Who was the best NFL free agent ever signed?


Charles Woodson photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders

The NFL’s window of free agency opens on March 9, but impact players are generally few and far between.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Once upon a time players who could swing the balance of power could be found in the marketplace. Some were there because of age, some because of injury. But the right signing at the right price could put a Super Bowl ring on your hand.

And that’s the subject of our Talk of Fame Network poll this week – who was the best free agent ever signed? We offer up eight great players, eight great selections:

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Signed away from the San Diego Chargers in 2006 to a six-year, $60 million contract. Brees suffered a torn labrum in the 2005 season finale, and the Chargers already had first-round draft pick Philip Rivers waiting in the wings at quarterback. So Brees left San Diego for New Orleans. He has since gone to nine Pro Bowls with the Saints and set an NFL record with five career 5,000-yard passing seasons. No other NFL quarterback has more than one. His arm powered the Saints to their only Super Bowl in 2010. Brees ranks third all-time with his 66,111 passing yards and 465 touchdowns.

Priest Holmes, HB, Kansas City. Signed away from the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 to a five-year, $7.5 million contract. There may have been no better bargain in the history of free agency. Holmes was languishing on the bench in Baltimore behind 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis, so the Chiefs signed him on the cheap. He became the only undrafted free agent in history to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,555 yards in 2001, then led the league in touchdowns in both 2002 (24) and 2003 (27). He was well on his way to another rushing and TD title with 892 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2004 through eight games before a knee injury ended his season. Then his 2005 season ended after seven games with a neck injury, which essentially ended his career.

Peyton Manning, QB, Denver. Signed away from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 to a five-year, $96 million contract. Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury and the Colts replaced him with Andrew Luck, the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft. So Manning left for Denver. Manning went to 11 Pro Bowls and was a four-time NFL MVP with the Colts. He added three more Pro Bowls and his fifth MVP award with the Broncos in 2013 when he set NFL single-season records with 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2007 and another with the Broncos in 2016. Manning retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns (539).

Curtis Martin, HB, NY Jets. Signed away from the New England Patriots in 1998 to a six-year, $36 million contract. Martin rushed for 1,000+ plus yards in each of his first three seasons with the Patriots before leaving for New York as a rare restricted free agent. Bill Parcells drafted him for the Patriots and then signed him away when he became head coach of the Jets. Martin strung together seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Jets. He became the oldest player ever to win an NFL rushing title with his 1,697 yards in 2004 at the age of 31. He ranks fourth on the all-time rushing list with 14,101 yards and has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Deion Sanders, CB, Dallas. Signed away from the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 to a seven-year, $35.2 million contract. Sanders left the Falcons for the 49ers in free agency in 1994 and helped San Francisco win the Super Bowl. He also was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year that season, then jumped to the Cowboys in 1995 and took the NFC’s balance of power with him. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl that season. He went to eight Pro Bowls – three with the Falcons, one with the 49ers and four with the Cowboys – and was named to the 1990s’ NFL all-decade team. He has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Adam Vinatieri, K, Indianapolis. Signed away from the New England Patriots in 2006. Vinatieri’s right foot produced 100+ points for 10 consecutive seasons, helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls, before jumping to their AFC rivals, the Colts. He now has kicked 11 seasons in Indianapolis, adding nine more 100-point seasons and helping the Colts win a Super Bowl. He ranks third all-time in scoring with 2,378 points, just 166 behind Hall of Famer Morten Andersen in the top spot.

Reggie White, DE, Green Bay. Signed away from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1993 to a four-year, $17 million contract. White had a string of seven consecutive Pro Bowls when he hit free agency, then went to six more after signing with the Packers. He helped the Packers to two Super Bowls, winning one, and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in his final season in Green Bay in 1998. White was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He ranks second on the all-time sack list with 198 – and that doesn’t count the 23 ½ sacks he collected in his first two pro seasons with the USFL Memphis Showboats.

Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay. Signed away from the Oakland Raiders in 2006 to a seven-year, $52 million contract. The last defensive player to win a Heisman Trophy in 1997, Woodson went to four Pro Bowls in his eight seasons with the Raiders, who let him leave in free agency after a broken leg limited him to six games in 2005. Woodson went to four more Pro Bowls in his seven seasons in Green Bay, helping the Packers win a Super Bowl in 2011. Woodson spent the first 14 years of his career at cornerback and the final four at safety. He ranks fifth all-time in interceptions with 65.

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