They made the NFC championship game that season, losing to Chicago. In 2008 they narrowly missed the playoffs, but Brees passed for over 5,000 yards. In 2009, the story came full circle, as the Saints went all the way and won their first Super Bowl title.

    The culture is different in New Orleans now. The Aints are gone. The Saints, instead, are a powerhouse, a team feeding off of a fervent fanbase and winning culture.

    It's all thanks to the quarterback, who set a record for passing yards in a season this past year. As Brees showed, it's impossible to overspend for the right player.

2007: Leonard Davis

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    The Dallas Cowboys made two good decisions heading into the 2007 season. The first one was signing former Arizona Cardinal Leonard Davis to a seven-year, $49.6 million deal. The second was switching Davis from left tackle to his original guard position.

    Smart move.

    Davis found instant success in Dallas. He was an All-Pro his first season with the Cowboys, and made Pro Bowls the next two seasons as well. The Cowboys made the playoffs twice in those first three seasons, advancing to the NFC divisional round in 2007 and 2009.

    Davis gave the Cowboys a few stellar seasons, but that was it. He didn't make the Pro Bowl in 2010 and was released before the 2011 season. He's in Detroit now, 33 years old, trying to find that form that allowed him to be one of the best guards in football.

2008: Michael Turner

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    This was a tough one. The 2008 free agency period saw numerous big names switch teams, as Asante Samuel left New England and became a Pro Bowl cornerback in Philadelphia, and Justin Smith left Cincinnati to become one of the game's best defensive linemen in San Francisco.

    But the best move goes to Atlanta, which spent $34.5 million to land running back Michael Turner from the San Diego Chargers.

    Turner was considered an underrated player in San Diego, a solid running back stuck behind starter and franchise icon LaDainian Tomlinson. In 2008, the Chargers, not wanting to pay Turner starter money, let him go and the Falcons pounced, eager to hand him the starting running back spot.

    Atlanta had an offense in a full-fledged rebuilding mode, having drafted Matt Ryan third overall to play quarterback right away, and Turner eased that process. He was named All-Pro his first season after running for 17 touchdowns, and was All-Pro again in 2010 when he led the NFC in rushing.

    With Turner in place, the Falcons offense immediately went from a raw, inexperienced unit to one of the most potent in football. The Falcons have been a consistent playoff contender since his arrival, and he's shown no signs of slowing down.

2009: Brian Dawkins

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    Just like they did with John Lynch in 2004, the Denver Broncos again spent on a veteran safety in 2009, and again came away with a winner.

    Brian Dawkins had established a Lynch-esque reputation in Philadelphia, having built a career off of big hits and smart play while making seven Pro Bowls between 1999 and 2008.

    When the Broncos signed him for five years and $17 million, they were gambling that his tank wasn't empty. It wasn't.

    He was named All-Pro and a starter on the AFC Pro Bowl team his first year, when he finished with 11 passes defended, one forced fumble and two interceptions, and earned a second Pro Bowl nod this season.

    Unfortunately, a neck injury this season forced him to miss the ending of the regular season, and the Broncos defense, an inspired unit with him leading the way, slipped into being a below-average group with him off the field.

    Dawkins may be done for good due to the injury, but for a little while at least, the Broncos had the star safety they were looking for when they signed him.

2010: Julius Peppers

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    A bitter falling out between Julius Peppers and the Carolina Peppers became a divorce in 2010, when the Panthers let the disgruntled defensive end hit the open market.

    Like Reggie White 17 years before him, Peppers generated plenty of speculation over where he would go, but he ended the suspense when he signed a six-year, $91.5 million contract with Chicago on March 5.

    It remains to be seen how this will ultimately pan out for the Bears, but the early indications are that Chicago got just what it was looking for. Peppers might be the best defensive end in football. He's been impressive in the Windy City both years, notching All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2010 and a Pro Bowl selection last year.

    He's recorded 19 sacks in two seasons (impressive considering how focused opposing game plans are on stopping him) and forced seven fumbles, and also helped Chicago reach the NFC championship game in 2010. The Bears paid a lot for him, but he appears to be totally worth it.

2011: Johnathan Joseph

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    Johnathan Joseph was supposed to be the consolation prize. The silver medal.

    Everyone was after Nnamdi Asomugha during the post-lockout free-agent frenzy, and when the Texans announced that they had landed Joseph, a former Cincinnati Bengal, for five years and $48.75 million, fans and media members alike figured the Texans were just settling for second best.

    Instead, Asomugha was a letdown for Philadelphia, which won the sweepstakes. Joseph, meanwhile, was the real prize to be had.

    The Texans committed themselves to revamping their putrid pass defense by the start of the 2011 season, and Joseph helped that transformation happen. The Texans finally had a legit No. 1 corner, as Joseph finished with four interceptions and 15 passes defended. He was an instant success, and was rewarded with his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

    The Texans went from being a sieve defensively to being one of the stiffest units in the league, and Joseph helped expedite the process. While the Eagles hope Asomugha, and the whole team, can turn things around by next season, the Texans already know they landed a corner that's right for them.

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