The Smartest NFL Free-Agency Signings Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2020

The Smartest NFL Free-Agency Signings Since 2000

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    Free agency is an exciting time loaded with optimism. The simple truth is most signings don't ever realize the purported best-case scenario.

    But when an offseason addition pays off, the result could be a Super Bowl ring or several years of sustained success. The championship is optimal, yes, but elite performance is to be expected.

    Combing through the last 20 years, we've identified the 10 players who headed to a new team via free agency and thrived the most.

    While subjective, factors include the impact on a Super Bowl run, total production and role. The list is organized chronologically.

Simeon Rice, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2001)

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    The No. 3 overall pick of the 1996 NFL draft, Simeon Rice amassed 51.5 sacks in five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. Just because he was an obvious priority for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 doesn't make his addition any less smart.

    Rice signed a five-year, $34 million pact—a record for a defensive player at the time. And, more importantly, he legitimately filled the last need of a tremendous defense.

    After posting 11 sacks in 2001, Rice collected 15.5 sacks and All-Pro recognition in 2002. The defense-led Bucs allowed only 12.3 points per game and cruised to a victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Rice registered two sacks on quarterback Rich Gannon in the big game.

    Rice notched three more seasons of 12-plus sacks, finishing his Bucs career with the second-most sacks (69.5) in team history.

Mike Vrabel, LB, New England Patriots (2001)

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    Although he made a living as a linebacker, Mike Vrabel is also remembered for his timely receiving ability. The former New England Patriots star caught touchdowns in two Super Bowls.

    Not bad for a longtime backup!

    Vrabel began his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, holding a reserve role for 51 games and totaling 56 tackles. He joined New England in 2001, became a starter and won three rings. Vrabel racked up 606 tackles in eight seasons with the Patriots.

James Farrior, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2002)

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    During the 1997 NFL draft, the New York Jets tabbed James Farrior as the No. 8 overall pick. The linebacker's five-year tenure in New York didn't match expectations as he played out of position, though he amassed 145 tackles in his final season as a Jet.

    But the Pittsburgh Steelers rejuvenated his career, shifting him inside after extending a three-year, $5.4 million deal.

    Farrior spent the next 10 seasons in Pittsburgh and totaled 1,085 tackles. He earned two Pro Bowl trips, one first-team All-Pro honor and played a vital role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.

James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2004)

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    James Harrison is yet another reminder of how patience and hard work eventually can lead to a massive payoff.

    Undrafted in 2002, he spent the majority of the next two seasons on Pittsburgh's practice squad with a brief stop on the Baltimore Ravens and Rhein Fire of NFL Europe. Harrison returned to the Steelers because of an injury to linebacker Clark Haggans.

    And soon, Harrison's career exploded.

    The tenacious pass-rusher worked his way into a starting role and ascended to 2008 AP Defensive Player of the Year. To cap that campaign, he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown to help the Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

    Harrison landed two All-Pro honors and five trips to the Pro Bowl, eventually retiring as the franchise's leader in sacks (80.5).

Kurt Warner, QB, Arizona Cardinals (2005)

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    As the "Greatest Show on Turf" with the St. Louis Rams faded into history, Kurt Warner seemed to have reached the end. Injuries and poor performance led to St. Louis releasing Warner before then-rookie Eli Manning replaced him on the New York Giants.

    The Arizona Cardinals gave Warner a second chance with a one-year, $4 million audition, which ultimately earned him a three-year extension. Warner didn't immediately excel in Arizona, however. He spent three seasons battling bad games, injury, Josh McCown and Matt Leinart.

    Finally, in 2008, Warner became the full-time starter.

    Over the next two years, the Cardinals won a pair of NFC West titles and reached the Super Bowl once. Warner threw for 15,843 yards and 100 touchdowns in his Arizona tenure, putting the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame resume.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2006)

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The final game of the 2005 season is an important moment in NFL history. Although the San Diego Chargers already faced a tough decision between Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, a shoulder injury to Brees only complicated the discussion.

    San Diego wanted to re-sign Brees, but at what cost? Should the Chargers turn the offense over to 24-year-old Rivers, who'd bided his time for two seasons as Brees' backup? Extension talks stalled, allowing the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints to target Brees. Miami, though, had concerns about the shoulder, too.

    New Orleans paid the best $60 million it's ever spent.

    Entering the 2020 season, Brees has played 14 years for the Saints and become the league's most prolific quarterback. He's set NFL records in every major passing category while winning two Offensive Player of the Year awards and one Super Bowl.

    Brees' accomplishments in New Orleans alone are worthy of a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.

Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay Packers (2006)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Charles Woodson burst onto the NFL scene, making four straight Pro Bowls to begin his Oakland Raiders career. But over the next four seasons, injuries repeatedly sidelined him as he grew frustrated with the coaching staff.

    Joining the Green Bay Packers is exactly what the doctor orderedespecially for his health, apparently.

    Woodson missed three games in the next six years, though a broken collarbone put him on the shelf in Super Bowl XLV. Still, the Packers won that contest to cap the 2010 season, which followed Woodson earning the 2009 AP Defensive Player of the Year award.

    In addition to the ring and DPOY honor, Woodson landed on four Pro Bowl and two All-Pro teams during his seven-year stop in Green Bay.

Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins (2009)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Cameron Wake signed with the Giants after going undrafted in 2005, but they released him well before the preseason. In 2007, he headed to the Canadian Football League and flat-out dominated. Wake won Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2007 and 2008, demanding the attention of NFL teams.

    Miami won the sweepstakes, and he developed into the second-best pass-rusher in team history behind Jason Taylor. Wake spent a decade with the Dolphins and registered 98 sacks, earning All-Pro recognition once and five Pro Bowl nods.

    Warren Moon is the greatest CFL-to-NFL success story in history, but Wake has a strong claim for the No. 2 spot.

Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos (2012)

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    Incidentally, the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl when Peyton Manning played terribly, yet lost after he broke NFL records.

    Football is weird sometimes.

    Juxtapositions aside, Manning tearfully left the Indianapolis Colts when his neck injury in 2011 led to the franchise drafting Andrew Luck. Manning ceded his spot, signed a five-year, $96 million deal with Denver and soon pulled off the bizarre contrast.

    The Sheriff set NFL records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013, but the Seattle Seahawks smacked the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver returned to the Super Bowl two years laterdespite Manning's nine touchdowns and 17 interceptionsand knocked off the Carolina Panthers.

    While in Denver, Manning won four AFC West titles, 2012 Comeback Player of the Year and the 2013 MVP.

Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (2017)

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Mediocre starter. Legendary backup.

    Barring a marked change in his career path, that's how Nick Foles will be remembered. Quite possibly, he'll be considered both one of the greatest and worst free-agent signings in NFL history.

    Focused on the positive side, Foles joined the Philadelphia Eagles on a two-year, $11 million contract in 2017. During that span, he twice replaced an injured Carson Wentz and posted a 10-3 overall record (including the playoffs). He guided the Eagles to a ring in Super Bowl LIIthrowing three touchdowns and catching oneand sparked a run to the playoffs in 2018.

    After becoming a permanent fixture in Eagles lore, Foles headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars on a four-year, $88 million contract with $50 million in guaranteed money.

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