The 10 Best Free-Agent Signings in the Last 10 Years

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIMarch 20, 2014

Peyton Manning, de los Broncos de Denver, calienta el brazo antes del Super Bowl XLVIII frente a los Seahawks de Seattle, el domingo 2 de febrero de 2014, en East Rutherford, Nueva Jersey (AP Foto/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Last week, I highlighted the worst free-agent signings in the National Football League over the last decade. From Albert Haynesworth to Nnamdi Asomugha to Matt Flynn, the list was littered with good and great players who received great and outstanding contracts but failed to even come close to meeting expectations. 

Free agency has a reputation for tearing apart teams, as it did to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles or Dan Synder's Washington Redskins in the early 2000s. But a close look at the memorable free-agent signings over the last decade has revealed that a number of future Hall of Famers were once not re-signed by their team, casting them into the bidding war known as free agency. 

In fact, the 10 best free-agent signings over the last decade contain more good than the 10 worst free-agent signings contain bad. The list is as follows. 


1. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints, 2006

The San Diego Chargers let quarterback Drew Brees walk in free agency after the 2005 season when a serious shoulder injury threatened to end his potentially promising career. The Miami Dolphins chose veteran Daunte Culpepper over Brees. That was the worst mistake they could have made. Culpepper threw just two touchdowns in one disastrous season with the Dolphins.

But Brees became a Hall of Famer, a modern version of Dan Fouts, with the Saints. He's averaged 4,842 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and a 99.0 passer rating over the last eight seasons. In 2011, he set the single-season record with 5,476 passing yards. He's thrown for more than 5,000 passing yards four times and in 2009, he led the Saints to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. His 32-of-39 passing performance earned him game MVP honors. 


2. Charles Woodson, DB, Green Bay Packers, 2006

The only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, Charles Woodson played eight years with the Oakland Raiders, the final two on the franchise tag. But significant injuries in both 2004 and 2005 caused the Raiders to let him walk in free agency. 

He blossomed into a Hall of Fame player with the Packers, playing six years at cornerback before switching to safety in 2012. He collected 38 interceptions, 11.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles. His 2009 season (nine interceptions, including three touchdowns) earned him Defensive Player of the Year honors. In 2010, he helped the Packers win the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title. 


3. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos, 2012

The Indianapolis Colts chose to release four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning after the 2011 season, electing to use the No. 1 overall draft pick on quarterback Andrew Luck. Plus, Manning's neck injuries were serious enough that some speculated he would never play again.

All Manning has done over the past two seasons is throw for more than 10,000 yards and 92 touchdowns with a 110.8 passer rating. He earned league MVP honors in 2013 after breaking single-season records for passing yards and touchdown passes. He also led the Broncos to the Super Bowl. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press


4. Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals, 2005

Kurt Warner won just three games during his first two years with the Arizona Cardinals. But he took over the starting job for first-round bust Matt Leinart during the 2007 season and led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008 with a number of terrific postseason outings. He turned in another career year in 2009 before a concussion in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints ended his career. He came within a Santonio Holmes catch of becoming the first quarterback to lead two different teams to Super Bowl titles. 


5. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota Vikings, 2009

Following an up-and-down 2008 season with the New York Jets, Brett Favre retired, and then unretired. Again. He eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings, where he posted the best statistical season of his career in 2009. He broke the all-time record for consecutive games played and became the first quarterback to defeat all 32 franchises. He also led the Vikings to within a field goal of the Super Bowl.


6. Steve Hutchinson, OG, Minnesota Vikings, 2006

Steve Hutchinson earned a trio of Pro Bowl selections with the Seattle Seahawks from 2001 to 2005 but departed as a free agent after the 2005 season. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings, where he established himself as the best guard in the NFL. He earned four straight Pro Bowl selections and was named to the NFL's All-Decade team. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press


7. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers, 2008

A former top-five-overall draft pick, Justin Smith turned in seven solid seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before becoming arguably the game's best defensive end during his time with the San Francisco 49ers. 

In fact, he was rated as the NFL's best 3-4 defensive end from 2009 to 2011, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2012, his ability to take on double-teams helped pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith collect 19.5 sacks.


8. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia Eagles, 2008

Asante Samuel established himself as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks with the New England Patriots from 2003 to 2007, parlaying his success into a massive free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. 

He actually exceeded interceptions during his four years in Philly, intercepting 23 passes, including a league-high nine in 2009. He was the NFL's best cover cornerback in 2010, allowing just a 31.7 passer rating


9. Evan Mathis, OG, Philadelphia Eagles, 2011

Signed as veteran insurance on the offensive line during the disastrous Dream Team offseason for the Philadelphia Eagles, Evan Mathis has, against all odds, blossomed into the best guard in the National Football League. 

In fact, he's been rated as the best guard in the NFL for each of the last three seasons, per Pro Football Focus. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2013. 


10. Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints, 2011

The league's most versatile running back broke the single-season record for all-purpose yards during his first year with the New Orleans Saints. He averaged 77 receptions during his three years in New Orleans, rating as the best running back in the NFL by Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller after the 2011 season.