10 Past Free-Agency Moves That Shaped the NFL Today

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMarch 30, 2012

10 Past Free-Agency Moves That Shaped the NFL Today

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    This offseason, several NFL teams have broken the bank for big-time free agents: the Bills with Mario Williams, the Buccaneers with Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, the Broncos with Peyton Manning, to name a few. 

    Each of those moves has the potential to become major, season-altering additions:

    Manning in Denver (allegedly) makes the Broncos a Super Bowl threat. If they were that good last year without an explosive passing game, imagine what they'll achieve with a future Hall-of-Famer. 

    Nicks and Jackson in Tampa Bay instantly give Josh Freeman two pieces to resurrect a pitiful offense.

    And Williams' addition in Buffalo suggests Dave Wannstedt's task of making the Bills defense respectable will be a lot easier. 

    But only time will tell whether or not these moves were actually that impactful.

    The 10 on this list no doubt were....and for a variety of reasons.

    Maybe it was the amount of money given to a the type of player, the position or the unique situation, but for whatever reason, these signings (in the modern era of unrestricted free agency) are greatly responsible for today's NFL. 

No. 10: Michael Turner to Atlanta Falcons

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    When: 2008

    Turner isn't necessarily in the super-elite class of today's NFL runners: Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster.

    Still, he is a workhorse, a threat to gain 100 yards against any defense, a likely 1,200-yard carrier every season and a bruiser who wears down defenses. 

    But he's not on this list for that reason.

    No; Turner grabs a spot because he was one of the biggest ever "potential" signings that was not a quarterback.

    In San Diego, Turner was the understudy to the great LaDainian Tomlinson for four seasons, but because he showed spurts of greatness (three 100-yard games in which he averaged over 11 yards per carry) with the Chargers, the Falcons were intrigued. 

    They gave him a six-year, $34.5 million deal, and because it worked out, players like Darren Sproles, Mike Tolbert and Michael Bush have all cashed in recently. 

No. 9: Kurt Warner to Arizona Cardinals

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    When: 2005

    It's a safe bet that as long as a Super Bowl-winning or MVP quarterback is healthy and willing to play, they'll always have a job in the NFL. 

    But Warner's joining Arizona in 2005 (eventually) proved that a "has-been" can have a rebirth and become a superstar again. 

    Warner's career was essentially declared over in 2004 after Eli Manning took his job in New York, but he signed with the Cardinals and nearly won a Super Bowl three years later. 

    The Cardinals "took a flier" on Warner by giving him a one-year deal in 2005, and players like Donovan McNabb, Jake Delhomme, David Garrard and even Brett Favre have followed his lead....albeit with varying degrees of success. 

No. 8: Julius Peppers to Chicago Bears

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    When: 2010

    Last spring, Peppers set a new standard for big bucks in (non-QB) free-agency signings. 

    Although he was arguably the game's best defensive end, the fact that Chicago gave him a six-year, $91.5 million deal ($42 of which was guaranteed) set the standard that players like Elvis Dumervil in Denver, Charles Johnson in Carolina and most recently Mario Williams in Buffalo are benefiting from. 

    Gone are the days where a pure pass-rusher is paid like a one-dimensional talent. 

No. 7: Deion Sanders to San Francisco 49ers

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    When: 1994

    This entry might deserve an asterisk, for two reasons.

    First, Sanders' deal with Dallas the next year is probably just as worthy of a mention. More importantly, because the 49ers basically manipulated the salary cap to sign Sanders, it's not necessarily relevant in today's NFL.

    But there is an element of that deal that is relevant today's NFL, and we saw how last year with the Eagles and the "Dream Team" scenario.

    Every so often, teams like Philadelphia last season and the 49ers in 1994 go "all-in" and essentially mortgage the future to make a Super Bowl push. 

    That's what San Francisco did in 1994 by signing Deion, Ken Norton, Jr., Gary Plummer and Rickey Jackson, to name a few. 

    Even if it's for one season, like Sanders' contract was, some teams will always try to "buy" a Super Bowl ring.

No. 6: Charles Woodson to Green Bay Packers

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    When: 2006

    By the winter of 2006, Charles Woodson had already had a great NFL career. He went to Pro Bowls in his first four seasons and was a tremendous force as a pass rusher and tackler.

    But when he became a free agent after the 2005 season, there had to be concerns that he was headed for the "twilight" of his career. He was about to turn 30 and coming off a second major leg injury in two years. 

    Nevertheless, the Packers signed him to a monster deal in terms of money and length: seven years, $52 million.

    And since he was arguably better in this second half of his career (Super Bowl, NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 10 defensive scores, twice leading the league in picks, four more pro bowls), he was worth every penny.

    Woodson's signing was a prime example of a great player being able to defy chronic injuries or being on the "wrong side of 30."

    Case in point: Nnamdi Asomugha and Ike Taylor last year. 

No. 5: Reggie White to Green Bay Packers

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    When: 1993

    This signing doesn't necessarily earn a spot on this list because it was momentous in the way that Woodson's was or Kurt Warner's was. Sure White was 32 at the time, but he clearly had a ton left in him.

    No; the reason why White's signing is still relevant today is less tangible.

    Many people consider White's joining Green Bay by way of Philadelphia as the greatest free-agent signing in history. Not only did White dominate the game for the next six seasons and anchor the Packers defense as they become an annual Super Bowl threat, but White became a cornerstone, and in some ways, a face of the franchise....alongside Brett Favre, of course.

    Anytime a long-suffering franchise—like the Bills just did with Mario Williams—lands a big (and surprising) free-agent fish, White's signing in 1993 is referenced. It's sort of become the Holy Grail of free agent moves, one that franchises constantly search for. 

No. 4: Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota Vikings

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    When: 2006

    Without getting too bogged down in financial and contractual specifics, Hutchinson's deal with the Vikings had a great influence on NFL free agency for years to come; his was the first notable "poison pill" contract. 

    The Vikings were forced to make certain that he was annually the league's highest paid guard and ensured a tremendous cap hit in the first season.

    Now, Hutchinson lived up to the burden, continuing to become one of the game's best linemen and helping Adrian Peterson become a true superstar.

    But in addition to being a great boost to the financial value of interior offensive linemen (seven years, $49 million with $16 million guaranteed for a guard was a baffling number and paved the way for contracts like Carl Nicks'), the specifics of the contract further shifted the balance power from the owners to the players. 

No. 3: Drew Brees to New Orleans Saints

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    When: 2006

    It's ironic that Drew Brees became a free agent (and subsequently an iconic, guaranteed Hall of Famer) in the spring of 2006....just like Charles Woodson did: I guess the AFC West's loss is the NFC's gain.

    Remember that in Brees' last game as a San Diego Charger, he mangled his throwing shoulder, and it was expected to harm his value going into free agency. The Dolphins infamously passed on him for that very reason, and they are still searching for a quarterback.

    Brees signed with the Saints and went on to shred the NFL record books and bring the New Orleans its first ever title.

    Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but Brees (like Woodson was at the very same time) is an example of how teams with vision and optimism occasionally best those who play it conservatively in free agency. 

No. 2: Scott Mitchell to Detroit Lions

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    When: 1994

    Although Mitchell has been out of the NFL for over a decade, in some ways, his presence is still as bright as ever. 

    Consider his "15 minutes of fame" back in 1993. With Dan Marino out via an Achilles tear, Mitchell came in and played very well for the Dolphins.

    At 6'4" and only 25 years of age, he was a very appealing figure to teams when he hit the free-agent market the next spring. Ultimately, the Lions bit and gave him a huge deal to be their centerpiece.

    Forget whether or not you think that tenure was a success or failure—he had some great numbers, but he also had Barry Sanders and Herman Moore yet couldn't win a playoff game in three seasons—and just think about the similar cases that have occurred since then.

    Rich Gannon, Trent Green, Matt Schaub, Matt Flynn, even Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Moore are all cases where a quarterback—not entrenched as his team's starter—saw limited action because of injury or whatever, then signed huge deals elsewhere. 

No. 1: Curtis Martin to New York Jets

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    When: 1998

    Restricted free agents are such a double-edged sword.

    Sure, you can land an immense player, but the thought of giving up a draft pick just for the right to sign a player is a tough pill to swallow. Look at the Steelers' Mike Wallace: If it didn't cost the 49ers or Patriots or whomever else a first-round pick to sign him, he almost certainly would have bolted Pittsburgh for a better deal.

    But any team that starts to shy away from signing a restricted free agent who they think is the missing piece of the puzzle should pause to consider the case of Curtis Martin.

    The Jets (and Bill Parcells, especially) wanted Martin badly enough to sign him to a six-year, $36 million offer sheet since the Patriots chose not to match it.

    The other price? The Jets had to give New England a first and third-round draft pick.

    But because Martin went on to become the greatest back in franchise history (seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, a NFL rushing title at age 31, missing one start in seven seasons), it was clearly worth it.