NFL free agency is upon us in earnest here in the 2013 offseason. The "legal tampering" period is over, and it is time to separate rumor from fact.
There have already been some big moves—roster cuts signing elsewhere or teams trading big names—but the meat of the market starts today. Rarely does a team win free agency
But there are certainly some moves that work out better than others, and some that history favors. What are the 50 greatest moves in free agent history?
Buffalo was Heartbreak City in the early '90s, losing four consecutive Super Bowls, much to the dismay of the Bills faithful.
Jim Kelly led a potent offense throughout those years, and it was Kent Hull who got him the ball.
Hull started out in the USFL, but the Bills snapped him up in 1986 when the fledgling league folded. Hull spent his entire NFL career as a fixture in the middle of the offensive line for Buffalo.
Michael Vick was a frustrating player with the Atlanta Falcons. He oozed talent, but could never quite put it all together at quarterback. Then he got in trouble with the law.
Vick spent two years in prison after being convicted of animal cruelty charges stemming from a dog-fighting ring he ran. He was released from prison at 31 a hated man with no telling how far his football skills had atrophied.
The Eagles took a chance on Vick in 2009, throwing him a lifeline with a new contract that allowed him to take out a new lease on life. It has taken Vick years to rehabilitate his image, and the Eagles gave him the opportunity he may not have gotten elsewhere to do it.
On the field, Vick wound up taking over for Donovan McNabb in 2010 and proceeded to have a spectacular season. Since then he has been a disappointment for Eagles fans, but it is difficult to say Kevin Kolb would have gotten them anywhere—just ask Arizona fans.
Antonio Pierce was an excellent example of a player parlaying one good season at the right time into a nice free agent contract.
Drafted by the Redskins in 2001, Pierce didn't play much during his first three seasons. A 114-tackle season in 2004 netted him a contract with division rival New York, a move that would prove fruitful for both parties.
Pierce captained a good Giants defense— a defense that wound up stopping the high-flying, undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII—for the next four seasons before injuries took their toll.
Before the shooting incident and prison time, Plaxico Burress had some nice years for the New York Giants.
Burress got off to an ignominious start with the Steelers, at one point leaving a live ball on the turf as a rookie because he thought he was still playing college-rules football.
After four seasons in Pittsburgh, Burress traveled up I-95 to play for the Giants, where he played a pivotal role in defeating the juggernaut Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Burress caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the waning moments, preventing New England from making history in the process.
Unfortunately for him, Burress was mad infamous a year later by shooting himself in the leg and earning a prison sentence as a result.
Corey Dillon spent seven seasons mired in the muck of the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was on the "downswing" of his career by the time he joined the Patriots in 2004.
The tread on those tires was wearing thin at 29 years of age, but Dillon was rejuvenated in that Bill Belichick offense. Dillon ripped off 1,738 total yards and 13 touchdowns that season, helping the Patriots to their second consecutive Super Bowl victory and third in four years.
His success was short-lived—Dillon failed to reach his rushing total from 2004 in his subsequent seasons combined—but Dillon was a fantastic piece for New England for one brilliant year.
Perhaps putting him across from the legendary Bruce Smith helped, but Bryce Paup exploded when he landed with the Bills in 1995. (Notice I didn't use the word "literally," because Paup is thankfully still with us.)
The big defensive end did a fine job with the Packers, but the Bills signed him and Paup turned into a pass-rushing monster, at least for one glorious season.
Paup's 17.5 sacks led the league in 1995, helping get the Bills back into the playoffs after missing out for the first time since their inglorious four-loss run in championship games. He would never come close to that production again, but it was a nice signing for Buffalo in the short term.
Hailing from the University of Texas, Cedric Benson had a promising career ahead of him when the Bears took him in the 2005 draft. Things did not pan out for him in Chicago, but he found new life in Cincinnati, of all places.
Three lackluster seasons led the Bears to cut Benson, who landed in Cincinnati on a prayer in 2008. He wound up rushing for 747 yards in just 10 starts that year, leading the Bengals to make him the permanent starter for the next few seasons.
The move paid off as Benson unexpectedly cracked 1,000 yards rushing for three consecutive seasons after that before petering out with age.
Drew Brees gets all the credit for winning the 'S' for the Saints and winning the franchise's first championship, but that defense had plenty to do with it.
Darren Sharper was a huge part of that defense, snatching a league-leading nine interceptions and three touchdowns for New Orleans in 2009. The talented safety came over to the Saints that season after a successful career with the Packers and Vikings.
He might have been 34 and nearing the end of his career, but Sharper played a key role in the Saints' most important season.
Recent free-agent moves are more difficult to evaluate—these guys have had only one season to prove their worth, after all—but there have been a few standouts.
Vincent Jackson is one of those guys, proving he merited that big $55.5 million deal he signed with the Buccaneers last offseason. The Bucs may have had issues elsewhere preventing them from reaching greater heights, but Jackson enjoyed the best year of his career.
The big receiver caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards at a 19.2 yards-per-catch clip—all career highs—to go along with eight touchdowns. Now if he could only play cornerback effectively, the Bucs might be onto something.
The Jaguars were still in infancy when Keenan McCardell came to town. He helped lead them to great heights for an expansion franchise.
McCardell teamed up with Jimmy Smith to form a formidable duo for Mark Brunell, eclipsing 1,000 yards four times in his six-year stint with the Jaguars. Jacksonville made the playoffs four of the six years McCardell was there, coincidentally enough.
The Eagles drafted Bob Kuechenberg in 1969, but he was cut soon thereafter. He then spent a little time in the wasteland that was the Continental Football League before making his way to Miami.
Kuechenberg became an integral part of a dominant Dolphins team that would win two consecutive Super Bowls and complete the NFL's only perfect season.
He spent his rest of his 14-year career with the Dolphins, earning six Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All Pro selections in the process..
You knew you were in trouble when John Runyan got a running start. The big offensive lineman was a force for the Eagles after they handed him the richest contract at the position at that point in history.
Runyan was a fierce competitor—perhaps too fierce at times, which is why his peers considered him to be one of the dirtiest players in the game—and a great teammate.
Mike Vrabel epitomized Bill Belichick's approach to roster building in the early aughts for the Patriots.
Having started his career with the Steelers to little effect, Vrabel signed on with the Patriots and became an important cog in the machine that won three championships in four seasons for Belichick.
Vrabel was a part of a strong defense, an underrated reason why the Patriots were so tough those years. But his most famous contributions came as a pass-catcher, oddly enough.
The linebacker became the first defender to score on offense in the Super Bowl since William "Refrigerator" Perry scored one for the 1985 Bears when he caught a Tom Brady touchdown pass in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX.
James Harrison was originally a Steeler. Then the team cut him. He wound up with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe before the Steelers gave him another shot.
Finally, he stuck, and he wound up becoming one of the most feared players in the NFL. Harrison has been a ferocious part of a stout defense in Pittsburgh, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008.
Shannon Sharpe was already the greatest tight end in NFL history—until Tony Gonzalez came along, at any rate—and he had won two championships with the Broncos. But he needed more.
Sharpe would land with the Ravens at just the right time, boosting the offense enough to stay out of the defense's way.
Once drafted and cut by the New England Patriots, Steve McMichael exacted a measure of revenge as a member of the 1985 Bears squad that eviscerated his former team.
McMichael was a stalwart in the middle of that Bears defense for 12 years after getting canned by the Patriots. He would later become a nice free-agent pickup for World Championship Wrestling as a wrestler nicknamed "Mongo."
Things shaped up nicely for the Broncos during the latter half of the '90s.
Ed McCaffrey came over after a short stint with the 49ers to form a nice combo at receiver with Rod Smith. His first three seasons were pretty good, then he exploded in 1998, surpassing 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career and the first time in three consecutive seasons.
The reliable receiver enjoyed two Super Bowl victories alongside Smith, and he was even productive after John Elway retired. It was a great signing for the Broncos and McCaffrey.
Also originally hailing from the USFL, Gary Zimmerman made his way to the Broncos by way of Minnesota.
The big offensive tackle had seven good years with the Vikings before becoming a free agent in 1992, upon which time he settled on John Elway and the Mile High beat.
The 32-year-old left tackle joined forces with the 33-year-old John Elway, eventually winning the ultimate prize while protecting the legendary quarterback's blind side.
In his five seasons with the Broncos, Zimmerman went to the Pro Bowl three times. He proved to be an important piece of Denver's Super Bowl run in 1996 before finally calling it a career.
The Buccaneers defense was once a proud and stout unit. Ronde Barber remains a relic of that age, and he might tell you that Simeon Rice was one of the more important members of that defense.
Rice came over from Arizona in 2001, where he had been productive out of the gate as a rookie. He turned into a nightmare for opposing defenses with the Buccaneers, posting double-digit sacks for five consecutive seasons before injuries took their toll and forced him to retire.
Tampa Bay won a championship with the help of Rice, who sacked quarterback Rich Gannon twice in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Long before his days as a defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau manned the defensive backfield for the Detroit Lions. He didn't start out for the team, though.
The Browns drafted LeBeau in 1959 but cut him as a rookie. LeBeau landed with the Lions, eventually getting paired up with Dick "Night Train" Lane at cornerback.
LeBeau feasted on opposing quarterbacks throughout his career, intercepting 62 passes in his 14-year career. That is tied for eighth in league history.
Jim Otto sailed through the NFL draft without getting picked before the Oakland Raiders scooped him up as a free agent in the AFL. The rest of the NFL would rue the day.
The former Miami Hurricane spent his entire 14-year career with the Raiders, bringing a big-time attitude to a dominant Raiders club.
Known for a big mouth and a nasty streak, Rodney Harrison brought his game to New England after nine seasons in San Diego.
Harrison would be a key figure in New England's Super Bowl runs of 2003 and 2004.
Though much maligned for his interception woes in his latter days with the Panthers, Jake Delhomme was a great find for a young club trying to exceed expansion-twin Jacksonville's early success.
Delhomme arrived in Charlotte and proceeded to lead the team to an 11-5 season and a Super Bowl berth, just one year after they finished 7-9.
The 28-year-old veteran had his team on the cusp of its first championship as they took a late lead, only to watch Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri play the role of heartbreakers once more.
He would lead his team to the playoffs a couple of more times during his seven-year tenure, never again getting that close to winning it all.
LaDainian Tomlinson ruled the roost in San Diego, Michael Turner languishing behind him on the depth chart for the first four years of his career. He flashed enough potential to draw interest as a free agent, though, and the Falcons won his services.
Turner earned the nickname "The Burner" in Atlanta, where he has been a steady producer despite his reputation as a plodder.
Rod Smith went undrafted in 1995, and the Patriots signed him shortly after the draft. He was let go, and the Broncos scooped him up. John Elway is still smiling.
Elway and Smith hooked up many times over the next several years as the Broncos steamed toward two championships. Smith would remain a fixture in Denver's offense even after Elway's retirement, eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving in eight of the 12 years he spent with the Broncos.
When you think of the modern Pittsburgh defense, James Farrior may not be a name that jumps out at you.
The standout linebacker might prefer it that way, having dominated in quiet fashion throughout his career. Farrior began to round into form with the Jets after a rough start, just in time for free agency. The Steelers signed him to a modest three-year deal, and they reaped the benefits tenfold.
Farrior has been a defensive stalwart for a tough Steelers defense ever since, anchoring the middle of the defense and helping Pittsburgh to two titles.
If ever there was a late bloomer in professional football, Len Dawson might be the prime example.
After a nice college career at Purdue, Dawson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. His tenure in Steeltown was an unmitigated disaster as he started just one game in three seasons. He equaled that start total in two seasons with the Browns after that, never topping 100 yards in a season through his first five years in the league.
The AFL came calling after that, though, and that is where Dawson found his stride.
Dawson signed on with the Dallas Texans—who would eventually become the Kansas City Chiefs—and led them to three AFL championships and Kansas City's only Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
Ten. Consecutive. Championship Games.
Cleveland Browns fans today wish they could have just one of those, but that is the number of championship games Otto Graham led his team to over the course of 10 years between 1946 and 1955, winning seven.
This was an unfortunate turn of events for the Lions, who drafted Graham in 1944. Graham opted to report for duty in World War II, eventually signing with the Browns upon his return to the States.
There is no better career in terms of championships than Graham's. He went to a championship game every year for his 10-year career. That is an impossible task for any free agent today. Even Robert Horry would be stymied.
Perhaps the Jets knew they were getting a once-a-generation player when they gave Kevin Mawae the richest contract for a center at the time.
Mawae was not only a fantastic player and teammate, he was one of the more reliable players in the league. The big center started 112 consecutive regular season games at one point, winning six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in the process.
New York's offensive line was fantastic for much of Mawae's tenure, and he was the rock in the middle of it all.
Hardy Nickerson anchored a tough Buccaneers defense in the late '90s. Unfortunately, he wasn't around to win Tampa Bay's first Super Bowl.
After six productive years with the Steelers as a 3-4 inside linebacker, Tampa Bay signed Nickerson to play Mike linebacker. Nickerson thrived in that role, amassing 214 tackles in his first season with the team.
The defense would grow to become one of the NFL's best under Nickerson's watch, but he was three years gone by the time the Buccaneers realized their Super Bowl dreams.
Joe Theismann might be famous for a broken leg and some incoherent game announcing these days, but there was a time when he played quarterback well for the redskins.
Theismann was drafted by the Dolphins in 1971, but he chose to play in the Canadian Football League while the Dolphins were trouncing the NFL.
The Redskins signed him in 1974, making him their punt returner, of all things, for his first year in the league.
Theismann took over as the team's quarterback in 1976 and eventually led them to a championship in 1982.
As it turned out, reports of Warner's demise were premature.
Warner eventually beat out hotshot Matt Leinart for the starting gig. The Cardinals became a NFC West powerhouse right away with Warner at the helm.
The veteran led them to two NFC Championship games and narrowly missed out on another Super Bowl victory, thanks to the heroics of Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.
Without Don Maynard, Broadway Joe might have been Average Joe.
Maynard bounced around a bit after being drafted and cut by the Giants in 1957, finally landing with the AFL's New York Titans in 1960.
He had over 1,200 yards receiving in his first year, and he helped Joe Namath become a household name when the quarterback broke into the league. He took full advantage of Namath's big arm, as his career average of 18.7 yards per catch would indicate.
When the NFL community discusses offensive guard prospects, Steve Hutchinson often comes up in conversation.
Hutchinson was taken as the 17th pick overall in the 2001 draft, and he did a fine job for the Seahawks.
He was widely regarded as one of the league's best interior linemen when the Vikings scooped him up in free agency.
Depending on how the next few years pan out, Peyton Manning might wind up as the greatest free-agent catch in NFL history.
He needs to win a playoff game and get the Tim Tebow monkey off his back first, but Manning instantly turned the Broncos into an elite team. Denver took a chance in signing Manning to a massive contract given his neck issues, but those fears proved to be unfounded.
In essence, the Broncos got one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history for a few years, even if they are at the back end of his career.
Jerry Rice might have been in the twilight of his career when he left the 49ers, but nobody told that to him.
The Legend managed to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in his first two seasons with the Raiders at the ages of 39 and 40, catching 16 touchdowns during that span. Rice remains the standard for production at a later age.
The Raiders would get to the Super Bowl in part because of Rice and fellow aging receiver Tim Brown.
Who could have known Priest Holmes would put up video-game numbers when he finally got a chance to start?
Holmes backed up the likes of Bam Morris and Jamal Lewis in Baltimore for much of four years before finally getting a chance to strut his stuff for the Chiefs. He responded with some glorious numbers, tantalizing thousands of fantasy footballers in the process.
Three straight seasons of 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage might have been enough to wow fans, but he scored 21 and 27 touchdowns—a record at the time—in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Holmes would succumb to injuries after his three-year supernova.
Before Ed Reed roamed the defensive secondary in Baltimore, there was Rod Woodson.
A stalwart with the Steelers to that point, Woodson and the Ravens were a match made in heaven as his career started to round into the home stretch. After a year at cornerback, Baltimore moved Woodson over to safety, and the defense morphed into a monster.
Woodson was a big part of arguably the best defense in NFL history in 2000, one that propelled Trent Dilfer's offense to victory in Super Bowl XXXV. The defense allowed just 23 total points in four playoff games.
A backup quarterback for most of his 11 years prior to landing in Oakland, Rich Gannon wasn't a highly sought free agent in 1999. As it turned out, the West Coast offense was just what he needed to take flight.
Gannon's career blossomed under Jon Gruden at the ripe age of 34. He was so good he won the league MVP award in 2002, leading the Raiders to a Super Bowl berth in the process.
The Raiders were crushed in the game, and Gannon's career would never recover, but he was a fantastic find out of nowhere.
Despite having arguably his best year of his career in San Francisco, Prime Time might be best known for his days in Dallas.
A year after taking a modest one-year deal to compete for a championship with the 49ers, Sanders chose Dallas and signed a seven-year, $85 million contract with the Cowboys. That made him the highest paid defender in the NFL at the time, and it was well worth the cost for Jerry Jones.
Sanders won another Super Bowl with the Cowboys that year, playing a pivotal role in Super Bowl XXX.
Perhaps the best defensive tackle in NFL history wasn't even drafted.
John Randle came into the league as an undersized player for his position. The 6'1", 293-pound defensive tackle would grow into the best pass-rushing player at his position in NFL history.
Randle amassed 114 sacks with the Vikings, an astounding number for a defensive tackle.
Dick Lane had never really played organized football when he walked into camp for the Los Angeles Rams in 1956. He had spent time in the military, and he simply aspired to more while working a manufacturing job.
The Rams gave him a tryout, and the rest is history.
Lane shattered the record for most interceptions in a season, scoring 14 picks in just 12 games. The record still stands today.
Lane would wind up with the Chicago Cardinals just two years later, but the Rams introduced one of the NFL's greatest defensive backs in history by giving him a shot.
Three great seasons for the Patriots landed Curtis Martin a six-year, $36 million deal with the Jets in 1998. It would prove to be the franchise's best free-agent move in history.
Martin rushed for over 10,000 yards for the Jets in eight seasons, rushing his way into the Hall of Fame as part of the 2012 class. The Jets made the playoffs five of the eight seasons Martin was in town, and he was no small part of their success.
Ted Thompson has been notoriously frugal as the general manager for the Green Bay Packers since 2005. His one and only real free-agent splash was Charles Woodson, and it was a doozy.
The former Heisman winner was good for the Raiders, but he grew into a future Hall of Famer in Green Bay. Woodson was great for the Packers during his tenure there, leading the league in interceptions twice, including 2009 when he won the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Green Bay would experience playoff heartbreak that season, but Woodson keyed an opportunistic defense the following year that was an underrated reason why the Packers won it all.
Drew Brees was fantastic at Purdue, but his height was an issue heading into the NFL.
The 6'0" quarterback has become the poster boy for undersized success at the position, but his size wasn't the only issue when he hit free agency in 2006.
Brees was coming off rotator-cuff surgery after his throwing arm was awkwardly bent during a game with the Chargers. It was so risky that Dolphins doctors scared him off—or simply didn't give him a passing grade on a physical, depending on who you believe—leaving New Orleans to take the plunge.
It could not have been a better decision for Brees and the Saints. The diminutive quarterback led the Saints to their first Super Bowl victory just a few years later, and he remains one of the NFL's top quarterbacks to this day.
Despite an excellent college career, Warren Moon went undrafted. This was, perhaps, the most egregious mistake in NFL history, at least on a corporate level.
Moon lit the CFL on fire during his tenure with the Edmonton Eskimos, becoming the first professional quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards when he hit that mark exactly in 1982. He threw for a league-record 5,684 yards the following season before finally getting the call to the NFL.
Bud Adams made Moon an offer he couldn't refuse, and the Houston Oilers won the star quarterback's services.
After a bit of a rough transition to the different rules the NFL offered, the run-and-shoot offense eventually caught fire in Houston.
Kurt Warner was a supermarket bag boy. Kurt Warner played Arena League and NFL Europe football.
The Rams came calling. Kurt Warner became a superstar.
It didn't start out that way for Warner, who spent the 1998 season playing third-string quarterback to Tony Banks and Steve Bono. Trent Green was signed to be the St. Louis' starting quarterback heading into the 1999 season, but he suffered an ACL injury that paved the way for Warner to jump-start the Greatest Show on Turf.
Warner lit the NFL on fire with help from Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt. He guided the Rams to an improbable Super Bowl berth and victory that season, and he nearly won it all again two years later.
The star quarterback's star was bright, even if that meant it would burn out after a few years. Injuries led to ineffectiveness which led to his exit, but he gave St. Louis a show while he was there.
NFL economics have changed over the past 20 years, signing Deion Sanders to a one-year, $1.2 million deal could be the best value in NFL free-agent history.
The 49ers did just that in 1994, signing Prime Time away from the Falcons specifically because he felt they had the best shot at a Super Bowl among his suitors.
Sanders proceeded to have a fantastic season, helping the 49ers win their fifth Super Bowl in the process. Deion was a two-sport star at the time (baseball), so he signed with the team after the season started.
While he wasn't used in the return game, Sanders might have had his best season as a 49er. He led the league with 303 interception return yards—including a high-stepping, 93-yard affair against his former team in Atlanta—and three touchdowns off six interceptions.
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Johnny Unitas out of Louisville. He found himself in a quarterback competition with three other quarterbacks. He wound up being the odd man out because Walt Kiesling thought he wasn't smart enough to be a quarterback.
Talk about spectacularly poor judgment.
Unitas hitchhiked his way back home and eventually found himself in Baltimore training camp. He eventually found himself in the Hall of Fame.
Johnny U is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, if not the best. The Colts could not have made a better decision to sign him.
Reggie White was a terror for the Philadelphia Eagles. It's no wonder the Packers gave him a plane to seal the deal when he was a free agent in 1992.
He might not have had the insane sack totals he put up annually in Philadelphia, but the Minister of Defense continued to terrorize opposing quarterbacks as a Packer,
White earned a Pro Bowl spot every season he was in Green Bay, and he helped Brett Favre win his only Super Bowl in the 1996 season. White sacked Drew Bledsoe three times in Super Bowl XXXI as the Packers toppled the Patriots 35-21.
The Hall of Famer was the greatest free agent signing in NFL history, and the Packers landed him by using one of the greatest moves in history.