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Biggest Investments That Have Paid off in Recent NFL History

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014

Biggest Investments That Have Paid off in Recent NFL History

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    We are rapidly approaching free-agent season in the NFL.

    While most team executives will resolutely say the best way to build a consistently strong team in the NFL is through the draft, there is no doubt that finding the right free agent or making a trade for the right player can light the way for any franchise.

    There are many free-agent signees and trades that have worked out well and many more that have not. 

    In this piece, we look at some of the best player investments over the last 20 years.

Priest Holmes, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Position: Running back

    Best season with Kansas City: 2002, 1,615 yards, 5.2 yards per carry and 21 rushing touchdowns

    How he was acquired: Signed free-agent contract with Chiefs, 2001

    Analysis: The Baltimore Ravens knew they had a pretty good running back in Priest Holmes. However, with a studly power back in Jamal Lewis on the roster, they simply were not in a position to give him more than a token amount of carries.

    That meant that he was available on the open market in 2001 when he became a free agent. While Holmes had rushed for 588 yards and two touchdowns in 2000, there wasn't a lot of demand for his services. However, Kansas City general manager Carl Peterson did not hesitate to sign the hard-running yet elusive Holmes, and the move turned out to be a blockbuster for the Chiefs.

    Holmes earned a base salary of $849,120 in 2001 and the Chiefs gave him a $2 million signing bonus. He ran for 1,555 yards and eight touchdowns. That was just the beginning of his great run in Kansas City. He followed that with 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2002 and 1,420 yards and a monstrous 27 touchdowns in 2003.

    The Chiefs would eventually raise his salary to $5 million per year, but there was little doubt that the Chiefs made a sensational deal that improved the team's ability to run with the football.

Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Position: Quarterback

    Best season with Arizona: 2008, 401-of-598 for 4.583 yards with 30 TDs and 14 interceptions

    How he was acquired: Signed free-agent contract with Cardinals, 2005

    Analysis: Kurt Warner appeared to be on his last legs when the Arizona Cardinals signed him to a contract in 2005 that paid him just over $4 million. Warner had struggled during his previous season with the New York Giants and he looked nothing like the quarterback who had led the St. Louis Rams to their only Super Bowl title in the 1999 season.

    However, Warner was not healthy in his final seasons with the Rams and his one season in New York. As a result, the Cardinals took a chance that he could once again become a solid NFL quarterback when he got healthy. 

    Warner didn't do that immediately, but he was very good in 2007 and he was ready to have a huge season in 2008. Not only did he have a sensational statistical season (see above), he led the Cardinals to the only Super Bowl appearance in their history. 

    While Arizona dropped a 27-23 decision to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, Warner was superb and he nearly led the Cardinals to victory. He turned out to be a brilliant acquisition for the Cardinals and it was an excellent move for Warner as well.

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Position: Quarterback

    Best season with New Orleans: 2011, 468-of-657 for 5,476 yards with 46 TDs and 14 interceptions

    How he was acquired: Signed free-agent contract with Saints, 2006

    Analysis: Drew Brees was a very solid quarterback with the San Diego Chargers through the first five years of his career, but the Chargers ended up with Philip Rivers after drafting Eli Manning (traded to N.Y. Giants) with the first pick in the 2006 draft.

    Brees signed as a free agent with the Saints, and a good quarterback became a great one. He threw for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first season with the Saints and that was his jumping off point. He has regularly been among the top three quarterbacks in the NFL on a consistent basis. 

    While the Saints paid a hefty price for him—he earned $22 million in his first season in New Orleans—he has been well worth the investment and is a sure thing to earn a spot in Canton five years after he retires. He led the Saints to their only NFL title when they defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.

Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Position: Wide receiver

    Best season with Indianapolis: 2012, 106 receptions for 1,355 yards and five TDs

    How he was acquired: Re-signed with Colts after becoming a free agent, 2012

    Analysis: Many NFL observers thought Reggie Wayne made a mistake when he decided to stay with the Colts in 2012 after reaching free agency. The Colts had cut ties with Peyton Manning and it appeared they would be going through a lengthy rebuilding period.

    However, Wayne decided not to leave the Colts for greener pastures. He signed a three-year, $17.5 million contract to remain in Indianapolis.

    Wayne knew that the Colts were going to draft an elite quarterback, and Andrew Luck clearly fit that description when he was taken with the No. 1 selection.

    Wayne gave the rookie quarterback Andrew Luck a receiver who could get open in an instant, and Wayne caught 106 passes for the Colts. While his 2013 season ended with an ACL injury, Wayne still figures heavily in the Colts' game plan as long as he makes a full recovery.

Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets

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    BILL KOSTROUN/Associated Press

    Position: Running back

    Best season with N.Y. Jets: 2004, 1,697 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and 12 TDs

    How he was acquired: Signed free-agent contract with New York Jets, 1998

    Analysis: Curtis Martin was a restricted free agent prior to the 1998 season, but the Jets didn't care that they would lose two first-round picks by signing him. He had been a special running back for three seasons in New England, and when Bill Parcells became head coach of the Jets in 1998, he knew he had to get the back who had meant so much to him during his time in New England.

    Martin became an even better back in New York than he had been in New England. After signing a five-year, $30 million contract with the Jets, Martin would run for 1,000 yards or more for seven consecutive years and he would also play a key role as a receiver and a blocker.

    The Jets would play winning football (.500 or better) during Martin's first five seasons in New York, and he regularly lived up to or exceeded Parcells' high expectations.

Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Position: Quarterback

    Best season with Chicago: 2010, 261-of-432 for 3,274 with 23 TDs and 16 interceptions

    How he was acquired: Traded to Chicago Bears by Denver Broncos for Kyle Orton, two first-round draft choices and a third-round choice, 2009

    Analysis: Jay Cutler is one of the most scrutinized and criticized players in the NFL. He is often looked at as a bit of a sulker and something of a diva, dating back to his days with the Denver Broncos. However, since he was traded to the Chicago Bears prior to the 2009 season, he has become the best quarterback in team history.

    When Cutler was acquired, Hall of Famer Sid Luckman held most of the Bears' passing records. Luckman threw his last pass in 1950. While the Bears are the NFL's charter franchise, their lack of success in the passing game was startling prior to Cutler's acquisition.

    Heading into the 2014 season, the Bears have one of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL. If Cutler and key offensive players like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte can stay healthy, the Bears could be one of the most difficult teams to stop in the NFL.

    While Cutler will make mistakes at key moments and does not offer a personality that's easy for his teammates to embrace, he is the best quarterback in team history and the key to the Bears becoming a team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl.

Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Defensive back

    Best season with Green Bay: 2009, nine interceptions, three returned for TDs and 18 passes defensed

    How he was acquired: Signed as a free-agent by the Green Bay Packers, 2006

    Analysis: The Packers had a lot of work to do as they prepared for the 2006 season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

    Brett Favre was still throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy in 2006, and the Packers had designs on getting back to playing respectable football after a miserable 4-12 season in 2005. They signed free-agent Charles Woodson, and he immediately gave the Green Bay defense the consistency and productivity it needed.

    Woodson was paid $10,503,080 in 2006 and the Packers became an 8-8 team. They would continue to improve and would eventually win the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. Woodson would play seven seasons in Green Bay before going back to his original team, the Oakland Raiders, in 2013. He was one of the Packers' top free-agent acquisitions of the last 20 years.

Simeon Rice, Tampa Bay Bucs

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    Doug Benc/Getty Images

    Position: Defensive end

    Best season with Chicago: 2002, 15.5 sacks, 52 tackles and one interception

    How he was acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Bucs, 2001

    Analysis: When Simeon Rice became a free agent prior to the 2001 season, he appeared to be a perfect match for the Tampa Bay Bucs. Rice had been one of the premier pass rushers in the league with the mediocre Arizona Cardinals, while the Bucs were coming into their own as an NFL power.

    Rice recorded 11.0 sacks in his first season in Tampa Bay as the Bucs went 9-7 and made the playoffs. The next year, Rice was arguably the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league as he had 15.5 sacks and the Bucs went on to win the only Super Bowl in their history.

    Rice's original contract with the Bucs paid him $1,000,960, a veritable bargain. He would eventually get his payday prior to the 2003 season when he signed a five-year, $41 million contract that included a $20 million signing bonus.

Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Position: Defensive end

    Best season with Chicago Bears: 2012, 12.5 sacks, 39 tackles, one forced fumble and four fumble recoveries

    How he was acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Chicago Bears, 2010

    Analysis: Julius Peppers was one of the best defensive ends in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers when he became a free agent prior to the 2010 season. The Bears, desperately in need of a pass rusher, camped out at his door step at the start of free agency and made a substantial offer to Peppers the moment they were legally able to do so.

    Peppers was an explosive pass rusher who also excelled against the run. The Bears made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game in 2010 and Peppers was one of the key reasons behind their success.

    He combined monstrous athleticism with outstanding technique and that's why the Bears signed him to a six-year, $91.5 million contract. While the 2013 season was not his best—just 7.5 sacks—he continues to be a dynamic force who should be able to bounce back in 2014.

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Position: Quarterback

    Best season with Denver Broncos: 2013, 450-of-659 for 5,477 yards with 55 TDs and 10 interceptions

    How he was acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Denver Broncos, 2012

    Analysis: Peyton Manning was a clear Hall of Famer and one of the five best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL before he signed with the Broncos prior to the 2012 season.

    After starring for the Indianapolis Colts from 1998 through 2010, Manning was unable to play in 2011 as a result of injuries and subsequent neck surgery. When the Colts fell apart that season and had the No. 1 pick in the draft, owner Jim Irsay decided that he had to go with a potential superstar in rookie Andrew Luck instead of Manning.

    Once that tough decision was made, several teams courted Manning and wanted to sign him as a free agent. He chose the Broncos, and he put his signature on a five-year, $96 million contract.

    Manning gave the Broncos everything they were hoping for at the QB position. He led the Broncos to the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2012 and to the Super Bowl in 2013. Manning threw for 4,659 yards with 37 TDs and 11 interceptions in 2012, and he followed that up by having a record-setting 2013 season that included 55 TD passes.

    While the Broncos would get overwhelmed in their Super Bowl XLVIII loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Manning may rank as the top quarterback of all time and he has been a sensational acquisition for the Broncos.

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